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Moonrise in ancient Sumer: Armand Schwerner's 'The Tablets.'

Armand Schwerner and I were neighbors in the Stapleton Heights section of Staten Island from 1979 to 1982. Since then we have both moved, but them his house on Catlin Avenue was two blocks uphill from mine. Both houses were old, working-class, eccentric. On the uphill side of the street, his was tall, thin, and improbably blue. From its armor of wooden shingles it flung out a tiny crow's nest-like balcony from the third floor. Gothic, it creaked in the wind like s tall ship. Looking down into his overgrown garden of weeds and enormous blowsy peony bushes made me dizzy; ever the porch, which strode out on narrow pilings, seemed impossibly high.

Inside, his house seethed with books and magazines in numerous languages (he is fluent in French). Musical instruments, visual poetry and a small Buddhist shrine took pride of place. Though he was raising two teenage sons by himself and teaching at the College of Staten Island, his house was the retreat of a scholar-translator. Sharing family preoccupations, teacherly concerns, and neighborly involvements, we also were both students of Buddhism, poets, and admirers of Sumerian culture. Armand talked poetry a lot - not so much about it as in its lingo, playfully, joking as friends do. He is a master of parody and language play. Going fishing in the Green Belt forest, he would shift into jovial performance mode, one moment a stentorian Sumerian prophet, the next a wizened idiot nattering over worms, then a French aesthete with his nose up a snorkel. There were straightforward conversations, too-absolutely serious, as if with a psychiatrist or Zen teacher, over the dinnertable. We went to the New York Zen Center, then at Greystone in Riverdale, and to Buddhist events. We drove together to many readings and performances in Manhattan. I remember best the ones with Chuck Stein, where Armand joined in the group of poets who would be spontaneously creating musical sounds from non-musical, sometimes chance-originated visual texts or ambient sounds in the manner of John Cage. Sometimes Armand used just his voice; other times he took along some of his large collection of exotic instruments (Middle Eastern bagpipes, rainstick, ocarinas, etc.) He is a trained musician, particularly proficient with reeds.

Every time I read The Tablets I like it better. To some it has seemed obscure, but seen as a multimedia performance text it can be transparent. I think it may turn out to be one of those books that , for want of a better word for something original and lasting, we call a classic. It is multi-dimensional; sound poetry and musical notation coexist with visual art, diagrams, concrete poetry, and scholarly glosses. Half poetic text, half commentary by a scholar-translator, it is mongrel, macaronic, hybrid. Its nature is to cross boundaries. Like a forest of Chinese steles that one wanders among, it is a mental/verbal landscape that one enters and enacts. It reminds me of certain musical installations in which one's bodily presence activates electrical sound-car radiators emitting low drones, crystal goblets singing in high flute sounds. One creates music by wandering into the forest of things. This reminds me of my fishing trip with Armand, and of the way we pass through our lives. The Tablets creates this sense of travel in space and time.

The Tablets is what Creeley has called an ongoing life work. Ambitious and monumental, it is also lean, even gnarled. Parts are missing, tendons exhibit their strain. Giacometti rather than Henry Moore, Wittgenstein rather than Kant. There is a tensile strength, an unembarassed surgical examination of living tissues of the mind-its presumptions, preoccupations, ideas, experiences. Diseased tissues get pulled apart with the sharp precision tolls of irony, satire and parody. Procreation and death dominate the overwhelmingly physical consciousness; the diction is often scientific or clotted, guttural. I write these observations before rereading The Tablets to record the traces left in mind. I have read it before several times, seen parts of it performed, arranged a performance of part of it (with a dancer and Armand), and written a scholarly essay-review of it. But the Tablets changes as one reads, assuming new, Protean guises. Once I began rereading it my ideas about it will change again.

The Tablets comprise one volume of twenty-six individual poems, supposed translations from imaginary ancient Sumerian clay tablets written in cuneiform and archaic hieroglyphs. The book keeps growing as more tablets are written/discovered. The physical form of The Tablets is one of its most significant innovations. Prefacing the volume is a Key:
 ........untranslatable;
 ++++++++missing;
 (?) variant reading;


[] supplied by the scholar translator.

There are characters as well. The most important is the scholar-translator, who is responsible for the key and all the other scholarly apparatus. The text is largely a chronicle of his obsessive quest to wrest knowledge from the shadowy pit of vanished civilizations. He is the one who gives us the primary text, the main story of narrative.

He is also responsible for the meanings he suggests, which echo, alter, deny, and otherwise counterpoint the primary text. The effect is often halting; a word will be presented, only to be questioned. For example:

the (power)* for all of [us]!

*perhaps 'damage,' if a barrowing

Something important enough for an exclamation mark is undermined by the possibility that the opposite is meant. In this way the scholar-translator calls many utterances into question.

The scholar-translator is an untrustworthy narrator, however, partly because phenomenal existence is inherently confusing. He is untrustworthy for other reasons, too. He is a literary version of the mad scientist; in the words of Carlos Fuentes he is one of the "serene madmen, the children of Erasmus." Borges's Funes the Meritorious and Pierre Menard (the "author of the don Quixote"), Roth's critic-characters and Nabokov's critic in Pale Fire are his relatives, along with Poe's frenzied intellectuals and Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Farther back are the priestly writers of the ancient Near Eastern temples and the Old Testament scribes. Schwerner's fussy scribe is a much reduced, comical version of these priestly hierophants. By turns an egomaniacal trickster, a pompous academician, and an erudite idiot, he misses the boat sometimes, but has moments of brilliance. He is most attractive when he falls in love with his subject, losing his voracious ego:

I do not know who I am when I read this. How

magnificent!(XI)

The scholar-translator is responsible for the parody that infuses the book like a tart seltzer. On one level, The Tablets celebrates the book and book culture. On another it showers them with ridicule. The scholar-translator personifies scholarship's excesses-its obtuseness, longwindedness, and egocentrism-which blur the subject as much as they reveal it. The scholar-translator is aware of this at times, as when he worries at the end of Tablet VIII:

There is a growing ambiguity in this work of mine, but I'm not sure where it

lies. Some days I do not doubt that the ambiguity is inherent in the language

of the Tablets themselves; at other times I worry myself sick over the

possibility that I am the variable giving rise to ambiguities. Do I take advantage of

the present unsure state of scholarly expertise? On occasion it almost seems to

me as if I am inventing this sequence, and such a fantasy sucks me into an

abyss of almost irretrievable depressions, from which only forces and

unpleasurable exercises in linguistic analysis rescue me.

It would be a mistake to take this solipsistic, frenzied scholar-as-spiritual-explorer at face value. He is a self-reflexive Janus, a crossroads trickster like Legba or Hermes (we may think of the Christian cross), who speaks where two dimensions touch. What is sense in one language/ continuum is merest nonsense in another. The scholar-translator is necessarily the companion figure. He accompanies the text, not in the way Dante accompanied Virgil, but as Sancho Panza dogs Quixote. He plays the necessary, fatuous Boswell to Schwerner's Johnson, a filial Pantagruel to the book Gargantuan.

The Tablets is thickly peopled with characters at one more remove from reality than the scholar-translator. We only have his word for them. They are all filtered through him as if he were the narrator of a novel. As narrator/commentator, he shares authority with the fictive tablets. Sometimes he tries to appropriate them; other times they show him up. The Tablets exist in permanent condition of struggle between poet and critic.

Some of the second-remove characters are ludicrous. One of these is "a certain Henrik L, an archaeologically gifted Norwegian divine." The scholar-translator views him with the mixed wonder and frustration that Schwerner's own readers might feel: "How he...managed to make anything at all of the text is itself a passing wonder. Even more taxing to common sense is his idiosyncratic translation method." Henrik L has translated his cuneiform tablet into Crypto-Icelandic, " a language we cannot yet understand" except for segment that mean thing like "do you know now, or don't you." Undaunted, the enthusiastic scholar-translator is determined to give us this cryptic tablet. He rhetoricizes, "Was it T.S. Eliot who wrote that he could listen by the hour to poetry in languages foreign to him, with delight in the rhythm and in the sound?" The "Crypto-Icelandic" Tablet VII, complete with new phonemes and a key symbol for confusion, is pure sound poetry. It is suitably archaic-sounding and wackily impressive in performance.

Another second-order character, one Canon Galpin, is presented with wonderfully egregious, hand-rubbing mock-humility by the scholar-translator:

I present this text with delight and a humility which urge me to incorporate

a quote into the instruction to this, the first musically notated chant in

written human history. Many readers will recognize that the following citation

stems from that mesmerizing work...The Music of the Sumerians and their

Immediate Successors the Babylonians and Assyrian by the Sumeromusicologist

F.W. Galpin, Litt. D., F.L.S., Canon Emeritus of Chalmsford Cathedral and

Hon. Freeman of the Worshipful Company Of Musicians....

Canon Galpin, another Poelike literary fanatic, explains that in interpreting the music he was "spurred by the word 'impossible.'" This twelfth Tablet, which incorporates musical notation, begins reflexively:

and now, what

would you have us do now?

what more do you ask for?

that was the question

Other ghostly presences whose existence is deduced by the scholar-translator include a blind Tiresias-figure "in touch with mind-texture," whose psychological acuity permeates Tablet XXVI. The scholar-translator calls him the Ur-Aryan (XXVI), to distinguish from the alter Akkadians, Hittites, Babylonians and Assyrians, all Semites. This Tablet is both by and about him:

He is not quite dead. Between the star and mouth

The abyss sucks the tiny winging desert flies to dry death and also

Between the great fire

And star in the forlorn symmetry of the beautiful.

The blind artificer said:

When I was young they would praise

just about all I'd say, as if I breathed

with them; my times are bad, the past is a joke,

former admirers hound me, alone and treed...

was what we lost

what we had?

now my best lies in the cut of my trouble every target

deserves work beauty

in the purgation

of superfluities

Tablet XXVI, which introduces glyphs into the text, turns from this lament by the blind poet to a commentary by a sort of Greek chorus. The dying god brings fertility, they chant:

He leaves. May he die. We will continue++++++++++++++++++

In the bleached world. He dies.

We will store what even his greed can not curb. Still riddles pierce us.

He is who? A she. Giving out. Leaping in. Cut away and thinning out. Deep

Song. Great shaken work-stuff+++++++++missing++++++++.......

Leaving a change. The abyss is a hope

Yawning between mouth and star.

The barley of his words

Swells...

In addition to the scholar-translator, Galpin, and the Ur-Aryan, there is also a male "I", a speaker, in many tablets. Schwerner makes consistent efforts to create a world free of male dominance, however. Consummation with the temple priestess in the beautiful, erotic Tablet XV, is said to be "the song of a temple prostitute, priestess of the second caste,"but seems to be in two voices, make and female:

your hands which graze my field, sentence

and inflection of how I do me, you do me and how do I how wonderful

by way of pictures I can't thrust across the air between us high priestess

and dare to put your own hands on you own lips

my hands on yours, how is it I never knew

this took so much risking, that I do you, that you turn for me

that you slowly turn for me, that I do your body in oil, in glycerin,

that I do you, that I do you slowly almost not at all

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

..........in this small clearing where I rest from us, space inside the field

Minor characters include poets of the oral tradition, particular bards who rendered this version, and individual scribes who cut it into clay tablets. Behind them is the rich Sumerian pantheon of gods, goddesses, animals, fish, mythical beings, plants, ores, minerals, and innumerable objects. The densely-populated Tablets fairly writhes with the processes of birth and death. The myriad presences remind one of a Tibetan Tanka painting, or perhaps a Brueghel: spacious mystery and lively tangle of minute detail.

The Tablets are physical presences: some are broken, words and whole passages are missing or erased. Their order is unsure. The act of translating (emptiness into form into emptiness) becomes the act of translating dead clay into living breath, rehearsing the Semitic myth of creation. Most of the tablets literally contain translations and commentary, but the "straight" poem tablets also meditate on the act of translation. For example, Tablet XX-XXIII, the lyrical "epistolary Tablets" of Ahanarshi the scribe, may be read as meditations on translation. In Tablet XXIII trees in the forest translate their root-nourishment into sap and leaves:

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

how I want to become transparent!

+++++++++more sturdily in the world

..........................of water

tractableness of roots twisting......much like water

doing their practice under the forest floor

in seasons laden with shoots from the tree-roots,

companions in the changing.........of the shadowed understory of the floor

there's a stillness in this upward-tending of the sap-laden lives

contains it opposite, how I want to become transparent....

Like creation, translation demands awareness of shunyata-the Void of Buddhist thought. Though translated as "emptiness," it is creative, like clear air without which the world of objects could not exist or be perceived. To translate is to see the other (text) in the self. How to do this without violating the specificity of the self or text?

A Buddhist might say that self, text, tablets-all are a part of samsara, the plenitudinous world of concrete experience and suffering. One reaches shunyata through of in samsara. Meditation and study are the way beyond ego-delusions to the empty space where new awarenesses may blossom. This space can be imagined as a zone of nothing around one, like the cypher or zero. Translation, in The Tablets, celebrates this zero, at once nothing and the most powerful of figures. Tablet XXIII discovers the beloved "other" everywhere and nowhere:

my dear love you are the green denominator of this liquid ambience, or

you have the specialness of a drop of water

not attached to anything............................is it stupid to say

You are not in place, or

there is no place that contains you, not a place is special, all but

greening presence and movement and the plunge into the green

pain...

Time, like space, is an actor in the drama. There is something profoundly fascinating about our most ancient texts. We reverence them even as they puzzle and bewilder. The Dead Sea Scrolls and their translation is an ongoing drama of our age. The world of the vanished Sumerian culture, where the first writing and great cities arose, breathes in Schwerner's Tablets. Schwerner's basic picture is accurate. The Sumerian poems Descent of Inanna and Gilgamesh share a brooding awareness of death held only briefly at bay by exuberant physicality. Schwerner draws heavily on the works of scholars such as Samuel Noah Kramer in reconstructing the psychic outlines of his Sumer.

It is perhaps helpful to recall the chronology. The Tablets hark back to the reign of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, between 2700 and 2500 BC, when the walls of this greater city of its time were first constructed. The oral tradition of Gilgamesh was first written in Sumerian on clay tablets in the 21st century BC. Those texts were translated and continued by Akkadian texts dating from the Old Babylonian period (2000-1600 BC). The version we know best is still later: the Neo-Assyrian version of Nineveh in the Middle Babylonian period (1600-1000 BC). This version is brought to us by one Sin-leqi-unninni, translator, exorcist, and scribe. His functions remind us of the magical powers ascribed to the then-mysterious technology of writing. One meaning of "tablet" is roof, as clay tiles were used in construction. The crudeness of early literary productions-pages as tiles!-is humbling, but there was enough strength in the tiles to weather some 5,000 years.

The Tablets translate ancient Sumer across the gobbling oblivion of 5,000 years. Time as history is a central concern: how we receive the past within ourselves, and how our ancient ancestors-our other, earlier selves-would have understood human existence. In Tablet XXVI we read:

The history of my mind besieged by 5,000 years written documents is the

history by turns of a weary and oppressed animal and that of a repeated and

sometimes galling insistence on confronting and mastering the unabsorbable.

Thinking of the ancient Sumerian scribes-the "Old Ones"-Schwerner's scholar-translator ponders: "And what about...the nature and growth of their consciousness, they who are perhaps, in the Way of mind. our coevals in one lightning blink of 5,000 years"(XXVI).

"From where to where

Are you going?" you ask.

My answer is:

From back to forward

Only my feet know."

--Zen Harvest #49

There is an overarching structure:the first twelve tablets involve a ritual "Emptying." An unnumbered thirteenth visual tablet done as a mandala is both the end of "Emptying" and the beginning of "The Filling" or "The Holy Giving of the Self," which runs to the end. The (unfinished) series recalls the lunar calendar of twenty-eight days. Like those of Yeats's Vision, its phases parallel state of soul. There is a progression from inarticulate neurosis to the articulate and self-aware. It is possible to read The Tablets as a record of psychological integration, cultural transformation, or meditation practice.

The large yet open-ended architecture is suggested by the first Tablet, which begins:"All that's left is pattern* shoes." At all times we are what is left, and so are all objects. But we are also what begins. The Tablets begins with an end. It summons up a world of what is left, as if to say this is where we start from. Beginning and ending are the same; "form is emptiness, emptiness is form" says the Heart Sutra. The idea of pattern is slightly doubtful: conceptions falsify experience. Pattern is like shoes: they allow you to walk. Walking, as in kinhin or walking meditation, you are a part of the pattern, though you cannot see the pattern from outside ("you cannot tell the dancer from the dance").

Poems such as The Tablets do not hold still like paintings. Instead, like music, they begin and end. In Tablet XXVI the Faustian scholar-translator laments "the fact that inscriptions, language, forms unroll in time" and greedily desires "a massive graphic large enough to accommodate this entire Tablet, a painting obviating time." Tablet I corrects this yearning for perfection:

I made a mistake. The small path was barely muddy, Little squush;

and wet socks.

This works as a haiku. The speaker goes without his (preconceived?) pattern-shoes and "gets his fet wet." The small path suggests a form of the Tao. The next phrase suggests essence ("it is") but questions how to reach it.

It is (scholarship?) (meditation?)

Tablet I is a microcosm of the rest of The Tablets. Beginnings are endings. Its end is a visual oxymoron. Pattern is invoked but denied; if it exists, it will have to be sought:

++++++++

+++++++++++++

++++++++++pattern (shoes?)......................

+++++++++++

+++++++

++++++++++++++

++++++++++.............

The untranslatable portions remind the reader that the pursuit of absolute knowledge is an impossible hoax, The parody floats the text by ripping little holes of perception in the reading process. The interpolations, like the crosses and ellipses, add a white space of impenetrability. This is poetry that deconstructs itself, displaying its limitations and walking-dancing!-on its feet of clay.

The ambition is grand, but the diction is humble, oral, colloquial. Many of the tablets use folk forms. Tablet III is an angry threat to "make the strangers piss in their pants for fear." Tablet IV is a series of riddles and answers arranged into vertical columns:
 is the man a bush on fire? like one drop of quartz, two cold onyx beads
 is the man four-legged like one piece of petrified wood


and with teeth?
 is the man a hot woman? like one hard-finger-bone, one moonlight on iro
n
 is he mud, of solid mud? in the shape of one clay tablet in frost



Tablet VI is a hilarious ritual naming curse that throws around wildly improbable, childish epithets: Big Fat Flux, Seventeen-Eyeball-Fusion-Up-Up, The Scheming Pintrpnit, Pa-Pa-the-Flying-Slime, Everybody's Hyena. The occasion for this curse is the speaker's failure to achieve an erection. A more serious epitaph curse appears in Tablet VIII, which guards a grave and was composed at the moment of death. As a dramatic monologue, it is a tour de force:

I'm getting stiff, this curse

better work:

If you step on me

may your leg become green and gangrenous...

if you pick your nose on my grave

may you be fixed forever in a stupid

attitude, may the children use you

as a jungle gym and turn your muscles to piss...

if you know throw your garbage on my grave

may its spirit haunt you and sneak into your bed...

Nothing is there

But reflected there:

A moon in the water.

--Zen Harvest #434

How to evaluate The Tablets? One could place it among the works of certain contemporaries-Jerome Rothenberg, Nathaniel Tarn, Clayton Eshleman, Jackson MacLow, and Charles to name a few. Looking back at the Modernists, we can see that this writing lies in the broad path blazed by Williams, Olson and the Black Mountain poets, after the split with Eliot. Pound, who influenced everyone, appears in the emphasis on form wedded to content, the Asian orientation, and the epic form.

One can also find an honorable place for The Tablets in the contemporary Buddhist context delineated in Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Kent Johnson and Craig Paulenich. In his essay there, Armand his twenty-two year involvement with Buddhist meditation practice, first at the Kagyu Tibetan Buddhist Community at Tail of the Tiger in Vermont, then at the New York Chapter of Dharmadhatu, and later at the Zen Center of New York, where he was ordained in 1983. His essay courageously brings up questions about the teacher-student relationship that led him to leave the Zen Center shortly after being ordained. Poetry has been, for him, a lasting teacher. He advances the equation that "Student: Teacher = Poet:Poem."

The idea of poem as teacher sets The Tablets in a number of fertile traditions, including koan practice, Talmudic exegesis, Christian scriptural study, Cabbalism, and study of the Quran. In all these traditions the text is in some way a gate to grace enlightenment. One could fruitfully consider the Bildungsroman as a form of the novel that incorporates the quest within its fiction. The greatest classical genre, the epic, also comprises a spiritual path.

The Tablets is a reflexive epic or serious mock-epic. It plays with ideas and attitudes we can see in Gilgamesh, but also in other orally-based epics: Homer's Iliad, the Icelandic Volsunga Saga, the German Niebelungenlied, the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, the French Chanson de Roland, and the Spanish El Cid. In all, the individual male hero, whose abilities symbolize the strengths of his culture, does battle but is brought down in death and defeat. All strike a tragic note.

In Asia, the oral epic tradition includes the Hindu Mahabharata and Ramayana with their numerous offshoots in Thai, Pali, and other languages, as well as the Tibetan Geysir. The Asian epics have a different feel-for one thing, they see the self as a delusion and posit reincarnation. Tragedy, the ground base of Western epic, isn't an option, since death and the self don't ultimately exist as we know them. In the Geysir, the hero is burned, hacked to bits, and starved but comes back; he survives death and is reborn in cycles. In Asian epic, terror, guilt, and demonic rage are stages in a cycle of psychic development, parts of a whole, not absolute realities or split-off personalities, as Westerners might see them. They are positions one can move out of, not permanent opponents who can kill you. The posture of the Asian epics is therefore much more psychological. The main dangers are inside, not outside; there is not ultimately a meaningful distinction.

In his work, Schwerner focuses a deeply Buddhist vision on the Western mind. There is an exploration of the Western staples-dualism, egotism, death, fear, greed, and the rest-in an overarching context that displace them. They are seen as mental phenomena, phantasmagoria, no more or less real than blood or animals. The Buddhist frame of reference allows us distance from the ordinary understanding of self, just as ancient Sumer gives us distance from our own culture.

What we have in Armand Schwerner's Tablets is a self-reflexive or deconstructive exploration of Western consciousness. The Tablets revel in the condition of brokenness, illegibility, and loss. They insist on difficulty and struggle as much as any Siegfried bleeding to his noble death on a field of flowers. There is no easy sentimentally about unity: the poet would rather die, I think, than be understood as purveying New Age Oneness, the fast food of the spiritual pizzerias.

Where, we may ask, is the ponderousness of the Heavenly Muse dictating to blind Milton dictating to his daughters? Or the solid Roman architecture of the Aeneid, which explains Rome to Rome and all the world? The answer is twofold. First, Schwerner evokes an oral tradition. The Sumerian originals were oral, and his style is colloquial. It has the lightness, humor, speed and clarity of good talk. Second, there is no heavy preconceived form, no external architecture of preplanned answers. For a Buddhist, form apart from meaning is a falsification the process of meditation (or writing, for remember that Student:Teacher = Poet:Poem). As in koan study, form may be a delusion. The same answer may be right for one student and not correct for another: what matters is the inner apprehension. No fixed position is finally at rest or true to itself.

Modern poetic epics include Eliot's The Waste Land, Pound's Cantos, Williams's Paterson, Crane's The Bridge, and Olson's The Maximus Poems. The Tablets is closest to Pound in its appreciation of history as a repository of wisdom and in its daring continuation. Like Penelope's web, the cantos and tablets keep appearing, drawn out of the living poet. There is an open, jazzlike improvisation of form in this continuation: each new tablet modifies all the rest, perhaps even undercutting them. But where Pound kept suggesting that he had a master plan. Schwerner would reject such a notion. Formalism, meter, narrative storytelling and dramatic monologue have been urged on us in this decade by writers like Dana Gioia, publishing houses such as Story Line Press, and pundits such as the late Judson Jerome. The Tablets offers form, narrative, and dramatic monologue and more, while remaining true to its roots in a poetry of performances and meditation. In this work, as in Buddhism, formlessness is dramatized as the chaotic context of form. So far, The Tablets have managed to achieve monumentality of form within seeming spontaneity. One effect of The Tablets's spontaneous form is to challenge the reader to read (and live) authentically-a project all the more necessary in late capitalism, which staggers under the weight of acquisitive delusions, attachments and loss of soul. I would like to conclude with a quotation that aptly evokes The Tablets:

The coarse jokes, the creatural concept of the human body, the lack of

modesty and reserve in sexual matters, the mixture of such a realism with a

satiric or didactic content, the immense fund of unwieldy and sometimes

abstruse erudition...[the] entire effort is directed toward playing with

things and with the multiplicity of their possible aspects; upon tempting the

reader out of his customary and definite way of regarding things, by showing

him phenomena in utter confusion; upon tempting him out into great ocean

of the world, in which he can swim freely, though it be at his own peril....

This is Erich Auerbach writing about Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel in Mimesis, his magisterial survey of Western literature since the Old Testament and Homer. Like us, Rabelais lived in chaotic times. The old order of the Middle Ages was collapsing and Humanists such as Erasmus were inspiring seditious new thought. At least one friend of Rabelais was burned at the stake for holding ideas out of favor. We must cherish demanding works such as The Tablets, in which the intersection of flesh and spirit is evoked with clarity and passion.
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Author:VanSpanckeren, Kathryn
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:4922
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