If I Can’t Work Up To You


This is Virupaksha, the Buddhist protector-deity who is the Guardian King of the West. He and his three brothers of the compass stand at the four corners of temples as sentinels and defenders. This Virupaksha no longer serves his temple and instead is himself safeguarded at the Rubin Museum on 17th street in Manhattan, where I encountered him during a class I took on Buddhism and Buddhist art. I learned in this class about the ritual that sacralizes a sculpture and transforms it from an object into a Being. It’s the moment the artist places the glass or stone eyes into the face of a piece of wood or metal or stone in the shape of a person-like creature. Eyes make Being.  It’s an elaborate and charged ritual; you can read about it.

I was attracted to the wooden Virupaksha in his glass house in the Rubin because he is larger than most of the sculptures in the museum, and uncharacteristically made of wood and also painted. From the side, with his head turned away from me, he looked a lot like Tenniel’s grotesque Duchess, fierce and big-bellied and big-headed.  His crown resembled her headdress. When I got close enough to angle round and see his face, I stopped being amused and curious and felt something else.  You can’t see it in this reproduction, but the glass eyes in the sculpture are almost taxidermy-grade realistic with milky whites and irises that are not blank brown discs but shaded like yours or mine, and the pupils are the right size. The naturalistic eyes would make an eerie enough impression on a realistic sculpture, and they suddenly do awaken this fantastic antique foreigner.  You have to make one of those visual-cognitive efforts that feels muscular–like switching figure and ground in those profile and vase figure-ground tricks–to remember that this glass can’t see you too, that this wooden sculpture is not looking and thinking.

One moment of seeing glass eyes seeing me, and I got a whiff of the effable threshold of the ineffable. The point for me was that denying sentience to the realism of those glass eyes was the act of will, albeit fleeting and conscious. Now, to continue manufacturing the illusion of sentience after that moment is revealed and it’s passed–that’s depleting and futile. The toil of manufacturing the ineffable and hammering it into the real is where I see the internal business of religious belief and the external business of religious ritual.


In life, for me, depleting and futile. But in art, I’m captivated feeling this work in action in the hands of strong artists. The most powerful religious art teaches us the concentration and ingenuity and ardor required to light on fire that effable threshold of the ineffable. I think this is the thrillingest extremity of imagination. So this brings us back to eyes. Above is a pair of downturned mortal eyes whose clabber is sentient and sightless, and the living center of the painting just as Virupaksha’s glass eyes were the living center of his wooden body.   It’s John Milton and those awful rolling orbs. I like to think he got dressed up nicely as he is here in order to dictate to his indentured daughters and didn’t just throw on some grimy stained dressing gown before he cleared his throat phlegmily and said “Where was I?”  There’s a lot of Paradise Lost in Tempest, but somehow I aim to get from Paradise Lost’s effable thresholds to the one in  Man Gave Names to All the Animals. 

diagrammedMilton has an extraordinarily difficult task in his poem besides the grand moral quest he set himself to justify the ways of God to man. Which famous quest, by the way, I think ends up a little disingenuous. The poem is one long lesson reminding me that reflection is not reality, and image is not truth–reminding me of the imperative difference between what I see before me, and what I discern with the God-implanted reason that needs no lamps…no eyes. Paradise Lost very well may justify the ways of a God to his creation named John Milton who, at 43, lost the ability to see anything at all of God’s other creations until his death 23 years later.


Milton’s other extraordinarily difficult task is artistic and really more interesting to me. He has to show an unfallen world with the language we have to make do with on the other side of the fall. I have to take in a plausible Adam and Eve, I have to believe in them and visualize Eden, before their corruption and I have to do this without the hideous pride of casting off my own inheritance of their corruption. I have to believe in Milton’s Adam and Eve and without making a terrible error:i.e.,  I can know them as they knew themselves before the fall.  For the religious reader this conundrum is a moral challenge, for me this problem is a most fascinating intellectual challenge.   How can Milton help me see that something I already consider a chimera is indeed a conundrum?   He will do it with English syntax and semantics as his little glass eyes. Here is a tiny sample of the parsing we do hundreds of times throughout the poem:

The key of this infernal pit by due,/And by command of heaven’s all-powerful King,/I keep; by him forbidden to unlock/These adamantine gates (Book II, 850-854; Sin)


. . .some great behest from heaven/To  us perhaps he brings. . .But go with speed,/And what they stores contain bring forth (Book IV, 311-314; Adam)


And with retorted scorn his back he turned/On those proud towers to swift destruction doom’d. (Book V, 906-7; Narrator referring to Abdiel)


Milton’s syntax is famously constructed of reversal and inversion, but something happens to me when I repeatedly must make order of subjects and predicates reversed, of prepositional phrases preceding the elements they’re modifying. Repeatedly, I wait to learn what I need to learn to trace meaning. Through these continual deferrals and suspensions of finding out what something is, or what something is doing, Milton disciplines me to a patience and and alertness unlike any other reading identity I can think of. But that’s not the point. This is a book about the problems of consciousness, it’s not a book that’s going to stop at cultivating my consciousness. Milton’s grammar gets at the quick of the difference between transparent immediate knowledge and the haze and labor of mediated constructed knowledge. The difference between Adam and Eve’s sweet untaxing husbandry of Eden’s fruits, and digging an irrigation ditch in the rain. It’s the difference between unfallen life and fallen life. Unmediated, Edenic apprehension of the way things are, and the tortuous straining to find out how things are here outside Eden. And so, without demanding that I accept a chimera as a real thing, without demanding that I *believe* in Adam or Eden, Milton makes me into a piece of his fiction and thus I feel for myself the world he’s created by living it through reading it. The effable threshold of the ineffable, via 9th grade grammar.

linnaeusHow nice to find that the man who did name all the animals, Linnaeus, had such a cheerful friendly face! As well he should–even in Bob Dylan’s song, before everything goes to hell (har har),  naming the animals is a fun activity. This is one of the songs whose lyrics, no matter how often I hear them, I never can remember–this is the bear? the bull?  On an album with phrases like “masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition,” or “surrender your crown on this bloodstained ground,” suddenly this writer can’t do better than descriptions of cows and pigs that would be laughed out of kindergarten. And that’s the point. For Adam, naming his companions in Eden is the same kind of wonderful play-work as gently untangling the vines. Adam delights in their growling and their not-too-short horns and the milk and wool–he doesn’t need to understand the animals any better than he does in the harmonious peaceable world he shares with them. And he gets to name each one! After his artless little observation of an animal, we hear the word coming up through the Adam’s own growling I, and emerges as something that simply rhymes with the last word of his description.  Here’s another animal….it’s not too big. . .big. . . it’ll be a . . .pig! How easy and fun is that!   In this game, we hear exactly what matters about  original unfallen speech: it’s embodied, immediate, and unambiguous. In Eden, the arbitrariness of language does not mask or confuse reality, instead what looks like the arbitrariness of “bull” or “sheep” is a creative, loving, ordering action, like naming a child.

pipeIn the last verse, the language changes and a new namer does the work, which is no longer immediate and playful.  Now the language is not childish and vague, it’s focused and artful. The sibilance in smooth/glass/grass/disappear represents the animal it describes. Slithering is quite many grade levels above the vocabulary in the previous verses and also participates in the sound portrait.  Even before I’m tricked at the very end, I know I’m in a world where language manipulates for effect, and traps me in its effects: as soon as I hear smooth as glass, I know what’s going on. This is not another barnyard pal, it’s not even an animal as the cow and bear are. I know who it is. And when he disappears, Adam does not name him–I do. If you listen to the last verse of Man Gave Names to All the Animals and do not speak in your mind or even out loud–I think I’ll call it a snake–then congratulations, you are uncorrupted and miraculously unfallen. But the rest of us finish the song because we occupy the world on the other side of that tree, we see the animal that’s disappeared, we already know its name, there’s no hope of an unbidden act of innocent creation from our throats. We hear this verse, and we feel immediately the trap of snake, we feel the word taking shape in our bodies. It is and always has to be snake, just as we feel the free fanciful play of rhyme burbling up Adam’s throat into bull and sheep. We’re stained with the knowledge Adam doesn’t have yet, and we can’t protect him from knowledge or fall, and every time we hear the song, we witness our own fall.

P1000056And now Bob Dylan has made me part of the myth of the fall, which is no more nor less real to me than the Sirens and Horatio, through manipulating the ordinary work I do paying attention to words and sentences, as Milton manipulates me to the same end. Look for these thresholds–they may be places where people who feel they have abysmally different visions of life and the world can meet each other, even if for only a moment.

[PS: The essay collection Bob Dylan and Philosophy has a valuable article on linguistics and theology in Man Gave Names. . by Ruvik Danieli and Anat Biletzki;  this book has a good deal of worthwhile reading in it and a sorry fact it is that it belongs to a series including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy. ]


2 thoughts on “If I Can’t Work Up To You

    1. I’m grateful for any un-flippant attention to anything here, and I thank Christian Book Barn for this recommendation. I do wonder how they found this post and who decided to link to it. I hope that anyone reading it will clearly see that my preoccupation is with the way the premises of religious allegory or doctrine or entity can be felt through the effects of ingenious art. I agree with Bob Dylan: faith and unbelief have no neutral ground except for the truce governing social decorum in a small demographic. To me, religious art offers the vividest glimpse into the real circumstances that provoke or inspire the doctrine, the scriptural narratives, the rituals, the symbols…My position is that encounters with strong art like Milton’s or Dylan’s can excavate the bedrock realities that lead to religion’s allegories and charters. So I’m trying to invite personally nonreligious people like myself (I can’t stand the word *atheist* because it makes a person sound defensive, as though religious belief is the Default setting and anything else is Other) to push deeper than we normally go into the human wellsprings of religion and create meaning in there–not abstract scientific explanations, neither. So I’m not sure this is a premise compatible with Christian Book Barn’s Weltanschauung, and I do remain grateful for their attention.

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