Thanks to Warren Ellis, I found myself on the Paris Review website wandering through their Art of Fiction interviews archive. I was drawn to the 1960s archives, stumbling over interviews to some folks who have played key, if not necessarily prominent, roles in my spiritual development: Jorge Luis Borges, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Frost, and William S. Burroughs (whose influence is the most indirect). There are more there, but sheesh, I have to eat, sleep, and work sometime. Beside that these are all men (which is interesting in a way I’d like to address another time), these guys don’t have tons in common outside of their common participation in the writerly world. How is it that they all find their way into my spiritual life?
In the Borges interview, the interviewer asks him why he took an interest in the Kabbalah (Cabala in the interview for those digging into the interview using find). I love his answer:
I think it was through De Quincey, through his idea that the whole world was a set of symbols, or that everything meant something else.
Everything means something else, huh. That starts to get me toward how these guys come to be in my life. They presented themselves to me at times when something they wrote meant something to me that was spiritually important, when they disclosed to me something I was trying to grasp. In other words, their work became the vehicle for some piece of wisdom to arrive to me. Through it, I was able to understand this or that thing better. Borges, at least, is clear that his interest in things like the Cabala is more than just a concern with fictional technique:
He [Joseph Conrad] wrote—and that struck me because I write fantastic stories myself—that to deliberately write a fantastic story was not to feel that the whole universe is fantastic and mysterious; nor that it meant a lack of sensibility for a person to sit down and write something deliberately fantastic. Conrad thought that when one wrote, even in a realistic way, about the world, one was writing a fantastic story because the world itself is fantastic and unfathomable and mysterious.
That’s a great quote, isn’t it? If you write about the world rather than trying to cultivate a certain sort of story or personal sensibility, the story will be fantastic because the world is fantastic. Interesting to juxtapose that with a bit from Warren Ellis about writing speculative fiction (from the interview linked above and here):
It’s about using speculation as a tool with which to examine the contemporary condition.
That cuts to the heart, too, of what I take to be the gnostic work, too, that the images and figures of it, even when they seem to gesture to the past or future, are speaking to the present. So what does it mean that everything means something else?
Well, how do we mean things anyway? We need to look at language a little. We can start with the way ‘dog’ (the word) refers to actual dogs. That is pretty neat, really, because as soon as you do that, you realize that the word ‘dog’ doesn’t just mean some dog out there. It means all kinds of associations to which actual dogs are sometimes only tangentially connected (‘he’s such dog’ can mean many things). That ‘dog’ and the actual dog aren’t things in themselves but mean something in relation to all these other things. They concatenate it, draw them together, but they can’t serve to stop more things being meant. That’s why dictionaries are always out of date–the language is always movig and so are the meanings. There is no place for the meaning to rest in this equation; if you have read much of Borges work, you’ll know this plays out in his stories.
This is what makes me suspicious of many occult uses of the Kabbalah. Many occultists use the sefirot as places where the meaning stops. I have found Dion Fortune’s The Mystical Qabalah to be very useful, but as something from which things can be taken rather than as a point upon which I could rest. To me, the sefirot are those places where the meaning gets knotted, tangled, where it takes on a certain sort of gravity. They are points of capture, but also of transformation and release. The stuff that makes them up is in flux because our life and the material that composes it is in flux.
Which takes me back to the beginning of this post. Why this disparate set of figures that I bring together now only because I know come across them brought together in the Paris Review? They are near in the Paris Review in a way that means something to me different than what it means for the Paris Review, but the meanings are still resonant. That resonance seems to have to do with their contingent quality. They are together just because they are together, but by virtue of being together are somehow together. That is what gets me back to Ellis–their very contemporariness means something and what it ‘means’ points us to that unfathomable mystery of the world that makes their coming together possible.
So, while the basis of the Cabala may be that one thing always means another, its force arises from the the way in which those meanings are gathered and transformed. With my disposition toward individualism, I find it most comfortable to think about those meanings being for me, but if we take the Kabbalah seriously, it can never stop there. What they mean for me, the gathering I make of them, cannot be contained in themselves and so go on meaning something else. I cannot escape that process either. I begin to mean something else, for myself, for others, until the I that is meaning becomes something else.
I do hope this is not too much a muddle, that it is just muddled enough.