Poetic Metaphor and Boundary Navigation:
Complexity, Shamanism, Postmoderism and Idolatry

Tools of the Sacred, Techniques of the Secular: Awakening, Epiphany, Apocalypse and Doubt in Contemporary English-Language Verse

Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels (4-7 May 2010)

Michael York
Bath Spa University


The concern of complexity theory as articulated by the Santa Fe Institute in the state of New Mexico is with what is termed spontaneous self-organisation that can occur even, or perhaps particularly, from a chaotic state. The premise behind this theory is that our cosmos is more alinear or non-linear than it is linear and sequentially causal – this last being the foundation for science’s supposed ability to predict greater than chance. Apart from under restricted conditions and as a consequence of the multitude of possibilities, one can more readily only retrodict how something has happened rather than accurately predict what will occur. The colourful and fascinating graphs of future possibilities that complexity theorists devise are known as ‘strange attractors’. The non-linear sequence itself conceives of order emerging spontaneously from disorder so that the whole becomes something more than the mere sum of its various parts. In nature, the bodies of life – plant, animal, human – are examples of something being more than simply that of which it is composed. Likewise, communities, cities and cultures are developments above and beyond merely their compositional components. And, in the same sense, a work of art is not just a canvas and arrangement of paint, or compositions of sound, or the arrangement of stylistic graphs we know as alphabets or symbols of words or word sounds, but a Mona Lisa, a Brandenburg Concerto, or an Iliad.

A work of art is something that appeals foremost of all to our senses. We ‘enjoy’ a Beethoven symphony, a Rembrandt or Van Gogh painting, or a Classical Greek tragedy or a Shakespearean drama, and this enjoyment is virtually a form of veneration. With an understanding of the etymology behind the verb ‘venerate’ from an Indo-European root *wen- signifying ‘to desire, to wish, to strive for’, we may recognize that an object of veneration is a tangible or substantial embodiment of a wish-fulfillment. It holds for the venerator or appreciator a recognized value – whether aesthetic or otherwise or both. To the degree that the value of an object is something that is projected from and/or negotiated by its observer, we have an instance of worship. While in the West, thanks to our largely Judaeo-Christian heritage, we have an understanding of the act of worship as something ecclesiastical, liturgical and often stale and boring, but if we turn again to etymology, we may recognize that worship is simply the ‘making, creating or crafting’ – the scheppen – of value or ‘worth’ (weorth). When we worship through prayer, we are in effect creating something of value – delineating and articulating that which we honour and that which we desire. While veneration connotes respect, reverence or deferential love, worship only differs by degree and is suggestive of adoration and ardent devotion. Despite the Roman Catholic Church’s insistence that the statues of saints are only venerated and not worshiped, in fundamental essence worship and veneration are the same – the making of value and the desire for it.

In Greek, the service and/or worship (latreia) of an image or idea (eidolon) has bequeathed to us our word idolatry. This last, again thanks to our Judaeo-Christian heritage and its code of commandments known as the Decalogue, has become a negative, and while it still denotes devotion, this kind of admiration is condemned as being either excessive or blind. But any close examination of how the word ‘idolatry’ is used today will reveal that the opprobrious quality inherent when something is condemned as an idol expresses merely a value judgment – invariably by someone who is outside and alien to that which is being judged. For the idolater herself or himself, idolatrous worship is perhaps passionate rather than negatively excessive or blind. But in whatever degree of intensity, the idol – for the pagan automatically a part of the pantheistic whole – is a valid, useful, accepted and perhaps hologramic instance of the divine for those who are not operating under the convictions of Abrahamic sentiment and its descendents.

In this respect, the aniconic faiths that constitute the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) stand largely apart from the dharmic and pagan practices found throughout the world. Obviously, when I use such terms as ‘Abrahamic’, ‘dharmic’, ‘pagan’ or ‘secular’, I am employing the sociological construct known as the ideal-type – a conceptual device or tool that is used for purposes of comparison and measurement. In actuality, any given religion only approximates its ideal and will include characteristics of the other types to one degree or another. Consequently, we find the kind of idolatrous ‘veneration’ of hagiographic statues, icons and holy relics in Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, on the one hand, and the relative absence of anthropomorphic images in Balinese Hinduism and Japanese Shinto, on the other.

The gist of my argument, therefore, is that as secularization becomes a dominant theme in the West, the institutional, political and cultural influence of the Church has declined from its hitherto dominant position in the public arena. In the wake of this decline, we find not only the growth of agnostic, atheistic and/or non-religious sentiment, but also a burgeoning multiplicity of new religious forms and new religions. Some of these last are parodies and even self-conscious fictions (e.g., Discordianism, the Church of the SubGenius and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster), while others draw from Eastern traditions (Hinduism and Buddhism) and still others from pre-Christian European practices as well as such literary genres as science fiction, etc. (e.g., paganism). But if and when one is no longer committed to obsolete models of what religion is – models that for the West have been largely determined by institutional Christianity, the researcher is able to appreciate the validity and source of meaning any adherent is apt to find and feel in her respective faith – whether Scientology, Jediism, the Radical Faeries, Subud, Sufi, Zen, New Age, Wicca, Neo-paganism or one of the more traditional and established religions.

In all cases, a religion or an art form presents a particular narrative, and while the ‘great’ narratives such as Christianity, Capitalism, Marxism and Science or Modernity  – those that aim to be all-encompassing and explain everything – have steadily lost ground, contemporary Western society in its pursuits of secularization, individualism and consumerism as its now prevailing cultural dominants has shifted from concern with the acquisition of truth to one that aims instead simply to locate personal meaning in terms of life choices and ethics. This cultural matrix of the day has come to be termed ‘postmodernism’ – a state of options that functions without the meta-narratives of the past. Within this train of socio-cultural liberation, if such it may be called, we are likewise freed from such Decalogic constraint that forbids the appreciation, admiration, veneration, love and/or worship of the idol – whether the idol be a monotheistic and transcendental idée fixe, a statue of Venkateshwara in Tirupati, the swayambhu lingam of Kashi Vishvanath in Varanasi, the oak of Dodona, the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the figures of a domestic shrine, the Yosemite Valley, Vermeer’s The Letter, Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti or James Joyce’s Ulysses. In all cases, these are simply different images or phenomena that are used as objects of admiration, devotion or worship.

What traditionally distinguishes worship from secular forms of admiration or appreciation is its reverent love and devotion for a deity, idol or sacred object. Leaving the deity as a denizen of the supra-empirical aside, idols or sacred objects or sacred places are all linked by their being physical locations that are reputedly infused by the sacred, the special, the holy. Once again, we might pursue an etymological investigation for some clues to such terms as ‘holy’, ‘special’ and ‘sacred’ – especially as the sacred, like the deity, is contested and only elusively defined at best throughout religious studies and beyond. While it remains central to spirituality, if the sacred cannot be measured and observed through empirical methodologies, our only valid recourse is to decipher the metaphors themselves that are and have been used to express the sacred in religious experience and artistic expression. In this respect, the role of multivalent poetry over linear prose has traditionally played a key role in approaching and navigating the sacred – a role that is no less critical today, perhaps even more so, as we live in a world that Max Weber described as the crippling Iron Cage of Disenchantment.

Our English terms for both art and ritual derive from an Indo-European root *ar- (or *arə-) which basically means ‘to fit together’. Other cognates from this same origin include our words harmony, arithmetic, rhyme, order, reason and riddle. The underlying suggestion behind ‘fitting together’ is to fit together properly. As such, a work of art and ritual itself as a work of art are things that have been done (fitted together) correctly so that the result is more than the mere sum of their parts. An effective ritual is an act of magic. A work of art too is a magical tool – something that transposes the viewer or hearer into a reflexive and significant dimension that is other than the ordinary and mundane of the immediate here-and-now. Art, whether as ritual or objective craft, produces ecstasy – literally, a ‘standing outside’ the norm and more limited workaday perspective. And the techniques of ecstasy are the traditional province of the shaman, the medicine man, the healer – whether as a religious functionary or the artist and poet.

Regardless of being a Homeric Hymn, a work of Shelley or a contemporary poem of an unpublished poet, the artist behind the work functions like the shaman in developing multiple perspectives and the enterprise of discerning, crossing and utilizing the fragile liminal zones between the safe and the dangerous, between the status quo and the innovative, between the established and the challenging. Navigating the boundary between worlds or dimensions is particularly crucial for the poet and shaman or, variously, the poet as shaman and the shaman as poet. Our English word sacred derives from the Latin sacer meaning ‘dedicated, sacred, holy; accursed’. The word appears to develop from a base root signifying ‘to cut, to set apart’, and from this, it is plausible to understand the sacred as something separate and distinct. This in turn suggests the key notion of the boundary between the sacred and the profane, between the special and the ordinary, between poetry and prose – the very zone or border that the poet must traverse for the illuminations she or he wishes to convey and for the project of re-enchanting a disenchanted, mechanical and soulless world.

The Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam essentially posit a transcendental God who is wholly other and apart from nature even if pictured as its author. For the West, Christianity has succeeded in fostering Weber’s Iron Cage first by reducing the multiplicity of loci sacri that had constituted the perceptual norm of the pre-Christian, pagan world, and next through its Protestant Reformation/reformation that further eliminated the vestiges of magic and attraction that were still part of the Catholic tradition. The resurgence of pagan spiritualities in our world of today directly relates to a contemporary reaction against this legacy of disenchantment – a legacy that found an ultimate expression in the secularization that denies the supernatural or preternatural altogether for an empirically determinate world that is today fuelled by capitalistic consumerism. Contemporary paganisms do find a natural ally with the secular in their opposition to power mandates based on transcendental intimidation and fears concerning the ephemerality of life. Wiccans, Asatru, Vanatru, Kemetics, Romuvans, Druids, Discordians, atheists, humanists and psychonauts alike share a rejection of Christianity ‘s autocratic ‘bully God’. There is also a quasi-parting of the ways between pagans, on the one hand, and Hindus and Buddhists, on the other, with the pagan celebration of passion and worldly involvement as well as its disinterest in nirvanic oblivion and the desire-less state of moksha. But if pagans can and do endorse the humanistic and environmental values associated with secularism, they part from secularists in general over the issue of a disenchanted, mechanical world for one that is (re-)enchanted and infused with the multitudinous and varied wondrous regardless of provenance.

While there are certainly extensive associations of ‘secular pagans’, by and large the ‘deep pagan’ is one who honours and celebrates the co-natural along with the natural and does not perceive or accept her/his interest in the magical as an impediment to the restoration of ecological balance to our host planet any more than an interest in art itself could be deemed to delay focus on the environmental imperative of the day. It is certainly true that navigation and progress through times of uncertainty and disenchantment could consider all possible options – including poetic and other artistic forms of aesthetic engagement with the sacred.