Divinatory Poetics

April 9, 2011 § Leave a comment











ANSWER: JESUS. (73-74)

                       – Sun Ra, “The Negro is the Burden to the White Man”

Divination has roots in augury. It is not just the interpretation of omens; it implies perceiving when it is acceptable to inquire concerning the health of the state.[1] Without going all the way back to talking from bird entrails, the office of the augur in ancient times relates to the public good.  If one seriously considers divination, it is to make sense by acting creatively and imposing one’s self as form or measure on the mysterious matter at hand, manifesting discernment.  It is both asking and prophecy, but since one does not necessarily choose to be a prophet, I do not call it “prophetic poetics” – though prophecy may come through it.  Anyone can do it, but there is a range of expertise.  Playing rock-paper-scissors is little different than drawing lots to throw Jonah from the boat.  Divination is what we often do when no earthly answer is present. 

As a poetics, it is both interpretive and generative, and it involves study. Following the divine requires all senses, so one would naturally seek the best source for answering a difficult question.  It is not religious in the sense that religion exists in the “modern” world.  Most clergy today are assigned to either practical duties necessary to keep a church going, or they occupy roles as spiritual advisors, which – though certainly a necessary occupation – is closer to the work of a psychologist than the definition I am presenting here. The difference is that a psychologist mainly works with individuals or relatively small groups while divinatory poetics works on behalf something closer to what we mean by culture.  Cultures differ from one another and they change, so interpretive strategies will differ depending on cultural context.  However, material for divination may be pulled from cross-cultural sources.

Divinatory poetics is a hermeneutic strategy in a bleak time for professionalism in American literary studies.  It seeks more than mere pastiche or free association, but simultaneously reacts against the scientific approaches to kinds of literary study that have shaped debates concerning literary works for much of the twentieth century, studies which have detached the study of culture from cultural production.  It is not a call for anti-professionalism; in fact, it is a call for literary studies to claim what is its own – a study of values represented as “text” and a discernment about how reacting to those values shapes texts which say something about the ways things ought to be or the ways things were in the past that we have forgotten or neglected.  In the days of the Tea Party, “reasonable” academics must find ways to maneuver in the power of institutionalized affective irrationality. George Lakoff, for example, has often discussed the ways both conservative and liberal academics rely on Enlightenment-centered notions of verification, and that so-called progressives more often than not place too much stock in attempting to persuade by means of a limited sense of rationality.  Divinatory poetics is an ancient method to confront the political difficulties that affect the university today.

“Bird signs!” Hector mocks Polydamas in Homer’s Iliad, “Fight for your country – that is the best, the only omen!”  (XII, 280-81).  Look what happened to Hector.  And isn’t it Patroclus’s ghost who appears to Achilles to remind him that the Olympics (funeral games) aren’t enough (XXIII, 80)?  In Augustine’s Confessions, Augustine thanks God for speaking to him through a self-educated older man who tells him many things can be foretold by divinatory reading: “that the force of chance, diffused throughout the whole order of things, [brings] this about.” He goes on:

 For if when a man haphazard opens the pages of some poet, who sang and thought of something wholly different, a verse oftentimes fell out, wondrously agreeable to the present business: it were not to be wondered at, if out of the soul of man, unconscious what takes place in it, by some higher instinct an answer should be given, by hap, not by art, corresponding to the business and actions of the demander (57-58). 

Augustine later uses this kind of openness in developing his biblical hermeneutics.  Citing Augustine among others, such as the cabalism of John Reuchlin, teacher of Erasmus and Luther (23), Helena Blavatsky, attacks institutional hypocrisy in the late nineteenth century:

Why then roast lay-magicians and consulters of books, and canonize the ecclesiastics? Simply because the medieval as well as the modern phenomena, manifested through laymen, whether produced through occult knowledge or happening independently, upset claims of both the Catholic and Protestant Churches to divine miracles. (22)

Blavatsky and Henry Olcott, founders of Theosophy, however complicated it may be, are precursors to and inspirational for postcolonial thought.  As David Lopez argues in Prisoners of Shangri-La, the international appeal of Theosophy played “an important but ambiguous role in the Hindu renaissance in India and the Buddhist renaissance in Sri Lanka” (51).  Through the Theosophical agenda of W. Y. Evans-Wentz (Lopez 65), the west receives a “skewed” reading of The Tibetan Book of the Dead which gets further updated in Leary’s Psychedelic Experience and Soygal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.  Nevertheless, as Lopez notes, the text of the book, written in the 8th century was itself “hidden away, only to be discovered six centuries later,” because the people of Tibet were unprepared to appreciate its profundity” (85).

What are we to do with time-capsule texts such as this or The Dead Sea Scrolls?  Certainly we cannot rely on the ultimately repressive tendency to search for an “authentic” reading.  We cannot allow nostalgia for a so-called authentic read to produce a reaction-formation disqualifying us from exploring texts from cultures other than our own.  Has not the west since the early Renaissance performed a redaction on the Greeks similar to what those who hid the Tibetan Book of the Dead ask?  Do we not piece together guts of human souls long-since flown? Embracing this secular ecumenical reading is divinatory poetics. 

Specialists are still necessary and extraordinarily useful, but we educators also need to provide a way in to the esoteric nature of academia in order to sustain positions as professional readers, and this comes by allowing a disciplined yet whimsical openness into our methodology.  By “whimsical” I do not mean arbitrary or trite, but more of a leading or “gut” feeling.  It is only as arbitrary as me.  What I build from my whimsies is irreplaceable.   

In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asks Krishna to infuse him with the power to see Krishna’s true form without the sight annihilating him.  In awe and praise, Arjuna ultimately says, “I rejoice that I have seen what has never before been seen, but my mind is unhinged with fear.  Oh God, show me that other form again” (52).  Experience is limited and cannot tell us all.  To live is to be constrained by form.  It is form which allows us experience. In the Taoist commentary on the ancient text Cultivating Stillness, there is an etymology of the Chinese character for the Tao.  It says that while we are forced to give a name to the formless Tao in order to discuss it, “force” is merely a metaphor for something the sage knows “hides rich meanings” (11).  Eva Wong’s etymology of the character begins with two diagonal lines at the top of the character, similar to a “V” where the lines don’t connect.  These, we are told, are the sun and the moon.  Below them is a line which is chi-en, or heaven: “The I-Ching says that chi’en is a circle. When the circle breaks, heaven is opened. The circle unfolds into a horizontal line”(12). This is what the Taoists call Wu-chi, or the undifferentiated state (14).  What divinatory poetics seeks is to cultivate a version of this open circle at the outset of interpretation against the closed circle that would be the horizon of reason in traditional western thought.  We do this often.  We call it channeling. Musicians call it “just playing” when they go to engage musically with others directly.  It is openness familiar to American philosophy of pragmatism.  Henry Bergson, in The Creative Mind, celebrates this aspect of William James’ philosophy:

According to James, we bathe in an atmosphere traversed by great spiritual currents.  If many of us resist, others allow themselves to be carried along.  And there are certain souls which open wide to the beneficent breeze.  Those are mystical souls. (212)       

If this smacks of naïve sentiment, let that tension hold in your mind, for that is exactly what divinatory poetics tries to get at.  For the critique itself has a way of being incorporated into the stasis of culture, the way the “earth mother” of second-wave feminism becomes a personality-type which itself becomes a mono-vision.  The critique, which I believe to be at the core of ethics in general, is to be able to entertain dialogue which does not reduce the interlocutor.  This is perhaps one of the most difficult things to do.  It is something teachers must practice constantly, and it relies on the natural tendency our minds have to reduce.  It could not replace that tendency if it tried.  Divinatory poetics relies on that tendency.  

Bergson and James, in emphasizing the necessity for experience to be regarded as not final, open in my hermeneutic analysis an appreciation for a kind of literature much neglected by current literary studies: literature of praise.  If we take a book like Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations, we can look at it as an inspirational source for Romantic poetry.  We can look at it as a unique evidencing of the process of the Reformation developing in a liberalism of the individual’s relationship with the divine.  These are important and interesting readings.  Divinatory poetics, however, might focus more on the affective quality of this text, which acts as a guiding prayer for the reader in rather short incantations.  Certainly we experience the uniqueness of Traherne, but we are asked by the text to participate in a special way when he says, “He is most like God that is sensible to everything.  Did you not from all Eternity want someone to give you a Being?” (31). Later developing something similar: “Senses  cannot resemble that which they cannot apprehend; nor express that which they cannot resemble, but in a shady manner.  But man is made in the image of God, and therefore is the mirror and representative of Him. And therefore in himself he may see God, which is his glory and felicity” (96).  Is all that we can glean of this passage on instance of burgeoning Christian humanism?  To me, Traherne’s beauty is in his sincerity, but this is often so hard to speak of in class.  It is his sincerity which is most difficult to appreciate from a contemporary world perspective – or it is a deeply held value I fail to share with my peers, some last remnant of privacy.  For the academic, this is analogous to the airplane pilot who sees a UFO and risks being grounded should he or she “go public.”   

The obvious criticism, and a valid one, is the way that divinatory poetics opens an uncritical space. I believe it is healthy at this time to inquire what criticism is and what it is for.  We must not be dogmatic about criticism for the sake of criticism, and divinatory poetics holds us to that. Theodor Adorno – it’s difficult to find one more critical – in his Aesthetic Theory, writes:

aesthetic comportment is to be defined as the capacity to shudder, as if goose bumps were the first aesthetic image.  What later came to be called subjectivity, freeing itself from the blind anxiety of the shudder, is at the same time the shudder’s own development; life in the subject is nothing but what shudders, the reaction to the total spell which transcends the spell. (331).

It is this type of thinking which leads Adorno to later claim, “the principle method here is that light  should be cast on all art from the vantage point of the most recent works, rather than the reverse, following the custom of historicism and philology, which bourgeois at heart, prefers that nothing ever change” (359).  Adorno believes that the new reacts to and resituates the old.  His writing style in Aesthetic Theory and Minima Moralia is similar to how I imagine divinatory poetics, but his scope is too narrow.  The access to information now allows me to read ancient Sufi poetry as avant-garde art.  Or perhaps Goethe’s Faust where he opens his Dedication with the following mysterious nostalgia:

Once more you near me, wavering apparitions
That early showed before the turbid gaze.
Will now I seek to grant you definition,
My heart essay again the former daze?
You press me! Well, I yield to your petition,
As all around, you rise from mist and haze;
What wafts about your train with magic glamor
Is quickening my breath to youthful tremor. (3)

It comes from various places at once. And yet, this does not disrupt the historian’s place, nor the literary historian’s place, but the study of literature is more than that.  Literary Studies should be distinguished by the freedom of a perspective not bound to history (which is not a rejection of history) and bringing with it a different set of responsibilities.  Divinatory poetics is a hermeneutics not just of interpreting works but of creating works as well and considering those works in their ethical context.  It breaks down the binary of “academic and artist” just as Sun Ra breaks the binary between Jesus and the devil.  It performs the work of Eshu / Legba – the blues “reverend” returned from the crossroads.

The shudder comes from the un-containable and new.  One hears this easily in American music in the twentieth century.  There is a tendency toward the outside. The conventions which signify exteriority come to be the formal structure from which new significations occur.  Acculturation to the environment where the conventions have sense is necessary for competence.  Literary Studies already contains this.  As Jonathan Culler says in “Literary Competence,”

structuralism’s reversal of perspective [subject-object, writer-reader] can lead to a mode of interpretation based on poetics itself, where the work is read against the conventions of discourse and where one’s interpretation is an account of the ways in which the work complies with or undermines our procedures for making sense of things.  (865)

This is similar to what I mean by divinatory poetics in the sense that one is not a tabula rasa.  However, both Culler (at least at the point in his career when he wrote this) and Adorno situate too strongly against discourse.  I am more than discourse.

Claude Levi-Strauss’s bricoleur, another structuralist idea, works well with divinatory poetics.  In The Savage Mind he says that “there are analogies between mythical thought on the theoretical, and ‘bricolage’ on the practical plane and that artistic creation lies mid-way between science and these two forms of activity.  There are relations of the same type between games and rites” (30).  If one could remove all stigma surrounding structuralism’s to either attempts to provide either a strict essence or a narrative of the “development of man,” the idea of the bricoleur is hermeneutically useful.  It relates quite well with the process of improvisation, again, if we could remove any baggage surrounding primitivism from the idea.  Jazz improvisation inherently enacts much of how I have described divinatory poetics on the creative side.  As with the discussion of the circle in Taoism and the necessity of incomplete form in Bergson’s description of pragmatism.  There is nothing “primitive” in the pejorative sense of the word regarding this.  It is one of the most sensitive and highly developed human knowledges.  Nor is it confined to jazz musicians.  One finds in traditional Persian and Sufi music a clear articulation of the basic idea for divinatory poetics. In an actual performance, Mohammead Reza Lofti  explains, there are many previously learned paths to choose from:

Through years of practice and repetition, the musician is usually comfortable with those paths, however, all the selections are made without any awareness, and this fact makes every performance different.  When, during the performance, one becomes too restricted according to paths learned from the old masters, one has to create a new way while keeping in mind the various rules of improvisation. (4)  

Here is a statement of method.  What we do not know is the canon or context.  What makes up work of the old masters?  This is the constant in the study of literature.  It is beautifully never solved.  What becomes necessary is to clearly articulate where we are coming from. 

Two final examples, recent writers will illustrate what I mean by divinatory poetics: Gustaf Sobin, an essayist, and Susan Howe, a poet. Sobin’s “The Inaudible Aura of Bells,” Sobin’s quiet style combines a thorough knowledge of medieval monasteries and culture breathes life into an inaccessible time, and accompanying that inaccessibility he writes of the non-temporal uses of bells to guide church travelers, exorcize evil spirits, or even to help enrich the soil: “For the anniversary of that mystic insemination could only favor – in the symbiotic spirit of parishioners – the insemination of the fields themselves” (29).  In another essay, describing a painting by the Renaissance painter Enguerrend Quarton, Sobin unabashedly claims “there is a radiance to this work that far surpasses the sum of its parts.  It virtually glows with a suprapictorial luminosity of its own” (47).  The way Sobin writes, the reader does not wonder if he has read Walter Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”; he is quite comfortable with mystification: “In an age such as ours, rife with deductive reasoning and its ineluctable by-product – an eminently official, all triumphant “anti-art” – one might do well to consider a work such as Quarton’s The Coronation of the Virgin.”  Is Sobin merely displaying an uncritical and naïve nostalgia inherently bourgeois?  In the imaginary space of nostalgia itself there is energy for divinatory poetics. 

Susan Howe also performs a kind of divinatory poetics.  Her work in American Literature and American History provide her with aporias from which she constructs poems with haunting language and an uncanny inner ear.  Reading Howe, one hears the music above the content.  With the historical material one gets the sense that she has opened her soul to lesser-known aspects of the American past and captures them in the ambiguous space in which they exist.  The stories themselves are hard to decipher from the stanzas, but they emote more than the history can tell.  For example, in The Noncomformist’s Memorial after a section exploring a possible inspiration for Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Howe writes:

Question of a happy life

any asylum in moderation

Object is something erased

is character the opposite

An author-evacuated text    

triple-checked double-marked

Ghost of one’s own glory

into subjectless abject

by distance or by stillness

sleep gone steering row

Title of an After-Thought

he put a veil on his face (122)

In the reverberation we get Melville, Bartleby, and James Clarence Mangan – all destitute, simultaneously.  Howe’s technique appears to be a blend of cut-up, erasure, and deep sense of syntax.  It channels the past to display its apparition as it hovers – divinatory poetics.  A similar trajectory occurs in Bill Frisell’s music, particularly the album Disfarmer, which attempts to explore the life of the cantankerous photographer of the depression who died alone in his studio.  It’s all around us.

Divinatory poetics merely seeks to provide a hermeneutic strategy which reads with the idea that the text has something to say about how to live, and that it offers strategies and material to help create for one’s self, material which will make our lives better.  As Rumi says, “Do you think I know what I’m doing? / That for one breath or half-breath I belong to myself? / As much as a pen knows what it’s writing, / or the ball can guess where it’s going next” (16).

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 1997.

Bergson, Henri.  The Creative Mind. New York: Citadel Press, 1946.

Blavatsky, Helena. Isis Unveiled. New York: J.W. Bouton, 1888.

Culler, Jonathan. “Literary Competence.” The Critical Tradition. Ed. David H. Richter. Bedford: Boston, 1998.

Homer. Iliad. Trans. Robert Fagles. Penguin Classics: 1990.

Howe, Susan.  The Nonconformist’s Memorial.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust. Trans. Walter Arndt. Ed. Cyrus Hamlin. New York: Norton, 2001.

Lofti, Mohammad Reza. “Selection of a Dastgah in the Art of Improvisation.” Notes to Mystery Love: Live in Copenhagen. Trans. Shahrokh Yadegari. Los Angeles: Keresmeh Records, 1996.

Lopez, Donald S. Jr. Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1998.

Ra, Sun. The Wisdom of Sun Ra. Ed. John Corbett. Chicago: Whitewalls, 2006.

Rumi. The Essential Rumi. Trans. Coleman Barks. New York: Harper One, 1995.

Sobin. Gustaf. Aura. Denver: Counterpath, 2009.

Traherne, Thomas. Centuries of Meditations. Ed. Bertram Dobell. London: Bertram Dobell, 1908. Digitized version published by Kirtasbooks, 2010.

[1] Cassell’s Latin Dictionary points to Cicero for this.


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