They Were Not Able to Separate the Soul From the Flesh

They Were Not Able to Separate the Soul From the Flesh September 12, 2014

Given what Zbigniew Herbert says about the Dutch Masters in his Collected Essays, Vermeer's "View of Delft" (1661) might be his idea of New Jerusalem.
After what Zbigniew Herbert says about the Dutch Masters in his Collected Prose, Vermeer’s “View of Delft” (1661) might be his idea of New Jerusalem.

Finishing Theology of Transformation was one of those bittersweet reading moments: I was happy to discover the work of Oliver Davies, but sad the book ended.

I’ve already explored his discussions of what he calls the Second Scientific Revolution, the way it helps to locate Christ in our cosmos in a new way, and how it helps to put some flesh back into our theologies (I’ll have more to say about his work soon).

Reading Davies led me into posts about the shockingly fleshy heart of faith here and here. My readers tell me the post on Christ’s genitalia even helped them shed some social network friends. See, with God all things work together for the good!

Now thinking in poems is something I’ve always done. Poetry frequently lends words to connections I’ve considered, but never figured out how to conceptualize. Frequently recalling a poem has helped my thinking move forward when I lack my own words.

This was the case today when it came to connecting my discussions of Davies closer to my intentionally provocative earlier thoughts on the (dis)embodied modern soul.

The following poem from Zbigniew Herbert–a Polish poet who was Czeslaw Milosz’s main rival poetic rival–gets to the heart of the matter. The poem works on two levels. It ironically a) criticizes the dehumanizing labor conditions of Poland in the 1980’s by  b) describing them in terms of a disembodied heaven–the sort of heaven you might expect modern Docetists to imagine.

Nobody ever said political commentary has to be unpoetic and humorless!

Report From Paradise
by Zbigniew Herbert

In paradise the work week is fixed at thirty hours
salaries are higher prices steadily go down
manual labor is not tiring (because of reduced gravity)
chopping wood is no harder than typing
the social system is stable and the rulers are wise
really in paradise one is better off than in whatever country

Zbigniew Herbert's poetry frequently lights up with insights.
Zbigniew Herbert‘s poetry will light you up with insights.

At first it was to have been different
luminous circles choirs and degrees of abstraction
but they were not able to separate exactly
the soul from the flesh and so it would come here
with a drop of fat a thread of muscle
it was necessary to face the consequences
to mix a grain of the absolute with a grain of clay
one more departure from doctrine the last departure
only John foresaw it: you will be resurrected in the flesh

not many behold God
he is only for those of 100 per cent pneuma
the rest listen to communiqués about miracles and floods
some day God will be seen by all
when it will happen nobody knows

As it is now every Saturday at noon
sirens sweetly bellow
and from the factories go the heavenly proletarians
awkwardly under their arms they carry their wings like violins

How brilliant is Herbert’s observation on the Gospel of John?!

Herbert was the winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize, numerous other international literary prizes, and, in the opinion of most Poles, more deserving of the Nobel than Wislawa Szymborska. There’s no better way to dive into his poetry than The Collected Poems, because once you get going, you want to read all of his poems. His prose is also well-worth your time, especially his offbeat account of traveling from then communist Poland to see the masterpieces Western Europe, Barbarian in the Garden, and his riveting essays on Dutch painting (and the tulip fever) Still Life with a Bridle. Of course, you can get both of these, and several other collections, at a reasonable price in his Collected Prose.

On the other hand, if you fancy exploring the latest discussions of the theology of heaven (and hell), then head to my TOP10 list on that very topic here.

There’s also this video of Seamus Heaney remembering Herbert (a.k.a. The Other Herbert) and reading his poetry to pique your interest:

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