between a rock and a hard place
I spent this frigid Sunday reading an old Gifford lecture about Marx and theology. It’s a tricky read, not least because all punctuation except periods seems to have been stripped from the online version(!)
I got to this subject because I’m thinking about a Louis Glück poem that I want to set to music.
Scilla (from Wild Iris) by Louise Glück
Not I, you idiot, not self, but we, we–waves
of sky blue like
a critique of heaven: why
do you treasure your voice
when to be one thing
is to be next to nothing?
Why do you look up? To hear
an echo like the voice
of god? You are all the same to us,
solitary, standing above us, planning
your silly lives: you go
where you are sent, like all things,
where the wind plants you,
one or another of you forever
looking down and seeing some image
of water, and hearing what? Waves,
and over waves, birds singing.
It’s the scilla flower talking in the poem. they are quite literally waves of sky blue.
So you’ve got that layer, and you also have the layer of Scilla, the place in southern Italy.
and the monster from The Odyssey
and the narrow strait between Skylla and Charybdis, between a rock and a hard place.
so maybe because I don’t really know what I’m doing with this piece, I decided that the phrase “critique of heaven” felt sort of inert to me. I mean, I get the idea that a field of sky blue flowers has way more reality than any conception of a personal afterlife gamboling in the clouds, I get that. I’m there. but everything else in the poem is so clear and strong in its imagery and then you’ve got this sort of philosophical/theological phrase, what’s up with that?
so I did a search and found this lecture by a Dutch theologian, Arend Theodoor van Leeuwen, about Marx’s “theology”, and the idea that a critique of heaven is transformed into a critique of earth in his life’s work. All this is kind of a revelation for me, not having thought much about Marx since a random political theory course in college. All I know is that phrase about religion as the opium of the people, and I’d never even read the context of that phrase.
“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and a protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature the heart of a heartless world just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of woe the halo of which is religion.”
If by “religion” is meant the whole idea of gamboling in the clouds reunited with your loved ones presided over by a Santa-like guy with a long white beard, I’m kind of with him on that. But his pronouncement about what is required for people’s happiness seem suspiciously like a religious pronouncement: i.e. a generalization about what is good for everyone. One thing the 20th century taught us really well, I would venture to say, is that those kinds of generalizations are likely to lead kind of inexorably to state-sanctioned mass murder, whether in Germany or Russia, China or Poland.
All this stuff is really complicated, and I don’t really understand it at all. But here are some more quotations that interest me a whole lot.
one of Marx’s pronouncements: “Luther shattered faith in authority because he restored the authority of faith.”
from an early play Marx wrote: “Do you believe in God?” “I don’t believe in Him, at least not according to the common notion of belief: but I know Him as I know myself.”
Philosophy, he writes, as long as one drop of blood still beats in its heart, being absolutely free and master of the universe, will never grow tired of throwing in the teeth of its adversaries the cry of Epicurus: “The blasphemous is not he who scorns the gods of the masses but he who imputes to the gods the ideas of the masses.”
from Arend: Therefore Plutarch’s allegation that Epicurus destroys all belief in immortality and so deprives the masses of their sweetest and greatest hope is false. Far from destroying this notion, Epicurus explains it and elevates it to the level of real understanding. His doctrine of immortality consists in the doctrine of the eternity of atoms. That is the hope and consolation for every individual. The personal import of this doctrine is stressed by Marx with reference to a poem of the seventeenth-century mystic Jacob Böhme: “Whoever conceives eternity as time and time as eternity is freed from all discord.”
Marx then summarizes his argument in a succinct editorial formula for the new review about to be launched in Paris: to help the age to come towards a realization of its struggles and its yearnings (Selbst-verständigung) — in a word: critical philosophy. This, he concludes, is a task designed to benefit the world and ourselves. It calls for unanimity. “The heart of the matter is a confession, that is all. In order to receive forgiveness of its sins, mankind need only explain them in their true reality.”
and finally: Today only crass political ignorance could lead us to suppose that civil life must be held together by the state. The truth is that the state is held together by civil life.
So I don’t know if Louise Glück was thinking about Karl Marx when she gave those words to the flowers, but I’m kind of amazed at how the flowers in her poem give voice to a very Marxist idea of interdependency, of authentic community transforming the self-centered alienation of individuality. This idea is something I kind of have to call a “religious” idea, although that’s maybe not exactly the right word, but it seems to me to be a direct outgrowth of a real Christ-like worldview.
(I’ve done another search and found this guy, Roland Boer, who seems to have written a whole bunch of books that may clarify some of what I’m only beginning to understand here. I haven’t decided whether to read them, or to just try to begin to make sense of the poem directly in music.)
Agggh, this post is just another attempt to find a way into writing this piece, and I’m not sure I’m there yet.