Waldemar: Dante, Goethe, and Eros
In his Symposium, Plato terms the theory of the beautiful the "mysteries of Eros". He defines love as the divine yearning immanent in all humanity, for a great, all-embracing force which can inspire and fill the heart with enthusiasm. This force is beauty revealing itself in the body "as the glowing trace of heaven". It is the only force capable of giving the soul that mysterious clarity of vision which can lead to true beatitude. And the flame of love in its primal fire is at its highest when the most intimate bodily and spiritual union with the beloved is achieved. It must be understood that Plato stresses the importance of spiritual union - in which he sees the sacred duty of Eros to humanity. If, today, many men consider women solely as a means of enjoyment, they have a completely false conception of the true happiness Eros can provide.
Undoubtedly Plato believes sexual love to represent love's lowest level. But in accordance with the eternal law of the analogy of opposites, the "high" corresponds to the "low" and vice versa - in other words, to the counterplay of macrocosmos and microcosmos. For this reason, it is possible to maintain that this low level contains the highest possibilities, which alone lead to knowledge of the infinitely beautiful.
Carnal love, which the poets of all times and all nations have praised and glorified in their works, not only awakens the most tender emotions of the mind, but also puts the individual in direct contact with cosmic energy, the universal love, itself. This is achieved by the indescribable sensations of the moment of ecstasy and the sense of being overpowered by them. In his "Divine Comedy", Dante describes these sensations which touch the lover like a breath from another world.
An incomparably graphic description deals almost prophetically with the position of people who find themselves tied to sex but who are as yet incapable of raising themselves to the level of spiritualised love. In the Underworld, "where the squalls of Hell, which never rest, always torment the spirits and push and whirl them about in wrath", the poet by chance meets a couple, Francesca and Paolo Malatesta, who had lived to gratify the passions of their blood and had committed the sin of renouncing the true Eros. Now the couple are carried by the wind, straying from one part of the Underworld to another. Deluded by the egotism of their carnal urges, the two find it impossible to escape the place of suffering. This grandiose picture demonstrates the terrible criterion of modern times: the insane tendency to value sex more highly than the soul. A consequence of this is that, in mental blindness, men fail to find their way to the true personality and are whirled about by the storm of time. To avoid misunderstanding, it must be mentioned here that these sexual instincts can by no means be regarded as inferior or second rate. On the other hand, misuse of sex can degrade it to something animal and destructive. When Tolstoi in his "Kreutzer Sonata" says that the final goal of mankind is to conquer sexuality and all sensual impulses and feelings, he completely overlooks the fact that man's procreative faculties also conceal spiritual and celestial energy. This not only guarantees the continued existence of the body in this world but also of the soul.
This establishes and exemplifies the twofold nature of Eros: on one hand as "Eros Pandemos", on the other as "Eros Uranos". Beauty is only experienced by the heart if the spiritual sympathy a man feels for a woman is so enhanced that the body is merely a vessel, a bowl, a container for that exalted spark arising from the infinite sun of love. It must be remembered that, in the last resort, beauty can only be enjoyed in ecstasy. It is ecstasy alone which can annihilate all mundane desire for exclusive possession of the beloved, and thus transform everything revealed to, and through, the senses into something supernatural, supersensual. Pretentious and exigent egotism disappears, and happiness, carried by waves of cosmic energies, is found in "giving oneself away", in dedication and self-sacrifice. This love conforms to Eros Uranos.
There is no limit to the sympathy man may lavish, as he is in closest contact with the "desire and love of the deity". The greatest light is shed on the subject by the fact that Eros Uranos is invariably accompanied by the desire for beauty (the word "eros" originally meant "desire") and man can, at the same time, put the radiant seal of beauty on every desired and loved object by his enthusiasm. Man ennobles it not merely in his own illusory imagination, but also awakens its eternal cosmic qualities, its innate beauty, the dormant image from sleep to wakeful resurrection.
But Eros Uranos does not confer the highest sacrament. Socrates indicates the greatest secret of the mystery by repeating in words of the deepest insight and wisdom the teachings of his master, Diotima:
"Thus, perhaps, you too, could be consecrated in the mysteries of Eros. But I am not certain whether you would be in a position to understand, were someone to explain clearly to you, whither these hallowing rites are supposed to lead: to vision and perfection."
These words reveal the holiest of holies. They afford a glimpse behind the "veiled image of Sais". Not until man has conquered (that is to say, himself) from his person (the Latin word "persona" originally meant the actor's mask, through which he spoke, and is possibly cognate with "per" and "sonare" - "through" and "sound") and broken away from the shackles of individuality can he see behind the infinite multitude of appearances to the prime cause of the phenomena itself. There he finds the glorious eternal life, whose law manifests itself radiantly and divinely in the system of atoms as well as planets. This law is immanent in the beauty of the archetypical image, inherent in the largest as in the smallest of all phenomena.
From here, Plato leads us to the highest goal - the true meaning of our perpetually regenerated life on earth. This goal is nothing other than the cognition of the "beautiful in itself". Once the soul realises that every disharmony belongs exclusively to the world of phenomena and that the world of essential existence is in complete harmony, when the soul can successfully identify itself with this harmony, the organs of thinking and feeling develop to such a high degree of perfection that they can see and experience the beautiful in all its different manifestations.
In this philosophy of beauty, Plato teaches the pure, metaphysical aspect of love. In Dante's work, this is found as the golden thread enabling man to escape from the labyrinth of committed consciousness (hell), ascend through the conscious which is beginning to free itself (purgatory) and rise to the beatific consciousness (paradise). His love for his wife and his love for eternity have become one great force "which moves the sun and all the stars".
Dante's early work "La Vita Nuova" already shows his incomparable metaphysical vision. Here, the girl Beatrice, whom he had seen several times in Florence before she died at an early age, is represented as the prototype of the divine in woman. As the years passed, the beloved vision grew in his soul, glorified by passion, fenour, enchantment, piety, religious urge and metaphysical yearning. It ultimately finds its highest expression in the last part of the "Divine Comedy", where Beatrice is represented as the queen of heaven. Though Dante never attempted to talk to her or to establish closer contact, the sight of Beatrice radically changed the poet's heart. This is evident in his early work, possibly the most wonderful example of metaphysical and erotic poetry ever written:
"When she appeared from no matter where and I could hope for a greeting filling me with bliss, I had no enemy any more, I was consumed by a flame of charity which forced me to forgive every- body who had ever wronged me. Whoever asked me a favour, would have received as answer: Love! - and my face would have been all humbleness."
Dante here describes the flame of charity - of love that will forgive anything. This is proof indeed that he is inspired by Eros Uranos, who elevates the human to the original state of being where the soul has wings.
In "Phaedrus", Plato speaks of what the human being once was and of what he could again become:
"Before his spirit, through the loss of its wings, sank into sensuousness and acquired a material body, he dwelt among the gods in the world of light, where all things are true and bright. There he was pure visionary spirit. At present, however, he is satisfied if he uses the shapes of the symbols as impressions, imprints, from which little by little he gathers again what shows, and prepares the way leading to the knowledge he has lost, to the science of the universal great light."
This passage would seem to deal directly with the sublime problem which concerned the Florentine poet. In the glorification of woman, characteristic of his whole life, he is merely using the symbol to "show and prepare the way leading to the knowledge lost, to the science of the universal great light."
However, it must not be forgotten that Dante was a scholastic and therefore very much inclined to harmonise his subjective love with the teachings of the Catholic Church. But it is precisely because of this that he enriched the mediaeval view of life with a wonderful religious figure - his beloved. For the first time, love of a woman was revealed as the cosmic gospel of salvation, with Beatrice as the "destroyer of everything that is evil, and the queen of virtue". In a sonnet, not contained in "Vita Nuova", he explicitly states:
"In highest heaven she was born,
From which, to save us, she descended."
As a poet of the metaphysical eros, Dante gains salvation by the close unity of his soul with that of Beatrice - to him an image of the cosmic energy of love itself. "A noble heart and love, they are but one", he writes in one of his most famous sonnets. He experienced unity with the beloved as a reflection of the highest unio mysticus when the deity itself pervades the soul. To Dante, it is obvious that going astray in the world can only lead to suffering and death. No one but the beloved can really help him. She sends him the poet Virgil as a guide and later she herself leads the redeemed man to God.
This aspect of metaphysical love is radiant with beauty, moving every heart, for the poet does not ask for love. He gives love. He is happy to partake of the mystery and grace of being permitted to love. And his beloved Beatrice gives him supreme happiness in the highest of all heavens, precisely because his supersensual longing is free from any wish to compel, from any egotistic desire.
It would be too much to ask the human heart, even the most magnanimous, to forfeit all its spiritual yearning and deny its deepest secret wish to find its love reciprocated. But Dante never forms his wish as a demand. Only when he meets Beatrice again in "paradise" does he dare to confess:
"Through you, the slave in me regained his freedom,
In every way, on every path
Where you had power to achieve this.
Do not withdraw from me your grace,
So that my soul, which you have saved,
May free itself, to please you, from its body."
The mystic consecration celebrated by the Eternal Beloved One is also found in Goethe. Goethe, too, realised that the mystery of this consecration was the culminating point of life and death. His poem "Faust", ends with the words "The eternal woman draws us on."
Dante, burning with love, is permitted to behold the highest queen of Heaven, the Holy Virgin. Bertrand prepares him for this experience with the following invocation:
"Oh, Virgin, mother, daughter of your son,
Humble and above all creatures,
You, predetermined goal of the throne eternal!
You have exalted human nature,
That in his kindness the Creator
Did not distain to come to earth as man.
In your body fires of love
Anew began to glow, and made
Blossom peace eternal.
To us you are the midday torch of love,
To those down there, where death is mighty,
You are the source of hope eternal."
Dante regarded the Madonna as the "source of hope eternal". Goethe's Dr. Marianus, also "burning with love", calls her the "Queen", the true saviour, in a prayer no less ecstatic, and implores her:
"Virgin, mother, queen and goddess,
Do be merciful to us."
These parallels between the major works of Dante and Goethe, though centuries separate them, demonstrate the deep spiritual similarity between them. This is because both are attuned to the fundamental requirements of true poetry. They are prophets, bards and interpreters of metaphysical eros.