Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Moon and the numen

I come again,in a thick bilingual edition of Jorge Luis Borges' Selected Poems, to his long ode to the Moon where he explains why it will always escape the nets of the poets. I am thrilled again by this verse:

Siempre se pierde lo esencial. Es una
Ley de toda palabra sobre el numen.
No la sabrá eludir este resumen
De mi large comercia con la luna. 

In Alan S. Trueblood’s translation this becomes:

The essential thing is what we always miss.
From this law no one will be immune
nor will this account be an exception,
of my protracted dealings with the Moon. [1]

I am not satisfied with the translation. It vanishes the critical word"numen", leaving not even a synonym,  thus fulfilling Borges’ law! And how essential this word “numen” is. It is indeed quite central to our understanding within Western tradition of the interplay of the sacred and the profane. Partly inspired by Rudolf Otto, Jung and Eliade both sought to trace the operations of synchronicity through the game of hide-and-seek played by the numinous.
    The word numen, naturally, comes from the Romans. It is used to mean the presence or the will of a sacred power. Cicero uses the term to signify the "active power" of a god. De divinatione 1.20  Ovid has  Numen inest (Fasti (III, 296)  meaning “there is a god (or spirit) here.” Its literal meaning is a “nod”, or “given the nod”.
    Nil sine numine is the state motto of Colorado. “Not without the numen”. It derives from Virgil: non haec sine numine devum eveniunt (“these things do not come to pass without the will of Heaven”) from Aeneid(II, 777).
    So, back to the Borges verse. Try this:

We always lose the essential when we try
to find words to describe sacred power.
I don’t know how to escape this law
in reporting my long engagement with the moon.

And on to Rudolf Otto, who belied his Prussian appearance – Kaiser moustache, high-collared tunic, ramrod bearing – as a deep student of mystical experience. 
He insists (as I am doing in my account of the experience of synchronicity) that you cannot be taught the concept of the numinous; you must feel it. He writes in  The Idea of the Holy that the numen “cannot, strictly speaking, be taught, it can only be evoked, awakened in the mid; as everything that comes ‘of the spirit’ must be awakened.”  “It cannot be ‘taught’, it must be ‘awakened’ from the spirit….In religion there is very much that can be taught…What is incapable of being so handed down is this numinous basis and background of religion, which can only be induced, incited, and aroused.” We require “a penetrative imaginative sympathy.” [2]
    His effort is to convey “the feeling which remains when the concept fails, and to introduce a terminology which is not any the more loose or indeterminate for have necessarily to make use of symbols.” He adds, The numinous is felt as objective and outside the self” 
    The feeling is of mystery edged with shudders. Mysterium tremendum. Feelings may span the spectrum from a gentle tide, through sudden eruption with spasms and convulsions, to “the strangest excitements” to “wild and demonic forms” to “hushed, trembling and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of – whom or what? In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.”
    Sophocles wrote of the experience of awe in the presence of the numen in Antigone, in a line which Otto renders as

Much there is that is weird; but nought is weirder than man. 40

He also quotes Goethe’s Faust (Part II, Act 1, scene v):

Das Schaudern ist der Menschheit bestes Teil,
Wie auch die Welt ihm das Gefühl verteuere,
Ergriffen fuhlt tief das Ungeheuere.

Awe is the best of man; however the world’s
misprizing of the feeling would prevent us,
Deeply we feel, once gripped, the weird Portentous.

My free rendition:

Shuddering is the best part of being human
though the world can stifle our feelings
we are gripped in our depths by something vast and uncanny

1. Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems ed. Alexander Coleman (New York: Penguin Books, 2000) 108
2. Ruldolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational. Translated by John W, Harvey. (London: Oxford University Press, 1952) 60.

Drawing: "Moon at the Foot of My Bed" by Robert Moss


Unknown said...

I really like your translations, especially the one for the Borges selection. I read Trueblood's attempt three times, feeling more troubled each time by the inaccuracy. And then I read yours.

Thanks, Barbara

Lalenya said...

LOVE your translation! That explains it MUCH better1 AND, as it says, words and writing are never adequate to describe the amazing experiences we have!!! THANKS for all your insights, teachings and writings!!!