The Real Sun No One’s Ever Seen: New Blakean Gnosticism in Donald Revell by Geoffrey Babbitt

“Jesus said, ‘I shall give you what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand has touched, what has not arisen in the human heart.’”
—The Gospel of Thomas

Strange circumstances surround the most major discovery of Gnostic texts.

In 1945, Egyptian farmer Muhammad Ali Samman and his brother were digging for fertilizer when their mattocks happened upon a terra cotta urn, which they smashed open, revealing thirteen leather-bound codices. And so began one of the great archeological finds of the twentieth century.

The brothers, however, had recently avenged their father’s death by cutting off the limbs and devouring the heart of their father’s murderer. Since they were under investigation and feared attracting further police attention, Samman stashed the contraband papyrus manuscripts with a priest, who in turn sold some and gave one to a historian—all of which triggered a complicated investigation that eventually led to the manuscripts’ recovery.

Now known as the Nag Hammadi Library, the thirteen codices contain a total of fifty-two surviving texts—most of which are Gnostic. Some of the texts—Samman has said—were, unfortunately, burnt by his mother, who loaded papyrus and straw into the family’s blazing fire.

§

I’ve begun with the story of the Nag Hammadi discovery—before transitioning to our main focus of poetry—for two reasons. First, its elements of secrecy, illegality, and discovery befit an introduction to Gnosticism, whose allure can partly be attributed to its clandestine, heterodox, and revelatory nature. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the image of the brothers smashing the clay vessel to find sacred Gnostic texts formally mirrors the movement of gnosis itself (which I will explain shortly after outlining a few key Gnostic principles).

But first—what is Gnosticism? In the aptly titled What Is Gnosticism?, Karen L. King proves that adequately answering that question requires an entire book. For convenience, let’s simplify. Gnosticism is a renegade strain of early Christianity, an offshoot that rejects key tenets held by the mainstream.

It was also considered heresy. As such, it functioned as a construct, a category that the mainstream strategically used as a dumping ground for characteristics that it wanted to push away from. That is, mainstream Christianity helped define itself by painting Gnosticism as its heretical antithesis.

Before the Nag Hammadi discovery, there were far fewer Gnostic sources, so religious historians had little choice other than to listen to mainstream thinkers, i.e. critics of Gnosticism. Therefore, much of what we first knew about Gnosticism came from those who despised it. And since misinformation naturally abounds when you try to understand a group by talking with their enemies, it is tricky defining their beliefs.

Gnosticism is complex and multitudinous. So saying “Gnosticism” is, in one sense, misleading. That is, the term is more of a banner under which we can herd together several similar syncretic variants of early Christianity. As such, Gnosticism has multiple sources, a complicated history, and divergent traditions and beliefs. In a strict sense, it is not one homogenous, monolithic religion with a single essence.

§

Before we sketch Blake’s specific brand of Gnosticism, we should identify two core Gnostic principles alive in Blake’s work: gnosis and dualism.

Gnostics reject the resurrection as a literal event and understand it symbolically, believing that salvation comes through gnosis instead.

In The Gnostic Gospels—still the most popular introduction to Gnosticism—Elaine Pagels stresses that the goal for Gnostics, rather than to emphasize a historical event, is to “experience [Jesus’s] continuing presence.” Gnosis, or “knowledge,” is not doctrinal or directly transmittable through teaching. Rather, as Pagels and other scholars have observed, it is similar to Buddhist enlightenment. Or we might compare gnosis with Jewish mysticism, whose Kabbalists read the Torah for the “secret life which streams and pulsates below the crust of its literal meaning,” as Gershom Scholem has written.

In any case, Hans Jonas tells us in The Gnostic Religion, “’Knowledge’ is by itself a purely formal term and does not specify what is to be known; neither does it specify the psychological manner and subjective significance of possessing knowledge or the way in which it is acquired.” In fact, knowing often happens via negativa—by way of what we do not or cannot know.

Jonas goes on to stress that gnosis’ nature is religious, so we should associate it with a form of faith rather than reason. He says, therefore, that Gnostic knowledge “is closely bound up with revelatory experience, so that reception, of the truth either through sacred or secret lore or through inner illumination replaces rational argument and theory.”

In achieving that knowledge, one fundamentally changes. In knowing God, “the soul transforms the knower himself by making him a partaker of the divine existence.” The individual merges with the divine.

§

Gnosticism is also characterized by radical dualism. The material world that we perceive with our senses is the lesser, fallen world of darkness. But there is also “the divine realm of light, self-contained and remote,” as Jonas phrases it. The world of light is foreign in nature, absolutely beyond the entire cosmos and everything we are capable of perceiving sensually. The Demiurge who created the earth is lesser than the Supreme God, the True God of Light.

Jonas writes, “The transcendent God Himself is hidden from all creatures and is unknowable by natural concepts. Knowledge of Him requires supernatural revelation and illumination.” Gnosis is not merely a way to God, then, it is the only way.

§

The Nag Hammadi discovery is formally analogous to gnosis. The Samman brothers smashed a clay urn—akin to the fallen material world—in order to free Gnostic texts that offer penetrating insight into the World of Light. Breaking through the worthless clay urn to reach the sacred Gnostic texts is analogous to the movement of gnosis.[1]

Of course, that is only true if we take the Gnostic texts as standing for gnosis itself. But since we must interpretively penetrate “the crust of [their] literal meaning,” to borrow Scholem’s phrase, then the truer analogy is the movement from the Gnostic texts, breaking through their literal meaning to the Eternal Truths they hold via gnosis.

§

In William Blake’s time, London was full of nonconformist, dissenting religious sects that could have been carriers for Gnostic concepts. Blake, however, almost certainly absorbed elements of Gnostic thought from Jacob Böhme, the founder of Böhmenism. In Witness Against the Beast, E.P. Thompson establishes a direct connection between Böhmenism and Gnosticism: “a historian of Gnosticism [Giovanni Filoramo] affirms that ‘we see a veritable efflorescence of Gnostic mythology in Jacob Boehme’. The influence of Boehme upon Blake is undoubted (and was acknowledged) and he could have derived any Gnostic notions through this source.”[2]

Indeed, G.E. Bentley, Jr.’s Blake Records indicate that Frederick Tatham, heir to some of the Blakes’ belongings after their deaths, wrote to a book dealer in 1864 that he had in his possession “books well thumbed and dirtied by his [Blake’s] graving hands… a large collection of works of the mystical writers, Jacob Behmen[3], Swedenborg, and others.”

The important point for our purposes here is not that Blake was influenced by Böhme but that Böhme’s influence upon Blake took a Gnostic form. In Fearful Symmetry, Northrop Frye notes parallels between Böhmenism and Gnosticism in Blake’s mythology: “Blake follows some of the Gnostics and Boehme in believing that the fall of man involved a fall in part of the divine nature.” But even when Frye doesn’t explicitly call elements of Blake’s thought “Gnostic,” his descriptions often square with Gnosticism. For instance, Frye writes of Blake’s religious beliefs, “The only possible cure for the original sin of this Selfhood of the natural man is vision, the revelation that his world is fallen and therefore not ultimate.” We could accurately rephrase that statement as: “For Blake, gnosis is the only means for overcoming radical dualism.”

Although his complex mythology cannot be reduced to Gnosticism or any single system of belief, William Blake is undoubtedly the best representative of Gnostic poetry.

Not only was Blake’s thought Gnostic, but it was increasingly so. In The Traveller in the Evening, Morton Paley writes, “What is important is that Blake had a temperamental affinity for Gnosticism, and that this tendency increased in his very late works.”

Now let’s turn to how, specifically, Blake’s poetry is Gnostic.

§

Blake’s most famous image is “The Ancient of Days.” It is the frontispiece for Europe: A Prophecy, and today it’s just about everywhere you’ll encounter Blake’s images—on postcards in museum shops, on webpages about Blake, on dorm room posters, on covers of books (recent editions of Fearful Symmetry, for example).

You’ve undoubtedly seen it many times. Inside the sun, which is surrounded by dark clouds, a god with a long white beard and white hair crouches down, extending an arm into the black below him, wielding a compass. His crouch crumples his body into itself, in contrast to the clean extension of his long left arm. He kneels on his right knee, leaning so far down that his left shoulder is slightly lower than his left knee, which juts up just above his back. A strong wind blows his hair and beard starkly sideways. The golden compass is a right angle, which he holds at the apex, symmetrically extending light into the deep below.

Blake had visions regularly. As a four-year-old, he saw the face of God out his window. At ten or so, he saw angels in every bough of a tree and, later, in a field among haymakers. In dreams, his dead brother Robert regularly communicated with him. In one dream, Saint Joseph revealed a special use of carpenter’s glue for mixing paint colors. At Felpham’s shore, Blake conversed with historical figures, such as Moses, the Prophets, Homer, Dante, and Milton. He even witnessed a fairy funeral. Those were Visions. Once, however, he saw a ghost. Alexander Gilchrist recounts the story in The Life of Blake. In No. 13, Hercules Buildings, in the Lambeth district of London, Blake looked up at the top of his staircase and saw “a horrible grim figure, ‘scaly, speckled, very awful,’ stalking downstairs towards him.” The sight sent him running out of his house. Blake’s most famous image, “The Ancient of Days,” was inspired by this ghost.

We might call The Ancient by another name—Urizen. In Blake’s mythology, Urizen is born into the realm of light—or, as Blake would call it, Eternity—but Urizen falls and, as S. Foster Damon distills it, “The result was the creation of this world.” Here’s Blake’s account from Chapter VII of The Book of Urizen:
 

He form’d a line & a plummet
To divide the Abyss beneath.
He form’d a dividing rule:

 

He formed scales to weigh;
He formed massy weights;
He formed a brazen quadrant;
He formed golden compasses
And began to explore the Abyss
And he planted a garden of Fruits.

 
Urizen is the inferior creator god depicted in Genesis and the Hebrew Scriptures—or in Gnostic terms, the Demiurge. So—not God Supreme.

Urizen is, thus, evidence that Blake is working within a mythology of basic Gnostic dualism. Urizen is god of the material world, the Gnostic fallen world—what Blake calls “Ulro.”

As such, Urizen is reason, ratio, symmetry, finitude, doctrine, corporeality. He is fit for someone like Newton, who, according to Blake, accounts for reality only by what is empirically measurable, thereby leaving out what is most important. Newton’s Opticks, for instance, details vision and color brilliantly, but it is blind to Vision. The faculties of Urizen lead humanity to the mistakes of Natural Religion and Deism.

Even before he created Urizen, Blake was opposed to what the lesser god would come to stand for. We can read “There Is No Natural Religion,” anachronistically, as a treatise against Urizen.

Blake writes, “Man’s perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception. He perceives more than sense (tho’ ever so acute) can discover.” In other words, we have the ability to see beyond Urizen’s material world, but not with our sensory perceptions alone.

It is not only ocular vision Blake speaks of when he begins Jerusalem by saying, “I see the Saviour over me / Spreading his beams of love, & dictating the words of this mild song.”

Indeed, “No Natural Religion” tells us that it is thanks to “the Poetic or Prophetic character” that we can go beyond the material world: “If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, & stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.”

The Poetic character is supernatural—a Gnostic extra-sensory ability to perceive that takes us to Eternity and to God. Thus, Blake says, “He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only.”

The final line of “No Natural Religion” reads, “God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is.” Readers have noted that Blake’s line resembles John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” But I think the spirit of Blake’s line is in closer keeping with the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas[4]: “Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to that person.”

Blake echoes Thomas more closely than John because John limits humankind’s likeness with God to immortality (both shall have “everlasting life”) while Blake and Thomas do not specify the manner of humanity’s similarity with the divine (simply, you “will become like me”).

But there may be more to it still: Jonas describes gnosis as making one “a partaker in the divine essence,” and Blake, too, suggests that possibility.

At the end of Jerusalem, the epic’s hero, Los, proclaims: “the Worship of God, is honouring his gifts / In other men: & loving the greatest men best, each according / To his Genius: which is the Holy Ghost in Man; there is no other / God.”

Blakean gnosis culminates in humanity partaking in divinity. Or as Blake once reportedly phrased it: “Jesus Christ was the only God, and so am I and so are you.”

§

To highlight Blake’s Gnosticism, we’re looking at two of his four Zoas, Urizen and Los[5]. Urizen is the southern Zoa characterized by reason, and his counterpart is Los—the northern Zoa characterized by imagination. Los is essentially the “Poetic or Prophetic character” Blake mentions in “There Is No Natural Religion.” He is Poetic or Creative Imagination, the faculty that renders humankind infinite and capable of perceiving Eternity; he offers solutions to Urizen’s deficiencies.

Los directly inspires Blake—quite literally in the scene below. It was not for nothing, after all, that Yeats called Blake a “literal realist of the imagination.” In Plate 22 of Milton, Blake tells us:
 

Los descended to me:
And Los behind me stood: a terrible flaming Sun: just close
Behind my back…
… he kissed me, and wishd me health.
And I became One Man with him arising in my strength…
… Los had enterd into my soul:
His terrors now posses’d me whole! I arose in fury & strength.

 
Then the Prophet “in the Eternal bosom” speaks through Blake in much the same manner God speaks through Ezekiel in Chapter 3, when God visits the prophet:

I fell on my face. / Then the spirit entered into me, and set me upon my feet, and spake with me, and said unto me… / … when I speak with thee, I will open thy mouth, and thou shalt say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God…

Los is Blake’s figure for Prophetic Poetry.

Blake often gives us Urizen and Los even when they aren’t named as such. For instance, here is his extraordinary end to “A Vision of the Last Judgment.”

“What,” it will be Questiond, “When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?” O no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.” I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight: I look thro it & not with it.

With the faculties of Urizen, we see a burning coin. With the faculties of Los, we see a host of innumerable angels.

If we look with our eyes, we are limited to Ulro—the Corporeal, Vegetative world. By looking through our organs of sensory perception, however, we see the Eternal, the Infinite.

Blake’s passage rhymes nicely with Pagels’s discussion of the Gospel of Mary. She writes, “Mary Magdalene, seeing the Lord in a vision, asked him, ‘How does he who sees the vision see it? [Through] the soul, [or] through the spirit.’ He answered that the visionary perceives through the mind.” Which is partly what Blake means when he says he looks through, rather than with, his eye. Vision is a form of gnosis.

§

Of course, we mustn’t carry dualism too far. Although there are ascetic Gnostic schools, equating Gnosticism with an outright rejection of the body and the physical world would be too extreme. In his reading of the Apocryphon of John, Michael A. Williams shows us that “according to many Gnostic sources, precisely in the human body is to be found the best visible trace of the divine in the material world.” In the body, we can glimpse a divine spark.

Blake would agree. Indeed, in “The Divine Image,” Blake writes, “all must love the human form… / [where] God is dwelling too.” And Oothoon, in The Visions of the Daughters of Albion, goes even further, declaring the sacredness of love—including sexual love: “every thing that lives is holy!”

In Jerusalem, Erin epitomizes this same principle. She is Los’s first creation, and after she comes forth from Los’s furnaces, Los and all his kin weep with joy because the spaces of Erin are so beautiful. She is the embodiment of the idea that “all living things, especially the body and its impulses, are holy,” as Damon has put it.

§

It’s worth looking at Blake through the lens of Gnosticism not only because it helps frame Blake’s complex work but also because there is a resurgence of Gnosticism among American poets. While most have absorbed Gnostic elements more directly from Modern and contemporary poets, such as Robert Duncan and Nathaniel Mackey, the ultimate source of their Gnostic influences is Blake himself.[6]

A chief case in point is Peter O’Leary, who is one of the most explicitly and directly Gnostic of American poets today. His Gnostic movement, dubbed “The New Gnosticism,” includes Norman Finklestein, Patrick Pritchett, Edward Foster, Joseph Donahue, Mark Scroggins, David Need, and Robert Archambeau. The forty-second issue of Talisman devotes a section to their essays on Gnosticism. And a few years ago, Coldfront published Henry Gould’s write-up of their coterie.

There is, however, one poet in particular who—so far as I can tell—has been omitted from current discussions of Gnosticism in poetry: Donald Revell.

§

Donald Revell is perhaps the most Blakean poet writing today. He is a poet of grand vision and faithful attention whose voice—by turns tender and urgent—often takes the mode of prophecy. And his speaker, in all his poems, looks not with but through the eye, as Blake urges. So his poems are constantly discovering an innumerable company of the heavenly host where most would see a round disc of fire.

Discussing just that very passage from “A Vision of the Last Judgment,” Revell writes in The Art of Attention:

That “disk of fire somewhat like a guinea” condemns craft and all its clever coinage. Blake sees the heavenly host and not something “like” it. The art of poetry, then, involves the sustained and sustaining increase of just this capacity…. The capacity of his eye is the direct consequence of his faith: not faith in a dogma or superstition or simple wish, but faith in his eye. The poetry of attention is not metaphysical. It trusts the open eye to see. By faith, the eye stays open. And so the work of poetry is trust that, by faith, is shown to be no work all.

In his exegesis, Revell shows that, like Blake, he too is a “literal realist of the imagination,” to use Yeats’ phrase again. The innumerable company of heavenly host that Blake sees is not metaphysical in nature, Revell argues; Blake literally sees it.

As literal realists of the imagination, Blake and Revell share a key revision of Gnosticism: they believe that the senses can participate in the imagination’s overcoming of radical dualism.

In a system of radical dualism, Jonas explains, “the transcendent God is unknown in the world and cannot be discovered from it; therefore revelation is needed.” But such revelation is metaphysical or mystical in nature. However, Revell stresses that Blake sees God by having “faith in his eye,” so sensory experience is involved. Blake sees the innumerable company of heavenly host not metaphorically “with his mind’s eye” but literally through his physical eye, which means that God can be known in the world. This point is imperative. We must now come to understand what Blake and therefore Revell mean by “through.”

For our purposes here, Revell’s working epistemology is Blake’s. Here’s Frye’s sketch of it:

[For Blake] all knowledge comes from mental experience. Mental experience is a union of a perceiving subject and a perceived object; it is something in which the barrier between “inside” and “outside” dissolves. But the power to unite comes from the subject. The work of art is the product of this creative perception, hence it is not an escape from reality but a systematic training in comprehending it.

So when Blake sees the innumerable company of heavenly host, he does not abandon his eye. Rather, he looks through it, perceiving creatively, which is to say, he sees the heavenly host in an act of mental experience that unites sensory (ocular) perception and imagination. His mind looks through his bodily eye.

Reality, thus, is not a field of objects existing independently of us. No, it is mental experience, which is partly what Blake was driving at when he said, “If the sun and moon should doubt, / They’d immediately go out.” Or as Revell puts it in Tantivy, “it is all hallucinations, / And one of them is true.” Reality is the unification of the subjective and objective via mental experience that includes imagination, and so is Blake’s form of gnosis, and therefore Revell’s, too.

For Revell, the work of poetry is the work of placing trust and faith in one’s eye. Or in Blakean terms, it is involving imagination in sensory perception. Once that work is done, none is left. Or, as Revell writes in “My Trip”: “Poetry is the work of trust. / And under the aegis of trust / Nothing could be more effortless.” Revell’s imagination is literal because his seeing is imaginative.

According to Revell’s thinking, then, Blake’s vision of the innumerable heavenly host is not unlike Pound’s in that famous moment in Canto XVII when he says, “The light now, not of the sun.”

For Pound, the light is not “of the sun” because it is Neoplatonic, divine light. Henry Chatwick explains the metaphysical nature of divine light in Neoplatonic thought: “Plotinus sees the light of the sun as analogous to the light which is the One, and sharply distinguishes sunlight from the metaphysical Light of the transcendent realm.” But in Pound’s poem, the light is no mere abstraction.

Revell would insist, thus, that the light is not only metaphysical. Pound sees it. The light is physically perceptible through his eyes—because he has faith in them. Thus, Pound goes on to describe the quality of the sunlight: “Chrysophrase, / And the water green clear, and blue clear; / On, to the cliffs of amber.”

By similarly affirming that God is knowable in this world, Revell’s brand of Gnosticism perpetually seeks to overcome radical dualism. Unlike “traditional Gnosticism,” which wants to escape from the fallen world into Eternity, Revell’s poetry works to see Paradise and Eternity in that fallen world: “You are violets. I am broth. / God walks on earth.” For Revell, such vision is the task of his poetry.

§

To overcome radical dualism, Revell often uses metaphors that are really anti-metaphors. Traditionally, metaphor depends on a gap between its two terms. A metaphor—in Greek, literally “to bear across”—conducts a transfer of associations across that gap from the vehicle to the tenor. But the gap remains because we understand that a metaphor is a mere comparison and not an assertion of identicalness. In his anti-metaphors, however, Revell aims to obliterate the gap and show that there is no difference, ultimately, between the two terms, only identification.

In his review of Revell’s My Mojave in Harvard Review, Robert Schnall contends, “Revell is both fascinated and frustrated by the seeming impenetrability and elusiveness of what he calls ‘reality.’” I’d argue, however, that Revell’s anti-metaphors show us that reality isn’t impenetrable or elusive at all. Rather, they are extraordinarily bold ways for Revell to reveal the true world to himself and to us. They are the fruit of his gnosis.

For example, in “O Rare” from A Thief of Strings, Revell writes:
 

I see an equestrienne
Riding a plough horse the color of milk
Along a dirt path towards a sunny upland.
The rider is Heaven.

 
Since “The rider is Heaven” takes the form “A is B,” we’re naturally inclined to treat the line as a metaphor. But to do so would be a mistake that would unnecessarily complicate matters.

Revell’s simplicity is precisely what makes his poetry so radical. The task he gives us is not hermeneutical. It’s visionary.

Looking at the rider and seeing only an equestrienne is akin to looking at the sun and seeing only “a disk of fire somewhat like a guinea.” Looking at the rider, however, and also seeing Heaven is to look through the eye.

Revell’s vision also reveals something about the nature of Paradise—it is not a destination (“a sunny upland”), as we might expect; rather, it is a process, something en route.

Formulations of the “A is B” variety are only metaphors if the speaker doesn’t truly mean the word “is.” John Donne’s famous formulation, “This flea is you and I,” for instance, is a metaphor. We know Donne is merely comparing the “you” and the “I” of the poem to a flea. However, when language philosopher Gottlob Frege writes, “Hesperus is Phosphorus”[7]—it is no metaphor. It is an equation.

Revell’s proposal—“the rider is Heaven”—is radical because it asserts that two things that seem so extremely unequal are, at this moment anyway, one and the same. In other words, by saying “The rider is Heaven,” Revell in fact means, “The rider is Heaven.” What could be more radical than a poetry that requires intelligence and faith but no interpretation?

Revell is at his boldest when we simply take him at his word, as when in “Zion” he writes, “I’m saying that death is a little girl. The apple / There in her hand is God Almighty where the skin / Breaks to her teeth and spills my freedom all over / Sunlight turning deadwood coppery rose.” Most of us wouldn’t see how death could be a little girl, but that’s because we don’t tend to see as Gnostics do. In verse 113 of The Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says:

[The kingdom] will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, “Look, here it is,” or “Look, there it is.” Rather, the father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.

Revell’s Gnostic vision lets him see Paradise and Eternity and Death where most of us see just the mundane world.

§

Because this kind of vision sets him apart, Revell is antinomian, as was Blake. Morton Paley has observed that Blake would not “have been troubled by apparent contradictions between Gnosticism and antinomianism,” but I think we can go even further: Blake is unusually energized by their combination. So is Revell.

Antinomianism maintains that true believers are saved by grace and, thus, free from moral law[8]. Although dualism remains indomitable for most of us—in the sense that we cannot supersede the sensorial realm—Revell’s poetry overcomes it, which is where antinomianism comes in.

Revell writes in The Art of Attention, “Real eyesight is unprecedented and so escapes all names. As it turns out, the optic nerve is an antinomian. Seeing a pretty street in the morning means that everything is new again.” So not to see newly is to fall short of the elect company.

In “A Green Hill Far Away” from Pennyweight Windows, Revell writes, “Today is the day / The desert gives up its baseballs, / The day / Its blue-black butterflies and dragonflies / Uncover the real sun no one’s ever seen.” To see the real sun is salvation, election, gnosis.

Poetry is for Revell what walking is for H.D. Thoreau. In his famous essay “Walking,” Thoreau writes, “No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence which are the capital in this profession. It comes only by the grace of God. It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker. You must be born into the family of the Walkers. Ambulator nascitur, non fit.”

If you want to become a walker, it cannot be done through greater effort, enhanced understanding, or cultivated skill. You must get born.

In Revell’s poem, no one has seen the real sun yet because we must be reborn to see it. In which case, Vision is evidence of grace.

§

We might better understand Revell’s steady surge in prominence if we consider his place in Gnostic poetry within the context of the procession out of Postmodernism.

Postmodernism, after all, is characterized largely by intense and extensive skepticism—skepticism over literature, philosophy, truth, metaphysics, language, personal identity, access to the body, and so forth. That same skepticism extends to poetry, too. Language Poetry, for instance, is importantly and valuably skeptical of expressive verse, the lyrical “I,” authorial intention, and the very possibility of apolitical language. Postmodernism, however, is arguably over by now, and even if it isn’t, poets are nevertheless finding a way to move beyond it. One way to proceed from a position of skepticism—stretching at least as far back as Descartes[9]—has been via some form of faith or mysticism.

A bird’s-eye view of contemporary American poetry’s various groups, from one angle, shows two particularly prominent ways of branching out from Postmodernism’s extensive skepticism. One endeavors to recuperate the kinds of voice, expression, and affect that were possible before Postmodernism. The other, Conceptualism (and Post-Conceptualism), extends Postmodernism’s skepticism in the form of hyper-rationalism. (For better or for worse, this movement is losing steam.)

Revell’s work, however, illuminates another viable way—not through atavism or hyper-rationalism but through irrationalism, gnosis as a poetic process. While Gnosticism offers another potential solution for the end of Postmodernism, that solution will never seem as viable and significant as it in fact is if we don’t include Revell, who is one of its most prominent and important practitioners.

And more generally, conversations about contemporary poetry would be further enriched were they to consider Gnosticism alongside more popular approaches. It’s a category that is both useful and more accommodating than one might initially think. Revell might be the highest profile Blakean Gnostic, but there are also many other poets out there whose work could be further critically illuminated by recognizing their Gnostic tendencies.

Gnostic poetry hasn’t had its fair shake yet. It awaits further attention, but further attention should also be awaiting it. Because the kairos is right for Gnostic poetry.

 


[1] For an equally brief example that is literary in nature, see the pasteboard mask scene in Chapter 36 of Moby Dick.
[2] Blake might also have read John Laurence Mosheim’s Ecclesiastical History or his Commentaries—and maybe Joseph Priestley’s Disquisitions as well.
[3] A variant spelling of “Böhme.”
[4] Which, of course, Blake had not read, so any influence would have been indirect.
[5] For simplification, I’m setting aside a lot, including the other two Zoas—Tharmas and Orc/Luvah. (The Zoas are aspects of the divine and fundamental parts of humanity/Albion. So while they’re presented literally as titanic deities, there are always allegorical layers at work in Blake, too. They also change and evolve across Blake’s works.)
[6] There have been many writers who could be described, to varying degrees, as Gnostic—Herman Melville, W.B. Yeats, H.D., William Bronk, Jorge Luis Borges, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Ronald Johnson, Alice Notley, Harold Bloom, Nathaniel Mackey, Gerrit Lansing, Fanny Howe, Matthew Henriksen, Will Alexander, Brenda Hillman, and Susan Howe, to name a few.
[7] Frege is pointing out that the Greek names for the morning star and the evening star refer to the same celestial body, not a star ultimately but the planet Venus.
[8] What motivates Gnosticism and antinomianism, however, isn’t the desire to get off the hook from an ethical standard of behavior; rather, it is a search for newness. E.P. Thompson says antinomianism is “a way of breaking from our received wisdom and moralism, and entering upon new possibilities.” For Elaine Pagels, the parallel between a religious search for newnesss and artistry is clear: “Like circles of artists today, gnostics considered original creative invention to be the mark of anyone who becomes spiritually alive. Each one, like students of a painter or writer, expected to express his own perceptions by revising and transforming what he was taught.” Gnosticism and antinomianism, thus, have clear aesthetic correlations: Both echo Pound’s famous (if overplayed) enjoinder to “Make It New!”
[9] Descartes, for instance, concludes that his idea of an infinite and benevolent God could have no other origin than God instilling that idea innately in him, which he perceives clearly and distinctly. This tautological reasoning has been coined “The Cartesian Circle”: Clear and distinct ideas allow certainty only because Descartes can be certain that God—whom he clearly and distinctly perceives—does not deceive him. That God is the basis for Descartes’ “knowledge”—of his own existence, of the outside world, of everything he can claim to know—qualifies this move in his philosophy as mystical in my book. (C.f. the Tractatus. Wittgenstein explicitly identifies the movement beyond solipsism as mystical in nature: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is”.)


Warning: Parameter 1 to W3_Plugin_TotalCache::ob_callback() expected to be a reference, value given in /home3/javitsre/public_html/californiapoetics/wp-includes/functions.php on line 3509