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2. Rhetorical devices in literary languages: metaphor and symbol. A study of different figurative sensitivities and the collective imagination, seen through the canonical literary milieus of every age and country


b) The secret code of Western literature

The crusade against the Albigenses meant the end of the heretical sects in the Western Christian world. The orthodoxy of the dogma began to limit the perspective in the tautology of the Deus sive natura, for which everything that exists, in being created, is good, and evil is only privatio boni. In his De Heresibus, Saint Augustine counted sixty-four organized ideologies whose dictates went against those of the Roman Catholic Church. Among Pelagians, Montanists and Simoniacs, the most disliked by the Church were always the Gnostics, whose faith is above all a philosophy. Historically, the Gnostics represent the trait-d'union between Platonism with its branches (Plotinus, Dionysius Aeropagita, etc.) and Christianity. According to the Gnostics, redemption is achieved through knowledge (gnosi). Thus, redemption and truth coincide. The purpose of knowledge is to dispel the illusions of matter. The created world is like a painted veil: pure illusion of the senses, its beauty comes from an astute strategy of clouding. The Demiurge, the creator of the world, is a demon pretending to be God. Innately lacking a soul, he robbed the Pleroma - the universal Psyche that every individual mind longs to rejoin – of several drops of light, with which even he manages to feel a semblance of psychic life. However, to keep these little souls he had to enclose them in bodies, giving them their own particular world: the world of appearances, in order to increasingly smother the impulse with which the soul would aspire to rejoin the Pleroma.

For the Gnostics, everything is the opposite: "So high; so low" is their motto. Thus, the snake that tempts Eve is not the Devil but an emanation of the Pleroma, trying to convince Eve of the masquerade as Jehovah, behind which the Demiurge has hidden. Cain, the roaming shepherd, killed Abel because in being stable he represented the tie with the law of the land. Jehovah saved Noah from the Flood because of his faith in the reproduction of living creatures. And regarding the Flood, it is recurrent: the Demiurge brought it down upon the world when humans were about to uncover his deceit. Our age, which started with the Greeks, is heading towards its own deluge.

Condemned by the Council of Nicaea (545), the Gnostic Church continued to proliferate, with ups and downs, until giving rise to a new kind of State within a State: the Albigensian Republic, which was subdued in the twelfth century. The Gnostic liturgy provided for a series of purifying acts that initially were all of an artistic nature. For the Gnostics, art is the manifestation of Truth. Thanks to art, the nine spheres inside of which the soul - in its bogus world - has hidden, are known. An Archon watches over each of the spheres (the old tradition transfigured them into the nine Muses, the deceptive image of beauty). Every poem, song or portrait is an attempt to gather the name of one of these Archons, in order to go beyond that ring on which his name rules. Art is therefore purification and transcendence through the mystery of symbols.

After the destruction of the Albigenses, the poetry of the minstrels flourished at the court of Eleonora of Aquitaine: their technique, characterized by cryptic symbols, was called trobar clus, indicating its hermetic nature. Eleonora was educated in the Trivium and Quadrivium by philosopher followers of Abelard and Roger Bacon, for whom "every idea is an image, and every image the reflection of an interpretation": a clearly gnostic assumption. The poetry of the Troubadors – as such poets were called – concerns the woman as the Domina, the lady of a lifetime. For her, the knight offers his life in trials of strength and valour. The Woman is beyond reach, secluded, and only longed for. The Woman of Troubador poetry is the Soul of the Gnostics, and a prisoner of her own body. Mirrors and gems are paths towards knowing this mystery: thanks to them, the Woman can love the knight, and even exchange his smile. Hence, through the interpretation of symbols mediated by the Gnosis, the soul can seduce the body and free itself from this demiurgic, illusory reality.

One of the arts in which the Troubadors found models for their poetry was alchemy. In the opus alchemicum, matter passes through three stages: nigredo, albedo and rubedo. In the first, the soul only knows the deception of the senses; in the second, a new world is manifested; in the third, its deception is cancelled. The three parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy go back over this gnostic plot. Petrarch’s Laura, an Anima figure, is an opus alchemicum and as gnostic as can be. This means that all of Western poetry, created as a way of alluding to unmentionable philosophical truths through the fiction of Belles Lettres, derives from the repression of such a flourishing ideological movement. In gnostic liturgy, the Soul is called Sophia (Wisdom). Beatrice and Laura are really Sophia. As women, they never existed. Another means by which the Gnostics represent their antirealistic position is with Tarots. The Tower, the Hanged Man, the Black Moon, represent as many stages towards Sophia’s liberation from the deception of reality, through knowledge.

Thus, Western poetry began as a figurative language under the banner of an allusive symbolism which, gradually ceasing to have sacred meanings to become a heritage of the collective unconscious, in any case draws food for its representative power from this desire for liberation from time and matter. In many cases (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Blake, Coleridge, Poe, Yeats, Goethe, Novalis, Trakl, Hoffmansthal, Cendras, Bernhard, Mereskovski, Brusov, etc.) the references to gnostic symbolisms are conscious and governed by an unexpressed grammar that, beyond national cultures, links the most fertile literary minds from the Middle Ages to our times.

For a translator, awareness of how the symbolic device corresponds to a precise determination of meaning and is a form of coded revelation, is all-important because it opens the door to a ‘mythopoetic’ rather than impressionistic and aesthetic view of the textual connotation. There are horizontal and vertical symbolic systems. The maze and mirrors are classic examples of the first typology. A writer like Borges can make a leopard-skin a synthesis of the morphological traits of the second type. Each typology consists of images of sign, sense and meaning. Within the scope of the ‘horizontal’ type, an open door is a sign; the echo of a voice in a polyphonic web, a sense; the walls of a room decorated with historical scenes in the middle of a maze, an icon: the instrument with which a meaning is outlined. The human world is the world of appearances: hence it is situated at the junction of the two dimensions. Every human being lives an interior synthesis of the three imaginative dimensions: the prophet makes up for the absence of the sun with the ‘horizontal’ play of mirrors, and is therefore an Anima figure. The archer who aims his arrow at the sun does not know that it will come back to him: it is the symbol of vain science, because the sun induces real blindness in him. Gnostic symbolism often uses paradoxes; thus the arrow, the symbol of the direct way, becomes a mark of interior confusion. The real path to Sophia’s liberation is in the continually interrupted and unresolved mirror maze.

Another way of considering the poetic symbolisms of Gnosticism is that established by Jung, who divides them into the symbols of Animus, Anima, Persona and Self. The first are dice, shapes, sextants: everything that brings intellectual order to the Chaos of Creation. Everyone knows Leonardo’s painting representing a man inscribed inside an octahedron: one of the topics of Animus symbolism in painting. The Anima is the irrational part, as the drive of the Es left free to flow, unafraid that the symbiosis of Eros/Thanatos inside it can have lethal consequences. And it is precisely poetry that is the talisman; regulating the game and preventing ritual from becoming destiny. The Anima receives and holds: stretches of water, dark caves, silent little girls and blue flames are its symbols. In general, everything blue is an Anima figure, whereas Animus figures prefer red.

Persona symbologies concern the staging of masks: the identities we take on in our everyday lives. The Jester, the Chameleon or other fantastic animals, the Madman, the Lyre Player, are examples, all sharing a preference for white – a sign for madness, in being a chromatically undifferentiated colour. The Self is the hub, the permanent rotation of the ring, the inverted tip of the pyramid, the name of Ur: its colour is black. The Self is nothing and everything, in being a place of the synthesis of opposites, and integration of the personality; it is the rubedo, the moment of scarlet revelation, where the horizontal and vertical unite in the part without a ring, giving rise to the reflected ray that returns to its source. Hence the origin of the Guiding Spirits, that spell their truths in poets, as Dante knew so well and stated.

The hierarchy of the spirits in gnostic theology is complex. In fact, alongside the Guiding Spirits, which are Anima symbols, there are Guardian Spirits whose territory is the Animus: legislators, philosophers, Old Sages. Then there are the Mirror Spirits, Eternal Children, adolescents destined to return as soon as possible to the Kingdom of Light. These ‘angels’ coincide with a corresponding hierarchy of ‘demons’, like the Psychic Vampires, Golems and Slave Spirits. The former feed on the vitality of others, the Golems are the spirits of the dead caught in ‘limbo’, and who try to return to life by taking possession of the identity of a living person. The Succubi are spirits so integrated in the Realm of Quantity – our world – that they fight with all their strength against anyone daring to penetrate its veil of deception.

But what has all this to do with our discourse? It would be mere metaphysical nonsense if it were not for the fact that Western poetic imagination revolves around this unspoken theology; and Tadzio in Death in Venice is a Mirror Spirit, destined to call old Aschenbach on the stretch of water, which is an Anima figure, and also a death figure, by effect of the reflected sun, preventing the Persona to be perceived. Many of Dickens’s characters are Succubi, and their destiny is to destroy David Copperfield, the Puer Eternus. In Dostoevsky’s The Meek Woman we see an Anima figure gradually killed by a Psychic Vampire. Do you sense bewildering symbolic associations? Once armed with this ‘grammatical’ key, do you perceive how, behind every ‘text’ there is a secret code that a translator must know, not in order to translate well, but to give a sense of Anima to what he is doing?

Therefore, summing up, the types of mythopoetic symbolism are: a) alchemic; b) counter-spell (tarots); c) psychic (gnostic). The limits between the three distinctions are apparent. In category a) there are the Nigredo, Albedo and Rubedo figures. In b) law-giving (the King), dynamic (the Warrior) or transverse (the Hanged Man, the Fool) symbologies. In c) horizontal, vertical or 'mirrored'. Jung’s distinction between the Animus, Anima, Persona and Self symbols comes within the latter category of the mirror. Moreover, on an aesthetic level, all these symbols can assume a connotation of sign, sense and meaning.

Now we shall examine three opposite models, all characterized by marked gnostic connotations: Hoffmansthal’s Elektra, Rilke’s The Book of Hours, Yeats’s The Tower.