Verba Vinumque

The intoxication of Mallarmé’s abolit bibelot d’inanité sonore lies there on the page, not here in my nervous system.

Roger Scruton in this particular essay is mostly concerned with drink.  He wants to praise intoxication as opposed to drunkenness and draws a parallel with poetry to help make his point.  Drunkenness is an effect (“a state of unconsciousness” he says) – the result of too much or bad wine.  Intoxication, however, is a “state of [elevated] consciousness.”  It is the thing itself (the wine, the words), alive in us.  When we consume it “the wine lives in [our] intoxication,” heightening our senses in the way that poetry does when we read it.

That’s the idea, or something like it.  I find the distinction helpful but a little precious.  More interesting to me is the simple fact that Scruton chose words and wine as parallel cases.  Later in the article he discusses wine’s familiar role in sacred traditions through the centuries.  Scruton doesn’t go there, but of course poetry – and the idea of the “word” – has played its own role in religion.  The composition and recitation of poetry may seem to us secular activities (Hopkins thought writing a dangerous distraction from his religious obligations), but this wasn’t always so. 

I think it’s fair to suggest that poetry has for most of its history been understood as a sacred endeavor, a transaction with the supernatural.  Most of what falls under the heading of prophecy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is, in fact, poetry.  And prior to, say, the Renaissance, much of western poetry was at least tangentially religious in nature.  To a degree this was true for the Greeks too, though there is clearly a secular poetry in the Roman era (Horace, Catullus, etc.), and there are other exceptions.  But for a great many of our ancestors, poetry was in its lowest forms magical (binding spells, curses) and in its highest forms synonymous with prophecy.  It was either a tool to harness the spirits, or the inspired product of divine possession.  Survivals of poetry’s magical and sibylline heritage are found, of course, in Blake, but also, I think, in Whitman and Dickinson and others.  And even when the subject matter is explicitly secular many of the poetic forms still common today resemble nothing so much as prayers, charms or incantations.

Prior to poetry is the Word itself.  In the Pentateuch God literally speaks the universe into being; all things are the offspring of his words.  In Talmudic tradition the names which Adam gave the animals in Eden contained and defined their essences in a way no confused post-Babel tongue could recapture.  Early Christians wed these Jewish elements to the Greek notion of a divine Logos, the God-Word that is the originating, unifying and animating principle of the cosmos – identifying that Logos with Jesus Christ.  (“In the beginning was the Logos,” etc.)  Later, Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysus and Maximus the Confessor expounded a Christian Neoplatonism asserting that the inward animating principles of created things, their individual lower-case “words” (logoi), could be known again in their original clarity when the soul is illumined by the Logos that originally spoke them into being.  Furthermore, these logoi serve as pledge of an eschatological reconciliation of all things with the divine Logos.  The cosmos, then, is text within text: a universe composed of words spoken by the Word, an opened codex in which all the words had been shuffled but are in process of being recomposed into proper poetry by the God-Word.

Which is all very fascinating, but somewhere along the line (no more than five hundred years ago)  everything changed.  To be sure, there’s still enough innate power in the word today – enough intoxication, to use Scruton’s term – to enchant and influence us.  And the secularization of the word has opened unexpected and seemingly inexhaustible channels for literature and poetry.  But at the same time the metaphysical scope of the word’s operation has been restricted.  Whether it was the rediscovery of classical learning, the invention of the printing press, the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Reason, or something else, the way in which we understand and handle words is different.  When Mircea Eliade’s “de-sacralization of the cosmos” began, the word was the first of its victims.

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One response to “Verba Vinumque

  1. Pingback: Orpheus « The Lumber Room

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