Speaking to the Flame
Nature is the oldest object of human worship. Mankind has long known that it contains things of great value if we only know how to look for them. We sense this potential in moments when the currents of nature's hidden forces are heard murmuring from behind the everyday surfaces of things; these powers find their expression in the overwhelming majesty of a landscape, in the sudden awareness of the unity of all things. We have also known that there exist a rare few able to speak with the spirits that dwell inside the trees and stones, a few who are able to discern the meaning of the movements of animals and the subtle gestures of passing clouds. Somehow, they alone know how to look, how to listen. These are our shamans and priests, oracles and prophets. They are human, like us, but linked to something distant, elusive but intimately familiar. This is a power that seems superhuman; it feels to us like a calling that must come from somewhere beyond the province of mankind. Who can say whether they are chosen at birth or blessed by chance?
Robert Musil's novel The Confusions of Young Törless is about a young school-boy with just such a rare sensitivity to the stirrings of his own experience. He himself is unsure what to make of this extra sense; he cannot explain it, cannot express it properly. Its very elusiveness torments him. There is nothing great or valuable in it; just inchoate whispers and confusing gestures. To Törless it seems superfluous. The force of this extra sense has not been tamed or translated, and remains unfruitful. He suspects that this uncommon experience of his might just be the touch of madness.
Törless is the son of a middle-class family that has sent him away to an isolated boarding-school in the countryside. His childhood until now has been a secure one of careful guarding by his parents. But in his new environment he encounters people that his upbringing has not prepared him for -- the nearby town is populated by prostitutes and drunkards, the school itself full of thieves and bullies. The inherited morality of his parents is of no use here, and it is not until now that its limitations become apparent. In the face of this the world around him suddenly seems feral, beyond all control; even objects and concepts once known to him have lost their familiarity and become threatening. His old world has disappeared and been replaced with one in which once-benign elements -- the stone of a wall, the gaps between clouds where the sky yawns endlessly before him -- speak to him in a strange new language that he cannot make sense of.
"It has an effect on me, just as if it were trying to speak. I get as frantic as a person trying to lip-read from the twisted mouth of someone who's paralysed, and simply not being able to do it. It's as if I had one extra sense, one more than the others have, but not completely developed, a sense that's there and makes itself noticed, but doesn't function. For me the world is full of soundless voices. Does this mean I'm a seer or that I have hallucinations?"
Törless has a rare sensitivity to the forces at work beneath the surfaces of natural experience; an unusually potent sense, surely, but not yet completely developed. What he has not yet learned is that this new sense is the remedy for his moral confusion -- the soundless voices will become fruitful when he is able to find the words for what they are trying to tell him. They are initially threatening only because they are untamed, without clarity or shape. If he can uncover their language, discover a vocabulary to fit them they will serve as his guides past the limits of his inherited values.
Where and how is this vocabulary found? We do not need Törless to tell us himself. The idea of transcendent forces at work within the material objects of nature is far older than Törless' own story. The key to turning these forces to fruitful purpose has been the subject of many human stories. One of western civilization's best-known heroes, the legendary King Arthur, is the ultimate example of an individual harnessing the latent powers of the natural world. Arthur's right to reign as king stems from his unique ability to obtain a magical sword from its resting place within a stone. We know that this is a fictional story because swords do not come from stones -- the discovery of a magical weapon locked inside a mundane piece of rock is absurd. But every human creation has its root in the physical world we inhabit and experience. It is, after all, the only place our senses and ideas can come from. Technology and morality alike are consequences of the natural world as it falls on human senses. Every potential power lies in the objects of nature -- every stone has a sword in it if we know how to look. The task of the hero is to learn how to release these powers. As the legend goes, we know that Arthur is not the first person to see the sword, nor the only one to tug at its pommel. The sword's power, like nature's, is partially felt by everyone. But in this story he is the only one capable of releasing it, of manifesting its potential value. What reason can there be for this special privledge of his? The old legend implies a simple answer; it is his destiny. He has been chosen for this task at birth by a power beyond himself. Arthur's ability is a matter of hazard, of divine favour.
T.H. White in the twentieth century retells the Arthurian legend in The Once and Future King. Arthur's regal task of releasing the sword remains the same, but this time the reason for his success is different. This future king begins as an orphan. This is a tenuous position, especially in legend. Mediocrity is never ordained for fictional orphans; we know that this child can only be damned from the start or destined for greatness, and the early signs are not hopeful. He is bullied by his peers and earns the nickname 'Wart' by his adoptive brother, who -- unlike him -- is of legitimate birth. Shunned at large by those around him, the only person who is not dismissive of him is the wizard Merlyn. This is where the Wart's luck turns; Merlyn chooses to bestow upon him the privledge of an education in the hidden power of nature. He uses his magical powers to transform the young boy into the various animals of the countryside. In these borrowed forms he learns to hear and listen to the wisdom of the beasts. With each successive shape he becomes educated in their subtle language, which is the language of the natural world itself. All the extraneous aspects of his human life have been stripped away and his experience of nature becomes total, undeniable. It is no coincidence that this boy grows up to become the exalted king Arthur -- it is by virtue of this unlikely education that he gains the ability to unlock powers normally beyond the reach of mankind. By becoming a student of nature he has become the privledged guardian of its secrets, able to call forth the full potential of its latent forms. This is the meaning behind his unique legendary vocation.
But ordinary people cannot become animals, and wizards are inconveniently absent from our daily lives. By what means are we to speak with nature and hear its teachings? That humanity stands apart from nature is for us a common sentiment. What meaning can Arthur's tale have for us? What is the fate of someone like Törless, who can feel these powers but remains unable to make them fruitful?
Sinclair, the protagonist of Hermann Hesse's novel Demian, undergoes a modern version of the Wart's education. But there is no magic in his world; his society, like ours, is one fully committed to the materialistic viewpoint of the scientific revolution. Wizards are long extinct, and only madmen try to speak to animals or spirits.
Like Törless, Sinclair lives in a state of crisis, though he feels this differently. He lacks a clear moral center as well as Törless' natural sensitivities, and his world feels tangibly empty. His adolescent life is little more than vacillation between the mindless pleasures of physical gratification and the fierce loneliness of the individual searching for higher meaning. He is unable to find such meaning until he is given a private lesson in the subtleties of nature's wisdom:
Without my being entirely aware of it, the organist Pistorius had given me my first lesson when we were sprawled on the floor before the fire in his depressing hermit's room. Staring into the blaze had been a tonic for me, confirming tendencies that I had always had but never cultivated. (...) Even as a young boy I had been in the habit of gazing at bizarre natural phenomena, not so much observing them as surrendering to their magic, their confused, deep language. (...) I began to remember all this in the days after my visit to Pistorius, for I noticed that a certain strength and joy, an intensification of my self-awareness that I had felt since that evening, I owed exclusively to this prolonged staring into the fire. It was remarkably comforting and rewarding. (...) The surrender to Nature's irrational, strangely confused formations produces in us a feeling of inner harmony with the force responsible for these phenomena. We soon fall prey to the temptation of thinking of them as being our own moods, our own creations, and see the boundaries separating us from Nature begin to quiver and dissolve. (...) Our soul partakes of the constant creation of the world. For it is the same indivisible divinity that is active through us and in Nature. (...) Every natural form is latent within us, originates in the soul whose essence is eternity, whose essence we cannot know but which most often intimates itself to us as the power to love and create.
It is during Sinclair's first humbling experience before the prime elements of nature that he learns to hear the voice of the transcendent calling him to higher ends. It speaks to his deepest nature, in a strange new language meant specifically for him. This is a force whose existence his society denies -- and now he knows better. But how exactly is the power of the transcendent harnessed and made fruitful? His mentor, Pistorius, offers an explanation:
"we consist of everything the world consists of, each of us, (...) so we bear everything in our soul that once was alive in the soul of men. (... But) there's an immense difference between simply carrying the world within us and being aware of it. A madman can spout ideas that remind you of Plato, and a pious little seminary student rethinks deep mythological correspondences found among the Gnostics or in Zoroaster. But he isn't aware of them. He is a tree or stone, at best an animal, as long as he is not conscious. But as soon as the first spark of recognition dawns within him he is a human being. You wouldn't consider all the bipeds you pass on the street human beings simply because they walk upright and carry their young in their bellies nine months! It is obvious how many of them are fish or sheep, worms or angels, how many are ants, how many are bees! Well, each one of them contains the possibiliy of becoming human, but only by having an intimation of these possibilities, partially even by learning to make himself conscious of them; only in this respect are these possibilities his."
Wielding the power of the transcendent is typically the sole province of our greatest heroes, but this is not a task reserved only for legendary kings and ancient gods. This, Pistorius thinks, is a calling made to every human being -- we must make contact with the transcendent elements of our experience before we are worthy of calling ourselves human. We do this, he explains, by becoming aware of them; without this awareness we remain beastlike and incomplete. Pistorius is a modern Merlyn to the young Sinclair, who himself is a sort of orphan. He has been robbed of his cultural inheritance and has had to make his own way, without the guidance of society or the voice of nature, which has been obscured by human reason. This is the state in which he first comes to meet Pistorius.
Pistorius may lack the power to transform his student into an animal, but he can do even better: by transforming Sinclair's awareness of the world, he can change him from a beast to a human. Here there is no need for magic -- just the human power of striking on the right name, knowing the proper words. The values of the natural world are not gained by birthright, but are open to all who will listen to and discipher their language.
"Gaze into the fire, into the clouds, and as soon as the inner voices begin to speak, surrender to them, don't ask first whether it's permitted or would please your teachers or father, or some god. You will ruin yourself if you do that. That way you will become earthbound, a vegetable."
This is Pistorius' instruction to Sinclair. He, like most of us, needs to be instructed in the subtleties of nature's language. Even the legendary Arthur of White's story required the tutelage of Merlyn to realize his own potential mastery of nature's elements. Fewer in number are those who possess an instinctive sensitivity to nature's voices, like Törless; his is that special extra sense belonging to the oracles and prophets of human history. But regardless of birthright, the call of nature demands to be embraced and approached with conscious intent until it can be heard clearly and forcefully -- otherwise its whispers are too easily drowned out in the background noise of everyday existence. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn learned this after being sentenced to a life of harsh physical labour in the prison camps of Soviet Russia. Life within the communist society had been so dominated by concerns for mere survival or material comfort that higher values such as beauty and truth had no currency and were all but absent from daily life. This, he says, was precisely what made his society so twisted. It was not until Solzhenitsyn was resigned to hard labour and eventual death that he began to hear with clarity his own duty to higher values. These even became more precious than survival itself. He knew that it is better to die than to give them up, because it is by them alone that we possess our humanity. There are ways to foster our awareness of the transcendent world as well as ways to block it out and ignore it, and the latter is one of the most insidious tricks of the tyrant. By keeping us unconscious of the world's transcendent potential he renders us little more than beasts.
For Sinclair, establishing contact with the transcendent elements of his experience is only the beginning of his journey. If the power of nature is superhuman, what does this mean for those who embrace it as their guide? Cynics may regard this as foolish, a willing enslavement to an impossible ideal. But every culture has heroes, individuals who somehow venture beyond the normal boundaries of human life. The cynics would be justified if we were not furnished with definite examples of individuals who skirt close enough to such ideals that they are celebrated as heroes of mankind. Socrates serves as such a figure of the Greek civilization; and he was perhaps the first to give expression to the voice of natural experience and its consequence for human life.
Socrates referred to an inner voice he called his daemon; it spoke to him plainly and clearly, told him what he ought to do. It was within him, but at the same time free of normal human limitations because it served as his link to the super-human values of nature that underlie all experience. This was the source of his earthly powers -- he, alone in his time, had achieved a state of awareness where the inherent values of his experience were refined into tangible commands. Submission to nature is required before we can learn its language, which as Socrates demonstrates is what will fully link us to it. Socrates is not alone in this achievement; the German artist Goethe also believed in a daemon of his own. It came as a consequence of a special sort of relationship to nature that endowed him with insight otherwise beyond the limitations of human senses. He wrote: "the Genius of Nature shall take you by the hand, lead you through many countries, and show you life -- that strange restlessness of men -- as a whole." The lone individual is incapable of such total knowledge. Goethe knew that only by conscious subordination to the currents running under the surface of all things is true understanding of life possible.
But subordination is always potentially dangerous, especially in the face of such powers beyond our own. Sinclair, like Törless, notices this potential threat in his newly awakened senses, recognizes the fine distinction between visionary and lunatic. He warns us about this in the beginning of his story:
"I have ceased to question stars and books; I have begun to listen to the teachings my blood whispers to me. My story (...) is neither sweet nor harmonious, as invented stories are; it has the taste of nonsense and chaos, of madness and dreams -- like the lives of all men who stop deceiving themselves."
All genius is tinged with madness. But the difference between sanity and genius lies in the ability to turn the voices of the world to useful purpose, to tame them. Without this it is a wild force, more destructive than it is benevolent -- this is the lesson of young Törless. Part of our duty is to submit ourselves before the powers of nature, and then to turn it to use by decoding and mastering its language. In doing this we elevate ourselves to communication with the world's transcendent aspects, which is our greatest calling as human beings. But there is danger in this work -- and what protection can we possibly have to protect us from the full volume of transcendent speech? What is to prevent us from soaring off into madness? Pistorius thinks he knows:
"Everybody has it. It is the feeling of being linked with the roots of power, but one soon becomes afraid of this feeling. It's damned dangerous! That is why most people shed their wings and prefer to walk and obey the law. But not you. You go on flying. And look! You discover that you gradually begin to master your flight, that to the great general force that tears you upward there is added a delicate, small force of your own, an organ, a steering mechanism. How marvelous! Lacking that, you would be drawn up to the heights, powerless -- which is what happens to madmen. They possess deeper intimations than people who remain earthbound, but they have no key and no steering mechanism and roar off into infinity. But you, Sinclair, you are going about it the right way. How? You probably don't know yourself. You are doing it with a new organ, with something that regulates your breathing. And now you will realize how little 'individuality' your soul has in its deepest reaches. For it does not invent this regulator! It is not new! You've borrowed it: it has existed for thousands of years."
This organ is that thing we call our conscience, that still voice that is both part of us and yet free of human limitations, of uncertainty or doubt. It is precisely this ancient organ that Socrates and Goethe speak of when they speak of their daemons. These are their connections to the transcendent forces of the world, tempered and made fully fruitful by the distinctly human gifts of conscious awareness and language. Without these they are chaotic and indistinct, and lead to madness. These forces may be wielded differently from person to person -- whether fighting for Socratic ideals of justice and wisdom or Goethe's creative pursuit of beauty, of harmony of form. Their purpose becomes the expression of the user's individuality. But these essential values come from the same place, are obtained by the same process. Learning the ways of nature is required before the rocks and lakes of our world will offer their value to us. This is a story repeated by our greatest heroes, fictional and real; Hesse and Musil's characters illuminate parts of this path for us, and their journey is one that has been undertaken by the celebrated heroes of our own history. This is the essence of the Arthurian myth as we have inherited it through the ages. The heroic figure in myth and life alike has an appeal that is universal. They serve as ideals, but the central tools of their journey -- consciousness and language -- are available to every individual. They represent the essential traits of man taken to their fullest limit.
Every human task involves the extraction of value from the mundane. Physical and intellectual labour have this much in common. The pinnacle of this transformative ability is our art. Like mythological heroes, the great artist is a celebrated figure. His power is not political or military in nature, like most of his legendary representatives, but his achievements have nonetheless earned him a special, almost magical power. Art is the process by which the elements of nature are given a shape and form that reveals their latent values to everyone. Colour, shape and sound exist everywhere. Their qualities are known to everyone; they are primary elements of human experience as surely as wind and stone are prime elements of nature -- and in these, too, lie dormant powers. They are, after all, the vehicles of our experience of the world in which we live. This is the language of nature as it falls on human ears. There is no alien dimension in a painting, no divine note or syllable in a symphony or poem; art emerges from the senses yet exercises powers beyond them. Art, as nature, has secret power that is felt by many but commanded by few. It gives expression to the transcendent values that exist as potential within the elements of our experience. These are the elusive spirits of nature that our ancestors looked to for direction and salvation. This power calls to us to be gripped and realized. The artist is celebrated because he alone performs this magical task on our behalf.
Franz Kafka understood the essence of the relationship between the artist and his experience. He writes of artistic inspiration in his diary:
Stay at your table and listen. Don't even listen, just wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked. It cannot do otherwise. It will writhe before you in raptures.
Kafka knows that the defining trait of the artist is, at bottom, a practiced skill in the modes of proper experience; the artistic vision is an inevitable consequence of the ability to listen properly. The primary requirement is patient submission before his own experience; this is the only fruitful method of perception. The artist can access the hidden powers of the world because he has submitted himself to its native language. He knows that they will not speak to us except when we approach them without pretense or human vanity. Only the humble listener is able to discover their full value. It is not only in myths that powerful forms lie dormant within worthless stones, and it is not only born kings who can release them. The proper attitude towards our experience is required to make these forces manifest themselves. Before this attitude, explains Kafka, they cannot do otherwise.
The twin human abilities of consciousness and language are developed to a new level in the artist. His power is similarly twofold; he is a perceiver, able to see into nature and sense the transcendent values latent within it -- this requires a certain submission before the natural world. But he is also its shaper, responsible for giving it a form that fully expresses these otherwise hidden forces. As Goethe writes: "The artist has a twofold relation to nature; he is at once her master and her slave." All art depends on nature because this is the sole source of human experience. But it also extends its power, manifests the values that, until given full expression in art, exist only in potential. This is a process that occurs only when the human powers of language and consciousness establish a link between themselves and the superhuman powers of the transcendent world.
We pray to the forces of nature because we sense their hidden power. We value our artists, priests and prophets because it is by their effort that this power is fully revealed. It is they alone who give their voices to the natural world, rendering it fruitful and benevolent. They are the links between the human and transcendent worlds. This is a kind of magic that society rarely condones but always admires. It seems rare and exclusive but it is a power potentially available to everyone -- and this itself is the very reason we are compelled by it. It is an extension of the most elemental qualities of human existence.
It is little surprise that this link is a source of such earthly power. As human beings we are acutely aware of our limitations in the face of the world we live in. Its destructive faces are well-known and always feared. Our heroes are that rare breed that, by virtue of their conscious connection to nature, are able to parley with it, to reveal its benevolent side. Art reaches into the natural world and carries to the surface the treasures that lie hidden in its depths. "Art is the child of Nature; yes, her darling child, in whom we trace the features of the mother's face, her aspect and her attitude," Longfellow writes. The artistic endeavour is universally pleasing because it is the revealing of the best and most generous aspects of the world; the face of the archetypal mother.
But the artist is not a creator in the ultimate sense; his power is to organize and shape. He may generate new forms, but he is always working with borrowed materials. This is the essence of the human sense of separation from the world of nature; even as its masters, we are its servants. Total mastery of its power is beyond us. We don't make beauty, we express it. We don't create truth, but expose it. The hand that places the sword in the rock is not the same as the hand that pulls it back out -- but this exchange of ownership is the closest connection we have to their creator. This is why the heights of aesthetic experience carry the ineradicable taste of rapture; this is the great power of nature we are linked to as human beings. We all have it, at least in potential; it is our duty to develop it as fully as we can. The heroes' quest is never purely a quest for power, though it almost always comes along the way. His journey is one of self-redemption by self-development. Power is always a consequence and sometimes a motive, but never the ultimate goal.
Submission to nature is always the first step. Without this honesty or authenticity we lose the power to hear the voice of nature. It is little surprise that heroes, artists, and saints alike always have a close relationship to the natural world. The prophet is known to march out into the desert or climb the mountain to best hear the soundless voices. It is here, on the frontiers of experience, where the vulgar babble of human concerns is the quietest that they speak with the most clarity. This is the domain of god and spirit. They speak in the natural language of the elements, through waves, storms and fire. Symbolism is the oldest language of mankind. It is no coincidence that when God speaks, it is through the bushing bush -- the conscious flame. Divinity is born where fire meets conscience. This is God's frontier, and he waits for us all.
Kafka, Franz. Diaries 1910-1923, trans. Joseph Kresh
Musil, Robert. The Confusions of Young Törless, trans. Eithne Wilkins & Ernst Kaiser
Solzhenitsyn, Alexandr. The Gulag Archipelago, trans. Thomas Whitney & Harry Willetts
Hesse, Hermann. Demian, trans. Michael Roloff & Michael Lebeck
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Autobiography, trans. John Oxenford
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. Kéramos