Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Reading the Book of Nature: 'The Signature of All Things'

            "The Signature of All Things, " a phrase that I've loved for years, is the title of a new novel by Elizabeth Gilbert and a very old book by 17th century Christian mystic Jakob Boehme.
          I had not read either of these when I came across the phrase and thought it a delightful way to express an understanding of the natural world. Where I came across it is something I cannot remember, though it probably popped up in one or two of my graduate school classes where we looked at authors and thinkers interested in visionaries such as Jakob Boehme, a product of the Renaissance and Reformation.
           It was hard to be a visionary, mystic, or "prophet" in the Middle Ages in Europe, because the established church kept a close watch on unapproved religious ideas. New ideas, interpretations, doctrines, etc. would pop up. If they caught on they were likely to be called heresies and their followers eliminated.
            If a visionary made a point of saying he or she had been communicated to directly by God and gained any sort of a public following, their probably lifespan made them a poor risk for insurers. "Direct communication with God" was widely regarded as a "prior condition" that caused wiser heads to move away from them on the bus.
            A prominent example is Joan of Arc, who was "told" by God to rally the French against the English during the Hundred Years War; she went and did so, relieving a major city from an English siege and winning the French a rare, heartening victory during the period when the English tended to win all the battles (and then go home). For her reward French nobles convened a court of religious inquiry, the inquisitors found that Joan stuck to her story that God had spoken to her, and since this was a heresy -- it had happened in the early days of the Christian church, the church taught, but now there was no need for it since "true religion" had been revealed; so now if you thought that God was talking to you it was actually the Devil -- recommended that Joan be burned to death as a heretic. The French political establishment was only too happy to comply, ridding themselves of a troublesome peasant who was proving more popular than they were.
            Beginning in the 16th century the Protestant Reformation brought forth any new number of new doctrines and interpretations of scripture; visions, movements, and plans to make a new heaven on earth. Oddly, however, wherever somebody like Luther set up a new church it behaved toward doctrinal dissenters in exactly the same way the Roman Catholic church did -- burning them at the stake as heretics. Or if their numbers were great and established power and wealth threatened, go on a great honking massacre. Personally, I lost my religion when I read that Luther were personally responsible for the peasant massacres in 16th century Germany.
            So in the 16th and 17th century, when the "last" of the Christian mystics appear, a new "vision" of God, or his teachings was a risky business. Emanuel Swedenborg (born 1688) is regarded by some as the last Christian mystic and some Swedenborgian churches still exist. His teachings include the belief that the Bible describes the transformation of a human being from a materialistic to a spiritual being, and that the creation myth in Genesis is actually an account of man's rebirth or regeneration in six steps allegorized by the six days of creation.
            Swedenborg was an influence on William Blake, a poetic visionary, rather than a "Christian" one since Blake's "prophetic" works are a criticism of Christianity. Blake was also known to have read Jakob Boehme's "The Signature of All Things."
            As compelling as I find the notion that all things in nature are a "signature" that can in some way be read or understood, I have to confess that anyone who can read Boehme's book for more than a page or two today is a better man than I.
            Commentators who have read it say one way to understand Boehme's idea is that he conceived of the objective, material world as the impression, or inprimatur, of the Creator's design. The analogy is to early forms of printing. The divine artist-author-creator has "pressed" his design -- his mold, or master, or lithographic plate -- into the living material of nature.
            Hence it is a matter of seeing, or "reading," that signature in order to truly understand and appreciate the physical world. The clues are all around us, Boehme believed. The oak tree represents strength. The walnut shows the shape of the human brain within the shell of the cranium. Other examples rely on folk medicine, herbalism, and naturopathy.
            The idea that the shape and look -- and the feeling -- of the natural world: what it says, that is, not just to the eye but to the mind and the soul is an idea I found wildly inspiring. (Though I'm not at all sure it's what Boehme had in mind.)
            It meant to me that the natural world could instruct us, and continue to instruct us, in what our minds and our souls need to know. And it made sense to me that this instruction came more "naturally" if one approached it as a poet.
            In her recent novel, published last year, Elizabeth Gilbert makes wonderful use of the title "The Signature of All Things" in her own way. But I'll leave off here, because her book deserves its own review.