Saturday, November 10, 2007

Miss Fish

It was Amanda, of course, who suggested that I get to know that great patroness of Rococo, Mme de Pompadour. Amanda believed that if anything ever bothered you, the only solution was to go straight to the source and talk to those who started it. While she collected gossip from Reagan’s court in Washington, I infiltrated the court of Louis XV. Dead celebrities are far more approachable than living ones. One may view their escapades with more equanimity. I don’t care who was blamed for starting the Seven Years War. I still fume about the Iran/Contra scandal.

Mme de Pompadour’s patronage secured the place of Francois Boucher in art history. While he painted daydreams, domestic idylls and mythological fantasias, she lived them or at least acted her part so impeccably that she appeared to be living them. I will tell you parts of her story, which, if you become interested, you may continue in any one of a number of good biographies. More have been written since the late 1970’s, when the only good book was still Nancy Mitford’s 1954 biography Madame de Pompadour. It’s still a good one. Mitford’s book, like Madame’s life, had the kind of dreamlike quality that made it easy to read and even easier to imagine oneself in. It solved my problems of what people did in the frivolous 18th century. Indeed, as I got to know her, Mme de Pompadour became rather like the rock I meditate with, a single person who holds within her singularity a great deal of universal, even archetypal depth. I talked about her that way when I did my public lectures. I suppose it was to add human interest, to try and convey the excitement of her life through her eyes, but now I realize that it was something more. Homo sum, wrote the Roman playwright Terence, et humani nihil me alienum puto. I am human and I think that nothing human is foreign to me. It’s a saying I’ve loved since college. I realize that I stand or fall with my species. The more I am able to love others, the more I can finally forgive myself.

The future Mme de Pompadour, was born Jeanne Antoinette Poisson in Paris on December 29, 1721. Her last name means Fish. Born into the society of high finance, her mother a known beauty, her paternity uncertain, she could not have picked a better situation into which to have become the catch of the century. Financiers are always in demand after a century of war. With royal treasuries exhausted, monarchs need what we today call venture capital and will happily step out of their social class to obtain it. Capitalism was to be the great innovation of the Enlightenment. Two years after Jeanne Antoinette, Adam Smith would be born in Scotland. Each in her and his own way would contribute to a heady world of laissez faire and cash values.

According to family lore, when Jeanne Antoinette was about nine years old, a fortune teller predicted that she would become the beloved of the king. This earned her the sobriquet “Reinette,” which, loosely translated, means “Queenie.” If the story came true in her case, you can be sure that many other little girls were receiving the same kind of news from the seers who were the rage at the time. Too much reason, too much heady philosophizing always leads to a resurgence of superstition in the parlor, table rapping, cards and the like. Some have said that the mystic and supposedly ancient Tarot deck was in fact an 18th century French innovation. Be that as it may, in the world of fortune tellers and dream speakers, royalty is the symbol of individuation. In the psychic realm, we are all kings and queens. Religious teaching abounds with kings and queens even when the teachers themselves are ascetics. The kingdom of heaven is a bejeweled realm. At some deep spiritual level, you cannot go wrong as a fortune teller if you inform a little girl that she is the beloved of the King.

After receiving the education that was now the right of girls of good birth, Jean Antoinette was married at nineteen to Charles-Guillaume Le Normant d'Étiolles, also a financier. Charles-Guillaume appeared to have loved her madly. Since her claim to fame was as a lover, this should not surprise us. Nor should we be surprised that he never forgave her leaving him, even if it was for the king. But the truth goes deeper. It was Charles-Guillaume’s own father, always the broker, who introduced his pretty daughter-in-law to court circles and helped to get her into the masked ball held at Versailles in 1745 to celebrate the marriage of Louis XV’s son to a Spanish princess. If d’Etiolles père was making loans to the king, what could be a better guarantee on his investment than the ivory arms of a beautiful woman, a brilliant hostess, a patron of the arts? Had he lived today, Charles Guillaume might have written a vindictive novel about his father’s sexual brokerage, but this was an age of sparkling women, and this was France, and Charles Guillaume only sulked.

It is hard to see what is going on in this engraving of “The Yew Tree Ball” by Charles-Nicolas Cochin (French, 1715–1790). It shows the grand soiree in which all the dreams of our beautiful Reinette at last came true. The king, present at first to greet his guests, then mysteriously disappeared, causing trepidation and alarm. Later, he returned with seven friends, all dressed up as identical clipped yew trees. You can see them over on the left. It must have been dreamlike to have been that night in the Hall of Mirrors, thousands of candles blazing everywhere, layer upon layer of tromp d’oeil and sparking reflection, everybody pretending to be somebody else: dominoes, harlequins, creatures whose heads lay in their chests, Persians, Indians, magicians, anything was possible on that breathless, stifling night, heady with sweat, desire and perfume.

This was, after all, the age of fairy tale, and this many years later, the masked ball at Versailles has the distinct feel of a Cinderella story, the ball, the disguise, the love struck prince, in this case a king hot for a mistress. The story of a hidden girl who becomes a princess is known the world round. She is a heroine with a thousand faces who makes her first appearance in the ancient world. Her Greco-Egyptian name is Rhodopsis, retold by Strabo in the first century B.C. In China, she is Ye Xian, who appears in a collection published around A.D. 860. She turns up in Africa as Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughter, and in North America, as the Algonquin Rough Face Girl. The story we know best, however, is French, Charles Perrault’s Cinderella, published in 1697. Madame is sure to have read it, and it certainly gives us a taste of her tale, for she, too, saw her dreams come true at a ball.

Jeanne Antoinette came to the ball dressed as Diana the huntress. It is incongruous to think of such a sexual conquest being made by a virgin goddess whose dislike of men was legendary, and it may be a subtle warning that this age was not quite as it seemed. At the literal level, of course, to be Diana is to give in to the thrill of the chase, a century of female woodland fantasy, culminating in the shepherd-excess of Marie Antoinette, but the metaphorical implications are far darker. If thousands of sweet, mythological hunting scenes would be painted over the next quarter century: nymphs and Maenads, Diana, Pomona, resting and singing in field and forest and garden, Diana herself was little disposed toward love. In one of her most famous stories, she turns a man who ogled her into a stag who was devoured by his own hounds. This is not exactly a love story. But the Diana who came to Versailles was of a different sort of huntress who gladly yielded to being ogled by her prey. And this, too, may have been prescient. Playing god is always serious, no matter which gods you choose, and even if your intent is nothing more than fun.

Mme de Pompadour played many. After she moved in with the king, she was more appropriately depicted as Venus. Above is Boucher’s famous “Toilette of Venus,” a portrait of Mme de Pompadour that hung in her salle de bain. Mme was also the model for Pomona in at least two versions of Boucher’s paintings of the scene. To your left is a sculpted version by Lemoyne which you may find at the Louvre.

The story of Vertumnus and Pomona may be found tucked away in an obscure corner of Ovid’s monumental poem The Metamorphoses. The Metamorphoses was written during the reign of Caesar Augustus. It is an epic series of transformation stories, beginning with primal chaos and ending with the deification of the emperor Augustus. It moves from gods to godlike men, from mythic time into the time of history. Vertumnus and Pomona not only have the distinction of being the only Italian gods in this tale, they also appear as semi-historical figures, their romance having taken place not during the once upon a time of the age of heroes, but during the completely datable reign of the kings of Alba Longa. Alba Longa would later be overthrown by Rome during Rome’s relentless rise to power. Pomona was the goddess of apples and fruit trees. Like Diana, Pomona cared for trees and did not care for men. Vertumnus, the god of seasons, change and plant growth, and as a result, a crafty shape shifter, was the only one able to enter her closed orchards. Sometimes he came disguised as a rustic reaper bearing gifts of grain, at others an old soldier. Finally, he came as an old woman who plied her with kisses. He wove the metaphor of the elm tree and the grapevine, how, without the vine, the elm would only be admired for its leaves and without the elm, the vine would be forced to creep along the ground. Next he told Pomona a sad tale of a young man who committed suicide because his beloved would not have him, and when she saw his bier pass beneath her window, a vengeful Venus turned her to stone. At this, Vertumnus shed his disguise and taking Pomona into his arms, would have had her by force had she not capitulated in delight.

The courtship of Pomona by Vertumnus became a popular subject in art by the late seventeenth century, and may have been one of the reasons why it evolved into one of the symbols of Mme de Pompadour’s seduction by the king. It was the subject of a ballet performed at Versailles in January 1749. Boucher was probably the designer of the sets, and Madame de Pompadour played the role of Pomona. The painting by Boucher at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor was a cartoon for a Gobelins tapestry probably inspired by the production. All of which to say that the story was mythic on many levels: a pagan myth of Imperial Rome, a myth of Enlightenment France, a myth of seduction in the garden.

If the erotic delights of pagan Rome had been crushed by the ascetic weight of Christians, what better way to put the Church in its place than to recreate pagan Rome in Paris? Although renewed persecutions of the Church still lay a half century in the future, the court of Louis XV had already turned away from the counsel of the cardinals who had been so powerful during the reign of his predecessor. And with this, new images came to replace the old ones. Instead of wicked Eve and virtuous Mary, now came Pomona, the goddess, not the eater, of apples.

It is likely that the myth’s sly allusions to the Garden of Eden was one of the things that made it so attractive. The same intellectual awareness that the Bible warned would lead to sin was the Enlightenment’s glory. No serpent was needed. Vertumnus, the man, deceived the woman all by himself. It proved a perfect foil to the dreary Christian legend of the Fall.

It is also a perfect example of a disconnect, a shift, a dislocation. But since this is myth, there is, of course, nothing random about it. Nothing at all.

Mme de Pompadour was neither prim maiden to be given as prize to a hardworking citizen, nor the beneficiary of hereditary duties and privilege. She was a boundary person. France had refused Protestantism and its domesticated church. Paris was full of women whose learning, wit and style were legendary, who were creating a culture of luxury and manners for any who could afford it. Jeanne Antoinette’s infiltration of the court helped make possible the bourgeois aspirations to power that followed. She also, like Eve, aroused a great deal of male rage.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

To Be in the Image of God – Part Two

As I walk the narrow path between fear and love, I remember a Buddhist teaching. All things may be equally true, says the teaching, but not all things are equally helpful. This was probably one of the reasons why Buddha declined to teach about God. Buddha only taught what he knew. What he knew was the nature of mind and what it meant to be a sentient creature. Buddha knew from his experiences of life and enlightenment that wisdom without compassion was like trying to be a bird with a broken wing, and so he would teach nothing that might divide people against one another. As we know from the debates that are fracturing the Anglican Communion, as we know from religious fundamentalism, trying to ascertain the nature and the will of deity can result in a great deal of unkindness.

Jesus, like the Buddha, came to teach us about being human. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted....Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” That which divides us is not helpful. Jesus, who lived in a monotheistic culture, taught that God is Love, that the wisdom of God’s Law, which was his dharma, could only be understood through the lens of Love. Love is not so much an entity, as it is a quality of relationship, and this is where Jesus’ teaching comes very close to the Buddha’s. Both stress that love is prime. Jesus lived in a God created world. Buddha did not, but the dependent co-arising of the Buddhist universe is very like the teaching of co-creation that Jesus learned from Torah. Spiritual truth can only be discerned as a relationship.

And here the paths seemingly diverge. We have many esoteric teachings attributed to the Buddha. We have very few from the Christ. Although scripture plainly tells us that Jesus taught his apostles truths beyond the parables, most of these have been lost. As Christians, we build our understanding of reality primarily from stories. We know that the Kingdom of God is among/within you.” We know that to judge another human being is to judge God. We know that to judge God is sin. Many Christians go ahead and judge anyway. They say that heads have got to roll if we are going to get it right. They invoke the Old Testament God of Law and insult us all with their divisiveness. I am being divisive even to write this. We all exist for a reason.

The divine, whether perceived as God or not-God, (and the spaces between are as true as the things in space) is indivisible. The indivisible cannot by its nature be divided into Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Native American, Buddhist an-atman, or any of the other sets of metaphors that our human limitations compel us to use. Either the spiritual world is true, or Richard Dawkins is correct and we suffer from a collective delusion and are really just machines driven by aggressive genes. That is the choice before us.

Which brings me to my final musing. If I choose not to believe Richard Dawkins and instead assert that the Universe is truly governed by Wisdom and by Love, how can terrible things happen to innocent people? How can we continue to praise the Divine and remain sane in a world that has given us the Holocaust, Hurricane Mitch, the Tsunami, and such massive daily injustice that 1.5 billion people live in poverty so abject that it sits at the edge of the grave?

It is easy to blame, or worse yet, to cower before God over this. But pause for a moment and consider. As I consider my disordered and distracted mind, I cannot help but wonder. If I am in fact a co-creator with God, if I am in fact part of a great co-arising, if I am a creature who weaves cause and effect from my acts of kindness and my acts of vengeance, then perhaps I am not wise to blame God, even for the natural disasters I call “Acts of God.” I know that the natural tragedies of hurricanes and tsunamis are exacerbated by the fact that dense populations are now piled up in unstable locations, that Western market culture has resulted in a misguided view of life. These same Western countries do not suffer so much when a natural disaster sweeps through.

Western industrial nations are not the only survivors, however. The indigenous manage to survive as well. The indigenous have not lost the art of conversing with nature. They can read the signs and seek refuge. The know how to listen to the world rather than always seeking to control it. All this suggests that I have paid a high price for my technological footprint; that machines have drowned out the still small voice. What is prayer, or if you prefer, meditation, but the art of listening?

This is the place to which I always return. It is not so much about what happens out there – one need only consider the workings of a star to realize that fire and explosion are woven into the way of truth – but what happens in here. If I can listen to the voice of truth, I will know what to do. I will even be able to embrace the day of my death in safety.

Violence and fear are what the evil one uses to trap me. I am often afraid because I am human and easily trapped. But I have found over the years of life, that love is stronger than fear and that nothing is ever wasted in this beautiful creation.

God appeared to Moses as fire and to Job in a whirlwind. God called Abram to leave the land of his ancestors and walk into the unknown. No one ever said it would be easy. They only said that wisdom and compassion and trust would finally give us wings.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

To Be in the Image of God - Part One

A reader asks, "If God is a loving God, does he allow terrible things to happen to innocent people (however one defines that term)? Or is the Old Testament right, in that God is a vengeful God to be appeased and who can wreak terrible things just because God can?"

When I ask “Who is God?” what I am really asking?
Am I asking about God whom I may know only in part?
Am I asking about myself whom perhaps I may know in full?
Am I asking because I am afraid?
Am I asking because I am in the image of God and this world is such a mess that my faith is being shaken?

What am I doing here?
What is to be my part in the human story?
What if I’m here for a trivial reason?
What if I don’t like the part I am to play in the human unfolding?
Why am I suffering when that person, who appears no more worthy than I, is enjoying so many good experiences?
Am I going to be kept alive so long that I become a gaunt old person with no money?
Am I going to die before I have figured anything out?
Is God pleased that one third of the world’s 6.5 billion people are going hungry while Americans are either obese or benefiting from a multi billion dollar diet and fitness industry?
Is it worth killing off the fish in the sea so that I don’t have to worry about cholesterol?
If American capitalism is so good, why is China, who is making so much of our economic ease possible, suffocating in its own pollution?
Can ecological filth, however temporary, ever lead to a greater good?

Whom am I really calling when I call upon the name of God?
Since I may know God only in part, can I make any distinction between my God and the God whom Jews and Muslims worship?
What about Buddhists who meditate within the non-god?
Or Hindus, with three million and one God at the same time?
Who is to be saved?
What does it mean to be saved?
What do I wish to be saved from? Or for?

And so I move from God, to self, to world, and back to God.

I wonder whether my questions are reflective of theology or of my own anxiety. Am I seeking truth or reassurance?

I live in a culture that fears suffering and death so deeply that it will do anything, including killing others, to keep itself alive. I know that this culture has rubbed off deeply on me, even when I believe I am critiquing it. Therefore the image of a vengeful God hold terrors for me because I see power and terror so closely woven into the fabric of what I call the real.

But is my image of the real, given to me by men, God’s reality? What if, in holding on prayerfully to the vengeance of God, I begin to see rather the fullness of my own terror? Once it becomes my problem and not God’s, I may begin to claim the truth that terror is not the way I wish to live. I might also affirm that terror is not the way I wish to die. And in doing this, I pass through the wrathful curtain (which is one of the stops along the way to God) and see that God is not vengeful.

Still, what do we do with a passage like this one? The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. (Proverbs 1:7) It is often taken to mean that God is fearful, and that my best response is to cower. I can see people hunched over in prayer, their noses to the ground, their knees calloused and scabbed from prostrations. God is best in small doses, this seems to say, like Moses hidden beneath the rocks and seeing only the back end of a departing deity. But thus hunched, and feeling quite safe, I can move with the passage, leaving fear behind and moving toward wisdom. And indeed, that is where the proverb itself goes – we remember that Hebrew poetry always comes in parallel couplets – and the second half of the verse is this: fools despise wisdom and instruction.

In evolutionary terms, fear is less about terror and more about alertness. Fear is instructive. It leads to wisdom. Fear is how I remain awake to this world’s real dangers and lead my clan between the saber toothed tiger and the crashing wave. Today this is gone. Fear has degnerated into stress, a medical problem that produces hypertension and illness and great profits for the health care colossus. My heart becomes mere muscle, subject to "attack." Too easily do I forget that fight, flight and awareness have more traditionally been the conditions of life, not the agents of death. Perhaps in my culturer's controlling myopia, I have become the fool who despises wisdom and instruction.

I know from living in the times that we do that fear has degenerated from a condition of being awake to a powerful agent of social control. Fear can exact a great deal of obedience very quickly. It requires no subtlety or wisdom to make others afraid. If fear is invoked in the name of God, it becomes easy to adduce that God is a fearful being. (And since I'm a Christian, I'll project that fear onto an "Old Testament" God.)

But then I go back and deeply read the Hebrew scriptures. I reread Genesis. Is God in this story a God of vengeance or simply a God who is present at the consequences? How can God require obedience when God makes freedom possible? (And if I'm free to trash my neighbor, I see far less of this from God who is free to do a great deal and yet declines.) Look at how God responded to all the mess ups. God clothed Adam and Eve in the skins they would need to survive. God marked Cain so that others would not destroy him and just maybe, there would not be a chain reaction of murder. God didn't wipe out everything in the flood. God appeared twice to Hagar when others drove her into the desert. This is not a deity that rains down vengeance. Even in those cases where it appears that vengeance is raining down, it is more the deafness and willfulness of the people that bring about destruction than it is the wrath of God. If I choose to defy the laws of nature, I may very well die as a result of my choice. Had the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah been less into violence and more into meditation, they would have felt the earth tremble under their feet. According to the Jews, God is a collaborator, not a dictator; it is the task of humanity to complete the Creation that God has given into our care. Maybe God was speaking to everyone and only Noah heard.

This leads me to suspect that if I am seeing God as fearful, I am dealing with something inside myself so big and so impossible that the only way I can even begin to see it is to project it upon God. If I am in the image of God, so is God the mirror in which I learn to see my true face. To be continued. . .