[opening statement for Reading the Sigh]
If I sigh for the miraculous, for the beauty that takes breath away in wonder, maybe it is because the sigh itself is a miracle. And if it is not, if as the song says, a sigh is just a sigh, perhaps that is the miracle, that a sigh, to be miraculous, need not be anything other than itself.
The miracle of this gathering is that we get to hear and speak the sighs of Dante and Hafiz together, to have them, side by side, in the same room.
Dante died in 1321. Hafiz was born in 1325. So this is something that could never have happened. Or, in light of the mystery of reincarnation, properly identified by one anonymous author as “in no way a theory which one has to believe or not believe . . . a fact which is [to be] either known through experience or ignored” (Meditations on the Tarot), this may be something that could never have not happened. Thus who knows, this gathering might be both and something better than either, the miracle of a third thing, the event of the presence of one in whose name two or three gather.
The impossible is inevitable. And in this case, there is also lightning, a striking resemblance. Above all, the greatness of these two poets, the height and depth of their sighs, belongs to the sphere of intense experience, ecstatic and torturous, of the intersection of human and divine love, more specifically, the noble love of a woman and the love of God. For Dante, it was the death of Beatrice which marked the center of his poetry’s turning toward the divine. Only from the abyss of sorrow and the poet’s death to himself within it does there spring the miraculous vision of the Commedia, the potentiality of a truly new poetry, of a word that authentically writes itself now, in light of the eternal present. As Dante states near the end of the Vita Nuova, “And to arrive at that, I apply myself as much as I can, as she truly knows. So that, if it be pleasing to Him for whom all things live that my life may last for some years, I hope to say of her what was never said of any other woman.” For Hafiz, the death of his beloved instead takes place virtually, in experience, upon the imminence of the long-sought moment when he could finally realize his desire. Where the death of Dante’s beloved is the ground of seeking her in God, Hafiz’s earthly love is eclipsed by desire for the divinity that grants him the opportunity to fulfil that love. With uncanny complementarity, the two poets’ experiences appear as different as they are similar. Hafiz’s story is recounted by Meher Baba as follows:
Once in his youth, Hafiz encountered a very beautiful girl of a wealthy family. That very instant he fell in love with her; it was not in the carnal way, but he loved her beauty. At the same time, he was in contact with his Spiritual Master, Attar, who himself was a great Persian poet. Hafiz, being Attar's disciple, used to visit him daily for years. He used to compose a ghazal a day and sing it to Attar. . . Twenty years passed and all this time Hafiz was full of the fire of love for the beautiful woman, and he loved his Master, too. Once, Attar asked him: “Tell me what you want.” Hafiz expressed how he longed for the woman. Attar replied: “Wait, you will have her.” Ten more years passed by, thirty in all, and Hafiz became desperate and disheartened. . . . Hafiz blazed out: “What have I gained by being with you? Thirty years have gone by!” Attar answered: “Wait, you will know one day.” . . . Hafiz performed chilla-nashini, that is, he sat still within the radius of a drawn circle for 40 days to secure fulfillment of his desire. It is virtually impossible for one to sit still for 40 days within the limits of a circle. But Hafiz’s love was so great that it did not matter to him. On the fortieth day, an angel appeared before him and looking at the angel’s beauty, Hafiz thought: “What is that woman’s beauty in comparison with this heavenly splendor!” The angel asked what he desired. Hafiz replied that he be able to wait on the pleasure of his Master’s wish. At four o’clock on the morning of the last day, Hafiz . . . went to his Master who embraced him. In that embrace, Hafiz became God-conscious. (Lord Meher)
Following love’s infinity in the face of the finite, through the domain of death, the poetry of Dante and Hafiz fills the space traversed by longing, the degree or mode of love which moves between desire and surrender, the form of eros that at once insists on satisfaction and grasps the futility of that insistence. As the word of the word of love, the tongueless articulation of the heart before and after speech, a murmuring of the heart as mouth around the spiritual limits of language, the sigh is the proper expression of longing, of desire across distance and the hopelessness of separation. Thus the sphere-piercing spatiality of the sigh, its mapping of the paradoxical parameters of the heart as something both excluded from and already established within its own home. Like a breath at the edge of the universe which is no less one’s own, the sigh traces the heart as no less exterior than interior, as both trapped within and containing what holds it. Augustine defines the heart as “where I am whoever or whatever I am [ubi ego sum quicumque sum]” and love as “my weight [which] bears me wheresoever I am borne [pondus meum, amor meus; eo feror, quocumque feror]” (Augustine, Confessions). So the sigh, echoing simultaneously one’s first and last breath, both the spirit which animates you in the first place and the expiration which becomes no longer yours, pertains to an essential openness and mobility, the unbounded wherever and wheresoever of things.
This for me is the sigh’s miracle—not anything supernatural, but that it marks the miracle of reality itself as infinitely open, as spontaneously expanding without limit or horizon into more and more of itself. Hear how, on the one hand, a sigh resonates with the sense of the weight of facticity and necessity, the crushing gravity of that (that things are as they are, that anything is, that something is not) and hear, on the other hand, how a sigh floats in the space between the actual and the ideal, in the sky of its own indetermination and freedom. The suspension of the sigh, its hovering, pertains to the paradox of freedom as realizable yet unpossessable, the necessity of freeing oneself from oneself, from one’s own freedom, in order to be free. As Meister Eckart says, “The just man serves neither God nor creatures, for he is free, . . . and the closer he is to freedom . . . the more he is freedom itself.” The sigh is the dialetheia of freedom and necessity, the joy (and sorrow) of knowing that nothing is fixed and the sorrow (and joy) of seeing that it everything is—that thank God there is absolutely nothing and everything you can do about it. As Vernon Howard said, referring to yourself, “you want to take that to Heaven?”
The admixture of joy and sorrow found in the sigh reflects the miraculous fact, the light weight and grave lightness, of reality’s paradoxical openness. As Agamben says in The Coming Community, “The root of all pure joy and sadness is that the world is as it is.” The intimacy with separation spoken in the sigh likewise manifests separation as a special order of intimacy. As Mechthild of Magdeburg, a Beguine of the 13th century says, “O blissful distance from God, how lovingly am I connected with you!” Or as Meher Baba once spontaneously 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!” (Lord Meher).
We are indeed in a fiX, in a spot marked by a great, unfathomable X. Such is the order of the truth of the sigh. That the mystery of the world is more than metaphysical. That not only is there something rather than nothing, but that one is. That there is not only eternity but time, not only good but evil, not only truth but illusion, not only oneness but separation, not only the universe but the individual, not only you but me. These are astonishing things, stupendous facts pointing to a reality more stupendous still. All is somehow more infinite for being finite. In other words, there is something about the sigh that turns everything inside out. I hear Levinas sighing as he writes, “Time is not the limitation of being but its relationship with infinity. Death is not annihilation but the question that is necessary for this relationship with infinity, or time, to be produced.”
The opening of the world, in both senses, is poetry, the miracle of the word which takes you aside and makes one hear its silence and speak what one cannot say. Thus the singular story in the Gospel of Mark of Jesus’s sigh: “And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech; and they besought him to lay his hand upon him. And taking him aside from the multitude private, he put his fingers into his ears, and spat and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’ And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly” (Mark 7:31-4).
Therefore, to close my opening of this gathering, to thank the sigh for making possible our being side by side with these two poets, I will read a poem by a third poet, one Pseudo-Leopardi, on the same theme:
Unable to swim the ocean of each other’s eyes
We must sit side by side, gazing at a blind world
Whose dumb mouth has lost all taste for silence.
Heads dizzy as ours naturally lean together,
Kept from falling off only by the golden sighs
Suspending these bodies like puppet strings.
The soft tautness of the secret lines is thinning us,
Sweetly drawing all life-feeling inward and up
Into something pulling strongly from far above.
There is no doubt that the sigh-threads will one day
Draw our hearts right through the tops of our heads,
Eventually turning everything totally inside out.
Already my body is something much less my own,
As if the thought of your form is my new skeleton
And your memory of my flesh your new strength.
If I embrace you my own power would crush me
And if you cling to me I would surely evaporate.
Dying lovers do not touch without touching suicide.
Side by side we float and stand. It is our way of lying
Bound together across space on this lost world
Whose eyes will not survive seeing us face to face.