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SACRAMENTAL POETICS AT THE DAWN OF SECULARISM
When God Left the World
By Regina Mara Schwartz
Stanford University Press Copyright © 2008 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
The Oracles are dumb,
No voice or hideous hum
Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving.
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trance, or breathed spell,
Inspires the pale-ey'd Priest from the prophetic cell.
The lonely mountains o're,
And the resounding shore,
A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament;
From haunted spring and dale
Edg'd with poplar pale,
The parting Genius is with sighing sent,
With flow'r-inwov'n tresses torn
The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.
—John Milton, "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," 173–88
"Man is unavoidably a sacramentalist and his works are sacramental in character," writes the poet David Jones. My effort to draw attention to a sacramental poetics is heir to a long discourse that links Ars to Sacre, both before and after the Christian Church Fathers explored the connection of art and the sacred. The explicit debts of literature to religion are immense: from medieval Corpus Christi plays to Victorian devotional poetry, from Renaissance cantos to Romantic symbolism, from Donne's sonnets to Eliot's quartets. The relation is multifaceted: the poet as inspired prophet, the poet as a creator in the image of the Creator, words as grounded in the Word, inspiration as divine prompting, language as liturgical, drama as ritual, poetry as hymn. And despite recent trends in more scientifically oriented criticism—involving questions of textual production and dissemination—a theological and philosophical study of literature continues unabated.
Nonetheless, we should still heed Jones's warning: "The terms 'sacrament' and 'sacramental' are apt to give off overtones and undertones that for a number of disparate reasons have a kind of narrowing effect. Thus, for Christians and especially for the Catholic Christian, those terms carry a specialized meaning and a special aura surrounds them. On the other hand, for secularized man in general, and especially for post-Christians or anti-Christians such terms are suspect or uncongenial. So that in various opposing ways the wide significance and primary meaning is obscured." This "primary meaning," Jones suggests simply, is sign-making. Mankind has, "for about fifty millenn[ia] ... made works, handled material, in a fashion that can only be described as having the nature of a sign. We have ample archeological evidence to show us that paleolithic man was a sacramental animal, ... this creature juxtaposed marks on surfaces [that] had not merely utile, but significant, intent; that is to say a 're-presenting,' a 'showing again under other forms,' an 'effective recalling' of something [that] was intended."
The human urge to make signs is not at all restricted to the rituals of the Church, of any church. Not only are the arts characterized by the activity of sign-making; "ultimately, the very work of the sign implies the sacred." Somehow, a sign seems to inevitably evoke the sacred. But how? First, because it works by evoking something beyond itself, something that transcends the sign. Insofar as it evokes something beyond, the sign participates in transcendence, and transcendence—whether vertical or horizontal, above or beyond our comprehension, control, and use—is the realm of mystery. We can point to it, sign it, and by doing so evoke it, and sometimes even more, manifest it. As Jacques Maritain summarized, for the scholastic philosophers, "sign is that which renders present to knowledge something other than itself." Signum est id quod repræsentant aliud a se potentiæ cognoscenti. A sign manifests. And as Augustine says simply, "Signs, when they pertain to divine things, are called sacraments." Even for Aristotle, a metaphor is not simply ornate language; it bears truth, like riddles that communicate a truth almost incommunicable to human minds.
Like signification, the riddle of transubstantiation, for Leibniz, resists solution, on the one hand, and complete obscurity, on the other. "By virtue of being a metaphor it testifies to something other than the rational order of things" but in a manner that appears intelligible. Riddles, like that of transubstantiation, issue from the "voice of prophets, monsters, messengers and the gods at the pivotal moments of destiny for many reasons, but chief among these is the vast discontinuity between human and divine experience. Charged on several occasions with speaking the 'unspeakable,' is it any wonder Tiresias sometimes resorts to what sound like riddles? The wonder is that he can speak at all." Mystery is not hopelessly lost to us; it is manifest by virtue of an utterance that says more than it can say.
When Samuel Johnson draws a distinction between didactic poetry and devotional poetry, he affirms the didactic, for it concerns the works of God rather than God Himself. Devotional poetry, on the other hand, faces two difficulties: the first is that while religion is truth, art is necessarily fictional; the second is that when devotion is honest, the poetry that results is poor: "poetical devotion cannot often please.... Contemplative piety, or the intercourse between God and the human soul, cannot be poetical" for "to ask for mercy from the Creator is a higher state than poetry can confer." But both his conception of what religious devotion is and his understanding of what counts as excellent poetry, indeed, as poetry itself, inform this judgment.
Poetry pleases by exhibiting an idea more grateful to the mind than things themselves afford. This effect proceeds from the display of those parts of nature which attract, and the concealment of those which repel the imagination: but religion must be shewn as it is; suppression and addition equally corrupt it; and such as it is, it is known already. From poetry the reader justly expects, and from good poetry always obtains, the enlargement of his comprehension and elevation of his fancy; but ... Omnipotence cannot be exalted; Infinity cannot be amplified; Perfection cannot be improved.
As if he were addressing Johnson before his time, Herbert takes up the very problem that preoccupies him here: the incommensurability of verse to its sacred subject. Herbert, the poet who wrote in "Jordan (I)," "Who sayes that fictions only and false hair /Become a verse? Is there in truth no beautie?" would surely agree with Johnson that theology is "too sacred for fiction, and too majestick for ornament." And yet Herbert finds a way—a compelling way—to write indisputably devotional verse. In his lyric, "A True Hymn," he concludes that "although the verse be somewhat scant, / God doth supplie the want." And then, in its final lines, the speaker expresses his lack: "O, could I love! and stops: God writeth, Loved." Herbert never makes the claim that his verse is adequate to his subject, that he can describe God; to the contrary, he writes verse about that inadequation. The true poem is only manifest in the last word, one written by God, if in the poet's hand: "Loved." Herbert's poetry does not try to offer a mental or sensory picture of the miracle of divine love; it does not try to contain its subject. Rather it somehow depicts a miracle that language can only point toward.
The art of language is to point beyond itself, swelling toward significance beyond what is strictly signified. Maritain noted the important distinction between the making of art and the contemplation of metaphysics: "the more-real-than-reality," which both seek, "metaphysics must attain in the nature of things, while it suffices to poetry to touch it in any sign whatsoever." With its evocation of images and sounds, indeed, an entire sensory reservoir, poetry is especially suited to the surplus of meaning. And because drama, opera, and ritual call upon multiple senses, they have a similar evocative power. Sometimes this surplus is so great that a kind of sensory exhilaration or confusion sets in: we seem to taste what we feel, to hear what we see. At the Eucharist, does the believer see God in the wine, taste him in the wafer, smell him in the incense, hear him in the hymns, or is God made present by means of all of these and more than all of these? Unsurprisingly, the blurring of sensory distinctions, synaesthesia, marks the "spiritual senses" for apprehending God in the mystical tradition.
Mining a sensory reservoir is also a hallmark of sacramental poetry—a poetry that is sacramental, not because it is an object of worship (an idol, an artifact), not because it is believed to be a sacred leftover of a divine presence (a relic), but sacramental in that it does not contain what it expresses; rather, it expresses far more than it contains. Sacramental poetry points to a meaning greater than and beyond itself. Valéry has written about poetry in ways that sound remarkably like a description of liturgy: "All at once this text is no longer one of those intended to teach us something and to vanish as soon as that something is understood; its effect is to make us live a different life, breathe according to this second life; and it implies a state or a world in which the objects and beings found there, or rather their images, have other freedoms and other ties than those in the practical world.... all this gives us the idea of an enchanted nature, subjected as by a spell to the whims, the magic, and the powers of language." A sacramental poetry is a poetry that signifies more than it says, that creates more than its signs, yet does so, like liturgy, through image, sound, and time, in language that takes the hearer beyond each of those elements.
Beyond sign-making, there is another component of sacramentality: efficacy. The catechism of the Council of Trent addresses this aspect clearly: "A sacrament is a thing subjected to the senses, which has the power not only of signifying but also of effecting grace." Rites make something happen. While many arguments took place about what made sacraments effective—the agency of Christ, the faith of the believer, the signs themselves, signs empowered by Christ—the question of the efficacy of the sacraments and was never in doubt. They confer grace and create a world. And although philosophers and poets have debated the nature of the efficacy of art—its source located in inspiration, in the artist, or adhering in the work itself—they also agree on the fundamental efficacy of art: to manifest a world. This is the basis of the otherwise audacious comparison of the artist to the Creator as well as the metaphor of the Creator as supreme Artist. In the Augustinian tradition as it is elaborated by Eriugena and Bonaventure, the human artist imitates the supreme Artist, God. Here, art is not in the thing or in the work of making it; it "dwells beyond the life and presence of the artist himself," in divine art. A sacramental poetics is not any sign-making, then, for it entails a radical understanding of signifying, one that points beyond the life and presence of the artist, to manifest a new world; in Valéry's phrase, "a second life." A sacramental poetics, hence, is not afflicted by embarrassment at the poverty of signs, at the inept ways in which language falls short of conveying the sacred. In it, signs are empowered to be effective—if not to confer grace, then to change their hearer; if not to grant him eternity, then to manifest a world.
To further illuminate this sacramental poetics, it is helpful to turn to the quintessential sacrament in Christianity, the Eucharist, and to chart its movement from ritual to poetry. Obviously, by "movement," we do not mean that the Eucharist has left the Church; it certainly has not. But a striking and in many ways counter-intuitive phenomenon took place during the Reformation when the doctrine of transubstantiation was rejected by many Reformers. Aspects of the Eucharist began showing up in the poetry of the Reformation, albeit in completely unorthodox ways. The world manifest by the ritual was now manifest in poetry: a universe infused with divinity, a dialogue between God and man, physical union, a realm of justice. Sacramental poetics does not begin with these early modern poets, and while they were often preoccupied with the Eucharist, this is not what makes their poetry sacramental, for this is not a poetics of theme. Rather, the Eucharist is a limited case that we can pursue here, to interrogate why and how the impulse that informs the ritual could govern the poetry, how the spiritual cravings for communion with divinity addressed so fully by the Eucharist could also be addressed in poetry. As sign-making characterizes the sacrament of the Eucharist, it also does poetry, which is similarly engaged in making present what is absent—not just in select figures of speech, like prosopopoeia, but in the very poetic enterprise. In this case, sign-making assumes a special form: in the Incarnation, the sign is identical to its referent. "The union of God and man in a single person is the union of divine art and one of its works in a single being.... God can make a masterpiece by uniting himself to his work." In Christ the work of art is also the Artist. And this identity can enable us to venture further in our understanding of a sacramental poetics—as one in which the artist becomes indistinguishable from his art. The expression and the subject that produce it are joined inseparably: in a deep sense, we see the artist in his work. Conversely, a sacramental understanding of participation enfolds the reader or viewer into this process. Entering the world of the poem, he participates in its discoveries, seeing what it sees, hearing what it says, feeling what it feels. No mere spectator of the work, the viewer is changed during his encounter with it, rendering a sacramental poetics effective.
As the central religious controversy of the Reformation, the Eucharist was a lightning rod, a focus where tremendous energy gathered, or better, a lightning bolt—for it jolted sensibilities into a new world order. Over the question of the Mass, heads rolled and ink spilled; religious institutions convulsed at the birth of new theologies and rituals and the defamation and reformation of old ones. Debates about the Eucharist became the occasion for the worldview we regard as "modern" to begin to be articulated. When the dust settled after the Reformers had redefined the Eucharist, understandings of the material and immaterial, the visible and invisible, immanence and transcendence were revised. Theology, metaphysics, aesthetics, and politics were re-imagined. This fledgling modernism swept into its purview a vast array of concerns and disciplines—from the linguistic to the political, from the anthropological to the cosmological, from the private sanctuary of belief to the public forum of state ceremony. In the course of questioning the Eucharist, justice and sacrifice, cosmos and creation, community and love, language and image were all implicated. These in no way exhaust the enormous theological implications of the Eucharist, but they do allow us to witness how questions so urgent for theology become the domain of secular thought as the ethical, the ontological, the erotic and the symbolic. That is why the Eucharist is a rich site for investigation about the infusion of sacramentality into the secular world.
Until the Reformation, the Eucharist was largely understood as the offering of the sacramental body of Christ. While that sacrifice was made historically on the cross, with his gift of the Eucharist, Christ enabled the rest of humanity to share in his sacrifice—in the sacramental offering of his body and blood. The Eucharist offered the communicant participation in the sacrifice of Christ, with all its benefits, as surely as God entered history and became man in the Incarnation. The organic image of the body was especially suited to accommodating both social differentiation (the parts of the body) and social cohesion (the one body). The image of the body also suggested an intimacy lost in later Newtonian mechanistic metaphors: not only the social body but also each believer was changed decisively by partaking of the host.
His sinful body formerly devoted to death was now cleansed for eternal life. He was no longer an exile from God, for he could enjoy a share of his divinity. He was no longer in exile from the created world, for he was now materially joined to it through the body of God. His fallen language did not inevitably fail, dooming him to misunderstanding and missed communication, for now, the words of institution—hoc est enim corpus meum—broke through the tragedy of fallen signification. With justice restored, our social bond embodied, our dead flesh made to live, and our participation in divine love assured, the Eucharist brought salvation into a fallen world, restoring paradisal harmony.
In the Mass the redemption of the world, wrought on Good Friday for once and for all, was renewed and made fruitful for all who believed. Christ himself, immolated on the altar of the cross, became present on the altar of the parish church, body, soul, and divinity, and his blood flowed once again, to nourish and renew Church and world. As kneeling congregations raised their eyes to see the Host held high above the priest's head at the sacring, they were transported to Calvary itself, and gathered not only into the passion and resurrection of Christ, but into the full sweep of salvation history as a whole.... The sacrifice of the Mass was the act by which the world was renewed and the Church was constituted, the Body on the corporas the emblem and the instrument of all truly human embodiment, whether it was understood as individual wholeness or as rightly ordered human community.
Excerpted from SACRAMENTAL POETICS AT THE DAWN OF SECULARISM by Regina Mara Schwartz. Copyright © 2008 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
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