Saturday, May 19, 2007

Creative Revelations: Rosenzweig and Milton

"I heard there was a sacred chord..."
(Image by J├╝rgen Jaensch on LCF)

Attributed to Franz Rosenzweig is a startling claim reminiscent of a claim made by Milton. On his deathbed, Rosenzweig was dictating to his wife the following statement:
" ...and now it comes, the point of all points, which the Lord has revealed to me in my sleep: the point of all points for which there..." (Nahum N. Glatzer, Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought (New York: Schocken Books, 1961, 2nd edn.), p. 174)
Rosenzweig (1886-1929) was suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis -- the same disease that struck Lou Gerhig and afflicts Stephen Hawking -- and so had to communicate with the aid of his wife, who would recite the alphabet to him until reaching the letter that he indicated was correct, when the process would begin again until she could guess the word. Through this laborious process, Rosenzweig carried out his work toward the end of his days.

At the moment in which Rosenzweig was about to express the "point of all points," he was interrupted by the entrance of his doctor and did not finish the dictation. He died later that night.

I have via Arnold Betz's "Franz Rosenzweig Essay and Exhibit," courtesy of Vanderbilt University's online Divinity Library, the startling claim attributed to Rosenzweig in Glatzer's book.

Some 250 years earlier, John Milton (1608-1674), old and blind, claimed to receive his masterpiece, Paradise Lost, from: Celestial Patroness, who deignes
Her nightly visitation unimplor'd,
And dictates to me slumb'ring, or inspires
Easie my unpremeditated Verse... (PL 9.21-24)
Milton's "Celestial Patroness" was the designation given by him here in Paradise Lost 9.21 for the same spiritual entity whom he poetically addresses in 7.1 as "Urania" and to whom he speaks directly, saying, "thou / Visit'st my slumbers Nightly." This would seem to be the same entity as the "Heav'nly Muse" addressed directly by Milton in Paradise Lost 1.5. Milton is generally agreed to have been referring to the Holy Spirit.

Whatever Milton may have precisely meant by such a spiritual entity, he believed -- clearly enough -- that he was receving his great poem by a type of divine inspiration. Indeed, a cursory reading suggests that he believed himself to be receiving dictation (9.23: "dictates to me"), but a closer, more careful reading suggests that he himself played a creative role, for in 9.20-21, he speaks of his own, if assisted effort to rise to the high theme given him: "If answerable style I can obtaine / Of my Celestial Patroness" (cf. 9.23-24: "inspires / Easie").

Perhaps Milton hoped that he was receiving divine sanction for his poem, but his wording is careful, and he adds his own rejoinder in 9.46-47: "if all be mine, / Not Hers who brings it nightly to my Ear."

Rosenzweig, perhaps because his condition left him unwilling to waste words of qualification, expressed himself rather more directly in attributing his final insight to a revelation from the Lord God.

In Rosenzweig's case, the revelation remained unrecorded, secret; from Milton, we have twelve long books of poetry, sacred.

From the former, we know not what was said; in the latter, we know not what is meant. These statements could be reversed.

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At 1:15 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

How do we know it wasn't the wife speaking? I was somewhat suspicious of one of Hawking's translators before he got the computer. His were imminent physicist capable of thinking the same way. Would we suspect that Rosenzweig would pick a wife of such intellect?

At 3:43 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, that's a good question. It's certainly possible that his wife might have added such a seductively mysterious, uncompleted claim to enhance Rosenzweig's allure as a religious figure (and thus not just as a religious thinker).

I wonder if scholars have considered this point. It's precisely the sort of question that would need to be asked.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:54 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Fermat's Last Theorem is a subject of similar speculation. Now that it's been proven, we have grounds to suspect that he was funnin' us. Perhaps when we ascertain the real resolution to Rosenzweig's (or his wife's) incomplete revelation, we'll be able to determine whether he died on a virtual analog of April 1. Meanwhile we have one more little meme that niggles us with the possibility that there might indeed be a simple explanation.

At 3:14 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Actually, JJ, I've somewhere written out on a scrap of paper the completion to Rosenzweig's unfinished statement, and I'd copy it down here as well, but I've temporarily misplaced that scrap and don't precisely recall what I wrote...

Jeffery Hodges

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