Sunday, November 15, 2009

If you know?

Two poems, linked thematically but arriving at such different conclusions. The first speaks of the limit to human understanding, reiterating the Kantian position that we do not know, cannot know the noumenal world,only the phenomenal. Using the extended metaphor of humans as spectators in the before the theatrical grandeur of the universe, it underlines our humanity, our pitiful minds before the vastness of deep space and the glory of the sunrise.

The second poem which I came across this week is from the Proverbs and is one of the finest examples of Hebrew literature and poetry I've ever read. Thematically, it also touches on the limits of human understanding,the mystery of the elements, the beauty of nature. Just like in the in the first poem, we begin with a position of humility- the writer acknowledging his stupidity. He then goes on to ask a series of beautifully phrased rhetorical questions,"Who has gathered the wind in His fists?", designed to show the might and mystery of God and it doesn't end there.

There are answers this time - to his spoken and unspoken questions. He points out that: "He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him." and then goes on to meditate on the world, listing out the mysterious, the wicked, the little things of earth that are wise and the majestic. These are grouped, separated by exclamations in a specific format.

It's interesting, the literary device used to underscore it, (wish I'd time to look it up and study it in more detail). The writer uses numerical order and repetition together, first saying there are "three things" then saying "Yes, four which..." and essentially repeats the characteristics of the things in both lines but in a different manner - all the signs that point to the majesty and design of an omniscient Creator. The effect is to create a flow, so that even though very different things are listed - a barren womb, a spider, lions, ships- the repetition of the "three/four" lines links them together and creates groups for the reader to better comprehend their place in creation.

Underscoring all of that, are the constant themes of contentment, peace and humility. Here, as in Ecclesiastes, binary opposites are used but in a different manner.The poem begins with humility but the wicked are described as being "pure in their own eyes" (i.e pride). The poet asks for just enough so that he can be content, but the wicked as being insatiably discontented - compared, in fact, to leeches.

Both poems begin the same way, but the first ends with an emptiness, facing the vacuum of space and knowing that man cannot know. For him,this is all there is; existentialism is, after all, the logical end point of secular humanism.

The second acknowledges man's finite knowledge and understanding of the world but is peppered throughout, with the writers prayers to God, his advice on a Godly and contented life and sets out the mysterious rationality of the created order and its rightful place before the eternal and infinite Creator. The end point of the believer is not then, a meaningless contemplation of the universe, but a complete understanding of his place in it and the value of his life as a creation of the Almighty.

***

The Day of the Sun

Arriving early at the limit of understanding,
I managed to find a good seat,
and settled in with the others,
who were fanning away the heat

with their programs full of blank pages.
The orchestra was in place,
and soon the show started.
First, deep space

rose high and flooded the stage,
immersing all the spots
where our thoughts could have fixed
if our minds had thoughts.

Which they didn’t. Then
the sun came out and stood.
that was all that happened,
and ever would.

–Vijay Seshadri

***

Surely I am more stupid than any man,
And do not have the understanding of a man.
I neither learned wisdom
Nor have knowledge of the Holy One.
Who has ascended into heaven, or descended?
Who has gathered the wind in His fists?
Who has bound the waters in a garment?
Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is His name, and what is His Son’s name,
If you know?
Every word of God is pure;
He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him.
Do not add to His words,
Lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar.
Two things I request of You
(Deprive me not before I die):
Remove falsehood and lies far from me;
Give me neither poverty nor riches—
Feed me with the food allotted to me;
Lest I be full and deny You,
And say, “Who is the LORD?”
Or lest I be poor and steal,
And profane the name of my God.
Do not malign a servant to his master,
Lest he curse you, and you be found guilty.
There is a generation that curses its father,
And does not bless its mother.
There is a generation that is pure in its own eyes,
Yet is not washed from its filthiness.
There is a generation—oh, how lofty are their eyes!
And their eyelids are lifted up.
There is a generation whose teeth are like swords,
And whose fangs are like knives,
To devour the poor from off the earth,
And the needy from among men.
The leech has two daughters—
Give and Give!

There are three things that are never satisfied,
Four never say, “Enough!”:
The grave,
The barren womb,
The earth that is not satisfied with water—
And the fire never says, “Enough!”
The eye that mocks his father,
And scorns obedience to his mother,
The ravens of the valley will pick it out,
And the young eagles will eat it.
There are three things which are too wonderful for me,
Yes, four which I do not understand:
The way of an eagle in the air,
The way of a serpent on a rock,
The way of a ship in the midst of the sea,
And the way of a man with a virgin.
This is the way of an adulterous woman:
She eats and wipes her mouth,
And says, “I have done no wickedness.”
For three things the earth is perturbed,
Yes, for four it cannot bear up:
For a servant when he reigns,
A fool when he is filled with food,
A hateful woman when she is married,
And a maidservant who succeeds her mistress.
There are four things which are little on the earth,
But they are exceedingly wise:
The ants are a people not strong,
Yet they prepare their food in the summer;
The rock badgers[b] are a feeble folk,
Yet they make their homes in the crags;
The locusts have no king,
Yet they all advance in ranks;
The spider skillfully grasps with its hands,
And it is in kings’ palaces.
There are three things which are majestic in pace,
Yes, four which are stately in walk:
A lion, which is mighty among beasts
And does not turn away from any;
A greyhound,
A male goat also,
And a king whose troops are with him.
If you have been foolish in exalting yourself,
Or if you have devised evil, put your hand on your mouth.
For as the churning of milk produces butter,
And wringing the nose produces blood,
So the forcing of wrath produces strife.

1 comment:

Ann said...

Hey Di, hope you're well. Am loving your blog. Your writing's incredible.

Just re-started my blog (or attempted to do so at least). Teething stages. Come visit :)