Preview of “An Anatomy of the World”
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just Supply, and all Relation;
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a Phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.
2011 will mark the 400th anniversary of John Donne’s poem, An Anatomy of the World. It’s not really a significant anniversary (there won’t be any parades or commemorations — apart from this one), but it is significant in one respect. After reading the poem, written in 1611, and noting the resemblance of its complaints about modernity to those still being made, 400 years later, you may ask yourself then: “what then has really changed in the Western historical experience? Has anything really changed at all?”
Indeed. The themes of his times that arise in Donne’s poetry, and this poem in particular, are very much the same as we explored in The Dark Age Blog earlier. Here they are again, 400 years further on. Donne could just as well be our contemporary in his sentiments and observations. Someone is bound to say, therefore, that there is nothing unique about our times and our alarms about its symptoms of Age-Ending decadence and nihillism are misplaced. It could well be charged that, as Donne himself put it, ‘Tis Labour lost to have discovered the world’s infirmities” all over again. It has ever been thus.
The charge would probably stick, too, were not one thing overlooked. Donne was writing, 400 years ago, during his own Age-Ending experience in the rise of the English Renaissance. He is contemporary with Shakespeare (and some lines from the poem recall similar lines in Shakespeare, including the one just cited about “labour lost”). There is a certain malaise that attends this transition from Age of Faith to Age of Reason (and of Revolution, too), and that malaise was epidemic in its time, when it was called “the black bile” or “melancholia“. The great German Renaissance artist, Albrecht Dürer, even depicted it in an etching by that name. It, like Donne’s poem itself, expresses the experience of that feeling of torn-to-pieces-hood that attends transitional ages. Something is being lost. Something is being gained. There is a death and a birth. This is much the same sense in which Gebser speaks in his Ever-Present Origin of our “progress” being simultaneously a distantiation from our roots — an alienation from origin. It is, once again, the perpetual theme of the Prodigal Son and Daughter.
The disintegrating Era in which Donne penned his verses was blood-soaked. It is the last gasp of a dying Christendom dissolving in schism and sectarian strife: Reformation and Counter-Reformation; 100 Years War; 30 Years War; the rise of the Nation State and subordination of the Papal Church; of individualism, utilitarianism, and the rational pursuit of self-interest (originally a religious imperative, not a secular one). Reading the poem, you might think that Donne was already familiar with Rene Descartes, John Locke, and Adam Smith, but in 1611, Descartes was still a youth (1596 – 1650) and Smith will only appear on the scene over a century later (b. 1723). Isaac Newton will appear on the scene only in 1642. It is principally from Copernicus (1473 – 1543), Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), and Galileo (1564 – 1642) that Donne understands “the new philosophy” mentioned in the poem (and that philosophy, also, emergent from out of earlier Renaissance perspectivism and “point of view” perception. It was the Renaissance artists who first invented the method of analysis of space). The Scientific Revolution is now underway, only, it hasn’t yet become fully self-conscious. It is still incoherent and inarticulate (mixed up with alchemy and magic, for example), awaiting the words of a Newton and a Descartes to give it a clear voice and a secure identity. There’s an snippet of poetry from Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) that captures this sudden awakening of the Age of Reason to self-consciousness,
“Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night
God said, Let Newton be! and all was Light.” — Alexander Pope
But with Donne’s poetry, we are not yet there. It is all still a labrynthine incoherence that he finds around him. The motif of the labyrinth (which Donne renders as incoherence) is actually quite common at this time, and it was given by Descartes as the goad for secluding himself away (somewhat like a Buddha) until he discovered a new organon or method, which he laid out in his famous Discours de la Methode. Cogito, ergo sum became Ariadne’s thread through the Minotaur’s maze. Descartes really did not invent anything. He gave voice to what was already a presence around him, but which was still unconscious of itself. That’s the significance of Pope’s snippet about Newton, too. Ever since, the man of the modern type has been called (until lately anyway) Newtonian man or Cartesian man.
We are actually in the same situation today relative to our own invisible environment — the technologically, artificially constructed built-environment of our “Second Nature”, and our anxiety, confusion, and perplexity about our circumstances is just as great today as it was in Donne’s time. The actual time we live in and experience in its incoherence has not yet become self-aware or conscious of itself. It is, as yet, “unmanifested” in that sense even though it is invisible presence.
There is another aspect to Donne’s poetry that must be taken into account, here, before diving into his world. Donne was a Catholic in Protestant England, and it was a precarious existence for a Catholic. The Catholic invasion of England by the Spanish Armada had only been destroyed in 1588, and the loyalties of English Catholics were suspect. Some of Donne’s poetry is cryptic, in consequence. But Donne’s “catholicism” isn’t orthodox. It’s quite existential. The word “catholic” means “universal” or, precisely, kata – holos — “thoroughly whole” (which, in Latin, could be rendered by the meaning of “perfected”, per + factus — thoroughly made or made entire, ie, fulfilled). This is Donne’s “catholicism” in effect, as captured in the famous meditation,
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every
man is a piece of the continent, a part of the
main. If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory
were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or
of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes
me, because I am involved in mankind, and
therefore never send to know for whom the bells
tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, no. 17 (Meditation) 1624
Donne’s “humanism” is actually his catholicism, and much of this appears equally in his poem An Anatomy of the World where to be “catholic” in the existential sense is to be “well” — ie whole, entire, complete, universal. It is not a creed, or credo, (which today we would call an “ideology”). It is this catholicism as kata-holos that infuses the fuller meaning of “An Anatomy of the World“. There is something of the spirit of Rumi in Donne, in that respect.
In another respect, Donne’s own torn-to-pieces-hood, as it reflects his “times out of joint” (he actually uses that phrase which we attribute principally to Shakespeare), is the conflict between “credo, ut intelligam” of the Age of Faith and the emerging “cogito, ergo sum” of the Age of Reason. Credo, ut intelligam (I believe, that I might understand) was Anselm of Canterbury’s formula for the proper conduct of reason, and it makes imminent sociological (and not just theological) sense for its time. Donne, however, already foresees the contradiction arising that will emerge in time as Descartes “cogito, ergo sum” and as the method of radical doubt (the skeptical method) that will negate the basic formula for scholasticism and the Age of Faith. This is the nihilism that he bears witness to in his poem. It could well be compared to Nietzsche’s witness to the nihilism of Modernity, too. For Donne does, in a sense, anticipate Nietzsche by almost three centuries. For the death of the “soul” that is the lamentation in Donne’s poem is only fully realised three centuries later as Nietzsche’s controversial declaration of “the death of God”, too. Donne’s catholicism — his entanglement in the life of all mankind — is realised both synchronically and diachronically, that is to say, irregardless of space or time. Donne’s catholic consciousness is what we would today call “integral” or “holistic”.
Change does occur, but at a real donkey’s pace. It’s not that Donne is clinging to a decaying past. Not at all. He feels intensely the allure and promise, too, of the new age aborning. But he is also conscious of its inherent defects and imperfections (from the sense of his “catholic” understanding) that are to become historically problematic in Jean Gebser’s work as “the deficient mode of the mental-rational structure of consciousness”. This describes enantiodromia or “reversal of fortune” — reversal at the extremity of action (called “transgression” in terms of the Abrahamic religions, hubris in Greek humanist terms, or the karmic law in Buddhist terms).
So, why Donne is still relevant today has to do with the action of enantiodromia and the karmic law also. It has to do with an often misunderstood statement in the New Testament: “the stone that the builders rejected has become the foundation stone” or keystone of the new order (words to that effect, anyway). The path not taken at the beginning of the Modern Era, although it was an option and a probable reality not actualised by collective choice and decision, is the foundation of “the world to come”. That is the rule. It is also a discovery made by Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy in his review of history (Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man), as well as by Jean Gebser in his Ever-Present Origin. Donne, as an outsider to his times, belongs to that probable pathway that was not followed, and which is closely connected with the earlier work of Nicholas of Cusa. Although it is broadly (and mistakenly) called “romantic” consciousness, it was later to be called “Counter-Enlightenment” (also, not an accurate term). Usually, the counter-enlightenment is assumed to involve people like Goethe, Blake, Vico, Haman, and some others. But the chief hallmark of those called “counter-enlightenment” is that they frequently insisted on the holistic and integral character of reality and truth against the analytical and dissectional bias of the rationalistic.
This is the path not taken historically that is now becoming the only and even necessary path. Just as the New Testament statement: “the sins of the fathers shall be visited down to the third and fourth generations” is not a religious principle, but a sociological one, so is the statement “the stone that the builders rejected has become the keystone” also a sociological statement, and not essentially a religious one. At that time, though, all truth statements had to be couched in religious language because there was no other idiom in which to represent them, so they took on the garb of theology even though they weren’t that. They are essentially observations about the meaning and action of time, and are very close in meaning to the karmic law.
With this preamble out of the way, I want to devote more time to Donne’s poem directly and dive right into it, now. Donne remains a most significant figure because he is a part of that keystone and archway that was rejected at the beginning of the Modern Era, and yet which must return and recur inevitably as the probable path not taken. At the very outset of the Modern Era, the crossroads leading to an holistic or integralist path or an analytical and dissectional one was present as a choice. The accent, however, fell on the analytical and dissectional, culminating in Descartes. That crossroads, with its path not taken, is still present probability and latency. And assuming we survive the juggernaut logic of the disintegrative trends of our times, it is the path that will now be taken.