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The Quest(ion) of Literary Form

The Quest(ion) Of Literary Form

In his final writings, Eric Voegelin was preoccupied with paradox as an irreducible aspect of his study of participation, the classical symbol of man’s identity in light of divinity. Participation is not open to conceptual clarity, partly because one of the terms of the relationship – God – eludes univocal definition, and partly because the relationship between man and God is a process without a known beginning or end. Language is part of the problem, but it is inescapable; conscious beings know what they know via language. Considering participation, one feels the need for a super-category that embraces both terms, man and God. The third term is reality. So in considering participation, or what Voegelin calls “the complex experience,” he writes: “In the complex experience . . .  reality moves from the position of an intended object to that of a subject, while the consciousness of the human subject intending objects moves to the position of a predicative event in the subject ‘reality,’ as it becomes luminous for its truth” (18: 29-30).

That is both the most articulate sentence on the subject of reality in the unfinished manuscript and also the most obscure. It states with stunning concision the problem wrestled with by philosophers in the millennial search for reality. It shows by example the difficulty philosophers have had with clarifying in language the central structure of the problem of reality. Voegelin calls it “the paradox of consciousness,” or more fully “the paradoxical structure of consciousness in its relation to reality” (29).

In short, for Voegelin, consciousness is embodied, that is, located in the body of the philosopher. Reality is out there, considered as an object of thought by the philosopher. But the body, and the consciousness in it, is real, too. So in a second “sense” of the word reality, reality is the space where the event of participation happens. Hence the paradox of reality.

He goes on to argue that while we don’t have a word for this equivocal sense of reality, Plato coined the term “metaxy” for it. Plato imagined the space of “reality” as “between” (metaxu) and furthermore could imagine a spiritual identity sponsored by the between of reality called the mixed being or “daimon.” Those who participate in the between are demonic, as it were. So we can see what happens to the philosopher when he grapples with the paradox of reality.

Voegelin was clearly invested in the between as a way to resist the tendency of “philosophers” to dogmatize, to pretend they could lay out reality in so many sentences. And not only “philosophers”: the dogma of modern political movements showed a tendency in modernity to avoid dealing with the paradox of reality in their efforts to build powerful movements out of the power invested in the masses. In his analysis, he traced the awareness of the paradox back to ancient sources in Greek philosophy, but under the concept “leap in being” he could argue that a pre-philosophic grasp of the paradox was evident in many cultures, even in such texts as the Tao de Ching.

Like many readers of Voegelin, I have spent a lot of time studying his texts on participation, and particularly his last work, In Search of Order (left unfinished at his death in 1985). I have noticed that the opening is a riff on Augustine on the “beginning.” I have noticed that the opening is a temporal model not a spatial model like the “between.” I have followed Voegelin’s analysis back into the origins of classical philosophy. I have written essays on participation for a scholarly journal.

That was all done outside business hours. The active and the contemplative lives are ever at odds, and my wandering life as an editor and writer interrupted my consideration of Voegelin’s search for the reality of consciousness as “metaxy” or as I will say here, “between.”. At the same time, the “between” has a life of its own, and I had become aware of the paradox, and I kept running into it in my work.

I kept discovering “betweens” in the texts that came across my desk. I gradually came to understand that in struggling with the realities of their given subjects, writers get snarled up in the paradox. The language keeps promising more light, more light. They pretend the problem they are dealing with is an object independent of their consciousness; or they privilege their consciousness and short-change the objectivity of their subject. Aporia were often met with spectacular displays of selfhood.  Editing for me became a process of helping my authors relate their writing (object and process) to what Voegelin came to call “the complex of consciousness-reality-language.” The upshot of Voegelin’s search became a practical tool.

Then at times my job was publishing and writing about works that had been successfully published. I began to see that really good writers knew their way intuitively around the paradox; as a books editor I learned to work with their awareness to make their books even better, and as a reviewer I learned how to contextualize their achievements in light of the paradox, often without so much as a word about paradox or reality or consciousness.

I made historical discoveries along the way. One of the most fascinating discoveries was the understanding of the paradox in ancient China, starting with the fourth century BCE and continuing through the first millennia CE, the great age of Chinese poetry. I would hold forth in my continuing education classes at Brown University, excitedly presenting poems by, say, Li Po (701-762):

Birds have vanished into deep skies.

A last cloud drifts away, all idleness.


Inexhaustible, this mountain and I

gaze at each other, it alone remaining.

(translation, David Hinton, Classical Chinese Poetry, FSG 2008, 187).

The process of coming to terms with the question is eloquently developed in this poem. To use Voegelin’s language, as things disappear from the space of the between, the tension becomes transparent for the poles and at last the “It” moving through the thing world becomes luminous in consciousness. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect evocation of the quest(ion). Indeed, given Voegelin’s idea of “the question,” if you bring your own participation in the question to such poems, the reading experience becomes luminous for the truth of the quest(ion). The thrill of the poem remains, as does the question.

Looking for secondary texts that might explain the acuity of these poems, I discovered Lu Chi’s Wen Fu: The Art of Writing (translated by Sam Hamill, Milkweed Editions, 1981/2000). In his own Preface, Lu Chi writes: “When cutting an ax handle with an ax, / surely the model is at hand.” As a symbol of participation, of the writer’s subjective/objective participation in the process of the question, this symbol of the ax handle is inexhaustible. Recall that etymologically, a poem in Greek is a “made thing.” So call Lu Chi’s “ax handle” the paradox of composition. The obscurity of the figure – unlike Voegelin’s own essay on “the beginning” it does not reveal the full complexity of the process; rooted in pre-philosophic language, but the paradox is there, brilliantly brought to the light of the reader’s awareness for over two millennia.

A close reading of Lu Chi reveals his acute awareness of the open-ended process of writing as participation in the question. Hamill’s Introduction covers, unsystematically, several key aspects of the paradox of reality. Regarding the topic participation, he quotes a scholar on Lu Chi: “But in this formulation literature is not truly mimetic: rather it is the final stage in a process of manifestation; and the writer, instead of ‘re-presenting’ the outer world, is in fact only the medium for this last phase of the world’s coming-to-be.” If you’ve absorbed the ramifications of Voegelin on participation, and followed Voegelin’s imaginative presentation of the “Beginning” at the beginning of In Search of Order, you will sense the cross-cultural equivalence. Mimesis: objective; process of manifestation, participation.

Hamill comments: “A poet seeks personal and social transformation through poetry; the poet’s art is both a gift to the writer and from the writer who understands that no great gift can be truly given or received in an emotional or intellectual void. All this is present in Lu Chi’s poem on the coming-to-be-ness of a true writer.” “Writing” is both a gerund and a noun: the equivocation lends the word to reflective use. The equivocation reveals the tension between writing as an object AND the process of participation. In addition, the language of “gift” is Hamill’s inspired siting of the problem in contemporary gift discourse.

The study of Lu Chi remains as an open field for students. Lu Chi, while not a poet to be compared to Li Po, did practice a style that reflects the paradox of reality. Hamill writes: “Lu Chi’s fu is that of the p’ien wen or ‘double harness’ style; the poem depends upon a kind of parallelism, often moving two ways simultaneously through the deliberate use of ambiguity: ‘Things move into shadows and vanish; memory returns in an echo.’” That verse movingly captures the movement in the between. In the between, “things,” participating in being through becoming, come to be and pass away, and by doing so leave traces of their existence in memory/history, the sensorium of consciousness, Voegelin’s complex experience.

The idea of “moving two ways” reminds me of Lu Chi’s master-text, the Zhuangzi. Lu Chi’s Wen Fu transmitted the models of experience expressed in the symbolic language of the Zhuangzi of Chuang Tzu (ca. 369-286) to the Chinese poets of the great ages to come; according to scholars learning from  Lu Chi was essential to the formation of the poets we call “classical” in China. I think this can be explained in terms of the “between.” What was transmitted from Zhuangzi was the paradox of reality.

As the reader of Voegelin is aware, the language of the question is always part of the problem, and the word “equivocity” (as opposed to the univocity of modern science) points to themes treated with baroque cunning in the Zhuangzi. The problem is relativism. That “leap in being” Voegelin saw in Chuang Tzu’s fellow Daoist Lao Tzu created an awareness of an order that transcends the finite order which depends on it. The tension between the two orders is irreducible. In the beginning, the final paradox:  The Dao is not the Dao. True, sloppy Daoism is as irritating as sloppy Thomism; there’s no help for it. But read with care, Chuang Tzu handles the paradox with great finesse.

At the end of book 2 of the Zhuangzi, I read in Brook Ziporyn’s superb new edition Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings (Hackett 2009): “Once Zhuang Zhou dreamt he was a butterfly, fluttering about joyfully just as a butterfly would. Ye followed his whims exactly as he liked and knew nothing about Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he awoke, and there he was, the started Zhuang Zhou in the flesh. He did not know if Zhou had been dreaming he was a butterfly, or if a butterfly was now dreaming it was Zhou. Surely, Zhou and a butterfly count as two distinct identities! Such is what we call the transformation of one thing into another.”

The ultimacy of distinction between beings who participate in each other is not denied by the experience of participation, rather the experience depends on the distinction. The problem of the god-man endures, and a false unity is the goal of many a confused soul, and many a con artist.

In Zhuangzu’s symbolic language, heaven walks two roads. The influence of the Zhuangzi and its insights on Chinese poets, through the text but also second-order texts like the Wen Fu, is incalculable. But the Zhuangzi also influenced Japanese poetry, especially in schools of haiku in the 17th century. There’s an amusing passage in Conversations with Eric Voegelin, ed. R. Eric O’Connor (Thomas More Institute Papers/76, 1980). These conversations are invaluable because they show us Voegelin working on the problems what would become the substance of his final writing. Voegelin is being patient, focusing on the ineluctable “question” and constantly being confronted with questions that have nothing to do with the question. He had just said, “Always go back to the question. That one can do today because we have an historical knowledge of the problem which even fifty years ago we did not have. One should use that historical knowledge.”

Then one of his interlocutors says, “In a course this week we were attempting to write haiku. One can’t ask a question in haiku because doing that is too unsubtle. One must suggest the area of concern, not ask the question.”

That went nowhere. The teacher’s unhappiness with the classroom experiment reflects the confusion about haiku in our culture. The idea of “suggestion” has more French symbolism in it than Zen.  In their Zhuangzi-influenced origin in Japan, haiku DO deal with “the question” in Voegelin’s sense. They deal with the complex experience through their structure, the tension between the two segments of the text, and the relationship between the longer segment, which is part of a story of contingent reality (a narrative) and the shorter one-line segment, which provides a point of orientation for considering the contingencies. This point of orientation is often a symbol of the season, which for the Japanese participated in the grand order of things. The question of haiku consciousness is alive today. Of what does the wholeness of a haiku consist?  So the “question” of the paradox of reality as Voegelin would come to understand it is quite within the ethos of haiku.

We can see the sensitivity to the paradox informing the question in the textual tradition of Basho, the legendary founder of modern haiku. Basho was a life-long student of the Zhuangzi. One of the touchstones coming down from the classic appears in Basho’s discourse as the meme “Awakening to the lofty and returning to the common.” As we noted, for Chuang Tzu the relativity of things retained distinctions. The ethos of Basho’s practice was informed by the relativistic dialectic of the Zhuangzi. We can see the tension in the question “behind” the haiku in the following haiku by Basho:

Under the tree

the soup and the fish salad,

or cherry blossoms?

I take this delightful translation from a key work of scholarship, Pipei Qiu’s Basho and the Dao (University of Hawai’i Press, 2005). The tension that informs the haiku is between the common – soup and fish salad – and the lofty – cherry blossoms. Within the enveloping consciousness communicated by the haiku, the reader is awake to the lofty even whilst she returns to the common. The location of consciousness, so essential to Voegelin’s analysis of the paradox of reality, is given in the first line (“under the tree”); Basho probably had in mind the comic scene of a picnic spread covered with fallen cheery blossoms.  But the mental discipline of haiku is informed by the maxim, Heaven walks two roads; the comic and the serious connect in the juxtaposition of the haiku form.

In the space then constructed by the narrative, the question arises.  Not many haiku employ a question mark, but Basho never separated his role as a teacher from his role as a poet. Haiku as structure embody the paradox of consciousness. The symbol of the cherry blossom, which expresses the tensions of the between: the ideal of “cherry-blossoms” on the one hand and, on the other, the picaresque hic et nunc of the picnic beneath the cherry trees; the unresolved tension preserves the question. Haiku is a form of literature that seems ready made for the ongoing and indeed endless quest.

Reality happens in the between. Poet’s respond to the question as it arises in their time and place. Celan wrote (from Breathturn into Timestead: The collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan, translated by Pierre Joris, FSG 2014, 87):

A ROAR: it is

truth itself

stepped among


right into the


Reading Voegelin often raises questions about orthodox Christianity. He was often asked if he were a Christian. In his heart, the question was nourished. He was also asked if he was a mystic. Some who should know call Voegelin a mystic philosopher. The between does not hold the answer but as a broad statement of the paradoxical reality of the between, I find this passage from William Desmond’s God and the Between (260) satisfactory:

“Our passage through life takes firm form, but our passing makes fluid again the forms, and the abiding porosity prior to form and beyond form offers again its never closed off chance: chance of ultimate communication between us and the ultimate. Mysticism has to do with the chance of the divine woo.”


Also available are “Seamus Heaney and the Metaxological Narrative,” “A Late Poem by Wallace Stevens about the Metaxy,” “Czeslaw Milosz and the Metaxy,”  “Geoffrey Hill and the Metaxy,” and “Elizabeth Bishop and the Metaxy.

Tom D'EvelynTom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private writing teacher. He has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Berkeley and, before retiring, held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University Press as well as ran his own literary agency for ten years. He blogs at

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