From the foundation of the world?

Come ye blessed of my father. (Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel.)

Come ye blessed of my father. (Michelangelo,
Sistine Chapel.)

In a little more than two weeks I will be in Jerusalem. I will spend ten nights in Palestine and Israel―in Bethlehem, Nazareth, and religiously important places in the Galilee, as well as Jerusalem. I have been to all of these places before. The first time I was in Palestine, I also had the remarkable experience of spending two days and a night in Gaza.

In the late ‘80s-early ‘90s I was in therapy with a Jewish Jungian psychiatrist in Cambridge, MA. He is about my age (we were both very young at that time). My neurologist referred me to him because he had experience working with persons with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, the condition with which the neurologists at Harvard Medical School had recently diagnosed me after I had lived with it for 40 years.

One of the presentations of TLE is a propensity for heightened religious experiences. Out-of-body experiences, strange feelings of transcendence, seeing visions. All manner of mystical experience.

I have had quite a few of those experiences, but I have never exactly attributed them to being in touch with God or the gods or the meaning of the universe as some TLEptics do. From childhood I have had what might be called a “mystical” bent―having deep experiences of connectedness to reality of some kind. I have tried to explain those experiences many times.

In a folder on my computer desk top I have a miscellaneous assortment of documents with stuff I want to be able to find if I ever need it. Somewhat like my last year’s tax return―it’s here somewhere. One of those documents is a quotation from Fyodor Dostoyevsky describing his seizures (I have no record of the article that quotes Strakhov).

Nikolay Strakhov, a philosopher and literary critic, and a friend of Dostoyevsky relates Dostoevsky’s description of the aura: ‘…Often told me that before the onset of an attack there were minutes in which he was in rapture.’ “For several moments,” he said, “I would experience such joy as would be inconceivable in ordinary life―such joy that no one else could have any notion of. I would feel complete harmony in myself and in the whole world and this feeling was so strong and sweet that for few seconds of such bliss I would give ten or more years of my life, even my whole life perhaps.” Frank J. Goldstein. Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoevsky. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press (1987).

I don’t know if the experience on the Oregon coast I linked to above was a seizure, a mystical experience, or simply the way anyone who hadn’t a care in the world for the moment would experience the ocean and the cold air and the solitude. My guess is that many (most?) people have these experiences, but they don’t feel compelled to write about them. And they don’t think of them as “religious.”

I should note here that the times I know for sure I am having a seizure are not wonderful. A month ago, for example, I was walking at the fitness center and suddenly had no idea where I was or why I was there (which is a much more frequent experience than being at one with the ocean). It’s more difficult for me to explain that kind of experience than the mystical ones (or whatever they are). Fortunately at the fitness center I was able to get to a bench and sit before I checked out completely. I came to (after probably 2 or 3 seconds) and knew someone named Chris was nearby and that I should see him.

But I had no idea where or who he was or why I needed to find him. It took me a few minutes to remember he is my trainer, and I had an appointment with him in a few minutes.

So that’s the sum total of my mystical experience.

For the most part.

Since I find it almost impossible to say I believe in God these days, it’s just as well that I don’t have experiences where I think I’ve run into her.

When I was working with the Jewish Jungian psychiatrist in Massachusetts, he told me he hoped I would someday have the experience of standing at the Western Wall (the “Wailing Wall”) in Jerusalem. He thought anyone who had had so many “mystical” (I’ll call them that for want of a better description) experiences needed to be in that place where so much of the Western religious tradition had been centered, supposedly, for 2,500 years.

When I finally touched the Wall in 2003, I had nothing like a religious experience. Perhaps that was because on my way down into the courtyard I was greeted by a teenage girl and boy (Israeli soldiers carrying assault rifles) obviously looking everyone over with suspicion, and it was difficult to feel anything other than wariness. I was not wearing a yarmulke as the other men in our group were.

I am fairly certain that when I am in Jerusalem in a couple of weeks, I will have religious experiences. I don’t think William James would have classified them as religious, however. But it’s the only way I have of participating in or knowing or experiencing anything “transcendent” or of “God.”

The purpose of my trip is to join, as best I know how or can figure out, the cause of justice for all people. If God exists, I have only one way of knowing God. That is by doing my level best (which is pathetically inadequate and probably misinformed) to be of service to other human beings, especially in the cause of justice and mercy. It is only then―not by belief or prayer or meditation or good works―that I expect to have anything like the experience of hearing, “Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”―in this life or any other.

(Some of my reasons for going to Palestine/Jerusalem.)

The new

The new “Wailing Wall.” (Photo, Harold Knight, 2008.)

 

“. . . Yet the absence of the imagination had Itself to be imagined. . . (Wallace Stevens)

turban walkingFor some time I’ve been meaning to research all of the possible meanings of the word turban. For a specific reason. Wallace Stevens uses it in the last line of the second stanza of his poem, “The Plain Sense of Things.”

No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The rest of the poem gives me no trouble. I have a meaning that it means to me—if a poem “means” anything. But how on earth can a “turban [walk] across the lessened floors?” Bizarre. I’ve had this poem in the back of my mind for a while but have avoided thinking about it directly because I can’t figure out what that image is.

I Googled “turban walking” and found a plethora of pictures of people in turbans walking. Most of them pretty silly. Many, of course, worthy of Charlie Hebdo—tasteless, mean, unnecessary, pushing the bounds of “rights” into the arena of “irresponsibility” (akin to the constant idiocy of the NRA). What I hoped to find was the image like one of a couple of handsome men in their white robes and turbans walking on the streets of Amman, Jordan, that I took in 2013.

I found one I liked of a distinguished man said to be in Amman, quod vide above.

Yet the absence of the imagination itself had to be imagined.

Not too long ago I wrote about the statement attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that “It is quite impossible for a thinking being to imagine nonbeing, a cessation of thought and life.” I do not know which to prefer, imagining the absence of the imagination or the impossibility of imagining non-being. (See stanza V.)

Mr. Goethe

Mr. Goethe

I’m pretty sure Goethe is more right than Stevens on this point. The absence of (anything) cannot be imagined (the old joke, “don’t think about the elephant”) because as thinking beings it is impossible for us to imagine not being.

When I write about these things, a few people who keep track of me worry that I’m suicidal or something. I’m not thinking about death. I’m thinking about not thinking. I suppose that means I’m thinking about being dead, but that’s not the same as thinking about death (which for some of us leads naturally and easily to thinking about suicide, hence causing friends to worry).

Simply put, I’m wondering if, when I am dead, the world, the universe, my family, this Internet posting will continue. Or, when I die, does the whole charade, the entire imagining of someone’s mind ends. Is the jig up? Long ago some comic strip or another (I used to think it was Bloom County with Opus) as its daily installment started with one character whispering to another, “The jig is up, pass it on.” The last frame showed a faraway character whispering to another, “The wig is wag.”

Isn’t that the way we get our information? especially about our own mortality. So many people in the “pass it on” line have misheard the original truth that we actually think what was said originally was,

“Whosever believeth in Him shall have eternal life.”

Or,

“Theirs are gardens, with rivers flowing beneath – their eternal Home. Allah is well-pleased with them.”

Or,

“Make me immortal in . . . the third region, the third heaven of heavens, where the worlds are resplendent. For Indra, flow you on, Indu!”

Or,

“But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.”

Because my intellectual acumen is not as great as Pat Robertson’s, or Bill Maher’s, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s, or Mullah Mohammed Omar’s, Or Amar Zutshi’s, I can’t agree or disagree with any of them.

My observation is limited to this. Anyone who is 70 years old and is not giving at least a passing thought to these things is not doing their homework.

. . . The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

“THE PLAIN SENSE OF THINGS,” by Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

Michelangelo's heaven

Michelangelo’s heaven