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Exiting history

I spent most of my life worrying deeply about the invisible side of visibility. Recently, I’ve become more concerned with the visible side of invisibility. In less obscure terms, I have progressively moved from politics to mysticism, from history to poetry. Every day, newspapers report myriad events that take place far beyond my world and my ability to influence them, thus being effectively invisible to me – though potentially visible in themselves. Conversely, a good poem always talks about things that are perfectly close to me – often, things that are part of me – making visible, as much as possible, their invisible side. When I used to obsess about history, I used to consider myself primarily as the product of contingent, cultural/historical forces: by reading a newspaper, I was getting information about the invisible overlords that were actively moulding the very thing that I was. The dominant feeling, at that point, was one of utter precarity and powerlessness: I clearly perceived that I was just a pawn in a very chaotic game, and, most importantly, that I could be dropped from the game-board at any moment. This is, of course, an accurate feeling. From history’s perspective, each being that features in its rambling chronicle is the potential subject of more or less fatal ‘collateral damage’. Kali dances, frightfully, wearing a necklace made of human skulls. But she dances on Shiva – and here poetry returns.

In Sanskrit, Kali literally means ‘time’, and the Hindu goddess bearing the same name in fact symbolises the eternal motion of time, bearer of birth as well as of destruction. We exist in time, and thus Kali is our ‘mother’, who generates us and destroys us. Likewise, we exist in history, and it is undeniable that the events that take place one day after the other have a tremendous impact on our lives. Yet, yet… in Hindu iconography, the goddess Kali is typically portrayed dancing on her husband Siva. Particularly in Shaivism, Siva represents the ineffable, eternal, unchangeable animating principle of the entire existent – at once Atman and Brahman. Kali dances on Siva, because her eternal and ineffable consort is the substratum onto which time and events take place. As I progressively divested my attention and emotional commitment from the world of history, it was as if I was slowly moving my eyes from Kali to Siva. Not by denying the legitimacy of time and history, but by recognising that within the endless storm of creation and destruction, there is in fact something unchangeable. And that just as I used to identify myself in relation to history, I could also identify myself in relation to this other, eternal and ineffable principle.

Moving outside of history means to realise that we inhabit a world that has at least two dimensions – but here ‘two’ should be taken as a symbol of ‘plurality’ – and that these dimensions, though ultimately held together by the paradoxical unity of the world, follow very different trajectories and rules. Indeed, there are a number of contingent, cultural, historical aspects to myself, as to this table on which I’m resting my forearms. But alongside those – or perhaps beneath those – there is also an ineffable element, that escapes time as much as it escapes language. Newspapers tend to deal with the former layer of reality, poetry with the latter. In our everyday experience of life in the world, however, we tend to forget this plurality, and to identify completely with – as well as to reduce the world completely to – the historical, cultural, contingent, temporal dimensions. As we do that, we find ourselves surrounded by a universe of endless destruction and production – a mill in which we ourselves are just one of the countless grains being brought in and crushed.

Moving out of history presents a marked therapeutic dimension. As I progressively removed my exclusive identification with my historical self, I started to feel that any possible catastrophe that the world could wave against me as a threat, could affect me only to a certain extent. It was no longer that case that everything was at stake in my worldly life, and that those who held worldly power over me had indeed the ability to shape me into something that they could exploit, blackmail, and destroy. And like all therapeutic paths, also this one held a host of treasures far beyond its initial promise. This is why I started this article by talking about poetry and mysticism – though in my vision, the two terms have more in common than what sets them apart. Exiting history inevitably means entering poetry – that is, entering a field of vision in which our surroundings reveal themselves as apparitions, as manifestations of something irreducible to their names or to their productive categorizations.

The essence of poetry, I believe, and its fundamental message, is what the Eastern Christian tradition defines as ‘apocatastatis’: the notion that everything is, in the most profound sense, always-already saved. Following Massimo Cacciari’s analysis in his extraordinary book The Necessary Angel(1), we can identify two main Christian traditions of ‘the end of the world’. One, which Cacciari epitomizes with Dante Alighieri’s Comedy and more generally with the Scholastics, sees the end of the world as an ‘apocalypse’: a final judgment in which some will be saved, and some will be damned. Seen as an apocalypse, the end of the world determines the final failure of Christ’s mission, since he failed to fulfil his promise to save the whole of the existent. Conversely, theologians like Origen described the end of the world as a moment of ‘apocatastasis’, literally a ‘restoration’ of the primordial condition of the universe. According to this vision, in the end every single being will be saved – or, to use the motto of Brazilian writer Fernando Sabino, "in the end, everything will be ok. If it's not ok, it's not yet the end."(2) Seen as apocatastasis, the end of the world is the triumph of the merciful son (Christ) against His vengeful father (God). Likewise, poetry reveals to us a world that, in at least one of its dimensions, is always-already saved, having at its very heart something immune from the capture of creation, becoming and destruction. A heart that makes no distinctions between object and subject, running seamlessly between me and a rose, between a rose and a stone.(3)

It is through the veins of this heart, that the poetic gaze – and anybody who places themselves within it – can approach time without falling prey to its seeming inevitability. Poetry has a trans-historical dimension, precisely because it can move freely beneath time – like veins traversing Siva’s body – resurfacing at any point of history. This is the mechanism behind the baffling recurrence of mythological archetypes throughout history, or of the same human emotions in very distinct historical contingencies. Even though music surpasses poetry, it is only through poetry’s ears that music can be heard – it is only poetically, that we can listen to Borodin’s string quartets, as if we were sitting next to him right now. Moving from history to poetry, thus entails the creation of a new community, and of new webs of friendships, spanning across borders and ages. The living and the dead find common ground in the forest of poetry, conversing with each other like different elements of one single ecosystem. The plumage of birds high up on the trees has more in common with the geological strata far beneath them, than with their own depictions in a biological encyclopaedia. Equally, the dreams and visions of long-gone thinkers of late antiquity, travel along poetry’s pathways, much faster than the cultural trends of one’s own historical age. The words of Rumi or of Zbigniew Herbert resound more clearly to my ears, and are reflected more vividly by my existential landscape, than the ceaseless barking of newspapers, demagogues or of the latest cultural critiques.

Sinking underneath history, gaining the blissful oblivion of one’s own name, requires that we brave a moment of isolation in exchange for a new kind of solidarity. It doesn’t remove us entirely from our historical surroundings, but returns us to them with a renewed vision. Like the heroic folk-tales of old, it is only through this ‘passage to the forest’, that each person might be capable to return to their world and to themselves with magic tools capable of restoring the present to a state of abundance. Yet, this quest is never accomplished once and for all: every day, at every instant, poetry invites us to go back into the forest and to return again to our world with new boons. Our status becomes that of the eternal wanderer, the emigrant forever travelling across the worlds. “Poetry is befitting emigrants, those unlucky ones who stand over an abyss – between generations, between continents – with their miserable belongings.”(4) Precisely those who have been made homeless by history, or who have been crushed and imprisoned by the powers of the world, find in the wake of poetry a merciful current holding them in its arms. But what would be the use and reason of this consolation, if there was no history to escape from and to return to at each breath? Kali dances, shaking her necklace made of skulls, over the chest of her husband Siva. When she realises what she is doing, she bites her tongue in embarrassment. Siva smiles, lovingly, towards his wife. Their dance never ends, and the eternal couple is never separated.

(1) Massimo Cacciari, The Necessary Angel, State University of New York Press, 1994.

(2) "No fim, tudo dá certo. Se não deu, ainda não chegou ao fim.", Fernando Sabino, No Fim Dá Certo, Editora Record, 1999.

(3) “Never had I thought

of stone in the words of death. I had always felt in it a heart,

a pulsation

of its life and not just in its internal structures which amaze

onlookers, photographers, mineralogists… Simply: the heart of

a stone. Simply:

the dreams of a stone. To be at the heart of a stone – how much

I desired this!


Perhaps a human child,

an infant,

when it is no longer a palpitating sponge of flesh, but not yet –

a man,

perhaps, in his eye, he retains a dream of a stone, not even a

dream –

a reflection, an echo of a dream, distant and fading away. O,

how I wanted to be in the thought of a stone, to be what its

thought thinks. Or –

cursed in the beginning, exiled from stone, how I wanted to touch

the thought of a stone, just as I touch rose petals, careful not

to let it feel

my coarse, bulbous fingers, the fingers of a usurper.


The thought of a stone, the thought of

a rose, what if they were akin?

In its very short season, when the rose is still folded-up wisdom,

and yet open to love; Eros, agape – as I call this in the obscure speech

of men, in speech without eyes, no – with eyes repeatedly

gouged out.”

Aleksander Wat, from Mediterranean Verses, II.

(4) Adam Zagajewski, Two Cities, University of Georgia Press, 2002, p. 6.

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