Involuted Mysteries: Unwrapping Meanings in Literature, Theory, and Art before 1800. The Symbolism of Numbers, and Their Associated Topoi, Part III

Reading the Book of the World

The great Pre-Socratic philosopher Heracleitus hinted darkly at this all-encompassing mystery in such gnomic utterances as earned him the cognomen “the Obscure”:

Nature loves to hide…The one and common Wisdom is both concealed and revealed under the name of Zeus…To those who are awake, the world-order is common to all…Though the Logos is common, the many fail to recognize Him.

Heraclitus’ intuition that ultimate reality is “hidden”, that there lurks an invisible, spiritual, and unitary Logos or Sophia beneath both the Protean faces of sensible nature and the multiple poetic or mythic descriptions of the gods, mobilized a powerful ontological argument against interpreting worldly phenomena literally, including, as we’ll see, the literal sense of poetry.

That the literal sense of poetry and the sensible things of the world are equivalent, and equivalently veiled, expressions of a secret reality, is another essential credendum of the pre-modern imagination.

There is, of course, an ancient and enduring topos according to which the world is a book and the book is a world. God’s creation is a book whose sensible, physical phenomena, whose hills and valleys, whose seas and rivers, flowers and trees, are its words and letters; and if we interpret them aright, we see everywhere hidden beneath their visible surface the invisible and unitary hand of the divine Author.

The things of the world are thus merely provisional images, copies and reflections of Reality, to use Plato’s metaphor, in themselves unreal, and untrue, but useful as vehicles, signs, and symbols to lead the mind of the interpreter beyond themselves, beyond all visibilia, to the understanding and contemplation of the invisible Archetypes or Ideas in which they participate.


“The things that are made”

The locus classicus of this method of reading and discovering meaning in the world is the speech of the prophetess Diotima of Mantinea, Socrates’ instructress in arcane wisdom, near the end of the Symposium.

Diotima’s ostensible subject is the nature and definition of love. Love is, of course, the quintessential subject for the pre-modern mind, because how and what we love, whether the ephemeral goods and pleasures of this world or the enduring and transcendent verities of the Other (virtue, wisdom, the soul, God Himself) – how and what we love is the essential determinant of how we live, virtuously or viciously.

To the relevant point in her speech, Diotima has been talking only about the common and mundane paths of human love, the “lesser mysteries of love”, as she calls them; now she proposes to join the steeper path to be trodden by the few aspirants to the highest life of all, the life of philosophy.

The initiate (the mystes, as he was called in antiquity) in these higher mysteries must begin in youth in the love of corporeal beauty; having learned to love one beautiful body, he must then learn that the beauty of one body is like that of another, and become the lover of all beautiful bodies and of bodily beauty in general.

In the next stage, he will come to recognize that the beauty of the soul is far more precious than the beauty of the outward form, and be content to love virtuous souls even if they have no physical appeal to him, in the hope of bringing to birth within them virtuous thoughts.

Next he will come to contemplate the beauty in civic institutions and laws, compared to which personal beauty is insignificant; and after this, to appreciate and understand the intellectual beauty in the various sciences and fields of knowledge.

In the final stage of this ascent, a man, as Diotima instructs, “must cease to be a lover of one beauty only, that of a particular youth or man or institution, but drawing towards and contemplating the vast sea of beauty, he will rise at last to the vision of a single science, the science of beauty absolute and universal.” He will rise, that is, to the vision of the Idea of Beauty itself. What this means Diotima goes on to describe in a passage that defies paraphrase or analysis, and which I can do no better than to urge you to read on your own.

There is little I need say about this remarkable speech; its description of the ascent of the soul from mere earthly images and shadows to the contemplation of the highest Idea and Source and Cause of Beauty has, clearly, about it the ambience of the mystic’s visio Dei. In the Republic, Plato describes the same ascent to the vision of the Form of the Good, where there is no doubt that what he means, again, is the vision of God. Whether he calls it absolute Beauty or Good or Being, these are clearly designations for the Godhead, and lest there be any doubt, Plato’s followers, the Middle Platonists, expressly identified his Forms or Ideas with God’s thoughts, and located them in the Divine Mind.

In both passages, in any case, after a long and arduous preliminary process of thought, the apprehension of the Godhead comes as a sudden revelation, a direct, unmediated intellectual grasping of the reality itself. Having risen by steps through the earthly shadows and images of the Divine, the ladder is finally, so to speak, pushed away, and the soul makes the leap across the chasm that divides the two worlds into the Divine Itself, which it sees or grasps no longer by reliance upon imperfect worldly analogies and reflections, no longer through a glass darkly, as Paul would later put it, but directly, face to face.

Here again, one must understand that Plato’s theory of knowledge is at its core not an epistemology but a full-fledged religious or spiritual method, an itinerarium mentis ad deum, whose telos or ultimate goal is nothing less than the salvation of the soul.

I’ve already mentioned Paul, and it is not too much to say, I think, that the whole pre-occupation of his mind is the mystical reading of the world. In Paul, the loci classici are II Cor. 4:18, “…we look not at the things where are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.”, and Romans 1:20, “…the invisible things of God from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made”. It’s not hard to see in Paul’s language Plato’s two categories of being: the visible and mutable, and the invisible and immutable. We “understand”, as Paul says, the latter from the former, the invisible and eternal things of God from the temporal things that are made.


Divine Inexpressibility

It is, of course, for good reasons that we must rely upon the visible things of the world as the signs and symbols that lead us to the invisible things of God. As Plato writes in the Timaeus, “The Father and Maker of the Universe is impossible to know or express.”

God is by definition that which is beyond every finite human faculty of knowledge and mode of expression, and his unknowability and inexpressibility was another topos that united paganism and Christianity and whose continuous history is too long to trace here.

The basic point of the topos, nonetheless, is simple enough. It amounts to a prudent disclaimer: When men attempt to conceive of or represent the Divine, they can only do so by analogy to their own corporeal and finite earthly experience. They say God is Light; God is a King; they say he rules in Heaven; they say he is Wise and Just; the J redactor of the Bible even says that he once planted a garden in Eden.

But God’s Light is either so bright as to blind the onlooker or of a nature that is utterly invisible to human eyes; his kingship is unfathomably more majestic than that of any human king; and he is transcendently more wise and just. And when we say the he rules in heaven, this is mere metaphor, for God, being incorporeal, can hardly “be in” any place at all.

For such reasons, it is ultimately ludicrous, as the great third century Alexandrian Platonist Christian Apologist and scriptural exegete Origen wrote, to imagine God as a common gardener who “walked” and “talked” in some physical garden at some moment in historical time. All such representations of God, whether by Christians in the Bible, or by pagans before them in the Homeric myths, are only so much sacred nonsense. They are gross approximations, mere human projections, whose only defense is that they “accommodate” (to use the terminology of ancient and medieval literary theory) the weakness and limitation of human language and understanding which, without them, would be utterly incapable of contemplating or representing the Ineffable.


Incarnation as Accommodation

At the beginning of this discourse on the meaning of mystery, I mentioned the mystery of the Incarnation, and it is worth noting that for Origen, God’s becoming man was the ultimate divine gesture of accommodation. As Origen argues, the Son condescends lovingly into the world and the flesh for the express purpose of manifesting the invisible and unknowable Father in a form accessible to and comprehensible within human experience. The New Testament, as you know, calls the Son the “express likeness and image” of the Father, in metaphoric language that again recalls Plato’s doctrine of individual particular things as the “copies” and “reflections” of their “archetypes” or Ideas. Both Paul and the Evangelists likewise insist that it is only through the Son that the Father can be known.

And now Origen finds in the Incarnation the logical development of this doctrine. Jesus’s earthly body is the “mutable and visible particular” par excellence that incarnates and thus leads the mind to the universal Idea of the Divine; or if you prefer the language of St. Paul, it is the “temporal thing that is made” through which we may ascend to the vision of “the invisible things of God”.

In either case, the Incarnate Christian God is the whole duplex world in miniature: it is the Christian expression of Plato’s image of the world as a Divine Animal, whose soul is the Mind of God, and whose visible phenomena are God’s body.


The Word’s Body and Soul

The Christian Incarnation is also the ultimate symbol of the hidden duplex nature of literature, and this brings us to the other half of the topos I introduced earlier, that the book is a world.

Literature, as we’ll see in a moment, has, like the world, both a sensible surface (the words, written or spoken) and an invisible, inner, and otherwise hidden and unknowable component which we’ll call its meaning (i.e., either what the poet intends to convey when he puts pen to paper, or what he conveys in spite of his conscious intentions).

Before it is spoken or written, before it takes on an audible or written – that is a sensible – form in which it can be communicated and understood, every word is an incorporeal and invisible Idea. It is like the Platonic Idea still resident in the Divine Mind, before it is embodied in the individual particular, and indeed it is like the Christian Logos before, as the Evangelist John puts it, “the Word took flesh”.

When the Christian Word incarnates, when it takes on the visible body of the world, the otherwise hidden and unknowable meaning of the incorporeal Godhead is revealed. And this too is a very old notion. The whole complex of Christian imagery goes back ultimately to the so-called Memphite theology of ancient Egypt, whose creator god Ptah brings the world into being by conceiving it as an idea in his heart and then expressing it as a word on his lips.

The incarnate Christian Logos similarly expresses the whole hidden order of the Divine into the visible world of matter. It is the “express”, that is, the “expressed” “likeness and image of the Father”.

Like Plato’s term the “Idea”, the Christian Word, as a title of God, is a magnificent pun, a bit of inspired word-play, in fact; and the theologians did their best to exploit its double and triple meanings. Augustine, in obedience to the old topos, called the Creation the book of God’s Word (where Word has a splendid double meaning), and noted that so too is the Bible.

The Bible, the Book, is a world indeed, for as Augustine explained, it is the only book that is big enough to contain the full plenitude of creation. In it, every species of animal, every variety of plant, every rock and mineral, worthless or precious, every kind of building, majestic and humble, every food, every sort of cloth, and every human artifact is mentioned, and indeed, just as these particulars are when they are considered as objects of the world, every one of them in Scripture is a above all a sign and a symbol that should lead the mind of the reader to the contemplation of the invisibilia Dei.

Those of you who have taken my Chaucer or Western Tradition course will remember, I hope, Augustine’s distinction between caritas and cupiditas. Cupiditas is the sinful love and enjoyment of the things of this world for their own sake; caritas is the virtuous love of the invisible things of God for their own sakes, or the “use” of the things of this world as means for the contemplation and love of the invisibilia Dei.

Just as one can use the world charitably or abuse it cupidinously, so one can read literature charitably or cupidinously. To enjoy the literal sense of Scripture – a repository of the sensible and temporal things of the world – is to abuse it; to use the literal sense as merely a sign or symbol of the invisibilia dei, its hidden meaning, is to read charitably.


Reading Carnally and Spiritually

Augustine’s distinction is based ultimately upon the ancient ontological dichotomies of Plato, but more proximately upon the teachings of St. Paul. For students of literature, it is puzzling that St. Paul is rarely if ever mentioned in the histories of literary criticism, since for the West, he is manifestly the most important literary theorist of all time.

The key to understanding Paul’s literary theory is, once again, recognizing its relation to a redemptive epistemology: his doctrine that it is through the temporal things that are seen and made that we understand the invisible things of God. This, as we’ve noted, is how one reads the book of the world. But the world, as we’ve also seen, is a Divine Animal: its outer visible surface is God’s body, its inner reality is God’s Soul.

Like the world then, the text must also have a visible body and an invisible soul. And indeed it does. Paul explicitly calls the literal historical sense of Scripture its “body”; its hidden allegorical significance is its “spirit”. (For all his incomparable genius, Plato nowhere approaches this realization.)

If one reads Scripture literally, then, never delving beneath the mere history, the sensual surface, never recognizing that the story is but a set of visible signs and markers pointing to the invisible and intelligible things of God, one reads, in Paul’s terms, “carnally”, according to the flesh. To penetrate beyond the dead outer cortex of the text to its living inner meaning is to read “spiritually”. How one interprets literature is thus a matter of profound moral and religious seriousness. As Paul solemnly admonishes, “The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.” And this is obviously much less the cold technical language of literary theory than the urgent preaching of a way of salvation. One may choose to read, as one may choose to live, according to the flesh or the spirit. In either context, what is at stake is nothing less than the life or death of the soul.


Allegorical Involutions

This awareness imposed upon the pre-modern reader the solemn obligation to seek out and disinter the hidden intellectual meanings, the moral and theological doctrines and other invisible realities, that were occulted beneath the sensible surface and corporeal images of poetry – to disinter, that is, beneath the external “body” of the text, no less than the physical body of the world, its hidden, inner “soul”. It was the universal view, from pagan antiquity down to the beginning of the modern age, that all literature, mythological, scriptural, and secular, was symbolic and allegorical; that hidden beneath its literal surface, however fictitious, impossible, absurd, or even seemingly immoral, the assiduous and intelligent reader would discover valuable intellectual truths.

As Boccaccio explains in the fourteenth book of his Genealogia Deorum, “Fiction is a form of discourse, which, under guise of invention, illustrates or proves an idea; and, as its false superficial aspect is removed, the ideational meaning of the author becomes clear”. Beneath the false letter of pagan mythology, as the fifth century Christian commentator Fulgentius explains, lies an “inexhaustible vein of intellectual truth“.

I need hardly point out, I hope, that terms such as “idea” and “intellect” as used to describe the allegorical meaning of literature hidden beneath its superficial literal sense bring us back again into the orbit of Platonic ontology, and the opposition between Socrates’ two categories of existence, the false world of Becoming and the true world of Being, the sensible and mutable on the one hand, and the invisible, intelligible, and immutable on the other.

In what, more specifically, did these allegorical meanings consist? As Fulgentius explains, the pagan poets, “under the alluring cover of a poetic fiction, have inserted a set of moral precepts…for the building of habits of life, through the hidden revealing of their allegories.” Moral allegory is, however, only the first stratum that one encounters in the deep “vein of intellect”. As the reader delves further, he discovers riches laid down, as Fulgentius puts it, for the “mystical understanding”.

These include the deepest secrets of cosmology, metaphysics, and theology, or, in Boccaccio’s phrase, “the high mysteries of things divine”. All such mysteries must be prudently “enclosed”, says Boccaccio, “within a covering of words with the intention that the majesty of such things should not become an object of too common knowledge and thus fall into contempt”. The “obscurity” of literature, as Boccaccio calls it, is thus deliberate. It is a reflection, in fact, of the obscurity of Nature, which as Heracleitus pointed out, loves to hide.

But only those who are worthy, by virtue of their characters, training, and diligence, are permitted to have its sacred mysteries revealed to them. Like the initiates of the ancient pagan mystery cults, readers, therefore, must also undergo preliminary rites of purification and instruction before they can be entrusted with the divine secrets of poetry. If you aspire to reveal them, Boccaccio advises, you must “unwind their difficult involutions”. You must read, persevere, sit up at night, and exert “the utmost power of your mind”.