Sunday, March 26, 2017

The territory of the soul, part I

West Lake, Hangzhou, China, March 2007
photograph by the author

On a summer afternoon in Nova Scotia in the year 2000, a small group of searchers hosted by Ravi Ravindra gathered together to listen to Karel Backer play some of the selections from the Gurdjieff/de Hartmann songbook. 

Among others was “Readings From a Sacred Book.” As the piece developed its impetus, the atmosphere in the room changed; the listeners were transfixed. It was as though the room had disappeared and a vast landscape had opened up, surrounded by distant mountains: one of those inaccessible places which Gurdjieff describes in his journeys on the search for truth. 
This landscape was imaginal; but nonetheless real, a landscape of feeling in which an inexpressible longing for Being arose. 

It would be useless to define it more; such things really can't be described. At the end of the piece, everyone in the room sensed that something extraordinary had taken place. We had all been on a journey to some other place – a landscape of the soul.

In our search for Being, it's all too common to search for the self; "I am," said the burning bush to Moses. "I am," intone the seekers following Gurdjieff's path of self remembering. 

Yet this is only half of a search for self; because the search is not just the search for the self, it is a search for where the self is — lost or found, the self is somewhere; and a search for self is just as much a search for its location — its imaginal, its experiential, its ideational location — as it is for the self itself. That is to say, I cannot have a self without a place in which it exists. This is the exact nature of the cosmos and the way it manifests: any cosmology is not just a cosmology of the self, or a cosmology of location — it is a cosmology of relationship, that is, the self and location.

Any real work of art, that is, true art of the spirit or the soul — perhaps not quite at the level of what Gurdjieff called objective art, but real art nonetheless – defines not just self, but also location and relationship. A piece of poetry ought to not just iterate, report, describe, or instruct; it must create a space in which events take place. All art has this obligation. It must not just define its idea, but the context of it. Any art without context is, ultimately, a failed art. 

And we must allow the context to be large enough, the space to be open enough, so that there is room for much more than the idea itself. (This is one of the essential tasks of a sound piece of poetry.) Any living, breathing idea of the self must be located in a metaphysical landscape large enough to allow it enough air for the idea to breathe, enough land around it to grow the food it needs, enough water to quench its thirst. And after all those basic needs are satisfied — the landscape must also be large enough to allow for the arrival of other beings, and the formation of relationships. It must, in a word, be a generous landscape. When we read the descriptions of abundant lands in the Psalms, it is just such a landscape that's being described. The abundance of fish and fowl, of fruit and grain, is not food for the body, but the soul.

If we create a self, or discover a self (take your pick) without this generous landscape to sustain it, it will surely die. 

That landscape is, to be sure, not a physical location as we understand it. It’s a metaphysical landscape; it is imaginal. One is reminded of Swedenborg's description of heaven, where there is no distance as we understand it here on earth, but only a relative proximity determined by love. According to him, that which we love the most is what is closest to us in heaven. 

This inner landscape, this vastness of the soul, is not just composed of a visual image created by the intellect. Intelligence of that kind alone cannot open a door onto the landscape of Being, because Being exists in a landscape of feeling; and this is indeed what Swedenborg meant when he said that distance and proximity are determined by love. 

It is feeling, love, that creates the landscape of the soul.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

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