Isaac Bonewits (and Seneca) on Belief in the Gods

“Since the 1960s, modern science has tended more and more toward multi-model, pluralistic theories that fit very well indeed with polytheism and traditional non-monotheistic occultism.  So it is especially sad that even people who have consciously rejected conservative religious beliefs are reluctant to let go of certain scientistic prejudices.  Scientism, also known as ‘Scientolatry,’ is the worship of the obsolete scientific paradigm of a dead, mechanistic universe.

Magic as magic, as a way of causing measurable and observable changes in the physical universe, collides head-on with scientistic dogmas about the nature of reality.  Most people simply don’t have the intellectual courage to deal with multiple levels of reality, paradoxes, or complex ambiguity.  They like things kept as simple as possible, so they wind up closing their eyes to the complicated, yet potentially liberating, aspects of their environment.

Modern religious ceremonies, both Neopagan and mainstream, are affected by this mainstream scientistic bias for similar reasons.  If you don’t believe that your deities are real people, in some sense or another, then the concept of worship becomes meaningless.  As the ancient Roman author Seneca put it, ‘The first way to worship the Gods is to believe in the Gods.'”

– Isaac Bonewits, from Neopagan Rites: A Guide to Creating Public Rituals That Work

***

“Those who don’t believe in the existence of anything supernatural, and who define deity solely in the monotheistic sense of that which is supremely supernatural, will often conclude that deities don’t exist.  They are in essence saying, ‘If I can’t have the monotheistic God, I won’t have any at all.’  This is ironic, considering that most atheists, agnostics, and humanists don’t consciously acknowledge that they are still letting the monotheistic theologians define their terms for them.”

– Isaac Bonewits, from Neopagan Rites: A Guide to Creating Public Rituals That Work

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The browned trees are singing for my thirty-fourth birthday.

Since today is the birthday of William Carlos Williams (September 17, 1883 – March 4, 1963) and tomorrow happens to be my thirty-fourth birthday, the following prose-poem (by the great modernist poet who famously proclaimed:  “Say it, no ideas but in things”) seems most appropriate for this day:

Kora in Hell: Improvisations, XII.
by William Carlos Williams

1

The browned trees are singing for my thirty-fourth birthday. Leaves are beginning to fall upon the long grass. Their cold perfume raises the anticipation of sensational revolutions in my unsettled life. Violence has begotten peace, peace has fluttered away in agitation. A bewildered change has turned among the roots and the Prince’s kiss as far at sea as ever.

——————

To each age as to each person its perfections. But in these things there is a kind of revolutionary sequence. So that a man having lain at ease here and advanced there as time progresses the order of these things becomes inverted. Thinking to have brought all to one level the man finds his foot striking through where he had thought rock to be and stands firm where he had experienced only a bog hitherto. At a loss to free himself from bewilderment at this discovery he puts off the caress of the imagination.

2

The trick is never to touch the world anywhere. Leave yourself at the door, walk in, admire the pictures, talk a few words with the master of the house, question his wife a little, rejoin yourself at the door—and go off arm in arm listening to last week’s symphony played by angel hornsmen from the benches of a turned cloud. Or if dogs rub too close and the poor are too much out let your friend answer them.

——————

The poet being sad at the misery he has beheld that morning and seeing several laughing fellows approaching puts himself in their way in order to hear what they are saying. Gathering from their remarks that it is of some sharp business by which they have all made an inordinate profit, he allows his thoughts to play back upon the current of his own life. And imagining himself to be two persons he eases his mind by putting his burdens upon one while the other takes what pleasure there is before him.

Something to grow used to; a stone too big for ox haul, too near for blasting. Take the road round it or—scrape away, scrape away: a mountain’s buried in the dirt! Marry a gopher to help you! Drive her in! Go yourself down along the lit pastures. Down, down. The whole family take shovels, babies and all! Down, down! Here’s Tenochtitlan! here’s a strange Darien where worms are princes.

3

But for broken feet beating, beating on worn flagstones I would have danced to my knees at the fiddle’s first run. But here’s evening and there they scamper back of the world chasing the sun round! And it’s daybreak in Calcutta! So lay aside, let’s draw off from the town and look back awhile. See, there it rises out of the swamp and the mists already blowing their sleepy bagpipes.

——————

Often a poem will have merit because of some one line or even one meritorious word. So it hangs heavily on its stem but still secure, the tree unwilling to release it.

Orphism and Orphica

Sonia Delaunay – Rhythm

Chords [Passages 14]
by Robert Duncan

For the Thing we call Moon contains
    “many mountains, many cities, many houses”
And Nature, our Mother,
    hides us, even from ourselves, there;
    showing only in changes of the Moon    •    Time
“a serpent having heads growing from him
    •    a bull and a lion,
                the face of a god-man in the middle,
    and he has also wings, and is calld
    ageless, Xronos, father of the ages,
                and Herakles”;
    is called Eros, Phanes, χρονος ευμαρης Θεος
having the seeds of all things in his body,
    Protogonos, Erikepaios, Dionysos    •   
These are the Names.    Wind Child,    ύπηνεμιον
                of our Night Nature
in the Moon Egg:        First-Born, Not-Yet-Born,
                Born-Where-We-Are    •    Golden Wings,
the unlookt for light in the aither
                gleaming    amidst clouds.
What does it mean that the Tritopatores, “doorkeepers and
    guardians of the winds”, carry the human Psyche to Night’s
    invisible palace,    to the Egg
                where Eros sleeps,
    the Protoegregorikos, the First Awakend?    To waken Him
          they carried her into    his Sleep,    the winds
disturbing the curtains at the window,    moving
          the blind, the first        tap tap,        the first count or
heart beat    •    the guardians of the winds (words)
          lifting her as the line lifts meanings and would
light the light,        the crack of dawn in the Egg
          Night’s nature shelters        before Time.
Before Time’s altars,        our Mother-Nature
          lighting the stars in order,        setting
Her night-light        in the wind the Egg will be.

    The breath of the stars, moving before the stars,
        breath of great Nature,        our own,        Logos,
                that is all        milk and light    •   
    These things reborn within Zeus,        happening anew.
“A dazzling light    .  .    aither    .  .    Eros    .  .    Night”
                where we are
The first being Fairyland,        the Shining Land.

Sonia Delaunay – Demi Cercles sur Bleue et Jaune

The Sonnets to Orpheus (Part II, Sonnet 29)
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Stephen Mitchell

Silent friend of many distances, feel
how your breath enlarges all of space.
Let your presence ring out like a bell
into the night. What feeds upon your face

grows mighty from the nourishment thus offered.
Move through transformation, out and in.
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?
If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine.

In this immeasurable darkness, be the power
that rounds your senses in their magic ring,
the sense of their mysterious encounter.

And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.

Sonia Delaunay – Abstract Swirl

Instructions to the Orphic Adept
by Robert Graves

[In part translated from the Timpone Grande and Campagno Orphic tablets.]

So soon as ever your mazed spirit descends
From daylight into darkness, Man, remember
What you have suffered here in Samothrace,
What you have suffered.

After your passage through Hell’s seven floods,
Whose fumes of sulphur will have parched your throat,
The Halls of Judgement shall loom up before you,
A miracle of jasper and of onyx.
To the left hand there bubbles a black spring
Overshadowed with a great white cypress.
Avoid this spring, which is Forgetfulness;
Though all the common rout rush down to drink,
Avoid this spring!

To the right hand there lies a secret pool
Alive with speckled trout and fish of gold;
A hazel overshadows it. Ophion,
Primaeval serpent straggling in the branches,
Darts out his tongue. This holy pool is fed
By dripping water; guardians stand before it.
Run to this pool, the pool of Memory.
Run to this pool!

Then will the guardians scrutinize you, saying:
‘Who are you, who? What have you to remember?
Do you not fear Ophion’s flickering tongue?
Go rather to the spring beneath the cypress,
Flee from this pool!’

Then shall you answer: ‘I am parched with thirst.
Give me to drink. I am a child of Earth,
But of Sky also, come from Samothrace.
Witness the glint of amber on my brow.
Out of the Pure I am come, as you may see.
I also am of your thrice-blessèd kin,
Child of the three-fold Queen of Samothrace;
Have made full quittance for my deeds of blood,
Have been by her invested in sea-purple,
And like a kid have fallen into milk.
Give me to drink, now I am parched with thirst,
Give me to drink!’

But they will ask you yet: ‘What of your feet?’
You shall reply: ‘My feet have borne me here
Out of the weary wheel, the circling years,
To that still, spokeless wheel:–Persephone.
Give me to drink!’

Then they will welcome you with fruit and flowers,
And lead you toward the ancient dripping hazel,
Crying: ‘Brother of our immortal blood,
Drink and remember glorious Samothrace!’
Then you shall drink.

You shall drink deep of that refreshing draught,
To become lords of the uninitiated
Twittering ghosts, Hell’s countless populace–
To become heroes, knights upon swift horses,
Pronouncing oracles from tall white tombs
By the nymphs tended. They with honey water
Shall pour libations to your serpent shapes,
That you may drink.

Sonia Delaunay – Rhythm Color

H.D. aka Hilda Doolittle (September 10, 1886 – September 27, 1961)

On this day, in 1886, the poet Hilda Doolittle (aka H.D.), was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Of all the writers/poet-heroes I love and praise and revere, I can say without hesitation that H.D. is my favorite poet and visionary. I am utterly enthralled by her entire body of work, from the earliest Imagist poems to her final masterpiece, the book-length epic, Helen in Egypt. Along the way, she wrote novels (HERmione and Asphodel are the two closest to my heart), translated Euripides (Ion and Hippolytus), compiled memoirs/tributes to Sigmund Freud (she was one of his patients) and Ezra Pound (one of her closest friends, the pair were even briefly engaged), and set forth a mystical philosophy in Notes on Thought and Vision. Even her correspondence is fascinating.

Her most famous poem, below, was regarded as the perfect example of Imagism:

Oread
by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

Whirl up, sea –
Whirl your pointed pines,
Splash your great pines
On our rocks,
Hurl your green over us,
Cover us with your pools of fir.

***

Here’s Another brief poem in the same Imagist style:

The Pool
by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

Are you alive?
I touch you.
You quiver like a sea-fish.
I cover you with my net.
What are you – banded one?

***

One of my favorite poems, the piece that instigated my H.D. obsession, is entitled “Eros.”

Eros
by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

I.
Where is he taking us
now that he has turned back?

Where will this take us,
this fever,
spreading into light?

Nothing we have ever felt,
nothing we have dreamt,
or conjured in the night
or fashioned in loneliness,
can equal this.

Where is he taking us,
Eros,
now that he has turned back?

II.
My mouth is wet with your life,
my eyes blinded with your face,
a heart itself which feels
the intimate music.

My mind is caught,
dimmed with it,
(where is love taking us?)
my lips are wet with your life.

In my body were pearls cast,
shot with Ionian tints, purple,
vivid through the white.

III.
Keep love and he wings
with his bow,
up, mocking us,
keep love and he taunts us
and escapes.

Keep love and he sways apart
in another world,
outdistancing us.

Keep love and he mocks,
ah, bitter and sweet,
your sweetness is more cruel
than your hurt.

Honey and salt,
fire burst from the rocks
to meet fire
spilt from Hesperus.

Fire darted aloft and met fire,
and in that moment
love entered us.

IV.
Could Eros be kept,
he was prisoned long since
and sick with imprisonment,
could Eros be kept,
others would have taken him
and crushed out his life.

Could Eros be kept,
we had sinned against the great god,
we too might have prisoned him outright.

Could Eros be kept,
nay, thank him and the bright goddess
that he left us.

V.
Ah love is bitter and sweet,
but which is more sweet
the bitterness or the sweetness,
none has spoken it.

Love is bitter,
but can salt taint sea-flowers,
grief, happiness?

Is it bitter to give back
love to your lover if he crave it?

Is it bitter to give back
love to your lover if he wish it
for a new favourite,
who can say,
or is it sweet?

Is it sweet to possess utterly,
or is it bitter,
bitter as ash?

VI.
I had thought myself frail,
a petal
with light equal
on leaf and under-leaf.

I had thought myself frail;
a lamp,
shell, ivory or crust of pearl,
about to fall shattered,
with flame spent.

I cried:

“I must perish,
I am deserted in this darkness,
an outcast, desperate,”
such fire rent me with Hesperus,

Then the day broke.

VII.
What need of a lamp
when day lightens us,
what need to bind love
when love stands
with such radiant wings over us?

What need–
yet to sing love,
love must first shatter us.

***

The following lines have been a great source of comfort in times of despair:

Excerpt from “The Tribute” (Section 10)
by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

And this we will say for remembrance,
speak this with their names:

Could beauty be done to death,
they had struck her dead
in ages and ages past,
could beauty be withered from earth,
they had cast her forth,
root and stalk
scattered and flailed—

They had trod her to death with sneers,
they had bartered her
for a piece of thin money tossed up
to fall half alloy,
they had stripped her and sent her forth.

Could beauty be caught and hurt,
could beauty be rent with a thought,
for a thrust of a sword,
for a piece of thin money tossed up
then beauty were dead.

Long, long before we came to earth,
long, long before we rent our hearts
with this worship, this fear
and this dread.

***

H.D.’s ability to express her depth of emotions (which includes achingly beautiful love poems written to men and to women), her crystalline clarity (her “hard, gem-like flame”), her musical rhythms, her passion for ancient Greece, her immersion in all things esoteric, and her entangled web of connections to other modernist writers/artists are just a few of the reasons I adore her work. Her words are a continuing source of inspiration, and I can honestly say she’s kept me going me through some dark periods in my life. I’ve long felt like our souls are connected in some way. And after being ignored and marginalized for decades, she’s finally becoming more widely recognized as a writer of canonical stature.  Her work should be of especial interest to pagans, especially those interested in Hellenic, Kemetic, and Greco-Egyptian paganism/polytheism.

The primary page for more information on H.D. can be found here, and there’s a nice introduction to her life and work (including the texts of several poems and and part of an audio recording of H.D. reading from Helen in Egypt) here.

***

A Few Quotes by H.D.

“Actually, they are both occupied with the thought of reconstruction, he ‘to re-claim the coast of Pharos, the light-house,’ she to establish or re-establish the ancient Mysteries.”
– H.D., from Helen in Egypt, Pallinode IV.8

“Today, again at a turning-point in the history of the world, the mind stands, to plead, to condone, to explain, to clarify, to illuminate; and, in the name of our magnificent heritage of that Hellenic past, each one of us is responsible to that abstract reality; silver and unattainable yet always present, that spirit again stands holding the balance between the past and the future. What now will we make of it?”
– H.D., from Ion, part XIX

“The Delphic charioteer has, I have said, an almost hypnotic effect on me: the bend of his arm, the knife-cut of his chin; his feet, rather flat, slightly separated, a firm pedestal for himself; the fall of his drapery, in geometrical precision; and the angles of the ingatherings of the drapery of the waist.

All this was no ‘inspiration,’ it was sheer, hard brain work.

This figure has been created by a formula arrived at consciously or unconsciously.

If we had the right sort of brains, we would receive a definite message from that figure, like dots and lines ticked off by one receiving station, received and translated into definite thought by another telegraphic centre.

There is no trouble about art. There is already enough beauty in the world of art, enough in the fragments and almost perfectly preserved charioteer at Delphi alone to remake the world.

There is no trouble about the art, it is the appreciators we want. We want young men and women to communicate with the charioteer and his like.

We want receiving centres for dots and dashes.”

– H.D., from Notes on Thought and Vision

peril, strangely encountered, strangely endured,
marks us;

we know each other
by secret symbols,

though, remote, speechless,
we pass each other on the pavement,

at the turn of the stair;
though no word pass between us,

there is subtle appraisement;
even if we snarl a brief greeting

or do not speak at all,
we know our Name,

we nameless initiates,
born of one mother,

companions
of the flame.

– H.D., from “The Walls Do Not Fall”

We are voyagers, discoverers
of the not-known,
the unrecorded;
we have no map;
possibly we will reach haven,
heaven.
― H.D., from “The Walls Do Not Fall”

The Lotos-Garland of Antinous by John Addington Symonds

The Lotos-Garland of Antinous
by John Addington Symonds

Behold a vision of the world-old Nile—
Of porch and palace-tower and peristyle
Glassed in the oily current smooth and calm,
With many a fringéd mile of sultry palm
Shimmering in noonday sunlight! O the roar
Of the full-voiced swart-visaged swarming shore,
As the gilt barge, with flash of oars, and cry
Cast on the waters of shrill minstrelsy,
Down the broad tide bears Adrian the king,
Lapped in luxurious ease and winnowing
All husk of hard thought from his heart this day—
So men surmise—to laughter given and play!

Lo the full sails of Tyrian silk out-spread
Like wings of wildest plumage overhead;
The cedar masts with crusted pearl and scale
Of Indian beetle rough; the bellying veil,
Star-sprent, gold-dusted, hyaline in hue,
That tempers like a mist the burning blue
Ofthose bronzed heavens; the heavy-scented flowers,
Plucked from what dim mysterious temple bowers
Deep in the dewy twilight—tuberoses,
Starred jasmines, lotos, crimson chalices
With myrtles woven! Mid that bloomy sea
Are girls, half-seen, reclining dreamily;
Some white as swans unruffled, pure and cold;
Some glowing with the delicate dim gold
Of amber, warm on throat and neck beneath
Black heavy coils of lustrous curls that wreathe,
Snake-like, smooth temples. O the subtle stir
Of laughter and of little feet, the whir
Of fans like night-moths fluttering, mid the wild
Voices of choiring boys, that naked piled
On Persian broidery, to the sound of flute,
Viol and fife and soul-subduing lute,
Make music, piercing shrill and sad and clear
With yearning memories the drowsy ear!

On glides the flashing galley. But the king,
In Roman strength austere, each goodly thing
Serenely reckons. He hath felt the glare
Of shadeless deserts; by the Libyan lair
Of lions hath out-watched the fiery day,
Patiently waiting for his royal prey:
The clash of arms he knows, the thirsty march
O’er sands with wormwood set, where fevers parch
Black lips and tongue, and hollow eyes grow dim:
No Syrian wreath or crown of rose for him
The circlet of the Empire! And behold,
This morn in Theban temples dusk with gold,
While spiry flames from smoking altars flew,
And incense clouds voluminously blue
Sun-proof involved those columned aisles, the seer
Foaming with eyes fixed on the unseen Fear,
A rede of death enwrapped in riddling gloom
Had uttered:—yea, that even for him the doom
Of icy death, unless some spirit free
Of man or boy, unbought, might willingly
Yield life for life, amid the dance and feast,
When hollow-eyed grim Death seems last and least,
Lurked shadow-like. So spake the shuddering priest.
And Adrian heard; yet trembled not, but read
As in a book the doom of Rome dismemberèd:
For on his life alone the Empire hung;
And to his single strength the nations clung,
As clings a vine with leaves and weighty fruit
To some strong pine’s stone-circling massy root.

And none but Adrian heard—save one who stayed
Beside him; one in whose quick pulses played
Fire of free life imperious; a boy
Of nineteen summers, framed for power and joy.
Crisp on his temples curled the coal-black hair;
White myrtle flowers and leaves were woven there:
His eyes had solemn light in them, and shone
Flame-like ‘neath cloudy brows: his cheeks were wan
With passion; and the soul upon his lips,
Smouldering like some fierce planet in eclipse,
Breathed fascination terrible and strong,
As though quick pride strove with remembered wrong.
But oh! what tongue shall tell the orient glow
Of those orbed breasts, smooth as dawn-smitten snow;
The regal gait, processional and grand,
As of a god; the sunny-marble hand,
Grasping a silk-enwoven cedar-wand?
He heard, Antinous! and in his breast
His heart leaped, and his flaming eyes confessed
The fervour of his spirit; still and calm
Standing the while, like some full-fruited palm
Tall by a river-bank. Then forth they went,
The youth divine and royal victim, blent
In silent awe and blind bewilderment.
Down to the Nile they came, and eager men
Pressed round them myriad-voiced with wonder: then
Taking their barge, upon the stream sailed forth,
Downwards all day steering by West and North.

All day the lazy ripple to the prow
Whispered; and all day long by palms arow,
By cities populous with blazing quays,
By tracts of flowering bean and verdant maize,
They glided. Towers and temples sunny bright,
Like mirage in the desert, swam from sight
Behind them; and the wild tumultuous noise
Of nations shouting with a single voice
Grew fainter on the current. All day long,
Lulled to a slumberous symphony of song,
Sails flapped, oars flashed, and boys and maidens made
Cool music in the silken scented shade.
But Adrian dreaming lay, and at his side
Antinous with large eyes blank and wide
Lay dreaming. Thus adown the sleepy tide,
As in a trance toward Lethe through still air,
Lost to the joy of living did they fare.

But now the sun who all day long had driven
His glittering chariot o’er the enamelled heaven,
Began to wester. Level smote his rays,
A furnace-fire of splendour; and the blaze
Burned upon stream and city: in its fire
The pillared shrine and solitary spire,
Tall cypress or thick tamarisk-tangle, swam
Like clouds you scarce can see amid the flame
Of sunset; and the whole vast concave through,
Across the light-irradiate airy blue,
Ran conflagration. Then, ere day was dead,
The slaves who had that service came and spread
The Emperor’s table; and Antinous rose,
For his it was before the banquet’s close
To bear the wine-cup, at his master’s knee
Like Ganymede serving imperially.

He rose, and from his shoulder’s ivory
The veil fell fluttering to his rounded thigh:
Naked he stood; then on his forehead set
A crimson wreath of lotos, cool and wet,
Fresh from the tank, with ivy mixed; and bound
Roses about his breast; and from the ground
A tendril-tangled thyrsus raised, and flung
The quivering leaves aloft that clasped and clung.
Next half the lustre of his limbs he hid,
Like some night-reveller or Bassarid
Fresh-flown from Indian thickets, with the fur
Of panthers streaked and spotted, sleek with myrrh
And musky-fragrant. In his hand a bowl,
Carved of one beryl, soft as if a soul
Throbbed in its flush, he took, and called his crew.
They to their Bacchus with loud laughter flew,
Tossing flame faces, twinkling tiny feet
In measured madness to the timbrel’s beat—
Wild hair behind them flying, loosened zone,
And flowers about their flanks for girdles strewn.
Girls were they, girls with vine-leaves garlanded,
Or jasmines white as their own maidenhead!
Boys too; ye gods, the beauty of those boys,
Lithe as young leopards! the soul-thrilling noise
Of their shrill voices!—Bells are at their feet,
And silver armlets, tinkling as they meet,
Make the air mad.

Behold, in such wild glee,
With dance and music and with witchery,
Paced forth the youth, for whom it seemed that all
His life to come might be one festival.
Yet in his soul was sadness. Well he knew
That ere those lotos-flowers had lost their dew,
He forth would fare upon the dismal way
Of dying.—Thus of many thoughts that day
This one had triumphed: he would die to shield
Adrian from death, if so the doom revealed
By god-sent oracles might be withdrawn
From that great head.—Like Phosphor in the dawn,
Solemn he was and tender; larger eyed,
Of more majestic stature; and his wide
Bare bosom swelled with nobler weight of thought
Than e’er within his heart had yet been wrought,
Since from his fields Bithynian and the play
Of childhood, on a lustrous night of May,
He had been borne by pirate hands, and woke
To weep his mother.

Through the awning broke
The clear-voiced choir; but Adrian in good sooth
Rose from his pillowed couch to greet the youth,
So proudly paced he: and the dying sun,
Shooting that moment from low vapours dun,
Transfigured all his face; and in the glow
The ruddy lotos-flowers upon his brow
Blazed ruby-like, and all his form divine
Blushed into crimson, and the crystalline
Bowl of the gleaming beryl flashed, and dim
With dusky gold the fur that mantled him,
Spread tawny splendour. So he stood and smiled,
Bending his crowned head, like a god who, mild
To mortals, will be worshipped. Such a sight,
So framed, so sphered in music and sunlight,
Had ne’er in court or theatre or grove
Fashioned by Nero for his insolent love,—
Nay ne’er in Syrian valleys where the Queen
Mourns for her lost Adonis, on the green
Of Daphne or of sea-girt Tyre been seen.

He spake: ‘To thee, in semblance of a god,
To thee supreme, who Jove-like with thy nod
Scatterest states and kingdoms, lo! I come
Bearing strong juice of Bacchus. See the foam
Leaps in the crystal for thy lips, and red
As rose or maiden in her bridal bed,
Glows for thy kisses! Health for thee, my king,
Health and long life within the cup I bring.
Yea, were it mine, this youth thou thinkest fair,
(Fair in thy thought, for verily whate’er
Thine eyes have praised, is fairest,) were it mine,
Brief as it is, scarce worth one thought of thine,
(For lo, it blooms to-day, to-morrow dies,
Nay even now is fading, as the skies
Fade after sunset)—were it mine to give,
Thinkest thou, king and master, I would live?
Were it not well to die for thee, and know
There in the scentless myrtle bowers below,
That thou wert living this new life? What breath,
How sweet soe’er, were sweeter than such death?
Nay, Lord, I flatter not. This is no smile
Of hollow semblance on false lips to wile
Kind speech from thee, much prized by us who serve
For could I, from this will I would not swerve!’

Thus spake Antinous, and the table round
Murmured approval; for the honeyed sound
From those calm lips on idle ears like dew
Fell with fresh fragrance and a pleasure new.
Sophists were there, whom Adrian fed, and they
Clapped loud applause, averring the long day
Had kept till eve her flower of perfect speech:
For such fine flattery, like the perfumed peach
Most subtly flavoured, could no palate cloy.
Thus clamoured they, wine-wanton; but the boy,
Bending his lilied brow beneath the wand,
And kneeling to his master, with one hand
Lifted the cup:—a lotos falling stirred
The wine refulgent; then, without a word
Or smile, he raised the sunlight of his face.
But Adrian drank, keeping the flower to grace
His wreath; and bade Antinous take the bowl
Of beryl. Then he turned with graver soul
To some grey counsellor beside him placed;
And the cup-bearer with his revel passed
Forth from the tent imperial.

Lo, the West
Bathing with liquid lustre brow and breast—
Lustre of orange, amber, green and blue,
Glassed on the waves, and gemlike in the dew
Of heaven translucent; the cool breeze that flew
Past silken sail and tent-roof; the black bars
Of palm-groves and of porches; shimmering stars,
And the low moon to eastward, pearly pale
Mid roseate refluence! In one woven veil
Of varied hues the universal world
Seemed by some hand omnipotent enfurled,
Where in the midst the barge, a moving spark
Herself of light, yet mid such splendour dark,
Slept on her shadow. And was this the night,
Centre of all things fair, for thee to blight
Thy blossom with cold frost of death—to die,
Sweetest of all sweet things beneath the sky?

The decks were vacant, as at even-tide
Of chills and sudden dew-fall. Free and wide
The sandal planks thick-matted with bright wool
And furs and flowered embroideries beautiful,
Spread for his pacing; and the lazy plash
Of rippling waves that round the galley wash,
Cooled the clear air. He went as in a dream
Forth to the prow, land o’er the luminous stream
Leaned; and behold, a golden lamp up-borne
By Isis (on her brow the sacred horn,
And at her waist the lotos, leaf by leaf,
And flower by flower, twined in a jewelled sheaf
Of lilies) cast a glimmer pure as pearl
On the veined marble of the watery swirl.
Here stayed Antinous, while the darkening west
Deepened from crimson into amethyst,
From fire to blood-red orange thin and still,
Under faint streaks of tenderest daffodil
Which faded. Soon, as drops of fiery dew
Gleam on a withered primrose, so there grew
Forth from this pallor the intensest glow
Of Hesper’s love-star: tremulous and low,
Poised o’er the palms, he panted; and his beam
Danced like a living lamp upon the stream.

Then spake Antinous: ‘My hour is nigh!
Night cometh, and the guardians of the sky
Illume their cressets!’ So he rose and spread
The panther skin and thyrsus, and the red
Wreath of dead lotos laid upon the ground:
Next in his hand the bowl of beryl, crowned
With roses, from a gleaming golden jar
He rilled; and gazing at the level star,
Thrice made libation, crying: ‘Father Nile,
And Isis and Osiris! ye who smile
On mortal births and burials! lo, I give
My life for Adrian’s! Wherefore should I live?
Have I not learned to trail my manhood’s pride
In the world’s golden gutters?—Like a bride,
Sumptuous with sacrifice and pomp and choir,
Forth from the doors I issued; and the fire
Of Flamens shone to light me: now, alone,
With saffron veil unbound and broken zone,
My blossom withered, lo, a wanton’s doom
Awaits me, or the purifying tomb!—
Nay, even now I weary. Day by day
It irks me to consume the hours with play;
Hearing soft speeches, propped on pillowed down,
To gather smiles; or, when I choose to frown,
Drink womanish tears. Better I ween were strife
With lions than this fulsome flower of life!
And when the flower is faded, what remains?
Yea, heaven, I thank thee: lo, the little pains
Of dying bring me guerdon of great gains!
For in my bloom I perish, having bought
Unending honour. What I give, is nought
But a mere piece of boyhood thrown away:
While he, the Emperor, lives. Even so. This day
Dates a new aeon in the age of Rome;
Wherethrough, a name for ever, in the dome
Of people’s praises, I shall pace, and be
Equalled with heroes in mine infamy!
Nay, what on earth more godlike? I have heard
Of soldiers dying at a general’s word;
Of patriots who drained their hearts to save
A nation: they beside their fathers’ grave,
Before their city walls and smoking shrines,
Fell on the long resounding foeman’s lines
And perished: this was easy; yet they bore
Victorious crowns and hymns for evermore.
But I, what city or what home have I?
What duty, dear or sacred, bids me die?
A slave—the toy and bauble of a king,
Picked from the dust to play with—a cheap thing,
Irksome as soon as used—a cup to sip,
Then fling with loathing from the sated lip!—
Therefore I die more nobly. Where are ye,
My father and my mother, and the glee
Of brothers and of sisters, who were dear
Far off in years forgotten? Not one tear
Shall your calm unfamiliar eyes let fall
For me.—How like a gilded dream is all
The life that I have lived in glorious Rome!
How like a dream it leaves me!—Lo, I come,
Ye awful, soul-exacting, pitiless Powers!
Prepare your laurels and the moony bowers
Of myrtles! Not ignoble, not a slave,
I perish, but of mine own will, to save
The Father of the Empire.—I have seen
In Roman theatres the dying queen
Of weak Admetus, pale Polyxena,
Cheiron, Menoikeus; and the people, ah!
The people how they shouted! Tears and cries
Greet even an actor when he nobly dies:—
Will not the people of the unnumbered dead,
Showering their pallid crowns upon my head,
Nobly receive me noble, dying thus,
Calm in my strength, young, proud, luxurious,
Not torn by pangs, not wasted, not outworn,
But in my splendour?’

As he spake, a horn
Shrilled through the twilight; and he saw the tower
Of Besa, where that night they tarried, lower
Dusk o’er the champaign. Speechless from the bark
He dropped: she onward glided o’er the dark
Breast of the glimmering Nile with lamp and light:
He through the mirrors of the cool black night
Unruffled, dying drifted; and his death
Was seen by no man. Nay, there lingereth
Old legend in the town Antinoë,
Called by his name, a fair town and a free,
How that a flight of eagles from the sky
Down swooping, bore him, rosy breast and thigh
Lustrous like lightning on their sable plumes,
Up to the zenith, where, a star, he blooms
In that bright garden of the grace of Jove,
The martyr and the miracle of love.—
Of this the truth we know not; but we know
That in the town of Besa, where the flow
Of Nile is stayed upon the eastern bank
With wattles and with osiers, for a tank
That draws therefrom through sluices deep and wide
The living waters of the sacred tide,
There in the morn was found as though asleep,
The perfect body of the boy; and deep
Around him, known not till that day, there grew
Great store of lotos flowers, red, white, and blue,
But mostly rose-red, flaming in his hair,
And o’er his breast and shoulders floating fair,
And with his arms enwoven, pure and cool,
Screening his flesh from sunrise. Thus the pool
Burned with a miracle of flowers; but he,
Raised on their petals, pillowed tenderly,
And curtained with fresh leaves innumerous,
Smiled like a god, whom errands amorous
Lure from Olympus, and coy Naiads find
Sleeping, and in their rosy love-wreaths bind.

September 4th: Honoring Richard Wright, Antonin Artaud and Mary Renault

September 4th is a good day for 20th Century literature.  Three of my favorite writers – Richard Wright, Antonin Artaud, and Mary Renault – were all born on this day.  Below are a few of my favorite passages from their beautiful writings.  May their works continue to be read, and may their names be remembered!

***

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Black Boy
by Richard Wright (September 4, 1908 – November 28, 1960)

Each event spoke with a cryptic tongue. And the moments of living slowly revealed their coded meanings. There was the wonder I felt when I first saw a brace of mountainlike, spotted, black-and-white horses clopping down a dusty road through clouds of powdered clay.
There was the delight I caught in seeing long straight rows of red and green vegetables stretching away in the sun to the bright horizon.
There was the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on to my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning.
There was the vague sense of the infinite as I looked down upon the yellow, dreaming waters of the Mississippi River from the verdant bluffs of Natchez.
There were the echoes of nostalgia I heard in the crying strings of wild geese winging south against a bleak, autumn sky.
There was the tantalizing melancholy in the tingling scent of burning hickory wood.
There was the teasing and impossible desire to imitate the petty pride of sparrows wallowing and flouncing in the red dust of country roads.
There was the yearning for identification loosed in me by the sight of a solitary ant carrying a burden upon a mysterious journey.
There was the disdain that filled me as I tortured a delicate, blue-pink crawfish that huddled fearfully in the mudsill of a rusty tin can.
There was the aching glory in masses of clouds burning gold and purple from an invisible sun.
There was the liquid alarm I saw in the blood-red glare of the sun’s afterglow mirrored in the squared panes of a whitewashed frame house.
There was the languor I felt when I heard green leaves rustling with a rainlike sound.
There was the incomprehensible secret embodied in a whitish toadstool hiding in the dark shade of a rotting log.
There was the experience of feeling death without dying that came from watching a chicken leap about blindly after its neck had been snapped by a quick twist of my father’s wrist.
There was the great joke that I felt God had played on cats and dogs by making them lap their milk and water with their tongues.
There was the thirst I had when I watched clear, sweet juice trickle from sugar cane being crushed.
There was the hot panic that welled up in my throat and swept through my blood when I first saw the lazy, limp coils of a blue-skinned snake sleeping in the sun.
There was the speechless astonishment of seeing a hog stabbed through the heart, dipped into boiling water, scraped, split open, gutted, and strung up gaping and bloody.
There was the love I had for the mute regality of tall, moss-clad oaks.
There was the hint of cosmic cruelty that I felt when I saw the curved timbers of a wooden shack that had been warped in the summer sun.
There was the saliva that formed in my mouth whenever I smelt clay dust potted with fresh rain.
There was the cloudy notion of hunger when I breathed the odor of new-cut, bleeding grass.
And there was the quiet terror that suffused my senses when vast hazes of gold washed earthward from star-heavy skies on silent nights . . .

***

Excerpt from “The Alchemical Theater” (From The Theater and Its Double)
by Antonin Artaud (September 4, 1896 – March 4, 1948)
translated by Mary Caroline Richards

If in fact we raise the question of the origins and raison d’etre (or primordial necessity) of the theater, we find, metaphysically, the materialization or rather the exteriorization of a kind of essential drama which would contain, in a manner at once manifold and unique, the essential principles of all drama, already disposed and divided, not so much as to lose their character as principles, but enough to comprise, in a substantial and active fashion (i.e., resonantly), an infinite perspective of conflicts. To analyze such a drama philosophically is impossible; only poetically and by seizing upon what is communicative and magnetic in the principles of all the arts can we, by shapes, sounds, music, and volumes, evoke, passing by way of all natural resemblances of images and affinities to each other not the primordial directions of the mind, which our excessive logical intellectualism would reduce to merely useless schemata, but states of an acuteness so intense and so absolute that we sense, beyond the tremors of all music and form, the underlying menace of a chaos as decisive as it is dangerous.
And this essential drama, we come to realize, exists, and in the image of something subtler than Creation itself, something which must be represented as the result of one Will alone—and without conflict.
We must believe that the essential drama, the one at the root of all the Great Mysteries, is associated with the second phase of Creation, that of difficulty and of the Double, that of matter and the materialization of the idea.
It seems indeed that where simplicity and order reign, there can be no theater nor drama, and the true theater, like poetry as well, though by other means, is born out of a kind of organized anarchy after philosophical battles which are the passionate aspect of these primitive unifications.
Now these conflicts which the Cosmos in turmoil offers us in a philosophically distorted and impure manner, alchemy offers us in all their rigorous intellectuality, since it permits us to attain once more to the sublime, but with drama, after a meticulous and unremitting pulverization of every insufficiently fine, insufficiently matured form, since it follows from the very principle of alchemy not to let the spirit take its leap until it has passed through all the filters and foundations of existing matter, and to redouble this labor at the incandescent edges of the future. For it might be said that in order to merit material gold, the mind must first prove that it was capable of the other kind, that it would have earned it, would have attained to it, only by assenting to it, by seeing it as a secondary symbol of the fall it must experience in order to rediscover in solid and opaque form the expression of light itself, of rarity, and of irreducibility.
The theatrical operation of making gold, by the immensity of the conflicts it provokes, by the prodigious number of forces it throws one against the other and rouses, by this appeal to a sort of essential redistillation brimming with consequences and surcharged with spirituality, ultimately evokes in the spirit an absolute and abstract purity, beyond which there can be nothing, and which can be conceived as a unique sound, defining note, caught on the wing, the organic part of an indescribable vibration.
The Orphic Mysteries which subjugated Plato must have possessed on the moral and psychological level something of this definitive and transcendent aspect of the alchemical theater, with elements of an extraordinary psychological density, and conversely must have evoked the symbols of alchemy, which provide the spiritual means of decanting and transfusing matter, must have evoked the passionate and decisive transfusion of matter by mind.
We are told that the Mysteries of Eleusis confined themselves to the mise en scene of a certain number of moral truths. I believe instead that they must have consisted of projections and precipitations of conflicts, indescribable battles of principles joined from that dizzying and slippery perspective in which every truth is lost in the realization of the inextricable and unique fusion of the abstract and the concrete, and I think that by the music of instruments, the combinations of colors and shapes, of which we have lost every notion, they must have brought to a climax that nostalgia for pure beauty of which Plato, at least once in this world, must have found the complete, sonorous, streaming naked realization: to resolve by conjunctions unimaginably strange to our waking minds, to resolve or even annihilate every conflict produced by the antagonism of matter and mind, idea and form, concrete and abstract, and to dissolve all appearances into one unique expression which must have been the equivalent of spiritualized gold.

***

Excerpts from The Last of the Wine
by Mary Renault (September 4, 1905 – December 13, 1983)

[from Chapter 10]

I felt Lysis look at me, and turned towards him. Understanding each other, we got up and walked out through the gardens into the streets. We did not speak, having no need of it, but made for the High City, and climbed the stairway side by side. Leaning on the northern wall we looked out to the mountains. On the tops of Parnes the first snow had fallen; the day was bright and blue, with a few small clouds, white and violet-dark. The wind from the north blew our hair from our brows, and streamed our garments behind us. The air was clear, keen, and filled with light. It seemed to us that at our command the wind would have lifted us like eagles, that our home was the sky. We joined our hands; they were cold, so that in clasping them we felt the bone within the flesh. Still we had not spoken; or not with words. Turning from the wall we saw people offering at the altars or going in and out of the temples; it had seemed to us that the place was empty, but for ourselves. When we came to the great altar of Athene I stopped and said, “Shall we swear it?” He thought for a moment and answered, “No. When a man needs an oath, he has repented that he swore it, and is compelled by fear. This must come from our own souls, and from love.”

*

[from Chapter 12]

Lysis and I rode off together along the coast, the blue sea beside us and the red rocky shore all broken into little bays. At one of these, after a long gallop, we drew rein; and looking at the clear blue water, threw our clothes off with one accord. The water was brisk at first and warm after, and we swam far out to sea, till we could see Poseidon’s temple at Sounion standing against the sky. Lysis was the faster, his wrestling having strengthened his shoulders and arms; but he waited for me, as I did in running for him. We rested on the water, then swam shoreward, and in shallow rock-pools tried laughing to catch fish in our hands. But as we walked out of the water afterwards, I felt a sharp pain in the side of my foot, and found it bleeding. I must have trodden on a broken shell or a potsherd, for the cut was deep. Lysis knelt and looked at it while I leaned on his shoulder. “This will give you trouble,” he said, “if you fill it with grit as you cross the beach. It might cost you a crown. Wash it well in the sea, and I will carry you over to a place where a horse can go.” For the beach was stony.
I sat on a flat-topped rock, and trailed my foot in the sea. The water was clear, and the blood unrolled in it like smoke in a blue sky. I sat watching it till Lysis touched me on the shoulder and said, “Come.” I leaned back for him to take hold of me, and fastened my arms round his neck. But he did not carry me; nor did I let him go. We spoke without sound each other’s names. A gull screamed over us, an empty sound, to tell us we two were alone upon the shore.
I said to my heart, “What mighty power hast thou been defying?” Truly love may be likened to the Sphinx of the Egyptians, with the face of a smiling god and a lion’s claws. When he had wounded me, all my longing was to leap into his darkness, and be consumed. I called on my soul, but it bled away from me like salt washed back into the ocean. My soul melted and fled; the wound in my foot, which the water had opened, streamed out scarlet over the wet rock.
I lay between sea and sky, stricken by the Hunter; the fiery immortal hounds of Eros, slipped from the leash, dragged at my throat and at my vitals, to bring the quarry in. It seemed to me now that my soul was here, if it was anywhere; nothing remained to me of what I was, save this, that I remembered I had promised Sokrates a gift. He whom I loved knew my mind; perhaps it was his own. We were still, understanding each other.
He let me go, and, kneeling beside the rock, covered the wound with his mouth till the bleeding stopped. We were silent, he kneeling in the water, and I lying like the sacrifice on the altar-stone, the blue sky burning my eyes. After a while he bent and rinsed his face and got up smiling. “The Thracians when they swear friendship mingle their blood, or drink it, I forget. Now we are really one.”
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