Mirror, Mirror: Merrill’s Gnosticism

Jazz on too loud—A Love Supreme. The library is quiet in the edges of my vision—all is rolling cymbal, a haze of notes from Coltrane’s saxophone, and then an insistent, driving bass which is overtaken by piano; a rolling horn line like a snake. People move quietly about, but they are as distant as a painting. My intense listening shuts out the world.

Is that detail important? Or does it matter that I perhaps self-consciously chose this album for its poetic and apt title? Or do I think that because I came to that conclusion on my own? It’s entirely possible someone just told me I had to listen to this album, that it’s a classic (that most dangerous of terms for me), and that’s the reason I like the damn thing in the first place. What do I find in those wailing, lema-lema-sabachthani saxophone lines like sheets of rain? (And does it matter that I lifted that phrase from—who is it? Ginsberg? Pound?)

Too many questions, when you stop to think about it. But what I mean to say is that there’s something in that act of intent listening that is mirrored in the act of writing, too—a shutting out of the very things you think you are observing. By listening or looking too intently, we actually begin to…there’s no word for it, but saturate comes to mind. You are overwhelmed by the experience, and in some form or another your mind retreats to safety, whether that is rationality or aestheticism or religion or whatever. What was excruciatingly felt becomes stylized, and thus reduced in some form or another. I have felt this in my own writing, certainly. At times you feel as if something else were in control of you—why put that word there? And yet somehow you do, and you know it is the best word possible, at least for now.

On September 7, 1955 (—my father was toddling around Great Neck, NY; my mother just born in Palatine, IL—) James Merrill wrote in the margins of his copy of Yeats’ A Vision: “Is this what I must learn?” At this point in A Vision Yeats goes into a famous discourse on whether or not he “believed” in Leo Africanus, his otherworldly “daimon,” or spirit-contact:

To such a question I can but answer that if sometimes, overwhelmed by the miracle as all men must be when in the midst of it, I have taken such periods literally, my reason has soon recovered; and now that the system stands out clearly in my imagination I regard them as stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawing of Wyndham Lewis and the ovoids in the sculpture of Brancusi. They have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice.

What was Merrill trying to learn? That one’s reason soon recovers from the flushed initiation into the otherworld? Or that artistic distance, a certain aesthetic “listening” style is the key to holding reality and justice in a single thought?

Or might not those two ideas be, in some sense or another, the very same thing? Reality—the honest conveyance of an image—and justice, the connoted and desired perfection of that image, are after all interdependent. One can’t do justice to the nonexistent, because to do something justice is to create it, in some sense or another. Let’s say there’s an imaginary world, one that exists only in an artist’s head; they draw it. Now it’s in our world, can be pointed to and fondled, has value and affective powers, has weight and a representation, exists.

Similarly, poets create, but their creative style is in some sense more godlike than the visual artist’s, because the poets imitate God: they create by word. The Scribe, the cosmic role inhabited by Merrill and elucidated by Mirabell and co., is invested with a grave power. The Gospel of John says, “In the beginning was the Word.” The Word is precisely Merrill’s domain, and represents a movement out of imagined experience (justice) into the tangible and shared world of communication (reality). But words depend on hearers—so, importantly, it is God’s need to be heard that leads to creation. Dialogue is the hoped-for task of the lonely monotheistic being. He has Something to Say. As Auden wonders, “IN THE BEGINNING MIGHT THE WORD / (OR FORMULA) NOT HAVE REMAINED UNHEARD / UNTIL IT HAD ENGENDERED BOTH ITS OWN / ANTONYM & THE ODD HOMOPHONE?” (341).

In the beginning of the Yeats-Merrill article, Mark Bauer gives an inventory of Merrill’s bookshelf: “Freud, Proust, Cavafy, Auden, Rilke, Bishop, as well as, perhaps more surprisingly, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Hans Jonas, Krishnamurti, and P.D. Oupensky.” All fascinating (and I wish I could do justice to the philosophers in there)—but in my current state (A Love Supreme’s raw wails fading to Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan’s cool, balanced Two of a Mind; people decreasing in number now, this late; my books like a fan of tarot cards before me) I cannot help but notice the religious scholar Hans Jonas. Jonas, a student of Heidegger as well as the influential Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann, was for much of the 20th century the leading authority on an obscure splinter group of Jews and Christians called by the enigmatic umbrella term “Gnostics.”

I’ve taken awhile to wander here, and the Gnostics were meant to be the point. Briefly, then: the Gnostics were Jews and Christians in the centuries following the death of Christ. They didn’t last long—any real presence was successfully suppressed by the 500s—but they represented perhaps the most significant opposition to what would eventually become orthodox Christianity. The term “gnostic” is misleading, because it implies unity—and the Gnostics were never unified, by creed or geography or anything else. (Neither, for that matter, were their “opponents,” the groups retrospectively called “proto-orthodox.”)

In 66 CE, chafing under the foreign rule of Rome, angry Jews overthrew the Roman garrisons of Jerusalem and slaughtered the Sadducee leadership of the Temple. Rome’s response was swift and brutal. In 70 CE Jerusalem was efficiently and brutally razed by the Roman general (and future Emperor) Titus. The Temple was burnt to the ground, the Jews banished. Rome established a stranglehold. In light of such violence—not to mention, for the new splinter group called Christians, the recent and still-painful crucifixion of the Messiah—how does one construct a God that is (as he must be, according to the holy books) all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful? It is with this question, the question of evil, that early Christianity was defined. Why this? Why us?  

The proto-orthodox response to that nagging question is what makes up the modern Bible—which roughly consists of: a long-winded and bittersweet story of divine favor and repeated failure (Genesis thru Chronicles); a further elucidation of the details and specifics of those failings (the prophets); some advice on how to behave oneself so as to not be a failure story (Ecclesiastes, Job, Psalms, Proverbs); and then another story of how humanity failed to honor their God, and how God nonetheless took the moral high ground (the entire New Testament)

The Gnostics had another answer, a dangerously attractive one: What if God isn’t good? Their full response was to create a vision of the world in which Yahweh/Elohim, the God of Israel, was a misbegotten (though in some sense necessary and inevitable) portion of an undifferentiated One, which they called the Monad. The Monad encompassed all of creation, and thus comprised both the flawed Yahweh (whom the Gnostics transformed into a semi-demonic figure variously called Samael, Yaldabaoth, Sakla, etc.) and a world entirely beyond Yahweh’s ken. This demiurge, or lower creator, was unconsciously imitating a cosmic structure far above and beyond him, one that included “reflections” of everything in our world, but rendered in pure creation. Thus, in the Sethian Gnostic text The Secret Book of John, the first human, Adam, was modelled unconsciously on a fleeting glimpse of the Divine Human Geradamas.

The “God Biology” of Mirabell and Scripts is not dissimilar to the Gnostic God—according to Gabriel, he admits “THERE ARE GALAXIES, GODS AS POWERFUL / AS I. SON GABRIEL, WE ARE WARND. WE ARE HARD PREST” (330). God Biology exists, then, among a kind of pantheon—but, as the “progression” of Ephraim and Mirabell makes clear, even within his heaven there are many divine “levels.” Ephraim mistakes much, as does Mirabell, and even the archangels admit that God’s revelations are denied them. Most strangely, though, despite their seeming ignorance, Ephraim and Mirabell continue reappearing; and their teachings, despite being ignorant of the worlds beyond theirs, are nonetheless pertinent. As Merrill says after being praised for a question: “No, Ephraim raised these issues. But his point’s / More chilling made at such an altitude” (363). The two mortal listeners—Merrill and Jackson, the Scribe and the Hand—are thus given access to universes which are denied even to the heavenly host. But their origins are vital, and the progression necessary. The past lessons create the present revelation. This, too, mirrors Gnostic ideas. In The Secret Book of John, Yaldabaoth creates a host beneath him; each member of his host then contributes an attribute (traits both “physical” and “psychical”) to his greatest creation: Adam.  But when he creates Adam, something goes awry: “Adam’s ability to think was greater than that of all the creators” (177). Spooked, Yaldabaoth cuts Adam off from his divine genesis and seeks to remake him:

The rulers brought Adam into the shadow of death so that they might produce a figure again, from earth, water, fire, and the spirit that comes from matter, that is, from the ignorance of darkness, and desire, and their own false spirit. This is the cave for remodeling the body that these criminals put on the human, the fetter of forgetfulness. Adam became a mortal being, the first to descend and the first to become estranged. (177)

Repeated recreation and perfection (and the play of elements) brings to mind the enigmatic centaurs and nuclear bats of Mirabell—a creation set at odds with itself, fated to be created, wiped out, and reborn. The pieces of the whole—in this combined metaphor, both the literal and mental bodies of Adam and the agents of Heaven themselves—form a picture far beyond their individual imaginings. And yet, each part of that gestalt symphony are slightly out of tune with one another. The divine archangels of Scripts simply cannot fathom humanity. Gabriel wants to receive the souls of suicides “FOR FROM THAT FRIENDSHIP I / CATCH MY CLIMPSE OF MAN” (333). Creation, all of it, trudges along in ignorance. Paradoxically, too, the semi-divine humans with the equivalent of Heaven’s Press Pass are nonetheless woefully ignorant. Their access allows them to see, but their minds cannot comprehend the lessons. The “fetter of forgetfulness” sounds much like the reincarnation theories expounded in Ephraim, wherein the recreated being must necessarily forget its past in order to live again and thus gain heaven. A blank slate allows for a new experiment. A blank slate is also necessary to begin an artwork.

But is “descent and estrangement” necessary? No, said the Gnostics: it is God’s vanity and insistence on his vision that keeps us distant from our real home, the indivisible, eternal Oneness, or Monad. Because we conceive ourselves as separate and differentiated, we continue our cyclic lives on Earth—but all is in God’s hands, and thus it is he who keeps us living on and on. As Merrill suggested in Mirabell, Heaven depends on Earth—so of course it would be in God Biology’s interest to keep us around. It keeps him alive!

(Pitter-pat, pitter-pat go the bongos; we’re on to Sonny Rollins now, the energetic What’s New? (1962), an album of South American rhythms and Rollins’ hoarse, spare, pointillist tenor work. The saxophone dances, questions, explores, so unreserved after the cool detachment of Desmond, so playful after Coltrane’s pious roar.)

Sin, to the Gnostics, was in some ways a fundamental freedom. The ability of Adam to outthink his maker was his fundamental strength. The Secret Book of John calls that ability “enlightened afterthought,” a distant gift of the Monad, a kind of ever-diminishing spark given unintentionally by Yaldabaoth in the act of creation. In the garden of Paradise the rulers put two trees: “the tree of their life,” which is beautiful and enticing but deadly poisonous (“The dwelling place of those who taste of it is the underworld, and darkness is their resting place”); and “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which is the enlightened afterthought” (178). The rulers, fearing a further increase of Adam’s perception, try to conceal the latter tree, and entice Adam to the former—but, unlike in the Bible, he doesn’t fall for it, and enlightened afterthought, now personified, shelters herself in his body. Yaldabaoth removes her, but cannot alter or destroy her. So Adam wakes “from the drunkenness of darkness,” sees Eve, and recognizes her as part of himself. Love! Fullness, the Gnostics suggest time and time again, is the unification of one’s broken selves into one glorious understanding, which is itself personified as Sophia, “wisdom.”

In Scripts, too, humanity is made of broken halves. To return to Auden’s question about the Word engendering antonyms and homophones:

TWINS WE ARE TOLD COME FROM THE FEMALE GENE,

THERE4 THESE LADIES & THEIR ESCORTS WEAVE

A LINE BACK TO THE PRIMAL (M)ADAM/EVE:

NO SOONER SINGLE THAN NEF ONCE AGAIN

TOOK ON A DOUBLE NATURE (ALL THOSE ARMS

OF SHIVA NOT THE LEAST OF HIS/HER CHARMS)

WD THAT BE THE GENETICS, WOMAN? (341)

In typically campy fashion, Merrill presents us a Heaven presided over by “ladies” and their “escorts”—an idea that smacks more of Toulouse-Lautrec than Caravaggio. And his tongue-in-cheek rendering of “Adam” as “(M)Adam” leaves us wondering whether Adam’s “lost rib,” his feminine side, isn’t present in the manliest man after all. Like the Gnostics, though Merrill depends on the Book, he cannot take the scripture seriously. The world is simply too ridiculous. Rationality, even, must bend to the irrevocable facts of it all, which is that it’s a pageant! Of course Heaven is lunatic—if it comes from the same God who made us, it’d have to be.

(Enough of my saxophonists—I’m dwelling in my element too much. Elina Duni, an Albanian folk singer, goes on—and now it’s dim, driving piano jazz, classically-trained musicians shoving jazz into the gypsy hauntings of the Baltic states. My own form of music, America’s single greatest export, becomes strange in someone else’s hands, in this otherworldly language, words I listen intently to but do not understand. With the saxophone I can speak the language: embouchure   tonal shifts     growl    upper octaves. With Albanian lyrics, with Duni’s drifting voice I am displaced, made distant from myself. On the album’s cover (what does Baresha even mean?) an old nag draws an Eastern European carriage—a chopped-off car, one of those immortal and clunky Soviet designs turned into horse-drawn cart. The reins disappear beneath the windshield. The dirty white horse pins its ears and looks as if about to shake its head. Its duck-foot stance is something from a caricature.)

All of this complexity—what are we to think? What is serious? What tragic? Michael himself, the archangel of light, explores the human form of poetry, badly. This being the archangel who so awes Auden and Maman; he can’t escape misspellings and rhymed couplets? Next to such a divine foil, Merrill the Scribe looks more godlike than the gods. He, at least, writes in those gorgeously precise lines of his. (But then, of course the Scribe would make himself look good—it is his story, after all…)

The distance of artistic creation, though, again removes Merrill from the world. As Merrill himself admits, “Today the line / Drawn is esthetic. One allows divine / Discourse, if at all, in paraphrase” (348). We, the secondhand listeners, are removed one degree farther. So, in one sense, the camp is necessary. We couldn’t take Merrill seriously if he was as earnest, as elaborately concerned as some streetcorner prophet screaming about cosmic peacocks and God Biology. With humor we can swallow it. Yeats had to cloak his universal messages in the robes of esotericism, which is another kind of distance. It was necessary even for the Gnostics, who constructed ridiculously elaborate worlds to explain their very basic premise of God’s fallibility. (An actual scriptural sentence: “The authority Tupelon created Adam’s left shin”…) From our distance of rationality, our twice-darkened glimpse of the experience, we can see only a rather comic presentation of the universe: a Divine Comedy indeed.

All ideas, though, rendered in such bare lines are ridiculous—and, we begin to see, it’s the idea itself that is ridiculous. The sheer fact and magnificence of existence is enough to daunt any attempts at explanation. Words fail. Merrill:

Why should God speak? How humdrum what he says

Next to His word: out of a black sleeve, lo!

Sun, Earth and Stars in eloquent dumb show.

Our human words are weakest, I would urge,

When He resorts to them. (348)

The Immortal Five, after all, are the senses (350). It is our very act of perception that creates the world, that orders it in some intelligible fashion (whether that is Ephraim’s Bureaucracy, Mirabell’s formulas, or the hundreds of appendage-angels of the Gnostics). And if, as Michael says, the archangels “ARE THE SENSES OF [THEIR] FATHER” (350), then God’s perception is nearly as limited as ours. The act of sense perception diminishes some crucial portion of the universe, removes it from the fullness of itself and delineates its boundaries, gives it a set of causes and effects. The artist, then, is the greatest sinner alive—he not only removes the world from itself, he causes others to do the same. By doing justice to reality, he diminishes both. In imagining a world, he creates one; in others, by virtue of his shared art, he forces that world into existence. The Secret Book of John describes Yaldabaoth forcing himself on Eve, and from the union creating Cain and Abel, who are also known as Yahweh and Elohim, and who represent opposing forces in the world (180). In our division of perception, we are engaged in a similar act—we create good and evil solely by our own judgment and conception of reality. Our sense of justice, then, creates reality. We are good and evil, for they cannot exist independent of our perceptions.

(And I, cocooned in music, sit alone among this crowd. The writing has gone on too long—my haggard face peers back from the monitor’s impassive frame, halfway obscured now by the words I’ve typed. Reality is out there, distant from this half-imagined world I’ve created. And all this time, little Scribe, all that jazz, and I have no idea if it’s coherent. Does it do the Book justice? Do my little flocks of words peel back the surfaces of things? Does all of this have Something to Say? The answer comes, because I learned it somewhere before: YES & NO.)

And thus we are rendered godlike—but not in a flattering light. We, rather, are like the ignorant, flawed God of the Gnostics: capable of everything except real understanding. And it is the task of learning, of understanding, with which we must be truly concerned. Gnosis, the term that gives the Gnostics their name, is an intellectual apprehension of the inescapable truth: that we exist within something far greater than ourselves, a something greater even than our world itself.  Beyond the stars, beyond God, beyond sun and moon and the pageants of myth lies an undiscovered country of pure seeing, pure understanding. Like Merrill and Yeats we must imagine ourselves as capable of that knowledge before we can receive it. The test is personal, individual—can we bear to look deeply into the mirror? Can we admit our flawed divinity? Only then can real knowledge come into us. Only then can we begin to understand the fatal, beautiful message: that we are here, for good or ill; that we perceive; that we must necessarily structure our perceptions and ourselves in some fashion; and (terrifyingly) that we may after all be the sum total, the half-imagined hero of the myth, which may (the mirror tells us, as it greys another hair) be only a myth. In the mirror’s blank eye, we are removed from ourselves, made into an aesthetic object. We are both Reality (a reflected image) and Justice (all the meanings we attach to that image). A gnostic question, then: Is it not possible that God Biology, in making us, wanted only a kind of mirror?

Bauer, Mark. “Between Lives: James Merrill Reading Yeats’s Prose,” Contemporary Literature,  vol. 43 no. 1, 2002, pp. 85-119. University of Wisconsin Press. DOI: 10.2307/1209017

Merrill, James. The Changing Light at Sandover, ed. J.D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser, Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

The Secret Book of John, from The Gnostic Bible, ed. Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer, Shambhala, 2009.

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