The Alchemy of the Word
"I turned silences and nights into words. What was unutterable, I wrote down. I made the whirling world stand still."
"You are an alchemist; make gold of that."
In A Season in Hell, Rimbaud describes a phenomena which he refers to as "The Alchemy of the Word". He describes his poetic flights and whimsies giving rise to vivid hallucinations which describe entire free-standing worlds of images and ideas. The idea being that language can actually alter or affect reality, or one's perception of it--which really when it comes down to it, is all that there is. Words serving as the program-script to the operating-system (to borrow Grant Morrison's language) that is the physical universe. With them you can communicate the entire spectrum of human emotion and experience, build entirely new worlds, create people. And the delivery system itself, language, the word, shoots like quicksilver across the page, going through ranges of elegant transmutations from feeling to feeling, idea to idea. This theme goes back thousands of years, you might even recognize it from the Bible: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." (John 1:1/John 1:14). The suggestion being that before there was anything there was imagination, language, which were one and the same with the creative impulse which gave rise to matter.
For a typical Christian this may have seemed like a bit of a departure from the earlier narrative; a new, emergent, decidedly more psychedelic, cosmology uneven with the preceding books in the Old Testament. But this idea goes way back to the roots of Christianity, into the older Jewish texts apocryphal to the Bible. There's even a line in the Kabbalah which suggests that if God were to stop speaking for but an instant, all of creation would be suddenly unmade. And there was a tradition of burying religious texts, of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, in what were literally book graveyards, where they would intern the remnants of old or worn texts. In Judaism this resting place for the word is oftentimes referred to as a Genizah. And, though many followers, of all the world religions, have fallen out of touch with this detail, they did this because they literally believed that words were alive. As in living energies which could change the world with their resonances. You hear Christians refer to the Bible as "The Living Word" constantly without really understanding what exactly this means in its full magnitude. As is the same with many esoteric Christian concepts unfortunately, it seems a good deal of Christ's teachings, at least to fundamentalists, are completely lost somewhere between the early censorship of the full text by religious authorities and the fetishist nature of institutionalized religion. Another example, among the many, is the concept of Christ's defeating death itself, which is an expression of the true, spiritual nature of living things and, much like Krishna expressed, what we are in fact is light, and no matter what happens to the body, this light will always remain. Thus rendering the concept of death null and void in the ultimate scheme of things. Though most Christians seem content to take the idea at face value, more like a phrase than a concept, never digging any deeper than that.
When we step back and consider the idea of language as being alive rationally, just for a moment, the premise certainly seems to hold some water, at the very least as metaphor. There's the obvious examples, of people like Homer, like Ovid, Keats, Shakespeare, even Rimbaud himself, being immortalized centuries, and sometimes thousands of years, after their mortal demise. And then on top of that, consider the ideas that have been immortalized, by the writers of the Gospels, Mark, John, Luke, by Lao-tzu, in the Hindu Mahabharata. But more compelling is the very nature of information and ideas themselves, how they behave like living organisms with the human mind as their habitat. If you consider the entire world, its simply a constituency of interconnected ideas; the political system, religion, the world economy, national borders, law. These things are externalized physically sure, but the fuel of those manifestations--presidential elections, courts, armies--are the ideas themselves. What about Wall Street? The stock-exchange? When most people think of it the first thing that comes to mind is usually an array of screens with letters and numbers flickering across them, men in the pit below hanging on every rapidly fluctuating digital character. Their lives and hopes invested in this occult language, the workings of this strange intelligence. It's a machinery of information which operates by its own internal logic, using human beings, who buy, sell, trade, as its vehicle or host. Like a demon or deity that has grown beyond its bounds, out of control, fattened on human belief, its hard to even say whether the stock-market belongs to us anymore or us to it. And the same question applies to a great many of these "big ideas" in the world. If you look at information itself, think of the business world, the way companies are born, grow, multiply, it can be analyzed and observed in many ways in accordance to the same rules and patterns of cell biology. Because, no matter how an idea forms, if it reaches more than a few people, it will always take on a life of its own. Open your eyes and take a look, reality is very strange indeed, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio..." etc, etc.
So, coming back to Rimbaud, he believed that the awakened usage of the word was in itself a divine act. A means by which he could shape his own world. Like an alchemist who turns lead into gold, the word, or art itself, the enlightened use of information, endeavors to take experiences, feelings, and ideas, and transfigure them, through the medium of the imagination, into something higher. What is it that all good art does? It strikes a truth, if you'll forgive the use of this much over-used and often misunderstood word, somewhere in the good, the bad, or the ugly of human understanding. Effective art is more than just reading or seeing or hearing, its a spiritual experience that reaches beyond the basic matter of our five barely evolved apish senses, and kisses the light. Thus language, whether it be one of word, image, or sound, transcends its earthly bounds and communicates with the soul. The only mistake would be edifying the precipitating result, the single piece of art, the single religion, the institution. To become so attached to the feeling that you become restricted to the bounds of that moment in time. Like a healthy relationship, your appreciation of an aesthetic or a truth, there it is again, shouldn't be fixed as an attachment or an obsession. But it should be something which has room to evolve, to continue to thrive and grow as a living thing, with fluctuating wants and needs. Empty your head and make your principles fluid, allow the thing to take you down the river.
Rimbaud thought what was required to graduate from poet to seer was, "...an immense, long, deliberate derangement of all the senses.", a systematic shedding of the ego until one was completely in touch with the true self. He did this with copious amounts of hashish and absinthe coupled with increasingly wild behavior. Then on the other hand, the Hindus know this state as Samadhi, which is taught as being the end-point to years of focused meditation, and in spite of which is sometimes never reached until the moment of death. And the Zen Buddhists have their own methods of attaining enlightenment, namely by breaking down traditional patterns of thought and reason coupled with deep meditation. By all accounts its a tough place to get to, the alchemist's chair, to find that place deep down that can place itself in such harmony with the rhythm and heart-beat of nature that it can reach the light. But the important thing to remember is that it exists in each and every one of us, in one way or another, that very raw potential. And given that fact alone, isn't that reason enough to spend a lifetime trying? Imagine being able to use art to transmute all of these narratives of apocalypse, of financial meltdown, destruction of the environment, walking dead, hate, into a brilliant resurrection, a future.
Much in the way that the Book of John describes the creative impulse preceding matter, so does art precede civilization. Think of any culture from anywhere in the world, the entire narrative, all of its sensibilities, arise from acts of creative expression. There's a reason why prehistoric man painted on cave-walls, trying to frame the day-to-day in some kind of narrative sense to better understand life itself. At the root of things art generates culture, and its only after that that the form appears around it. Thus in every human being on this planet, there is the potential to change the world.