Gongora’s “Solitudes”

Luis de Gongora (1561-1627) published Solitudes or Soledades in 1612, representative of the era of Spanish Golden Age poetry. But these Solitudes have little to do with solitude. The poems are set in isolated physical locales and reflective of solitary landscapes. But the lengthy poems are of little interest to solitaries, barely meriting an article or extended essay. As their modern translator Edward Meryon Wilson notes in his 1965 preface to the poems:

The story of The Solitudes is not important in itself and has little narrative interest. It is merely a convenient peg on which Gongora could hang his superb descriptions, elaborated by all the arts of metaphor and hyperbole, and interspersed with beautiful lyrics. The action takes place in a world that is curiously artificial and rich. …

Thus, the first Solitude (there are only two anyway, the planned additional two never having been composed) begins with a shipwrecked youth who explores the shore and discovers a shepherd’s hut. Gongora describes the hut as a hermitage, a “well-found” hermitage, further rhapsodizing about it as “Temple of Palas,” as “Flora’s granary,” as “Edifice sublime,” as a place where there is no pride, flattery, envy, ambitious care, favor, false security.

After these paeans of praise, the poem quickly moves on to even more artificial sentiments.

Gongora’s artificiality is in part a device of his era, and in part an ignorance of his supposed subject. The poet had little interest in solitude. He was of a comfortable family, and became a church deacon, ordained a priest late in life, often reprimanded for his habits, including gambling and bullfights. Accused by the local bishop of not attending church services, Gongora responded that he attended whenever his superiors did. Gongora was fond of wealth, talkative, argumentative, and slothful. His feud with rival poet Francisco de Quevedo was played out in derisive poems that only lowered Gongora’s reputation. Ultimately his penchant for card-playing left him impoverished in old age. Too late to make the acquaintance of solitude and hermitages.

Buddh Gaia

Late Irish thinker John Moriarty once told an interviewer that he had been writing the same book all his life. Thus, among those books best singled out is Night Journey to Buddh Gaia as representative of Moriarty’s theme: the “twelve woes” of cultural unconscious, simmering below the surface of Western thought and action. He itemizes them as representative myth or history:

the pre-cosmic Abyss
the Cedar Forest
the sandbank of Apophus
the pit in Lascaux
Pasiphae’s calving ground
the Theatre of Dionysius in Athens
the Colosseum in Rome
the Green Chapel
the cemetery in Elsinore
the deck of the Pequod
Dover Beach

Note how as time passes, myth becomes more and more history, until time and psyche converge.

Each “woe” is not merely an act of cultural violence but a reverberation of the haunting instinct of aggression within the human psyche made large into the cultural psyche or unconscious, spilling out over time to belie any sense of moral or epistemological progress in the West. Moriarty cites Nietzsche’s comment that in his time has been discovered that the Jurassic will have its say in us. From Mesopotamia to Egypt to Judea to Greece to Rome and on into the modern era, the West has always been intent on slaying dragons, on vanquishing enemies, on applying a “final solution.” And thus, in short, the West has “failed.”

Moriarty is a grand storyteller, and his recreation of the myths, weaving back and forth to illustrate their import with philosophy and literary analysis, creates a intriguing canvas of high points of insight. For example, the felling of the first tree in the Cedar Forest — Gilgamesh’s quest to slay the beast and forest-guardian Huwara — reverberates down the centuries as the first ecocide. Though that is not the term Moriarty uses.

Of Job and Macbeth, Moriarty writes:

There are such nights. There is suffering. Therefore there is not nihil, the nihil that would make possible the consolation that is the gift of nihilism. Is this Hell? Not yet, because at this early hour of the night there is still the buoyancy of desperation. And giving cruelty a medium in which to be cruel to the very end, there is the buoyancy of hope still glowing in its own ashes.

Hope for what? For transcendence? The history of the West belies it. Hamlet is caught between the ontological and the anthropological, between the noble and reasonable against the nihilistic. And

Down the road from the cemetery of Elsinore — nihilistically and dualistically down the road from it — is Auschwitz. And there he [Hamlet] is now, ascending past three castle windows, the corpse of Ophelia or it is Polonius pulling him down. It is the awful deadweight of our recent history, including Verdun and Auschwitz, that pulls us down.

And yet we knew it was coming, Nietzsche knew it, saying:

I have discovered for myself that the old human and animal life, indeed the entire prehistory and past of all sentient being, works on, loves on, hates on, thinks on, in me. … I suddenly woke up in the midst of this dream, but only to the consciousness that I am dreaming and that I must go on dreaming lest I perish — as a somnambulist must go on dreaming lest he fall.

So the West goes on dreaming, unconsciously reproducing the horrors of the past on into the present, and justifying it each time, all over again. Thus Auschwitz updates the Western psyche, it becomes what Moriarty calls “a new anthropological category .. [a] phylogenetic recrudescence, … all that is instinctively and rationally tauric in us.”

Is there no way out of the labyrinth? For Moriarty, the solution is a cosmic Christology, a reconceptualizing of Jesus as historical but also cosmic. Where Buddha died in his bed (not Moriarty’s phrase but his import), Jesus goes one step further. Jesus enters suffering with an existential choice: he neither fights (recreating the animal psyche) nor flees (a like recreation) but enters directly into the karmic and transcendent by taking the cup, the “Karmic Cup,” and showing culture and individuals what is the only way out.

Jesus is religiously validated not by

conformity to Old Testament prevision of Him but by what He so originally and so isolatedly underwent. … In doing and undergoing, Jesus is so new that in His presence the New Testament catches sight of little else but it own preconceptions. … [He] is a Neotype in whose presence all archetypes undergo redemptive reconfiguration. … Instead of doing the lazy thing, instead of assimilating Jesus to an available and convenient archetype, what a better apocalypse it would be were we to endure the full shock of Him as neotype. In Him, after so many invalidating false-starts, we have found evolutionary legitimacy.

Not that Moriarty is presenting an institutional figure, a figure crowned with dogma and definition, but a bold new myth that feeds from the East’s methodologies (especially Hindu and Buddhist) to find how the West must do it. He does not mention “fight or flight.” He does not say the Buddha died in his bed. He does not dwell much on Eastern thought at all. But one can pull out the useful threads, extrapolate them, safeguard them from unhelpful criticism, and see where they take us. Moriarty says that the Western mystics (like Eckhart, Suso, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross) will have the right ontology, the mature anthropology or psychology, the right sense of transcending without offending, the right interface with Eastern thought.

Nor is there mention of new theology or Teilhard de Chardin (unless it is somewhere in the 600-plus pages, which are without index). Gawain and Kurtz (of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) are to Moriarty as important to the equation as any philosophical treatise. But all depends on a new model, he argues, a new neotype for modernity.

What Jesus achieved is beyond reckoning by myth and mahavakya, by upanishad and sutra, by the Bible, by the Critique of Pure Reason, by The Origin of Species. … In Jesus in Gethsemane all the Earth’s ages are psychologically synchronous.

Moriarty’s dream of restoring Christianity seems like Catholic nostalgia of the post-World War II sort in, say, Christopher Dawson or Jacques Maritain. He even presents 5 points for the refounding of Europe — spiritual principles, ecumenical principles, but not likely to go further than the hermit’s cell, the poet’s table, or the quiet conversation of like minds, sufficiently updated and post-modern. Buddh Gaia is that new city on earth, that new earth, reconciling spirit and aspiration in the new and refashioned model of Jesus. The night journey is history’s journey, humanity’s journey, the Westerner’s tortured journey through the psyche and how to get ready for the dawn — at least in one’s self, if not in Western culture at large. (One may say confidently that it is too late for the latter.) But Moriarty’s sparks of insight brighten that long night’s journey.

Lost key

The late Irish thinker John Moriarty tells a Sufi story, often called a Nasrudin story for the main character. It runs something like this, or you can listen to it with Moriarty’s narration.

A man is walking home at night. As he nears his house he reaches for the key in his pocket and cannot find it there. He checks other pockets and the house key is not in any pocket. He happens to come near a streetlamp, which is shining its light in a little circle around the post. Here the man starts walking around in the light, looking for the key, then he gets on all fours looking for the key within the circle of light. A constable approaches and asks what he is doing. The man explains that he has lost his key. The constable says, “I’ll help you,” and both are on hands and knees in the small circle of light looking for the key. “It’s definitely not here,” says the constable getting to his feet. “Are you sure you lost it here?” The man gets up. “On, no,” he says, pointing off to the dark. “I lost it over there.” “Then why are you looking over here?” the constable says in exasperation. “Because it’s too dark to look for it over there,” answers the man.

And that, says Moriarty, is what we have been doing for centuries — looking for answers, looking for the key to the mystery, looking to philosophical and spiritual resolutions, within the small circle of light that we happen to have already, from reason and plain sensory experience. But it is the same light over the centuries, and the lamp will not show more light but the same concentric little circle evermore.

What we must do is realize that the darkness is not foreign or hostile or impenetrable. And that is where the key lies. The darkness is part of the light and of the universe and of ourselves. Only we must enter darkness in a different way, leaving behind our sensory-intellectual tools, entering the darkness like the mystics, like Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross, the latter who sang “O night, more lovely than the dawn.” Moriarty says that this is the limitation of traditional Christianity (and essentially of the entire West).

The thrust of Moriarty’s thinking, culminating in his book Night Journey to Buddh Gaia, presents a grand exploration into the search for the key, looking to the dark spots of mythology, psychology, religion, poetry, and philosophy.

More on this in the next entry.