Literature and Enlightenment

The Crystal Ball by John William Waterhouse

At our Section meeting yesterday January 25, 2019 we started the night with verses from The Calendar of the Soul and then acknowledged that the day marked the beginning of the lunar new year (a moveable date) and that January 25 also marked the fixed date for the celebration of the enlightenment of St. Paul.

From here we turned our attention to planning.

Christiane Haid’s Visit to North America

We spent almost the first hour of the meeting discussing Christiane Haid’s upcoming trip to North America in September 2020. At least half if not more of Dr. Haid’s time in North America in September will be spent in Canada, and this part of the trip will be organized by Canadian members and friends. In Fair Oaks, we are lucky to have members of the Faust Branch Coordinating Committee at our Section meetings. This allowed us to pinpoint a favorable date for Dr. Haid to present a lecture at the Faust Branch in September, if she is willing. We also discussed having local Section events and a salon and perhaps a lecture, most likely at the house. We are also lucky to have Patricia at our meetings, since Patricia is a member of the Section for Visual Arts collegium. This should make it easier for Dr. Haid to connect with the Visual Arts Section community during her trip in September 2020. More planning details will be forthcoming.

Literature and Enlightenment

We then turned our attention to literary matters for the remainder of the meeting. This consisted of two parts. Part One: methodology and research. I again posed the question: “What is it that we do in the Section for Literary Arts and Humanities? What is unique about our approach?” Part Two provided an introduction to the poet William Blake.

In the first part, I presented to the group the essay by Mark Riccio that Mark recently submitted to the Section. In this essay, Mark unpacks the literary-critical method used by George and Gisela O’Neil to read and discuss the texts of Rudolf Steiner. One of the take-away points that I highlighted in my summary of the essay to the group on Saturday was the emphasis that Rudolf Steiner placed on style: he emphasized the importance of HOW words are used as opposed to the content presented by those words. I am probably guilty of a clumsy summary, so I recommend you to Mark’s website directly at

To enliven our meeting discussion, however, I quoted Rudolf Steiner from the last lecture of the Hamburg cycle devoted to the Gospel of St. John (a cycle that we studied in the Fair Oaks Branch during the recent Holy Nights) – words that I think echo the substance of the O’Neil methodology and which, I suspect, might take us closer to an understanding of the question: “What is it that we do in the Section for the Literary Arts?” In answer to this persistent question – we read texts, of course, and discuss texts, for one thing – but why are we not simply a book club?

“St. Sophia the Almighty Wisdom” by Nicholas Roerich

Here is Steiner (Lecture 12: “The Nature of the Virgin Sophia and of the Holy Spirit” in The Gospel of St. John, Hamburg, 1908, second paragraph):

“The refashioning of the astral body indirectly through Meditation and Contemplation is called by an ancient name katharis or purification. Katharsis or purification has as its purpose the discarding from the astral body all that hinders it from becoming harmoniously and regularly organized, thus enabling it to acquire higher organs. It is endowed with the germ of these higher organs; it is only necessary to bring forth the forces that are present in it. We have said that the most varied methods can be employed for bringing about this katharsis. A person can go very far in this matter of katharsis if, for example, he has gone through and inwardly experienced all that is in my book Philosophy of Spiritual Activity and feels that this book was for him a stimulation and that now he has reached the point where he can himself actually reproduce the thoughts just as they are there presented. If a person holds the same relationship to this book that a virtuoso, in playing a selection on the piano, holds to the composer of the piece, that is, he reproduces the whole thing within himself – naturally according to his ability to do so – then through the strictly built-up sequence of thought of this book – for it is written in this manner – katharsis will be developed to a high degree. For the important point in such things as this book is that the thoughts are all placed in such a way that they become active. In many books of the present, just by changing the system a little, what has been said earlier in the book can just as well be said later. In Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, this is not possible.”

Creeping Like Snail Unwillingly to School

At this point I shifted the discussion to poetry, and I used Shakespeare as an example. What happens if we apply the method described by Steiner to a poem or to a drama by Shakespeare? Can we assume, with a Shakespeare sonnet for example, that “the strictly built-up sequence of thought” in the sonnet is stylistically integral to the meaning? If so, what happens to us inwardly, in a spiritual scientific sense, if we are able to follow that sequence like a musical virtuoso interpreting a score? Katharsis, as we know, is also a literary term; it appears in Aristotle’s Poetics, where it is applied to our experience of drama. As we know, this term flows to us from the tradition of the mysteries. What is the relationship – right now, for us as students of literature—to this experience of katharis, which Rudolf Steiner indicates can be achieved through proper engagement with a secular literary text? Is Steiner speaking only of a singular literary text, or can we, through our development of inner capacities and freedom, take his indications and use them more universally in regard to other texts of literature?

I referenced St. Benedict, for some historical context. And finally, what happens in the next step of this process – when we begin to write?

I asked the members of the meeting to imagine young William Shakespeare trudging to grammar school early on a cold dark morning in middle England. He sits on a bench. What does he hear all day long? Latin. What does he imbibe all day long? Latin texts. How does he learn to write and to imagine himself within language? Through imitation of Latin texts.

The point, however, is not a point about Latin or pedagogy. Follow the inward process. At some point, the text dies. It perishes. It is reborn. It is resurrected. As what? Taking Steiner’s remarks concerning the Philosophy of Spiritual Activity as a departure point, what happens if we apply this methodology to other texts of literature? Is this allowed, or is it transgressive? Can we speak of a Goethean method of reading, for example, as we speak of a Goethean method of observation or conversation? Or are we trespassing?

Bring Me My Bow of Burning Gold

After this discussion, we segued to William Blake and spent the remainder of the meeting in a brief attempt to provide some context for the upcoming kitchen talk on February 8, when we will look more closely at Blake.

Blake is an important poet for us to consider, especially in respect to our exploration of British Romanticism, now into its second year. As I noted in earlier emails: Blake, and the romantics in general, often annoy people. This was Blake’s purpose. He wanted to get under the skin of complacent or self-satisfied readers who are content with cozy world views that admit to small doubt, ambiguity, or insecurity. In that sense, he is very much in the tradition of the Grail. We know from our reading of Parzival, for example, that a quest begins with a question: no question, no quest; no doubt, no insight. Trivial question: trivial quest: big doubt, big insight.

Another problem with Blake for many readers: irony. When do we take him at face value, and when do we suspect hidden depths, checkered meanings? Is this Luciferic? And we certainly will have to spend some time trying to unpack Blake’s idea of “Poetic Genius” which, some would argue, puts him in the same lineage as Dionysius the Areopagite. We might also acknowledge Blake’s spiritual parlay with folks like Swedenborg, Schelling, Ginsberg, and with the Rosicrucian Enlightenment, so-called. I am excited that we have Blake in our sights, and I hope the salon performance with Patricia on December 14 gave you a hint of Blakean excitement. I also will make available for our meeting on January 25 a book with the complete artwork of William Blake — as noted, Blake thought that poetry and the visual arts were aspects of a single grand creative enterprise.

I also mentioned Blake’s interest in the so-called Everlasting Gospel, along with his antinomian tendencies. I referenced Joachim of Fiore, but I tried to put this reference into context of the second lecture from the St. John cycle, in which Steiner presents an introduction to esoteric Christianity and draws our attention to Dionisius the Areopagite, who received an initiation from St. Paul. I did this because Blake is perhaps the most “esoteric” of the romantics we are considering. He is Christic, but not necessarily Christian – some might argue. We’ll take this up in future times.

The meeting closed with refreshments and long conversations. We perused a few books of Blake’s artwork. We chatted and noshed and finished late. And, oh sì, che meraviglia, alcuni membri del nostro gruppo andranno a Roma ad aprile . . . that is, in April some friends and members of our Section group are going to Rome to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death. We look forward to photos and videos and reports! In the words of Billy Wilder: “Avanti!”

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
— Wm. Shakespeare

“It has seemed to me—and on such an evening, I have felt it,—that this world, endowed as it is outwardly with endless shapes and influences of beauty and enjoyment, is peopled also in its spiritual life by myriads of loving spirits; from whom, unawares, we catch impressions, which mould our thoughts to good, and thus they guide beneficially the course of events, and minister to the destiny of man. Whether the beloved dead make a portion of this holy company, I dare not guess; but that such exists, I feel.”
— Mary Shelley