I wish you were here, dear, I wish you were here.
I wish you sat on the sofa
and I sat near.
the handkerchief could be yours,
the tear could be mine, chin-bound.
Though it could be, of course,
the other way around.
I wish you were here, dear,
I wish you were here.
I wish we were in my car,
and you’d shift the gear.
we’d find ourselves elsewhere,
on an unknown shore.
Or else we’d repair
To where we’ve been before.
I wish you were here, dear,
I wish you were here.
I wish I knew no astronomy
when stars appear,
when the moon skims the water
that sighs and shifts in its slumber.
I wish it were still a quarter
to dial your number.
I wish you were here, dear,
in this hemisphere,
as I sit on the porch
sipping a beer.
It’s evening, the sun is setting;
boys shout and gulls are crying.
What’s the point of forgetting
If it’s followed by dying?
~ Joseph Brodsky
Oh long-drawn highway, how excellent you are! How often have I in weariness and despondency set forth upon your length, and found in you salvation and rest! How often, as I followed your leading, have I been visited with wonderful thoughts and poetic dreams and curious, wild impressions!
— Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, ‘Dead Souls’ (1842)
I enjoyed another visitation today. Another close encounter.
This bird, unlike the last (‘An extraordinary gathering of angels’), had something to say —
My persistently vocal visitor reminded me to return here to an unfinished theme: a book that I am reading, Symbols of Sacred Science. A chapter titled ‘The Language of the Birds’. And, most importantly, the subject of rhythm.
This book has inspired me with many thoughts, and understandings. New insights, about this blog. About its titular portmanteau — “Psalmistice”. The symbolisms embedded in its winged logo. And, most profoundly, about my intuitions regarding the (dare I say) spiritual aspect of the silence I hear beneath the beat of a V-twin Harley-Davidson engine.
But not just any H-D engine. Only the old, pre- “noughties” engine.
When I first began searching for a Harley-Davidson, I rode a number of new, and recent models. All, I found to be lacking something. An indefinable something. But within moments of my first experiencing an old, pre-2000, rigid mount, 80 cubic inch Evolution engine, I knew.
This, was it.
The right feeling.
Felt clearly, through each touchpoint with the machine.
Not a vague shaking; that isolated, strangely separated, exaggerated rocking motion, as with a newer rubber mount. Not smooth, bland, sterile, lifeless, as with a newer “counter-balanced” rigid mount.
And so it came to be, that after a long search abroad, I was blessed to acquire a 1995 model collector’s machine, with just 340 miles (544 kilometers) having caressed the circumference of its tyres.
The 6,500 kilometers travelled since have presented countless hours of opportunity for observation, and contemplation. A recurring theme, I must confess, is that, whatever human product befalls my eye — whether it be motorcycles, motor cars, bicycles, lawnmowers, houses, household appliances, children’s toys, public buildings — the truth of the matter is this.
“They just don’t make them like they used to”.
Look around you. Consider carefully, the things our hands … or perhaps, ever-more commonly, a robot’s hands … have made.
Increasingly lacking solidity.
Not to mention … simplicity.
One cracked dab of glue, one failed diode away from redundancy. And relegation to landfill.
But what I have noticed most of all, is the growing absence of character. Real, authentic character.
For some time now, it has been my ever-firming belief that mankind’s inner condition is, more often than not, reflected in the work of his hands.
As within, so without.
Just as (to cite the topical example) the Harley-Davidson Motor Company’s products have steadily declined in simplicity, solidity, reliability, longevity, originality, authenticity, and above all, soul, and all this most notably since the turn of the millennium, so too, I perceive the steady degeneration of the West’s moral condition. Indeed, so much so, with the passing of years, that I can hardly … rarely … bring myself to look at a television. At the gym, I keep my motorcycle earplugs in, to block out the music videos’ arrogant, swaggering, tempting, beckoning, shimmying, serpentine, slithering, haughty, angry din.
What is on TV?
Violence. Narcissism. Depravity. Injury. Sophistry. Flattery. Revelry. Superficiality. Irresponsibility. Momentary. Temporary. Greedy.
Charging, raging, with pounding rhythms, competing, but strangely lacking, something.
Please do not from all this think that my weltanschauung is bleak. Au contraire, I see darts of light reflecting everywhere. Shining all the brighter, by reason of growing darkness.
All this, by way of preamble, may now help you to see why it is that René Guénon’s ‘Language of the Birds’ resonated with me —
Likewise it is said in the Hindu tradition that the Devas [angels], in their fight against the Asuras [demons], protect themselves (achhandayan) by the recitation of the hymns of the Veda, and that it is for this reason that the hymns received the name of chhandas, a word which denotes ‘rhythm‘. The same idea is contained in the word dhikr which, in Islamic esoterism, is used of rhythmic formulas that correspond exactly to Hindu mantras. The repetition of these formulas aims at producing a harmonisation of the different elements of the being, and at causing vibrations which, by their repercussions throughout the immense hierarchy of states, are capable of opening up a communication with the higher states, which in a general way is the essential and primordial purpose of all rites.
This brings us back directly and very nearly to what was said above about the ‘language of the birds’, which we can also call ‘angelic language’, and of which the image in the human world is rhythmic speech: for the ‘science of rhythm‘, which admits of many applications, is the ultimate basis of all the means that can be brought into action in order to enter into communication with the higher states. That is why an Islamic tradition says that Adam, in the earthly paradise, spoke in verse, that is, in rhythmic speech; this is related to that ‘Syrian language’ (lughah suryaniyyyah) of which we spoke in our previous study on the ‘science of letters’, and which must be regarded as translating directly the ‘solar and angelic illumination’ as this manifests itself in the centre of the human state. This is also why the Sacred Books are written in rhythmic language which, clearly, makes them something quite other than mere ‘poems’, in the purely profane sense, which the anti-traditional bias of the modern critics would have them to be. Moreover, in its origins poetry was by no means the vain ‘literature’ that it has become by a degeneration resulting from the downward march of the human cycle, and it had a truly sacred character.8 Traces of this can be found up to classical antiquity in the West, when poetry was still called the ‘language of the Gods’, an expression equivalent to those we have indicated, in as much as the Gods, that is, the Devas,9 are, like the angels, the representation of the higher states. In Latin, verses were called carmina, a designation relating to their use in the accomplishment of rites; for the word carmen is identical to the Sanskrit karma which must be taken here in its special sense of ‘ritual action’;10 and the poet himself, interpreter of the ‘sacred language’ through which the divine Word appears, was vates, a word which defined him as endowed with an inspiration that was in some way prophetic. Later, by another degeneration, the vates was no longer anything more than a common ‘diviner’,11 and the carmen (whence the English word ‘charm’) no more than a ‘spell’, that is, an operation of low magic. There again is an example of the fact that magic, even sorcery, is what subsists as the last vestige of vanished traditions.
These few indications should be enough to show how inept it is to mock at stories that speak of the ‘language of the birds’. It is all too easy and too simple to disdain as superstitious everything that one does not understand. But the ancients, for their part, knew very well what they meant when they used symbolic language. The real ‘superstition’, in the strictly etymological sense (quod superstat), is that which outlives itself, in short, the ‘dead letter’. But even this very survival, however lacking in interest it may seem, is nevertheless not so contemptible; for the Spirit, which ‘bloweth where it listeth’ and when it listeth, can always come and revivify symbols and rites, and restore to them, along with their lost meaning, the plenitude of their original virtue.
8 It can be said, moreover, in a general way, that the arts and sciences have become profane by just this kind of degeneration which deprives them of their traditional nature and, by way of consequence, of any higher significance. We have spoken of this in L’Esoterisme de Dante, ch. 2, and The Crisis of the Modern World, ch. 4 (see also The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, ch. 8)
10 The word poetry also derives from the Latin poiein which has the same signification as the Sanskrit word kri, whence comes karma, which is found again in the Latin creare understood in its primitive acceptation; at the beginning, therefore, it was a question of something altogether different from a mere artistic or literary production in the profane sense that Aristotle seems to have had uniquely in view in speaking of what he called the ‘poetic sciences’.
11 The word ‘diviner’ itself is no less deviant from its meaning; for etymologically it is nothing else than divinus, signifying here ‘interpreter of the Gods’. The ‘auspices’ (from aves spicere, ‘to observe the birds’), omens drawn from the flight and song of birds, are most closely related to the ‘language of birds’, understood in this case in the most literal sense but nevertheless still identified with the ‘language of the Gods’, who were thought to manifest their will by means of these omens. The birds thus played the part of ‘messengers’, analogous — but on a very low plane — to the part that is generally attributed to the angels (whence their name, for this is precisely the meaning of the Greek aggelos).
And so it is with my personal experience, and more particularly, my deeper intuition, of what it is that truly lies beneath the extraordinary “legend” of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Heard, felt, only by those with “an ear to hear”.
A rhythm, a pulse, a vibration, resonating through the body, calming the spirit, vivifying the soul, opening a door to communication with “higher” states of being; a particular rhythm which can now only be found in the “old-fashioned”, “under-powered” vibrations of a simple engine design rendered “obsolete” by the “sophisticated” glories of modernity.
That is to say, by the simple greed of accountants, lawyers, bureaucrats, executives, and shareholders.
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
— Leonardo da Vinci