Communing with the Divine: a Trawloolway man reads the Song of Songs
As regularly as I can, I venture into
lonely forest walks around the coastal settlement of Bridport in NE Tasmania.
Whilst I have no illusions about the flora and fauna bearing much relation to
that of a time prior to European annexation, I nevertheless take great comfort
in walking there, in following the contoured rise and fall of land and sea and
communing with my pairebeenener ancestors as I do so.
I use the word 'commune'
deliberately. For that is what happens when I walk. Something of myself flows into
the ancestral aliveness of land and sea; the ancestral community - she or he or
they - are changed by my presence, the specificity of my body in space and
time, my odour and breath, my breathing and the soundings I make by sensual
contact and by vocalisation. And something of that aliveness flows into
whomever I am, also. The shape and form of sea and land as he leads me toward
secret grottos and streams; her breathy, salty atmosphere caressing eye and ear
and skin; the sounds made by wind and sea as they flow around ancient trees and
rockscapes; the thud and thump of furry kin as they pad their way, unseen,
across the forest floor: a sign and a promise of occasionally more fulsome
encounter, face to face. By this communion, this asymmetrical exchange of
greater and lesser selves, we are both changed. The ancestral landscape is
enlarged to account for and address myself, my presence, my unique haecceitas.
And I, myself, become 'all flame', as Abba Lot would have it, an instance in
one time and place of the ancestral fire who inhabits and animates all times
and places; a moment of rejoicing in which the ancestral song becomes a single
singer; an instance, a momentary fluctuation, by which the ancestral ocean
becomes a single ebb or flow of tidal movement. In this communion I find,
momentarily at least, some kind of healing, an ointment to sooth and to seal
all the scars that I carry, in body and in mind. But the healing is far from
complete. It is incremental and partial. It is real, it is effective; but it is
unmasterable. It gives itself certainly, but only as a gift;
it will not obey any law of necessity, annexation or measured exchange I might
try to impose from the colonial imagination.
The ancestor I commune with has a
name but cannot be fully and finally named with this name. The name I know, the
name that has survived, is Moinee. Moinee is the creator-ancestor most widely
invoked and revered by my people. He is the wombat-ancestor who initiated the
formation of the land of lutruwita or Tasmania which, of course, is alive with
the presence of many other ancestors as well. Amongst the lesser ancestors is
Parlevar the kangaroo, the totem of my particular clan, the one on whom the
first palawa or human beings were modelled, albeit with significant modifications.
Both Moinee and Parlevar still appear to us in their animal forms: they are
concretely and unmistakably there whenever we stand face-to-face with our
sister wombat or brother kangaroo. And the times when I have done so over the
years, the moments in which some kind of inarticulate conversation can be said
to have taken place, are truly the most joyful and the most holy of my life. So,
I know with whom I commune. And yet I do not know.
For really it is clear that the
wombat and the kangaroo, for all their magnificence, are a lot like you or me:
unique moments, instances, expressions or substitutes who are what they are
because some greater life or power animates them and puts them in play. That
life or power can clearly be named or even gendered in particular instances. Likewise,
it can be communed with through the mediation of particular forms or material
events in country, air or seascape. But can the Thou with whom we commune be
named as she or he is, in his or her own being? Can she be named, as it were, comprehensively,
without remainder or doubt, in her time beyond a particular time and her place
beyond a particular place? Can he be named, as Jean-Luc Marion would have it,
in her divinity beyond being? Not really. For every name is, as Jacques Derrida
has taught us, a trace or cipher for an identity that is, in the fullness of
its self-revelation, neither fully here nor fully now. 'Now we see in part and
we know in part', said the Apostle Paul, 'as through a glass darkly'. The
time for knowing God's identity, as we are fully known by God, has not yet
arrived. We do not even know who Christ is, or we ourselves in Christ,
not completely. Not comprehensively. What we do know is that the name we
do know evokes in us a desire or a longing to know more fully. Thus, the quintessentially
eschatological season of Advent which some of us are trying to honour as we
of the Song of Songs
The themes I've developed through my
reading of ancestral country may also be found in the Hebrew Bible's Song
of Songs. After all, the divine is never comprehensively named in the poem,
not even as YWH, that most elusive and eschatological of names for God in the
Jewish canon. Yet, if the poem is read within its thoroughly canonical
religious context and the history of its reception by both Jews and Christians,
this poem about the longing of the 'Shulamite' for her lover may also be
legitimately read as a celebration of the communion between human beings and
the divine as it is mediated by the particularity of landscape or country.
Let's first talk about landscape or country. The poem is full of phrases which
describe the lovers' bodies as features of a cultivated landscape or else as
the fauna that inhabits that landscape. Here are some examples:
beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of En-gedi.
an apple tree amongst the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men.
With great delight I sat in his shadow and his fruit was sweet to my taste
my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past and the rain is
over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth
its figs and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise
my love, my fair one, and come away. O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in
the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your
voice is sweet and your face is lovely (2.10-14)
beautiful you are my love, how very beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your
veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead . .
. Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil . . . Your two
breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lillies.
In my view, the landscape imagery of
the poem is very often so dense and entangled that it is sometimes difficult
for the reader to determine what image is standing in for what reality. Are the
lover's breasts, for example, the reality for which twin gazelles are a
signifier, or is the reality the gazelles and the lover's breasts their
signifier? Paul Ricouer, for his part, has argued that the intensity of
these metaphors has the effect of dissociating the metaphorical network from
its support in concrete materiality. This also means that the various
characters or voices in the poem come to stand in for one another so
echolalicly that it is often difficult to discern who is lover and who is beloved
and who, indeed, are the friends who apparently discuss their love.
The poem is, in fact, laden to the
brim with such signs of indetermination. Here are just a few:
Pieces of dialogue often appear to include quotations from someone other than
the one who is speaking, with the result that it is difficult to identify the
(1.4b, 1.8, 2.1, 6.10).
There are several dream-sequences that present a similar problem. Is the
shepherd dreaming of being a king? (3.6-11). Is the Shulamite dreaming of being
a peasant woman? (5.2-8), or is it the other way around? Or, are all these
figures quite distinct from one another in the body?
There are evocations of memory that intertwine with the present in such a way
that it is difficult to tell which is which. The mother figure returns again
and again in 1.6, 3.4, 3.11, 6.9, 8.1, and 8.4, but whose mother is she? Or is
she the beloved as a younger woman?
The seven ‘scenes’ often referred to by commentators are said to begin with
lover or beloved searching for each other, and to end with a consummation when
they find each other. But these alleged ‘consummations’ are very difficult to
find, in fact, because they are sung with a sense of longing rather than
recounted with any sense of material gravity or traction. These features
suggest that the Song is not a narrative in which characters can be readily
identified, but a poem that explores the very formation of identity. The poem
often asks the question ‘who?’ but the question is never entirely answered.
From the very beginning, the poem has
been read as an allegory of divine human love. While the poem is certainly
erotic in character, describing the mutual desire of a woman and her lover in
radically fleshly ways, the canonical fathers and mothers clearly did not see
the flesh, or erotic love, as somehow unworthy of God or God’s people. That
this is so might appear to be something of an oddity when one considers that
Judaism and Christianity alone, amongst all the ancient religions, appeared to
have no sacred rites of a sexually explicit nature. Julia Kristeva explains
this by reference to an analogy with the biblical canon as a whole. The Song
of Songs imagines the desire of God as a desire without consummation.
There is no love-making at the maternal hearth in this erotic poem. Therefore,
the Song, as with the canon as a whole, imagines God as one who loves, and is
desired by human beings, but who remains absent, or not entirely present.
Desire is not finally consummated, and so remains desire.
Following Origen, who said that it is the ‘movements of love’ in the Song which
are more important than the identity of its characters, Ricoeur argues for an
interpretation of the Song in which the ‘nuptial’ metaphor for the relations
between the lovers is ‘liberated’ from a purely human reference. The Greek
paradigm of erotic love tended to see the point of sexual entanglement as a
means of ecstatic escape from the body into some kind of self-less and
unconscious communion with the divine One. But that is not what is happening in
the Song of Songs. There the profound play of desire in the possession and
dispossession of selves suggests, instead, a view of love that is transcendent
and yet powerfully incarnational at the same time. What happens here is
not a doing away with the properly sexual reference but rather its putting on
hold or suspension; this then effects a freeing of the whole metaphorical
network of nuptiality for other embodied ‘investments and divestments.’ That
possibility is further enhanced by the radical mobility of identification
between the partners of the amorous dialogue, a mobility that smacks of the
‘substitution’ of one ancestral instance or character for another, as I propose
above in my reading of country.
On this basis, Kristeva argues that
the lover in the Song can be legitimately interpreted as the cipher for an
absent or incorporeal God who is nevertheless made available to the human
beloved in ritual, as well as in the very ordinary landscape of human life.
Supreme authority, whether it be royal or divine, can be loved as flesh while
remaining essentially inaccessible; the intensity of love comes precisely from
that combination of received jouissance and taboo, from a
basic separation that nevertheless unites—that is what love issued from the
Bible signifies for us, most particularly in its later form, as celebrated in
the Song of Songs.
Of course, that reading would only be
possible if one were to read the Song in its canonical context as a book of the
Jewish and Christian Scriptures. But that is what it is! In that context, one
can see how it is that the appearance of God in the materiality of the burning
bush of Exodus 3 might be amplified in the Song to include lover’s bodies and
whole landscapes. Furthermore, Richard Kearney has made the important point
that a canonical reading of the Song would also be an eschatological reading.
In this view, the love between the Shulamite and her lover looks both back to
Eden’s innocence and forward to a time when God and human beings will gaze upon
each other ‘face to face’. Citing Rabbi Hayyim de Volozhyn (19th century),
Kearney points out that the Song is filled with eschatological imagery. 5.1
speaks of love as entering a garden filled with milk and honey, an image of the
Promised Land. Similarly, the kiss of 1.2 might be read as the promise that one
day the revelations of God will be given mouth to mouth and face-to-face,
rather than through the mediations of angel, fire, or ritual. Such eschatology
is subversive, according to Kearney, for it makes the powerful erotic charge of
the poem into something more than (but still including) the erotic. If this is
the case, then our received understandings of both God and desire are
transformed. Law-based understandings of both God and the obedience of God
are swept aside in order to say that ‘burning, integrated, faithful, untiring
desire—freed from social or inherited perversions—is the most adequate way for
saying how humans love God and God loves humans. It suggests how human and
divine love may transfigure one another.’
I would add, of course, that all of this erotic and eschatological charge is
ignited in landscape, in country and in waterway; and that precisely because
human selves come from ancestral country and are instances of the ancestral
that are embedded in country, that we are most ourselves as human beings when
we commune with the divine by communing with country. Country is like God, in
that it cannot be possessed or domesticated, used or even finally and
comprehensively named. Country is like the Christ of God, whose life is poured
out for us and for our salvation only insofar as we are able to respect and
treasure the gift, and take it to our hearts, and love it with all the power
that country so generously provides.
I suppose this means that I belong, also, to the school of Job as Mark has
described it in chapter 8 of his book. Mark understands Job as a more fluid and
poetic version of the Priestly Triteuch, which wants to locate God not simply
in the cry for a merely human form of justice or liberation in the face of
Empire, but also in the wise utterances of creation itself (p.127), in which
God speaks particular words of wisdom for particular places (p.130). This would
certainly sit well with my peculiarly Aboriginal sense of responsibility for
country: we cannot care for a particular place unless we first listen to what
it is telling us in its own unique voice. The particularity of that voice is
for that country, and especially its caretakers, those who are
related to that country as kin, as ancestral stewards. To listen, of course, is
the very opposite of colonisation and its bully-boy shouting. For the sake of
us all, I pray we shall learn, in time, to listen more deeply to what our lands
and seas and waterways are telling us. This talk was given at a symposium
in celebration of Mark Brett's book Locations of God: political theology in the Hebrew Bibleon December 12, 2019.