Pavel Florensky, philosopher, theologian, scientist, art historian and Orthodox priest lived in dangerous times, a world agonizingly making itself new while he worked on both retrieving the past and envisaging the future.
In Iconostasis, he takes it, understandably, as a given that God is the maker of all things visible and invisible.
The boundary between these two worlds, the visible and invisible, as is the way with boundaries, both separates and joins.
At times we become aware of how these worlds touch. We experience moments when the visible world yields, and ‘we sense the invisible world…is breathing.’
Dreams, Florensky states, provide our first and simplest entry into the invisible world, and while I dispute his belief that dreams are only ever caused and terminated by external stimuli – light, sound – he describes well how time acts differently in dream and also creates an imaginary space – ‘an imaginary truly real in the way oneself is real.’
He goes on:
A dream…is a sign of a movement between two realms… both shores of existence are given to consciousness… the dream happens whenever our consciousness hugs the boundary of the crossing and therefore sustains the double perceptiveness that occurs whenever we lightly dream and drowsily keep awake.What Florensky says of dreaming, he holds true of art, but it is not a simple assertion that dreaming is art or simply that art comes out of dreaming. The movement of ascent and the return to the earthly waking world generate two types of imagery.
In the upper world, the souls sheds – like outworn clothes – the images of our everyday emptiness, the psychic effluvia that cannot find a place above, those elements that are not spiritually grounded.That which is base or mundane is jettisoned and what is experienced in the higher dream world might feel an achievement. Those higher images and symbols might indicate a greater truth, but imagery gained in the uprush of inspiration needs to be grounded, returned to and rooted in the objective world. To steal from the higher world these ‘spiritual’ images – to make an art out of them - is to lie to about the nature of God's creation.
What is noticeable about Florensky’s observations is his emphasis on vigilance or attention, and his fidelity to the known world and which no mystic should ignore. Positing a higher world, a heaven of dreaming, he demands we guard against exploiting the images and symbols to be gained from it. Such spiritual booty is, ultimately, trash, unless ploughed back and made profitable in the waking world.
In creating a work of art, the psyche or soul of the artist ascends from the earthly realm into the heavenly; there, free from all images, the soul is fed by contemplation by the essences of the higher realm, knowing the permanent noumena of things; then, satiated with this knowing, it descends again to the earthly realm. And precisely at the boundary of the two worlds, the soul’s spiritual knowledge assumes the shapes of symbolic imagery: and it is these images that make the permanent work of artArt that feeds only on high imagery, art that is, finally, not cognizant of earth and its connective tissue with heaven, is guilty of prelest:
.. the deluded self... imagines itself to be moving along the perpendicular of the sensory world, withdrawn from it... The soul closes in on itself and then all occasion is gone wherein the soul could... waken once more into consciousness: the encounter with the objective world of God's creation.Prelest is a handy word for a writer. It is more than just overwriting. it is more than just writing purple. Its about noticing what gets trampled when one overwrites. What gets stained when writing purple. We can woo ourselves with phrases that are entirely musical, turn language into a hum, and in our rapture believe ourselves in the grip of truths.
The past week I have cringed each time I have heard a BBC trailer for a documentary on TS Eliot.
The trailer's voiceover has Jeanette Winterson telling us ringingly that Eliot was a man who could hear the grass grow and, so pained and sensitised by this ability, he built a protctive membrane between himself and the world.
While there is truth here in the notion of Eliot of a man who withdraws from the world in order to make it bearable to him, there is none in the image itself. Even as metaphor, it is hobbled. What in nature, deciding its enviroment is too noisy, further decides to grow itself a skin? If Eliot was pained by the world, was it through his ears?
Eliot could no more hear the grass grow than Neil Armstrong could hear the Muslim call to prayer from the moon for it is widely believed that Armstrong became a musilm convert after standing on the moon, he heard the Muslim call to prayer reaching him from earth. The story is quite wonderful. It is seductive. It is completely bogus in every detail but given as fact on thousands of websites, and is mentioned approvingly in Nadeem Aslam's The Wasted Vigil
Its extravagance, while charming, is a lie. Its beauty is only seeming. But so is Winterson's assertion that Eliot could hear the grass grow and that the noise pained him. Big and small, these are examples of prelest. While such images enchant, they corrupt because they are not true. Winterson has many virtues, and, for me, Nadeem Aslam has many more, but both display the vice of prelest. It's a vice that only seems to reward a writer and a reader, but it damages both - it mires where it appears to uplift.
In Florensky there is an insistence that it is the return to earth that makes the art. The flight into the higher realm must be anchored. Attention is paid to the moment of transit between the visible and invisible world. An honouring of both worlds, a connecting with both worlds, creates the art we need, the imagery that is true.
And I think that's why Winterson's claim made me wince at my every hearing. Because Eliot was a poet eminently innocent of prelest. His imagery is culled from heaven and earth, both the dreaming ascent and gravity's wakeful embrace.
Isn’t this the journey Eliot endorses at the conclusion of The Four Quartets?
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.