Sunday, January 02, 2005

End times in the garden?

Reports from Asia of thousands on thousands of human deaths obscure the news that few animals perished. Processing all the news items slowly as I have been, I just now caught up with this bemused report from BBC News ( )
that Sri Lanka’s elephants, deer, jackals, leopards and crocodiles appear to have escaped the flood. Unobserved by technological wonders, uncommunicated by human political mechanisms, unheard by humans (except perhaps by one small girl named Tilly), the tsunami was no surprise in the animal world. No robust scientific explanation has yet been offered.

This simple observation swirling in my brain slammed into a memory rekindled by Susan Sontag’s obituary. How did I never know that Susan Sontag wrote about Heinrich von Kleist? Not widely known in American circles other than for the story line of Eric Rohmer’s film Die Marquise von O, Kleist was one of the major writers of German Romanticism, or at least so I recall from graduate studies in comparative literature decades ago. More important to me, since I take life in very tiny, Karen-centered bites, Kleist was the author of an essay highly influential in my personal set of values. I have been looking for that essay from time to time, not putting a whole lot of effort into the search, for years. Today I took a google at it, and found the full text of the essay in English translation at

To my extreme surprise, I had remembered almost all of it, practically word by word. Somehow it seemed to me that if I ever found it again, it would be a more intricately developed argument, more complex, and longer that it turns out to be. The link above will take you to an essay of under 3,000 words, but with a theme still profound to me in the integral links of apparent opposites: innocence and education, effort and grace.

"Now then, my good friend, you are in possession of all you require to understand my point. We see how, in the organic world, as reflection grows darker and weaker, grace emerges ever more radiant and supreme. – But just as two intersecting lines, converging on one side of a point, reappear on the other after their passage through infinity, and just as our image, as we approach a concave mirror, vanishes to infinity only to reappear before our very eyes, so will grace, having likewise traversed the infinite, return to us once more, and so appear most purely in that bodily form that has either no consciousness at all or an infinite one, which is to say, either in the puppet or a god."

"That means," said I, somewhat amused, "that we would have to eat of the tree of knowledge a second time to fall back into the state of innocence."

"Of course," he answered, "and that is the final chapter in the history of the world."

Many of the little vignettes that lead up to this revelation are drawn from the animal world, for example the untutored fencing bear that always defeats the most practiced and thinking human opponent. But a dancer who studies diligently can approach perfect grace, using knowledge to counteract the loss that came of knowledge. Returning to the garden through a back door.

All this is the very stuff of Romanticism with the natural world, our earthly island home, as the garden. I am no longer prepared, as once I was, to analyze or extrapolate what this means in terms of nineteenth-century Romanticism. Nor am I prepared to apply the concepts to modern human society. What I do I know is the impact that it has had on my life’s efforts to explore my world both through analytical thinking and intuition, seeking understanding and grace, with expectation and belief that the answers I find will converge at last.

No comments: