RISKING THE SACRED
Many years ago now, while living in California, I was sitting in a mostly-empty university library, surprised to find a literary manifesto in a fairly prominent US magazine. Seeing almost immediately that it was just a lot of posturing and attitude, I gave up. Turning, I saw that behind me on a shelf was a set of books, Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, an area of history whose religion and mythology—from Egypt to Mesopotamia and early Judaism—had always held my interest. I gladly pulled the first volume off the shelf, and put the magazine aside.
Up until now, hindsight always made this the moment when I chose an interest in “the sacred in literature” over the much larger net of “literature” itself. But just as the order and meaning derived from religion is often used to oppose the random cruelty of everyday life, I’ve spent more than a decade writing a short book that seeks to deny this characterization and unite the religion and everyday life. I’ve also never bought the argument that science and religion are necessarily opposed to one another. So why would I have continued so long loving the rift (for lack of a better phrase) between sacred and secular literature?
The first answer is because it was helpful. Any bold attempt to carve out an identity or a boundary for oneself, even if it is not technically real, can provide a focus that wouldn’t otherwise exist. This focus certainly assisted in the twelve years it took to write my book-length poem, To the House of the Sun, which is built on mythology and religious literature; and it’s still there in a forthcoming book of smaller poems, Bone Antler Stone, which tries to imagine religious life in prehistoric Europe. The second answer is because that rift is real. Just as it’s not hard to find people (admittedly, people like me) who dismiss much of the academic study of literature perhaps a bit too easily, it’s not hard to find people who have found their equivalent of religion in a constellation of authors and favorite books disparaging religious belief of any kind.
This is when I am reminded of a letter W. B. Yeats wrote on July of 1892, where he defends his interest in magic and the occult. Twenty-seven by this time, and writing to a fellow Irish nationalist more than twice his age, he still pulls no punches:
It is surely absurd to hold me “week” [sic] or otherwise because I chose to persist in a study which I decided deliberately four or five years ago to make next to my poetry the most important pursuit of my life. Whether it be, or be not, bad for my health can only be decided by one who knows what magic is & not at all by any amateur…. If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written my [William] Blake book nor would “The Countess Kathleen” have ever come to exist. The mystical life is the centre of all that I do & all that I think & all that I write.
Later on in that letter, Yeats goes on to call himself a voice in “the revolt of the soul against the intellect.” Meanwhile, during a 2015 BBC radio documentary on Yeats’s one hundred and fiftieth birthday, the Irish poet Aidan Murphy dismissed Yeats’s interest in the occult as “all that spiritual bullshit”; although later he admitted that the real problem was that it “totally freaked me out.”
All of these positions are understandable, including Yeats making it a battle between the sacred/soul/anti-intellect against a secular/intellectual/literary world. But Yeats’s example itself shows that he was more annoyed than honest, just as Murphy’s admission of discomfort sounds more right than his first remark. To put it almost too obviously: by admitting that his occult and magical interests were central to him, he was also admitting that there were peripheral interests in his life as well. Unless prompted to defend it, Yeats saw no reason to “explain” how an interest in politics could possibly exist alongside an interest in contacting the spirits of the dead. They simply did. In the same way, and in a way that I’m surprised I never saw before, even that set of books on the ancient Near East that I found by chance (and which my wife bought me two years later for my birthday) contain as much writing on early technology and architecture and science, as well as agriculture and warfare, as it does deep studies of religious belief.
And so, even as I have tried from the beginning to only see the sacred center of my creative life, and not the secular outer edge, there has always been overlap. As a teenager, it was both no accident that George Harrison was my favorite Beatle from the start, or that when T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land grabbed me around the same time it was because of its sacred content. I owe to Eliot my first real exposure to Frazer’s Golden Bough, the Upanishads, the Arthurian Romances, and even—although I was raised Catholic—St. Augustine. Since then, I have come to rely on Four Quartets so much that its status as a “poem” is almost irrelevant—and the same goes for Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish: they have both become parts of a kind of personal scripture.
In the past I have called upon examples like these to show what a great distance there is between the uses of the sacred and the secular in literature. But of course Ginsberg had a political and sexual dimension that was wholly intermixed with his sacred concerns; the same is obviously true for George Harrison and the Beatles and even for Eliot, since alongside his references to Hinduism and St. John of the Cross are just as many “merely” secular ones. I used to also say that I preferred poems by the older Wallace Stevens, who could remark, “We say God and the imagination are one…/How high that highest candle lights the dark,” rather than the younger Stevens who could write the skeptical poem “Sunday Morning.” And yet until now it never seemed important to note that the same person wrote both poems.
Looking around, it’s not hard to find the same intersections in other people. Only last month I read the composer Philip Glass’s memoir, Music Without Words. While I was most thrilled when he described his trips to India and the kind of Tibetan Buddhist practice he has lived with for most of his life, just as essential were those endearing chapters which describe his life as a working-class composer in New York City, driving a cab or doing plumbing work on the side. One writer I know, who you’d guess from the essays on his blog is a good contemporary poet with a standard theoretical bent at times, nevertheless told me he can’t go long without rereading the Upanishads. At least in my own life, I’m surrounded by writers and artists (not to mention the anonymous authors of so much scripture) who, even if they sometimes get defensive and try to claim otherwise, actually get on with sacred and secular pursuits quite easily.
Another place where religion and literature meet is that I become annoyed with both in almost identical ways: when the former becomes too theological and the latter becomes too theoretical. Each have a tendency to codify and dogmatize what to me are essential to both literature and religion: the deeply personal and unclassifiable experiences of them. In the interest of being a communal institution, or simply of teaching students, religion and literature are both liable to become weighed down with interpretation and explanation. The extreme is Carl Jung, who supposedly said that “religion” itself is a defense against the religious experience, since by the time it has become institutionalized it has also become flattened and merely “explained.” In that vein I might say that the furthest corners of literary studies are probably a defense against the literary experience as well.
At the same time, this tendency is unavoidable, and it’s actually one of my great joys to enter into a tradition decades or centuries or millennia old, making a Talmud not just of the Old Testament but also of Homer or Dante or James Joyce, commentaries all swirling around a central text. But it becomes a problem when one gets stuck to a single interpretation or school, or when interpretation supersedes that primal and primary experience, whether of God or a poem. Ezra Pound’s reaction to Finnegans Wake, namely that, “nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clapp [sic] can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization,” pretty much sums up how I feel about whole swathes of Modernism, Postmodernism, and any insular and overly opaque form of religion.
That essential experience—that divine vision—has been lost, at least to me. In a recent biography of Picasso, John Richardson warns of a similar tendency when he describes how a 1988 exhibition of the painter’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which also included hundreds of preparatory drawings and related items, “proved too much of a good thing: it encouraged scholars to focus on the sketches at the expense of the painting itself.” And so I constantly remind myself that no matter the thousands of pages that have been devoted to something like the book of Ezekiel, that journey still begins with its first stunning sentence: “Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.”
This is where I become self-conscious, since I know the reputation religion has. I have noted elsewhere that when someone obsessively takes up anything political or cultural, the religious metaphors immediately come out: whatever it is “has become like a religion to them.” Our unhealthy attachment to any idea is best compared to a fanatical attachment to religion.
This fact may illustrate the danger of the sacred, but it also grants to the sacred an undeniable power which we is given to hardly anything else in our world. One need not be religious to appreciate the paintings of van Gogh, but I understand him even more—his desperation and his manias and his ecstatic attachment to an endless series of artistic philosophies and famous painters—when I know he was a failed preacher. I also understand the impulse that led him from religion to art, since in the end both of them, when stripped of their theological or theoretical costumes, strike me as attempts to express experiences that are essentially irrational, and beyond words—and here I included everything, whether in witnessing a landscape, falling in love, going to war, or just the stress of the daily grind.
In order to write this essay, I went looking for the literary manifesto I mentioned at the beginning. It was called, “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It,” by the novelist Ben Marcus, apparently in reaction to another essay by another novelist, Jonathan Franzen. The idea of such an essay was dated even before Marcus wrote it, and a “feud” between two prominent New York City authors about who is or isn’t killing literature seems almost staged now. If I tried to read the essay again I’m sure I would find within it the kind of tiresome anxieties and worries that artists sometimes actually say out loud, and which are nowhere to be found in writing like Ezekiel, or in van Gogh’s huge and volatile output on canvas. The limitations of language or representation are a given, but the prophet still pushes on, just as van Gogh continues to paint. There’s a crazy kind of fearlessness here that I don’t get from any other kind of art or literature, and that suggests something of the sacred to me.
Put another way: the greatest experiences of life and art and literature, as well of religion, seem to involve risk, of taking the risk that anything might happen. I find very little risk in the theological or theoretical bents mentioned above, but I do find risk in the works those theologies and theories are trying to explain. Sacred literature just happens to express the nature of this risk best for me; so that when Bruce Springsteen calls Elvis a “a Saturday night jukebox Dionysus,” I remember my that salvation isn’t in rock n roll—as much as I do love it—but in the Bacchae of Euripides. Yet at the same time, Springsteen’s hymns to the wandering and restless impulse (“Something in the Night” or “Streets of Fire”) are powerful to me because they approach something transcendent, something more than just a fun rock song. By this point, my definition of the “sacred” might as well be “stuff that I like,” which would convince no one who doesn’t intuitively understand it, but at least admits that I can only go so far in trying to articulate it. I would rather be experiencing the works themselves, or trying to write another poem, rather than clarifying why I do either. I am, thankfully, not writing a manifesto.
A mostly solitary person, I’ve also always taken it as instructive that the most powerful spiritual experience I’ve ever had occurred in a crowded New York City subway car. Risk, and the intersection of the sacred and the secular, as well as the isolated and the public—they were all there. It came while reading the great vision of the Oglala Lakota holy man, Black Elk, and while listening to one of Henryk Górecki’s pieces to commemorate the Polish Pope John Paul II. Put into a novel or film, combining the subway and Black Elk and the Pope would seem perhaps contrived. But usually the greatest hint that the sacred has arrived is amid such juxtaposition and surprise.
The combination of the words of Black Elk, the music, and the crowd of rush-hour New Yorkers produced an overflow of feeling and perception—both of unity and dislocation, as people continued to leave and come on at every stop, their every gesture and detail heightened and highlighted and even appearing embossed somehow—that I have been trying to understand ever since. In a photo taken of me an hour later, I look exhausted but am still beaming a weird, hidden smile. It’s hard for me to say what that experience was, but the vocabulary of the sacred is where I’ve always reached when I’ve tried.
 Quoted in Roy Foster, W. B. Yeats: A Life, I: The Apprentice Mage, 120-121.
 The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats, Volume 1: 1865-1895, edited by John Kelly and Eric Domville, 303.
 Quoted in Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, Revised Edition, 634.
 John Richardson, A Life of Picasso: The Cubist Rebel, 1907-1916, 11.
 Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run, 40.
Tim Miller is a widely published poet. He writes about religion, history and poetry at www.wordandsilence.com.