I Left at Dawn for the Eternal City:
It Seems That I Have Misplaced Several Days
Part One

Brian George

Brian George, The Messenger, pen and ink, 1991


"Besouled by a Cherub's spirit, philosophizing along the rungs of the ladder of nature, and penetrating through everything from center to center, we shall at one time be descending, tearing apart, like Osiris, the one into many by a titanic force; and we shall at other times be ascending and gathering into one the many, like the members of Osiris, by an Apollonian force; until we finally come to rest."—Pico Della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man


Can one speak from beyond the place where language ends? I would do so. I have spent five decades in exploring and learning and testing how to do so. There are many who would claim that no such thing is possible, and even if it were, they say, this would not be a good idea. When I point out that there were, in fact, any number of poet-seers in the past, they argue that these poet-seers would back up their position. If I present them with an esoteric poem, they will say, "This makes no sense. Why can't you just say what you mean?" If I present them with a tightly argued but freewheeling visionary essay, they will say, "This is prose. Everyone knows that prose cannot express the inexpressible." What is the poor poet to do? Should the seer see through someone else's eyes? He already tends to do this, but he is not any less disturbed.

To whom does the poet speak? For whom does the seer see? Read only by a fraction of a fraction of one percent of his contemporaries, uncertain of whether his city will soon be underwater, concerned with his daughter's happiness and safety, with the Earth she will inherit, the poet must go where his vision takes him. He does not predict; he observes. He is often overwhelmed by the sense of having seen certain things before. If the wind blows, he must say, "I have been there." If squeezed through a population bottleneck equal to that of the Younger Dryas, he must again say, "I have been there." If the silence is so loud as to be painful, if the Earth shrinks to a point no bigger than an atom, if he is asked to speak in a language that does not yet exist, he must again say, "I have been there." He must speak of what he sees, trusting, perhaps foolishly, that space itself has ears.

Are his critics right to scoff at his pretenses? He is at least as aware as they are of the outer limits of language, of what it can and cannot do. His own poems sometimes fill him with disgust. His only option: to conserve his energy by pouring himself out.


Adolph Gottlieb, The Seer, oil, 1950


In a dialogue prompted by my essay "Transparency is the Only Shield against Disaster," Bogomil wrote, "But I do know that language (and other symbols) should be a subordinate tool of whatever amount of reality our peculiar universe contains, not the other way round. That's why mystics fundamentally agree (no matter what their experiences are later called)."

I responded, "Please allow this mystic to disagree. Your comment brings to mind the famous declaration by Lao Tzu, that 'Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know.' Who am I to argue? To speak would prove that I am ignorant. To frame the challenge in this way presents the would-be poet-seer with a perfect double-bind conundrum. Of course, this passage from the Tao Te Ching is nothing if not ironic. If Lao Tzu had not spoken, we would not, 2500 years after his death, have any idea of who he was, and we would certainly have no reason to be discussing his opinions."

"Less is more," in spirituality as in a building by Mies van de Rohe, except, perhaps, when it comes to the 1.8 million words to be found in the Mahabharata. Q: How long is 1.8 million words, and why did the author have to use so many? A: 1.8 million words is ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. You would think that Vyasa, being an immortal sage, could have cut this by a third. Then again, it is said that Ganesh would only agree to transcribe the epic if Vyasa was able to dictate without pause. Being unable to pause would have made it difficult to revise. Q: Should not Vyasa and Ganesh have understood that silence is infinitely superior to speech? A: They would seem to have been misinformed. Q: Why had no one informed Vyasa that "those who speak do not know"? A: No such problem existed. Vyasa could sink into meditation for many centuries at a stretch. It was during one such period that Brahma had asked him to write the Mahabharata. Q: Should not Ganesh, being a god, have been aware of Lao Tzu's injunction that "those who know do not speak"? A: Ganesh did not speak when he wrote. His ears were very big.

Statements like Lao Tzu's have been repeated often enough that they have become part of the common wisdom. In this instance as in others, the common wisdom is more likely to be common than to be correct. Quite simply, it is true at times, and it is false at others. There is also the problem that mystics violate this injunction against speech at every turn, most often to demand that their competitors shut their mouths. One might just as well say that the true bird does not sing, that the true sperm does not penetrate the egg. Perhaps Lao Tzu is telling us that the poet should only say so much , and no more, that the mystic should lead the casual observer this far, and no farther. If so, the casual observer has gone as far as he needs to go. Please imagine that I am placing a finger to my lips.

Unlike Lao Tzu, perhaps most mystics agree because they simply cannot write. They speak in vague and uplifting generalities, and they are incapable of or uninterested in translating the full complexity of their experience into language. I will not try to draw up a complete list of successful poetic visionaries, so let me pick just two: Rumi and Blake. We look at such figures and think, "Where the hell did he come from?" Their period clothing may be similar to some number of their contemporaries, but there is also an element of irreducible strangeness, a mercurial volatility that laughs at all containers. We do not necessarily think this when reading Dante or Yeats, for example, who are both poets of spiritual breadth and depth, for they are more recognizably men of their times. They are poets first and mystics second. As poets, both are no doubt greater than Blake, but their vision is less natural and more the result of struggle. There are answers to our questions about context, yes, but they will only satisfy our curiosity to a point. A shadow will cover one half of each poet-seer's face.

An investigation into the context of Rumi's work would lead us to such figures as Sana'i, Attar, Hafez, Kabir, Sadi, Galib, and Al Hallaj. His style does have roots, yet there is a universality to his vision that was recognized even during his own period, as demonstrated by the fact that Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims from other sects all chose to attend his funeral. He seems able to slip, quite casually, from one world to another, and to speak directly into the ear of each listener or reader. Listening to Rumi across the centuries is like listening to some lost part of the self. This is a voice that we somehow recognize, whose injunctions prompt us to sit up a bit straighter, whose insights we accept as naturally as our red cells accept oxygen, without our figuring out just why it is that we have let down our defenses. That Rumi was both a poet and a visionary few would doubt. He would whirl in place to gain access to deep energies. From the silence that he heard flowed poetry, which he dictated. At 26,000 couplets, Rumi's six-volume spiritual epic, the Mathnawi, is said to be the longest poem in Persian. We know when it was spoken, more or less, and under what conditions; its origin is nonetheless obscure.


Rene Magritte, The Pleasure Principle, oil, 1937


An investigation into Blake would lead to Swedenborg, Boehme, to unknown Gnostic and Kabbalistic sources, and to Milton as a stylistic influence on the Prophetic Books, yet none of these influences account for the sense of high peculiarity we feel when reading Blake, for the hairs that stand up on the backs of our necks.  Blake's childhood friend Henry Crabb Robinson speculates, "Shall I call him artist or genius—or mystic—or madman. "Contemporary critics had no such difficulty in choosing between these words. Robert Southey writes to Caroline Boules, "You could not have delighted in him; his madness was too evident, too fearful. It gave his eyes an expression such as you would expect to see in one who was possessed."  Such doubts about his health did not inhibit Blake's desire to be sociable, when and if he was in the mood. He would gladly tell visitors about his conversations with the dead. Then again, he was often busy. "I have very little of Mr. Blake's company," his wife Catherine told Seymour Kirkup, "He is always in Paradise."

With rare insight for his period, mid-19th Century critic William Rossetti writes that Blake was "a man not forestalled by his predecessors, nor to be classified with his contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors."  Blake himself was said to be shocked when, at the age of four, he saw the face of God peeking in though his bedroom window. George Richmond, in a letter to Samuel Palmer, writes, "Just before he died His Countenance became fair. His eyes Brightened and he burst out Singing of the things he saw in Heaven."

Even if, in the styles of Rumi and Blake and other poet-seer hybrids, we might still detect some trace of the fingerprints of their teachers, we may suspect that, unlike us, they are not the predictable products of their environment. The work of Rumi and Blake is not the effect of any linear cause. There is nothing random about their methods, however. With methods such as theirs, in which ecstasy and knowledge are the flip sides of each other, it is impossible to separate great freedom from great necessity. No infinite number of monkeys typing for an infinite number of eons would come up with an approximation of even one of their poems. No , these monkeys were waiting for Rumi and Blake to show them what to do, just as Blake and Rumi waited for their own words to instruct them. Blake's metaphors wanted to happen. Rumi's leaps of association were waiting to grab Rumi by the hair. There is, in fact, a logic to their visions, even if such logic might not seem to make sense on this side of the mirror-face of death.

In Kabbalah, it is said that there are four worlds, plus one. These are Asiyah, "Action," Yetzirah, "Formation," Beriah, "Creation," and Atzilut, "Emanation." The Hebrew word for world is Olam, which also means "eon" and "concealed." Each of the four worlds represents a different type of concealment. The fifth world, Adam Kadmon, or "Primordial Man," is a world that precedes and follows all the others, a world that is not a world, for within it, every secret is translucent. It is said that we normally live in Asiyah and the lower "face" of Yetzirah, with rare flashes of insight into subtler realms. For Blake and Rumi, these worlds were not so far apart. They were, perhaps, more spontaneously interactive than sequential. Both poet-seers may have been as close to these worlds as breathing is to breath, as the tongue is to the vowels that it forms, as the mouth is to the words that exit from it. Rumi and Blake have invited us to make use of their eyes. To accept may be to see, for the briefest of brief moments, through the eyes of Adam Kadmon, to whom our lives are the fossils of an eon long since passed.


Pavel-Tchelitchew, Inachevé, oil, 1957


"At last, the Supreme Maker decreed that this creature, to whom he could give nothing wholly his own, should have a share in the particular endowment of every other creature. Taking man, therefore, this creature of indeterminate image, he set him in the middle of the world…"—Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man

In order to bypass the intellect and the lower aspects of the psyche, to return to the more archetypal levels of creation and then move further outward or upward beyond form altogether, too many saints and yogis have let go of the very powers that we are here to develop as human beings. They like to go up, but they do not like to come down. As a consequence, their powers of levitation may be stronger than their metaphors. As I understand it, these powers that we must struggle to develop have to do with our unique capacity for language, for the role that we can play as messengers between otherwise out-of-touch worlds. If not now, when? If not us, who? Having no fixed nature, we have been charged with the care and cultivation of our stealth. Being here, we are free to be elsewhere. Being elsewhere, we are charged with being here. Our speech coagulates the Aether. Our mode of vision determines the winner of the wave/particle fight for dominance in the photon. We are small, yes, but we are bigger than an atom. As was first demonstrated at Alamogordo on July 16th, 1945, at 5:30 a.m., with the detonation of "The Gadget" and the release of 18.6 kilotons of energy from the splitting of one point, apparent smallness should not be taken at face value. What we do on Earth reverberates.

We belong to a lineage just by virtue of being human, even if we believe in nothing much at all, even if we have better things to do than to retwist its broken threads. We grew from a small number, and promises were made. A promise made 12,000 years ago is no less binding on the latest generations. Some might argue that we humans cannot get out of our own way, that we could not deliver a message if our lives depended on it. I would counter this by saying, "Our lives do depend upon it, as well as those on other levels of creation."


Los Alamos, 5:30 a.m. on July 16th, 1945


There are those who might argue that this world-integrating task is better described as the work of angels, since the word itself, "angelos," means messenger; but angels, at least according to certain Neoplatonic and Kabbalistic thinkers, exist only to transmit, word for word, a predetermined set of instructions from "on high. " When its mission has been completed, in a minute or an eon, for a person or a culture, the messenger, like a Rorschach-shaped cloud, will then return into the vast intelligence of space.

There are many types of subtle beings, of course, as well as other types of angels. only some of whom would pause to take note of our existence. For each type, there is a body that corresponds to its world. Let me narrow my focus to speak only of this specific type of messenger, of the role that certain traditions suppose them to perform, in order to set them in opposition to what we see as our flaws. We are mixed. They are relatively pure. We are filled with doubts. They are certain of their ends, and they will not hesitate, if told, to wipe a city from the map. If humans have much to learn from such resolve, we do not all format the lesson the same way.

Such messengers lack the element of earth, which we have in abundance, and for which we should feel no guilt. They assume that their wide eyes are a guarantee of vision. Yet they can only see what is there; we must intuit what is not there. They are incandescent beasts, the castrati of the spheres. They are the clones of the speed of light, who, unblinking, do not deviate as they go from Point A to Point B. The omniscient have hooked rings through their noses, by which they are led. They are perfectly designed to do what they must do, but they are also—at least according to the Hypostasis of the Archons and other Gnostic sources—somewhat vengeful in their innocence, knowing that our beauty, just because it is so flawed, is more perfect than their own. They are clockwork instruments that only play one song, a song with complex harmonies but no rhythmic variation, which may or may not interest even them. They are the animatronic hands of a fascist bureau of geometry. They flame, but they do not own the flame that they emit. They are the sub-contractors of the active powers of creation—the first forces, the catalysts, the conscious archetypes, the gods—who are themselves, in spite of their great intelligence and strength, more fixed than we are in their roles.


Brian George, Spirit Hunter, oil pastel, 2003


Descendants of the Trickster, we humans are wayward comets. We are orphans and rebels and wanderers. We preexisted the world, and longing for our once luminous state, we have perhaps inadvertently conspired to bring the present world to an end. Like primordial energy itself, human speech is by its nature unpredictable. It performs a key cosmological function even as it seems to do the opposite.

Our age unspeakable, we distantly took note when the sky was lifted from the waters. We tend to associate consciousness with light, but the deepest consciousness is as dark as it is light, as twisted as it is straight, and as cloudy as it is clear. If we bow to a god, this does not mean we submit. Coerced by fear, impaired by lack of genius, we may play the role of student until we are able to expand our understanding, and then, all bets are off.

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Brian George is the author of two books of essays and five books of poetry. These include Voyage to a Nonexistent Home; Maps of the Metaphysical Double: In the Footprints of de Chirico; To Akasha: An Incantation for the Crossing of an Ocean; and The Preexistent Race Descends. His book of essays Masks of Origin: Regression in the Service of Omnipotence is scheduled to be published by Untimely Books in July. He is a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art, an exhibited artist and former teacher. He often tells people first discovering his work that his goal is not so much to be read as to be reread, and then lived with. For more of his writings in Scene4, check the Archives.



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