Biblical Studies · Spirituality

There is no choice then

Love is patient;
love is kind;
love is not envious
or boastful
or arrogant
or rude.

It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth.

It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.

Love never ends.

These words from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (13:4-8) have to be among the most challenging but also the wisest and truest comments ever made about love, true love, that is, love that fully deserves that name.

In ‘Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God’, an essay I have referred to before, Anne Carson offers her own reflections on love, self and God in connection with the mysticism of Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil. She notes, rightly, I think, that almost everything that passes as love is little more than self-love.

True love is characterised by patience and kindness. It cares for the Other, whoever that Other may be (love does not discriminate between who is, and isn’t, lovable), and does not insist on its own way. It bears, believes, hopes and endures everything; and it never ends. Now that is a challenge!

Yet, says Paul, I can have all knowledge and understanding, all faith even, but if I ‘do not have love, I am nothing’. There is no choice then, is there? It also is the most worthy of goals.

Spirituality

Everything that one can tell of God is as much lying as it is telling the truth

Anne Carson’s essay, ‘Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God’ (in Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera), offers some intriguing thoughts on love, the self, God etc., while at the same time engaging in interesting ways with the three women mentioned in the title. She quotes Simone Weil (Gravity and Grace) as saying:

God gave me Being in order that I should give it back to him. … God allows me to exist outside himself. It is for me to refuse this authorization.

Having read Weil’s Waiting for God a little while ago, I am quite tempted to add Gravity and Grace to my burgeoning reading list as well.

Carson also quotes Marguerite Porete, who says of God that ‘His Farness is the more Near’. Carson comments:

I have no idea what this sentence means but it gives me a thrill. It fills me with wonder. In itself the sentence is a small complete act of worship, like a hymn or a prayer.

Porete’s phrase captures the tension of divine transcendence and immanence well, but I also love the way Carson expresses her fascination with it. On the same theme she once again quotes Weil, who remarks that ‘God can only be present in creation under the form of absence’.

Here, finally, is another Porete quote, this time expressing her apophatic theology:

For everything that one can tell of God or write, no less than what one can think, of God who is more than words, is as much lying as it is telling the truth.

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Best Reads 2013 · Poetry

Best Reads 2013. V: Anne Carson, Antigonick

Anne Carson, AntigonickThis is Anne Carson’s translation (and adaptation) of Sophocles’ play Antigone. Following on from Nox, an epitaph written on the occasion of her brother’s death, Carson here revisits the theme of mourning a lost brother, for the heroine of Sophocles’ play is condemned to nothing less than a living death in a sealed cave, all because she wished to bury her dead brother.

Anne Carson, AntigonickAntigonick is a powerfully compelling work, beautifully executed while at the same time, in typical Anne Carson fashion, bordering on the incomprehensible. The text is presented in handwriting (apparently Carson’s own), in capital letters and with hardly any punctuation. It is interlaced with rather surreal illustrations by Bianca Stone, printed on transparent vellum that overlays the text. It is not always clear how the illustrations relate to the text, but they contribute significantly to the beauty and appeal of the book as well as to its overall impact by heightening the absurdity of the world that Carson’s rereading presents.

Anne Carson, Antigonick
Illustration by Bianca Stone

Not an easy read this, but a fascinating one. Like Nox, it left me intrigued and deeply touched by Carson’s creative and harrowing ways of mourning her brother’s death.

Poetry

‘When anyone escapes, my heart leaps up’ – Sharon Olds’s Stag’s Leap

Sharon Olds, Stag’s LeapStag’s Leap by Sharon Olds is a book of poetry, written after her husband had left her for another woman. I picked this up the other day because (a) I needed something to read over lunch, (b) the subject matter intrigued me, (c) the blurb had succeeded in deepening my interest, (d) the book has won the T. S. Eliot Prize 2012 and (e) I felt like buying a poetry book (I actually bought two as it happens, but that’s a story for another day). Olds’s book also reminded me of Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband, which similarly won the T. S. Eliot Prize, deals with the loss of a husband, is published by Cape Poetry and which I had enjoyed.

Stag’s Leap then. This is a sequence of poems (though not quite a narrative poem in the sense of Carson’s Autobiography of Red) divided into six parts – January–December, Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, Years Later – in which Olds reflects on love, the body, sex, loss, betrayal, divorce, pain, grief, anger, hatred ….

There are many poignant moments in these poems, but the earlier reflections in ‘January–December’ and ‘Winter’ moved me the most.

Now I come back to look at love
in a new way, now that I know I’m not
standing in its light. …

I am not here – to stand in his thirty-year
sight, and not in love’s sight,
I feel an invisibility

In the absence of love, Olds reflects, all that remains is ‘courtesy and horror’.

And yet, despite the horror and the pain, there are admirable expressions of tenderness and love even at the moment of separation:

In the last minute of our marriage, I looked into
his eyes. All that day until then, I had been
comforting him, for the shock he was in
at his pain – the act of leaving me
took him back, to his own early
losses. But now it was time to go beyond
comfort, to part. …

Olds finds it possible to think back on how blessed her life had been, partly because she had been able to love and had not lost her husband while he still loved her.

Here is another surprising and rather touching revelation:

… When anyone escapes, my heart
leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from,
I am half on the side of the leaver. …

The poems talk about Olds’s shame at having been left by the one who knew her best. She notes how every hour is a ‘room of shame’ but also how there’s a ‘being of sheer hate’ inside her and how, since it cannot harm him, she can wound him, in her dream.

And she reflects on having lived with an idea, an illusion of her former husband, whom she did not truly see or know.

‘Years later’, she says:

… Maybe I’m half over who he
was, but not who I thought he was, and not
over the wound, sudden deathblow
as if out of nowhere, though it came from the core
of our life together. …

Even so, she can’t let go of him yet but holds him on a string, watching her idea of him pull away yet stay, her ‘silver kite’.

These poems poignantly express the conflicting emotions experienced in the wake of betrayal and loss.

Literary Criticism

Of quotes, oranges and banditry – an Anne Carson quote, what else?

As this blog is entitled ‘Brief thoughts and quotes’, how could I not quote Anne Carson’s thoughts about quotes in ‘Foam (Essay with Rhapsody): On the Sublime in Longinus and Antonioni’ in Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera?

A quote (cognate with quota) is a cut, a section, a slice of someone else’s orange. You suck the slice, toss the rind, skate away. Part of what you enjoy in a documentary technique is the sense of banditry. To loot someone else’s life or sentences and make off with a point of view, which is called ‘objective’ because you can make anything into an object by treating it this way, is exciting and dangerous.