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W. Reichel – Poem “Letter to Dionysis” (English)

ΓΡΑΜΜΑ ΣΤΟΝ ΔΙΟΝΥΣΗ

Οὐκ ἄν ἔχομεν εἰπεῖν βεβαίως
οὔτ΄ ἀλκυόνων περὶ οὔτ΄ ἀηδόνων
Λουκιανὸς

Γιατί ρέ Διονύση,
δὲν εἶναι εὔκολο νὰ μιλᾶ κανεὶς σήμερα
μὲ βεβαιότητα οὔτε γιὰ ἀλκυόνες
οὔτε γιὰ ἀηδόνια
ὅταν κατοικεῖ σὲ σπίτι
ποὺ δὲν θυσιάστηκε πετεινὸς στὰ θεμέλια του
κι οὔτε ἔχει κοιμηθεῖ σὲ στρῶμα
μὲ σταυροὺς ραμμένους στὶς τέσσερεις γωνιές του
ὅπου πέφταν τὰ νομίσματα
χρυσά καὶ ἀργυρὰ
κι οἱ σπόροι ἀπὸ βαμβάκι καὶ σησάμι
ἢ ἔχει χυθεῖ μαζὶ μὲ τοὺς ἄλλους στοὺς δρόμους
ὢς βαθιὰ μέσα στὴ νύχτα
στὰ λαμπρὰ φωτισμένα σπίτια
μὲ τοὺς Λάζαρους ντυμένους μὲ κίτρινα λουλούδια
καὶ γύρω ἀπ’ τὰ γεμάτα ἄνθη στρώματά τους
στέφανα καὶ δημητριακὰ
πουλιὰ ἑρπετὰ πέταλα
ἀλεύρι μάραθο κεριὰ καὶ μέλι
πιὸ μαλακὰ ἀπ’ τὸν ὕπνο.

Ἔτσι Διονύση,
μέσα στὸ γενικὸ θαλάσσωμα
τῆς ἀνακρίβειας τῶν αἰσθημάτων,
πίνοντας καφέ,
Παρασκευὴ πρωί
δὲν ἔχω παρὰ νὰ σοῦ πὼ
πὼς σὲ πεθύμησα πολύ.

Niki Marangou

LETTER TO DIONYSIS

Nothing we have said is certain
concerning either halcyons or nightingales
(Lucian)

You see, Dionysis
nowadays it is not easy for us to speak
of halcyons
nor of nightingales
as we have not lived in houses on whose foundations
cocks were sacrificed
nor have we slept on mattresses
with crosses at their four corners sewn
where coins fell
of silver and of gold
and seeds of cotton and of sesame
nor have we poured into the streets
deep into the night
and into houses brightly lit
with Lazaruses in yellow flowers adorned
their blossom-filled beds beset with
garlands and grains
birds lizards petals
flour fennel candles and honey
softer than sleep

That’s why, Dionysis,
in the “general turmoil
of uncertainty of feelings”
drinking coffee
on a Friday morning,
I just have to tell you
that I’ve missed you very much

I. Introduction

The poem “Letter to Dionysis” by Greek-Cypriot poet Niki Marangou has an immediate impact on the reader. Elementary images appear, so powerful on their own that they affect and stimulate our imagination even before they are presented in a potential relationship with each other:
A halcyon, with its nostalgically beautiful song and colourful plumage shimmering in the sun, flying along the river bank; the widely audible melody of the nightingale’s cry in the dusk; the flash of a blade at the throat of a white cock; dark-red blood spraying onto grey marble; crosses, perhaps black, red or golden, sewn onto bedding; shiny gold and silver coins, and among them light brown sesame seeds and dark cotton seeds in their white wool; illuminated windows glowing in the dark night; an exalted crowd of people surging through the streets, loud calls, perhaps also singing; at the very front, a number of Lazaruses, not only one but several, raised from the dead and not wrapped in a shroud anymore, but in yellow flowers. Their deathbeds, so recently places of mourning and tears, are now, like an altar, overflowing with blossoms, surrounded by garlands, birds, lizards and candles…and “softer than sleep”.
But then, as if to emphasise the luminance of these images once more, there is a change to a scene of everyday greyness: a banal Friday morning, perhaps in the kitchen of a similarly banal apartment flat, a cup of coffee and a short sentence, uttered rather casually.
It is not easy to break the spell of these pictures. They merge with images in the own soul, with own experiences and distant memories. It is tempting to linger unquestioningly with them, like in a beautiful, enchanting painting.
But then the reader’s attention is drawn to the short word “δὲν“ (= not), which appears in two central places in the poem (lines 7 and 11). Perhaps escaping notice at first, this word suddenly causes these images and their magic to make way for a perplexed disenchantment. This happens in a mysterious connection with the apparently lost certainty regarding halcyons and nightingales, a connection also suggested by the humble word “ὅταν” (=when). But what other certainty than that of their mere existence do the halcyon and the nightingale need?
These and other questions are reason enough to re-read the “Letter to Dionysis”. However, it is not more accuracy or thoroughness that is required, as these were already applied during the first reading. A different kind of reading is necessary, with a little more analytical distance and a substantially expanded horizon of understanding. Our point of departure is the kitchen of the banal apartment flat in the poem, with a cup of coffee on a Friday morning, and our journey ends there, too. At the end of our journey, however, the kitchen will not be the same. Coffee cup, chair, table and stove will be in the same place, but everything will appear in a different light because the person sitting there and drinking coffee will have changed.
Our journey will allow us to witness how a person, if only temporarily, turns into a God. As an invisible audience of a more or less philosophical dialogue on the beach of Phaleron near Athens, set at the beginning of the 5th century BC, we will not only find out why and how a mourning widow and a desperate mother are turned into a halcyon and a nightingale respectively, but also why this can be considered possible. In the Hellenic Alexandria of around 272 BC, we will join two female participants of the then-famous Feast of Adonis and allow ourselves to be enchanted by him.
We will hold a conversation with Friedrich Hölderlin, later joined by the Anglo-American poet T.S. Eliot. From time to time, in order to add theoretical depth, we will consult Max Weber, the social scientist who has greatly influenced our way of looking at “Economy and Society”. Finally, contemporary philosopher Jürgen Habermas will contribute significantly to our eventual return to our kitchen.
By now it should have become obvious that this is no standard poetry interpretation, but rather a kind of dialogue with interlocutors from different ages and cultures, not least with the author of the poem, Niki Marangou. Ever since I first read the German translation of “Letter to Dionysis” in the weekly newspaper “Die Zeit” in 1999, the poem has kept me company. It touches on many issues that have preoccupied me for years and that is why I have often discussed the poem with students in class. Indeed, it has become part of my biography.
I am increasingly fascinated by the question whether the statement of the last verse, “πὼς σὲ πεθύμησα πολύ” (“I have missed you very much”), is how the poem should end, or whether it is not actually the beginning of a serious conversation that considers the themes preceding it in the poem. This conversation does not want to undo the „δὲν“ (which would be impossible anyway, as it would involve ignoring everything we know about today’s world). Nevertheless, it is unwilling to dispose of a world forever lost with its magic on the proverbial “ash heap of history”; rather, it looks for ways to conserve or rediscover the ideas expressed in that lost magic for our “disenchanted world” of today. The terms “expressed”, “conserve” and “rediscover” here only serve to indicate the general direction in which the conversation will move.
This preoccupation is the main reason for my choice of an interpretative frame that expansively embraces antiquity and the present. Furthermore, because of this preoccupation, I have taken the liberty to choose a horizon of interpretation in which the intentions of the poem (and its writer) and the observations and experiences it is based on merge with my own observations, experiences and intentions – admittedly a daring hermeneutic operation, but one that I believe is the right of interpreters of good poetry (of which “Letter to Dionysis” is undoubtedly an example) and that the style of the poem itself calls for. In the process, the horizon of understanding may be expanded in new directions, surprising even for the author of the poem.

II. From Dionysis to Dionysos

Who is this “Dionysis”, addressed by the author (or, as we will discuss later, perhaps by the so-called “lyrical subject”) at the beginning and especially at the end of the poem (lines 26-32), in a manner that suggests he is intimately known?

The name of the person addressed, “Dionysis”, a common modern Greek first name derived from the ancient Christian name Dionysios, first suggests a rather private context; the “Letter to Dionysis” may be the memories of a woman left by her friend, lover, or husband. Or perhaps – and this would be no less private – the poem is about the painful realisation of the loss or even total lack of experiences such as those described in lines 10 to 25, experiences that we may call “spiritual”.

There are important arguments against interpreting the poem solely in the context of a relationship with a certain person called Dionysis. For one, the quotation found both preceding the poem and reappearing in it in modified form is from the pseudo-Socratic dialogue “Halcyon, or on Transformations” by (Pseudo-)Lucian of Samosata; as we shall see, it broadens the frame of interpretation considerably, due to the “epistemological” deliberations attributed to Socrates. In addition, the intensity with which lost (or never existing, perhaps only “imagined”) spiritual experiences are described in lines 10 to 25, as well as the inclusion of the biblical character of the resurrected Lazarus, suggest that the poet is not (only) communicating experiences of a personal nature, but painting a picture of a complete world, lost forever to us “σήμερα” (= today, line 7). But why?
Closer reading also reveals that the content of lines 26 to 32 is not as “private” as initially thought. For one, there is an explicit quotation from a poem by T.S. Eliot incorporated into these lines. Another clue is the ostensibly casual remark that the “Letter to Dionysis” was written on a Friday (morning), a fact that can make a simple cup of coffee appear in a very different light.
These factors point towards an interpretation that goes beyond individual experiences (of the poet) and demand a wider perspective with an amplified “message”. Nevertheless, we should first look for the key to understanding the message in Niki Marangou’s biography. In the essay “Nicossienses & Roses” she writes:
„I left Nicosia in 1965. I went to Berlin to study. There, I experienced a different Nicosia, the nostalgia for it. I returned in 1970 to find the town changed, but I had changed too. I lost my bearings and I could no longer either write or paint. I wrote articles about the “New tendencies in European Socialism” which were well received, but I had been crafted with a north European sadness. I had lost my pencils. Only the torpid Nicosia afternoons helped me to remember who I was. Idleness, and palm trees on the horizon. And the sea.”
Another time she writes about her time in Berlin, “Six years in Berlin confused me enough” , a statement that probably also refers to her sociology studies there.

It is in constrast to this infection with “north European sadness” that we think of the well-known and extraordinarily vital god Dionysos of antiquity, here appearing as if masked by the human being Dionysis, a person we cannot really grasp the essence of. Camouflage is precisely one of the salient characteristics of Dionysos, also called the “god of metamorphosis and ecstasy” and often depicted with a mask in front of his face.
Indeed, it is not difficult to find traces of ecstasy in lines 17 to 25. Furthermore, honey, flour, (ivy) leaves, and particularly snakes (lines 23-24) are all items attributed to Dionysos. Especially interesting in this context is the biblical, that is Christian, character of the resurrected Lazarus, who appears multiplied in the poem. But Christians do not have a monopoly on being raised from the dead; indeed, since Dionysos was also resurrected, it is part of his mystery cult and as essential there as in Christianity. The well-known resemblances between Dionysos and Christ are perhaps the reason for the mingling of Christian and pagan elements in lines 10 to 25. Incidentally, these elements are visually represented in a Roman mosaic in the so-called “House of Aion” (mid-4th century AD) in Paphos/Cyprus: In the lap of Hermes lies Dionysos, here as a “divine child” with a halo around his head and mirroring the pose of Jesus on Mary’s lap. The quotation “softer than sleep” in line 25 further suggests the addition of the demigod Adonis, at home both in this and the other world.
Is it perhaps reading too much into things if we assume that “Dionysos”, together with the human “companion” he has been associated with, represents all that lines 10 to 25 have introduced as lost, yet possibly once present or at least once possible? That is, does his vitality, with which he can even overcome death, represent the exact opposite of the “north European sadness“ and its concomitant paralysis (“I had lost my pencils”)?
In that case, the “Letter to Dionysis” would be an appeal to Dionysos to reveal himself (once more), so that the appealer may be released from paralysis in a process resembling resurrection from the dead and may be transformed into a person once again brimming with creative energy. At the same time, the poem might also be proof of the writer having overcome this “north European sadness” – otherwise it could not have been written. In any case, the poem would then have a factual and perhaps also chronological relationship closely connected to the experiences that Niki Marangou obviously had during and after her stay in Berlin.
However, it would be premature to identify this Dionysos solely with the god of antiquity. The amalgamation with Christian elements in the poem itself forbids this and suggests that Dionysos lives on after antiquity, or rather – befittingly for him – is resurrected again and again in a different form.
His last resurrection for now, emerging in the “Letter to Dionysis”, comes from the era of Romanticism. Dionysos here turns into the symbolic protagonist of a movement against what Max Weber later terms the “disenchantment of the world” and describes thus:
“The increasing intellectualization and rationalization do not, therefore, indicate an increased and general knowledge of the conditions under which one lives. It means something else, namely, the knowledge or belief that if one but wished one could learn it at any time. Hence, it means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service. This above all is what intellectualization means.”

Particularly since the Enlightenment this disenchantment has taken over in all areas of life and has become a dictum whose normative power can only be avoided if one accepts accusations of being gullible, backward, and not “of this world”. It is in this sense that Kant speaks of a “spellbound” world that “leaves reason useless and bereft of its laws of experience.”
This is very different from the Romanticists operating with the Dionysos myth: While Kant perceives the formerly enchanted world as spellbound and thus bewitched, leading reason astray, the Romantics believe that it is the disenchantment of the world that has separated man from the sources of real, true life. Thus it is only consistent that a core desire of the Romantic programme is a “re-enchantment” of the world.
Is it reading too much into the final statement, “I’ve missed you very much”, if we relate it to this broader context? What Niki Marangou described as the “north European sadness” would then, to express it flippantly, not be due to bad weather and other accidental experiences, but rather be a symptom of a much deeper illness, the disenchantment (“secularisation”) of the world and its related losses, as described indirectly in lines 10-25. This would make the theme of the poem not only something in the past, in the sense of something we have left behind, but rather something lost, for which we at least need to mourn. This would then affect not only the poet, but any one of us sharing this perspective. Appropriately, the question as to the identity of the “I” of the poem thus continues to be unanswered.

III. „μέσα στὸ γενικὸ θαλάσσωμα τῆς ἀνακρίβειας τῶν αἰσθημάτων“

Perhaps the phrase “in the general turmoil of uncertainty of feelings” (lines 27 and 28) means just that and it would be futile to look for further interpretation.
However, if this were the case, then the express use of a different format to mark a quotation would not make sense. It is thus worth pursuing this quote and its importance for the “Letter to Dionysis”. This will also lend a sharper focus to the considerations so far.
Unlike with the quotation from (Pseudo-)Lucian’s “halcyon dialogue” at the beginning of the poem, there is no indication of the author. In fact, though, it is a quote from the fifth part of T.S. Eliot’s poem “East Coker”, the Greek translation of which made its way into Niki Marangou’s poem and was then translated back into English by Stephanos Stephanides – this has resulted in a few discrepancies between the original and the English re-translation.
The fifth verse of Eliot’s poem begins thus:
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years —
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition —
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Obviously, T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) is here taking stock of his poetic efforts so far, of “trying to use words”. He is not satisfied with the result, and it is probably not a coincidence that his “Four Quartets” (of which “East Coker” is a part) is his last poem. He writes of “failure” and that everything has been said already “by men whom one cannot hope to emulate”, either in content or in form. That is why any poetical attempt, if one wants to step on virgin soil and say new things in a new manner, is a new beginning and “a raid on the inarticulate”, on the unsaid or something not said in such a way before.
In this context he writes of a “general mess of imprecision of feeling”. This phrase, which is quoted by Niki Marangou, is part of a longer sentence:
And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.
At first sight it seems that “the general turmoil of uncertainty of feelings”, or “the general mess of imprecision of feeling”, only refers to the question any poet, including T.S. Eliot has to struggle with: Whether the means at his disposal, that is, his “equipment”, are sufficient for him to win the “fight” with the things around him, with his own thoughts and feelings, with moments of inspiration and the lows of self doubt, indeed the fight with himself, with words and language in general.
If we recall Niki Marangou’s time in Berlin and its consequences for her writing, then Eliot’s lines turn from a general statement independent of time and place to a precise description of the problems that must have preoccupied Niki Marangou in Berlin; the quote in the “Letter to Dionysis” seems to summarise all of that. The reference to the “wasted years” of which Eliot speaks in the second line of the fifth verse only serves to complete the picture.
However, these deliberations are just as incomplete as those about “Dionysis”. Just as “Dionysis” appears as a multifaceted “person”, Niki Marangou’s relation to T.S. Eliot is not exhausted by her borrowing a few verses to suit her biography. At least this is what we conclude if we look at T.S. Eliot’s great poem “The Waste Land”. A title just as suitable would be “The Disenchanted Land”, since Eliot unsparingly describes a time, immediately after the First World War, that had to take leave of all the illusions of the 19th century. Compared to the – at least in retrospect – “enchanted” century, the present seemed desolate, metaphorically speaking empty and wasted, cut off from water, the source of life:
Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand not lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses
If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water
Considering this diagnosis of his time, it is at first glance the more surprising to what extent Eliot has worked set pieces of European and extra-European mythology, as well as religious and cultural history, into “The Waste Land”, i.e. parts of texts that are both creations and creators of an “enchanted world”. What is typical of Eliot’s treatment of the texts is their appearance in very banal contexts. Thus, instead of enhancing or enlivening the sad, wasted present, that is, adding an appearance of hope to it, these once enchanting yet now frail traditional items undergo their own extensive disenchantment, so that the appearance of hope turns out to be an illusion.
Niki Marangou uses the same method with the same consequences when she evokes a formerly enchanted and enchanting world with the luminous images in “Letter to Dionysis”. It is a world that cannot withstand the disenchanted everyday and thus pulls the cited antiquity down from its Olymp to the banal kitchen of a banal apartment flat and devalues it. The “Dionysis” whom we even suspected of masking the god “Dionysos” turns back into plain “Dionysis”.
All of this resonates at the end of the “Letter to Dionysis”, which reads:
That’s why, Dionysis,
in the “general turmoil
of uncertainty of feelings”
drinking coffee
on a Friday morning,
I just have to tell you
that I’ve missed you very much

IV. About Halcyons and Nightingales

The two lines preceding the poem are from the dialogue “Halcyon or on Transformations” , attributed to Lucian of Samosata (around 120-180 AD), but certainly not written by him.
The quote is from a conversation between Socrates and one Chaerophon, a friend and admirer of Socrates. Although these are historical personages, the dialogue itself is invented by (Pseudo-)Lucian.
It can be concluded from the last paragraph of the dialogue that they are both standing at the waterside of the Athenian harbour Phaleron. They are listening to the beautiful yet melancholy song of a bird. To Chaerophon’s question as to the sound, Socrates explains that it is the sound of a halcyon (Ἀλκυὼν) and immediately follows it with a suitable story:
“They say that it was once a woman, the daughter of Aeolus, son of Hellen, that she yearned for the love of her dead husband, Ceyx of Trachis, son of the Morning Star, handsome son of a handsome father, and lamented for him, and then, acquiring wings by some divine dispensation, she began to fly like a bird over the seas, once she had wandered over the whole earth without being able to find him.”
“But, in the name of the gods,” asks Chaerophon, “how in the world is one to believe the primeval story, Socrates, that birds once turned into women or women into birds? For anything of that sort is clearly quite impossible.”
Surprisingly, Socrates answers this question in a very different tone from the mockery of such wondrous stories that readers are used to from the texts by the real Lucian (and other contemporary authors). He uses the “argumentum a fortiori”, much-used in religion and theology, by pointing out numerous phenomena, particularly in nature, that humans cannot explain, since “we form our opinions to the best of our human ability, but that is unable to know or believe or see.”
He then concludes:
“Since, then the powers of the immortals are great, we, who are mortal and quite infinitesimal, who have no insight into matters great or small, but are even perplexed by most of the things which happen around us, cannot speak with assurance either about halcyons or nightingales.”
We could say that Socrates here allows the (possible) transformation of halcyons to flow into the great ocean of our ignorance: We know so little, so we cannot say anything specific in this case either. This ignorance is not used here to support the uncertainty or impossibility of a transformation, but instead is supposed to support its possibility: We cannot say with certainty that halcyons and nightingales are not transformed humans, so that this reasoning turns unlikelihood into something akin to likelihood.
Although the context is very different, the argument attributed to Socrates here is reminiscent of a later dictum by Kant, where he says that he had to remove knowledge to make space for belief. The difference is that (Pseudo-)Lucian tries to attain this goal with much less effort and thus with much less persuasiveness, at least for our times.
If this is taken to a more abstract level, then this is a particular concept of “reality” which frames what is deemed “possible” or “impossible”. It is not the everyday experiences or those beyond the everyday that inductively create a concept of “reality”; rather, this concept determines what can or cannot happen in the everyday and beyond. And this is precisely the theoretical precondition for the enchantment of the world, only made possible by our ignorance.
However, this theoretical argument is actually belated, considering that the enchantment of the world is not something that everyone agrees on any longer. It is indeed only at this stage that such theoretical efforts as can be found in our dialogue are felt to be necessary. At this stage, the disenchantment of the enchanted world has already begun, irrevocably, even if some may hope to argue against it successfully.
A reflex of the premonition of this loss can be found in our dialogue. As it continues, it shows that the question at isue is not primarily the likelihood or unlikelihood of a transformation of halcyons, i.e. nothing less than an epiphany of the holy, but rather moral gain. This was already visible in Ovid’s work, but is here expressed explicitly:
Socrates [speaking to the halcyon directly]: “But the story told about your songs, musical bird of laments, shall be handed down by me to my sons in the form handed down to us by our fathers, and I shall often tell my wives, Xanthippe and Myrto, about your devout and affectionate love for your husband, and in particular of the honour which you obtained from the gods. Will you also do the same, Chaerophon?”
Chaerophon: “It is right that I should do so, Socrates, and what you have said contains a twofold admonition to wives and husbands as regards their relations with one another.”
Thus, a story about a miracle is furtively transformed from one that shows us what is possible in an enchanted world – “real” transformations – into a moral lesson. This allows the story that “has come to us from our fathers” to be “rescued”, but at the cost of abandoning its original intent.
To simplify, one could say that this treatment of the old stories from an enchanted world are the beginning of a rationalisation and thus also a “demythologisation”, i.e. disenchantment, with which myth has been turned into mythology, religion into theology, and finally everything into anthropology in a furtive process continuing up to today. It is impossible to escape this irrevocable process.

V. „Γράμμα στόν Διονύση“
However, a completely different way of interacting with these and other stories is – or should we say was? – possible. Instead of the demythologisation and rationalisation that can be felt in the dialogue about halcyon and nightingale, one can allow oneself to be fascinated by what these stories want to tell rather than what this might mean in the end. If a mourning widow is “really” transformed into a halcyon, then this can only have been the work of a god, and then each halcyon I see represents not the moral of a story but the “other world” itself. These encounters are then nothing but a hierophany, the epiphany of the sacred. With such epiphanies, if they are perceived as such, it is inappropriate to ask about their likelihood or unlikelihood or about their meaning. A hierophany receives its strength from itself and demands an appropriate response. A suitable reaction then is not a moral discourse on a “good life”, but rather – well, what? Suitable would only be:
“… to pour into the streets
deep into the night
and into houses brightly lit
with Lazaruses in yellow flowers adorned
their blossom-filled beds beset with
garlands and grains
birds lizards petals
flour fennel candles and honey
softer than sleep.”
So, through the streets with the Lazaruses! Follow them! Ecstatic song! Resurrection, life, and not only once, but repeatedly, forever. No problematisation or questioning. No secondary interpretations, no empty talk. Rather more flowers where there are already flowers. More candles in a place that is already brightly lit. Abundance, waste, and all “softer than sleep”. The magic radiated by an enchanted world is that it transforms our life completely and makes even the dark sides of our life appear in a brighter light, making the light lighter and the dark less dark.
Niki Marangou’s expressive description of what a hierophany is, or rather, could be, and what it precipitates in those experiencing it deserves a suitable addition. This is occasioned by its final characterisation as “softer than sleep” (line 25), probably referring to the – erstwhile – deathbeds of the resurrected Lazaruses. Originally this seems to have been a kind of advertising slogan of the carpet weavers and/or sellers from the ancient cities of Milet and Samos, but in our context suggests traces of hierophany, or in this case even theophany.
This advertising slogan has been handed down to us by the Hellenic poet Theocritus (3rd century BC). In his 15th idyll, “Women at the Adonia”, a short, unpretentious dramolet, he describes how two women participate in the Feast of Adonis in Alexandria during the reign of King Ptolemy II Philadelphus and his wife Arsinoë. This springtime feast, celebrated up into the 5th century AD, revolves around death and resurrection, in this case that of Adonis. Central to the dramolet is a song of praise by a female singer describing a scenario that the two women may – in whatever form – be visualising at that moment:
“Lady who lovest Golgi and Idalium and the steep of Eryx, Aphrodite of the golden toys, see how after a tewelvemonth the Hours have brought thee back Adonis from Acheron’s ever-flowing stream, the dear soft-footed Hours, tardiest of the Blessed ones; yet ever longed for is their coming, and ever for all men do their bring some gift. Lady of Cyprus, Dione’s child, thou, as men say, didst change Berenica from mortal to immortal, dropping ambrosia into her woman’s breast. And for thy sake, Lady of many names and many shrines, Berenica’s daughter Arsinoa, lovely as Helen, cossets Adonis with all things good. By him in their season are all that fruit-trees bear, and delicate gardens in silver baskets guarded, and golden flasks of Syrian perfume. And all the cates that woman fashion on the kneading-tray, mingling every hue with fine white wheat-flower, are there, and those they make of sweet honey and with smooth oil. All creatures of the earth and air are there beside. And green bowers have been built, laden with the tender dill, and boyish Loves flit overhead like young nightingales that flit upon the tree from spray making trial of their fledgling wings.
O ebony, O gold, O eagles of white ivory that bear to Zeus the son of Cronos a boy to pour his wine. And crimson coverletts above, as soft as sleep. Miletus will say, and he who pastures Samos with his flocks, ‘Ours are the coverlets for the fair Adonis’ couch’.
In Adonis’ rosy arms the Cyprian lies, and he in hers. Of eighteen years or nineteen is the groom; the golden down is still upon his lip; his kisses are not rough. And now farewell to Cypris as she clasps her lover. But all together, at daybreak, with the dew, will we bear him out to the waves that splash upon the shore; and there with ungirt hair, breasts bared and raiment falling to the ankle, will we begin our clear song.
Thou dear Adonis, alone of demigods, as they tell, dost visit both earth and Acheron. Such lot fell not to Agamemnon, nor mighty Aias, that hero of the heavy anger, nor Hector, eldest of Hecabe’s twenty sons; no, nor to Patrocles, nor Pyrrhus, when he came back from Troy, nor yet to the Lapiths of an earlier age, nor Deucalion and his kind. Not to the house of Pelops and the Pelasgian lords of Argos. Look on us with favour next year too, dear Adonis. Happy has thy coming found us now, Adonis, and when you comest again, dear will be thy return.”

When a god or – as here – a demigod returns to the living from the realms of death, and this is after all what is symbolised by the annual Adonia, then this calls for a splendid production that celebrates youth, beauty, and life in general and that allows the participants in the feast to simulate the experience of resurrection themselves. Communicated by the above-mentioned quote in line 25 of the poem, the events from 272 BC can now also be connected with the scenes imagined on a Friday morning with a cup of coffee in the “Letter to Dionysis”; this contrastive “feedback” causes the scenes to shine even more brightly.

At the same time, however, the unpretentious nature of the 15th idyll prevents the hasty and inappropriate idealization of times past. Thus an utterance by one of the women, Gorgo, to her companion Praxinoa immediately before and after the recital of the song shows that she considers the feast to be a great spectacle rather than a truly touching experience:
“Hush, Praxinoa; the Argive woman’s daughter is going to sing the Adonis, that clever singer, who did the best in the dirge last year. She’ll give us something fine, I’ll be bound. She’s just clearing her throat.”
And immediately after the recital:
“Praxinoa, the woman’s a marvel – happy to know so much, thrice happy to have so sweet a voice. Still, it’s time for home. Diocleidas hasn’t had his dinner, and the man’s all vinegar; don’t so much as go near him when he’s hungry. Farewell, beloved Adon; and I hope you’ll find us happy when you come again.”

Nevertheless, a real epiphany is immune to such comments and attitude, as it lastingly transforms the world and people. At least this is how it should be.

But is this really the complete truth? In his study “Image and Cult: A History of the Image before the Age of Art”, art historian Hans Belting describes the fundamental change that the status of religious images underwent with the beginning of the “Age of Art”; no longer were they judged on whether they had “dynamis, supernatural effects”, based on the presence of God and the saints that gave them voice, “charisma” and a “sacred aura” that allowed them to “stand out from the world of objects they were yet part of.” Instead, other benchmarks have come to the fore, particularly the artistic quality of a picture, as well as further secular criteria, such as the artist and his or her market value, current trends in art, etc. As a result, pictures have moved from churches into museums or private collections – places that are at variance with the pictures’ original self-conception.

Theocritus’ 15th idyll describes a shift of interest on behalf of the two women from the content of the recital to the singer herself, the quality of her performance, and the surrounding circumstances; this shift foreshadows a similar change in focus as described by Belting, that is, away from the “essence” to secondary attributes. Such an interpretation may seem speculative, but I consider it more than likely in the enlightened Hellenistic Alexandria of the 3rd century BC.

The moralising interpretation of the myth (as offered by (Pseudo-)Lucian) and the transformation of the cult into staged theatre (as described by Theocritus) are two sides of the same coin, that is, the disenchantment of the world, which is not a phenomenon of modern times and apparently also not unidirectional; rather, from its early incipience it has been moving in waves and with interruptions.
However, it is only today that these deliberations have fully developed their dramatic effects and their corresponding reactions. .For the horizon of an enchanted world it makes a difference…
… whether we live in houses on whose foundations
cocks were sacrificed
and sleep on mattresses
with crosses at their four corners sewn
where coins fell
of silver and of gold
and seeds of cotton and of sesame
and whether we pour into the streets
deep into the night
and into houses brightly lit
with Lazaruses in yellow flowers adorned
their blossom-filled beds beset with
garlands and grains
birds lizards petals
flour fennel candles and honey
softer than sleep.
In such a house nothing and no one can harm one – and even if they should, that is, if disaster, illness, and death should move in, then this would only touch the inhabitant of such a house tangentially; they would know that this is not the whole truth.
However, “σήμερα” (today – line 7) no one lives in such a house anymore. This is the bitter truth that the poet and her readers have to face – on a banal Friday morning, perhaps in the kitchen of an equally banal apartment flat. In the same way, “today” does not witness any more mourning widows being transformed into halcyons, no desperate mothers being turned into nightingales, and no one being raised from the dead.
When Niki Marangou refers to the quote from (Pseudo-)Lucian’s dialogue in the first lines of her poem, this does not have the expected effect of reducing the distance between today and then; rather, this distance is emphasized, as a sentence does not have the same meaning “today” as it did 2000 years ago. When we say, “nowadays it is not easy for us to speak of halcyons nor of nightingales”, then we mean: unlike the (Pseudo-)Lucianian Socrates we do not have the option of believing the unlikely to be possible on the basis of our ignorance. Our modern concept of disenchanted reality does not allow for this and that is why we do not recognise the transformations: to us, a halcyon will always remain no more than a halcyon, and a nightingale always a nightingale.
We could only utter Lucian’s/Socrates’ sentence with the same meaning as in the past – i.e. using our ignorance as an argument for the possibility of the unlikely – if we forgot all the knowledge about the world that has been made accessible to us. This knowledge is stored in our libraries and databases; anyone has access to it anytime and anywhere. For generations it has been stored in our heads and is today “just there”, whether we want to make use of it or not.
The term “knowledge” here refers primarily not to concrete results, although such concrete results (“The earth revolves around the sun”) themselves may have revolutionary effects. Rather, it refers to the methods and ways of thinking that lead to these results, as well as the knowledge of how our knowledge is created, how it is organised, and how it is outdated or renewed. Even those areas that have been closed to our knowledge so far do not represent a limit to perception. Generally, the traditional differentiation between belief and knowledge has been problematised and a line between them can only be drawn randomly or opportunistically. This world no longer offers space for “the sacred” or “the totally different”, at least not when these terms refer to something that captivates us from the outside.
This is despite the fact that there has been an inflation of the use of terms such as “sacred”, “spiritual”, “magical”, etc. They do not, as some may hope, indicate a “return of the gods”, but rather a transformation of these terms into self-referential descriptions of processes within the soul. As a result, today the source of what we call “sacred” lies within ourselves and no longer in an enchanted world. Indeed, this shift of the formerly externally located “numinous” into our interior is the final result of the disenchantment of the world.
Similarly, the constructivist school of thought acknowledges different concepts of knowledge that are more or less equally valid; from this perspective, shamanistic knowledge, for instance, would be on the same footing as physical or psychological knowledge. By legitimising all positions, it is hoped that one’s own position cannot be delegitimised; however, the constructivist concept itself is a result of the disenchantment of the world and thus unable to avoid this disenchantment either.
The fact that we cannot just forget what we know is mainly due to our selves, our striving for consistency of feelings, thoughts, beliefs, knowledge, experience, and actions, i.e. consistency of our lives, or a striving for intellectual integrity. According to current sociological research, however, cognitive inconsistency is more or less standard in the area of religion in particular. Thus, we are reminded once again of Kant, who interpreted the enchantment of the world as a “spell” leading rationality astray. Arguing less strictly, we could simply say that intellectual integrity and consistency of thought cannot be forcibly applied; to say it in Socrates’ terms, we should “discuss” the things questioned here “with ourselves”. Things could be left at that, were it not for the great “administrators” of an enchanted world that have left major impressions on our culture (that is, Greek-Roman antiquity, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and that have, emphatically and from the beginning, staked their claim in the search for “knowledge” and the representation of “truth”. If this claim is accepted, however, it should always be valid, even if its consequences turn out to be difficult to accept.

Thus houses, whose foundation stones were daubed with sacrificial blood from a cock, have turned into plain buildings made of stone, wood, and iron. Beds that formerly had crosses at the four corners are now simple frames of wood and cloth. Gold and silver are just metals, submitted to speculation on financial markets. Lazarus lies lifeless on his deathbed. The night remains dark. Instead of candles we use energy saving lamps. Cotton and sesame are recreated by “Monsanto” or “Pioneer”. Flour, fennel, and honey are bought in supermarkets. Our myths have turned into made-up stories, first written down by ethnologists, then analysed by philologists, then demythologised by theologians, and finally disposed of “harmlessly” between book covers.
If that is the case: Where is the sacred? How can we still speak of God? Whom are our prayers directed at, our grievances and our thanks? In front of whom do we light our candles? Who looks at us from out of holy pictures? For whom do we make the sign of the cross? For whom are the flowers with which we decorate our altars? As painful as the answer may be, it is nevertheless clear: in a disenchanted world that has lost its soul, we only encounter ourselves. We are the addressees of our own prayers. The flowers decorating our altars are for us, and we look back at images of ourselves in holy pictures.
There she sits, on a Friday morning, writing a letter to Dionysis/Dionysos; perhaps she is only vaguely aware of the fact that this is not a normal weekday, but the day commemorating the death of the Christian God. On the other hand, perhaps she knows it only too well. Indeed, perhaps that is why her letter, with its unexpressed yet ever-present longing for the magic of the sacred, for certainty and salvation, is not addressed to the Christian God, who died on the cross and was resurrected, but to his “brother”, the “pagan” god Dionysos, here called Dionysis. Of all the gods he is perhaps the one most like the Christian God, but she seems to have more faith in his strength to effectively resist the disenchantment of the world and its consequences; indeed, she may even believe him to be a source of inspiration for a re-enchantment of the world. The god that she explicitly attributes such a new function to is of course not the Dionysos of antiquity,nor the Dionysos of the “House of Aion” in Paphos, but rather the Dionysos of Romanticism.
The Christian god is no longer considered as a source of inspiration, or if he is, then “only” in connection with his “brother” Dionysos; this may be due to the fact that Christianity, together with its predecessor Judaism, has played an important part in the disenchantment of the world, to the extent that it faces self-abolishment and is thus both “perpetrator” and “victim” in this respect.
Dionysos (and, formulating it more abstractly, the Dionysian) has always been immune to this disenchantment because of his archaic and anarchic savagery; unlike his “brother” Christ, Dionysos has thus never faced the threat of being degraded to an object of philosophical and especially theological speculation. What is left of Christ’s existence and promise, made manifest in the Last Supper, is a simple cup of coffee on a Friday morning.
That is why her letter and her longing for enchantment and salvation are not addressed to this fading and vanishing Christian God, but to the god whose powerful and still-felt freshness and dynamism seem to represent all the things the loss of which she bemoans so impressively in her letter.
However, just as we did with Theocritus’ 15th idyll, here, too, we have to ask whether this is the whole truth. After all, the letter is addressed to Dionysis, not Dionysos. This seems to suggest that even Dionysos has not survived the disenchantment of the world unscathed, that he, too, has been drawn into evanescence, perhaps not to the same decree as his “brother” Christ, but nevertheless to the extent that he, too, can now only be addressed indirectly, through his “representative” Dionysis. That would mean, however, that there would be little hope of receiving an answer to the letter; the last line of the poem would then be a closing statement. After that, the letter writer gets up, puts her coffee cup into the dishwasher and turns towards other things.

VI. “Only, where are they?”

What happens next, when the fire in the stove has gone out, when the candles in the windows have melted, when the pictures of saints in the corner of the room have been covered in dust and the flowers in front of them have wilted? Is there nothing to be added to the phrase “I’ve missed you very much”?
Only, where are they? Where thrive those famed ones, the festival’s garlands?
Athens is withered, and Thebes; now do no weapons ring our
In Olympia, nor now those chariots, all golden, in games there,
And no longer are wreaths hung on Corinthian ships?
Why are they silent too, the theatres, ancient and hallowd?
Why not now does the dance celebrate, consecrate joy?
Why no more does a god imprint on the brow of a mortal
Struck, as by lightning, the mark, brand him, as once he would do?
These lines, reminiscent of the middle part of the “Letter to Dionysis” (lines 10-25), are from Friedrich Hölderlin’s well-known poem “Bread and Wine”, composed in the winter of 1800/1801. It is immediately obvious that despite the title, which evokes memories of the Christian Last Supper, the poem is not only about Christ, but also about Dionysos. The qualities that Hölderlin attributes to Christ can easily be transferred to Dionysos. We thus return to the above-mentioned location of origin of the Dionysos myth’s modern version (see page 8), the tradition of which is continued with the “Letter to Dionysis”; perhaps it is possible to find clues at the source, so to speak, that may go beyond the mere “I’ve missed you very much”.
Literary scholar Manfred Frank has determined what Hölderlin and his late romantic contemporaries saw as a deficiency of their time, a pessimism that made them speak of “the diseased world” and “souls that were captive”, as it says in “Bread and Wine”, and describe people as “heartless, mere shadows” (verse 9). According to Frank, what we termed “identity” in ancient times was able to manifest itself in “heavenly powers turned into flesh”, but at the beginning of the 19th century, the “anorexia of the modern, scientific spirit” had “moved the same identity into the fleshless interiority of reflexion” and thus, we may add, prevented access to the other, enchanted, world.
For present times, the following is therefore valid:
But meanwhile too often I think it’s
Better to sleep than to be friendless as we are, alone,
Always waiting, and what to do or to say in the meantime
I don’t know, and who wants poets at all in lean years? (verse 7)
These lines correspond quite well to the sentiment expressed by the phrase “I’ve missed you very much” at the end of the “Letter to Dionysis”. However, the project of Romanticism aimed at re-enchanting the world. That is why Hölderlin had to go beyond the experiences of loss he described using Greek mythology. In the same way, antiquity and Christianity could have the final say, but needed to and could be reinterpreted. “The god who’s to come” (verse 3), perceived as a synthesis of Dionysos and Christ, was to complete antiquity and Christianity and reconcile the abstractions and interpretations of the present time with the real world in order to re-enchant the latter in a manner suitable to the present or the future.
“Romantic mythology is still weaving the never-ending text that connects Greek antiquity with the Judeo-Christian mythology” and is now continued into the present and the future, with a “translatio” from East to West: “What of the children of God was foretold in the songs of the ancients, look, we are it, ourselves; fruit of Hesperia it is!” In the last verse of “Bread and Wine”, Hölderlin communicates to us his vision of a re-enchanted world:
Yes, and rightly they say he reconciles the Day with our Night-time,
… Leads the stars of the sky upward and down without end,
Always glad, like the living boughs of the evergreen pine-tree
Which he loves, and the wreath wound out of ivy for choice
Since it lasts and conveys he trace of the gods now departed
Down to the godless below, into the midst of their gloom.
What of the children of God was foretold in the songs of the ancients,
Look, we are it, ourselves; fruit of Hesperia it is!
Strictly it has come true, fulfilled as in men by a marvel,
Let those who have seen it believe! Much, however, occurs,
Nothing succeeds, because we are heartless, mere shadows until our.
Father Aether, made known, recognized, fathers us all.
Meanwhile, though, to us shadows comes the Son of the Highest,
Comes the Syrian and down into our gloom bears his torch.
Blissfull, the wise men see it; in souls that were captive there gleams a
Smile, and their eyes shall yet thaw in response to the light.
Dreams more gentle and sleep in the arms of Earth lull the Titan,
Even that envious one, Cerberus, drinks and lies down.(verse 9)
As we who were born later know, the dream of a “god who’s to come”, or a “new mythology” in general, is a romantic dream. Hölderlin’s “lean years” continue, without an end in sight. Manfred Frank has demonstrated that the history of attempts to re-enchant the world is a history of the failure of these attempts. What is more, other projects are pursued in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, some of which ursurp the Romantic vision and damage it to such an extent that there is no “pleasure” (“Lust”) brought “into darkness” (“unter das Finstere”) (verse 2); rather, pleasure is transformed into darkness and Cerberus is let loose. But in fact, we can already apply to the Romantic era what Luhmann said: “the unity of the world is only represented in a stage-like manner – as a kind of magic that is assumed not to be real.” So, is everything just a well-staged play? Then the sentence “I’ve missed you very much” would indeed be the final word for now. One could almost say that if nihilism is no real alternative, the choice is between Nietzsche’s “Übermensch” introduced in “Thus spoke Zarathustra” and Siegfried Freud’s “ehrlicher Kleinbauer” (“honest smallholder”). The former is able to replace and live the values of enchantment in a disenchanted world and even able to endure failure in these endeavours, while the latter is so busy cultivating the plot that feeds him that he has no ambitions beyond that…

VII. “Some gifts …”
The late-Romantic project that resulted in the vision of a “god who’s to come” aimed at revitalising a fading Christianity by fusing it with ancient pagan elements, of which “Dionysos” was a core element. This project represents one of many failed attempts to undo, or at least delay, the disenchantment of the world, yet its failure does not make it completely worthless. Hölderlin’s poetically expressed interim solution for the time until the epiphany of the “god who’s to come”, i.e. until our present time, contains suggestions for the direction that theory and practice could take: to preserve or re-appropriate as much as possible of the formerly enchanted world’s inheritance under the conditions of an irreversibly disenchanted world, as far as it is worth being preserved or possible to be appropriated. No “cheating” would be allowed in this process, however, that is, no forgetting or denying anything we already “know” about ourselves and the world. Neither would we be allowed to dismiss completely what we have lost through the disenchantment of the world as things of the past and thus as transcended and done with. Things are not as simple as that.
We could follow the direction given by Hölderlin in the eighth verse of “Bread and Wine”:
For, when some time ago now – to us it seems ages –
Up rose all those by whom life had been brightened, made glad,
When the Father had turned his face from the sight of us mortals
And all over the earth, rightly, they started to mourn,
Lastly a Genius had come, dispensing heavenly comfort,
He who proclaimed the Day’s end, then himself went away,
Then, as a token that once they had been down here and once more would
Come, the heavenly choir left a few presents behind,
Gifts in which now as ever humanly men might take pleasure,
Since for spiritual joy great things had now grown too great
Here among men, and even now there’s a lack of those strong for
Joy’s extremity, but silent some thanks live on. (Verse 8)
From the context of the poem it is clear that Hölderlin’s “gifts” ostensibly refer to the Christian Last Supper, but that even the poem itself suggests a frame of reference eoncuraging a broader interpretation of “gifts” than Hölderlin himself does: the “gifts” can be related to all that has come to us from a formerly enchanted world and thus seems different, irrational, and therefore arbitrary, yet at the same time strangely familiar. After all, even if we are not aware of it, we still live more or less with and of these “gifts”, or at least we could, if we were able to realise their rationality.
Essentially, lines 10 to 25 of the “Letter to Dionysis” circumscribe one theme, that of our death, our fear of it, and our attempts to banish this fear, as well as the futility of these attempts in a disenchanted world. This futility makes it difficult, if not impossible, for us to come to terms with our death and our mortality, including illness and getting older. This would be completely different in an enchanted world, where the brilliance that emanated from the “other world” or even appeared in front of our eyes via a “messenger” from that world would take the sting out of death, even transforming it into a price that would be paid reluctantly but voluntarily in order to cross over into that other world.
The rapid development of biological and medical research in the last decades has changed everything, with no limit or end in sight. Formerly, in an enchanted world, medicine had to restrict itself to relieving illness and making ageing and dying easier. In the age of progress in biosciences and medicine, however, the complete avoidance of such “evils” has become the central aim. To recall the choice between “superman” and “honest smallholder”, the tendency today is unmistakably towards the “superman”, who sets his own standards and defines values. This tendency may also be phrased as the desire to alleviate pain or fulfill legitimate requests. In the light of currently achieved biological and medical knowledge, so the argument, it would only be rational, and not ethically objectionable, to make use of all available means; conversely, it would be irrational and objectionable not to do so. In reality, however, the issue is a “redesigning”, if not a complete reinvention, of mankind, detached from its natural foundation and thus the possibilities and limits hitherto existing.
This perspective can be transferred from bioethics to other issues, too, since an explosion of knowledge and related options for action can be observed in most areas of our lives. Philosopher Jürgen Habermas has engaged with the problems arising from this and makes valuable suggestions that allow us to see Hölderlin’s idea of the “gifts” bequeathed to us in a new light, as something “we may take pleasure in, now as ever humanly”.
The “disenchantment” of the world is both a result of and a reason for the massive increase in our knowledge. At the same time, it is unclear how we can live with this knowledge and what we want to do – or not do – with this knowledge. In practice, these questions are answered as part of a “naturalistic” concept, i.e. everything that can be done because of amassed knowledge is and will be done. Scientific progress and the resulting possibilities are thus justified by themselves.
In considering this situation, Habermas asks whether such a “scientific-naturalistic” treatment of the problems at issue is automatically rational because an incredible amount of research and knowledge, and sometimes also rationality, is used. Anyone familiar with Habermas’ concept of rationality will negate his question, as for him rationality can only be established in the intersubjective process of the “rational conversation”.
Interestingly, Habermas has been going even further in recent years, saying that just as a naturalistic solution is not a priori rational, the religious solution (based on the concept of an “enchanted world”) is not a priori irrational.
Post-metaphysical thought cannot understand itself if it does not combine religious traditions with metaphysics in its own genealogy. According to this premise, it would be irrational to consider these “strong” traditions as archaic left-overs and push them aside instead of clarifying the internal relationship between them and modern forms of thought.
This means that religiously motivated mentalities and ways of living, although they are based on “irrationality”, or at least elude rationality, may well be rational in the sense that they are generalisable, i.e. they can be valid even for those who are unable to relate to the specifically religious motivations. Thus, even in a disenchanted world it is meaningful to include the legacy of an enchanted world in the public communication about what is rational.
Let me give an initial example here:
It is possible to conceive of religion as the administrator of scarce resources, i.e. of life expectancy, health, nourishment, a good life, justice, love, wealth, and security. Religion responds to scarcity – which is really an ontological constant (since only paradise offers abundance) – with the enchantment of the world, offering us more than wealth, i.e. the real elimination of scarcity, ever could. If we confine ourselves to the Christian tradition, this has led to the development of specific mentalities and ways of living that share a more or less great, specifically religiously motivated distance to the promises of “this world”.
In a world of real or at least pretend abundance such a mentality seems antiquated (“old European”), if not dangerous, because it is incompatible with the dominant economic system. However, might such a mentality – one that can live with little and knows that everything is limited, even the possibilities in life and the duration of our lives, and knows that it is meaningful to accept this – might such a mentality not be very rational in the face of the great problems we will have to face in the future? Should we not count such a mentality and its corresponding way of living as part of the “gifts” bequeathed to us “in which we may take pleasure now as ever humanly”, and, as I interpret Hölderlin’s phrase, may we not do this without taking on its specific religious assumptions?
A further example:
The Constitution on the Holy Liturgy (“Constitutio De Sacra Liturgia”) adopted by the Second Vatican Council in 1967 represented a huge change in the liturgy of the Catholic Church. Although the thitherto compulsory “Tridentine Mass” with Latin as the ritual language was not banned, as some people assume, it was nevertheless abolished everywhere and replaced by the “Novus Ordo Missae”. Latin was superseded by vernacular languages, the Gregorian chant disappeared almost completely, etc. – all of this with the aim of ensuring the “full and active participation” (“plena et actuosa participatio”) of all believers at the ritual of mass.
The “Tridentine Mass”, the Gregorian chant, and other features could well have been part of the “gifts” Hölderlin speaks about, and the incomprehensibility of Latin would not have been an obstruction. Even when liturgical texts are recited in vernacular languages today, they have not become more comprehensible, since the incomprehensibility is not due to the language itself, but due to the content, which belongs to a “different” world of the past.
However, the issue is not to make the incomprehensible comprehensible. The Latin mass, the Gregorian chant, the orthodox “Hymnos Akathistos”, the “Hagia Sophia” church in Constantinople/Istanbul, Rubljow’s breathtaking Icon of the Trinity, Paul Gerhard’s church hymns, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Le Corbusier’s chapel in Ronchamp, Marc Chagall’s window in the Fraumünster Church in Zürich, but also the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, as well as the overwhelmingly beautiful statues of gods in Greek museums, Buddhist temples in Bhutan, and the strange ceremonies of the Voodoo cult…all of these, especially because of their complete or partial incomprehensibility, stand out in a world that believes itself and the rationality ruling in it to be the only possible world. They are traces of a formerly enchanted world forever lost to us. Their “imprints” still “live on” however, and remind us – besides or also with their aesthetic impression – of the fact that the world and the way we have organised it are not the ultimate benchmark, just as any other world would not be, even if it were better.
Again restricting ourselves to the Christian heritage, we see that in the 2,000 years of Christianity’s history, humans have learnt to relate to the world they live in in a manner that unites engagement and distance dialectically. Following several changes in the relationship between justification and motivation, it seems possible today to do without a traditional Christian-religious background and the magic emanating from it, while still acting in a way that used to be only possible with such a background. The sources of energy that make such behavior possible and meaningful have shifted from the “other world” to the human interior in this world. To phrase it differently: The room for manoeuvre that was opened up by religion(s) is still accessible to us after the end of religion(s).
All in all, the greatest value of the “gifts” bequeathed to us lies in what trivial modernism likes to denounce as a deficit: the distance they keep from unquestioningly accepted societal conventions and routines without losing touch with the world or misjudging the importance of the present time.
However, we should not ignore that the reasons that today lead us to live in the way described above are “weaker” than traditional reasons based on the “sacred”, in so far as the latter reach deep into the human soul with their invocation of hope and anguish, love and fear, and the experience of the “mysterium tremendum et fascinosum”. Today’s reasons presumably have to be acquired, not exclusively, but primarily, via our intellect, i.e. via rational communication and insight. At least this is what modern, practical rationality would suggest, following the tradition of the Enlightenment. Were modern rationality, however, to accept the religious legacy in the manner suggested here, it would be relieved of the necessity of having to invent everything from scratch; this would add substance to the “rational” reasons which normally should inform human action.
To this day, religious traditions articulate a consciousness of what is missing. They help to maintain a sensibility for things denied. They prevent the dimensions of our societal and personal coexistence, which have been damaged extensively by the development of cultural and societal rationalisation, from falling into oblivion. Why should they not still contain encoded semantic potential that, if turned into justifying speech and absolved of its profane truth content, could develop inspirational power?
The fact that many people in our disenchanted world already live in such a manner shows that it is not mere theoretical consideration: many people, without making a fuss about it, are already able to “take pleasure, now as ever humanly” in the gifts and allow their “inspirational power” to motivate them.
Could this also be an option for the person drinking a cup of coffee in her kitchen on a Friday morning, rather than waiting for an answer to her “Letter to Dionysis” that will never arrive? To consider life possibilities that are as yet unknown to her, but which are at her disposal? To perceive and acknowledge what she has been mourning as a loss (“I’ve missed you very much”) as something gained? She is no longer dependent on the epiphany of the sacred and the magic of miracles, on certainty and clarity; rather, the disenchanted everyday, in all its banality, ambiguity, and uncertainty is accepted and endured, while she can use her own strength to live, think and act as if “the other” still existed, that is:

as if it were nowadays still easy for us to speak
of halcyons
or of nightingales
and as if we lived in houses on whose foundations
cocks were sacrificed
and as if we slept on mattresses
with crosses at their four corners sewn
where coins fell
of silver and of gold
and seeds of cotton and of sesame
and as if we poured into the streets
deep into the night
and into houses brightly lit
with Lazaruses in yellow flowers adorned
their blossom-filled beds beset with
garlands and grains
birds lizards petals
flour fennel candles and honey
softer than sleep

Then she would not have to send her “Letter to Dionysis”.
However, she would still never be able to get rid of a quiet sense that something was missing.

(Epiphanias – Θεοφάνεια 2011)

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