A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, February 12, 2010

What I'm Reading

The Case for God, by Karen Armstrong 


Religious discourse was not intended to be understood literally because it was only possible to speak about a reality that transcended language in symbolic terms. ... The same applies to the creation myth that was central to ancient religion and now has become controversial in the Western world because the Genesis story seems to clash with modern science. But until the early modern period, nobody read a cosmology as a literal account of the origins of life. (p. 15) 
This seems to imply that there were no conflicts over myths "until the early modern period." But of course there were. What Alfred North Whitehead called "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness" has always been with us. Ancient peoples believed that their gods and the records of their doings were more than just symbolic representations of "a reality that transcended language," and they were willing to go to war to prove it. The Bible vs. science controversy arises from a belief in the absolute truth of, on the one hand, Scripture, and on the other, scientific method. And each side fears that granting only symbolic status to any part of its ideology undermines the entire ideology and must therefore be fought for.  


In our own day, the God of the monotheistic tradition has often degenerated into a High God. The rites and practices that once made him a persuasive symbol of the sacred are no longer effective, and people have stopped participating in them. He has therefore become otiosus, an etiolated reality who for all intents and purposes has indeed died or "gone away." (p. 16)
Hence the fury over the magazine cover that asked:

Poem of the Day: Rainer Maria Rilke

from Sonnets to Orpheus 

O dieses ist das Tier, das es nicht giebt. 
     O this is the animal that does not exist.
Sie wußtens nicht und habens jeden Falls 
     But they didn't know that, and, in any case, 
-- sein Wandeln, seine Haltung, seinen Hals, 
     they loved it -- loved its gait, its stance, 
bis in des stillen Blickes Licht -- geliebt. 
     its neck, loved the light in its quiet gaze. 

Zwar war es nicht. Doch weil sie's liebten, ward 
    It never was. But since they loved it,  
ein reines Tier. Sie ließen immer Raum. 
     a pure animal became. They always left space. 
Und in dem Raume, klar und ausgespart, 
     And in that space, unoccupied and bright, 
erhob es leicht sein Haupt und brauchte kaum 
     it calmly raised its head and scarcely needed 

zu sein. Sie nährten es mit keinem Korn, 
     to be. They fed it not with grain, --  
nur immer mit der Möglichkeit, es sei. 
    only with the promise of its being. 
Und die gab solche Stärke an das Tier, 
    And this gave the animal such power, 

daß es aus sich ein Stirnhorn trieb. Ein Horn. 
     that a horn sprouted from its brow. One horn. 
Zu einer Jungfrau kam es weiß herbei -- 
    White, it strode up to a virgin -- and was
und war im Silber-Spiegel und in ihr. 
      in the mirror's silver and in her.
--Rainer Maria Rilke (translation by Edward Snow)
The Sonnets to Orpheus were written partly in response to the death of a 19-year-old young woman, a friend of his daughter's. Their central theme is the imagination's ability to bring things into being -- the power of art to create and transcend. In this case, it's an animal that never was: the unicorn. Unicorns have become so associated with kitsch, the bedroom decor of pre-teen girls, that they've lost much of their magic, and it takes a wizard-poet like Rilke to bring it back. Edward Snow's letter-perfect translation, though it loses the rhymes that knit together the original poem, has its own magic.