A love song can devastate, render us a pool of ache and tears. A love song may speak to our love in this world, and our desire to claim love beyond physical and temporal bounds. A love may hunger for the divine. I first heard “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in the backseat of my parents’ car in the early seventies. I forget where we were driving, but that doesn’t really matter, what matters is what happened to me when I heard this perfect mix of melody and words via AM radio. Written by Ewan MacColl for his love Peggy Seeger, and brought to brilliance through the singing of Roberta Flack.
A longing greater than the physical, greater than the visible world in light, this longing looks to darkness. A place secret and removed. A place where seeing nothing opens the possibility of seeing everything.
The first time, ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and the stars
Were the gifts you gave
To the dark, and the endless skies
To the dark, and the endless skies
We know these words. We know the pairing of “dark” with “endless.” The divine loves to hide, as Heraclitus refers to nature in his philosophy (Φύσις κρύπτεσθαι φιλεῖ / Phúsis krúptesthai phileĩ), and in hiding offers itself. Remember in Apuleius‘ story of Cupid and Psyche in The Golden Ass, the young woman with name of our mind spends the night with her lover, but may not see his face. She dwells where he is, but may not look upon him. Night in night, we may be entwined in sheets with our divine beloved, but not unveil them, not reveal them to the light.
Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. (EX 20:21 NRSV)
Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite interprets this moment in The Mystic Theology.
It [“good cause of all”] has neither word nor act of understanding, since it is on a plane above all this, and it is made manifest only to those who travel through foul and fair, who pass beyond the summit of every holy ascent, who leave behind them every divine light, every voice, every word form heaven, and who plunge into the darkness where, as scripture proclaims, there dwells the One is beyond all things. (136)
Jalaluddin Rumi, the thirteenth century mystic poet, sings of this longed for night, a pairing with John of the Cross. The sacred in the desert religions signifies an intimate love under endless skies. We step toward a “thick darkness” leaving everyone else behind. And find what? A night where the divine demands everything in the name of love.
Enter the tumultuous night And from its ocean gather gifts unnamed.
The night hides the Beauty of the hidden; The day cannot compare with mysterious night.
Sleep he will not want, and sleep unsound He who has not seen the magical night.
Many pure hearts and minds Are nothing but slaves to the night.
The night is but an empty black pot If you want to discover the mystery of the night.
The way is long, God speed, O friends, If you want to discover the mystery of the night.
The trade of day is in commerce; It’s quite another trade at night! (Rumi)
Figurative language, associational logic, metaphors . . . choose your term, to say X is like something not X seems the very equation of love letters, love poems. Love in words figures as an absence, as a void needing words to fill the space; to become full and fulfilled, though the absence tells us better, though the love song needs the beloved at a distance in order to speak. Here Johnny Cash sings “The First Time Ever I saw Your Face,” which maintains this distance by looking backwards at a moment gone, though the singer and the words beg, really beg to differ.
And the first time, ever I lay with you
I felt your heart so close to mine
And I knew our joy
Would fill the earth
And last, til the end of time
And it would last, til the end of time
Mysticism speaks the language of love. Philosophy to attain what it’s set as belief, wish and truth speaks the language of love. The words of Rabia Basri from the eighth century CE chart this traveler’s credo . . . mixing the love of the close one and the distant one.
You have infused my being
Through and through
As an intimate friend must
So when I speak I speak of only You
And when silent, I yearn for You.
To speak means to yearn first; a longing set in the very heart of language, which is why we open our mouths and try to shape what’s inside and outside of us into one, into an “intimate friend” always beyond us. Think of Diotima’s Ladder of Love. Read Allan Bloom’s words from his essay, “The Ladder of Love.”
The philosopher’s movement up the ladder of love is an ascent toward the things that are always, as opposed to those that come into being and pass away. To see and perhaps to become one with what is always is the philosopher’s way of reaching immortality. (150)
Yet, love might not receive us, love might pass on our steps, and then we have only the way back down the steps, down into the valley below. If we follow Plato’s “Parable of the Cave,” then the sun turns away, we know brilliance is there, but back down the hills we must go. Here we find the Aeropagite again.
In the earlier books my argument traveled downward from the most exalted to the humblest categories, taking in on this downward path an ever-increasing number of ideas which multiplied with every stage of the descent. But my argument now rises from what is below up to the transcendent, and the more it climbs, the more language falters, and when it has passed up and beyond the ascent, it will turn silent completely, since it will finally be at one with him who is indescribable. (139)
In the visible world we inhabit, multitudes of forms dominate, but the movement upwards begins limiting what is real, as it does in Diotima’s Ladder, until we arrive, for this dark mysticism, at that which does not speak, cannot be named, can only be referred to by where it dwells. Katabasis and Anabasis. Speaking of going down, Bob Dylan has some thoughts, accompanied by Scarlet Rivera during the Rolling Thunder Revue Tour.
Your breath is sweet
Your eyes are like two jewels in the sky
Your back is straight, your hair is smooth
On the pillow where you lie
But I don’t sense affection
No gratitude or love
Your loyalty is not to me
But to the stars above
One more cup of coffee for the road
One more cup of coffee ‘fore I go
To the valley below
Hmmmm. What if you’re not the one the beloved has been waiting for? A love triangle if you will. X pines for Y, yet Y pines for Z (“stars above” and all the connotations within), so X drinks one more cup of bitterness before the katabasis. The beloved plays lover to another, to the that which is above, beyond, unspeakable, the divine in “thick darkness.” Speaking of “thick darkness.” No, no, don’t turn away. I know you look down on instant coffee. I know you think it not the higher brew, the higher love. But wait, instant coffee delivers a type of darkness, a type of dark bitterness quietly; that’s right, in the silent dark of morning when I don’t want to wake Gabriela and Demian with the whirring of the grinder, I choose the hush of hot water pouring over crystallized caffeine . . . bitter, earthy, liquid “crack” if you will. Bon Appétit!