After Postmodernism: 9. My Work and Aesthetically-Mediated Belief
GOD AND AESTHETICALLY-MEDIATED BELIEF
Responding with denial to the damning critique just leveled, the sunken deity defiantly refuses rescue by his former angel—a standoff that is only settled when Joel is able to convince Yahweh that it is in fact he, the singer, the poet, who is actually God, and thus in a position to command his Creature. Under these (false…?) pretenses, the two move on together, now assuming a radical reversal of roles: the poet/artist as Creator of transcendence, and God the humble suppliant.
The lie does not last long. Eventually, the ‘truth’ comes out: the artist, it seems, can offer no more transcendence than the crippled God next to him. It was all a sham, Joel admits. But God himself disagrees. Reflecting on the role of art to truth and transcendence, He wonders and asks:
These songs you sing…this poetry, this rhyme—
it tells a Truth beyond equations, no?
Past what the world can count—to fire and fire?
which is what living is: the sense inside
the solid heart, the nova of no-thing…
For all this talk of heart and fire is false
(though it seem true): what blood-pump pulses love
or burning char us in amazement? These
are tools, succeeding where expression fails—
the panders of our souls and understanding—
interpreters of cries and grunts and grins
that beg translating—these: the stuff
you revel in, the makings of your art,
which lie beyond small language to a Truth
mere truths but groan at, dumb to reckoning…
Is human song but frequency? vibration?
Or do all those unfeeling elements—
the troubled air, the fretted string, dead space
and whirling particles—become alive
in symphony? the prickling of the skin
and spine—sublimity? the ecstasy
of rapturous harmony—the holy flame
of beauty bare: is that not real as well?
Dissect these fiery wonders how you will,
the pieces cannot make the sum. Inside,
the sky’s vast swirling galaxies reduce
to mostly-empty space. And yet… gaze out
upon a mountain peak that crowns the world
and see such weighty stuff stretch limitless,
immeasurable! How can this be? Where lies
the warping bridge from mere material
Look: perhaps we are the stair!
Perhaps we climb ourselves: impossible
to think—until we’re higher. …Am I not
now closer to the stars for following
your falsehoods? Poet, prophet, king or god:
perhaps all truths will lie a little… play
the tender heart’s beguiler… woo with looks
and fictions till late facts are numbed by love—
the seeming-prodigal who, bankrupt, buys
on credit till indebted winnings pay
their debts away, then reaps far more from less…
Yes…credit, creed, credulity: Belief.
That is the ladder that we throw away.
That is the want we foist upon what is
to fashion higher Truths
from baser things.
(Canto 15, lines 126-74)
The argument here hinges on a couple of key points. First, there’s the turn to phenomenology from empiricism—or, as Eshelman would put it, a shifting of the framework of argumentation to aesthetics from epistemology. Art “tells a Truth beyond equations”, offering a unique insight into reality by means of a language different from materialist logic. Art pushes back against scientific reductionism: music is more than frequency and vibration—it has a felt component, a subjective and experiential domain, with its own form of reality that resists scientific dissection. This point occasions comparison between the irreducably subjective and the irreducably objective, as the language of emergence enters in: “the pieces cannot make the sum”, the total, complex truth is not to be found in its smaller, sometimes-conflicting constituent parts. Both arguments, one subjective and one objective, explore a locus for transcendence entirely within the immanent frame—in short, a progressive approach to the return of dimensionality.
Both points are taken up in the angel-poet’s response to God: a long, formally-expansive song that offers an extended meditation on these themes. The concluding sonnet is representative: “I see all Cosmos is a Symphony,” he says (Canto 15, lines 434-49):
Or so I’ll sing—for who can Cosmos clutch?
When Reason, like our speech and memory,
Has too small room to comprehend so much…
Then let it break! Burst, singularity!
‘According to the poets’ be our crutch.
When crippled logic falls from Harmony
And lies sustain to know the Truth as such.
For everything beyond what eyes can see—
The quarks, dimensions, or the vast too-much—
Puzzles the mind…
yet fits as poetry,
If ever God and Adam are to touch.
Then alchemize each atom to a string;
One fault in ‘Truth’ lets all the Cosmos sing.
The “lies” of poetry and the imagination, the basic falseness of metaphor (to call some thing another thing that it is not) and the fictiveness of creative invention, thus become the means for articulating even deeper truths, truths beyond strict epistemological claims. Through art, specifically poetry, we “lie beyond small language to a Truth” unattainable using merely rational speech. Art, an immanent phenomenon, is thereby our principal bridge to transcendent experience—our ladder to truths more mysterious, more fundamental even than thought—to the “beyond” deep within us, and to that without. Indeed, Joel and God are ultimately able to escape the underworld—to transcend it, you could say—by means of the bridge built by Joel’s song: an ascending stairway re-constructed out of the fallen blocks of Heaven’s ruins. A way forward has been cleared: a progressive return of dimensionality through art…
The only way, it soon turns out, as the God Joel has carried back from the underworld has grown weaker and weaker along the journey, withering away: “Sick, / it seems, out of the sea we’ve damned him to” (Canto 16, lines 76-77). The old transcendence, simply brought back, fails, it seems, and cannot be sustained long out of its element: now, properly among the outmoded and discarded ideas of history. Despite his efforts, the God Joel has suffered to bring back can only die again:
God, my God
and Father, fails before me, withered up
and ending… all my Father fading out
into a sunken rind—and I am crushed
so near to heartache, I must keep my tongue
above, and silent, lest it sink and choke
in its own tears…
“I am not for this time,” he says—his eyes,
though empty, sweeter now than ever else.
“Jehovah passes into dust, and all
my work, my time are finished. Look! For now
a new thing must arise.”
(Canto 17, lines 76-82, 101-5)
Leaving the ailing deity a moment, Joel goes in search of assistance. He finds a group of artists: a simmering group of dissident painters, writers, etc. who all reject the dominant paradigm, and have turned instead to ecology and craft. Collectively, they are creating a massive statue—a bold, confident woman, made of earthen materials.
Heeding Joel’s call for help, they yield to curiosity and answer—but returning to the spot with Joel, find God lifeless, unresponsive.
Their awkward remorse puts to the test Joel’s clarified mission: the progressive return of dimensionality through aesthetically-mediated belief. After burying the old transcendence in the womb of the statue, he challenges them all:
Dead? The God is dead?—is dead?
Well…what is that to us? Goddamn you all,
you are no ARTISTS! Weathermen, more like—
Accountants! Scales-and-beams! An artist looks
on graves and sees a tiller’s plot! sees seeds
in all the coffins, sleeping soft and dark
till harvest-time! What, is your canvas flat?
Then it too must be ‘dead’ to more dimensions!
Crack brush! cast—hurtle ink into the fire!
for making planes a portal into depth
seems far beyond you!
So… the God is dead—
and so is false—and so is worthless, yes?
For such an end unravels all that was
as Gods who die must never then have lived?
we’ve felt its power!
Live or lifeless—
true, false—Something or nothingness: a sense
that carved the world! His shrines and temples, hymns
and rousing anthems broke our souls in two,
and out of them drew up an ecstasy
so worthy of a God! His tapestries
and frescoes, vaults and architraves and beams
and colonnades and porticos called out
our better sense, and made transcendence seem
as immanent as bread.
…Sun set upon
the frost, and with its colors overproved
the theologian’s gloss—all Logic’s proofs
and certainties we long to chain Him with…
Is that dead too? that soul that lives in veins
and goosebumps after head’s soul has expired?
If so: by suicide! If skin, hair, heart
rejoiced regardless of a spirit realm,
and if in thunderheads we saw some throne
and some Elysium—amen! amen
I say to you! Hail, Dome! Hail, Pantheon!
Hail, Oratorio! and hallelujah
to the round glass which plays the halo to
sweet Chartres! Notre Dame! Amen, I say,
to holy Parthenon, and pagan priests
who wooed us with their mumbled prayers. For these
savage the question—’true’ or ‘false,’ ‘alive’
or ‘dead’—as nothing makes the world to weep,
and nothing plays the Light, and nothing stirs
creation, in-breaks inspiration, spreads
its majesty upon a feckless world
where nothing moves us, nothing strikes. But all
cry out to nothing, ‘Be our God, and we’ll
be worth you!’ So is beauty born—and, God!
to be so empty
—yet fill up the world!
It maddens definition of our ‘nothing.’
It gives the lie to Truth—makes Paradox
more worthy of our aim and spirit-worship!
…You know it, too…
So come: let us not talk
of ‘death.’ God is not dead… but only sleeping—
sleeping within our hands, which always are
and always have been strong — with resurrection!
(Canto 17, lines 399-450)
His words find a ready audience: a generation—call it metamodern, performatist, remodernist, what have you—ready to “bring God back to art, but not as he was”, to “reinvent” spirit, and “abandon the aesthetic precepts of deconstruction, parataxis, and pastiche in favor of aesth-ethical notions of reconstruction, myth, and metaxis”, etc. If the speaker’s aim was to return dimensionality through aesthetically-mediated belief, he has met the perfect pool of recruits.
Now he finds himself at the forefront of a movement. The artists’ statue becomes the banner under which they rally, a symbol of defiant, re-invented sacredness: their “idol”. Its natural materials link it to an eco-spiritual consciousness—a sense of the sacred, one notes, entirely immanent in basis. They name her Earth, and begin a march out of the wooded margins toward the heart of the City. Once arrived, though, they meet with some resistance and skepticism from the inhabitants within. The average citizens there, familiar only with the antagonistic dichotomy of secular materialist immanence vs. traditional metaphysical transcendence have no precedent for what is being offered: a Goddess, artistically crafted. Unpersuaded and unconvinced, the people’s reflex is to deem it all ‘constructed’, a fabrication, and counterfeit—to which Joel fervently responds:
how FRAUD? Would you shun Gods of clay and straw
as ‘made,’ and seek some substance higher? Where?
Where would you find it? …Spurn the deities
we fashion from the earth—scorn sticks and stones
and curse the tailored effigies—expunge
divinities we’d conjure out of loam,
and what is left?
…Poor exorcists… How soon
believers in the immaterial
turn atheist! For souls lie in our bones!
and, severed from embodiment, the Ghost
decays—the Temple of the God’s the brain,
and there’s material—There’s loam—There’s clay.
From dust we came and from it form our lords—
is that to counterfeit?
…Or say we know
the ‘Numinous’—the ‘Word,’ the ‘Logos’… Say
we’ve touched the Real, and spoken to Transcendence?
Are not all scriptures of the Immanent?
All revelation, in the tongues of men?
Or did you think that the Eternal Power,
spanning the cosmos like a canopy,
and Ancient Master of this Universe
—spoke Latin? Hebrew? Greek?
Spoke Arabic, or English? Would you have
so small a God? to think Him shaped a man
at all? to beard Him out, and leg Him? call
Omniscience ‘king,’ or ‘father’—’him’ at all?
and think these humblest metaphors spoke more
No, every name
of the Ineffable’s translation: sounds
we mouth to fret the air, and signify
profundity. For what is ‘God’ but this:
the greatest entity a soul can ponder…?
What, if he’s not the summit-thought? the height
and maxima of Good and Beauty? sums
of all superlatives? What? if not that?
The soul stirs in the breast, and wind caresses;
but… how could we express it? How, against
the rapture of the world, and the wild flush
and the dark joy—(existence, overflowing)—
how, to the vale, can we make known the peak
but in crude noise, transliterating? …How?
How speak? but that we violence language! freeze
fire! bend an alphabet of common words
so out of shape they imitate the odd,
the sacred: making half-known mystery?
Are not all Gods then …poetry? And art,
religions? Idols by our hands, and clay
and straw—and pigment, canvas, symphony?
which try, and try, but only ever hint
at what we cannot say—warping perception
past clay towards Infinity? which stun
the brooding brain with pretty puzzles till
it sees: reflections of the Greatest Thing
that can but ripple in confusion. There’s
perfection: in the broken glass of Song!
gesturing toward the Best in good, and Truth
in fraud: sweet idols for imagining
the imageless! So, clay and straw will do
as Eucharist, as relic, icon, cross…
All beauty is a specimen of God.
So prays our art.
(Canto 19, lines 184-262)
The speech develops some of the ideas earlier arrived at through his underworldly travails with God. One thread argues the immanent locus of transcendence: “souls lie in our bones!”, etc. Another picks up from the speaker’s song, that any truly profound “beyond” (both within and without) lies past our limited logic, requiring art to get at it (“every name / of the Ineffable’s translation”, etc.). Both weave together to a bold conclusion: “Are not all Gods then…poetry? And art, / religions?” This is certainly a thorough-going form of aesthetically-mediated belief, to be sure—a radical conflation of immanence and transcendence, arrived at by different means. On the one hand, transcendence is so rooted in immanence as to render the fundamental distinction moot; on the other hand, transcendence is said to be so radically “other” that all our attempts to get at it are bound to fail, and should accept their status as fully immanent. These seemingly opposed ideas are casually tied together with “...Or”. Logically, though, they seem at odds. However, from a pragmatic and phenomenological standpoint, the end is essentially the same. The effect is to locate spirituality within the immanent frame, with the unity of outcome from these divergent pathways apparently part of the mystery of transcendence itself. Eventually, the people yield and the idol is brought in, hailed even as an almost salvific alternative to the rule of the Beast and Salesmen, whose shallow and unfulfilling paradigm of totalised immanence has created a wave of discontent. The time is ripe for revolution.
It comes. Joel and the artists are joined by millions of inhabitants of the City, who flock to their spirited, musical invasion for a direct confrontation with the Beast and Salesmen. When these latter attack their singing protest, the carved idol erupts, birthing the ghost of God (buried within) like a butterfly from its cocoon. Spirit, re-invented and reborn, then explodes into the sky in a climactic spectacle of sublime aesthetic transcendence. Beneath its radiant light, the protesters then oust the Beast and Salesmen from power, establishing a new order. The new Spirit, as well as a vivified goddess Earth, are celebrated with jubilant song and dance in fully human, fleshy, immanent joy.
Blissed human bodies up!
and down!—and loam-caked in our ecstasies
(of holy flesh and holy sound)—of skin
life-blessed with sacredness—borne round the God,
—all-blessed and ever-glorified, Who looks
with His profundity on humanness
Y o u a r e d i v i n e
He says (his artists say), as bodies bend
to earth, in dance, or on another, touching—
feeling and laughing—humming, praying—All!
all men and women! taste the world
you live in! taste the fruits and nuts and berries!
taste of the good things given by another!
taste of the seeds! taste of saliva, sweat,
creation, glory! taste of life, and be,
To be is glory! sacredness…
profundity… To grow is glory! Laugh,
and Be-Becoming: GLORY
(Canto 22, lines 182-203)
But, not everyone is so ecstatic. John Faust, returned, runs into a celebrating Joel, giddy at the resurrection of Spirit, and demanding of the skeptic, “Well? ...What do you think of that?” pointing at the new God.
But he only stares.
“And what is that?” he finally inquires—
to which I drop my arm, and drop my smile.
“But… can’t you see?” I ask, half-hesitantly,
to which he answers, “No, my friend,
I blanche, confused, then look again toward God—
but where the Great Kaleidoscope had stood
A gaping nothingness…
A cavernous descent into the black
around which dancing circles go rejoicing…
I close my eyes,
and bow my head. And tears…
“No,” I say, and raise my head again:
“I can… I can… I see all things.
And it’s with that I turn away, to light
and color blazing, sound and symphony
returning as I walk toward the Lord—
toward the Void, toward the Lord—and sing
myself into the singing rings again.
(Canto 22, lines 316-66)
“Toward the Void, toward the Lord...” The scene has echoes of Hassan’s understanding of spirit—and all representation, all language—as being based upon Nothing, making us all “acolytes of the Void.” For Hassan, this demanded an ethical response of us, a call to appreciate the fragility of all our identities with an open acceptance and global civility. And so we come to the final topic, the “specter of identity” our new period inherits from Postmodernism.