An Encounter, or “How I Became a Philosopher”

“Demonic birds,” I burst out as I heaved myself from my desk and lumbered across the room. A band of magpies had perched askance along the balcony outside, guided by an instinctual strategy to cry havoc with the greatest acoustic advantage. I closed the window with a thud, knowing it was more of a token than a resolution, for the double-pane of glass remained as transparent to their insolent and incessant squawking as it was to the sunlight streaming through it. Returning to my chair, I took my book in hand. The book had remained opened to the 80th page. “Monadology” was printed topmost, and immediately subordinate was the heading “Section 16.” I began to read:

Furthermore, one must concede that perception, and all that depends upon it, are inexplicable on purely mechanical grounds; that is to say, by means of figures and motions.

The magpies persisted in their strident cries. I redoubled my efforts of concentration, intent on preparing myself for the following day, when I planned to vanquish Professor Francis on the field of argument:

Suppose there were a machine, so manufactured as to think, feel, and have perception: it might be imaginatively increased in size (while maintaining the same proportions) so that one might enter into it even as into a mill. That being so, we should, on examining its interior, find only parts which work one upon another, and never anything by which to explain a perception.

There must be something wrong with this analogy since it is an obvious fact that the brain produces thoughts just like the mill produces flour. That was it: there is no mention of flour in Monadology. The argument held no weighting for the train while I can’t

Immanuel from Prussia that borders Russia and Tchaikovsky’s swans

the mighty birds and yet so soft does music

On my mind alight, so soft,

why does it alight so soft?…

I raise the eyelids, which I did not know had fallen. The room is full of light that seems to have no single source. My gaze catches an empty glass on the table near the window. Like a prism, it showers the table with a thousand subtle rays of colour. My head swims and one of the refractions penetrates my eye, filling my mind with momentaneous light. At once I notice a faint and wafting music, as though of voices singing even as they speak. Along the balcony I see a retinue of beings in their trim, arrayed in piebald iridescent cloaks whose faces shine with a strange and inward beauty. I raise myself expecting a sense of heaviness that would ordinarily accompany this deed. To my surprise, elation floods my limbs and they spring to action. With an excellence that nearly outstrips the speed of thought, they hasten to my spirit’s bidding and bear me across the room as a cloud on a sprightly wind. I unlatch the door and the visitors address me in seeming unison:

“Hail fellow, from heralds of the vernal goddess, know that Zephyrus bears our Lady hither, your reception she requesting.”

Imagining myself to be taken aback by the unexpected announcement, and nevertheless the words proceed as naturally as the rustle of leaves follows the touch of a breeze in spring: “With reverence do I respect her arrival,” I responded, each word seeming backwardly to shape the thought that was its cause.

Before my wondering eyes appears a figure with flowing hair like the grain of birch-wood, and eyes like new leaves. “Sophia,” I whisper. I continue, suddenly proud: “These seven years I have made myself your disciple, and I am not the worse for it. My mind has been whetted through trial and through study. Today it glitters like a brand as I skewer my opponents in the ring of disputation.”

“Dear boy,” she says, with words that laugh like light on rippling streams, “remove the bandages from your eyes; the fool alone thinketh himself wise.”

I am filled with a rush of shame at my petty conceits. She looks upon me, and from her gaze I feel a swell of pity. “Forgive me,” I exclaim, “I have abused your name with literal-mindedness and profaned your altar with idols of dialectic.”

“Your repentance is your entry into the shrine of knowledge. The only heart who can look on Wisdom’s feature is the one who sees through the eyes with love. By this light alone can mortals read in the Book of Nature.”

“Lady I think I am besotted; a swell of happiness gives shape to airy nothings. But still I believe, and have heard it said, ‘Love is reason’s blindness.’”

“Silly boy, before you never heard nor looked upon the world at all.
Love gives light to your dark unkindness.
Without love’s sight, can reason only grope in blindness.”

“How then can I know my thoughts do not deceive,
When all I’ve learned, would counsel disbelieve?”

“Ask not ‘How can I know?” but ‘How to love.’
For you cannot love what is false, nor what you cannot conceive.
Wisdom lights the way for love’s feathery warmth to land,
And love takes lovely Wisdom by the loving hand.”

I reach out my hand and at once I am swept up on a billow of euphoria. Her voice rings through my mind as sunlight through a crystal. She continues:

“Lo! The green grass waxes towards the sun, and the crocus reaches its tender petals for the sky. But truth will pass you by if you attend no further. The grass is the countenance of higher beings, and the blossom is the face of the spirit’s mystery. You must not only look on these outsides, but learn to listen inwardly. When you attend with care and reverence, a world of secret music will announce itself. The whole living world will at once resound in sacramental song.

“A tiger-lilly, triumphant, upward-opening and cupped, sounds the joyful blast of trumpets. The angels play on tulips as on flutes. Violets ring like tiny triangles. Poppies sound in soft and plangent keys. But as you listen deeper you will see that these instruments do not sound of their own accord, but attune themselves to celestial harmonies. Their music is an echo of the stars above,
And angelic hierarchies that sing in choirs of love,
The love that moves the sun and other stars.

“Behold the birch; its whole form resounds
With intervals measured by the music of the spheres.
The tonic rumbles, stern and muffled, in its solid trunk.
The second sounds about its first furcation where the bulk divides and ramifies.
The third emerges with the branch and rounds off its major in the bud.
The fourth sends its keynote through all that’s green.
And the fifth achieves its glory in the shining blossom.
The sixth opens not from in the tree, but in being seen
By other beings from without, in parity and complement;
A bee alighting on the tender-opened couch
Within the sanctum of the blossom’s bower
Sounds the sixth for a brief ambrosial hour
The seventh sings of longing and departure, autumn’s key
The octave echoes in the seed, the birth to be.

“Behold the sylphs that teach the colours to mingle
And weave the elements with air and light
Behold the undines that with the ebb and flow
Of sap, meander in devoted rhythmic tides
Behold the gnomes, like miners shrewd and quick of wit
They lay the roots like briny tracks of life
And lo! Let your glance graze but do not tarry
On the fleeting forms of streaming fire
That wend about the withering blossoms
Reaping warmth from flowers as they fade
And the shining summer spirits upward bearing
To where light patiently waits to receive her own.
Queen of the Elements: now you know the quinta-essentia.

“Before this day, as skies made dark by stormclouds,
So your eyes were hid by scales of lovelessness
Let them fall and swift depart
For the eye that clear is portal to the heart
Which is love’s exaltation and his throne
As heaven’s vaulted ceiling to the sun and stars
That dispel the earth her gloomy shroud
So Nature’s book is closed up tight
To the one whose eyes covey no light
You see by the same light you consent give
In which you think and feel and also live.
I take my leave, adieu, adieu
For if my form does not depart from you
My sun will never fill your inner sky
My light will never stream forth from your eye.”

Her words seemed to lilt and flutter in the spring air. I gasped. At once I began to weep. May my tears cleanse and wash away my sin and idiocy, and baptise me into the church of Wisdom and of truth! During the entire encounter, I had failed to notice that she had been peopling the meadow with flowers with the substance of her speech. As though in intimated recollection, I beheld every word as it descended with a flutter to perch as a blossom, like a thousand butterflies that bind themselves to the green earth. I had failed to see that with the play of expression over her features as she spoke, she had been colouring the landscape in infinite gradients of light and shadow. Each creature was a unique prayer to Wisdom, and I only had to allow my heart to be instructed in this exultation.

I stood on the balcony and looked out on the vibrant field below. The troupe of magpies had retired to the roof where they now held conference in a forgotten tongue. Nature was a speech, a symphony, whose every moment had already transformed into the one to follow. I recalled a line from one of Rilke’s letters: “how all things are in migration.” What remained? I could neither match nor capture abundance of creation. All that remained was to sing praises to the world’s glory in my own poor tongue; to add my small voice to the chorus of gladness. I was buzzing inwardly with a fluent euphoria as I returned to the open book on my desk. I chuckled faintly. Perhaps the reader will not be taken aback if I remark at the childishness with which “the hard problem of consciousness” now appeared to me. One might as well quibble over how mere syntax could give rise to a formulation of the problem in the first place. I returned to the balcony, book in hand, and seated myself against the south-facing wall. I took up a pen and did not set it down again until I had scribbled out the following modest lines, which I have transcribed from the margin of my copy of Leibniz’s Monadology:

Before the world was made I knew her
Her joy was my completion and delight
She was my only muse and inspiration
By her breath the days were numbered
The seasons were her days and nights
For her the depths and heights were sundered
The axis of the world became her spine
To join the Earth and Sky in life divine
On her hair I patterned plays of sunlight
Which sparks and dances on Elysian streams
Her eyes became the sunbeams
Blithe, the world’s joy and lumination
For her form, the rolling Earth did I design
And all the trees and grasses fine
Her smile made me think of flowers
And for her soft reposes, I made the bowers
And about her heart demarked the sacred garden
That stretches four full chambers wide
Therein the life of creatures to reside
And flowing thence in rivers out of Arden
Wherein our spirit-selves abide.

“Primavera,” Sandro Botticelli, circa 1480.

Thanks to Rudolf Steiner, Novalis, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Dante, Walter Johannes Stein, Brunetto Latini, Vladimir Solovyov and many others.

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