Homenaje a Elizabeth Schön / Armando Rojas Guardia

Homage to Elizabeth Schön

A poet of delicate and magnificent trajectory, Elizabeth Schön (1921) has also cultivated the essay, playwriting and journalistic op-eds. Luz oval, recently published by Editorial Equinoccio/Universidad Simón Bolívar has stirred this reflection by the poet and essayist Armando Rojas Guardia (1949).

In a prologue to his first collection of poems, Fervor de Buenos Aires, dated the 18th of August 1969, that is, written long after the initial publication of that book, Jorge Luis Borges wrote: “At that time, I was searching for twilights, suburbs and misfortune; now I seek mornings, the center and serenity.”

I have insistently recalled those words by Borges while reading and rereading the poems contained in Luz oval, by Elizabeth Schön. In effect, morning, the center and serenity are the three basic symbolic notions that internally categorize the imaginative material of this book by Elizabeth. The luminous, the centripetal, and the calm constitute the imaginary-symbolic tripod on which this poetry rests: “does paradise ever sleep? / the other light is ahead / speaking to us from its pacific order.”

These three brief verses summarize the entire collection: paradise as an ancestral symbol of the center (observed by a permanent effort of vigil that “never sleeps,” because, as Buddha and Christ affirmed, it is a matter of keeping watch over, of waking from the gregarious and machine-like somnolence) opens up for us “ahead,” bathed by “the other light,” by a luminosity of another lineage, different than that of the physical sun but just as intensely clear, “the other light” of the inner sun that reveals to us a “pacific order” (and one could recall that for scholars peace consists precisely of “tranquility within order”), that is, a calm of high plenitude.

An inner sun, we have said. And what occurs is that “the other light,” the one that speaks to us of a paradisiacal “pacific order” is none other than “the light of the soul,” which, according to what the lyrical speaker says to her reader, “is you yourself.” The soul is the central protagonist of this collection by Elizabeth Schön. The notion of the soul occupies center stage within the verbal and aesthetic framework deployed by its pages. One could affirm without any doubt that both “The Secret Crowns of the Skies” as well as “Gusts from the Stables,” the two sections that make up Luz oval, constitute a sustained poetic meditation on what we call “soul.” We all know that the soul is a very ancient Orphic notion. Approximately since the 7th and 6th centuries before Christ, the Orphics dedicated themselves to proclaiming, for the first time in the Western cultural orbit, that the human being was made up of two antagonistic elements: one spiritual, internal and eternal, the soul, and another material, external and corruptible, the body. Without that doctrine, born on the periphery of Greek culture but which was gradually to acquire a specific weight within it, one cannot explain Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Empedocles, Plato, a certain Aristotle, the Neo-Platonists and the Gnostics. By means of these theorists the Orphic postulates will penetrate Judeo-Christian thought; a thought whose basic matrix, that is, the Biblical mentality was innately opposed to all of that anthropological dualism of Orphism and on the contrary praised an undivided, unitary vision of man. For the most genuine Hebrew mind there does not exist within the human being a supposed spiritual entity separate or detachable from the body.

We, the men and women of the modern world, are very tuned in to this type of non-dualistic mentality. We are automatically disposed to approving and celebrating Teilhard de Chardin when he celebrates, almost lyrically, the “sanctity of the material.” Since the Renaissance, Western man has proposed to value as much as possible the intra-mundane, the cosmic and terrestrial orb (including the material and the corporeal) which, despite the egregious and significant exception of Saint Francis of Assisi, were considered in the Middle Ages as a “vale of tears,” a mere and painful place of tests and transit on the way towards the beatific vision that would await us beyond death. That conception of the intra-mundane realities seems to us, for good reason, simply dolorous, repressive, masochistic and reductive. Apparently, the Orphics no longer have anything to say to us.

And yet, some of us, within the contemporary limits of our civilization, have proposed to ourselves that we vindicate the ancient notion of the soul. Because she, detached from all dualism and any type of dismissal or devaluation of the human body and of the materiality of the universe, rescues for us the “inside” of subjectivity, that irreducible interior pole, that space of subjective carnality that, amidst social relations and even in the middle of the highest communion with our fellow beings, is not lost or alienated or dissolved and that, turning out to be as untransferable as our own body, also constitutes a place belonging to our responsibility. Is it not necessary, within a civilizing context where there is an abundance of so many solicitations that compulsively extrovert us, so much sensorial contamination that distracts, disorients and entertains us – giving the word “diversion” its habitual Pascalian meaning –, where so many technological gadgets put us in danger of de-centering and alienating ourselves, is it not necessary, I say, to affirm the need for the acknowledgment, the cultivation, the enjoyment of what I have called “subjective carnality,” of our unfathomable inner dimension? Acknowledgment, cultivation and enjoyment that require, as conditions for possibility, silence, a certain margin of solitude and a capacity for discipline.

In our culture, mystics have represented the best and most privileged testimony of the existence – and of the inevitable pleasures and suffering that accompany this awareness – of human interiority. That is exactly why they speak of the soul continually. If we are intellectually modern readers of the mystics, we will be able to unclothe that word – soul – from the dualist shell that in many cases covers it within its texts, a shell that is explainable due to reasons of cultural history, and we are left with the conceptual and symbolic pulp of what they wish to transmit to us, which is: that there exists a final core of the subject, a gigantic internal density within the human being, so provided with an unusual and abysmal dignity that its center is inhabited by divinity itself. It is not too much to say that this dignity of our soul, understood in that way, is inseparable from the dignity of our body: our inner density would not be possible without the extremely high grade of biological formation that constitutes us as humans.

Elizabeth Schön belongs, by her own right, to the spiritual lineage of the mystics. Like them, many of the pages of Luz oval are dedicated to telling us about the soul. And precisely in the modern sense I’ve alluded to in these lines. The soul as subjective carnality, as our inner density. No duality can be found in these poems. For Elizabeth we are integrally body and integrally soul: “and the soul / resides in you and you don’t feel it / that’s how pure its tie with you is / that’s how irrevocable its intimate individual landscape is / and it calls you / and it’s always remaining within you / and what can you say in response to it? / the body is a transport of jewels.”

I have affirmed that the entire collection is a journey towards the calm solar light of the center. We are speaking of the center of the soul itself, where that divine “flame” Meister Eckhart described to us shimmers, an ontological and also existential center within which the aporias cease and the contraries relinquish themselves: “the inseparable flowering / of the high with the low / of the extensive with the brief / of the sweet with the bitter,” here “in the central irrigated region of the opposite ties.”

We should remember that for St. Teresa the structure of the soul is circular: its sevem homes are not situated “one after another, like a threaded thing” but instead all of them surround the center. The metaphors in Luz oval that allude to this same round plenitude are various and offer a wide relief: “if you find the light amid skin / think that it’s her / nestled within the soul / with her crown of white flames / for the song and the step towards the circle.” “The ineffable one / who screams / and screaming undermines / the embrace of the round, fresh hand.” “You step forward / toward the intimate squandering / of the round unification.” It is fitting, when facing these texts by Elizabeth, to reread the final chapter of The Poetics of Space, where Bachelard reflects precisely on the phenomenology of the circular. It is known, since millennia ago, that the mandala circularity symbolizes at once the concentration of being and peace, the basic cornerstone of the cosmic edifice and the central peace that underlies the chess moves and noise of everything that exists.

If in “The Secret Crowns of the Skies,” this book’s first section, the symbolic images of the throne, scepter and crown point to the centrality of the soul, in the second section “Gusts from the Stable,” metaphors and symbols of nothingness and the void are utilized to poetically draw the nature of that same soul. Meister Eckhart, there in the cell of his medieval monastery, called God “the divine Nothingness” and in the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, within the pages of his Being and Time, showed us how the concept and experience of nothingness can incorporate themselves to and enrich an authentic existence. This is the same thing to which Elizabeth invites us: “Because nothingness is comparable to silence / we carry it deep within / in formal empty clothing, from which we cannot detach ourselves / because it remains open to the extension / that never abandons us.” And regarding the void, “which is the other face of plenitude,” and which necessarily implies the disciplined moral and psychic demand of emptying oneself of accessories and the superfluous, the poet tells us: “not in vain the void / reveals its quietude / in an aroma of roses / without the thorns tips / of the possessed fixation.” In this way, the entire ascetic effort that accompanies the desire to accede to the center or oneself, consists in overcoming the neurotic fixation, the slavery of repetition, so as to accede to the “freedom / facing the high sun / where the flame insists / with its inner, outer force / for entry into the abysmal void.”

{ Armando Rojas Guardia, Papel Literario, El Nacional, 7 April 2007 }

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