Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fraktur and the Secret Furniture of Jerusalem's Chamber. Pennsylvania Dutch Paradise.

Thomas Merton illumines fraktur against "the blindness of 'single vision' which sees only the outward material surface of reality, not its inner spiritual form and the still more spiritual 'force' from which the form proceeds" (74). Shaker "work of the craftsman's hands had to be an embodiment of 'form.' The form had to be an expression of spiritual force. The force sprang directly from the mystery of God through Christ in the Believing artist" (79). The believing artist, given these forms in hand and mind by a spiritual force, God in Christ, would not find illumination outside these beliefs. Merton says Shaker art has "something to do with what Blake called 'the secret furniture of Jerusalem's chamber'" (74), that "a work-a-day bench, cupboard, or table might also and at the same time be furniture in and for heaven" (74). For Merton it is also obvious that "Shaker inspiration was communal...due not to the individual craftsman but to the community spirit and consciousness of the Believers" (76).

Anabaptists like the Shakers practice the communal production of their forms. Merton says Shaker forms were "a better, clearer, more comprehensible expression of their faith than their written theology" (76), which is what Stoudt says of Pennsylvania art, whose theology was a mythology seeing the outer surface through the inner form, the "spiritual force from which the form proceeds" (Merton, 74).

Merton, Shakers, Blake and fraktur celebrate images of the natural fruition of paradise, a renewal of plant and animal that finds human life amid these images as a means of the flowering heart. Frakturs covered with lilies in the shape of a tulip, images of a tulip blooming from a heart, roosters, flower-stars or any field or haystack transformed by the renewing mind, a spider, a fly, a rooster, child, cow, farmer, sky, grass endowed with plain dress by unplain people ornate in their inner lives, "their only advertisement was the work itself" (Merton, 79) in the field, orchard and plant. Spiritual conditions made out of the natural set Pennsylvanians apart. This celebration of life was much opposed to the surrounding English culture whose domination of peoples and empires had commercial motives.

Believing and Doing

Recapturing this Lily Age might be like trying to live out the prophecies of Blake, meditating mental archetypes, giant forms. But the Lily has as much to do with the artifact as the Elohim have to do with the hex.  Both are round. You can't get the Lily by running counterfeit. The Lily Age is not about nostalgia for a thing that once existed, stone pullers, horseback riders. You have to live it. Paradise is not an external state. It is interior, matching something unseen, mirrored in the seen, connected to an organic field, an image of the Kingdom of God, the ground out of which the Lily grows. Artifacts may be said to leave a trail of crumbs to show the external where it belongs.

To this comparison of  fraktur and Shaker add  Blake's relation of art and text. Blake's images, his decoration, languished in much the same way as fraktur text, divorced, when his work was neither reproduced nor understood. Even though Weiser says "Fraktur existed for the sake of the texts," and "a few selected images to convey the message," nobody read those texts, much less took them seriously. Weiser says it was because of a "preoccupation with death and religious themes" (xxvii), but such themes abound everywhere in English poetry, so why should it diminish the German? Separated from the text, fraktur decorations resemble Blake's art divorced from his writing. The visual image was accepted before the written.

If we could prove it was something esoteric it would get a following, but how can there be a vision in fraktur when it had multiple authors? The vision is communal but not as esoteric among its practitioners as Blake among the scholars who spin a theory of imagination out of his evangel Jerusalem. Until Erdman or Frye, critics were affronted at the idea of a coherent system in Blake. Their cousins among Pennsylvania critics are equally affronted at a hidden meaning of fraktur texts. Stoudt started to find it out, but his pietist peasants and Catholic saints got little support for a hidden world in hymns. It affronted scholars also when he claimed a personal transcendentalism for thousands of Pennsylvanians a century before New England. Pennsylvania could have been credited had it come after, but coming before was not allowed. What is a personal transcendentalist? You have the idea and live it instead of talk about it. It sounds like the Hopi elders.

 Seeing life from inside out takes getting used to. It always seems impossible from the outside, which asks how it is possible even to be immersed in a name, let alone to remain there. It is rather like that series of embeddings that take place in many of the Psalms.
 [Coming someday, a consideration of German Literary Influences in the American Transcendentalists.]
Stoudt's Pennsylvania mystics ally with the Shakers. Thomas Merton's Seeking Paradise: The Spirit of the Shakers (2003) has a view of The Inner Experience.  Merton's phrase "images of Paradise" translates this art of making. It is about believing and doing, "the peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it" (Shakers, 85).

Such believing is a stumbling block to visions among the critical classes, the prescient Milton taking dictation of the Holy Spirit each night to compose Paradise Lost, the Shakers, who "believed their furniture was designed by angels--and Blake believed his ideas for poems and engraving came from heavenly spirits" (85). It is a great irony that Blake says his poem entitled Milton was dictated to him (Ruthven, 63). A little of this frustrates a lot of rationalist.

 The relation of Pennsylvanians to decoration of tulips, hearts, stars and crowns, Mennonites turning flowers into bookmarks to bring paradise indoors, linens, furniture and pottery of communal tulips that grow from paper to linen and wood, letters that whirl, signatures in spirals and stipples, a plain board, cap or or cup  of inner spiritual form from which the outer proceeds, greater decoration the less.

K. K. Ruthven. Critical Assumptions.
 Frederick S. Weiser and Howell J. Heaney. The Pennsylvania German Fraktur. Breingigsville: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1976.

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