Monday, February 6, 2017

Fred Owens' Experience Of Africa, The Magnum Mysterium And Rilke's Insight

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Precious Mataka and Fred Owens

My friend Fred Owens (publisher of Frog Hospital) recently wrote:

"How come I never write anything about the year in Zimbabwe? I met all kinds of interesting people and saw incredible sights and almost got killed a half-dozen times. I must have some kind of mental block. Here is a photo of that time, sitting in the shade of a tree --- waiting for the bus. That is my lasting impression of Africa, long moments of deep peace and quiet interrupted by outbursts of death, violence, disease and every manner of human disaster..... followed by more long moments of deep peace.

But I never write about Africa -- instead I tell stories about the time our car broke down in Kansas."
I replied:
I don't know why you write so little about Africa.

Recently, I realized that I have written almost nothing about my most romantic love "affair."

Maybe there's a reflexive taboo that prevents us writing about those exquisitely "intimate" things.

Maybe we sense that whatever we could say would not "live up" to the "reality." Or that trying to say it would diminish the "reality." Perhaps the mere attempt to "say it" would challenge (and undermine?) what we think the "reality" was.

Maybe we need those "realities" to be "too big" to "capture."

Or could they be just too painful to probe and therefore we reflexively shy away?

In Spanish, the word ilusión is often used the same way English speakers use the word "hope."

And although it is not a common reference, it has also been said - in Spanish - that "la mujer es ilusión." (I once saw this phrase emblazoned on a Mexican billboard alongside an alluring image of a young woman.)

In my evolving relationship with "religion," I currently think that 1.) religiously-disposed people need a transcendent mystery at the heart of things, and 2.) because this same unresolvable mystery becomes unbearable when experience gets too raw or too intense, we readily turn our back on the mystery and take refuge in the "absolute knowability" of God's Will.

And therein resides Pascal's horrifying insight: "Men never do evil so completely or cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction." (And so, ultimately "Islamist Jihad" and "Christian Fundamentalism" are mirror images of one another.)

I am reminded of Rilke's observation (which my own experience has led me to accept as self-evidently true and which my friends uniformly dis):  "For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror that we are still able to bear."

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