Eliot's dove, John's revelation...

This piece was originally written for the Magister-L mailing list, as a follow up to my piece on "Relations, analogies, and correspondences in Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game". It has been slightly rewritten.

It discusses moves 8 and 10 in the Game of Stephen vs Charles, and in particular Eliot's short lyric poem "The dove descending" from his Four Quartets. It also raises the issue of the "slanted" or "unidirectional" nature of most analogies, takes a sidelong glance at the ways the Book of Revelation has been interpreted historically over the centuries, and suggests that for Glass Bead Game purposes, "equal" or "bidirectional" analogies are the way to go.

Note: Those who positively loathe religion even in its literary manifestations are warned that this article will not be to their taste. Caveat lector!

Charles Cameron

Eliot's dove, John's revelation


As you perhaps know by now, I tend to view the Glass Bead Game as largely a matter of the juxtapositions of ideas which have a likeness or homology.

When in moves 8 and 10 of my game with Stephen O'Leary, I juxtapose Eliot's poem "The dove descending" with Vaughan Williams' piece "The lark ascending", the idea is that the player or observer holds both the descending and ascending birds in the mind's eye, so they merge into a "third thing" -- not by reducing them to their commonality, but by adding a dimension of "depth", as in stereophonic sound or stereoscopic vision.

This means that the full specificity and "difference" of each is retained: the poetry of Eliot and the music of Vaughan Williams are both still there, as the images seen with the left and right eyes are "still there" in stereoscopic vision, and the sounds heard from the left and right channels "still there" when you listen to stereophonic sound.

But the "third thing", the meditative perception which emerges is neither poetry nor music, but something else which comprehends both...

I call this effect "stereophanic", and I'm proposing it as a minor but original contribution to the literature of meditation. More to the point, I think this "something else" is the feature which distinguishes Glass Bead Games from the other arts. Even a game played entirely with texts differs in this way from other literature: it is to be read stereophanically, for the links between ideas, not sequentially, for the ideas themselves.

Eliot's Glass Bead Game

Let's go into this business a little more deeply. Eliot's image:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
is primarily an image of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples at Pentecost:
And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. -- Acts 2:2-4.
Now, I happen to think Eliot is making some very GBG-like moves here:

First, I think his mind is leaping to the passage in which a dove descends on Jesus at his baptism:

Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased. -- Luke 3:21-22.
He is noticing that both the baptismal "dove" and the pentecostal "tongues as of fire" are symbolic of the Holy Spirit, and he is then conflating them -- inviting us to hold them simultaneously in the mind's eye -- in his "dove" which "breaks the air with flame"... This, incidentally, is a perfectly appropriate "theological" move, since Pentecost can readily be seen as the baptism "with the Holy Ghost and with fire" which John the Baptist alluded to:
I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire... -- Luke 3:16.
Next, I think Eliot is picking up on the two kinds of "tongues" in Luke's description of Pentecost, noting that both the "tongues like as of fire" and the "other tongues" (ie: languages) in which the disciples begin to speak are manifestations of the descent of the Spirit, and that he then conflates them -- again, invites us to consider them together -- into his "flame ... Of which the tongues declare"...

That's pretty much par for the course for Eliot, who ends his "Four Quartets" (from which this particular short lyric comes) with the lines:

And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are infolded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
Infolding is a pretty good word for what Eliot is doing here... and I think it's inherently stereophanic.

Grace and terror

But there's more. In what I am coming to think of as Eliot's GBG player's mind, the image of the descending fire-bird (!) is also an image for the rain of incendiary bombs on London during the Blitz -- Eliot has earlier seen the "dark dove with the flickering tongue" pass across the night sky and go below the horizon -- so that grace and terror, the beatific and malefic, too are infolded.

It's an effect I take to be one of the most powerful that our Game of juxtapositions affords us, this uniting of the intensities of curse and blessing... I think here, too, of Dylan Thomas' line:

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray...
whetre the sequence "curse... bless... fierce... tears" is an astounding invocation of the intensity which blessing and cursing share, and of Shakespeare's "insult, exult" in As You Like It, when Rosalind asks Phebe:
Who might be your mother,
That you insult, exult, and all at once,
Over the wretched?
the impact of which I discuss in my piece on "Tight Form and Aesthetic Impact":
From an actor's point of view, there's a sort of hairpin bend between those two words. One carries the baneful charge of a curse, the other the joy of an overwhelming blessing. To allow the full resonance of "insult" while maintaining momentum right into the full and very different resonance of "exult" is the sort of thing that marks the Oliviers out from the herd... Two very simple two-syllable words that even share one of their syllables -- delivered right on top of one another ("and all at once"), with absolutely contradictory meanings... fantastic!
Curse and blessing, warfare and the Holy Spirit... One wonders whether Eliot is consciously playing here with the double meaning -- spiritual and martial -- which is by now inherent in our phrase "baptism by fire"...

The way up and the way down

In my own playing of the TenStones Game in which I juxtapose Eliot and Vaughan Williams, I was conscious of the contrast between Eliot's dove as a blending of these two symbolic strains -- the descending fire of blessing and Spirit and the descending fire of the curse and the German incendiary bombs -- and Vaughan William's lark as embodying both the utterly unsymbolic and "actual" lark of the English countryside, and Shakespeare's "lark at heaven's gate"...

But there's surely another link here, which I was less than fully aware of when I made my move: between the conjunction of "dove descending" and "lark ascending" in my move, and Eliot's quotation from Herakleitos which serves as the second epigraph to his "Four Quartets":

The way up and the way down are the same...

Analogies equal and unequal

Okay, the essence of games moves as I see them -- and I believe it is also the essence of many equivalent "moves" in poetry, painting, film and so forth -- is juxtaposition for comparison and contrast -- ie analogy.

Every analogy involves the juxtaposition of two "terms", two ideas. And the big question with regard to analogies is surely, which do you compare with which -- ie which term is used to illuminate which? I can't see any reason why, in the Game, the two terms couldn't be equal, the illumination mutual. But in normal usage, an analogy is usually used to explain one thing (Term 1) in terms of another (Term 2).

God (T1) is like a circle (T2) whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is at infinity. The idea here is not to grow in an understanding of circles, but of God. It's a one-way flow.

Is Eliot's fire falling through the London night sky intended to illuminate the descent of the dove (title of a marvelous book by Charles Williams, incidentally) at Pentecost, or the descent of the dove to illuminate the experience of the Blitz?

Luke's account of the gift of the Spirit in flame at Pentecost (the Acts of the Apostles is written by Luke the evangelist as a continuation of his Gospel into apostolic times) is surely intended to remind his readers of the gift of the Spirit in water at the baptism of Jesus, so that the resonance of the baptism by water carries through into the pentecostal scene: the juxtaposition here is additive, and it is the pentecostal baptism by fire which is the final term.

And in my own juxtaposition of "dove descending" and "lark arising", the intention is for the two terms to be utterly equal...

Which comes first: creation or revelation?

Some very interesting questions can be raised when one switches T1 and T2 in an analogy.

There's a sense in which nature can be "read" as a scripture, an analogy which was a commonplace in mediaeval times and in the renaissance. Joseph Epes Brown in his Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian, NY: Crossroad, 1982, p 31, cites "Saint Bernard" (of Clairvaux, I imagine) as writing:

What I know of the divine sciences and Holy Scripture, I learnt in woods and fields. I have had no other masters than the beeches and the oaks. Listen to a man of experience: thou wilt learn more in the woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach thee more than thou canst acquire from the mouth of a magister.
... a comment which interestingly enough seems to suggest that "nature" is the benchmark here, and theology the "term" which nature can illuminate. Many theologians would no doubt prefer St Bernard to have endorsed the magisters with their scriptures as the authoritative "interpreters" of nature.

Which comes first: history or Revelation?

Just as nature and scripture can be "read against" one another, each perhaps illuminating the other at times, so in the case of one particular scripture -- the Revelation -- the book is "read against" history: there's a long history of interpreters attempting to "translate" the book into contemporary political terms.

Luther is one who tried his hand at this:

Since it is meant as a revelation of what is to come, and especially of coming tribulations and disasters for the Church, we can consider that the first and surest step toward finding its interpretation is to take from history the events and disasters that have happened to the Church before now and to hold them up alongside these pictures and so compare them with the words. If, then, the two fit and agree with each other, we can build on that as a sure, or at least an unobjectionable, interpretation.
But Bernard McGinn makes a shrewd comment on Luther's process, in his article on Revelation in Robert Alter and Frank Kermode's Literary Guide to the Bible:
Earlier interpreters, such as Joachim (but not Augustine), had also claimed to find a consonance between Revelation's prophecies and the events of Church history, but they had begun with Scripture and used it as a key to unlock history. Paradoxically, Luther, the great champion of the biblical word, claimed that history enabled him to make sense of Revelation...
So: which direction should theologians "read" the analogy between Revelation and history in?

Should they, like Luther, start with history and try to "shoe-horn" the Book of Revelation to fit it, or vice versa? There are two very different processes here, and the results may be correspondingly different -- but when people today read accounts of Revelation which propose that the "end times" are nigh, they seldom even ask the question: which came first in the interpreter's mind?

We have much yet to learn...

I happen to believe, with Augustine, that the Revelation shouldn't be read as a "prophetic" guide to current events, one way or the other. I see it as a work of audacious poetry, of myth, and think that a "literal" reading confuses the issue -- and can cause a considerable amount of trouble in the real world -- see my piece on the topic at the Center for Millennial Studies web page, which deals with the crossover between the purely secular "millennium computer bug" problem and religio-political "millennium fever" of the kind found at Waco, in the militias and elsewhere...

But that's not my point here. My point here is that analogies can "slope" in such a way that one or the other "term" is illuminated, that they can be effectively unidirectional -- but that analogical Game moves and poetic analogies may benefit from being read both ways. And I still believe we're right at the beginning of our understanding of what juxtapositions and analogies are really about, that we have much yet to learn about them.

My own contribution here is intended as an exploration of a part of the aesthetics of analogy. But as I am coming to realize, there are other ways than the aesthetic in which to view the Game...

Comments, as always, are welcome.

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