The Dark Path / There and Here
Two Cross-Genre Texts
‘the linking-up of things’: An Introduction to David Miller’s The Dark Path and There and Here
Poet David Miller has worked across genres throughout his career, challenging conventional boundaries between poetry, short story, life writing and essay. Even his debut collection, The Caryatids (London: Enitharmon, 1975) features the poem ‘Vermeer’ which, Robert Hampson notes, ‘is already poised on the boundary between poetry and prose’, each paragraph ‘a precise annotation of a particular painting by Vermeer’.[i] This ekphrastic confluence of prose-poetry and art scholarship represents a genre-crossing tendency that persists in many of Miller’s recent publications: the ‘children’s stories for adults’ in Towards a Menagerie (Tucson: Chax Press, 2019), which engage with historical writers and artists encountered by the tales’ animal heroes; the collaging of autobiographical fragments and theological reflection in his magnificent prose-poem sequence Spiritual Letters (London: Contraband, 2017); and, as editor, The Alchemist’s Mind (Hastings: Reality Street, 2012), his anthology of poets’ narrative prose. In other projects, Miller combines not only genres of writing, but disparate art forms. His poetry has cross-pollinated with painting to produce ‘visual sonnets’ like those in Black, Grey and White (London: Veer Books, 2011), while his expertise as an improvising jazz clarinettist has led to a host of poetry and music collaborations.
The UK poetry scene has lately become increasingly interested in interdisciplinary modes like creative criticism. The time seems right for a reminder that David Miller has pioneered such practices, hence the republication here of two of his genre-crossing, creative-critical texts. One, The Dark Path (1998), meditates on contemporary poet Fanny Howe’s articulation of ‘negative theology’, the tradition of considering the divine in terms of what God is not, rather than what God is. The other piece, There and Here (1982), addresses 19th-century French writer Gérard de Nerval; it was composed in the 1970s before and after Miller’s 1972 migration to England from his native Australia.[ii]
Miller’s focus on these two authors is apt, since both are themselves authors of cross-genre texts. Many of Howe’s works question distinctions between prose-poem, essay and memoir; her collection The Winter Sun (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2009) offers a good selection, as does Night Philosophy (Brussels: Divided Publishing, 2020). The latter was issued through an art-writing press, putting Howe into conversation with the publisher’s interdisciplinary roster of authors, artists and thinkers. Night Philosophy thus makes this a timely juncture to revisit Miller’s survey of Howe’s thought.
Nerval is best-known for his sonnet sequence Les Chimères (1854), but also penned semi-autobiographical prose works that relate his psychological experiences to cosmological musings. Nerval’s prose, however, maintains the attention to linguistic detail associated with poems; the piece on which Miller concentrates, Aurélia (1855), is analysed in William Beauchamp’s The Style of Nerval’s Aurélia (The Hague: Mouton, 1976) using close-reading techniques usually reserved for poetry. There and Here echoes Nerval’s themes of imprisonment, prophecy and dreams, and positions Miller’s own combination of criticism, literary biography and memoir as descending from Nerval’s practice.
Whether addressing Howe or Nerval, then, Miller applies a cross-genre approach to a writer who elides distinctions between literary forms. The Dark Path collages ideas and quotations regarding Christian theology, Native American narratives, Romantic and modernist poetics, abstract art and Buddhism, arranged on the page using ‘open field’ techniques drawn from modern poetry. It reads like a commonplace book of quotes whose purpose can feel elusive as they oscillate between poetry, interpretation and spiritual instruction. However, this form relates strongly to the topic of negative theology, as the citations all present efforts to explore the obscurity of the divine. A conundrum emerges: the godhead cannot be known except insofar as it is recognised as unknowable; any attempt to mentally represent God is negated by the thinker’s consciousness of such imagery’s limitations. Miller’s collage technique perfectly conveys this mystery. His text cannot give an authoritative account of the divine, or even of the divine’s unknowability, since the numinous transcends any individual viewpoint that can be embedded in language. Instead, Miller juxtaposes multiple descriptions of the contingent, imperfect nature of description itself.
The mystery need not invite despair. Rather, one senses here the sublime that Miller, in his essay collection Art and Disclosure (Exeter: Stride, 1998), detects in Ad Reinhardt’s paintings: ‘it takes long and intense scrutiny before details of the cross-shape begin to emerge, but as soon as they do they disappear into the black monochrome field, and the process of this appearing and disappearing […] is strangely awe-inspiring’.[iii] There is also a connection to ‘negative capability’, the power of poetic creation that John Keats accesses through ‘being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.[iv] To get lost, to explore the unknowable via the ‘Dark Path’ of Miller’s title, enables an unorthodox kind of knowledge, achieved through ‘sojourning with unease, affliction, even dereliction’, and putting even the traveller’s selfhood in doubt, so one begins ‘To lose oneself – to be moved (shaken – | thrown) outside of oneself; beyond oneself.’ To communicate this sensation of becoming othered from oneself, Miller quotes Howe’s The Quietist (Oakland: O Books, 1992):
I didn’t doze but let my sad feelings drift away until the whole of my innerverse had been sucked from my body out the window. While my limbs then lay like wood or paper which had fallen from a great height, my sight looked back. Or of the two souls which occupy the person in a sort of figure eight, the upper one looked back at the lower one.[v]
Like God, selfhood can be recognised and believed in because its very unfathomability is the key fact of its existence. Howe and Miller propose that such self-(un)knowledge engenders humility that manifests as poverty – what Miller calls ‘being “poor in spirit”. Non-possessiveness; harmlessness. Non-attachment to the world of power, domination, acquisition.’ This poverty is spiritual as well as economic; however, one might achieve a paradoxical richness of virtue through thus sublating one’s own needs to those of others. To tread the ‘Dark Path’ through the night of unknowability therefore discloses not just poetic and theological, but moral imperatives.
In notes to The Dark Path, Miller says the text shares ‘something in terms of its use of format’ with Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem A Throw of the Dice (1897), which is celebrated for its experimental use of page space. There is deeper kinship, though: Mallarmé and Miller are both concerned with poverty, with stripping reality down to minimal differentiations from what Mallarmé calls ‘indeterminate | waves | in which all reality dissolves’.[vi] These waves manifest visually as the page’s whiteness, across which the text threads its own ‘Dark Path’. The number on Mallarmé’s titular dice is ‘a scattered dying hallucination […] springing up as denied and closed off when made manifest’, yet offering ‘evidence of a totality however meagre’.[vii] Mallarmé’s ontological poverty thus entails poetic discovery akin to the fruits of Miller and Howe’s diminution of selfhood.
The Dark Path, then, is ‘syncretic and heterodox’, as Miller calls Gérard de Nerval’s rapprochement between diverse religions and mythologies. Indeed, the work seems to result from a process that, in There and Here, Miller recalls developing partly in response to Nerval:
In my own early prose texts I worked, out of Nerval and [Malcolm] Lowry, with coincidence of events (“the linking-up of things”) as the subject-matter, and with juxtapositions, interrelational linking or cutting, as “method”. […] In terms of working operations, I tended towards a direct handling of material, cutting up my texts and taping them back together in different combinations.
It is therefore fitting that The Dark Path develops ideas previously discussed by Miller in There and Here, finding an alternative route to related conclusions. In fact, Miller’s earlier text can be read in light of the later one, revealing Gérard de Nerval as another walker on the ‘Dark Path’, who seeks to transmute his soul via alchemical processes ‘all of which take place in darkness’. However, Nerval’s concept of the unknowable differs from the sacred mystery revered by Miller and Howe. While Nerval’s poetry sometimes conveys the unknowable’s holiness (‘The saint of the pit is stronger in my eyes!’), elsewhere he describes his journey in terrifying terms. In Aurélia, during an episode of mental illness, his ‘Dark Path’ becomes ‘a descent into hell’, a nekyia or underworld quest like those in Greek mythology. In retrospect, Nerval recognises his ordeal as an allegory for ‘introversion of the conscious mind into the deeper layers of the unconscious psyche’, as C.G. Jung would later describe the nekyia.[viii] The knowledge is of scant comfort; Nerval’s nekyia in his sonnet ‘El Desdichado’ (from Les Chimères) is lit by ‘the black sun of Melancholia’. In The Dark Path, Miller and Howe find creative potential amid perplexity, but for Nerval such obscurity is mostly a source of trauma.
The difference between Nerval and Fanny Howe is especially clear in the former’s own sense of doubling, of being outside himself. Whereas Howe’s doubling conveys tenderness and care towards her othered self, doppelgängers in Nerval are adversarial. When his duplicate manifests before him, he takes it as ‘a sign of one’s own imminent death’ (the phantom later transpires to have foreshadowed the death of Nerval’s beloved Aurélia). The motif also appears in Nerval’s L’Histoire du calife Hakem (1847), an account of Al-Hakim (985–1021), the Caliph whose teachings are foundational for the Druze religion. This faith, like The Dark Path, began as a synthesis of belief-systems; it is still followed in parts of the Levant. In Nerval’s account, while imprisoned in an asylum, Al-Hakim becomes convinced that his double has taken the form of a visiting minister. The Caliph later sees his double again and views it as ‘the most foreboding augury’. Miller argues that Nerval regards Al-Hakim and the Caliph’s romantic rival, the boatman Yousouf, as ‘two halves of a single reality […] magus and platonic lover.’ Nerval’s term for these doubles, ferouer, recurs in Aurélia, where the poet believes that his own doppelgänger has replaced him in Aurélia’s affections.
Nerval eventually appreciates what Howe recognises: the divinity inherent in the double’s unknowability. ‘It was indeed He, the mystic brother, Who drifted further and further from my soul and warned me in vain. The Beloved Bridegroom, King of Glory, it is He who has judged and condemned me,’ he laments.
Miller’s account of Nerval is interspersed with autobiographical passages that candidly portray his own experience of depression. Indeed, the text is poetic autobiography (like much of Nerval’s prose), told through Miller’s literary engagement with Nerval. The Frenchman’s visions, Miller says, ‘helped to consolidate my own approach to a horizon, and the nature of that horizon’. Sometimes Nerval’s epiphanies are echoed more subtly. When Miller recounts a childhood living above his father’s brass foundry, one recalls metallurgy’s ambivalent symbolism in Nerval: it represents potential for alchemical transmutation, yet also suggests the ‘subterranean fire’ of ‘infernal regions’.
‘I am already sick of this particular story,’ Miller adds, after describing an acquaintance’s attempts to extract such information about his childhood and early reading. Mapping of Miller’s background onto Nerval’s sad story is clearly inappropriate, not least considering revelations in The Dark Path and There and Here about the fundamental unknowability of any self. This is why the two texts work so powerfully when paired: any attempt to know Nerval or Miller through There and Here carries its own annihilation via the principles of negative theology outlined in The Dark Path. After all, if selfhood is an unresolvable mystery, then seeking knowledge in another’s autobiography is in one sense a doomed enterprise, yet may help each reader to recognise their own fundamental unknowability.
Conversely, in There and Here, Nerval’s remembrance of love is condensed to an impregnable Rose Pearl whose humility ‘resisted the hammer-blow of pride’. The image suggests that when self is negated in service of others (as The Dark Path proposes), the unknowable core of oneself, externalised as the double (Nerval’s mystic brother), becomes all the stronger, a mystery that is sublime rather than merely terrifying. Here, Howe’s poverty of spirit provides the darkness required for an alchemical working that yields spiritual wealth.
Each work is therefore the other’s ferouer. They negate one another but, doing so, prove each other’s points about negation. The same applies to how notionally distinct literary forms interact in these texts and throughout Miller’s publications. Each genre recognises its double in the moment of cross-genre encounter. Poetry manifests in wordless strokes of paint; art history is reflected in children’s fiction; autobiography is sublated into the service of literary criticism, yet becomes truer as autobiography through humbling itself. Each genre looks into its own eyes when it meets another, becoming more meaningful through immersion in what once seemed external to it. This is just one outcome of The Dark Path’s recognition of ‘Like and unlike images, image and imagelessness – | different ways of disclosing, making-manifest… | yet there is no contradiction between them.’ Miller’s transcendence of genre boundaries is reason enough to revisit The Dark Path and There and Here, to assess possible directions for creative-critical writing at a time when the form is thriving. Equally valuable, though, are wider implications of how Miller finds the other in oneself and oneself in another. His texts bring this discovery into conversation with themes like mental health, faith, and poverty, enabling reciprocal care between selved other and othered self, so that his crossing of genre boundaries becomes a model for moral engagement with the world.
If Fanny Howe’s figure eight, representing the interconnection of her two souls, is turned sideways, it becomes the symbol for infinity.
[i] Robert G. Hampson, ‘‘Beyond Allegory, Beyond Dream’: David Miller’s Prose Texts’, At the Heart of Things: The Poetry and Prose of David Miller, editor uncredited (Exeter: Stride, 1994), pp. 21–30: p. 21.
[ii] An earlier version of The Dark Path appeared in Five Fingers Review, no. 17 (1998). The present version debuted as a limited-edition booklet (Charleston, IL: tel-let, 2000). There and Here was published by Bran’s Head Books (Frome: 1982). Excerpts are in: Golden Handcuffs Review, vol. 1 no. 10 (2008); Miller, A River Flowing Beside (San Francisco: hawkhaven press, 2013); and Miller, Reassembling Still: Collected Poems (Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2014). This is the first republication of the full book.
[iii] Miller, Art and Disclosure: Seven Essays (Exeter: Stride, 1998), p. 9.
[iv] Unless otherwise noted, all citations are from The Dark Path and There and Here (including quotations therein).
[v] A more normative account of negative theology in The Quietist is Brian Teare, ‘The Apophatic Pilgrim: Simone Weil and Fanny Howe’, Quo Anima: Innovation and Spirituality in Contemporary Women’s Poetry, ed. Jennifer Phelps and Elizabeth Robinson (Akron: The University of Akron Press, 2019), pp. 6–22.
[vi] Stéphane Mallarmé, Collected Poems, trans. Henry Weinfield (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1994), p. 142.
[vii] Mallarmé, p. 140.
[viii] C.G. Jung, The Collected Works, Vol. 18: The Symbolic Life, ed. Herbert Read, Michael Fordham and Gerhard Adler, trans. R.F.C. Hull (Hove and New York: Routledge, 1977, 2014), p. 38.
The Dark Path
with an art of interpretation and possibility, or of “hypothetical situations”
(the painters Boyd & Evans, in conversation)
“Like” images (“unlike” images)
Exploration of possibilities –
(lack of finality or closure)
Oriole said to Fox: “Oh, come along and let’s play. You study too much; it will hurt your back. Why do you ask all those questions from the grown-ups? They don’t know the answers. You only embarrass them.”
“But I want to know the truth.”
“Because I want to know the way it really happened.”
“IT HAPPENED THE WAY they tell it.”
“But they tell it differently!”
“Then it is because it happened differently.”
“All right then”, said Tsimmu [the wolf], “I’ll tell you the creation story – at least, one of them, because, I tell you, I have heard many different ways of telling it.”
(Jaime de Angulo, Indian Tales.)
If like images serve an authentic purpose, so do unlike images.
…if anyone condemns these representations as incongruous, suggesting that it is disgraceful to fashion such base images of the divine and most holy Orders [that is, angels], it is sufficient to answer that the most holy Mysteries are set forth in two modes: one, by means of similar and sacred representations akin to their nature, and the other through unlike forms designed with every possible discordance and difference.
If … the negations in the descriptions of the Divine are true, and the affirmations are inconsistent with It, the exposition of the hidden Mysteries by the use of unlike symbols accords more closely with That which is ineffable.
(Dionysius the Areopagite, The Celestial Hierarchies.)
Like and unlike: affirmative and negative
(in a correspondence that admits its own dissonances, irregularities)
: cataphatic / apophatic (affirmative / negative) theology
Or again: image / imagelessness
BUT: Dionysius stresses that the Divine is
beyond all positive and negative distinctions,
there is no contradiction between the affirmations and the negations.
(The Mystical Theology.)
Like and unlike images, image and imagelessness –
different ways of disclosing, making-manifest…
yet there is no contradiction between them.
Dark (black) – light (white)
Both [white and black] are achromatic and extremes of brightness, and in these respects are interchangeable as symbols, if what has to be symbolized is an extreme state.
(Meyer Schapiro, Words and Pictures: On the Literal and the Symbolic in the Illustration of a Text.)
((Again, no contradiction.))
The Negative, the Nameless:
What exists is named specifically, and there is no specific name for G-d.
(Fanny Howe, Saving History.)
IT, if nameable, is not eternal. The name, nameable, is not eternal name. The Nameless is the root of Heaven and Earth….
To perceive nonperception is the real McCoy.
(Edwin Denby translating Lao Tzu, Edwin’s Tao.)
But keeping to the notion of a polarity:
Negative (apophatic) theology
is that everything one thinks of as God – the good, the true, the beautiful, the perfect, the vision of light, all that stuff, he is not those things. He is unknowable, incomprehensible, and finally – one finally has union with that which one cannot know. It is silent, unimagined, unspoken and so on. It is an ecstasy, and there are beautiful ecstasies in Dionysius, but the discipline of it is – and this fascinates me, I think, more than anything else – the discipline is its sensitivity to the language. The moment that one has drawn into the language – and language is basically image before it happens to be syntactical structure and logical movement or any of the rest of our wilfulness, that whole business – all those things God is not. If you say you have seen him and he was dressed in a white robe and he shone magnificently or he’s big daddy in the sky with a beard, and think of Blake’s Nobodaddy – this is part of Blake’s point, that whatever he is he is not. Because you immediately work with a negation of what you know so as not to limit. And there is a tension: I call it experiential dialectic, ultimate polarity, something like this. Now that would be Dionysius the Areopagite’s preferred way.
(Robin Blaser, The Metaphysics of Light.)
One works with affirmation and with negation.
Image/light/affirmation – the metaphysics of light tradition
(from Neoplatonism through Scholasticism and
subsequent Christian intellectual and spiritual traditions) –
an equivalence between ontology (being) and luminosity, so that
One way or another, the whole of reality turns out, upon examination, to be light in various disguises….
(Joseph Anthony Mazzeo, Medieval Cultural Tradition in Dante’s ‘Comedy’.)
It was my hand that wrote me:
Pull the covers over your story and say
light, light again and again.
Illuminate your pages this way.
Fanny Howe, “4:58”, O’Clock.)
but also epiphany
By epiphany, I mean the apprehension of some spiritual (invisible, immaterial, extra-mundane) dimension, through attention to the particulars of the visible world.
(Or: what the Canadian realist painter Jack Chambers once referred to as
that faculty of inner vision where the object appears in the splendor of its essential namelessness.
(Quoted by Nancy Poole, Introduction to Jack Chambers: Selection of Paintings and Drawings.)
Everything and anything that one sees is in its actual presence more than we can in any way understand it to be.
(Chambers, Letter to Simon.) )
Here we can mention Grassi’s marvellous gloss on Dionysius,
that divine Beauty is different in every particular being even though in every case we are concerned with the same divine Being. Hence, he [i.e. God] is revealed in every being and yet always hidden in them.
(Ernesto Grassi, Heidegger and the Question of Renaissance Humanism.)
I could taste the salt of Our Lord’s sweat on my tongue at dawn, when there was an orange stripe across the back of the sky.
(Fanny Howe, The Lives of a Spirit.)
The question of origin appears with our awareness of the Nameless.
The metaphysics of light tradition is difficult for us to understand because it is an ontology. Ontology is, quite frankly, a language and experience of the beginning, of origin.
(Robin Blaser, The Metaphysics of Light.)
Transposed to a mythological level, we have narratives of origin – but origin is always “other”, disclosed but not contained by what can be said / shown. ((See Jaime de Angulo’s Indian Tales, where the time of the main narrative is itself that of “old-time stories”, that is, anterior to our time; but within that narrative, the characters tell of a time that is prior to their own. The sense of an origin/original time is pushed further and further back.))
To know anything new is to know it as known.
(Fanny Howe, “February Three”, O’Clock.)
You know by writing that what you know, writes.
(Fanny Howe, The Quietist.)
Or what you don’t know.
KNOWING / UNKNOWING
Keats’ negative capability:
…I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.
(John Keats, Letters.)
Keats’ negative capability and the mystical tradition of apophatic theology parallel one another in their emphasis on uncertainty (understood in terms of a negation of rational certitude). In both cases, one proceeds by way of a dark path towards some illuminative discovery or revelation or ecstasy, which cannot be willed or obtained through rational knowing.
But again, we would be mistaken if we simply opposed knowing and unknowing – for Keats, negative capability is in some sense “half knowledge”, and for apophatic theology unknowing is distinct from rational knowledge, but a source of what we might call contemplative “being-with”.
Negative theology leads from the sphere of what can be “established” as a being, the sphere where logic is decisive, to a higher sphere where rational language and thought can no longer be regarded as decisive.
(Ernesto Grassi, Heidegger and the Question of Renaissance Humanism.)
(For Nicholas of Cusa the transcendent is the limit to what can be known. One explores what can be known until one reaches a limit to the reason’s means of exploration.)
A limit: imageless brilliance, infusing images (and from which all images proceed and return) in the metaphysics of light tradition; imageless darkness (a dazzling darkness), in apophatic theology.
((Imagelessness/darkness/the negative –
think of Ad Reinhardt’s “black” paintings,
paradoxical coincidence… of visibility and invisibility, image and imagelessness, form and formlessness, colour and colourlessness, relation and nonrelation, evoking the idea of a transcendent unity.
David Miller, Art and Disclosure.))
As a limit to (conceptual) thought: consider also the “Emptiness” of Nāgārjuna’s Mahāyāna Buddhist (Madhyamaka) dialectics.
((But we make sense of – we come to see – the way that we ourselves and other beings and things appear in relation to this, through the understanding – through meanings.))
Unknowing: an engagement with the unknown.
Losing yourself, getting lost –
avoiding the paths of knowing, of certitude.
You will find the way to get lost
If you’re lucky, blessed.
(Fanny Howe, “15:18”, O’Clock.)
A way to get lost. Again, a dark path.
In terms of lived possibilities, and our exploration of these possibilities in writing and the other arts, this may involve a sojourning with unease, affliction, even dereliction.
(With whatever strips away and unprepares….)
Fate eats. God announces itself as affliction, as a pain that is gruesome. God doesn’t eat, but wounds. You have to know this in order to live.
(Fanny Howe, Saving History.)
I never met a kinder man than the homeless alcoholic who introduced me to the father of my kids. He was my teacher through a period of my life which was both an actual and an allegorical journey.
We had hope. That he would one day be free of his addiction and be able to love someone in health. Now I know we could never love each other more than we did then. Can you understand? Because this is important. We were wrecks, but our relationship was complete. Sufficient. Why ask for more?
We were so physically needy that we were freed from our bodies and lived intense spirit-lives. We were the extreme forms that certain human emotions express, but repress too. Extreme affliction frees you, finally, from desire, and so we sought the longest and most difficult route to the nirvana of a woodland setting, hand in hand, mind you, and imagining a prospect both physical and internal. A white tree is reflected as a white tree in brown water. No matter what you want to say about it, I saw a pure soul when I saw him.
(Fanny Howe, Saving History.)
To lose oneself – to be moved (shaken –
thrown) outside of oneself; beyond oneself.
As in, or by, compassion; mercy.
I will tell you how it happened. The hour was the break of dawn and I was lying with a lonely man. We lay on my narrow bed looking out the window onto the sloping slate roofs of a monastery. The damp cheek of the stranger rested by my breast and I felt the sorrow that nursing would very often bring me. I didn’t doze but let my sad feelings drift away until the whole of my innerverse had been sucked from my body out the window. While my limbs then lay like wood or paper which had fallen from a great height, my sight looked back. Or of the two souls which occupy the person in a sort of figure eight, the upper one looked back at the lower one. It observed that I was being transported by a quality – magnetic mercy? – which would not be deterred by the white building, or its occupants, or our habits, ethics, acts.
(Fanny Howe, The Quietist.)
This is a movement that is invisible or interior at the same time as it may issue in visible actions. (And how difficult it is to speak of this movement is reflected in Fanny Howe’s recourse to two quite different images – the “innerverse” (innerness) and body, and the two souls “which occupy the person in a sort of figure eight”.)
Another movement that should be mentioned here is that of turning –
turning toward –
to take, decisively, a particular direction – in some way related to saving, being saved.
The air was sweet as lake water. Relaxing wholly, she let herself be carried forward, step by step. Jupiter was the morning star. East by south she walked with the thick sky lifting light from under its rim, as if the sun was its secret and clouds were playing with it.
With no more money and no more alcohol, in a dry state she washed herself in the air, gave herself a new name and aim and disappeared.
(Fanny Howe, The Deep North.)
A writer like Fanny Howe – contemporary American poet and novelist – is aware of just how decisive – literally unto death – this movement may be. Especially in so far as it involves a total commitment to another person – as “Other”.
(The cold water received her weight, but she kept her eyes focused on the boy’s face. She really wanted to save his life, seeing him as if he were she – a floating object with one emotion – hope, which made him worthy of the world. And she threw herself at him and hoisted him up, back onto the white shell, where he crawled, like an infant, and called his mother’s name in bird-sized peeps, across the crumbling surface.
She floated and dropped, floated and dropped, deeper, in silence and black water, struggled a little, but had to give in, no choice, as if she had performed a task which had taken years of preparation, and which ended in unavoidable rest.
(Fanny Howe, In the Middle of Nowhere.)
((One person is rescued from death; the other, saved by a commitment that in this instance leads to death.)) )
The actions that result from this inner movement may be seen as folly. Again, it is being lost. (Lost to reason and reasonable behavior.) Paul’s emphasis on faith in
“folly to the Gentiles.”
…God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
(The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians.)
(See also the last part of Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly; as well as John Saward’s study, Perfect Fools: Folly for Christ’s Sake in Catholic and Orthodox Spirituality. Compare, too, the myōkōnin or holy fools of Shin Buddhism, together with the central emphasis in Shin on abandoning “self power” for “Other Power”.)
Here, too, the notion of believing because of the absurdity of belief.
Poverty, too, in the sense of being “poor in spirit”. Non-possessiveness; harmlessness. Non-attachment to the world of power, domination, acquisition.
The face of a human that lives from light, and is open to silence, is usually the face of someone poor. Poverty is not always a condition. It is a way of treating the material world. It is non-dominating. The poor in spirit are those who are – regardless of their condition, up to a point – non-acquisitive, and non-transgressive.
(Fanny Howe, Well Over Void.)
She felt like a face in an illuminated manuscript, who couldn’t get off the beautiful page about G-d.
(Fanny Howe, The Lives of a Spirit.)
This essay uses quotations from the following sources:
Robin Blaser, ‘The Metaphysics of Light’, Capilano Review, No. 6, North Vancouver, 1974
Boyd & Evans (Fionnuala Boyd and Leslie Evans), from a taped conversation quoted by Bryan Edmondson in the exhibition catalogue Boyd + Evans 1982-1985, Wigan: Wigan Education Art Centre, 1985
Jack Chambers, quoted by Nancy Poole, Introduction, Jack Chambers: Selection of Paintings and Drawings, London: Canada House Gallery, 1980
Jack Chambers, ‘Letter to Simon’, Capilano Review, No. 33, North Vancouver, 1984
Jaime de Angulo, Red Indian Tales (UK edition of Indian Tales), London: Heinemann, 1954
Edwin Denby, Edwin’s Tao: Being a Rough Translation of Selections from Lao Tzu’s ‘Tao Teh Ching’, NY: Crumbling Empire Press, 1993
Dionysius the Areopagite, The Mystical Theology and the Celestial Hierarchies, tr. anonymously, Surrey: The Shrine of Wisdom, 1965
Ernesto Grassi, Heidegger and the Question of Renaissance Humanism: Four Studies, Binghampton, NY: SUNY at Binghampton, 1983
Fanny Howe, The Deep North, LA: Sun & Moon, 1988
Fanny Howe, In the Middle of Nowhere, NY: Fiction Collective, 1984
Fanny Howe, The Lives of a Spirit, Sun & Moon, 1987
Fanny Howe, O’Clock, London: Reality Street Editions, 1995
Fanny Howe, The Quietist, Oakland: O Books, 1992
Fanny Howe, Saving History, Sun & Moon, 1993
Fanny Howe, ‘Well Over Void’, Five Fingers Review, #10, San Francisco, 1991
John Keats, Letters of John Keats: A New Selection, ed. Robert Gittings, London: OUP, 1970
Joseph Anthony Mazzeo, Medieval Cultural Tradition in Dante’s ‘Comedy’, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1960
David Miller, Art and Disclosure: Seven Essays, Exeter: Stride Publications, 1998
St. Paul, ‘The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians’, The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, NY: Collins, 1952
Meyer Schapiro, Words and Pictures: On the Literal and the Symbolic in the Illustration of a Text, The Hague: Mouton, 1973
Fanny Howe’s writings are occasions or loci for a “leap” of insight; sources or supports for spiritual illumination. Like the poems of otherwise dissimilar writers such as Robert Lax, Frank Samperi, or John Riley, they are exemplary in the way they demand that poetry be seen as spiritual art. Howe has written:
“God” scares me, and that’s a fact. It also scares me to imagine that I might be seduced by the tones, turns and musics of a poetic tongue which is arranged to create a false idol, an illusion. Babble, excited showing-off, the prettiness of reports coming in from a poetry which is the equivalent of an IQ test. Silence is the only effective and terminal antidote. Before that, it may be the case that the prose line is the least apt to succumb to falsehood. Much of my writing has been an effort to rearrange, rewrite the word “God” by filling up pages with other names. I don’t like the name “God” because of its Roman weight. But when I write, I rewrite that name, and then what I write, if it is written well, becomes not a new “God” but a new person, a human face. If a face does not gaze back at me from the page, there is only paper and wood, the static object empty of divine spark. The human face in repose and in silence is the face I see, when what I have written approximates the unspeakable.
(Fanny Howe, Well Over Void.)
The Dark Path obviously owes something in terms of its use of format to Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard, and although I always thought of it as a very unconventional essay, it’s not surprising that others have seen it as an essay/poem hybrid.
There and Here
A meditation on Gérard de Nerval
It’s said that Gérard was still breathing when first come upon, but nobody wanted to interfere and cut him down; by the time the police arrived he was quite dead. A friend, describing his death, wrote of “that abominable street, the witness of a lonely agony”. And he continues: “At the back of the narrow fissure, a pale ray caught the golden figure of Renown on the fountain in the Place du Châtelet and made it gleam like some vague symbol of glory....”
For Gérard, remembrance was pictured by the myosotis or forget-me-not; it was (and is) constancy, and he saw the star of love, healer of souls, dwelling upon it as an insistence or endurance, an enduring light. It grew where there is ascent. The pearl, too, which some traditions have imaged as a cure for insanity and melancholia: this was remembrance's figure. Like the alchemists’ elixir, the pearl was associated with the moon, and has been used in the symbolism both of Saviourhood and of the Immaculate Conception. Combined with the Rose, symbolic of the Virgin, of beauty, and of the femininity-ideal: the Rose Pearl; which resides at the centre of “the holy table, made of the seven most precious metals”; the metals of the alchemist, gold, silver, copper, tin, iron, lead, and quicksilver. And here in the soul, the Alchemical Work takes place: the first two stages are designated by black and white: darkness or descent, and purification or ascent – “By means of putrefaction, fermentation, and trituration – all of which take place in darkness – the materia is divested of its initial form. By means of bleaching to a silvery white it is purified.”
It is the Rose Pearl, Gerard said, which resisted the hammer-blow of pride, hubris of fire and forge – the hammer-blow which broke the holy table, and attempted to break the world. But Gérard was under the protection of Apollo, god of poetry and of medicine; and like Adonis he was beloved of Aphrodite.
Aurélia had been “sleeping in some palace”, some other existence, where Gérard, here, could not reach her.
When questioned about his love for Aurélia, Gérard replied that he only pursued an image (or likeness). “Seen at close quarters, the real woman revolted our ingenuous souls. She had to be queen or goddess; above all, she had to be unapproachable.” (In the notes made during his journey to the Middle East, he mentions searching for the features of one woman in those of others.) Gérard saw in Aurélia a trans-psychosis – the carrying-over of the soul's attributes from one person to another – of the already idealised figure from childhood, Adrienne. Gérard significantly invoked Dante in his beautiful description of the encounter with Adrienne:
I was the only boy in the round, and I had brought with me my young companion, Sylvie... I loved her alone, she was the only one I had eyes for – until then! In the round we were dancing I had barely noticed a tall, lovely, fair-haired girl they called Adrienne. All at once, in accordance with the rules of the dance, Adrienne and I found ourselves alone in the centre of the circle. We were of the same height. We were told to kiss and the dancing and the chorus whirled around us more quickly than ever. As I gave her this kiss I could not resist pressing her hand. The long tight curls of her golden hair brushed my cheeks and from that moment on an inexplicable confusion took hold of me.
As Adrienne sang, the shadows came down from the great trees, and the first moonlight fell on her as she stood alone in our attentive circle. She stopped, and no one dared to break the silence. The lawn was covered with thin veils of vapour which trailed white tufts on the tips of the grasses. We imagined we were in paradise. Finally I got up and ran to the gardens of the chateau, where some laurels grew, planted in large faïence vases with monochrome bas-reliefs. I brought back two branches which were then woven into a crown and tied with a ribbon. This I put on Adrienne's head and glistening leaves shone on her fair hair in the pale moonlight. She was like Dante’s Beatrice, smiling on the poet as he strayed on the verge of the blessed abode.
The woman-as-Ideal can only be approached where the self becomes as nothing so that the other becomes all; but this is an implied criticism, in that there can be no proper balance. Certainly neither are presented in terms of human beings in an equal relationship. Aurélia could only be Gérard's in death. He could only be with her in the dream, in madness, and in death.
you remember death continually?’
‘Yes’, said Gérard.
‘Yes’, said Gérard.
‘The boat anchored outside?’
‘Yes’, said Gérard.
‘Who shall untie these knots of the heart?’
‘You dance for me alone’, said Gérard; ‘kiss-me-in-the-ring: head inclined, with one hand holding up – a veil.’
In Novalis’ unfinished novel The Disciples at Saïs, there is a passage in which the dream took over his life, preceded by an expectation of death. An other life. And yet how? It concerns a sorrowful and incompetent young disciple of the Master who one day goes out and, returning late, brings joyfully an oddly-shaped stone, which the Master then places amongst a pattern of stones which intersects with the images of our sensible, that is, waking life. Gérard: “Our dreams are a second life”: compare Norman Malcolm's Dreaming, where he asserts that to say in a dream we had such-and-such an experience or did this thing or that, is by definition to say that we didn’t have the experience or do the thing in question. Rather the dream is a set of images or apparitions amongst a pattern of stones that has already been formed, “just at the point where many lines converged. Never shall I forget that moment. It was as though we had transitorily caught into our souls a clear vision of this wondrous world.” Novalis sums up the matter in a simple phrase: “(awareness) of the interrelation of all things, of conjunctions, of coincidence.”
Arthur Symons strikes this same note when he remarks of Gérard's writings that they “uncovered the hidden links of divergent things”. Constantly death is associated with the Dream (“The first moments of sleep are an image of death”) and that strange existence in which the dream took over his life, preceded by an expectation of death: (“...1 began searching the sky for a star I thought I knew as having some influence on my fate. When I had found it I went on walking, following the streets from which it was visible, walking, as it were, towards my destiny, anxious to see the star up to the moment when death would strike me down.”)
‘To the East’, said Gérard when asked, just prior to the first attack of madness, where he was going. He told a companion who had appropriately taken “on the aspect of an Apostle”: ‘(I don't) belong to your Heaven. Those in that star are waiting for me. They went before the revelation you have announced to me. Let me go to them, for the one I love belongs to them, and it is there we are to meet again’. In certain Middle Eastern beliefs, as well as in native paganism and occultism, Gérard found the ideas which could better act as a framework to support his Ideal projection of the desires which haunted him. Explicitly opposed to Christianity. In the sonnet ‘Artemis’ he wrote: “White roses, fall! you offend our gods, / Fall, white phantoms, from your burning heaven: / –The saint of the pit is stronger in my eyes!” When this opposition later changes to an acceptance, it is syncretic and heterodox. With the assistance of the fellow-sufferer he has befriended, Saturninus (this name given by Gérard is the name of a Gnostic teacher of the first century AD), Gerard is able to ride with Aurélia and Christ beyond death, through the pearly gates of the New Jerusalem. “It was then”, he writes, “that I came down among men to give them the glad tidings”, having seen “heaven open in all its glory” and having “read the word forgiveness written in Christ's blood.” The Corybants can emerge from the secrecy of Gérard's heart into the openness of Christ's love; the world-serpent itself “is slackening its coils”, under the influence of the alchemical sulphur and sun, which is to say, the Spirit.
At the end of the book bearing her name, Aurélia is the similitude and instrument of Grace; she is also Isis, speaking in terms reminiscent of the vision in The Golden Ass; and she is Gérard's love, Jenny Colon, in as far as Jenny is contained in the figure of Aurelia.
How to heal the disparity between the piteous self-abasement in the love-letters to Jenny Colon, wherein it would not be hard to detect emotional masochism, and the presentation of the central figure in Aurélia? And yet, the self-abasement is equal in these cases, whatever the difference in level....
Arrested for his eccentric behaviour (chiefly, undressing in the street), Gérard, lying on a camp-bed, experienced a strange self-bifurcation, projection, so that he became aware of his Double (Doppelgänger – literally “double- walker”) in the room. Then he remembered the German tradition that speaks of the Doppelgänger as a sign of one’s own imminent death. He thought he saw two friends come for him but take the Double in his stead, and he cried out to them, to no avail; in the morning these very friends did come, but denied having been there during the night.
It was only a few days after this that Gérard had to be taken to an asylum; it was in various mental institutions, at various times, that the dreams that form the bulk of Aurélia came.
Though he later learnt of Aurélia’s death, which makes it seem that the death that had been adumbrated had really been hers, and not his own, Gérard in entering this “second world” underwent a type of death.
Gérard’s care for ‘Saturninus’, a young man in the asylum, catatonic, neither eating nor drinking, served to heal his separation from human life; it broke him from “the monotonous circle of (his) own sensations or moral sufferings”. (Gérard’s relation to Saturninus reminds me of Bill Plantagenet’s concern for the boy and the old man in the asylum in Malcolm Lowry’s purgatorio-sketch, Lunar Caustic. ‘It also seems strange to me,’ says Plantagenet, ‘that I should have to come all the way from England to a madhouse [in America] to find two people I really care about.’) Saturninus, in the last page of the book, tells Gérard that he (Saturninus) is already deceased and buried, and undergoing expiation in Purgatory. Gérard comments: “Such are the odd ideas that come with that sort of sickness; I recognised that I myself had not been far from just such a strange belief. (...) I compare this series of trials I went through to that ordeal which, for the ancients, represented the idea of a descent into hell.”
Early in his career Gérard had come under the influence of the German Romantic writer and composer E T A Hoffmann, whose eccentric tales dwell on supernatural, occult, and often macabre happenings; importantly, in the light of Gérard’s later obsessions, Hoffmann wrote on the Doppelgänger theme. S A Rhodes tells us in his biography of Gérard that the young poet wrote a story, under Hoffmann’s influence, on the subject of soul-exchange: a student's soul is exchanged with that of an evil friend, but eventually saved; and that he translated Hoffmann’s Die Serapionsbrüder, in which there occurs an extra-mundane intervention by Saint-Rosalie to save the heroine Aurélia, who is later murdered out of jealousy by the hero's evil twin brother; Aurélia, dying, charges the story’s hero to repentance. In this we have in embryonic form some of the themes encountered in Aurélia.
The deepening late blue of sky appearing in the window-frame; blue juxtaposed with the green of curtains; blue, for nothing in glory, undiminished by the dirty surface of glass. Walking in Amsterdam – a sign reading ‘AURORA’ stopped me. I remembered what I had not remembered for years: the name I had given to the heroine of an early prose text, taken from the title of Boehme’s Aurora just as Gérard had taken the name Aurélia from a story by Hoffmann.
In my own early prose texts I worked, out of Nerval and Lowry, with coincidence of events (“the linking-up of things”) as the subject-matter, and with juxtapositions, interrelational linking or cutting, as “method”. At the same time as this (1971 to 1972) I worked on a long essay on Nerval’s work, especially on the images in Aurélia; and on a shorter essay on Lowry, which I revised for publication after coming to London in 1972.
In terms of working operations, I tended towards a direct handling of material, cutting up my texts and taping them back together in different combinations. With the Nerval essay, I depended upon chance findings in books I would take almost at random within a limited area of selection, from the shelves of the library at Melbourne University.
Without any warning, G— came and sat at our table in the Café Au Montmartre in Tottenham Court Road. My friend asked her about her dervish dancing lessons: Do you really whirl about? She said, No; she hadn’t got that far yet. My friend and I moved on to the subject of coincidence – marvellous happening – in writing, as subject and as method. I talked about my apprenticeship as a writer, in Malcolm Lowry and Gérard de Nerval. Breton’s Nadja and the I Ching came into the conversation too; though I have never really concerned myself with either, to be honest (which I wasn’t). We had put the woman into a distance, which was a fake distance (I knew exactly where she was). “And through the glass window shines the sun”: 6.15 of a winter evening, London, 30/10/75.
We were in a Greek restaurant in Notting Hill, and she was questioning me about the origins of my depression. What could I have said? That I grew up in a place that would make anyone aware of other possibilities depressed. Or that I grew up in a family whose members had almost no friends, in a household situated over a small brass-foundry that was operated solely by my father. Within that family I became conditioned to a brooding loneliness which I have never broken out of. Should I mention my early reading, the fact that I was immediately drawn to Nerval and Hölderlin, poets of loss and madness, whose visions helped to consolidate my own approach to a horizon, and the nature of that horizon? I am already sick of this particular story. I will only mention, for what it’s worth, that I ended up telling my friend that I wouldn’t be seeing her again. A terrible argument followed. And that leads to another story again.
“I have tried very hard”, she wrote, “to understand and to destroy the barriers I have, naturally, against you (not because you are you but because you are another human being), but I can’t do it, because I know you have so many weapons with which to wound me (and you do not use them sparingly). Only a fool or a total idealist throws himself into battle with no armour and no weapons and he probably gets destroyed.”
The image. Upside-down, you’re laughing; the motion of the swing’s caught. The image caught: irresistibly; laughter in a face, an image catching me transversely; the motion of the swing caught, forwards, and reversed, here, to backwards.
He said: Suppose you’d loved someone and you wrote out of that. Suppose that. A boy staring out of the window into the night, figures moving casually in the street below. A radio on in the darkened and humid room, intense music.
This is an attempted destruction of my own beginnings.
I walked to the top of a terraced park to meet them; but at midnight we found ourselves at a café, lost, the poorly lit streets all alike. In the heat people lay down to sleep on the pavement or on top of parked cars. Through large square gaps left in the pavement we could see the sewers; someone told me of a man who fell down one of these holes during a storm and was found in a river across the other side of the city, dead. The woman (impeccable voice, impeccable manners, English, upper middle-class), said to me, Look at the cat, (a skinny cat, obviously underfed), why don’t they feed it? The answer should have been self-evident. She wrote to thank me for my writing, saying it was wisdom. I am not that man. I am not that man, so, midnight, we found ourselves at a café, lost, the streets all alike. In the heat people lay down to sleep on the pavement. Some of them were not sleeping. They were sick, or decrepit; they couldn’t get up.
Gérard dreamt that he had been transported to the Rhine – the place where his father and mother were during the first years of his life and, further, where his mother died. “It appeared to me that I was entering a house I knew well, belonging to one of my mother’s uncles, a Flemish painter who had been dead more than a century.” Clock-time was here destroyed: people of various times all being alive together. (Compare the sonnet ‘Artemis’: the thirteenth, the number outside (clock-) time, or the beginning of the new cycle (the first number after the twelfth, the twelfth hour), brings back “the only one” and “the only moment”. To the Christian saints Nerval opposed the goddess Artemis who, he said, had always loved him: to her falls the role of rescuer, and as such she is Isis, and Aurélia.) A bird which Gerard believed to be inhabited by his grandfather’s soul, said to him enigmatically: ‘You see your uncle took care to paint her portrait in advance.... Now she is with us.’ I have the impression that it is Aurélia referred to, painted by the uncle “in advance” of her death; yet when Nerval turned to the portrait he said merely that it was of a woman in “an old German costume”, “leaning over a river bank, her eyes fixed on a cluster of forget-me-nots.” In the paean of salvation, addressed to Christ, Mary, and Aurélia, Nerval wrote twice (with little variation): “On the crest of a bluish mountain a little flower is born. Forget-me-not. The glittering gaze of a star (the star of his destiny) plays on it for an instant, and an answer is heard in a soft foreign tongue. Myosotis.” The forget-me-not (myosotis) has an obvious significance, of remembrance and faithfulness (a theme played upon in the second stanza of ‘Artemis’.) But if the portrayed woman is really Aurélia, then why should she be dressed in an old German costume? I don't know, except for the indirect link with the death of Nerval's own mother in Germany; with his own infatuation with German literature (and it was from Germany that Nerval first wrote letters of love to Aurélia, “full of German mysticism”, as related in Sylvie); and especially, it helps link Aurélia with the beloved Faust of Goethe, and with the character of Marguerite, whose name has already been invoked in connection with the servant-woman in this dream.
Nerval felt that he had fallen into “a chasm that crossed the world”, and was being carried (painlessly) along a stream of molten metal; he saw that the world is criss-crossed with such currents, “like those blood-vessels and veins that writhe in the lobes of the brain”. This seems like an image for consciousness itself, with its interrelating strands of thought, memory, emotion, etc. More, a particular type (or part) of consciousness is being signified, for the “molten metal” has a peculiar significance; and the place to which he was carried existed in a “sunless day” – Nerval remarked elsewhere that one never sees the sun in the world of dreams. Nerval was met by his grandfather, who took him into a house inhabited by various ancestors, including his uncle Antoine Boucher, whom he not only felt close to, but appeared to, almost, identify with. (See Aurélia Part Two, IV.) What is localised here is a type of spirit-world, inhabited by the accumulation of past forms of life inherited through family, learning, nation, personal choice of life. This was summarised by the uncle when he said: ‘We live in our race and our race lives in us.’
Adoniram was an artist/craftsman – sculptor, architect and metallurgist – who came upon his knowledge and inspiration in a cavern full of the works of an ancient and mysterious civilisation (– just as Nerval was the "explorer" of Cabalism and the ancient mysteries). Opposed to him was Solomon, aging ruler, poet and thinker, dedicated to the service of Jehovah, to whose glory (or perhaps Solomon's own) the temples on which Adoniram had been hired to work were being built. Both men fell in love with Bilkis, the Queen of Sheba, and she fell in love with, not the ruler Solomon, but Adoniram. Like nearly all the stories that Nerval told, whether his own or others’, this ended in tragedy.
The most important part of the story is that involving a descent to the centre of the earth by Adoniram, led by the ghost of Tubal-Cain, who tells him: ‘Your.feet are standing upon the great emerald which is a root and a pivot for the mountain of Kaf; you have reached the realm of your fathers. Here in undisputed power reigns the lineage of Cain. Beneath these granite fortresses, amid inaccesible caverns, we found liberty at last. Here the jealous tyranny of Adonai (Jehovah) has no more power; here man can eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and live.’ (Tubal-Cain is one of the descendents of Cain, and “an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron”, Genesis, 4.22. The “great emerald” is possibly a reference to the Emerald Tablet of Alchemy; in certain so-called primitive beliefs the emerald is also associated. with the solar deity.) As Gérard descended or rather as he says fell into a “chasm that crossed the world”, and was met by his grandfather, who was in his own way an outcast (he was responsible for a horse being lost from Nerval’s great-grandfather's farm, and left the farm in shame), and by his uncle, who was at one time a student of Cabalism and other esoteric doctrines, so Adoniram descended to an “underworld” and found himself with his own “race” – that of the arch-rebel Cain. Nerval seemed at one time to have identified himself with rebels and to have held a dislike of Jehovah – though the God of the Druze, with whom Nerval apparently felt more at home, is much like the Hebrew Jehovah; perhaps it was more the openly evident division between the wise and the ignorant in relation to “the mysteries”, that was so attractive to Nerval, at a particular stage in his life, in the Druze religion. While saying that Jehovah is only one of the Elohim (gods), Nerval failed to say who or what the others are; at any rate, he would seem to be a god of balance, as he is opposed to the energy (fire) of Cain's race which is even said to keep the “spark of life” which animates beings. A magic.
In another dream-vision, Gérard found himself in a wonderful city high up above our own: “A blessed race had made for itself this retreat beloved of birds, flowers, of pure air and sunlight.” Nerval later referred to this place as The Mysterious City. The beauty and compassion of the people there “inspired a sort of love without preference and devoid of all desire, an epitome of all the intoxications of the vague passions of youth.” A friend who had later made Nerval tell of these dreams in detail, asked with tears in his eyes: ‘Is there a God?’ To which Nerval replied enthusiastically: ‘Yes!’ This comes in Aurélia as an intimation (a foreknowledge or preview) of a blessed state which shines, as the oft-mentioned star (the signification of which turns or is redeemed in order to, itself, signify redemption), shines over the scenes of spiritual warfare which are to come. It brings to mind, to some extent, what the Consul in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano refers to as the path to heaven running straight through hell.
Gérard felt confirmed in a belief in the immortality of the soul (“Another dream of mine confirmed me in this belief”, he stated explicitly), by a dream in which, in a place of supernaturally brilliant light, he was in the company of three beautiful women who stood for “relatives and friends of (his) youth. Each seemed to have the features of several of them. Their facial contours changed like the flames of a lamp, and all the time something of one was passing to the other. Their smiles, the colour of their eyes and hair, their figures and familiar gestures, all these were exchanged as if they had lived the same life, and each was made up of all three, like those figures painters take from a number of models in order to achieve a perfect beauty.” So too was Nerval’s own method of re-creation, in art and life, of the people and the events he loved and was obsessed by. The girls of his childhood – Fanchette, Sylvie, Adrienne – were in a sense one and the same; each participated in the spell of the particular form of life which it was Nerval’s destiny to be bound to. And just as one of these could become, and was, the other, one (“the eldest”) became more definitely Adrienne, the nun who had died (see the end of Sylvie), in her disappearance as in her appearance a prefiguration of Aurélia. She pointed out to him that he was now wearing a strange suit which they had made – described as having the textural consistency of a spider-web (the web perhaps being an image of the spell in which he is caught). Whether given to him or just appearing there, it was supposedly of their making; and it was like a claim on his being, and an acceptance – a belonging-to. He was, he tells us, charmed by it.
One of these women – I presume it is the same one, as she alone could metamorphose as easily, even in a dream, into Aurélia – went into a neglected garden; Nerval, the gentle pursuer, followed her. In the garden was “a spring of fresh water whose splashes echoed melodiously over a pool of still water, half-hidden by huge water-lilies.” As Ross Chambers in his notes on Sylvie has pointed out, fresh water was for Nerval symbolic of both life and change; and still water was suggestive of both the stillness of eternity, and death (stagnancy). The woman slid her arm along the stem of a hollyhock (cf. ‘Artemis’) before she “grew” and dematerialised (though it had already been quite evident she was chimerical), until her form blended with the garden and the sky. It was a death that was revealed, meaning loss for Gérard, who in anguish declared that the earth for him was now bereft of its animating spirit, who had merged completely with the form of the spirit-world:
I lost her thus as she became transfigured, for she seemed to vanish in her own immensity.
‘Don't leave me!’ I cried. ‘For with you Nature itself dies.’ With these words I struggled painfully through the brambles trying to grasp the vast shadow that eluded me. I threw myself on a fragment of ruined wall, at the foot of which lay the marble bust of a woman. I lifted it up and felt convinced it was of her... I recognised the beloved features and as I stared around me I saw that the garden had become a graveyard, and I heard voices crying: ‘The universe is in darkness’.
The garden a graveyard; like the loss of paradise. After having informed us that it was only much later that he learned of Aurélia's death, Gèrard mentioned a ring he had given to her, but as it was too large, had conceived the “fatal” idea of having it cut down: as the saw cut into it, he seemed to see blood coming from it (a detail Geoffrey Wagner suggests is derived from a story of Hoffmann’s about a Cabalist). He also thought of how, when they were both dead, they could be together again – a selfish thought, as he admitted, costing “bitter remorse”.
It was after he learned of Jenny Colon's death that Gérard set off for the Middle East.
At Damietta, in a forest whose trees “look like so many columns in a temple dedicated to universal nature”, Nerval reflected upon his age: “...for a few months (in the Orient) I have felt myself going back again upon the circle of my days. I feel younger, and in truth I am younger; I am only twenty years old.” The forest was fenced by water on one side and desert on the other; the suggestions of the landscapes of Sylvie, so strangely re-encountered, brought him back to his youth; and again he found someone who, like Adrienne or Aurélia (both dead), became his ideal. “The ideal woman whom every man pursues in his dreams had realised herself for me: the rest was all forgotten.” The girl was a young and beautiful Druze maiden named Salema. “Fate or Providence, we sometimes seem to see, appears beneath the drab monotony of life, a line drawn upon some mysterious pattern, which points the way which we must follow, or go astray. I immediately came to the conclusion that it had been written from all time that I should marry in Syria; that Fate had so far foreseen this tremendous fact, that for its realisation nothing less was needed than a thousand circumstances strangely interwoven in my existence, whose relationship to one another I doubtless exaggerated.”
Nerval found himself in a position to aid Salema’s father; he hoped that the Druze sheik might look favourably, because of this, on a marriage. But while musing on his destiny and his love, Nerval had before been surprised by an ill augury: “I hardly dare tell you what a very ordinary event brought me to earth again, as I was spurning the red sand with a proud foot. An enormous insect crossed my path, pushing before it a ball greater than itself; it was a kind of beetle, and reminded me of the Egyptian scarabs which carry the world upon their heads. You know I am superstitious, and you may well imagine that I drew an augury from this symbolic intervention across my path. I retraced my steps, convinced there must be some obstacle against which I should have to fight.”
The Druze religion, founded by Hamza ibn Ali and Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim, at the beginning of the 11th century AD, is a form of syncretic religious faith, rather like the modem Persian “world-faith” Baha’i, and resembling it also in that it is often regarded as an Islamic heresy by Muslims. “Let us”, said Nerval, “say that the beliefs of the Druses are a synthesis of all the religions and philosophies that have gone before.” The divine truths are successively revealed to mankind, which would otherwise always exist in “darkness”, through the “stations” of the Prophets (relating to the “manifestations” of God). (According to the Baha’is, the last and highest was their founder, Baha’u’llah; for the Muslims the “seal” of the law was Muhammed, and this explains, at least in part, why they are so hostile to Baha’is. Muslim hostility to the Druze is not something to try to go into here.)
For Nerval, who wished to pursue a synthesis of religions, the Druze religion no doubt looked to be what he had been searching for. And assuming that all religions are looked upon equally, more or less, by the Druze, he approached the father of Salema, asking for her hand. However, it was revealed to him soon enough that the sheik’s people alone are considered “the elect of God”; and when Al-Hakim returns from the dead (the spirit-world, heaven, or whatever), the Druze will have power over the earth and the rest of humanity will be their slaves. One can, of course, recognise here the desire for power rather than the desire for religious salvation; and the twin ideas of “the elect people” and Messianism: at least in as far as Nerval’s account goes.
Gérard tried to persuade the sheik – and himself – that he (Gérard} may have been descended from a Druze convert, by firstly attempting to tie up the Druze religion with Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism through the Knights Templar in the Lebanon, and then by producing a Freemason's diploma, “full of cabalistic signs familiar to the Orientals”. The sheik was (surprisingly) convinced, and Nerval became both Salema's fiancé and a student of the esoteric “mysteries” of the Druze faith, involving “nine stages of initiation”, and hidden from the “ignorant” amongst the faithful. But Nerval found that the climate of the Lebanon endangered his health, and he was forced to leave his ideal woman and the mysteries of the Druze, and go to Constantinople.
Nerval attempted while in the asylum to write a mythical “world-history” influenced, as he said, by Oriental traditions. In the beginning, so his account goes, the seven Elohim inhabited the world together peacefully. “But one of the Elohim conceived the idea of creating a fifth race composed of earthly elements and to be called Afrites. This was the signal for a complete revolution among the Spirits who did not wish to recognise these new lords of the world.” There seems to be a confusion in this, unconscious or wilful. Afrites are evil spirits; yet the refusal to recognise a “race composed of earthly elements” sounds like the refusal of Lucifer in the Bible, and Eblis (Serpent or Devil) in the Koran, to recognise Adam (man). Or, perhaps the refusal to be man as the servant of Jehovah (like Abel) and not man who follows Eblis and rebels against Jehovah (as Cain does). In outlining the Druze theory of history in Voyage en Orient Nerval mentions Eblis:
(Besides the Prophets) there necessarily exists, also. angels of darkness who play the opposite part (i.e. of bondage and destruction instead of salvation). So in the history of the world, according to the Druses, we find each of the seven periods the scene of tremendous action, when in human form these enemies seek out one another and are to be recognised by their greatness or their hatred.
So, in turn, the spirit of evil is Eblis, or the serpent; Methouzael, king of the city of the giants, at the period of the Flood; Nimrod, at the time of Abraham; Pharoah, at the time of Moses; and later, Antiochus, Herod, and other monstrous tyrants, assisted by sinister acolytes, who are reborn at the same periods, to fight against the reign of the Lord.
And this could be substituted, almost en bloc, for the account which appears in Aurélia. Three Elohim are banished “to the ends of the earth”, taking with them “powerful Cabalists” who would seem to take the place of the “sinister acolytes” in Voyage en Orient. These Elohim dominate a section of the human race, and the sufferings of the people under their reign leaves no doubt of its evil. Nerval too was under the weight of it: “for a long time I groaned there in captivity....”
There is both ambivalence and ambiguity throughout this account, as should become obvious in the following.
The three Elohim and their Cabalistic helpers are banished; in the same way as the “race of Cain”, who keep the fire which is, amongst other things, the “fire” of genius, the “god-like” inspiration and imagination of the artist, who is rebel and outcast in the Romantic scheme of things. Eblis was said to be the only angel who refused to obey God's order to worship Adam, on the grounds that Adam had been made of clay and he had been made of fire. In his Eastern notebooks Nerval described himself as “one of the widow’s (Isis’) children, a young wolf (a master's son), brought up in horror of the murder of Adoniram and in admiration of the holy Temple....” It is clear from Voyage that, at that time, Nerval identified himself with Adoniram, the artist, smith (guardian of fire), rebel and member of the race of Cain. Eblis – fire – Cain (through Tubal-Cain); there are definite and enlightening links there: “In the 2nd century AD there was a Gnostic sect who perversely maintained that Cain was the offspring of Eve by a superior power, while Abel was her son by an inferior power; that his slaying of Abel was symbolic of the victory of superior over inferior power; and that he became the ancestor of Esau, Judas Iscariot, and other generally reprobated characters.” (E R Pike.)
The domination is brought to an end by the Flood; “for forty days a mysterious ark floated on the waters, bearing the hope of a new creation”. And while Nerval, who believed in a naive variety of reincarnation, can be said to be on one level setting out a “world-history” in which, as he states, he participates from the beginning, on the symbolical plane we can see analogies with his spiritual life. The words “new creation” bring to mind many associations: re-creation; new life; new consciousness; new world.
The Elohim are seven in number; three of them turn against the other four:
All through remote Asiatic and African civilisations a bloody scene of orgy and carnage was constantly renewed, reproduced by the same spirits under different forms.
The last one took place at Granada, where the sacred talisman fell before the hostile blows of Christians and Moors. How many more years yet has the world still to suffer, for the vengeance of those eternal enemies must inevitably be renewed under other skies! They are the severed sections of the serpent that encircles the Earth... separated by steel, they join together again in a hideous embrace cemented by human blood.
It is the forces of domination and will-to-power which could be identified with the three Elohim. Religious intolerance is, as one thing amongst many, implicated in this; we know from the end of Voyage en Orient that Gérard firmly believed in religious tolerance.
Near the beginning of the legend, Nerval wrote: “Only the pale light of the stars lit the bluing perspectives of this strange horizon; yet, as the work of creation proceeded, a brighter star began to draw from it the germs of its own future brilliance.” Then later: “A radiant goddess guided the speedy evolution of man through... new metamorphoses.” The “radiant goddess” draws harmony from chaos; but when the Elohim, and their attendant spirits and sorcerers, begin fighting, and the Deluge comes: “... I can still see a woman standing on a peak lapped by the waters they abandoned, crying out with dishevelled hair and struggling against death. Her pitiful cries rose above the noise of the waters.... Was she saved? I do not know. Her brothers, the gods, had condemned her; but over her shone the Evening Star throwing its flaming rays upon her forehead.” And preceding the passage beginning, “All through remote Asiatic and African civilisations”: “Everywhere the suffering image of the eternal Mother was dying, weeping, or languishing.” The Evening Star is usually Venus, and so could carry here the associations of the goddess of that planet. Venus was for Nerval Isis and the Virgin both (he tells us that in Greece he found the cult of Venus carried on in the name of the Virgin by the peasants), a Venus “austere, ideal and mystic”, turning one’s mind away from “impure thoughts”. Thus the abandoned woman could be seen as Venus “abandoned” due to forces of strife. In his struggle with the friend who “took on the aspect of an Apostle”, Nerval cried, ‘I don’t belong to your Heaven. Those in that star are waiting for me. Let me go to them, for the one I love belongs to them, and it is there we are to meet again.’ And in ‘El Desdichado’ he wrote of Aurélia: “My sole star is dead”.
Despite the disturbing quality of some of his dreams and hallucinations, Nerval spoke of the asylum as “a paradise” for him, which he left when calm had returned. Long afterwards, an accident caused a relapse which brought a continuation of the “series of dreams”. Nerval, walking in the country, saw a bird which reminded him of the dream bird which was supposed to house his grandfather's spirit; but it gave him “a foreboding of evil”. Immediately after the encounter with the bird, he met a friend who asked him to look over his estate; “. . .in the course of doing so he made me climb a raised terrace with him, from which could be seen a wide view. It was sunset. As we descended the steps of a rustic stair I stumbled and struck my chest against the angle of a piece of garden furniture. I had just enough strength left to get up and dash into the middle of the garden, thinking I had received a death blow and wanting, before I died, to cast a last glance at the setting sun. Through all the regrets that such a moment brings, I felt happy to be dying in this way, at this hour, surrounded by the trees, trellises and autumn flowers.” However, he soon recovered from the swoon sufficiently to go home, but there had an attack of fever. Thinking of the view from his friend’s terrace he remembered a cemetery which was the very one Aurélia was buried in. Approaching death – the bird – the climbing – the garden with its flowers and trellises – Aurélia’s death: this seems like a recapitulation of much that has come before. When Gerard was in the Mysterious City, “a man, dressed in white, whose face I was not able to see clearly, threatened me with a weapon he held in his hand: but my guide signed to him to go away. It appeared as though they had wished to stop me from penetrating the mysteries of these retreats.” Now this man had struck him, and the blow was that which he received when he fell on the stairs. Gérard, in his studies of Cabalistic magic, had apparently tried to force an entrance, through what Geoffrey Wagner calls “an excess of intellectual curiosity”, into realms where he had not the right to enter. In his sleep, it seemed “that a whole fatal race had been let loose in that ideal world I had previously seen, and of which (Aurélia) was the queen. The same Spirit who had threatened me when I entered the dwelling of those pure families who lived in the Mysterious City passed before me, no longer in the white robes he had worn then, together with the rest of his race, but dressed like an Oriental prince. I rushed towards him, threateningly, but he turned calmly and – to my terror and fury – it was my own face, my whole form magnified and idealised.... Then I remembered the man who had been arrested on the same night as myself and whom, as I thought, the guard had released under my name when my two friends came to fetch me. In his hand he held some weapon the shape of which I could not properly see, and one of those with him said: ‘That was what he struck him with.’ ”
In Voyage en Orient Nerval had told the legend of the Caliph Hakem (Al-Hakim) of Cairo. Hakem pronounced himself God – for which he has been regarded by the Muslims as a fanatic or a madman. Two things in particular in Nerval’s version of Hakem’s story link up with the above: first, Hakem at one point is thrown into an asylum, and when the minister of affairs visits the madhouse, Hakem cries at him: “Wretch!... have you then created a phantom to resemble me and take my place?”; second, the Caliph prepares to marry his beautiful sister Setalmulc, whom he believes to have been destined to be his “from all time”, but the night before the wedding, as he comes back to the palace he finds a feast underway. “He felt that he had passed to the condition of a shade, an invisible spirit, and went on from room to room, passing through the groups as though he had worn upon his finger the magic ring of Gyges.” (The ring of Gyges bestowed invisibility upon its wearer.) Hakem sees his double seated beside his sister Setalmulc: “He realised that this was his ferouer, or double, and for an Oriental to see his own spectre is a sign of the most foreboding augury. The shade compels the body to follow it before the next day is done.” “Was not this some jealous divinity, seeking to usurp his place in Heaven by taking Setalmulc from her brother, separating a couple which Providence had itself ordained? Was this the race of dives, by such means trying to substitute its own most impious progeny?”
The whole thing turns out to be not at all as ghostly as it sounds in this fragment – only some of the links between persons and events seem “weird”. It is actually Setalmulc who plots against her brother, and even has him set upon by assassins. But isn't this rather understandable, anyway? – The Caliph ignores all laws of moderation; he proclaims himself God, thus absolute ruler and sole authority; he attempts an incestuous marriage with his sister.
One of the twin spirits in a man, Gérard suggested, is evil, the other good. If nothing else, he knew the “other” was hostile to him. And the other, the ferouer, had taken Gérard’s place to marry Aurélia in his stead. “Well, I told myself, I must fight against this spirit of destiny, fight even against God himself with the weapons of tradition and science.”
In the next dream Gérard came first to a workshop where animals and flowers were made, animated by fire which, so he was told, “animated the first living creatures”. These passages are strongly reminiscent of the workshop of Tubal-Cain, where precious stones and minerals were produced: ‘...we prepare the metals, and distribute them in the veins of the planet, after we have liquefied their vapours.’ Fire is an important symbol in Nerval – multi-suggestive: of emotional warmth; sexual passion; genius; divinity. Fire has been a symbol for life – for example, for the Parsees. The Greek Hephaestus, equivalent of the Roman Vulcan, the divine smith and god of fire, was, although born of Zeus and Hera (King and Queen of Heaven), an outcast from heaven to earth, and the husband of Aphrodite. He also made the first woman, Pandora, whose name Nerval used in one of his stories. I am noting all these things, because metallurgy traditionally has sinister symbolic connotations.
Being connected with alchemy, and hence with astrology and human destiny (the metals are linked with the planets), metallurgy has been considered, according to its employment, beneficent or maleficent. René Guénon writes in The Reign of Quantity that the increasing use of metals in our time is likely “a symptom of a more ‘advanced’ phase in the downward movement of the cycle (of the presumed “Dark Age”); and this supposition is confirmed by the fact that in a general way metal plays an ever-growing part in the ‘industrialised’ and ‘mechanised’ civilisation of today; and that from a destructive point of view, if it may be so expressed, no less than from a constructive point of view, for the consumption of metal brought about by modern wars is truly prodigious”. Guénon associates Tubal-Cain with Vulcan, and remarks significantly: “... and it must not be forgotten that from the traditional point of view metals and metallurgy are in direct relation with the ‘subterranean fire’, the idea of which is associated in many respects with that of the ‘infernal regions’.” Frithjof Schuon is also of this opinion (Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts): “In a certain, external, sense it may be said that the great social and political evil of the West is mechanisation, for it is the machine which most directly engenders the great evils from which the world today is suffering. The machine is, generally speaking, characterised by the use of iron, of fire and of invisible forces. To talk about a wise use of machines, of their serving the human spirit, is utterly chimerical. It is in the very nature of mechanisation to reduce men to slavery and to devour them entirely, leaving them nothing human, nothing above the animal level, nothing above the collective level. The kingdom of the machine followed that of iron, or rather gave to it its most sinister expression. Man, who created the machine, ends by becoming its creature.” (My italics)
If Nerval’s Hakem is an ambivalent figure (for example, he preaches universal religious tolerance, yet early in the story exclaims, “Mohammed and Jesus are impostors” in a most vehement fashion), we know that Nerval approved of him, and to some degree identified with him – yet probably more so with the Sabaean boatman, Yousouf, also in love with Hakem’s sister Setalmulc (the name, incidentally, means The Lady of the Kingdom). Hakem’s delusions of being God, and Yousouf’s visions of Setalmulc, are realised under the influence of hashish, as Nerval’s delusions of grandeur, and visions of Aurélia, were realised during his madness – which at times he spoke of apologetically to the reader, at other times praised. Yousouf himself is made to say: “Sometimes I am near to thinking that it is all an illusion caused by this treacherous weed, which is perhaps attacking my reason... so that I can no longer distinguish between dream and reality.” Gérard came to view his interpretations as false; but in Voyage he vindicated both Hakem and Yousouf. Hakem's ferouer is Yousouf – two halves of a single reality, as it were: magus and platonic lover. Or Gérard de Nerval. But if in the legend of Hakem it is the double of “God” who is to marry in the other’s stead, in Aurélia it is God who was to marry in Gérard’s stead.
After coming from the workshop, in Aurélia, Nerval found himself in the midst of a crowd assembled for wedding festivities. Imagining this wedding to be that of his double with Aurélia, Nerval began to make a commotion, pleading his case to those he knew amongst the gathering. He shouted that he was not afraid of the doppelgänger because he knew the sign with which to defeat him. One of the men from the workshop appeared, and threatened him with a red-hot ball at the end of a metal bar. His own world – the world of Adoniram – seemed to have turned against him, that is, assisting in his “downfall”. “Everyone around me seemed to be jeering at my impotence.... I stepped back to the throne then, my soul filled with unutterable pride, and raised my arm to make a sign which to me appeared to have magical power. A woman’s cry, vibrant and clear, and filled with excruciating agony, woke me with a start. The syllables of the unknown word I had been about to utter died on my lips.... I threw myself on the floor and began praying fervently, weeping warm tears.” This voice, though he was convinced it came from the “real world”, he was as thoroughly convinced was in some unexplainable way Aurélia’s.
“What had I done? I had disturbed the harmo