April 03, 2006

Research Notes: Spinoza and desert asceticism, Kant and the urban sublime

Follow-up to Research Notes: Arabia and the geography of asceticism from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

Chapter LXIII, whilst bathing in a mountain spring, Lawrence was surprised by the appearance of some kind of wandering outcast, a desert mystic or madman. Earlier he had considered the "periodic rise of intervals of little more than a century, of ascetic creeds in Central Arabia" (p.148). Now again, in this spectacular desert setting, he considers the geophilosophy of Ideas.

Upon the water-cleansed and fragrant ledge I undressed my soiled body, and stepped into the little basin, to taste at last a freshness of loving air and water against my tired skin. It was deliciously cool. I lay there quietly, letting the clear, dark red water run over me in a ribbly stream, and rub the travel-dirt away. While I was so happy, a grey-bearded, ragged man, with a hewn face of great power and weariness, came slowly along the path till opposite the spring; and there he let himself down with a sigh upon my clothes spread out over a rock beside the path, for the sun-heat to chase out their thronging vermin.
He heard me and leaned forward, peering with rheumy eyes at this white thing splashing in the hollow beyond the veil of sun-mist. After a long stare he seemed content, and closed his eyes, groaning, 'The love is from God; and of God; and towards God'.

In the cruel matter of fact world of the desert it would be hard to believe in a loving God, one that deliberately arranges the world for the benefit of humans. This desert wanderer had himself been blinded, rendering his staring looks fitting of someone with a more transcendent imaginary. Lawrence had just experienced the erosion of vision himself, with Sherif Aid suddenly losing his sight to the burning sun.

But here, in an abundant pool of otherwise rare water, it seems possible. The contrast between desert asceticism and the bathing pool, between the pain of driving sand and the pleasure of cool water, between thirst and immediate satisfaction, mirrors that between the desert and its necessities and the town and its free-will. The spring at Shallala sits within a sublime geological architecture. Lawrence's choice of words allies the great Wadi Rumm with the city or citadel:

The hills on the right grew taller and sharper, a fair counterpart of the other side which straightened itself to one massive rampart of redness. They drew together until only two miles divided them: and then, towering gradually till their parallel parapets must have been a thousand feet above us, ran forward for an avenue of miles. p.351

Lawrence, an archaeologist with expertise on fortifications, draws the inevitable analogies. The walls are said to be:

built sectionally, in rags like gigantic buildings, along two sides of their street.


The crags were capped in nests of domes, less hotly red than the body of the hill; rather grey and shallow. They gave the finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture.

Wadi Rumm is a citadel, an overwhelming and enveloping cave bigger than man but making sense of man. It is said that the:

The Arab armies would have been lost in the length and breadth of it, and within the walls a squadron of aeroplanes could have wheeled in formation. Our little caravan grew self-conscious, and fell dead quiet, afraid and ashamed to flaunt its smallness in the presence of the stupendous hills.

Wadi Rumm is Lawrence's sublime. Perhaps it is the closest that he gets to Oedipus?

Landscapes, in childhood's dream, were so vast and silent. We looked backward through our memory for the prototype up which all men had walked between such walls toward such an open square as that in front where this road seemed to end. Later, when we were often riding inland, my mind used to turn me from the direct road, to clear my senses by a night in Rumm and by the ride down its dawn-lit valley towards the shining plains, or up its valley in the sunset towards that glowing square which my timid anticipation never let me reach. I would say, 'Shall I ride on this time, beyond the Khazail, and know it all?' But in truth I liked Rumm too much.

But for Lawrence the city, its sublime, and the shame that it makes possible (the invasion of the citadel at Deraa), are not necessary. Ideas, sweeping out of the desert, may go in one of two directions: the Hellenism of the city (and its Christianity) or the surrender to fate, fact and an impersonal God of desert ascetiicisms. The words of the ragged man at Wadi Rumm had reminded Lawrence of this, and of his ambiguous position between the two (whilst relaxing in the spring, removing the desert dust and returning to the city): 'The love is from God; and of God; and towards God'.

His low-spoken words were caught by some trick distinctly in my water pool. They stopped me suddenly. I had believed Semites unable to use love as a link between themselves and God, indeed, unable to conceive such a relation except with the intellectuality of Spinoza, who loved so rationally and sexlessly, and transcendently that he did not seek, or rather had not permitted, a return. p.356
…expressing the monotheism of open spaces, the pass-through-infinity of pantheism and its everyday usefulness of an all-pervading, household God. p.357
Christianity had seemed to me the first creed to proclaim love in this upper world, from which the desert and the Semite (from Moses to Zeno) had shut it out: and Christianity was a hybrid, except in its first root not essentially Semitic.

This is followed by an exposition of the differing origins of the religions, and their routes out into the world. An academic exposition, but one written by someone at the border of these two great Ideational generators.


Spinoza and desert asceticism, Leibniz and urban excess? Just a thought.

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