Expansive Poetry & Music Online Poetry Review

A Crown For the King
Solomon ibn Gabirol
Oxford University Press
translated and adapted by David R. Slavitt
 Citations are from A Crown for the King,
and may not be copied or distributed
without the express permission of  The Oxford University Press
and of David R. Slavitt.
review by Arthur Mortensen

My friend Dr. Salemi has often remarked that in the near future "all we may know of historical texts may be the commentary upon them."   From what I've seen from the dim squares beyond academia, that commentary is likely to be unreadable, requiring a new class of lictors to translate for the boobs and execute sentence on detractors.  Why this is so should not be surprising; the stripes of academic service are not so much proof of rank as that one is willing to bear the whip of theory's disciples and to avert one's eyes from original texts.  What this does for students is to remove them from the necessity of being confronted by anything but texts issued by the professoriate.  And as this happens, theory and its declarations and qualifications become literature (for the deprived student as for the presenter), while mere works become the targets of accusation where the proofs of guilt lie not in an author's labor but in the professor's brief for the prosecution.  This standard of justice will be familiar to anyone who has  followed the American academic world in recent years or who has read a history of Soviet show trials in the 1950's.

But commentary without the text is about the same as sexual love without a partner.  While this is evidently satisfying to many who propose themselves as bearers of literary tradition in the U.S., it never has to D.R. Slavitt, who, with the assistance of Oxford University Press, has provided us with a new translation of Solomon ibn Gabirol's A Crown for the King, an 11th century hymn of praise to God, as well as commentary that is restricted to historical observations about the life of this poet and to a brief survey of theological and philosophical influences on that poet's work.  This is the sort of treatment you'll find in Larousse editions; the efforts by the editor and translator are designed to help the reader enter the time and place of the translation, just as the reading of old texts and the examination of ancient artifacts is a way of discovering where we came from, what we might have been, or what we might become.  But, the officially wise may ask, in all that what is the necessity of anything but the commentary?

Of course the answer is unacceptable to one whose profession it is to uphold an official point of view, but that answer never changes:  each age considers historical texts and artifacts in a different light.  That is why we have new generations of translations every so often.  That different light is composed not only of the experience of intervening generations, but of different languages, and of changing paradigms in science, society and faith.  And that light is worthless if we can't see the original with its rays.

For those whose spiritual activities are casual, even if sincere, reading this book may offer some surprises.  Underneath the propaganda for the family of humankind, the strongest myth (and the one most savagely tested) of the 20th century West, currents of very different ways of thinking still move.  Though we are encouraged by practice and even by law to keep these things to ourselves, in any shadowed gathering of like faces and faiths in a bar, the easy reference to Jew or Catholic or  Muslim or Hindu is likely to escape someone's mouth before the drinking's done.  The shorthand of category may set off alarms in the sober but not for long.  Some might say it's because the myth has been so sorely challenged; and it does get easier with each drink and each lowered inhibition to secreted thoughts to agree.  But D.R. Slavitt brings to life a poet, dead for nearly a thousand years,  in whom one may find a unification of idea and belief that shames our promises to negotiate disputes between different traditions.

This should not be surprising.  When the very complex traditions of Western spirituality were still taught in the U.S., any reader with her eyes open could tell you that Catholicism's mentor was Greek philosophy (and all its oriental roots) and that its mother and father in theological idea and intellectual rigor was Judaism.    In fact, one could easily look at Catholicism as one branch of the same faith.   The idea of redemption through contrition and act, for example, at the very heart of Catholic practice, was a very old idea in Judaism of Christ's time.  In fact, as the late Philip Dick wrote in The Transfiguration of Timothy Archer, a roman a clef about Bishop Pike, Christ's most memorable teachings were standard fare in several major Jewish sects for centuries before Christ said them himself.  Why this should be surprising in terms of the story itself I cannot guess;  you don't present yourself as a rabbi and then preach an alien gospel.  And in the Christ story itself, there is no claim for anything new but a demand for real observation of faith through act instead of through the contrivances of ritual.  That makes the outcome logical; established authority doesn't like to hear itself described as hypocritical. It will seek to silence the honest preacher, even if it means enlisting the aid of an oppressor.

And yet similar disputes had torn Judaism for centuries with each new appearance of a prophet, of which Jesus, in AD32, was just one more pain in the neck to the Pharisees.  In the historical context of traditions described as radically apart, in other words, we find instead a great river. And Slavitt, in piloting that stream, has found a current for us to explore, a Spanish and Jewish poet of the 11th century, writing in Hebrew that Slavitt translates into a clear, bright English for today:

   Yours is the name that not even wise men know;
yours is the might that maintains the world at the brink of
yours is the power to bring into sudden glare whatever is
as yours is the loving kindness that rules your creatures, to
   whom you extend, for those of us who fear you, the
   treasure of goodness.
Yours is the mystery no man can ever fathom, that eternal
  life no death or decay can menace....

For a modern reader, particularly an American, this may be difficult to read.  But any recent visitor to one service or another will see the obvious:  Gabirol is here repeating in verse a variation on a standard prayer of praise, the kind one may hear in any service a thousand years later as one heard in rites and rituals ten thousand years before.  For a people who presume to be authors of their own lives, a first response might be to throw this aside.  But if you think a moment, it may come to you that the poet is here standing in for both rabbi and congregation and that what is expressed in these lines is a human aspiration, to heap praise on an unknown enormity that made it possible for us to be in this world as we are.  Can we really thank ourselves except for that small portion of life we decide?  We don't thank parents -- don't they always come up short?  Don't we? Physics has admitted that it cannot answer what came in the moment before.  We know the process of evolution, but the glib materialist notion that evolution is a purely random association of energy and molecules has  never been quite satisfying.   Admit it; you know those feelings lurk.  Further, we've had rigorous proofs since Hume and Berkeley that we can't know final cause, either by name or by appearance.  Science may also claim there is no final cause; but  human faith is built on the human hope that there is, that we are not alone.  Such hopes may also be built on and be a basis for fear.   But does one scorn one's hopes and fears by hiding or mocking them?  It can work for a comedian onstage.  Does it work off?  The alternative of faith, to lift one's voice in praise, still has an enormous following.  It may not be reasonable, but think carefully before you answer as to what is.

You are the one, the first number that is the beginning of
      arithmetic and geometry's starting point.
You are one, and at the mystery of your oneness, the
      cleverest mathematicians are struck dumb and cannot
      reckon with you...
You are one, and yet no equation contains you.   I cannot
      find the formula, chart, or table to calculate your
      proportions or dimensions....

There are physicists and biologists of great rank today who express similar feelings.  Having torn open the heart of matter and its forms and discovered the shocking malleability of the material, that it is an order open to suggestions of consciousness, whether human or other, some have posited final cause in a way that would have shocked scientific materialists from Isaac Newton to Richard Feynman, that material order is a consequence of conscious act.  It doesn't take a considerable leap of imagination to see that they don't mean that some guy sitting on a bus in San Diego thought up the universe -- something unknowable did something whose results we can still see in "a language of motion I can measure but not read.*"

I am mud, worms, dust, a bucket of guilt and shame, a
    mute stone.
I am a fleeting shadow, "a wind that passes and does not
    come again."
I am the viper's venom....

In the efforts of the sciences to disrobe human vanity, you are not likely to hear a call from someone in a lab to admit to the guilty insignificance of the speaker in those lines, but at every new point of discovery, particularly in cosmology and evolution, one of the first things you'll hear the scientist repeat is some phrase about "human beings are really on the fringe of things."   Even on the side that proposes the spiritual as irrational, you find the same urge -- to praise a cause outside of human progress, something greater than ourselves, to put ourselves in perspective.  And how can they avoid it?  Their researches continue cultural traditions in the West originated by rabbis and priests.  To see the world from the outside, as from God's eye, is, according to Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, the driving ambition of Western science and materialism, and it is derived from our own traditions arising from faith. To do that and to acknowledge yourself as human at the same time, it can be an experience not unlike that depicted by Gabirol in the above and in a later, final confession.   Along the way, there are visions that seem strikingly familiar:

These are the forms, the transcendant essences, shimmering
     like pearls,
These are the servants of the outer court, or angels of the
    inner chambers who gaze at you directly and attend upon
The arise from holiness and they are drawn from the
    source of light.
There are regiments of them, companies and battalions with
    their banners that the artists have designed.
Some give orders and others obey, and they run this way
    and that in unwearying activity seeing all but never seen.
Some are made of fire, and some are air, and some are fire
   and water compounded together.
The seraphs come in their burning rows, the leaping sparks,
   the flashes of lightning, the comets and meteors,
and every trooper of them bows down in obeisance....

If this sounds familiar, it is likely Milton drew from it or from sources familiar to the same poet.  (Milton seems to have drawn from every known resource on the subject.) In fact, it seems inescapably tied to the popular imagination of power and glory -- archetypal, universal.   We are today, in an era pounding its chest over the triumph of democracy, drowning in such archetypes projected in movie theaters, on television, and colored into comic books where parades of angels and devils in various disguises march on unrestrained by legislative imperatives or threats of impeachment.  There is something refreshing and marvelous, nevermind humbling, about the plausibility that human imagination is rooted in common ground.  Shamans of all ages have said this; Freud and Jung made an approach to human psychology assuming it to be so; science is built on non-locality. That is the notion that an event at point A will occur more or less the same way at point B, that if we take into account local variables overall processes will be identifical.  What is not so marvelous is when we refuse (or are unable) to acknowledge this; ignorant that an original exists, we may find ourselves overcome by its sudden appearance in a dream or in a political masque.  A civilizing alternative worldwide has sometimes been religious faith, as it was in the time of Gabirol, when a remarkably tolerant Islamic empire dominated the Mediterranean basin.  (Slavitt notes that a few centuries later Gabirol was mistaken for a Christian poet, suggestive of directions to come in the Inquisition.)  Sadly, after the Christian restoration in Spain, toleration ended; the comfort Gabirol and others could take in openly drawing ideas and inspiration from each other's traditions vanished.

Those are a few of the reasons why it's so important that D.R. Slavitt and his fellow practitioners continue to work, despite the temptation to dictate theory.  It is better for students (and the rest of us) to see how we were and how we thought, to carry on a conversation across time, to measure our dreams and passions against those of the dead.  You can't do that with commentary and theory; for that, you need a readable version of the old text.  And, as you can see by the brief excerpts shown above, Slavitt has brought just that, and seems to do with each new effort.  Small wonder that, despite his apparent exclusion from the throne, or least a tenured chair, D.R. Slavitt places so many books in academia's classrooms.

If you're past the age of classes, get this book.  Looking through the faithful eyes of a poet dead a thousand years has rewards unavailable from Dr. X or Dr. Y.   There is deep comfort as well knowing that most of us, regardless of the neo-apartheid labeling of the present day (or of sixty years ago), are fellow travelers, whether a Jewish poet in the 11th century or a Catholic reviewer near the 21st.

You should be able to find this at Grolier's or Amazon.

                               Arthur Mortensen
* from "Horae Canonica: Compline" W.H. Auden

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