Gnosticism, Milton & more (Allen’s 1975 NAROPA class continues – 1)

A classic painting often used to describe the journey of the Gnostic

Continuing with Allen’s June 23 1975 NAROPA lecture, (topics already covered, John Donne and Andrew Marvell – and now this):

AG: According to some Gnostic schools, in the beginning was the Abyss of Light, which somehow shimmered to reflect itself for a moment and that reflection was the Word, known as Sophia, wisdom, or word, and in Sophia’s mind, being born, she had a thought and, as (William) Blake says, “One thought fills immensity”. So her thought was the first Aeon, first time-span, presided over by the Archon, or ruler of the Aeon, or guardian of the Aeon. I believe his name was Ialdabaoth, and Ialdabaoth had a thought and his son, or thought, was Iao – I-A-O – and had his Aeon. And Iao had a thought (I forget the Archon that was his son), and then the next Archon and the next Aeon had another thought and his son was named Elohim, and Elohim had a thought and I believe his son was named Yahweh, and Yahweh had a thought and this thought included a Universe and a World, and a Garden of Eden, and Adam and Eve, but Yahweh didn’t want Adam and Eve to know that Yahweh was as “insubstantial a pageant” as Shakespeare’s players. Yahweh wanted that authority. Yahweh was so far removed from the Abyss of Light that he’d already developed a fully grown ego, which he felt was permanent, and so he told Adam and Eve they could take any fruit from the Garden except from the Tree of Knowledge, because, if they tasted the Tree of Knowledge, they would know that they were as insubstantial as Yahweh, and that Yahweh was only the thought of Elohim, and Elohim was only the thought of Iao, and Iao was only the thought’s thought, the thought of Ialdabaoth, and Ialdabaoth was only a thought of Sophia, the word, and Sophia was only a shimmer, or a reflection, within the Abyss of Light. So there they were, stuck with the CIA in the Garden of Eden, arrogating to itself all of the authority of the Universe. So the way they got out of that, because all the Archons were guardians of their Aeons, and they had this property they wanted to protect now – Self and Thought and so, Sophia, realizing that she was the spark of the Light of the Abyss, a reflection, and that everything she thought that had a spark of the Abyss originally was in her, in it, even her thoughts..(and) she felt incomplete, and compassionate, and felt she’d made some great mistake, or that it had to be restored, that all these sparks had to be restored to the original night, to the original Abyss. So she devised the Stranger, (so there’s the concept of the Stranger, the Wanderer, the Caller of the Great Call – a beautiful idea – the Caller of the Great Call, the Alien, the Messenger), to go down through the Aeons in disguise, and go to Adam and Eve and tell them what to do, and so, the only critter that would get past the eyes of the Archons (it was so lowly a thing) was the Snake. So she sent the Snake, as the good guy, the Messenger from Sophia, the wise Messenger from Sophia, to go down through the Aeons, undisturbed by the Guardian Archons, and get to Eve, and tell her to turn on, which she did. And so broke the mind-spell of the Garden of Eden and the egoistic hallucination created by Jehovah (which some people are still trying to enforce!)

That was because I started mentioning “gnostics”. That’s the Mandaean gnostic interpretation of The Garden of Eden, otherwise known as the Ophitic – O-P-H-I-T-I-C – the Snake interpretation. Sir?

Student: I did my homework. I dug it up

AG: The Milton?

Student: Yeah

AG: Yeah, I’m actually about finished with Marvell. Now the Milton. Who brought the Milton up to begin with? You?

Student: I don’t know

AG: Somebody mentioned a… no you didn’t.. Somebody mentioned a poem by (John) Milton that they thought had great inspiration in it. It has a little inspiration in it because it is a brief poem, but it does have a little inspiration in terms of the breath

I just jumped to Milton for one sonnet because, when we were out on the grass [sic – class had moved outdoors since the room had been taken over] somebody mentioned Milton’s sonnet to his deceased spouse and saintly wife, and wanted it introduced, and why not? My father (Louis Ginsberg) will be here later in the term to teach one day, and he’ll teach Milton (because he taught me Milton), so you might as well get it from the horse’s mouth

Student: Is this Sonnet 23?

AG: Yup. On his deceased wife – [Allen reads in its entirety Milton’s Sonnet 23] – “Methought I saw my late espoused saint…” – Well, there’s quite a bit of excitement there, breathing excitement in that, the last half. Some of the references I don’t understand – “Mine, as whom washed from spot of child-bed taint/ Purification in the Old Law did save..” – I presume she died in child-birth? – “Purification in the Old Law”? – I don’t know what that refers to. You can guess. Do you know?

Student: Yeah, the whole thing is based on Alcestis, and Alcestis was rescued by Hercules

AG: Heracles

Student; Alcestis died for her husband. I forget his name, Admetus or something like that. The Fates told Admetus, her husband, that he had to die, and he didn’t want to die so he got someone else to accept his fate. Admetus’s wife accepted his fate. So she died. And then the husband started feeling really bad, and Heracles was visiting in his house, drinking wine and everything, and then he came up to this man and said, “Why are you feeling so bad?” – “Oh, my wife died, can you do something to help me?”. And so he goes and wrestles with Death, who is personified, and he brings her back. And that’s “her face was veiled” (“Her face was veiled, yet to my fancied sight/ Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined”). The husband doesn’t recognize.. this guy’s a real creep. He doesn’t recognize her when Heracles brings her back from death and so that’s what Milton does.

AG: Gluck wrote an opera called Alceste..also (probably recorded and available if anybody’s really interested)

Student: Isn’t this thing about ablutions performed at childbirth ?

AG: Maybe. I’m actually interested in the sound. I was interested in the sound and the breathing. I don’t want to neglect the intellect or the wit or the learning in the poem, but I don’t feel I’m prepared to deal with it at the moment, as I’m prepared to deal with the sound, so, move on.

Now we have.. in between.. there are several things I want to do before we get to (looking at) modern poetry, but that depends (on) what you want to do. I’d like to stop briefly on Christopher Smart, who wrote four lines a day in Bedlam, once he wound up there, and wrote this huge poem called “Jubilate Agno” (“Rejoice in the Lamb”) while he was in Bedlam. Has anyone got a copy of that here? There’s one in the library. Is the library still open? Too late?

Let’s get a copy. I want to go through a little of that from the point of view of inspiration. That is, the breath. Because it’s a break with this form, where it’s long-line poetry, a little bit like (Walt) Whitman, or my own, or Guillaume Apollinaire, a French poet. So I’d like to stop on Christopher Smart a friend of Dr. (Samuel) Johnson.

Student: It (the library)’s closed

AG: Okay. Maybe next time. (I) also would like to stop over on (William) Blake, sing through Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Would anybody have that here?

Student: Yeah

AG: You do, Okay (and) maybe I’ll read some fragments of Shelley and some Wordsworth. Now that would probably take a day or two more.. or finish this day and another day, maybe. Do you want to do that or do you want to insist on jumping ahead to the 20th century?

Student: Let’s do that

Anne Waldman: I think Dick (Gallup) is going to be here Wednesday

Student: I’d like to jump ahead

AG: How many would like to go ahead to the 20th Century? Raise your hands. You’re allowed to if you want. There’s free will here. How many want to go through Smart, Blake, and a little bit of Wordsworth, raise your hands.

Student: And Shelley

AG: And Shelley. Okay. When I get to the moderns, we still have several weeks. I’ll try to cover.. begin with Whitman, go to William Carlos Williams, some Ezra Pound, at length, if possible, on Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, some of Gregory Corso‘s classic numbers, and anything else that comes up. Maybe a little Gertrude Stein. I have recordings of Pound, Williams, Stein, also vocal recordings of Russian poets, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Sergei Yesenin, which are recordings that probably have never been heard in any school, but their actual voices, so you get voice again, sound, because they have that heroic style of reading. So that’s what I’m planning, at least by the finish. We have how many days left now?

Anne Waldman: Two more weeks after this..

AG: Okay. Pardon me?

Student: There will be eight more sessions after this.

AG: Oh, okay. We’ll have time to do something. I want to get into, first, a little (William) Wordsworth. I’m jumping way ahead. Yeah?

Student: Allen, where would Oriental poetry fit into this cosmology, or does it?

AG: Well, the problem is time. I have a very interesting anthology of haikuOh Ant, Crawl Up Mount Fujiyama, But Slowly, Slowly by various Japanese, (and then) the R.H.Blyth series of haiku in four volumes

Student: It’s in the library

AG: They’re in the library. Blythe’s haiku, which you can look up, which, when we get to 20th Century poetry, relates very clearly to a lot of the inspiration of 20th Century poetry, which was precision observation, detail, single-mindedness, and clarity of observation of an object. Mindfulness – that mindfulness of non-generalized, non-abstract, visual detail. I thought we might get into that sooner or later. I haven’t plotted out a course, I’m just working on what texts we have around. The other would be.. I have a really great book made in India, an anthology of Sufi, Yogi, Hindu poetry – different Hindus, different Sufis and different Yogis, covering about a thousand-years span, very beautifully translated, including Kabir, Dnyaneshwar (actually, the lineage of Swami Mutkananda, if anybody knows Swami Muktananda Paramahamsa, the 12th century poets in his lineage that he goes back to), Dnyaneshwar, Nivruttinath

Well, I’m not quite sure how you mean it. What do you mean by how does it fit into the scheme? It’s basic human perception, a certain amount of gorgeous extravagance, “What wond’rous life is this I lead/ Ripe apples drop about my head” – (A poet in?) Nivruttinath’s lineage had a very great poem about how Nivruttinath’s consciousness included cooked diamonds. His disciple wrote of the smell of pearls. Namdeo wove a garland of roses. The secret of all three has come into my hands, so says [Shantidaan (?)]. There’s like an extravagance – Cooked diamonds. It’s all poetry. People inventing gorgeous strange words out of their own heads to turn other people on to the weirdness of mind.

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