Sunday, March 11, 2018

Building Climbing Thinking

[draft essay for forthcoming volume on the UW Practice Rock]

UW Practice Rock, 1985. Photo: Jeff Smoot

I was but an inverted Tree.
– Andrew Marvell 
That it is known as the ‘Rock’ is in retrospect a marvelous index of the not-so-simple relation between building and climbing (and thinking) which this essay will explore. The Rock is of course not a rock but a room-less building of walls meant for climbing composed of crack-featured concrete slabs elevated at different angles and embedded with a variety of stones. Concrete, from concrescere, ‘to grow together’. This stony conglomeration of metal, concrete, and rocks rising from a bed of pebbly gravel is thus also not not a rock. In other words, the Rock is a building that is analogously a rock, recalling that analogy—a term between univocity and equivocity—concerns a relation or participation among things that are categorically different yet bear a substantial connection to each other, as when we say (to follow the classic Aristotelian example) that an apple is healthy. Likewise in nick-naming the Rock with the word ‘rock’ we are not so much signifying what it is as calling it by what it does for other beings in relation to rocks, both despite and because what it does is also formally inseparable from its sharing rock’s nature. What makes the Rock ‘rock’ is that is a rock for rock-climbers, at once a practice rock that becomes rock in being practiced upon as rock and a not-rock that is rock in the sense of something whose being or essence, whatever makes it what it is, is itself to practice being rock, insofar as being the Rock can be thought of as an activity, which I think it can seeing that being is a verb. Rock is what the Rock does (for climbers)—a climbing rock: rock to climb and rock that climbs.
We may see the Rock as a kind of concrete shadow of Mount Analogue,[1] not in the sense of a model of some ultimate rock, but something more useful and homely. Where Mount Analogue is the imaginary cosmo-geological mountain of mountains which must by analogy exist somewhere on earth, invisible yet accessible (i.e. the more-than-mountain that all mountains are analogies of), the Rock is analogue rock in the sense of being an actual as opposed to imaginary construction that functions as rock, an accessible yet ‘invisible’ less-than-rock that is an analogy, however imperfect, to all rocks. The correlative ‘invisibility’ through which the Rock functions is the measure of eliminative not-seeing that activating its potential requires, namely, the physio-imaginative act of climbing as if some holds were not there, as in above image where I am laybacking the left side of a hand-crack instead of jamming it. Such seemingly artificial or contrived invisibility actually has a very close inverse relationship both to how one naturally uses things in general, how the instrument or tool “disappears into usefulness,”[2] and to how one dwells in and with them, how “Inhabited space transcends geometrical space” and the house becomes “both cell and world.”[3] Hold-elimination is the haptic mirror and a kind of reverse engineering of phenomenal depresencing, the harvesting of a potential that appears when its means is taken away, just as the vital form of building and dwelling coincide in what cannot be touched: “We make doors and windows for a room; / But it is these empty spaces that make the room livable. / Thus, while the tangible has advantages, / It is the intangible that makes it useful.”[4] Off-limits features are windows.      
Gaston Bachelard gives a beautiful description of the way using and dwelling are blended through housework into the fashioning of the present, life’s ongoing building of itself within/without buildings:     

Objects that are cherished in this way really are born of an intimate light, and they attain to a higher degree of reality than indifferent objects, or those that are defined by geometric reality. For they produce a new reality of being, and they take their place not only in an order but in a community of order. From one object in a room to another, housewifely care weaves the ties that unite a very ancient past to the new epoch. The housewife awakens furniture that was asleep.[5]    
The Rock is such a community in an inverse sense, an exclosure of walls made for climbing, a practice which likewise connects using and dwelling in a manner that reflects back upon building as a means of navigating the space between these functions. Enclosed in a building, one may in a flexible sense dwell without using (think) and use without dwelling (work). Exclosed at the Rock, one may in a flexible sense dwell while using (as when pondering boulder problems) and use while dwelling (as when climbing on the walls). Like the housewife of one’s climbing’s life, the rock-practicer moves among the Rock’s roomless rooms awakening its stones into the building of oneself and others as climbers. I am not alone in having spoken of myself as a ‘product’ of the Rock and returning there, reversing the inner-outer expansion of geometric reality, gives me that paradoxical spatial sense of mnemonic shrinkage/expansion one typically feels revisiting an old home. The whole thing seems so much smaller, yet larger and taller next to the thought of repeating the circuits that once made the tower’s top feel close to the ground.   
However one considers these dimensions, the Rock demonstrates that the complex ways in which climbing practices stone beyond itself definitely concern the using/dwelling boundary and reflect back upon the nature of building. From the Tower of Babel to skyscraper builderers, building and climbing are non-accidentally related. The whole sphere of climbing itself exists through an open collection of constructed enclosures, things that hold and keep and protect us from the world and ourselves. That artificial climbing walls have continued to evolve more and more towards forms of dwelling, into inclusively exclusive urban entities selling and developing the space of climbing as community, work-play, lifestyle-domicile, etc. only presses further the issue of climbing’s relation to building, the question of what it is that climbing builds, the horizon of its dwelling, and above all, the order and dimension of its homelessness.   
The Rock, like other kinds of human buildings, is something between a rock and a construction, part of the continuum between nature and architecture, from cave-dwellings to skyscrapers, but also something curiously beyond-within that continuum, namely, building materials petrobatically repurposed to mimic their own natural formations.[6] There is a beautifully weird creativity to this progressively atavistic way in which climbing leads architecture (and architecture leads climbing) to the construction of bouldering walls which in turn become a tool for building climbers capable of ascending the hardest and steepest natural shelters like the now famous Hanshellern (lit. Hans’s cave) in Flatanger, Norway. Really speaking the first artificial climbing walls are built dwellings made into climbing walls by the simple act of practicing climbing upon them, as documented by Geoffrey Winthrop Young’s anonymous Roof Climber’s Guide to Trinity (1900), just as early artificial climbing walls resemble buildings, or like Schurman Rock (1939), ruins. As mountains develop in the form of geologic ruins—Ruskin’s gloriously gloomy “great cathedrals of the earth” and index of the planet as “wreck of Paradise”[7]—so do modern climbing walls take place in the fertile ruin of architecture, in a zone where the climbing human can like an animal vine again take hold in new ways of life’s in/organic interface. If climbing is primordially related to the desire, as per Plato’s exemplary allegory, to ascend not only up but out of things, then we may surmise that there is a deeper secret relation between climbing and building as intertwining paths twisting upon-through earth as our temporary dwelling-place in the ‘hanshellern’ of this cosmos, the overhanging divine underworld of the universe.[8]              
For all these reasons, the Rock presents one with the imperative to (re)consider climbing as a middle term between building and thinking, reprising the terms of Heidegger’s essay, “Building Dwelling Thinking.”[9] Switching out the word-holds—exactly the procedure that climbing walls have plastically evolved to allow—produces the following problems/solutions which this brief essay has perforce failed to send:

1. What is it to climb?
2. How does building belong to climbing?

1. Building is really climbing.
2. Climbing is the manner in which mortals are on the earth.
3. Building as climbing unfolds into the building that cultivates growing things and the building that erects buildings. 

Only if we are capable of climbing, only then can we build . . . Climbing is the basic character of Being, in keeping with which mortals exist. Perhaps this attempt to think about climbing and building will bring out somewhat more clearly that building belongs to climbing and how it receives its essence from climbing. Enough will have been gained if climbing and building have become worthy of questioning and thus have remained worthy of thought. But that thinking itself belongs to climbing in the same sense as building, although in a different way, may perhaps be attested to by the course of thought here attempted. Building and thinking are, each in its own way, inescapable for climbing. The two, however, are also insufficient for climbing so long as each busies itself with its own affairs in separation, instead of listening to the other. They are able to listen if both—building and thinking—belong to climbing, if they remain within their limits and realize that the one as much as the other comes from the workshop of long experience and incessant practice.

Monitor Rock (aka Schurman Rock)

[1] See René Daumal, Mt. Analogue: A Tale of Non-Euclidean and Symbolically Authentic Mountaineering Adventures, trans. Carol Cosman (New York: Overlook Press, 2004).
[2] Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), 171.
[3] Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon, 1964), 51.
[4] Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching, trans. John C. H. Wu (Boston: Shambala, 1989), 23.
[5] Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space, 68.
[6] I am coining the word from Ancient Greek πετροβατικός ‘given to rock-climbing’.
[7] John Ruskin, “Of Mountain Beauty,” Modern Painters, Volume IV,
[8] The name Hans (John), from Hebrew Yôḥānān, means ‘graced by YHWH [God]’. Norwegian hell, meaning ‘cave, overhanging cliff’ and cognate with English hell, derives from the root *kel- ‘to cover, conceal, save’. So there is something playfully symbolic, at the verbal level, in the present fact that the hardest route in the world, named Silence and climbed by the tautologously named Adam Ondra (lit. ‘man man’ or ‘manly man/earth’, from Greek aner, andros, ‘man’ and Hebrew adam, ‘man, human,’ fr. adamah, ‘earth’; cf. human, fr.  root *dhghem- ‘earth’)—“Life wants to climb and to overcome itself by climbing” (Nietzsche)—hangs there like an open secret upon climbing’s inverted horizon. Indeed the crux move of Silence, involving a full body inversion, performs the self-inversion that the spiritual ascent of man as arbor inversa, “a plant whose roots are not in earth, but in the heavens” (Plato, Timaeus, 90a), necessarily involves. See A. B. Chambers, “‘I was but an inverted Tree’: Notes Toward the History of an Idea,” Studies in the Renaissance 8 (1961): 291-9. In hermetic terms, as “the Fall of Adam [is] the passage from a spiritual gravitational system . . . to a terrestrial gravitational system,” so spiritual freedom “live[s] under the sign of celestial gravitation instead of that of terrestrial gravitation,” via the inversion represented in the figure of the Hanged Man as symbol of the human reordered according its highest will: “The other characteristic trait of the spiritual man is that he is upside down. This means to say, firstly, that the ‘solid ground’ under his feet is found above, whilst the ground below is only the concern and perception of the head. Secondly, it means to say that his will is connected with heaven and is found in immediate contact (not by the intermediary of thought and feeling) with the spiritual world. This is in such a way that his will ‘knows’ things that the head — his thinking—still does not know, and so that it is the future, the celestial designs for the future, which work in and through his will rather than experience and memory of the past. He is therefore literally the ‘man of the future’, the final cause being the element activating his will. He is the ‘man of desire’ . . . the man whose will is set high, above the powers of the head —above thought, imagination and memory” (Anonymous, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, trans. Robert Powell [New York: Putnam, 1985], 316). Similarly, Aleister Crowley’s brief guide of 1898 to the Y-Boulder at Wasdale Head lists twenty-two problems, the first and last being inverted variations of “The Easy Way”: “1. The Easy Way . . . 22.  The Easy Way. Feet first. Face inwards” (John Gill, Origins of Bouldering, “The way up and the way down are one and the same” (Heraclitus: The Complete Fragments, trans. William Harris, n.p., 2010).

[9] See Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, 347-63. 

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Green Imagination

[draft of essay for KAF]

Pierre Jean François Turpin, The Primal Plant [Urpflanze], 1837[1]

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way . . . to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination Nature is Imagination itself.
– William Blake 
Inside the horizon of every line, green is looking for green. The eye of eye is green. Closing my eyes, I gaze out looking for you through myself, and I grow green. Greenness of the eye of the heart.

It is not a simple thing to think this greenness. The matter of color is so mysteriously specific, an appearance stronger than its own fact. How to grasp green without following thinking into falling for seeing it as color of, without losing its real quality among the vines of association? It is a question of understanding greenness according to its own literality, of reading it like a letter, of spelling it like a word.

This one may do by staying with the hyperliterality and non-arbitrariness of Blake’s image, its itself-ness. Here, where truth is seen right on the surface, the tree is not simply an example of nature as imagination, but its very likeness, its species. Nature is a green thing that stands in the way because imagination is green. Thus we approach inversely a properly intellectual vision, that which “touches on things which do not have any images that are like them without actually being what they are.”[2] Such hyperliteral seeing may be conceived as a vision through no one, via the deep-flat immediacy of a paradoxically questioning presence ‘who’ apparently already understands, as per Augustine’s well-known reflection on time: “What is time? If no one [nemo] asks of me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone asking, I do not know.”[3] This nemo (from ne + homo) is the inhumanity of a too-close vision that touches, plant-like, what it cannot see precisely by simply seeing it. It is an order of understanding requiring precisely that no one ask the question, a non-asking asker ‘who’ is the presence of imagination itself, its species. So we find in Michael Marder’s fortuitous formulation of our blindness to plant intelligence the perfect corollary to Blake’s tree of imagination: “Imagine a being capable of processing, remembering, and sharing information—a being with potentialities proper to it and a world of its own . . . most of us will think of a human person, some will associate it with an animal, and virtually no one’s imagination will conjure up a plant.”[4]

Species: image-growth of the entity, face of an essence, appearance of true self-imitation—the spice of being. Image (from the root *aim- ‘copy’) and greenness (from the root *ghre- ‘grow’) converge in the auto-mimetic nature of growth. Thus Goethe begins The Metamorphosis of Plants: “Anyone who has paid even a little attention to plant growth will readily see that certain external parts of the plant undergo frequent change and take on the shape of the adjacent parts—sometimes fully, sometimes more, and sometimes less.”[5] Green is the species of imagination, its spice. Imagination tastes green.[6]

To observe more clearly the verdant idea of the image, consider Augustine’s description of the three levels of vision (corporeal, imaginal, intellectual) as a picture of plant-like growth: “When you read, You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31), three kinds of vision take place: one with the eyes, when you see the actual letters; another with the human spirit, by which you think of your neighbor even though he is not there; a third with the attention of the mind, by which you understand and look at love itself.”[7] Vision greens, sprouting forth in three unified orders not unlike the form of a plant. Corporeal, objective vision, that which sees surface or what cannot be seen through, touches the image as leaf. Imaginal, mediated vision, that which sees transparently via the subtle lines seen by seeing through, touches the image as stem. Intellectual, immediate vision, that which sees the very form of the seen, neither without seeing through it nor with seeing through it (or both), in other words seeing the thing directly through itself, touches the image as root.

Once again the specific example—the second part of love’s ‘double law’[8]—is more than example, being specularly paradigmatic of vision as the movement and manifestation of will. The love seen in seeing love mirrors and is mirrored by love’s seeing per se. Likewise, the three levels of vision are themselves conceptually evident in the conspicuous text: in the objective fact of the neighbor (from the root *bheue- ‘to be, exist, grow’) or one who dwells near (plēsion, proximus), in the meditating fact of the likeness (from the root *lik- ‘body, form; like, same’) between oneself and neighbor, and in the immediate fact of self-love.[9] The neighborliness of seeing reflects vision as a force occurring through the mirror of love, via the first unseen image of itself—like the gap between conatus and connatus, twixt one’s inborn gravity for oneself and the non-autonomous withness of one’s birth.[10]

The unitary, divine fact of love—“Love is the reflection of God’s unity in the world of duality. It constitutes the entire significance of creation”[11]—is imaginally present through the law of love in plant form. Seen in this way, in the moment of Augustine’s picking of this example, the three-fold order of vision becomes a revelation of the second commandment as graft of the first. As image grows mimetically via the cut-and-splice process of self-copying into the very synthesis of vision that sees a thing all at once in gross, subtle, and mental dimension, so does the image’s verdant structure here expose the second part of love’s double law as a cutting of love itself, the living image of the will to love the One as love. “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5).

And in the original articulation of the first commandment, we see a similar representation of the various levels of being synthesized by the power of a unifying force: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Likewise, Dante’s account of the double necessity of love of self and love of God conspicuously deploys the locution of cutting (division, decision) to express the indivisibility of amorous vision: “Or, perché mai non può da la salute / amor del suo subietto volger viso, / da l’odio proprio son le cose tute; / e perché intender non si può diviso, / e per sé stante, alcuno esser dal primo, / da quello odiare ogne effetto è deciso” (Purgatorio 17.106-11).[12] Impossibility of self-hatred is the identical, unquestionable twin of severance from hating God.[13]     

Love as the rhyme (from root *sreu- ‘to flow’) flowing between sight and color: “No white nor red was ever seen / So am’rous as this lovely green.”[14] Love as greenness of beauty’s eye, of the image that sees, seizing one by its look, the color of the species as flower of imagination: “The plant that achieves only stunted flowers in the relentless struggle for existence, having been released from this struggle by a stroke of good fortune, suddenly looks at us with the eye of beauty.”[15] Or as Meister Eckhart says, also with respect to the extrahumanity of vision, “All creatures are green in God.”[16] Being the alterative of pink or rose, the generic red-cum-white of living beauty and non-spectral color perceived as if between the high and low ends of the rainbow (white light minus green equals pink),[17] green is the presence of the absence of the spectrum’s unity within itself, the index of the will that curves it into infinity.  

The self/world-annihilative power of love’s vision—“Annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade”[18]—concerns an absolute and unendurable interfaciality, the divine revelation of universe as mirror. At the intolerable summit of Narcissus’s specular torture, finally liquifying in the fire of love—“sic attentuatus amore / liquitur et tecto paullatim carpitur igni”[19]—the lover surrenders into the green to become a flower: “ille caput viridi fessum submisit in herba, / lumina mors clausit domini mirantia formam” [he laid down his weary head in the green grass and death closed the bright eyes marveling upon their master’s beauty].[20] In the end everyone follows their heart, dies into the reality behind beauty’s dream. As Klima writes in Glorious Nemesis, “But what the mind does not believe, the heart does. And in the end the intellect does, too; what else is left for it to do?”[21]

Green is the color of man’s most properly eyeless neighbor—the manifest appearance of vision as a naturally missing power: “We speak of privation . . . if something has not one of the attributes which a thing might naturally have, even if this thing itself would not naturally have it, e.g. a plant is said to be deprived of eyes.”[22] Being somewhere in the middle of the rainbow, in the midst of the spectrum visible to humans, green reflects the heart as the omnipresent medium or general line of being: “my heart, where I am whoever/whatever I am.”[23] It is the spectral aura of the ghostly eros of all things, their being ( )here in all the creaturely fullness of uncircumscribable restlessness and indeterminacy: “For you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[24] So in the impressional order of experience, green corresponds to the intensity of longing: “All thoughts, words and acts cause sanskaras or impressions on one’s mind. Sanskaras are of seven different colors, the same as those of a rainbow . . . Intense spiritual longing gives rise to sanskaras of the green color. Just as red sanskaras are the worst, so the green ones are the best.”[25] As if seeing with eyes one naturally misses, longing grows through the distance of its own missingness towards the presence of what would only be missed more were it present.[26]

Seek his face always [Psalm 104.4], let not the finding of the beloved put an end to the love-inspired search; but as love grows, so let the search for the one already found become more intense.”[27] The search that never ends is green—the looking of imagination itself or that which stands everywhere in the middle with an eye for the whole. The gravity of green corresponds to the color spectrum’s vital center, a location at once for the above and of the below. So is the weight of every image double. Image, forever undecidably inside and outside the eye, looks simultaneously into and beyond one’s vision. Seeing no one, lacking the eyes whereby it sees, the green life of imagination searches through every face, growing beyond all someone ever seen.

As the radically individual fact of one’s human form gives too-literal witness to its being envisioned by one without eyes to see it,[28] so does the green reality of imagination, this actual reflection of our missing eyes, lure one to outgrow the fantasy of identity and rest in the limitlessness of a will freer than one’s own—that most ancient love alone capable of creating the unimaginably new.      

[1] Public domain image. Source:
[2] Augustine, On Genesis, trans. Edmund Hill (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2002), 470.
[3] “Quid est ergo tempus? Si nemo ex me quaerat, scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio” (Augustine, Confessions, 11.14.17,
[4] Michael Marder, Grafts: Writings on Plants (Minneapois: Univocal, 2016), 41, italics mine.
[5] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Metamorphosis of Plants, trans. Douglas Miller (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 5.
[6] Cf. Marder’s discussion of the vegetal nature of imaginal freedom in terms of ‘crude taste’ of first play: “The material freedom of imagination is the echo of vegetal freedom in human beings, but so is the formal aesthetic play-drive, indifferent to the real existence of its object. To let the plant in us flourish, to give free reign to imagination in its materiality, we should forget the formality of ‘high culture,’ which corresponds to the upper tier of play, and to abandon ourselves to what Schiller decries as crude taste: ‘first seizing on what is new and startling, gaudy, fantastic and bizarre, what is violent and wild.’ Nietzsche’s Dionysian art, itself linked to the intoxicating power of a plant (the fermented grape), is no doubt crucial to this appeal, as is Deleuze and Guattari’s take on ‘drunkenness as a triumphant irruption of the plant in us’” (Michael Marder, Plant Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life [New York: Columbia, 2013], 146).
[7] Augustine, On Genesis, 470.
[8] “’Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no greater commandment than these’” (Mark 12:30-1).
[9] Cf. “There can . . . be no bodily vision without the spiritual, seeing that the moment contact is made with a body by a sense of the body, some such thing is also produced in the spirit, not to be exactly what the body is, but to be like it; and if this were not produced, neither would there be than sensation by which extraneous things present are sensed” (Augustine, On Genesis, 492).
[10] William Desmond addresses this dimension—and the separation it inspires—in terms of porosity: “The conatus essendi takes shape as the will to self-determination, but in doing so forgets its own more original passio essendi which is itself as more intimately and vulnerably porous . . . The selving on the surface of self-determination thus tries to snip the umbilical cord that ties it to its own soul—and no nourishment from the womb of the porosity comes up to it, even though in this, all its endeavor is still an affair of being ‘birthed with’ (con-natus)” (William Desmond, “Soul Music and Soul-less Selving,” in The Resounding Soul, eds. Eric Austin Lee and Samuel Kimbriel [Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2016], 377).
[11] Meher Baba, Discourses, revised 6th ed., 4 vols. (North Myrtle Beach, SC: Sheriar Foundation, 2007), I.169.
[12] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977. [Now, because love cannot turn its sight from the well-being of its subject, all things are safe from self-hatred; and because there is no being that can be conceived as existing all by itself and severed from the first, every creature from hatred of that one is cut off.]
[13] “No one hates himself. And, indeed, this principle was never questioned by any sect” (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson [New York: Macmillan, 1958], 20).
[14] Andrew Marvell, “The Garden,” lines 17-8, in Poems and Letters, ed. H. M. Margoliouth, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927), I.48. Thanks to Tom Haviv for reminding me of this poem.
[15] Friedrich Nietzsche, Writings from the Early Notebooks, trans. Ladislaus Löb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 36. Marder comments: “The absence of a conceptually mediated meaning does not signal the voiding of sense in the flower that represents nothing, but conversely announces a shift in the directionality of sense . . . The beautiful flower ceases to be an object of human regard, instead looking at us with the de-subjectivated and impersonal ‘eye of beauty’ because we do not exactly need it” (Plant-Thinking, 141). Cf. Narcissus as bound by the impossible actuality of the image’s love of him: “Admit it, the gaze is really too much. Who can withstand it? No one shall see me and live. That must be why Narcissus never stops spontaneously lying to himself about his reflection, never ceases to fall in love with his own image, seeing neither that it is an image nor his . . . How eternally precious those passing moments, when the gaze opens itself a little more and sees, by some unfathomable magic or trick of the abyss which if you gaze long into it gazes back into you (N), that the image is no less in love with Narcissus” (Nicola Masciandaro, “On the Gaze,” in Dante | Hafiz: Readings on the Sigh, the Gaze, and Beauty, eds. Masciandaro and Tekten [New York: KAF, 2017], 59).
[16] “The prophet says, ‘God will lead His sheep into a green pasture.’ The sheep is simple, and so are they who are simplified to one. One master says that heaven's course can nowhere be so readily observed as in simple animals: they guilelessly accept the influence of heaven, as do children with no minds of their own. But those folk who are clever and full of ideas, they are carried away in a proliferation of things. So our Lord promised to feed his sheep on the mountain on green grass. All creatures are green in God” (Meister Eckhart, The Complete Mystical Works, trans. Maurice O’C Walshe [New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2009], 459). Observe how the passage performs the unifying simplicity of vision by immediately transferring the color of the pasture to the creature partaking of it. This is a good example of what I have elsewhere termed “animal mysticism,” wherein the stupid immediacy of animal awareness is used to figure the depth of apophatic illumination; see “Unknowing Animals,” Speculations: Journal of Speculative Realism 2 (2011): 228-44.
[17] See, “There is No Pink Light,”
[18] Andrew Marvell, “The Garden,” lines 47-8.
[19] Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Frank Justus Miller, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), III.489-90.
[20] Where others prefer the past tense here—e.g. Mandelbaum’s “eyes that had been captured by the beauty of their master” (Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Allen Mandelbaum [New York: Harvest, 1993], 97)—I translate ‘mirantia’ in the literality of its present so as capture the total liminality of this moment wherein Narcissus’s eyes, still gazing upon themselves in the mirror of imagination, hold open the possibility of his soul’s attainment, via death to his identity, of a higher self-knowledge and more continuous vision of beauty. So the greenness that receives his dying head touches the vitality of death itself, its being an inherent mode and instrument of life rather than its opposite. As Rudolf Steiner observed, “green is the lifeless image of life,” in the sense of the qualitative visibility of the invisible life living through lifeless matter: “Life itself we do not perceive. We perceive plants because they contain the lifeless substances. And because of this they are green” (“Colours as Revelations of the Psychic in the World,” Vital and deathly, green is sign of the life that lives through what lacks it, the tint of soul elevating itself from matter, the tone of animal growing itself through mineral. So is it the color of love as will refusing the boundary—or encompassing the continuity—between life and death. Like Criseyde nearly dying of love-sorrow in Troilus’s arms: “O Jove, I deye, and mercy I beseche! / Help, Troilus!” And therwithal hire face / Upon his brest she leyde and loste speche – / Hire woful spirit from his propre place, / Right with the word, alwey o poynt to pace. / And thus she lith with hewes pale and grene, /That whilom fressh and fairest was to sene” (Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, IV.1149-55, in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987]).
[21] Ladislav Klima, Glorious Nemesis, trans. Marek Tomin (Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 2011), 64.
[22] Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1022b, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), II.78, italics mine.
[23] “[C]or meum, ubi ego sum quicumque sum” (Augustine, Confessions, 10.3.4).
[24] “[Q]uia fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te” (Augustine, Confessions, 1.1.1).
[25] Meher Baba, Meher Message, 2:7, p. 8 (July 1930), quoted in Life Eternal, “Sanskaras,” See Nicola Masciandaro, “The Inverted Rainbow: A Note on the Spiritual Significance of the Color Spectrum,”
[26] “Longing does not diminish when the subject is present to what is missing, but rather increases” (David Appelbaum, The Delay of the Heart [Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001], 143).  
[27] Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, trans. Maria Boulding, 6 vols. (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2003), 5.186.
[28] “The prehuman forms through which it [the soul] has to pass before it can incarnate in the human form are innumerable. Strictly speaking there is only one form—the human form—which is latent in all of the previous forms. The mineral, the plant and the animal forms actually contain the human form in its latent state, and this is gradually and increasingly manifested until it is at last completely expressed as a human being in a human body” (Meher Baba, God Speaks: The Theme of Creation and Its Purpose, [New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1973], 188).

Monday, October 24, 2016

Notes and Quotes on the The Gaze

Who can fix a limit to the gaze? Who will dare to define it scope, point out its center, or draw a circle around its sphere? As far as I can see, everyone turns away. Where? To the gaze.

On the one hand, the gaze is limitless, extending in all directions, further than the eye can see. “The self,” says Ibn Arabi, “is an ocean without shore. Gazing upon it has no end in this world and the next.”

On the other hand, the gaze is nothing, nothing but itself, a zero through which only another I is looking. “All creatures are absolutely nothing,” says Johannes Tauler, “That which has no being is nothing. And creatures have no being, because they have their being in God; if God turned away for a moment, they would cease to exist.”

Is my gaze my own? Yes and no. I look, yet cannot see myself. I am seen, yet none sees me. Is that you, looking back at yourself in the mirror? No and yes. The gaze is the mirror of the gaze, every look a reflection of itself. Where would I be, what would become of you—everything—if that which sees and is seen by seeing, vision’s own visibility, were blotted out, blinded? If the gaze through which we gaze shut its eyes? “Do not separate from me,” says Hafiz, “for you are the light of my vision. / You are the peace of my soul and the intimate of my heart.”

I see that one is always turning toward and turning away, turning away from what one turns toward, turning toward what one turns away from. What an endless revolution, the restless conversion of the still, ever-spinning eye. Zoom in on planet pupil, a little nothing meaning all, suspended in its own universal reflection, projecting and filming everything through the point, the navel of itself. Is your gaze born from you or you from your gaze? “I believe,” says Dante in Paradiso, “because of the sharpness of the living ray that I sustained, that I would have been lost if my eyes had turned away from it.”

Admit it, the gaze is really too much. Who can withstand it? No one shall see me and live. That must be why Narcissus never stops spontaneously lying to himself about his reflection, never ceases to fall in love with his own image, seeing neither that it is an image nor his. If you are me then who am I? If I am me then who are you? Perpetual predicament of the illusion that sustains reality. As Meher Baba once rhymed, “Oh, you ignorant, all-knowing Soul / what a plight you are in! / Oh, you weak, all-powerful Soul / what a plight you are in! / Oh, you miserable, all-happy Soul / what a plight you are in! / What a plight! / What a sight! / What a delight!”

How eternally precious those passing moments, when the gaze opens itself a little more and sees, by some unfathomable magic or trick of the abyss which if you gaze long into it gazes back into you (N), that the image is no less in love with Narcissus. As Francis Brabazon said, “And so one arrives at the painful conclusion that the Beloved alone exists—which means that oneself doesn’t. And that’s a terrible predicament to find oneself in—for one is still there! The only solution I found was to accept the position: ‘You alone are and I am not, but we are both here.’”

Whose gaze is that? What eye calmly turns itself towards the gaze of the real, penetrating the sight of life, which is death to the living? It would seem as if the person who possesses this look also cannot sustain it. Are not saints, or the truly beautiful, forever ashamed of their own eyes? Here is a passage from Meher Baba to fall in love with: “A wali . . . has the power to open the third eye and grant divine sight, if he is in the mood. He can do so by simply looking into the eyes of the aspirant, even if the aspirant is at a distance. When the third eye is opened, all is light . . . It is so powerful an experience that the recipient either goes mad or drops the body . . . One type of wali is called artad. They are very, very few, quite rare. They are very fiery, with piercing eyes that break through anything, even mountains! Their gaze is sufficient to cut an animal in two, hence they always keep their eyes on the ground. That too is split apart.”

If the gaze splits, surely that is because it is without number, because the manyness of our eyes only sees by reflecting one. Thus the individual neither sees nor is seen by unity without being cut in two. Consider this as the principle of honesty or natural self-discernment. I am only whole, authentic, truthful, when I see how double, how dark to myself I am, when eye see myself seen by seeing itself. “Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me” (Song of Songs 1:6).

Imagine a map of all vision, a long tracing of its every line, individual and collective, from the beginningless beginning to the endless end, from the earliest emergence of anything to its final absolute evaporation. A one-to-one map scaled to the continuum of seeing itself, all of its sleeps and wakings, every stop and start across the seas of every kingdom of being, in short, from stone to human. What does it look like? In his Dialogue on the Two Principle Systems of the World, Galileo, in order to explain how “this motion in common [i.e. the motion of the earth] . . . remains as if nonexistent to everything that participates in it,” conceives the figure of an artist who draws, without separating pen and paper, everything he sees while sailing from Italy to Turkey: “if an artist had begun drawing with that pen on a sheet of paper when he left the port and had continued doing so all the way to Alexandretta [Iskenderun], he would have been able to derive from the pen's motion a whole narrative of many figures, completely traced and sketched in thousands of directions, with landscapes, buildings, animals, and other things. Yet the actual real essential movement marked by the pen point would have been only a line; long, indeed, but very simple. But as to the artist's own actions, these would have been conducted exactly the same as if the ship had been standing still” (Galileo Galilei). Is not the real hero of the story the hyper-saccadic story of the eye? Now raise that to the power of itself ad infinitum. What a line!

More locally, the gaze concerns the duration and depth of seeing, the extensity and intensity of its time and space. Gazing not only looks but looks beyond looking, exploring the very surface of vision as a dimension otherwise than surface. The gaze sees by seeing into seeing itself, in both senses at once. No need for a map, the gaze directs itself. As Merleau-Ponty explains, the focus of the gaze, through which we establish the qualities of objects by interrupting them from “the total life of the spectacle,” operates through an essential reflexivity: “The sensible quality, far from being coextensive with perception, is the peculiar product of an attitude of curiosity or observation. It appears when, instead of yielding up the whole of my gaze to the world, I turn toward this gaze itself, and when I ask myself what precisely it is that I see; it does not occur in the natural transactions between my sight and the world, it is the reply to a certain kind of questioning on the part of my gaze, the outcome of a second order or critical kind of vision which tries to know itself in its own particularity.”

So we are led back, willy nilly, to the essential gravity of the gaze as an exponent of will, to looking as the weight of the love of a being who is its own self-consuming question. But what of the one whose will is annihilated? “To those in whom the will has turned and denied itself,” says Schopenhauer, “this very real world of ours, with all its suns and galaxies, is—nothing.”

What does the gaze that sees nothing see? “And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw nothing” (Acts 9:8).

I trust that both Dante and Hafiz agree that this gaze sees not only nothing, but everything. As their contemporary Meister Eckhart says, “A man who is established thus in God's will wants nothing but what is God's will and what is God . . . Even though it meant the pains of hell it would be joy and happiness to him. He is free and has left self behind, and must be free of whatever is to come in to him: if my eye is to perceive color, it must be free of all color. If I see a blue or white color, the sight of my eye which sees the color, the very thing that sees, is the same as that which is seen by the eye. The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me: my eye and God's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing and one love.”

This makes me want to see what these two poets might see looking into each other. For both are so well versed in the mystery of the unitive doubleness of vision experienced in the gaze, wherein the two-ness of the eyes becomes one. As Hadewych explains, “The power of sight that is created as natural to the soul is charity. This power of sight has two eyes, love and reason. Reason cannot see God except in what he is not; love rests not except in what he is. Reason has its secure paths, by which it proceeds. Love experiences failure, but failure advances it more than reason. Reason advances toward what God is, by means of what God is not. Love sets aside what God is not and rejoices that it fails in what God is. Reason has more satisfaction than love, but love has more sweetness of bliss than reason. These two, however, are of great mutual help one to the other; for reason instructs love, and love enlightens reason. When reason abandons itself to love's wish, and love consents to be forced and held within the bounds of reason, they can accomplish a very great work. This no one can learn except by experience.”

And I am looking forward to this encounter all the more, not only because, as Vernon Howard says, “Anything you look forward to will destroy you, as it already has,” but because what is seen between the gazes of these two poets will no doubt be something neither could see—the beauty of a spark leaping between the eyes of two no-ones.

As Hafiz says, “اهل نظر دو عالم در یک نظر ببازند” [Men of sight can lose both worlds in one glance]. Or as Love tells Dante in the Vita Nuova, “Ego tanquam centrum circuli . . . tu autem non sic” [I am as the centre of a circle . . . you however are not so].