Friday, April 9, 2010

On Suffering

'You will not dismiss your Soul lest it go forth taking something with it.’ The Chaldean Oracles
A friend (and supposed ‘co-writer’ for this site) recently expressed praise for a Michel Houellebecq quote that reveled in personal agony, in the persistence of failure, and in the final goal of suicide, the termination of the body / Soul relationship… how typical of the modern ennui! Affliction and suffering are certainly unavoidable, but they have to be, as with everything, properly understood and properly integrated in order to keep from drowning by them, and it is this understanding that we will undertake as our objective in this essay.

In the Inferno of the Divine Comedy, we find in the Second Ring of the Seventh Circle a sad forest comprised of some bleak and forgotten trees, slouching row upon row like a defeated army. These are the suicides of history, the Souls that have waged war upon themselves in their frantic escape from society, from life itself. Dante’s guide, Virgil, implies that this one particular suicide, Pier della Vigna, killed himself because he had misunderstood Virgil’s poetry, a grave testimony to the fragility of the human mind.

'When the save spirit quits the body from which it has taken itself, then Mino sends it to the seventh maw. It falls into the wood, and there’s no place to which it is allotted, but wherever fortune has flung that soul, that is the space where, even as a grain of spelt, it sprouts. It rises as a sapling, a wild plant; and then the Harpies, feeding on its leaves, cause pain and for that pain provide a vent. Like other souls, we seek out the flesh that we have left, but none of us shall wear it; it is not right for any man to have what he himself has cast aside. We will drag our bodies here; they will hang in this sad wood, each on the stump of its vindictive shade.’ Canto XIII, Inferno, Dante Alighieri

The Soul of a suicide is not directed by any kind of higher providence or spiritual order, but merely by fortune, which casually casts the Soul into the woods, where it grows its own trunk, the cruel parody of a human body; the suicide was not content with his flesh in life, but must be so now with his bark in death. The wild Harpies, who feed upon their leaves, and the naked squanderers, who crash recklessly through their branches, ensure that the bodily torture of a suicidal Soul is perpetual.

'But when a man contrives the dissolution of the body, it is he that used violence and torn himself away, not the body that has let the Soul slip away. And in loosing the bond he has not been without passion; there has been revolt or grief or anger, movements which it is unlawful to indulge.’ ‘The Reasoned Dismissal, First Ennead, Plotinus

The violent separation of body from Soul, id est, the impassioned suicide, necessarily means that the Soul is in a poor state at the time of departure; it has given up ‘any hope of progress’ and resigned itself to the pit, to the ‘maw of Minos’. And yet Plotinus realizes also that this is not the only fate of a suicide, for he soon indicates that, ‘under stern necessity’, it is indeed possible for a man to meet his end by his own hand if such is his destiny. Where, then, is it lawful for a man to willingly send his own Soul forward? Where he has rightly recognized his fate. When Otto Weininger shot himself in the heart in the same household where Ludwig van Beethoven died, he knew that there would be no progress in his spiritual state; when Yukio Mishima and his small warrior band committed the ritual of seppuku in defiance of the overwhelmingly decadent state of post-WWII Japan, there was no mere passion involved, but the single-minded dedication to a world besides this one.  These examples do not showcase the inferiority of a man who has submitted to the terrors of existence; they instead exemplify the piercing vision of men who can see that the fundament, the very meaning of their existence is best summarized as its termination.

’And not only [so], but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.’ Romans 5 3-5

It is a fact that worldly suffering is indeed inescapable: ‘Suffering is the reality of the human condition and the beginning of true spiritual life’, as Father Seraphim Rose said. Hardship can be seen as a kind of ‘test’, a thrust against our personal armor; it might strike flesh and cause deep depression, or we might yet sustain the blow, and thrust it right back at our oppressors; and this is when ‘true spiritual life’ begins.
The strength of one’s armor depends upon two fundamental pieces of knowledge: (1) who you are, what your fixed identity is in the swirling sea of chaos; and (2) who God is, what the only fixed identity is, and how He relates to you; and it is inevitably the case that the knowledge of one leads to the other. There is no emphasis great enough to properly emphasize the fact that these two ideals are the most important things that we can ever concentrate our attention upon; everything spiritual, divine, and truly artistic depends upon this.

There is, in the context of this essay, a fully practical result that can be observed and felt: an inner, radiant joy that permeates all things, that sees into the heart of all things. It is the vision of God; and if we can truly perceive the essence of anything good, and the essence of anything good is the work of God Himself, how blessed we are! This supreme knowledge, this vision, this blessedness, necessarily leads to the cheer of mind and heart that makes life really worth living. This is not, bear in mind, the giddiness of a woman, but a reserved calm, a gentle peace, and a trusting faith in the everlasting God His great providence, and it is precisely this that provides us with the strength required to battle through our tribulations.

The power of suffering reaches also to the domain of art; infact, it is there that it finds its strongest, clearest expression. In his Poetics, Aristotle argues for the tragedy as a cathartic method of evoking tragedy in an objective sense, viz., as the means for the audience to experience a vicarious effect of tragedy without ever having to be subjected to the particular trials themselves. The archetypal pathetic moment is therefore crystallized in the sublime beauty of tragic drama, and it can thereby be applied universally to any human being who undergoes terrible suffering. Thus, a performance with any propriety at all should result in the audience being moved to a profound extent because he directly associates himself with the protagonist of the play, and he should emerge from that brief yet intensive ablution feeling purified and stronger due to the purgation of emotional excess.

Two more examples of the ‘tragic hero’ can be found in the Oedipus of Sophocles of the Bible, and in the Job of the Bible. Aristotle’s ideal is met perfectly in the figure of Oedipus: wise, good, consistent, and his sufferings result both from fate and his own mistakes. He struggles against his dreadful destiny, and, though he, like any good tragic hero, inevitably fails, conveys to his company an inexplicable feeling of grace and goodwill. Job, God’s most loyal, faithful servant, is violently tested by Satan, who is here presented as an agent of God. Faced by unenviable circumstances, Job eventually succeeds against all that Satan could do to beset hi; he triumphed against the death of his family, his economy, his body, the ‘wise’ counsel of his friends simply because of one thing: his unyielding faith in God.

These two ‘heroes’ represent two different aspects of the same thing: Oedipus is filled with a typically Hellenic individualism that spurs him ever forward to his sullen destiny, and Job is filled with an abiding love for God that prevails against Satan and ultimately proclaims the glory of God once again. The Greek knew himself, and the Hebrew knew God, and therefore the Greek knew God, and the Hebrew knew himself!

We have raced through this discourse faster than that thrash the sinful bodies of the lustful, but in the process we have unearthed a persistent truth: that suffering is external, that it is of this world, and that it is to be vanquished like everything else conditional in the time of the Last Judgment which will begin precisely when we will it to begin. The security of self forces the tides of woe to crash over us as the ocean’s waves crash upon the rocks, leaving naught but the sparkling sheen of their passing presence; let us be those proud rocks, defiant against the wrath of fortune and yet tempered by its steady passage.

‘My devotee attains peace by knowing the Supreme Being as the enjoyer of sacrifices and austerities, as the great Lord of the entire universe, and as the friend of all beings.’ 5. 29, Bhagavad-Gita

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