Tag Archives: threshold

“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

My friend and bandmate, Terry, loaned this book to me. She said that I would really enjoy it. She was right.

The book is a work of historical fiction, with some mysticism woven in. It is about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, who gets stuck in the space between death and rebirth. Having recently read the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which goes into a lot of detail about the bardo state, I was able to relate to this book on a deeper level.

The book is a quick read. It is essentially constructed of short snippets of text, some from historical sources and others fictionalized to reflect the consciousness of the characters. Stylistically, it works very well, and the inclusion of the historical references definitely added a level of verisimilitude to the work.

One of the things that I got out of this book was the affirming of the fact that every single person, every life, has an impact on the world. We may feel that our existence is insignificant; but that is not so. Throughout our lives, we have an influence on every other living being with whom we come in contact.

What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain. Those who had loved us sat upon their beds, heads in hand; lowered their faces to tabletops, making animal noises. We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory.

(p. 71)

One scene in the story I found particularly interesting and creative features a military officer stuck in the bardo and attempting to communicate with his wife in the form of a letter. His words express the emotions associated with being trapped in a dismal space, desperately longing to move on.

O my dear I have a foreboding. And feel I must not linger. In this place of great sadness. He who preserves and Loves us scarecly present. Since we must endeavor always to walk beside Him, I feel I must not linger. But am Confin’d, in Mind & Body, and unable, as if manacled, to leave at this time, dear Wife.

I must seek & seek: What is it that keeps me in this abismal Sad place?

(pp. 137 – 8)

The last passage I want to share is an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s consciousness, where he is contemplating the transitive nature of life, how we emerge from non-being into being, and maintain a state of constant change through our short sojourn in this life.

I was in error when I saw him as fixed and stable and thought I would have him forever. He was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing, temporary energy-burst. I had reason to know this. Had he not looked this way at birth, that way at four, another way at seven, been made entirely anew at nine? He had never stayed the same, even instant to instant.

He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.

(p. 244)

As I think about this passage, I think about all the changes I have gone through in my life—some major and others so subtle they were barely noticeable. And I think of the changes I have seen in the people around me, and in the world as a whole. It is the single constant, and the one thing for which we can be certain. We will experience change throughout our entire lives. And when we reach the end, it will be yet another change and transition as we cross the threshold into the bardo.

Thanks for stopping by, and have a blessed day.

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“The Music of Erich Zann” by H.P. Lovecraft

Illustration by Andrew Brosnatch

This short story is unique in its subtle creepiness and explores the way that art, especially music, can directly affect a person’s psyche. Hence, it is way more psychologically unsettling than a straight-out horror story. There is also some great symbolism used here, which we will examine.

The tale is narrated in first person by a student of metaphysics in an unnamed city, but which appears to possibly be Paris. He describes the area and the prominence of the river.

The Rue d’Auseil lay across a dark river bordered by precipitous brick blear-windowed warehouses and spanned by a ponderous bridge of dark stone. It was always shadowy along the river, as if the smoke form the neighboring factories shut out the sun perpetually. The river was also odorous with evil stenches which I have never smelled elsewhere, and which may some day help me find it, since I should recognise them at once. Beyond the bridge were narrow cobbled streets with rails; and then came the ascent, at first gradual, but incredibly steep as the Rue d’Auseil was reached.

Here Lovecraft is setting up the river as a symbol for the threshold between the two states of consciousness. The crossing over the river, moving through the shadows, represents the shift from normal consciousness to the darker subconscious regions of the psyche.

The protagonist rents a room in this shadowy liminal area and soon hears strange music coming from one of the rooms above.

Thereafter I heard Zann every night, and although he kept me awake, I was haunted by the weirdness of his music. Knowing little of the art myself, I was yet certain that none of his harmonies had any relation to music I had heard before; and concluded that he was a composer of highly original genius. The longer I listened, the more I was fascinated, until after a week I resolved to make the old man’s acquaintance.

The distant strains of the weird music cause the student to experience momentary subtle shifts in his consciousness. He is not able to identify what is happening to him, because his conscious mind is still dominant, but he is beginning to open ever so slightly to the possibility of other states of awareness.

Finally, the student is in the room with Zann, when Zann slips into a reverie and begins to play the strange music, which ultimately leads to the student’s complete shift in awareness.

It would be useless to describe the playing of Erich Zann on that dreadful night. It was more horrible than anything I had ever overheard, because I could now see the expression of his face, and could realise that this time the motive was stark fear. He was trying to make a noise; to ward something off or drown something out—what, I could not imagine, awesome though I felt it must be. The playing grew fantastic, delirious, and hysterical, yet kept to the last the qualities of supreme genius which I knew this strange old man possessed. I recognised the air—it was a wild Hungarian dance popular in the theatres, and I reflected for a moment that this was the first time I had ever heard Zann play the work of another composer.

Louder and louder, wilder and wilder, mounted the shrieking and whining of that desperate viol. The player was dripping with an uncanny perspiration and twisted like a monkey, always looking frantically at the curtained window. In his frenzied strains I could almost see shadowy satyrs and Bacchanals dancing and whirling insanely through seething abysses of clouds and smoke and lightning. And then I thought I heard a shriller, steadier note that was not from the viol; a calm, deliberate, purposeful, mocking note from far away in the west.

At the point in which the student finally experiences his shift to the subconscious, he looks out of the window, which here is another symbol for the separation between the conscious mind and the subconscious. As he peers out, he is actually peering deep into his psyche and becoming aware of the primal darkness that lurks within.

Then I remembered my old wish to gaze from this window, the only window in the Rue d’Auseil from which one might see the slope beyond the wall, and the city outspread beneath. It was very dark, but the city’s lights always burned, and I expected to see them there amidst the rain and wind. Yet when I looked from that highest of all gable windows, looked while the candles sputtered and the insane viol howled with the night-wind, I saw no city spread below, and no friendly lights gleaming from remembered streets, but only the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth. And as I stood there looking in terror, the wind blew out both the candles in that ancient peaked garret, leaving me in savage and impenetrable darkness with chaos and pandemonium before me, and the daemon madness of that night-baying viol behind me.

As a musician, I am keenly aware of the power of music to communicate directly to the psyche. Sounds and tones evoke emotional states in a way that is difficult to explain. For that reason, as well as the superb crafting of language, this tale has earned its place among my favorite Lovecraft tales.

Thanks for stopping by, and feel free to share your comments below.

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“The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland” by William Butler Yeats

This is a poem about the tension between the worldly and the spiritual and how that tension manifests during the various stages of a person’s life. Since it is a fairly long poem, I decided to include the text at the end of the post for those who need to reference it.

The poem is divided into four stanzas. Each stanza is associated with a stage of human life. The stanzas are also associated with specific places within County Sligo, Ireland. I suspect that Yeats intended some connection between the places and the stages of a person’s life, but the references are not clear to me since I am not familiar with those sites. Anyway, the four stages represented in the poem are youth, middle age, old age, and death.

In the first stanza, Yeats describes the youth whose earthly attachment is to physical love, or sexual attraction. When he states that “His heart hung all upon a silken dress,” he is asserting that the young man’s desires are focused solely upon a woman. When the fish sing to him, it symbolizes the divine spirit letting him know that there is a deeper love that exists within the spiritual realm. The young man is shaken “out of his new ease,” but we are left with the sense that even though he is aware of this deeper spiritual love, he cannot relinquish his desire for earthly love.

The singing fish appear to have a dual symbolism. On one hand, they represent the teachings of Christ, but they are also an ancient Celtic symbol for wisdom, inspiration, and prophecy.

As an ancient Celtic symbol, the symbolic meaning of fish (salmon, specifically) dealt with knowledge, wisdom, inspiration and prophecy. Ancient Celts believed the salmon derived its wisdom from consuming the sacred hazel nuts from the well of knowledge (Segais). Further, they believed to eat the salmon would mean gaining the wisdom of the well too.

(Source: http://www.whats-your-sign.com/symbolic-meanings-of-fish.html)

In the second stanza, we are presented with a man in his middle age, whose focus is work and the accumulation of money. At this phase, a lugworm sings to the man, reminding him of the greater wealth within the spiritual realm. The lugworm is an interesting symbol. It burrows in the sand along the beach and is often used for bait in fishing. So in essence, it symbolizes something used to capture the knowledge and inspiration represented by the fish. Also, since they burrow at the shoreline, they symbolize the search for deeper meaning at the threshold between the worldly (the shore) and the spiritual (the sea).

In the third stanza, we see a man in his old age whose current worldly attachment is his obsession over the past, particularly the wrongs that others have perpetrated against him. The knot-grass sings to him, encouraging the man to forgive and let go of his anger and resentment. The man knows that he should do this to prepare himself for the inevitable crossing to the next realm, as evident in the phrase “unnecessary cruel voice.” But one still gets the sense that the old man remains unable to completely forgive and embrace the spiritual.

Finally, in the fourth stanza, Yeats presents us with the man after death, “Now that the earth had taken man and all.” I see an urgent message in this final stanza: if you fail to live a spiritual life while on earth, then you will not enjoy spiritual bliss in the next life. “The man has found no comfort in the grave.” Essentially, if we attach ourselves to worldly obsessions, then we carry those with us to the next realm. It is much more desirable to cross that threshold without the baggage of earthly attachments, and instead cross over with a heart and spirit that is light and ready for union with the divine.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts, and here is the full text for those who need.

He stood among a crowd at Dromahair;
His heart hung all upon a silken dress,
And he had known at last some tenderness,
Before earth took him to her stony care;
But when a man poured fish into a pile,
It seemed they raised their little silver heads,
And sang what gold morning or evening sheds
Upon a woven world-forgotten isle
Where people love beside the ravelled seas;
That time can never mar a lover’s vows
Under that woven changeless roof of boughs:
The singing shook him out of his new ease.

He wandered by the sands of Lissadell;
His mind ran all on money cares and fears,
And he had known at last some prudent years
Before they heaped his grave under the hill;
But while he passed before a plashy place,
A lug-worm with its grey and muddy mouth
Sang that somewhere to north or west or south
There dwelt a gay, exulting, gentle race
Under the golden or the silver skies;
That if a dancer stayed his hungry foot
It seemed the sun and moon were in the fruit:
And at that singing he was no more wise.

He mused beside the well of Scanavin,
He mused upon his mockers: without fail
His sudden vengeance were a country tale,
When earthy night had drunk his body in;
But one small knot-grass growing by the pool
Sang where — unnecessary cruel voice —
Old silence bids its chosen race rejoice,
Whatever ravelled waters rise and fall
Or stormy silver fret the gold of day,
And midnight there enfold them like a fleece
And lover there by lover be at peace.
The tale drove his fine angry mood away.

He slept under the hill of Lugnagall;
And might have known at last unhaunted sleep
Under that cold and vapour-turbaned steep,
Now that the earth had taken man and all:
Did not the worms that spired about his bones
proclaim with that unwearied, reedy cry
That God has laid His fingers on the sky,
That from those fingers glittering summer runs
Upon the dancer by the dreamless wave.
Why should those lovers that no lovers miss
Dream, until God burn Nature with a kiss?
The man has found no comfort in the grave.

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“Phantom” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

All look and likeness caught from earth
All accident of kin and birth,
Had pass’d away. There was no trace
Of aught on that illumined face,
Uprais’d beneath the rifted stone
But of one spirit all her own ;—
She, she herself, and only she,
Shone through her body visibly.

According to the editor’s note in my book, this short poem is one of Coleridge’s attempts at describing Sara Hutchinson as she appeared to him in a dream. But as is often the case with Coleridge’s work, there is more meaning hidden below the surface.

As one who was fascinated by the supernatural and metaphysics, we can assume that Coleridge believed that the human body is inhabited by a soul that continues to exist after a person has died. When a person enters into an altered state of consciousness—whether through sleep/dreams or psychotropic substances or meditation—that person becomes more open to perceiving non-corporeal entities. Coleridge makes it clear in this poem that he believes the spirit is the true essence of a person and not the physical form. Based upon the way he describes his interaction with Sara, I suspect that Coleridge believed he actually crossed a threshold while in the dream state and met with the spirit of Sara Hutchinson.

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“Christabel” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Paganism, Vampires, and the Supernatural

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

Those of you who know me know how much I love the romantic writers, and Coleridge is among my favorites. Although this is considered an “unfinished” poem, it is still too long to include in this post. But for those who need, here is a link to an online version. I recommend you read it if you are not familiar with the poem.

Poetry Foundation: Christabel

This poem is, in my opinion, one of the great literary expressions of the supernatural. Basically, it tells the story of a young maiden, Christabel, who meets a woman, Geraldine, who turns out to be a vampire. It is the subtlety of the imagery and the beauty of Coleridge’s verse that make this such a great poem.

Coleridge opens the poem by establishing the time, which appears to be just past midnight.

‘Tis the middle of night by the castle clock,
And the owls have awakened the crowing cock;
Tu—whit! Tu—whoo!
And hark, again! the crowing cock,
How drowsily it crew.

Christabel, a virgin maiden, goes off into the woods alone. She engages in a pagan ritual. She prays at an ancient oak tree, draped with moss and mistletoe.

She stole along, she nothing spoke,
The sighs she heaved were soft and low,
And naught was green upon the oak
But moss and rarest misletoe:
She kneels beneath the huge oak tree,
And in silence prayeth she.

As she is praying, she becomes aware of someone on the other side of the tree. When she looks to see who is there, she encounters a mysterious woman who is described as enchantingly beautiful.

There she sees a damsel bright,
Drest in a silken robe of white,
That shadowy in the moonlight shone:
The neck that made that white robe wan,
Her stately neck, and arms were bare;
Her blue-veined feet unsandl’d were,
And wildly glittered here and there
The gems entangled in her hair.
I guess, ’twas frightful there to see
A lady so richly clad as she—
Beautiful exceedingly!

The woman tells Christabel her name is Geraldine and convinces her that she was the victim of rape. Christabel takes pity on her and invites her back to the hall where she lives with her father. When they arrive there, Geraldine is unable to cross the threshold. This could be because vampires are unable to enter a home without invitation from the master, or there may be some protective spell guarding against evil. It is only after Christabel helps her across the threshold that she regains her strength.

They crossed the moat, and Christabel
Took the key that fitted well;
A little door she opened straight,
All in the middle of the gate;
The gate that was ironed within and without,
Where an army in battle array had marched out.
The lady sank, belike through pain,
And Christabel with might and main
Lifted her up, a weary weight,
Over the threshold of the gate:
Then the lady rose again,
And moved, as she were not in pain.

Once inside, Christabel offers prayers to the Virgin Mary. She encourages Geraldine to do the same, be she refuses.

So free from danger, free from fear,
They crossed the court: right glad they were.
And Christabel devoutly cried
To the lady by her side,
Praise we the Virgin all divine
Who hath rescued thee from thy distress!
Alas, alas! said Geraldine,
I cannot speak for weariness.
So free from danger, free from fear,
They crossed the court: right glad they were.

When Geraldine enters Christabel’s bedchamber, she senses a guardian spirit watching over her. The spirit appears to be that of Christabel’s deceased mother. Geraldine banishes the protective spirit, claiming her right to the maid.

But soon with altered voice, said she—
‘Off, wandering mother! Peak and pine!
I have power to bid thee flee.’
Alas! what ails poor Geraldine?
Why stares she with unsettled eye?
Can she the bodiless dead espy?
And why with hollow voice cries she,
‘Off, woman, off! this hour is mine—
Though thou her guardian spirit be,
Off, woman, off! ’tis given to me.’

As Geraldine undresses, Christabel sees the mark of the vampire upon her breast.

Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breath aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! her bosom and half her side—
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!

It is then implied that Geraldine drank some of Christabel’s blood. Later, when Christabel awakens, she notices the change in Geraldine, who is now fed and strong.

And Christabel awoke and spied
The same who lay down by her side—
O rather say, the same whom she
Raised up beneath the old oak tree!
Nay, fairer yet! and yet more fair!
For she belike hath drunken deep
Of all the blessedness of sleep!
And while she spake, her looks, her air
Such gentle thankfulness declare,
That (so it seemed) her girded vests
Grew tight beneath her heaving breasts.

When Christabel brings Geraldine to meet her father, Sir Leoline, he becomes entranced by her. She convinces him that she is the daughter of one of Leoline’s old friend, Roland, with whom he had a falling out. Leoline vows to avenge her for the sexual assault, and thereby reestablish the lost friendship with Roland.

Leoline asks Barcy the Bard to convey his message to Roland, but Barcy is reluctant to do so. He had a prophetic dream which led him to believe that there was evil in the hall. This is a long passage, but for me it was the most important in the poem, so I am including it here.

And Bracy replied, with faltering voice,
His gracious Hail on all bestowing!—
‘Thy words, thou sire of Christabel,
Are sweeter than my harp can tell;
Yet might I gain a boon of thee,
This day my journey should not be,
So strange a dream hath come to me,
That I had vowed with music loud
To clear yon wood from thing unblest.
Warned by a vision in my rest!
For in my sleep I saw that dove,
That gentle bird, whom thou dost love,
And call’st by thy own daughter’s name—
Sir Leoline! I saw the same
Fluttering, and uttering fearful moan,
Among the green herbs in the forest alone.
Which when I saw and when I heard,
I wonder’d what might ail the bird;
For nothing near it could I see
Save the grass and green herbs underneath the old tree.

‘And in my dream methought I went
To search out what might there be found;
And what the sweet bird’s trouble meant,
That thus lay fluttering on the ground.
I went and peered, and could descry
No cause for her distressful cry;
But yet for her dear lady’s sake
I stooped, methought, the dove to take,
When lo! I saw a bright green snake
Coiled around its wings and neck.
Green as the herbs on which it couched,
Close by the dove’s its head it crouched;
And with the dove it heaves and stirs,
Swelling its neck as she swelled hers!
I woke; it was the midnight hour,
The clock was echoing in the tower;
But though my slumber was gone by,
This dream it would not pass away—
It seems to live upon my eye!
And thence I vowed this self-same day
With music strong and saintly song
To wander through the forest bare,
Lest aught unholy loiter there.’

What strikes me about this passage is that the bard recognizes the mystical power of poetry. He offers to stay because he knows that the power of his spoken word can banish evil.

Although this is an unfinished poem, I think it ends well and the open ending allows the reader to project his or her own interpretation on what the outcome will be. Christabel, realizing Geraldine’s evil nature, entreats her father to banish her from the home. He turns on her, probably from a combination of pride and enchantment. He stubbornly insists on sending Barcy forth, and then departs with Geraldine.

He rolled his eye with stern regard
Upon the gentle minstrel bard,
And said in tones abrupt, austere—
‘Why, Bracy! Dost thou loiter here?
I bade thee hence!’ The bard obeyed;
And turning from his own sweet maid,
The agèd knight, Sir Leoline,
Led forth the lady Geraldine!

I couldn’t help seeing Leoline as an incarnation of King Lear. He turns away from the true, loving child and falls prey to the wicked. It is also the weakness of men to fall for the archetypal temptress. He has done what many a man has done before and since.

Coleridge, like his romantic contemporaries, was fascinated by the occult and the supernatural. He definitely draws on those influences in this poem. While it is an “unfinished” piece, it is still very good.

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