Monday, May 08, 2017

The Night Season

I.
“I sleep, but my heart waketh,” begins a verse in the Song of Songs, “it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh”.

The songs of depression and loss begin as songs of obsession and yearning. If, as Andrew Solomon claims, depression is the flaw in love, it is in part because violence is the repressed truth of romance: it is always a St Valentine’s Day massacre.

The knocking of a woman’s heart becomes the knocking of the door, and the knocking of the bed. It is a dream, and the dream is a wish-fulfilment. Later, the woman goes out walking, after midnight, searching the streets for her lover.

This is a strange interlude in the early biblical texts, one which was included amid controversy, because it has no express spiritual content. It is an erotic poem, laden with superlative idealisation. The language points to qualities that exceed description. “His legs are as pillars of marble, set upon sockets of fine gold: his countenance is as Lebanon, excellent as the cedars”. “Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?” “I am a wall, and my breasts like towers … Make haste, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or to a young hart upon the mountains of spices.”

The lovers in the Song of Songs find one another, a success story. They are not just idealised, but ideally matched, mirroring one another's desire: “brother” and “sister” in the curious language of the Old Testament. But if, as Michael Eigen wrote somewhere, “desire and idealisation are sisters,” the violence of idealisation appears in its language. She is “terrible as an army with banners,” he sings.  “Love is strong as death,” she sings, “jealousy is cruel as the grave”. We have to imagine that, as with all ideal lovers, they would be an absolutely awful couple.


II.
Idealisation is a success story, simmering with violence which lurks, like piranha, just below the reflective shimmer. One might say, it is the success story of heteronormative patriarchy. Like perfectionism, it is gendered – we all do it, but women lose most from it. It comes from a need to control the unpredictable, to disavow the open and indeterminate. Idealisation is a defence against the future. A woman is terrifying, Jacqueline Rose says somewhere, because you never know what she is going to come up with.

Another side of this story, one of its many failures, might be found in Patsy Cline’s country and western song, ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’. A story told by a woman seemingly deserted by her lover, who goes out walking in the desperate hope that he will somehow materialise along the road, searching for her all along. As if her walking and wanting, tracing what town planners call the “desire lines” made by human footfall, will, like a magical ritual, summon the object of desire into being. The song is a dream, and the dream is a wish-fulfilment.

If, for Matthew Beaumont, night-walking is a tacit challenge to the political and social regime – think ‘Reclaim The Night’ or 'Nuit debout' – it can also be a very individualised rebellion, like depression. The term “night season,” which evokes a state of worldly abjection, is used often in religious language: frequently in connection with the Song of Songs, where it in fact does not appear. It occurs only once in the King James Bible, in Psalm 22. It is the season of abandonment:

“My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? why are thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.”

The psalm is a song of being forsaken. The feeling of being forsaken, an “immense and aching solitude” as William Styron put it, even amid crowds, even among friends, even when no real-world abandonment has taken place, is common in depression. (Styron began to experience melancholic depression late in life, after developing an intolerance of alcohol. But his description, in The Confessions of Nat Turner, of the hero's feeling of abandonment by his God in the aftermath of his failed uprising, suggests that he might have known this all along.) But if the song is also a dream, we might ask what sort of wish-fulfilment that could be. What sort of satisfaction there is to be had, or avoided, in abandonment. And whether idealisation can also be a defence against consummation.


III.
The theological term for night-walking, is mysticism. Theologians who speak of the “night season” invoke a state, not only of abandonment, of being far from God, but of total subjective destitution. The removal of all worldly comfort and support. It is a state of being plunged into darkness.

Darkness is one of the first metaphors in Genesis, for matter without form, a world without language or purpose. Lord Byron’s meditation on apocalyptic darkness evokes an eternity without meaning:

“The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air.”

It is as though the sun bleeds to death in the heavens, and you wander darkling, blind, pathless, traversing frozen, lifeless tundra in every direction, which you must navigate in consummate darkness. At least the deep freeze is a kind of anaesthetic. We are used to depression as a refusal. This is depression as a kind of exile.

And it is, some believers will have you believe, a necessary pilgrimage. An experience without which faith is never realised, and which ultimately leads, if pursued, not to abandonment but to the more perfectly apprehended presence of God. As if to say, a self-cure for depression might be to relate to it differently, to think of it as the beginning of a voyage to ecstasy. What could this be like? “The end of a world,” says Michel de Certeau. A consummation devoutly to be wished for.


IV.
Mysticism is as old as religion, but it emerged as a substantive concept in the seventeenth century. The early modern mystics were depressives. The economic depression of their social strata, the political depression of their age of religious wars and oncoming modernity, left them feeling abandoned by God. The texts of seventeenth-century mystics use the term “night” to refer both to their dire global situation and to a way of moving in it: night-walking.

The disciplines of mysticism were ambulatory, not doctrinal. They engaged the breathing body: whatever they prescribed was intended to help the spiritual traveller walk in the dark. But to walk where? Away from the self, toward the north pole of the psyche. It is an imaginary, septentrional journey that ends in being taken by force – rapture.

Night-walking in this sense is not something one undertakes lightly. To give up worldly things and embark on a journey whose end-point is a kind of spiritual kidnapping, must be full of peril. And indeed, the religious historian Karen Armstrong describes the terror, guilt and tearful anxiety of mystics on their journey. Perhaps the most famous Biblical encounter with God is that of Ezekiel, who has to be forced into miserable exile before he can encounter the terrifying Almighty. And this is to say nothing of the death-like catalepsy that follows the lucid phase of the trance.

Those who made the trek expecting to find anything like a personal God to relate to would have been terribly disappointed – if not devastated – by what they found. The ecstatic subject, as Amy Hollywood writes, is she who “stands outside herself, encountering and communicating with another”. But it is not even clear that communication is what happens. This other is radically other. Other with a capital ‘O’, from another dimension of existence, defying human categories of comprehension.

To succeed as a mystic is to be abducted by an alien.


V.
Mystics, attempting to communicate with an other, must assume the right to use language other-wise: a modus liquendi, Certeau wrote, valued more for what it does than what it says. In modernity, mystery is something to be resolved. Language is put at the service of elucidation. In mystic speech, language is its effects, and mystery is not to be resolved but experienced. Language must, at any rate, fail if its purpose is to signify that which by definition exceeds signification.

This partly explains the curious status of that erotic, aspiritual poem, the Song of Songs. For early night-walkers like Rabbi Akiva and Gregory of Nyssa, it was the very epitome of transcendence precisely through its delight in worldly things, its breathless ecstasies which push beyond the limits of language to try to grasp the thing-in-itself. This isn’t as paradoxical as it seems. Mysticism is defined by the value it places on knowing through experience; mystical texts, Certeau writes, display a passion for what is. Think of that other ecstatic poet, Hopkins, who glorifies God:

For dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut falls; finches’ wings…

This giddy blast of parataxes, descriptors, comparators and intensifiers, climaxes with one last foot, one last spondee: “Praise him.” As if to give up, and concede that all of these magnificent descriptions simply fail: only awestruck praise is possible. Something like this is true of the Song of Songs, in its superlative excesses. Early mystical texts treat the Bride’s descriptions of her Lover in this poem as an attempt to describe God – or rather, as an attempt to gesture at the failure of description.

The eroticism of mysticism, then, is predicated on a yearning for something that is beyond speech. Armstrong remarks that the reports of early Jewish mystics, as detailed as they are, “describe anything but God”. They provide details of the robe, the chariot, the palace, the stitched lettering reading ‘YHWH’, the gold, the fire, but these are all framing devices. The mystics knew perfectly well that this was just a stock of received religious imagery that they possessed and manipulated to get to the ecstatic place. But it frames, it circles around, a zone of – nothing. Or something so radically, absolutely Other that it manifests as a void.

Here, God resembles nothing like the personal being that appears in everyday theology and crude antitheism alike – the idea of God as some sort of chap, as Terry Eagleton scoffs. Whatever it is, it defies human categories. The psychoanalyst Darian Leader sees a similar pattern in modern art, wherein the negative space framed by image and text evokes nothing but the Lacanian Real – that part of experience which tortures and electrifies us but which cannot be represented.

The terrible joy and pathos of mystic speech is that it strains for something impossible. It tries to say it all, but what it wants to say most is unspeakable.


VI.
The tension in any pathos could be said to be like that of the string on a musical instrument. To make its music, it must be wound up tightly, at two ends, suspended over a carefully framed void. In this case, the two ends correspond to that which the mystic desperately wants to put into words, and that which can be put into words.

Mystics experience two kinds of ecstasy, corresponding to these points. The first is the rapturous sense of wholeness and plenitude, a return to Oneness through proximity to a being that stands for, says, absolutely everything. The second is linked to that religious experience of ‘standing near the cross’. Beholding, as it were, the battered, broken, bleeding body of Christ, and partaking of the fellowship of his suffering. This is an encounter, not with wholeness, but with something that is split wide open.

The human body is not always mutilated, but it is always lacking something. It is, in the psychoanalytic idiom, ‘castrated’. According to the religious philosopher Amy Hollywood, this movement between wholeness and fracture is typical of ecstatic experience. In his later years, Lacan began to give psychoanalytic attention to mystical experience, and the relationship of ecstasy to speech. For Lacan, the tortured doubling of mystic speech corresponds to the sexed doubling of language itself.

The two ecstasies, or jouissances, experienced by mystics were considered ‘phallic’ or ‘feminine’ depending on their relationship to castration. Phallic jouissance is that which is concerned with planetary fullness and plenitude, having and saying it all. Feminine jouissance, is the ecstasy made possible by not having and not saying it all. After all, a world in which there is always more to be said, is necessarily more open and undecided – and perhaps the more overwhelming, the more rapturous for it – than one which has been entirely spoken for. Phallic jouissance totalises; feminine jouissance seeps in through the split.

In language, there is a movement between the two positions. On the one end, there is always an attempt to stabilise language by positing a transcendental signifier (which could stand in for ‘God’). This signifier is supposed to cement the relationship between signifiers and meaning, which Saussure demonstrated was otherwise contingent on traditions of use. But, on the other end, there is the recognition that the transcendental signifier, which supposedly guarantees the presence of meaning, is itself empty. God, as we have seen, is a void. The music of language therefore depends on a movement, or play, along a string suspended between presence and absence. Between having and not having. Between saying it all, and not saying it all.

You could say that the yearning of mystical experience is toward that phallic jouissance, but the void cannot be full. Language never says everything, and there is always heterogeneity. All one can do is accede to that feminine jouissance of not saying it all. All one can do is put some of the Real into words.


VII.
And this is what happens to Ezekiel when he confronts God. He experiences, first, a raging inferno and howl, overwhelming to human senses, which resolves only briefly into a few opaque images and words. A chariot. A hand stretched out. A scroll filled with lamentations and wailings. A divine voice, which commands him to eat the scroll.


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“When he forced it down,” Armstrong writes, “accepting the pain and misery of his exile, Ezekiel found that ‘it tasted sweet as honey’.”