The completion of yesterday’s post left me a little tired, common enough when something significant is discharged, but also out of sorts, which is usually a cue to me that I had not quite brought the work to completion. While drowsing on the bus, I caught myself snapping into awareness and heard someone say ‘anagogical’ very clearly, followed by a general laughter. The context became clear enough once I focused, but it was unnecessary; I had the message. What I was talking about yesterday was anagoge.
Remember how I said geomancy was important to me? The geomantic sign has four lines and each line can be assigned to one of the four classical elements, but that is only one level of reading the quaternity, arguably the most earthly, because it assigns the lines to material phenomena. There are other levels. One of the more airy ones replaces elements with modes of understanding. There classical Biblical distinctions better represent the lines and the literal, tropological, allegorical, and anagogical modes of interpreting replace earth, water, air, and fire, respectively.
Anagogical reading treats something explicitly visual as indicative of something invisible or, if you prefer Aquinas, that which lies in eternal glory. Anagogical reading makes the visible aspect the least important element of the material, suppressing it as far as possible in order to make it serve as a symbol or illustration of an order that would otherwise be too subtle or too magnificent.
The structure can be pushed still higher, though, to the level of fire rather than air. Here it is not simply words that become subject to the force of the divine order, but our very sense of self. It is no longer just what we understand, but the understanding itself, the understander itself, that is set alight. The symbols and signs become beacons, valued not in themselves but for what they make manifest.
We live in a materialist age, an earthy age, and while it would be ridiculous to say that the fire is absent, it is just not well-understood or well-contained. If anything, the relentless drive toward materialism characteristic of modernity has been accompanied by a constant and pervasive heat that upends traditional moral and intellectual trends. Many sensitive souls lament this, but care must be taken to keep in mind that it is in line with the age’s spirit.
There is a scene toward the end of C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle that has stuck with me. The end of the world has come and Heaven has arrived on Earth, but there are dwarves so small-minded that they cannot see it. They focus their minds so intensely on the material world that they see only a broken hovel and hold tightly to it. Those who are overly sentimental for the temperament of a past age are in a similar situation. The relentless materialism of our age has opened up vistas undreamt by those in antiquity and it is in part our task to live amidst those wonders even as we confront its horrors.
That is, though, why nostalgia for the past cannot help us. What has been upended and broken cannot simply be restored. At best, some of it can be remade, refreshed, reforged, but it will be with different matter. That demands relearning how to hold the balance between the four lines, applying heat and coolness, destabilizing and stabilizing. We have been so hot, it will almost surely demand we learn to cool down, literally and figuratively.