Wednesday, December 22, 2010

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

This is the same double day lily that grew in Anna's garden in Media but which Elizabeth revealed came originally from Uncle George's farm in Worcester, home of the Schwenkfelder emphasis on inner spirituality over outward form. They brought saffron to America and declined amalgamation with the United Church that swallowed most of the other pietistic groups. Their pastors were chosen by lot from the congregation like Mennonites. Several of Uncle George Reiff's daughters, Katie, Lena and Susie, were members.

Raising Hands with the Mind

A lily is the centerpiece of this imagination that transfers Christ and His redemption to nature. Perhaps the likeness is more than symbolic. Among architectures of furnished rooms and philosophies of hymns, gardens and kitchens, this sacrament is the inner garment of earth.

The inward care of earth, the great poem of earth that remains to be written, Wallace Stevens says in The Necessary Angel), finds its unspoken search of the  devotional attitude flowering in Johann Arndt's Paradies Gartlein, the book that would not burn (Sachse, German Sectarians, I, 245, and in Gerhard Tersteegen's Spiritual Flower Garden of the Inner Soul (Geistliches Blumen-Gärtlein inniger Seelen, 1729, Germantown 1747), which was also sung. So if it is said that “Pennsylvania German folk art is basically spiritual in concept and its motifs and designs are non-representational expressions of traditional Christian imagery” (Stoudt, vii),  there is some likeness here with theologian Cornelius van Til calling it a Christian earth along with a Christian moon and sun. Citing Stoudt in defense of the lily is a little like taking Wallace Stevens as he is, a Pennsylvania Dutchman, for we delight to equivocate Dutch men. Stoudt says that when the underlying faith of this people was lost, so was its art. Wallace Stevens also changed from a Berks County farmer to a poetry sophisticate.

If you're of this folk you will be feeling better when you understand that before its elaboration in the writing of Boehme and in Pennsylvania's Ephrata Cloister the lily in the hymns and gardens is an image from the Song of Songs . This inner garden of the larger medieval setting of the terrestrial paradise, of  the German Minnesong and baroque German religious poets (Stoudt, 56), Bernard of Clairvaux and even more obscure Dionysian Neoplatonists, contemplated the lily much as did the English metaphysical poets. Hymnists and poets “escaped to illuminated writings, to the decorated chest, and to pottery” (Stoudt, 92). So a four fold progression accounts the Bible, Boehme, hymns and folk art.

Blossoming the Lily
 As its primary philosopher, Jacob Boehme, was vexed with the soil of this flowering, for the lily was of the earth. "A fair flower grows out of the rough earth which is [also] not like the earth, but declares by its beauty the power of the earth, and how it is mixed of good and evil; so also is every man, who, out of the animal, wild, earthly nature and quality, is born again so as to become the right image of God."

This flower was to the soil what the human was to the animal, except that man was also a plant. For Boehme the image of God in man in the earth emerged as if from a plant: "For those who are a growth of such a kind, and are shooting forth into the fair lily in the kingdom of God and are in process of birth, have we written this book” (Jacob Boehme, Six Theosophic Points, 4). So "he will blossom like a lily" (Hosea 14.5) making a paradise where none was before. This imaging of the man as a plant overcame the notion that nature was tainted with the human. As all creation groans and travails for its redemption,  the man is both its fall and its rise.

A flowering heart would connote a flowering mind much as the mystical heart diagrams of Paul Kaym, Helleleuchtender Hertzens-Spiegel (1680) give as a series of heart-head images engraved by Nicolaus Häublin, who illustrated the works of Boehme. Many works of alchemy find comfort in Boehme, who exchanged letters with Kaym whose16 engravings showing how the heart is attacked,  receiving light waves from the sun and moon, as in letters 8 and 11 of Boehme's, later published, Epistles. Paul Kaym had written to Boehme in 1620 asking him about the 'end of time', and was so answered. Kaym also wrote  commentaries on the Song of Songs and the Book of Revelation. That these  are concomitant awith alchemical texts or other mystical Boehme letters is irrelevant to the fact an air clogged with unseen spiritual beings. The study of alchemical texts cannot produce such life altering effects, it rather defeats them, since the person is bogged in rituals and sacrifices that only embroiled them further in darkness, as witnessed by the brows of patrons at S.  Weiser books. Why do the rich and the royal families seek alchemy then, if it’s only for profit? Because they have no other means of life.

 The lily as an image of nature's redemption, is not however drawn strictly as a botanical lily. This Lily is unknown, a stylized “use of natural events and objects to describe spiritual conditions." Stoudt said that such collective images underlay the life of the Pennsylvania Dutch in hymns, flowers, pottery and linens and “produced an American decorative art which, with few minor exceptions, is the only indigenous art of its kind in our land” (3).

The last thing Pennsylvania Germans  would want to seem is spiritual, which partly explains the discredit Stoudt suffered even if the spiritual intellectuals, Conrad Beissel (1691-1768), baker, founder of Ephrata and Boehme, a shoemaker, were peasants. Boehme influenced Milton, Newton and Emerson, they say, and was early translated to English (1647-1661). At the other end of the centuries Wallace Stevens, baptized at his death, reaffirmed his early life in this tradition of luminous indicia of imagination in his The Necessary Angel, a reflowering from his mother's Bible. The hymnals sang of die unfgehende lilie, the opening lily, the lilen-Zweig, the lily twig and wohlriechenden lilen, the fragrant ones (Stoudt, 85, 89, 95). This inescapable Dutch “tulip,” as Stoudt has it, was an “inarticulate belief in [all] the artist’s heart.” (Pennsylvania German Folk Art, 15).

Detail, silver napkin ring Berks County c. 1880
Pennsylvania German art embodies a spirit of  Inwendigkeit, interior, innerness that decides everything material and immaterial by the mind. Marriage is an imagination, dress an imagination, praising God is an imagination, raising hands with the mind and with the arms. All things are first and last imagined, whether household effects such as chests, linen, plates, or  fraktur art, all celebrate an “uncontaminated good within natural reality” (Stoudt, Pennsylvania German Folk Art, 101). Is it too much to say all human life is this way?

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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