“Moments of Vision”

by Sam Buntz

“We are led to believe a lie / When we see not through the eye / That was born in a night / To perish in a night / While the soul slept in beams of light / God appears and God is light / To those poor souls who dwell in night / But does a human form display / To those who dwell in realms of day.” –William Blake

Time sputters its moments in much the same way that the wind rustles its leaves: green, gold, red, brown, dead…and finally, blank.  And, cyclically, we come back to the original green, the C that tunes the choir.  Within this flux of minutes and hours—some of them good some of them rich, some of them bad, some of them rotten, some of them simply empty—we find rare moments that possess a certain something, a quality that might be latched onto, might (if granted the complete attention and devotion of the perceiving mind) relieve the burden of time, the pressures of life’s “unquiet dream.”  This is essentially what poets—and most other artists—do.  They perceive the same sort of “privileged moments” that fall on most of us, but actually articulate them and preserve them so that we might, if the mood is right, attain something of that “visionary gleam” once again.   There are many terms for these moments: Wordsworth called them “spots of time,” and James Joyce called them “epiphanies” – which cuts close to the religious origins of the experience, since “epiphany” is the name for the holiday (January 6) when the Three Wise Men behold the Christ child in the manger.  The word literally means “manifestation” or “striking appearance” in Greek.  It is, to put it in terms accessible to the secular and religious alike, the presence of light in the midst of a dreary, work-a-day, barnyard sort of world.  The same idea can be found in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, where certain experiences prime the narrator’s memory and allow him to see the world of time and its relations subsisting in his own life as though he were outside or beyond those relations.  “The dream is lifted / And we see into the life of things.”  We can get these experiences most readily from books—but they are not unheard of at the movies.

Yet the problem with this method for attaining joy—for that’s what we’re really seeking—is its inconstancy.  Emily Dickinson spoke of “The Moments of Dominion / That happen on the Soul / And leave it with a Discontent / Too exquisite – to tell –…”  It is the discontent with which we are probably most familiar (if I am addressing the imaginary audience I think I’m addressing), though we recognize that the discontent would not be there if we had never had the privilege of enjoying those brief glimpses into the life of things in the first place.  We can be “surprised by joy,” joy poured in with an impression of natural beauty, but can we create our own instances of joy?  The process seems to be all too dependent on the will-less will of nature, that scatters our bright and dull moments unevenly and strangely before us.  Like Rilke says, to have these moments constantly or frequently is “Easy – for a god.  But when can we exist?  When can we become one with the earth and stars?”

Rilke thought one could partially attain this god-like ability to manufacture one’s own joy, one’s own privileged moments, by recognizing that it is not so much from the external world, but from the song we sing about that wide-open world that our joy comes—“Song is being,” he asserts.  I don’t dispute Rilke, but I think that there’s something available to us that is higher than simply sharing a moment of communion with the stones or with the stars.  For Rilke himself, communion with nature and the seeking and finding of such epiphanies in the natural world, was easy.  But as he ran through one woman after another, it became clear to him that communion with the very culmination of nature—with a human being—was, for him, rather difficult.  When you read a striking line of poetry or see a great painting, there’s a chance it will really find you—it eats up your ego, liberates yourself from the aches and pains of your own personal desires and fears, and simply dominates the mind.  Sure, this is a high matter, and such a total overwhelming of one’s being by another—even an author—is what we usually call “love.”  The perceiver and the perceived cease to be two beings—they so totally are contained within each other that they melt into one, cease being perceiver and perceived and become lover and beloved.  But the problem with this is that nature is not going to love us back—Wordsworth once wistfully asserted (rather uneasily), “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.”  The ugly truth is that Nature always—unless you happen to be insanely lucky—betrays the heart that loves her, simply because she isn’t a person—she’s actually an “it” and not a “she.”  It can’t love you back.  It is not a “lover” but only a passive “beloved,” and the communion only cuts one way.  W.H. Auden wrote: “Looking up at the stars, I know quite well / That, for all they care, I can go to hell…”  Nature can provide a balm from time to time—but can never actually heal.  It’s not a person.

So the highest poetry does not—cannot—sing primarily of the love we feel for stones and trees and streams.  It takes these things into account, but it does not focus overmuch on them.  On the other hand, devotional poetry makes admirable attempts to sing of human love for God—yet, though God may well love us back, in these poems (and I mean the poems of Donne, Herbert, Hopkins, Eliot—the English devotional poets) He still of necessity remains a mystery, a great shadow.  We hymn love songs for the unknown that stands behind or in contrast to nature—the conscious Being who puts on the garb of nature’s unconscious, indifferent dress.  So, while I admire traditional devotional poetry, I think it often winds up in the same place that nature poetry always winds up – it sings praises to a version of God that hasn’t markedly enough involved itself in our lives, or, if it more specifically hymns Jesus of Nazareth, to Someone who involved Himself in our lives physically in the past, but not in the present moment.  Thus devotional poetry can easily conclude in being similar to love songs written for clouds and ghosts—unless the divinity it sings is made flesh—not in the past, but in the present moment, in a living person.  This kind of poem is not foreign to the Western Canon, but it actually has found its fullest expression in the divine-love poetry of the Persians, J’laludin Rumi and Hafiz, whose poems were addressed to the Divine as incarnate in an actual person—a person who provides an external revelation of a Divinity, which the poet then finds within.  The relation of Rumi to his beloved teacher, Shams-i-Tabriz, is the same as Catherine’s relation to Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights: “I am Heathcliff!  He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.  So don’t talk of our separation…”

These lines wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a Rumi poem.  And there is, of course, a long line of poets in the Western Tradition who have written brilliant love poetry—love poetry that is more than love poetry, because it tries to see the Divine Image reflected in the soul of the beloved.  One thinks of Shakespeare’s sonnets or Yeats’ poems in praise of Maude Gonne, Shelley’s love lyrics and Epipsychidion, or even Tennyson’s elegiac lamentations for his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam.  But none of them have articulated that experience of divine epiphany in the soul of another as well as Dante, who, for all his obvious personality flaws, is the only Western Poet to speak of love for another human being as a mode of Divine Vision with the same degree of authority that Rumi or Hafiz can speak of it.  He swore that his love for Beatrice Portinari—which, from the stodgy orthodox perspective, would need to be a form of idolatrous love for a created being, rather than for the cloudy Creator (though most orthodox readers of Dante tip-toe around this, thankfully)—never ceased to lead him on to the Vision of God.  This process is no different from what Plato talks about in the “Symposium” – it is what he meant by “Platonic love” rather than what we mean by it, since we usually mean just normal friendships.

This is the very heart of poetry and of what art itself strives towards—to attain a steady vision of beauty and goodness and divinity in another person, and to then extend that vision to embrace everyone—as in the “mystical body of Christ” or in Rumi’s assertion that he would find Shams everywhere, even when they were divided by hundreds of miles.  And, since this is a relationship between two people, and not a relationship between a person and a mountain or a person and the sky, it is actually a relationship between two subjects and not a subject and an object—it is real communion, what the disciples experienced around Jesus’ breakfast table, or what the companions of Muhammad knew, encamped in the desert in exile.  It may be that, for now, the “egotistical sublime”—the communing of the self with nature in solitude—may be the primary mode of poetic and artistic expression.  And it has much to teach us, I believe.  But the true visionary, ecstatic mode—the mode of the poet who is so enraptured with interpersonal communion that he or she can “sing out lines that he [or she] has never thought”—will return… if it hasn’t already begun to rise.   The nature-communion poems, the poems of solitary brooding, are something like what Blake meant in the quote at the beginning, when he says that God appears as light—brief glimpses of a higher world seen through nature—to those who are trapped in the night…which is our world.  But those who have entered the realms of day—the world of vision and divine imagination—encounter, like Rumi or Dante, a God who is actually more ourselves than we are.


“My Most Precious Ally”

by Sam Buntz

It may be disconcerting, at first, to encounter a great work of literature that has a baldly infantile joke in its title.  Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” – a short play running just over ten pages –  is such a work, it being authored by someone who, in my opinion, is a truly towering genius, but who once told a publisher that he would let him know “if I happen to get a good two twists around the pan” (meaning he’d let him know if he wrote anything that seemed worthwhile.)  Yet even this puerility connects to an important aspect of Beckett’s work: a journalist once asked Beckett if he could provide a key to everything he’d written, and in response, Beckett provided two quotes.  The first is from Democritus and is less germane to the connection I’m attempting to establish but is still worth citing: “Nothing is more real than nothing.”  The next is from the French Cartesian philosopher-theologian, Gelcineaux: “Where one is worth nothing, there one should want nothing.”  This is the reason why Beckett has named his character—and, we can assume, to some degree, his self-representation—”Krapp.”  Krapp is afloat in a world where he exists as a virtual non-entity—uncared for, and unsponsored.  He has been crapped out into the universe and left to his own devices, to scrounge up as much life as he can.

Beckett opens the play with some bleak light vaudeville.  As Hugh Kenner has noted, many of Beckett’s jokes and gimmicks spring from old vaudeville routines, and he cites the poignantly illustrative example of a man trying to sweep a spot of light off an empty stage.  Krapp—the only character in this brief excursion—is a clownish old man, with messy gray hair and a drunk’s purple nose.  He is but one in the long line of Beckett’s “masturbating, carrot chewing, stone sucking characters,” to quote Northrop Frye (which is to say, to some extent, that these characters are representations of almost all of us, since we all suck stones, figuratively, and kill time with sterile pursuits.)  In keeping with this character type, Krapp’s vaudevillean opening includes these stage directions, as he prepares to eat a banana: “He turns, advances to edge of stage, halts, strokes banana, peels it, drops skin at his feet, puts end of banana in his mouth and remains motionless, staring vacuously before him.” And then he does this all again – after, of course, slipping on the peel of the first banana.  Beckett was certainly aware that having someone slip on a banana peel had been “done,” and part of the point is to have Krapp do something that has been so thoroughly, exhaustingly, stupidly “done.”  The banana routine seems to me to be essentially a commentary on how most of us spend our time, in a higher, metaphysical sense.  The banana you stick in your mouth while staring vacuously off into space is whatever you do to kill time before death – but it isn’t, as I take it, an example of a time-killer that benefits anyone or has any artistic saving graces.

After this and some more light comedy—Krapp goes offstage where we can hear him popping corks and apparently chugging booze (he will continue sneaking back to do this throughout the play)—we get down to the philosophical crux of the matter, and to the “tape” of the title.  Krapp has evidently been recording a sort of audio diary throughout his life, and on this occasion he turns to listen to a tape he made when he was thirty-nine, evidently a lot younger than he is now, or when he was, as the taped voice describes itself, “at the crest of the wave—or thereabouts.”  (The younger Krapp also initially alludes to a fondness for bananas, “fatal things for a man with my condition.”)  This earlier self is described in the stage directions as having “a strong voice, rather pompous,” but it becomes clear, despite the fact that this younger Krapp is a bit full of his own intellectual self-dramatizations, that his strength and resilience—not entirely gone from the older Krapp—are what predominate in his character.

On the tape, Krapp muses on his mother’s death, and then describes an epiphany he had shortly thereafter, when, sitting on a pier at night, he sees “the whole thing” and has “the vision, at last.”  This epiphany is one of the crucial moments in Beckett, but Krapp stops the tape before his younger version can finish saying what he realized in this moment of insight—he gets as far as saying that he realized “the dark I have struggled to keep under is in reality—”  And Krapp stops the tape and fast forwards. Yet Beckett later explained that he did have something further in mind—he had personally realized that the darkness was “my most precious ally.”  Rather than attempting to follow the path of his friend and former employer/mentor, James Joyce, and cram every bit of his own vast accumulation of knowledge and linguistic facility into his writing, Beckett realized his own way was that of “the non-knower” and “the non-can-er.”  Beckett realizes, essentially, that his own way is negative, down-and-out, the way of blindness and ignorance.  He does not express, like Shakespeare or Joyce, “God’s plenty” but, as one critic has described it, “God’s paucity.”  He is not looking for the decorations and the frills of the human condition but for the barest bones.

Beckett once described the only true paradise as being “the paradise that was lost,” and it is to that paradise that Krapp young and Krapp old both turn.  Fast-forwarding the tape past the unrevealed epiphany, old Krapp listens to young Krapp describe the end of a youthful relationship, dozing with a girlfriend on a boat on a pond.  We never hear why this affair was doomed, but it apparently references the young Beckett’s un-fulfilled passion for his own cousin, Peggy Sinclair.  Yet, instead of listening to the conclusion of the tape—which we do eventually get to hear—Krapp stops it, removes it, and begins to record a new tape, first railing against his younger self, calling him “that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago,” (so we learn that Krapp is now sixty-nine…)  But he softens a bit, saying, “Ah well, maybe he was right,” before describing his own boring daily routine and his habit of painfully reminiscing about the same lost spots of time.

Yet, in frustration, Krapp takes off the new tape he’s been recording and throws it away—he puts on the first tape, and we hear his younger self’s final self-summation, just as valid for the old Krapp as it was for the younger: “Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness.  But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now.  No, I wouldn’t want them back.” In the end Krapp rejects the possibility of having had a life of perpetually pleasing circumstances, instead resting in the consolations of a still fiery soul, a real character.  If he hasn’t had all the bliss he could’ve had, at least, like Pinocchio, he gets to be “a real boy.”  The fire Krapp has within him, now, is not entirely different from what John Keats describes in a letter, in which he speculates that this world may be “a vale of Soul making” rather than a “vale of tears”: “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?”  Fire and light are among the most ancient symbols of the human life-force or of the soul—as Cleopatra says in Shakespeare: “I am fire and air.  My other elements I give to baser life.”

It may be somewhat surprising to have a conclusion—though not entirely unambiguous—that is almost positive in a writer like Beckett, who endlessly evades our attempts to sneak a little hope into his work, though without totally withdrawing the carrot, at the same time.  But that exceptional quality is a good part of the reason why I personally like “Krapp’s Last Tape.”  Beckett is not a writer who cares about our political or theological quibbles:  his only interest is in getting to the bottom of the self’s dark eddy, and in “Krapp”—unlike in other plays, like his masterpiece Endgame—he finds more than a constant flowing away in the self, more than the discontinuities of the ego.  He finds the fire…  The fire is clear to the earlier Krapp, but the older Krapp is still affected by it, still believes in it—with however many qualifications—even though he is, at this point, propping himself up at night and continually attempting to dwell in that lost paradise of an earlier time.  For Beckett, who was a devotee of the Buddhistic German philosopher Schopenhauer, the human realm is a place where we are trapped in twisted bodies and ignorant minds, and in which life precipitates but one bewildering episode following another, the ego wandering through one desire after another, never fixing wholly on one thing, or remaining securely in one place, one aim.  Per Schopenhauer, literature and the other arts (particularly music) provide an escape from the ego and an escape from time—they illuminate our situation and free us from that constant wandering in confusion and ignorance, which the Buddhists and Hindus call samsara.  (It doesn’t seem, to my knowledge, that Beckett ever commented on what he knew about Eastern religions, but the parallels have been drawn by others.)  And Krapp is, like Beckett himself, an artist, a writer.

Even though Beckett—along with Schopenhauer—is usually thought of as being “pessimistic,” he provides, in “Krapp” and in his other works, what may be some of the most consoling and relieving realizations life has to offer—principally, the realization that time’s spell can be broken, that we can suddenly emerge into clarity about ourselves and our situation, in a stillness above and beyond the tortured fray of everyday existence.  In his novels, Beckett calls this “the silence.”  It was Krapp’s encounter with this silence—which is also “the dark” that he realizes is his “most precious ally”—that helped him to grow the fire inside himself, to prosper in that energy which allows one to endure and go on even when one can’t go on.  The man with internal fire can accomplish, through his art, a form of revenge against time and an escape from time, unavailable to the mere time-killing stone-sucker—though Krapp is, as are almost all artists, both, being but mortal.  While Beckett usually isn’t willing to imagine very far beyond the skeptical mysticism of “Nothing is more real than nothing,” (though he does imagine the experience of encountering the true nature of his self after death at the end of the Trilogy), Schopenhauer offers some enigmatic hints about this silence, this dark reality that exists behind and before the unreal world: “the natural man…is just the ‘will to live’ which must be denied if deliverance from an existence such as ours is to be attained.  Behind our existence lies something else, which is accessible to us only if we have shaken off this world…”  Perhaps in “Krapp” too, there is something more than an exhortation to stoic endurance in the face of sure obliteration—a slight intimation of immortality.

“Between Two Lives: Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ and the Problem of Sex”

by Sam Buntz

T.S. Eliot once said that all of the female and male characters in The Wasteland were, in fact, but two characters—the woman, and the man.  The Greek hermaphrodite-seer, Tiresias, witnesses the perverse relations that play out between these two archetypal figures, and forms a third term in which the other two terms—male and female—are joined. In a footnote, Eliot says that Tiresias is “the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest.”  One also senses that Eliot is Tiresias, since (quoting further from the footnote) “what Tiresias sees…is the substance of the poem.”  In other words, he is, like Eliot, not a person who exists unconsciously within The Wasteland, but the person who experiences The Wasteland as a vision, as a way of mapping out the psychic cartography of the modern world.  Yet Tiresias himself is blind—what he sees is not a series of external events, but is internal, granted to him by the power of the prophetic, inner vision that Zeus bestowed on him, after Zeus’s wife, Juno, took his eyesight away as punishment for ruling against her in a dispute.

The nature of that dispute is crucial to understanding The Wasteland’s depiction of sexuality and fertility: Zeus and Juno were arguing about whether women or men received more pleasure from sexual intercourse—Zeus insisted that women must, which provoked Juno.  Since Tiresias had, for a period in the past, been changed from a man into a woman, he was called into judge, and (as mentioned) sided with Zeus.  In this dispute about sex between the two gods—between two “giant forms” of masculine and feminine nature—we see an example of the sterilizing conflict that creates the wasteland described in Eliot’s poem and which, itself, animates that poem, providing, as Eliot notes, its “substance.”  Yet Tiresias, himself, appears, by name, as a character in only one section, “The Fire Sermon” (a section named after a speech by the Buddha, warning his disciples against the fire of craving, with which the world is set ablaze):  “At the violet hour, when the eyes and back / Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits / Like a taxi throbbing waiting, / I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives, / Old Man with wrinkled female breasts, can see…” But what can he see?

He sees a “small house agent’s clerk” meet with a young lady typist for a tryst—yet this tryst, if we are to trust Eliot, contains the “substance” of The Wasteland—that is, the substance of what is, without question, the most important and most influential 20th Century poem.  When the young man, described as “one of the low on whom assurance sits / As a silk hat on a Bradford Millionaire” (a “Bradford Millionaire” was a war profitteer) actually “makes love” (to put it rather inaccurately) to the typist, “His vanity requires no response / And makes a welcome of indifference.”  Consider that a wasteland is, metaphorically, engendered by the sky’s failure to make love to the earth (as depicted in the poem’s conclusion), which is also something like the high god’s failure to inspire the earth to fructification (and, hence, the earth’s failure to be inspired), the failure to call up a response from it, to call forth literal and figurative vegetation.  This sterility, resulting from the breakdown in male-female relations, is, Eliot insists, not a phenomenon occurring solely among the mythological deities who should be fertilizing the world, but one occurring in the individual instance, as well—the entire poem is extremely successful at manipulating the relationship between the particular and the universal, between Zeus and Juno, a clerk and a typist.

Just as the earth—which is always depicted as being feminine (“Mother Earth”)—has grown so tired of the human scrabble taking place on top of her, so have all the women in the poem.  The typist’s reaction to her “lover’s” departure is, “Well, now that’s done and I’m glad its over.”  And in the second section, we encounter a cockney woman who, after trying to perform an abortion on herself with black-market chemicals, has lost all of her teeth, leading her husband—a soldier returning from World War I—to lose all interest in her (an instance of disinterest running in the opposite direction—a man disinterested in his mate).  But Eliot sees that things could have gone differently:  he (briefly) depicts the possibility of Nature being successfully and not brutally controlled by the human beings living within it, which also provides an image of perfected sexual love, where the two lovers are actually really interested in and in love with one another, willing to totally and mutually surrender their being — by contrast, the encounter between the clerk and the typist essentially amounts to a method of masturbating with another’s body (to put it grotesquely).  This image of potential bliss is found in “What the Thunder Said,” (the final section), in which the thunder, signaling the rain that must refresh the wasteland, speaks of the changes that need to take place in the psychic relations between and within human beings, if any true fertility will develop: “The boat responded / Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar / The sea was calm, your heart would’ve responded / Gaily, when invited, beating obedient / To controlling hands.”

One could weakly misread this as saying that women need to re-submit themselves to male authority, but the “you” of “your heart” whom Eliot addresses in this passage is clearly himself—which is interesting because he addresses himself in what we would tend to think of as feminine terms, as a woman waiting for the man who will overwhelm her with the true force and attention of a real personality.  Some personal detail might shed a little light on this: Eliot’s first marriage was a disaster and, evidently, those “controlling hands” could never have belonged to Vivien Eliot (who was eventually consigned to a mental hospital.)  We will not speculate, as some have, as to whether they could have belonged to Eliot’s deceased friend, the soldier, Jean Verdenal, who “was mixed with the Dardanelle mud” in 1915, and to whom Eliot dedicated his first book of poems—although Verdenal is clearly referenced in The Wasteland (Eliot quotes a marching song sung by Australian soldiers in the Dardanelles campaign, indicating that the elegiac tone of The Wasteland is meant, in part, to ring out a lamentation for the death of Verdenal).

But Eliot finally did find the personality who could instigate a response from him in two people: firstly, in God—Who dominated Eliot’s intellectual and emotional life until the end of his tenure on planet earth—and in his second wife, Valerie Fletcher (Eliot had taken a vow of celibacy after his first wife was committed, and waited until she had died to remarry).  Such “controlling hands” could also possibly have belonged to the young Emily Hale, a friend of Eliot’s throughout his life, and the object of some romantic interest when he was young (of significance in the masterly Four Quartets).   All of this biographical detail is proffered only to suggest that Eliot is like Tiresias, in the sense that he unites the two sexes—he is both the broken, impotent Fisher King, presiding over the wasteland, and the wasteland itself, the ground that had failed to be fertilized by some greater power.  That is why Tiresias is “the most important personage in the poem”—he embodies a crisis of imagination “throbbing between two lives,” unable to engage in a real creative union with himself, one that will allow him to create and be of service to the intellectual and spiritual life of the human race.

Like Whitman in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”—with which, as scholars have noted, The Wasteland shares many features and images—Eliot is lamenting a barrenness that he senses encroaching within himself—the external barrenness conditioned by his first marriage and the death of Verdenal are secondary, almost incidental.  Ultimately, it is Eliot’s turn to the mystical and contemplative life in his later, explicitly Christian works, that seeks to remedy this barrenness, this pervasive sense of spiritual dryness — it serves to revive his poetic power too.  Although he intended his depiction of this degraded and sterile state to be only personally descriptive, he ended up describing our own spiritual condition, as it has persisted for the almost ninety years since Eliot wrote The Wasteland: Tiresias’ vision of sexual dysfunction is ultimately a vision of the confusion persisting in most of our own minds.  But, ultimately, since The Wasteland is a great poem, it is a testament not to endless emptiness and confusion, but to the power that art and spirituality offer us over the “vast panorama of anarchy and futility” comprising the modern world.  As soon as we see the dysfunction clearly, we remove its power, and reign over it.  We become like Eliot, at the end of his poem, fishing in a mysterious water source…with the wasteland behind us.