“To begin with, it is not true that the Gods dwell only in the Heavens, for all things are full of the Gods.”
In this current season of Venus retrograde in Gemini I have been feeling a deep desire to return to familiar stories and places. It started when I reached for The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, which I read in the late 90s, and was struck by these words
“…the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again.
That is their mystery and their magic.”
Rereading it I was struck how the idea of perceiving divinity in all the little things that surround us resonates with what the Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus called sunthemata, that is “theurgic tokens in the material world” or the sparks of divinity shining through the material world. (1) The way Arundhati Roy’s novel is written can be described as a collection of sunthemata-filled moments weaved together by means of the logic of the heart, neither sequentially nor chronologically. The novel resembles a patchwork or rather a mosaic with every little colourful piece reflecting the divine on a miniature scale.
The epic scale does not convey larger truths than the loving care of life’s little fragments. I grew even more convinced of this whilst rereading a few short stories by Jorge Luis Borges as well as his fascinating conversations with Osvaldo Ferrari, I realized that the soul rejoices in brevity – luminous moments condensed in a tiny grain of divine presence. In Borges’s writing there is not a single comma which is out of place. He knew that being blessed (or cursed) with a desire to lean down his ear upon every single word meant that he would never be able to compose sweeping narratives characteristic of novels. Instead, his was the patient, loving work of Vermeer’s lacemaker, which I saw in the Louvre many years ago and found quite mesmerizing.
Working my way through Modern Masterpieces of World Literature, an online course offered by Harvard, I was struck by a similar thought expressed by professor David Damrosch, who compared Borges’s talent for the minute with Franz Schubert’s Songs, which he is most famous for as a composer, though which he himself regarded as lss worthy than symphonies or operas. Needless to say, right now most of us do not even know that he composed larger opera. Yet the Lieder (Songs) granted him immortality.
Finally, in my sentimental journey to books that I loved long ago, I revived my obsession with Orhan Pamuk, specifically with his Museum of Innocence. Set in Istanbul, this is a story of Kemal’s obsessive love for Füsun. In one of the interviews Pamuk said that he sees himself as a visual writer rather than a verbal one, since his first chosen career was that of a painter. Now, he continued, he conjures up narratives by contemplating a series of objects and placing them all in a story, weaving the life of things with the life of the characters. This approach reached its peak in The Museum of Innocence. Kemal turns into a compulsive collector of objects that chronicle his love for Füsun. She tolerates his frequent visits during which he steals various objects belonging to her. With that loot he builds a museum, a shrine dedicated to his lost love. His treasures include hairpins, a salt shaker that she touched and all manner of objects that remind him of their precious moments together. In the chapter entitled “The Consolation of Objects” his obsession reaches epic proportions:
“One palliative for this new wave of pain, I discovered, was to seize upon an object of our common memories that bore her essence; to put it into my mouth and taste it brought some relief.
[about a cigarette butt] I picked it up and rubbed the end that had once touched her lips against my cheeks, my forehead, my neck, and the recesses under my eyes, as gently and kindly as a nurse salving a wound. Distant continents appeared before my eyes, sparkling with the promise of happiness, and scenes from heaven; I remembered the tenderness my mother had shown me as a child…”
Not only did Pamuk create a world of written fiction, but he actually established a museum in Istanbul called The Museum of Innocence. On the Museum’s website we can read:
“The museum presents what the novel’s characters used, wore, heard, saw, collected and dreamed of, all meticulously arranged in boxes and display cabinets.”
The cabinets of curiosities, which were popular in the 18th century, were aristocratic collections of extraordinary objects. This desire for collecting acted as a precursor to today’s museums. Pamuk’s objects are ordinary in every way, and yet they become imbued with radiance, while they also bring back the spirit of the life in Istanbul in the 60s and the 70s.
The word “innocent” has at its etymological root the Proto-Indo-European “nek-” meaning “death” and Latin “nocere” – to harm; someone who is innocent does not do any harm and does not bring death.(2) The objects collected by Kemal and by Pamuk bring back the life of a certain epoch. They celebrate the innocence and purity of memories.
During the usual forty days of Venus’ retrograde motion we are reminded that in alchemy the philosopher’s stone appears in the retort after 40 days. Number forty is connected with purification; the biblical flood lasted forty days and forty nights, Christ was tempted for forty days in the desert, to mention the two most famous examples. Of course, our quarantine comes from the forty-day period when ships were not allowed to enter the harbour during the time of the Black Death in Venice.
What I perceive in Pamuk’s idea is the desire to recover the innocent purity of the soul, its childlike quality. On his museum’s website he also included A Modest Manifesto for Museums. He argues there that large museums represent the state, not the individual, which is “neither a good nor an innocent objective.” He asserts:
“This is unfortunate because the stories of individuals are much better suited to displaying the depths of our humanity.”
“The aim of present and future museums must not be to represent the state, but to re-create the world of single human beings—the same human beings who have labored under ruthless oppression for hundreds of years.”
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