Sunday, 28 February 2016

Following in the footsteps of Hypatia—some personal reflections

"Hypatia" by Jules Maurice Gaspard (1862-1919)
Readings: A resumé of Hypatia's life which you can read at THIS LINK and five sayings attributed to her:

1) All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.

2) Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.

3) Life is an unfoldment, and the further we travel the more truth we can comprehend. To understand the things that are at our door is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond.

4) Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after years relieved of them.

5) In fact men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you cannot get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.

The portrait of Hypatia that heads this post was by Jules Maurice Gaspard (1862-1919) and was included in Elbert Hubbard's book “Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers” (New York: Roycrafters, 1908) which is available at


Although I am myself an active member of the Religious Naturalist Association (I administer their online clergy group) I do subscribe to the newsletter of another religious naturalist group called the Spiritual Naturalist Society which last week contained one of the sayings of Hypatia you heard earlier. I was very struck by her words and followed them up by trying to find out more about her and her remarkable story, the outlines of which you also heard earlier (see links above).

The five sayings I came across attributed to Hypatia struck me as being highly relevant to our own free-religious and free-thinking tradition and so, in today’s address, I’m going to walk through them and make a few, personal comments along the way in the hope that, together, they’ll provoke some helpful thoughts of your own.

1) All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious [i.e. based on a mistaken belief] and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.

This saying certainly speaks directly to the Unitarian tradition’s historical attitude towards religion in general. Over the centuries it’s commitment to rational, critical thought, and thanks to advances made in human knowledge via the natural sciences, has meant it is possible for someone like me to see that what struck my ancient forebears as true (and which, in turn, became the basis for humanity’s formal religions) cannot any no longer strike me as true. One clear consequence of the process has been that it is possible to see all formal, dogmatic religions are, indeed, fallacious and “must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.”

This is still something  that on occasions I find quite hard to say so boldly because I grew up and came to maturity at the tail-end of a period in British culture in which it was widely thought we could be polite about dogmatic religion because, in the face of the apparently overwhelming evidence continually being stacked-up against it, it would simply wither away and die of its own accord. How wrong we were. As I have got older and been able to see more and more the dangers and dreadful consequences of allowing dogmatic religion to go politely unchallenged, I find I’m increasingly willing to repeat in public, gently but ever more firmly, Hypatia’s ancient words.

Her words also encourage me to continue to try and articulate ways by which we might develop some kind of modern, informal, ad hoc, non-dogmatic, non-final religious practice and to remind me that in my own religion I must constantly be in the business of revising my beliefs about the world. This is, of course, always a risky business because, even as it continually opens up opportunities to discover genuine new truths it also opens me up to the likelihood that I will make mistakes and get things wrong. But, as our Hypatia also said, it is vitally important to

2) Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.

This remains as true in our own age as in Hypatia’s. Many representatives of the dogmatic religion — and indeed countless other dogmatic circles — will always be trying their hardest to remove my, and your, right to think. Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose and her words remind me of the ever-present need for free-thinking in human life.

3) Life is an unfoldment, and the further we travel the more truth we can comprehend. To understand the things that are at our door is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond.

Understanding life as an unfoldment means that it is possible to speak of the unity of the world in a radically different way to that spoken of by dogmatic monotheism with its commitment to a metaphysical, complete and perfect One, Whole, or Being.

(In passing: You might remember that a few weeks ago I pointed out that instead of using the term "monotheism" it is sometime better to use the term offered up by Peter Soloterdijk, "covenantal singularisation project", which has the benefit of including in its reach secular dogmatic political and social projects.)

I think that a different way of speaking about unity is vital because dogmatic monotheism has, and continues to, encourage people into adopting patterns of thinking and acting which cut violently against the evident creativity and diversity of life and the workings of Nature out of which life has emerged.

The idea of unfoldment connects well with a very Lucretian idea, namely, that although Nature is clearly a sum, it is not a Whole and, as Brooke Holmes puts it when speaking about Lucretius (and Deleuze), Nature is, perhaps, best thought of as being “a structured principle of causality that engineers diversity”, one that is capable of endlessly producing and re-producing difference.

Hypatia seems to me to be correct in suggesting the only way to gain the best possible understanding of such a complicated and diverse world is by travelling out into it, starting from our own doorstep and then step by step unfolding my own life into the wondrous world of difference and diversity all around me.

It was by travelling just such a path that the Unitarian and Universalist tradition began, from as early as the late eighteenth century, to articulate the idea that true unity was not to going to be found in some undifferentiated One, Whole or Being but only in diversity and it was this insight that gave rise to the Unitarian tradition’s common use of phrases like the “interdependent unity of all things” and, these days, I find I share with Gilles Deluze, writing about Lucretius, the strong feeling that

“There is no combination capable of encompassing all the elements of Nature at once, there is no unique world or total universe” (Appendix to "The Logic of Sense" trans. Mark Lester, Athlone Press, 1990, p. 267).

From where I stand it seems that it is precisely this ever unfolding plural quality of Nature that makes it so amazing, beautiful, creative, awesome and mysterious and which also assures me that I have the genuine freedom to be tomorrow what I am not today. As Hypatia says, life is, indeed, an unfoldment.

4) Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fantasies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after years relieved of them.

These words resonate with my own strong feeling that there is absolutely no need to abandon or suppress the superstitious fables, myths and stories about miracles I inherit from my forebears so long as I am extremely careful not to pass them on to anyone else as truths about the way things are.

Her words words as a scientist and mathematician also remind me, to borrow some lines from Lucretius, that the

“. . . darkness of mind must be dispelled, not by the sun’s light or its rays’ shafts but by careful observation and understanding of inner laws of how nature works” (De Rerum Natura trans. David R. Slavitt, University of California Press, 2008, p. 7).

This is why it is vital that good science and scientists must be welcomed, celebrated and given a central and honoured place in every building and community where people gather to draw continuing inspiration from fables and myths because it is only through the help of the natural sciences that someone like me is given sufficiently powerful and genuinely effective ways to avoid the great pain and tragedy that follows whenever superstition gains the upper hand.

However, in all this it is important to remember that science without the loving friendship and fellowship of poetry is as problematic as poetry without the loving friendship and fellowship of science. By following Hypatia and, particularly Lucretius and keeping poetry and science together, I am enable to see how it is possible to gift people with the fables and myths of our culture but without simultaneously gifting them the dark problems that come when we insist they believe them to be true.

Hypatia’s words serve to remind me that both poetry and science are required if we are to have both a genuinely pleasurable and rational life — as Lucretius says, we need “naturae species ratioque”, both the (poetic) face and (scientific) inner workings of nature (De Rerum Natura, 1.148, 2.61, 3.93, 6.41).

5) In fact men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth - often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you cannot get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.

And, lastly, Hypatia’s words serve to remind me of two further important things.

The first is that in unstable times filled with serious and increasing crises, as our own seems to be, as Lucretius observed:

“. . . people tend to revert under stress to their earlier superstitions and imagine cruel taskmasters, omnipotent beings we wretches ought to fear and appease . . .” (De Rerum Natura trans. David R. Slavitt, University of California Press, 2008, p. 253).

In such unsettled times these kind of fear-inducing superstitious beliefs in god all too easily and quickly become re-attached to dangerous ideas about nationhood, race and religion. It is, of course, the very intangibility of these superstitious beliefs that often makes them so hard to challenge and this is just one more reason for ensuring we form strong and respectful alliances with the natural sciences and have a duty to keep alive the tradition of critical free-thinking.

Anyway Hypatia’s words remind me that I have a duty to try to stop this return to superstition in every way possible.

The second important truth of which this saying reminds me is the etymology of the word “truth”. In Greek the word is “aletheia”, the literal meaning of which is “the state of not being hidden; the state of being evident.” Consequently, in addition to being translated as truth, aletheia can also be translated as “unclosedness”, “unconcealedness” or  “disclosure”.

Notice Hypatia speaks about “living truth”. For me, a finite and mortal creature, there is no access to such a thing as capital T truth — or even to knowledge about whether such a capital T truth exists. For every human being truth is something that has to be lived as we journey through life exploring, gathering together unconcealing and disclosing more and more perspectives and viewpoints to gain the best possible all-round picture of reality. Truth for me has to be something always collaborative, multi-perspectival and subject to constant modification and change — and, whenever truth is understood like this it may be said to be a “living truth”. Living truth is, therefore, capable of change and modification whereas the dead, static “truth” of dogmatic religion is not.

In unstable times I can see why such a static dogmatic religious truth can seem  attractive to many people but, taken together, Hypatia’s words remind me of the need always to be pushing against any kind of dogmatic "covenantal singularisation project" and resolutely and proudly to stand on the side of a genuinely free-thinking and ever unfolding religious and scientific enquiry so as to lead the most pleasurable imperturbable and reasonable life possible for as many people as possible.

I can do no more today other than highly to recommend Hypatia’s words for your further reflection.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Naturae species ratioque—the outward appearance and inner workings of nature

(c. 99 BCE – c. 55 BCE)

“. . . darkness of mind must be dispelled, not by the sun’s light or its rays’ shafts but by careful observation and understanding of inner laws of how nature works.”

Venus in the back-yard of the Unitarian Manse, Cambridge

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

In the footsteps of Alfred Watkins — a set of black and white photos taken at Wandlebury Hill Fort

This morning Susanna and I, along with an old college friend, took a spin up to the ancient iron-age Wandlebury Hill Fort to take a late winter walk. For various reasons my friend and I recently returned to a book we both had as teenagers, Janet and Colin Bord's wonderfully illustrated Mysterious Britain. It turns out that neither of us were ever persuaded by the somewhat "new agey" interpretations found in the book but we were both captivated enough by what we saw in it to get out into the countryside and explore many of these ancient, mysterious and evocative places for ourselves. 
For my own part, the style of black and white photographs that appear in the book certainly influenced the way I have come to take photographs. Although many of the photos in the book were taken by the Bords themselves a fair few were taken by an intriguing English character called Alfred Watkins (1855–1935). He was the self-taught amateur archaeologist, antiquarian and photographer who came to believe that certain ancient features in the landscape were deliberately aligned; these lines he called "ley lines" — a delightful theory to which it seems no respectable archeologist today gives any credence. However, although his ideas as an archeologist have not survived into the present day, his work as a photographer has. He had an uncanny ability to show the landscape in a powerful, mysterious, "hauntological" way that inspired me, not only to explore some of the sites he photographed but also to get out and photograph places where I was living. 

If you want to get some idea of his work as a photographer you can see something of that at the Herefordshire History site by clicking on this link. You can also read a recent Guardian review of his evocative book "The Old Straight Track" at this link — it might help explain why it, like the Bords' book, was so appealing to and influential upon my own generation.

Of course, I neither can, nor do, claim to come close to equalling his skill as a photographer but I'm sure you'll see a certain family resemblance between between his and my own photos below taken at Wandlebury this morning (with an iPhone 6+ and the Blackie App).

Just click on a photo to enlarge it. Enjoy!

Sunday, 21 February 2016

It's easier without complexity—the problem of Jesse Hughes

A lily in the Memorial (Unitarian) Church 
Readings: Matthew 7:16-20

Jesus said: “You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.”

From the song “Complexity” by Jesse Hughes and Josh Homme from The Eagles of Death Metal’s 2015 CD, “Zipper Down”

You want the good stuff
You want the big hit
Found out it’s simple come on and take it
But if you close your eyes then you won’t see
That it’s easier without complexity

From the preface of Raymond Geuss’ “A World Without Why” (Princeton University Press, 2014) 

It is natural for thinking people in the West to start by assuming that the world is (finally) “in order” and trying to formulate explicitly and then “reconcile” the various claims made by the different authorities: The Gospel accounts of Mark and John can be made to tally. The emperor, the pope, and the local lord “really” are demanding us to lead the same kind of life. St. Paul can be rendered consistent with Aristotle. in a world with relatively intact and generally recognised authorities, the question of discipline, both of how and to what extent one should or may coerce others, and of self-discipline seems in principle answerable: one disciplines people by training them, as much as possible, to want to do what they in any case “must” (of natural necessity) do and also what they should do. To what extent it will be possible to make people want to do what they must and should do will depend on a number of unpredictable factors, among them the nature of the demands society makes and the kind of forces of coercion, manipulation, and educations it has available to it.
          What happens, however, if the questions go beyond queries about reconciling occasional discrepancies between individual authoritative statements? What if the emperor is a sinner and schismatic? What if the pope is a heretic? What if the very idea of “being a heretic” comes to look archaic and irrelevant? What could proper discipline (including self-discipline) look like in a world like that?


If you ever want to write in what is called “the classic style” it is vital that your remember one of its important rules: “clarity everywhere is not accuracy everywhere.” As Thomas and Turner put it in their excellent manual on writing classic prose:

“When accuracy in the sense of being exhaustively correct involves complicated qualifications of no consequence to the main issue, classic writers do not hesitate to simplify” (Clear and Simple as the Truth, Princeton University Press, 2011, p. 36).

Indeed, as Jesse Hughes from the EoDM sang, “it’s easier without complexity” and, although I make no claims to be a writer of classic prose, I wholly agree with this point and I most recently avoided complicated qualifications in my address that followed the dreadful series of shootings in Paris during the might of Friday 13th November, 2015.

There I examined what I thought was the powerful, humane and brave response of the rock band Eagles of Death Metal (EoDM) who were playing at the Bataclan theatre that evening. You may recall that I played you an emotional and life-affirming interview by Hughes, the band’s main frontman, singer and guitarist who concluded by saying:  

“I cannot wait to get back to Paris to play. I wanna come back, I wanna be the first band to play in the Bataclan when it opens back up . . . because I was there when it went silent. Our friends went there to see rock and roll and died. I’m gonna go back there and live.”

Well, last week, the band finally played in Paris once again, not at the Bataclan, that is still closed, but at “The Olympia.”

Now, when I wrote my first piece I wanted firmly and uncomplicatedly  to focus upon Hughes’ (and his band mate Josh Homme’s) immediate, basically optimistic, hopeful, human-scale response to the extremely violent events which included the thought that events proved “once again that love overshadows evil.”

This seemed to me to be a response markedly different in tone and immediate intent from that from those expressed by, for example, President Hollande, who said:

“My dear compatriots. What happened last night in Paris, and in Saint Denis by the Stade de France, is an act of war” and that “because it was attacked cowardly, shamelessly, violently, France will be merciless against the barbarians of Daesh.”

Now I’m not so naive that I can’t see that being a president of a nation state is not the same as being a singer and guitarist in a rock and roll band but, on balance, it still seems to me, if we are going to have even half a chance of solving the complex raft of overlapping and interweaving nightmares that lie behind the events in Paris, we are not going to achieve this merely by “mercilessly” carrying out retaliatory bombing missions but, full of mercy, by encouraging more and more weapon-free cultural interchanges and conversations that include concerts by bands like the EoDM.

I want to continue to stand by the praise I accorded, in that immediate moment (this caveat is important), to the EoDM and, in particular, to Hughes’ immediate behaviour and testimony but, today, in order to raise a question that is stubbornly difficult for a liberal, Enlightenment (and Platonic) derived religion such as our own to address and answer, I want to add in some of the complexity I deliberately excluded at the time.

In doing my research for my November address I discovered, not only their music, which is not death-metal at all but fairly straightforward, good time, modern rock and roll but also, of course, the moving interview for Vice Magazine you heard in church last November. However, in addition to these positive things I stumbled across reams of other, darker, stuff that would have added unnecessary complexity to the relatively simple, hopeful picture I was trying to draw at the time.

To remind you — by adopting a powerful image offered us by Henry David Thoreau I simply wanted to show you that a fragrant, white lily could emerge from the dark, muck and the slime of a fetid swamp that was, in this case, the horrific massacre of 89 people at the hands of violent, religiously and politically inspired terrorists.

The immediate response of the fans, the band and Hughes seemed to me to be just such a lily.

However, now’s the time to reveal to you Hughes’ back-story which is utterly chaotic and, to me anyway, deeply disturbing. The snippets of this story which follow are drawn from the interview with Hughes I read before I gave my address last year.  (However, as a perspicacious friend of my said, we need to remember that some of what he says may be straightforward image-making and that he's really sitting at home most of the time drinking cocoa. I think that's unlikely to be the case but the reminder is well-worth making. It's also worth noting that, although he describes himself as a "government conservative guy" he does describe himself as "socially liberal.")

So, he tells us he's willy-nilly slept around, claims that he gets assistants, whom he calls “sin-eaters”, to throw out fans from back-stage after they have, how shall we put it, serviced him, he’s been a full-time junkie, he's pro-gun ownership, he’s vain, he uses language that is constantly full of needless swearing and explicit sexual imagery — as are his many tattoos — and, despite claiming to have adopted a kind of Christianity and become a “Reverend” with the Universal Life Church, he happily says to us all:

“My way of thinking is that it’s gonna be harder in hell for me than y’all. I’m just not going to be the fool that doesn’t know why he’s there”. He also tells us that he’s “literally living the cliché rock and roll dream: My girl is a porn star who is also an angel.”

I could go on, but I won’t — if you want to you can click on the links above to read the story yourself — and lastly, in connection with his views on gun control and his return to Paris, in the past few days, some of you may have read his comment made in Rolling Stone magazine:

“Did your French gun control stop a single person from dying at the Bataclan? If anyone can answer yes, I’d like to hear it, because I don’t think so. I think the only thing that stopped it was some of the bravest men that I’ve ever seen in my life charging head-first into the face of death with their firearms. I know people will disagree with me, but it just seems like God made men and women and, that night, guns made them equal.”

I hope you can see why I chose to keep these things from you at the time — all this (and much more I still haven’t told you) added too many layers of complexity that obscured the basic point I wanted and needed to make in November, namely, that a fragrant, white lily did emerge that evening from the muck and the slime of the fetid swamp of the Bataclan in the form of both Hughes' own and the fans’ initial moving, human and peaceful responses to the massacre.

Regardless of the complexity added into the matter by looking at Hughes’ personal life I still want strongly to argue that the lily that flowered in November was real and we should remain deeply grateful for it’s fragrant blossom.

But this new, more complex picture of Hughes, raises the stubbornly difficult question I mentioned at the beginning and which I want to place before you today. It has been succinctly raised by the Cambridge-based philosopher, Raymond Geuss when he notes that:

“It is natural for thinking people in the West to start by assuming that the world is (finally) “in order” and trying to formulate explicitly and then “reconcile” the various claims made by the different authorities.”

As you heard in our readings he points out that in our culture we are deeply wedded to the idea that, for example, “the gospels of Mark and John can be made to tally. The emperor, the pope and the local lord “really” are demanding us to lead the same kind of life. St Paul can be rendered consistent with Aristotle.”

Well, it seems to me, that we are also tempted to think something similar about Hughes, namely, that his moving, humane immediate response to the massacre must somehow be able to be (easily) reconciled with all the horrible stuff we've just heard into some final coherent, ordered and good whole. But is that the case? We may desperately want it to be so but, as we look about our contemporary world with the knowledge we have today, can we really, in our heart of hearts, say that we believe this? After all we all know how deeply inconsistent we can, ourselves, be even if we think  (hope) our inconsistencies are not as great as those shown by Hughes.

A traditional Christian minister or philosopher will, of course, be at pains to assure you that the world is (finally) in order and that in the unity of God, or the Absolute, all these things can be reconciled in some ultimate good. But I am neither a traditional Christian minister nor philosopher and my job in this free-religious, free-thinking tradition isn’t to promulgate some pre-determined doctrinal truth but to help raise and talk about the stubborn human questions that again and again present themselves to us in our world — and the problem of Jesse Hughes is a stubborn and deeply challenging one.

Marina Hyde reveals this challenge when, in an op-ed piece for the Guardian last week, she began by saying that these were:

“Infuriating times for people of rectitude, who have discovered that Eagles of Death Metal frontman Jesse Hughes wasn’t the right sort of person at all to have been involved in a terrorist massacre.” 

What??!! — the "right" sort of person to have been involved in massacre??!! And who the hell would that be and who the hell should do the choosing??!! Good grief . . .

Hyde’s words only make any sense if you are minded to continue to insist that the world is (finally) in order. But come on, here at least most of us know that there is no ordering Devil, no God, nor any gods, who are “up” or “down” there making conscious decisions to place this or that right and/or wrong person in any massacre. It seems to me to be more honest and truthful simply to acknowledge that, again and again, we are going to come face to face with the dumb fact that some things do, and some things do not, make sense. It doesn't seem to make sense that a gun-toting, wild-living, out of control rock and roller was able, in the immediate moments and days following the massacre, to behave in a remarkable, loving and non-violent way. But Hughes did; please don’t ever forget this, he did. And, whilst in a general sense I think Jesus’ teaching we heard earlier contains some helpful truth, when it comes to human beings it is simply never true that what we call a "bad" tree cannot bear good fruit. We forget this truth at our peril.

This is why I so value Thoreau’s naturalistic image of the white, fragrant lily emerging from the swamp. It offers me the ever hopeful message that the way nature is structured ensures that the things we human beings consider to be morally and aesthetically good and beautiful can always emerge from our amoral universe, from the muck and slime of a swamp, a “bad” tree, a person like Jesse Holmes or a brutal massacre like that we saw at the Bataclan — lilies do bloom.

It seems to me that our role as human beings is simply to do our disciplined best to create and sustain the kind of environments — philosophical or religious gardens or ecologies if you like —  where, over the long-term we are able to encourage more lilies to appear and flourish than than fetid swamps.

Lastly I’d encourage in us a recognition that the moral and aesthetic order we create in our human gardens is never a final order (one which mirrors a more perfect other, supernatural world) but one we always have to be creating and nurturing ourselves. Hard and frustrating work at times, yes, but along the way, if we do our work well, there is good reason and evidence to believe that there will be more opportunities to enjoy the fragrance and beauty of the flowers than there will be opportunities to fall into fetid swamps.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

A set of "hauntological" photos taken at Cadbury Castle, Devon

Back in July 2013 Susanna and I were staying in Devon and on one day I took my Dursley-Pedesen  over the hills and far away to visit the Iron-Age fortification known as Cadbury Castle. Naturally, I took a few pictures at the time and chose to use Hipstamatic's "Tin-Type film", not least of all because it so suited the moody, poetically, mysterious nature of the place. I may be a religious naturalist — and, therefore, without a belief in what is commonly called the supernatural — but this does not mean I have no real place for the imagination which cannot but help weave all kinds of mysterious legends and stories about such ancient and awesome places.

Anyway, as readers of this blog will know, given that I'm in a "hauntological" mood at the moment it seemed fun to go back through my archive in order to post these photos for your (and my) enjoyment. As always click on the photos to enlarge them.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Valentine’s Day: Time-scissored work— the meaning-full giftedness of fragments

Frontispiece to Mary Robinson trans. of Sappho [1796]
Readings: Two poetic fragments by Sappho translated by Willis Barnstone in ""Sweetbitter Love", Shambhala, 2006:

“Afroditi and Desire”

It is not easy for us to equal
the goddess
in beauty of form   Adonis


poured nectar from
a gold pitcher
with hands Persuasion

the Geraistion shrine
of no one

I shall enter desire

“Return, Gongyla”

A deed
your lovely face

if not, winter
and no pain

I bid you, Abanthis,
take up the lyre
and sing of Gongyla as again desire
floats around you

the beautiful. When you saw her dress
it excited you. I’m happy.
The Kypros-born once
blamed me

for praying
this word:
I want

“Papyrus” by Ezra Pound

Spring . . .
Too long . . .
Gongula . . .

“Song” by Robert Creeley

What do you
want, love. To be
loved. What,

what, wanted,
love, wanted
so much as love

like nothing
considered, no
feeling but

a simple
forgotten sits

in its feeling,
two things,
one and one.


      Chaucer's Parliament of Foules by William Morris, 1896,
Today is, as you know, St Valentine’s Day, and the day’s connection with romantic love is one some scholars have thought was due to Geoffrey Chaucer and his poem “Parlement of Foules” (1382) in which we read the lines (309-310):

For this was on seynt Volantynys day, 
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

[“For this was on St Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”]

But this is just one possible source of Valentine’s Day as a day connected with love and some scholars have suggested that the day was really created in an attempt to supercede, that is to say, Christianise the pagan fertility festival of Lupercalia which was celebrated in ancient Rome at this time of year.

But, the truth is we do not really know and even the stories about St Valentine are very fragmentary — indeed it’s even unclear whether he is to be identified as one saint or the conflation of two saints of the same name. What we do know is that the passing of time has cut all the day’s sources into pieces that have since been woven and rewoven together over the centuries in many complex ways. The day as it is celebrated today is, like every one of our ancient festivals and rites, a rich, sometimes beautiful, sometimes grotesque quilted pattern of incomplete and misremembered fragments. It is clearly a festival full of meanings, it is meaning-full, but within it there is to be found no simple, essential, complete single meaning.

Once upon a time a recognition of the fragmentary nature of our festivals would  have been tantamount to saying that, in truth, they are really meaningless. This position was held because our monotheistic, neo-platonic and Christian forebears thought that full meaning, that which was truly meaning-full, could only come from something that was, in itself, complete. Ultimately this belief was grounded in the traditional monotheistic conception of God, a supernatural being who is utterly complete, beginning and end, Alpha and Omega.

But in our own age, which for many of us here today has seen the death of both such a conception of God and the associated idea that there exists a perfect view from nowhere, we are happy with (or at least inured to) the idea expressed in the words with which we finish our time of conversation together each Sunday that:

“We receive fragments of holiness, glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight. Let us gather them up for the precious gifts that they are, and, renewed by their grace, move boldly into the unknown” (Sarah York).

These words express, in a different way and context, the importance of doing something that after sharing the loaves and fishes Jesus clearly felt was important, “Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost” he said (John 6:12). Well, in our constant sharing, reuse and reinterpretation of stories such as those connected with Valentine’s Day we prove we are creatures that feel deeply it is always important to gather up all kinds fragments that nothing may be lost.

But, even as this act of gathering up ensures nothing is wasted — and so nothing is “lost” in this sense — something is, of course, always lost in such a process — the original meal cannot be perfectly and completely reconstituted and, as Valentine’s Day shows in a slightly different way, neither can an original story.

It seems to me that Jesus’ teaching should not, therefore, be understood to be about preserving fragments to ensure some unchanging complete truth is passed on generation to generation, but a teaching which reminds us to pass fragments that allow us to reshape and reconfigure the past in ways appropriate for the present and future. It’s an example, once again, of verwindung — that is to say overcoming the past not by crushing it out of existence — überwindung — but by twisting, reinterpreting and reshaping it — verwindung. Only a process of verwindung is able to gift us both with a powerful and comforting sense of continuity with our past and also the freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today.

As I was thinking these thoughts it struck me that on Valentine’s Day, the theme of fragments, incompleteness and freedom to change could be brought directly into dialogue with the theme of love through a consideration of the poems written by Sappho who lived on the Greek island of Lesbos in the seventh century BCE and whose sensuous and lyrical love poetry has, for nearly two millennia, continued to bewitch, intrigue and, occasionally, scandalise, our European culture.

As with St Valentine, very little is known about Sappho's life but what we do know is that her poetry was admired throughout antiquity and was included in the later Greek’s definitive list of lyric poets. Despite her fame, like so many other ancient authors, nearly all of her poetry has been lost to us and, of the more than five hundred poems that she wrote only about two thousand lines which fit into intelligible fragments have survived to our own day.

Although a few fragments survived in Greece itself, in 1879 in the Egyptian oasis of Fayum in the Nile valley, a great deal of new material was discovered. As you might expect, in Egypt Sappho’s poetry was written on papyri and, coincidently, papyrus was also used to make the papier-mâché that wrapped their mummies. When the archeologists working on this site came carefully to unwrap these mummies they discovered that Sappho’s poetry (and of course the work of other ancient authors) had provided the raw material for their wrappings (see photo above). In order to make this papier-mâché the papyri were first torn into strips and, in consequence, as Willis Barnstone (one of Sappho’s modern translators) puts it:

“The mummy makers of Egypt transformed much of Sappho into columns of words, syllables, or single letters, and so made her poems look, at least typographically, like Apollinaire’s or e. e. cummings’ shaped poems. The miserable state of many of the texts has produced surprising qualities. So many words and phrases are elliptically connected in a montage structure that chance destruction has delivered pieces of strophes that breathe experimental verse. Her time-scissored work is not quite language poetry, but a more joyful cousin of the eternal avant-garde, which is always and ever new. So Sappho is ancient and, for a hundred reasons, modern” (Sweetbitter Love by Sappho, trans. Willis Barnstone, Shambhala, 2006,  p. xxix)

We saw in our readings how this time-scissored shaping has directly inspired the work of a number of important modern poets like Ezra Pound and Robert Creeley and gave us a whole new poetic aesthetic — surely this is to see powerfully at work the process of verwindung. Not incidentally, I included Creeley’s very Sappho-esque poem “Song” (p. 319) because I first meditated upon it during the halcyon summer during which I knew I had fallen in love with Susanna, the woman whose husband I eventually became. Anyway, today, there is no doubt that Sappho’s body of work, though fragmentary, forms one of our culture’s great texts.

Now, in relation to the greatness of texts, you may remember something said by the philosopher Iain Thomson that:

“. . . what makes the great texts ‘great’ is not that they continually offer the same ‘eternal truths’ for each generation to discover but, rather, that they remain deep enough — meaning-full enough — to continue to generate new readings, even revolutionary re-readings which radically reorient the sense of the work that previously guided us” (Figure/Ground Communication interview).

What I want us to see today is that the greatness of Sappho’s texts — their meaning-full quality for our culture as a great text — is dependent, not on their completeness, but on their very incompleteness, on their fragmentary nature.

But when you really think about it, what is obviously true of Sappho’s texts also turns out to be true of even those great texts we have been taught to think of as being complete and fixed — as our early forebears taught us was the Bible.

But this belief is clearly unwarranted because whenever we engage with these texts imaginatively and critically rather than dogmatically and uncritically we find that even the most apparently complete of them is full of lacunae — all kinds of information is missing. Think, for example, of the well-known story of Abraham and Isaac going up Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:1-19). After Abraham is told by God not to sacrifice his son Isaac and to sacrifice the ram caught in a thicket instead, we are told that he comes down the mountain to his servants. But where is Isaac? Did he come down with his father, did he stay up there, or did he go on by another way? More disturbingly we may ask whether Isaac was, in fact, killed — even if only by accident? Indeed, many later Jewish aggadic interpretations (these are the non-legal rabbinic interpretations of the Biblical text such as those found in the Talmud) suggested that Isaac was sacrificed but then brought back to life — in the 12th century there was one rabbinic poem in which Isaac is killed and resurrected twice! (cf. Shalom Spiegel’s “The Last Trial”, Jewish Lights Classic Reprint, 1993).

The point is that it is precisely these gaps between the fragments of the story that gift us with such a continuously rich and meaning-full text. A complete(d) story would be a dead thing but an incomplete, fragmentary text is alive, it forces us to enter into the text ourselves and inhabit it in a living way. As we do this we become part of the story and in the encounter the story changes and that, in turn, changes our interpretation of the story further. We discover that, it, and the world around us, nearly always starts to show up differently, or to disclose to us often revolutionary new things.

And isn’t love of another person somewhat like this too? We know in our heart of hearts that we can never know either ourselves or another person completely. This is because we are all always-already fragmentary creatures and our loving engagement with each other is constantly changing and recombining our individual fragments in new, creative and deeply meaningful ways. We are always-already together on the way, in the making, fragmentary and incomplete; we are not so much “be-ings” as “become-ings”.

And even at the moment of death, when a life might be said to be as complete as it can be, this same life’s story can still only ever be known incompletely. At the passing of a loved one all we can ever do is carefully gather up fragments of their story so that nothing may be lost — so that those precious fragments can go on to nourish radical new visions of the good life that are always becoming and never simply are.

May the lesson of today be that we need not be frightened of the fragmentary nature of reality, of ourselves, of our stories but, instead, learn to love our endlessly time-scissored world that is endlessly gifting us with new meanings and visions and the joyous and creative freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today.