katabasis

a new blogalectic with Masha and Jenna St. Hilaire, or
a poem without words

When you go to bed, don’t leave bread or milk on the table:
it attracts the dead.

Masha gives us the words of Rilke today, together with a reminder that many people avoid myth, and magic, and fantasy because of the ‘the darkness, the spirits, and the sense of evil lurking that they feel in the background’. And she asks us, ‘We’ve touched a bit on darkness before, is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed? When does myth and magic become occult? When do fairies become demons?’

The answer, as everyone knows what read a proper story, is that fairies become devilish when they’re angry, or threatened, or lonely, or afraid. Anyone can live comfortably with the Good Neighbours nearby, if you mind your own business and don’t go digging where you’re not invited. Or if invited, take nothing away with you unless bidden, bring nothing with you that isn’t asked, do not tell what you saw unless you are told to speak. In other words, be polite. Be a gentleman, or a lady. Manners that you think arcane and old-fashioned will serve you in good stead. These are the Good Neighbours, unless wronged.

We’ve gone a line too far when we are afraid of having the dead round our table. The dead who hunger for the reminders of life, who cluster round the table, as Masha put is, ‘opening their mouths wide to catch the slightest flavour of life-as-it-was.’ While I am no expert in these matters, stories at least tell us that these are the unhappy dead, unloved and unremembered, not able to rest. Whether we write fantasy or devotional literature or do any other thing, surely there is something gravely wrong if even our dead are unhappy. We have forgotten to care, and are nothing.

Is it, as Masha says, that ‘we are afraid of the mysteries, afraid to grasp hold of the dark aspects of beauty and study them in the flicker of one small candle’? Certainly, that’s part of it. So Rilke says again:

Deeply I go down into myself.
My god is Dark and like a webbing made of a hundred roots that drink in silence.

Look up at the top of this site, and you’ll see a similar saying: ‘In Nature, you must go very low to find things that go so high.’ It refers, if I remember correctly, to being able to notice a man on stilts beside a scaffold. Rilke at first glance is referring to introspection. But that misses the point. These are words of unquiet, but also of silence. The mystics and the saints speak of a light so bright it seems like darkness to us. They compare contemplating the presence of G-d with staring at the sun; the body cannot endure it and recoils, and we see the dark of noonday.

So Rilke speaks here like the mystics, I think. This seems particularly the negative way, apophasis, to describe what is not. Note the Eucharistic imagery, and the reference to contemplation in the ‘roots that drink is silence’. Descent and ascent are the same motion; kataphasis and apophasis both retreat from the world of sense into perception of what is Truth.

Such descent is needful. Any corner of a web, any tangle of a branch, is like no other, and yet to have touched one it to have found them all—unfathomable, but present. Incomprehensible, but inviting one to crawl round the roots of the world. This is, simply and beautifully, as clear a statement of the mystic journey as any I’ve read. This is a darkness of hope, not despair.

Thus Rilke ponders:

Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

Perhaps. Yet these seem to me to be words or hope, not conviction. Of fright, not confidence. It is whistling in the dark.  This is a hard saying, for it forces us to look at the dragons long enough to stop being afraid. It forces us to look at them in the first place. And hardest and best of all, it asks us why we look.

One must be careful not to leave the laughter out of grotesquery. Too much of literature and art looks at dragons only to revel in their hideousness. Is like salacious gossips or self-righteous voyeurs, feeding on every new scandal or abuse—a delight in bad news, perhaps, an unspoken satisfaction that others, too, feel pain. This also crosses a line. Any fantasy, or art, or spiritual practice that is preoccupied with what we can get from it—the selfward impetus—crosses a line that should not, dare not be crossed. A line that ages ago our ancestors tried to describe by talking about a tree that bore fruit to be tended, but never plucked.

Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final.

Stories can teach us that dragons can be beautiful. We learn slowly to look with the eyes of love, with compassion. We learn, slowly, to give of ourselves, and from ourselves, and let the roots drink us as we drink with them. If we love them as we should, the dead will hold no terrors for us. Remember: it is a horrible thing to be dead, and alone.

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