The Self and the Cosmos


The Self and the Cosmos

By Laura K. Secor

The opening ideas of this essay come from The Wilds of Poetry by David Hinton.

The central questions of our era:  What is the self? What is the Cosmos?  And what is the interrelation between them?  These became our questions in the Nineteenth Century, when science and common sense rendered European culture’s traditional answers no longer tenable.

Those answers, handed down from Greek and Judeo-Christian philosophy, went something like this:  We are souls, made from spirit-stuff fundamentally different from the material world we inhabit. This transcendental soul is the center of abstract rational thought; it is immortal; and it is a visitor on this planet, a kind of alien whose true home is in the dwelling-place of God.  Pure mind valued over impure body. Earth merely a proving ground for the human drama of eternal salvation or damnation.

Are we aliens on this earth?  Darwin gave us back our animal selves.

Enlightenment science was followed by a mystical infusion of the natural world with spirit, courtesy of the Romantic poets.  Before the Romantics, the wild was viewed as loathsome and hideous, fearsome and threatening, desolate and evil and devilish.  That view transformed and people imagined a single unifying life-force inherent to the material Cosmos, the earth as an organic whole, a net-like intricate fabric.

The ancient Chinese made this transition from Shang monotheism to the Tao’s sense of the Cosmos as a generative tissue 2500 years earlier.  For them, the immediacy of nature was the spiritual experience of belonging profoundly to empirical reality as pure wonder and mystery.

Can you think of a poet beloved of Unitarians who finds a spiritual experience in belonging to empirical reality?  Why yes, Mary is raising her hand!

The Loon on Oak-Head Pond

cries for three days, in the gray mist.
cries for the north it hopes it can find.

plunges, and comes up with a slapping pickerel.
blinks its red eye.

cries again.

you come every afternoon, and wait to hear it.
you sit a long time, quiet, under the thick pines,
in the silence that follows.

as though it were your own twilight.
as though it were your own vanishing song.

— Mary Oliver

Mary’s is the wholehearted embrace of the natural world.  She would lose herself in it, if she could. Tomas is not so sure.  We’ll get to Tomas in a moment. Let’s stay with Mary a moment longer.  I could have chosen any of Mary’s poems for this essay because she sings out to the universe her desire to live enmeshed in the natural weave.

Hinton continues.  The central task of modern American poetry, according to Hinton, has been to rediscover that primal nature of consciousness, to reimagine consciousness not as a spirit-center with its abstract process of self-enclosed thought, but as an openness to immediate experience – as, indeed, a site where the Cosmos is open to itself.  For it is in that immediate experience that “who we are” is woven into “where we are”.

Tomas finds a connection between his body and the cosmos.


Throughout the dismal months my life sparkled
       alive only when I made love with you.
As the firefly ignites and fades out, ignites and
       fades out – in glimpses we can trace its flight
in the dark among the olive trees.

Throughout the dismal months the soul lay
       shrunken, lifeless,
but the body went straight to you.
The night sky bellowed.
Stealthily we milked the cosmos and survived.

— Tomas Transtromer

His vision is more complex, because while his body is nourished by the cosmos, his soul can still suffer.  I’m not sure either Hinton or Mary would claim to have a soul apart from their body. It’s an interesting question – do you feel yourself so enmeshed into the cosmos as a physical being that you’ve let go of the old European idea of the soul?  If you believe in your soul, is it your immortal soul, or perhaps merely a metaphor for the spiritual yearnings that make up a part of your complex life? I look forward to reading more of Tomas’ poems with you, to tease out one man’s view of the soul.

I hope you are enjoying this journey through the spiritual philosophies of Mary Oliver and Tomas Transtromer.  Along the way, we may learn more about ourselves.