Apr/May 2000 Salon

Rousseau's "Sleeping Gypsy"

by Stanley Jenkins


If then, you are determined to stand and not to fall, never cease from your endeavor, but constantly beat with a sharp dart of longing love upon this cloud of unknowing...


That's the spiritual advice of an anonymous 14th century English monk. He advises us to push down all awareness of our surroundings into "the cloud of forgetting" and then, like secret lovers, to ascend, armed with darts of desire, to "the cloud of unknowing." That's where we're going to find union with God, he says--or whatever is left when you take away all finite names and veils and understanding and remain naked like you were before you were born.

He's pretty sure of this. I don't know what I think.

Consider: Is there an "I" behind all the cloaks and masks, all the grease paint and false faces, all the props and costumes? And is this "I" somehow forever penetrating and penetrated--joined to the Mystery, like a man to a woman, until all is liquefaction and, in one never beginning or ending spurt, water is forever returned to the sea? Who knows?

One thing is certain though, if this is truly the case, we can only know it in imagination--in cloaks and masks, in grease paint and false faces, in props and costumes. There is no truth in time--only the longing--the pantomime of desire that attests to truth's presence through the manifestation of its absence. Ain't it a bitch?


To glide like water into pure sparkle--for that we would have to have lost the notion of time. But what defense is there against it; who will teach us to decant the joy of memory?

That's Andre Breton's question. He too was searching for a "mad love"--a wrench in the film projector's spool that could somehow freeze the film's leading man, shut down the theater, short circuit the rational process as surely as "a speeding locomotive abandoned for years to the delirium of a virgin forest." He wanted out. "Life is elsewhere," Rimbaud said. Breton repeated it.

But he, too, was trapped in time. And all he left was poetry and words--and a whole lot of ex-lovers, ex-wives and ex-friends.

I bring him up because I think that Mr. Breton was not so different--at least in his longing--from our anonymous 14th century English monk. He probably would have been indignant at this suggestion--but, at least in my mind, there remains a family resemblance.

Point being: there are among us the fiercely hungry--the yearning ones--the love-swallowed who must never be satisfied. They come, in some sense, as a provocation. They are looking at us, emissaries from some far-off and fantastic land--as if expecting an answer.


I guess you could say I sometimes wonder if truth--or perhaps better, Truth--is worth the cost. The anonymous 14th century author of "The Cloud of Unknowing" most likely lived his life out in some small hermitage attached to a monastery. The Cosmic Christ was his spouse. Eager and pimply-faced young monks--their breaths reeking of garlic and expectancy--were his children. I can hardly imagine.

It's not that though. He does not seem to have been particularly bitter or world-hating. He was no fanatic or kill-joy--in fact, he seems to be someone I could be proud to emulate and learn from. And yet I know as surely as I know my wife's scent on the sheets that I am too lazy to pursue Truth with the zeal--or "zest" as he calls it--that would be required of me if I were to present myself as a disciple.

He demands a longing for perfection that I simply don't have--at least, not with the intensity which would be required. I'm not that hungry. Or, perhaps courageous.

And Breton; his quest for the "Marvelous" seems sadly to have turned him into exactly what he hated--yet another force of intolerance and mean-heartedness. It's not for nothing that his critics (more often than not ex-friends and colleagues) called him the "Pope of Surrealism." He sought out heresy and excommunicated the fallen with a rage not-unlike that of Senor Torquemada. He would have made a good Dominican. And in the end, he still had to tie his shoes every day like the rest of us. Like me.

Perhaps it's this: push come to shove, with regards to Mr. Breton, I don't believe that poetry or imagination or the proletarian revolution, for that matter--can transform the world. My faith is weak.

And yet, having said that, I myself, have lived entire seconds (and it is indeed remarkable to inhabit with near-fullness even the smallest atom of time) in which I was completely leveled with longing. In discrete moments I have lived as if convinced that I was stalked by Truth. It has lay in wait for me--a beautiful and terrible panther--and I have yearned to be ripped beneath its claws. Which is to say, for entire seconds I have bruised my head on the bars, beat my wings against the window, convulsed like a Sioux Ghost Dancer immune to the bullets until they arrive--and perhaps you will indulge me if I were to tell you that this has disturbed me. Oh, I'm not talking about any great mystical revelation--or supernatural visitations--I'm talking about small and furtive moments of lost control. Desire's ambush.

Truth is a haunting--a welling up of absence that awakens a new and pure savagery--a new and imperative longing--without ever really being present--or leaving any resolution--a ghost limb that aches long after it's been amputated.

But it does ache. And that's the thing. It aches until you could almost believe that when you aren't looking you're forever running races on this lost leg--or scaling waves with nothing but your ghostly fingers and toes. It's a whole other movie than the one you thought you were starring in--and your face looks familiar. It's unnerving.


Perhaps it's not so different with you. Have you ever been startled from a reverie by the sound of your own name being called when completely alone? Think about the sudden loneliness that descends upon you. The magic children have disappeared without ever having been present. Or how about this: have you ever been seized with an uninvited need to throw yourself forward when standing at the edge of a tall building or a vast canyon? Think about how spooked you become. You are safe but your hands no longer grasp the darts of longing love that were never there. It is almost a reproach.

In any case, in all truthfulness, these are things I rarely think about. My days are consumed with the very sort of things I imagine yours are: work, relationships, remembering to take out the garbage and bring my wife flowers. I'm lucky if I can pay attention to the nightly news--let alone try to articulate these things. Bottom line is that life goes on quite well without Truth.

But now that the subject has come up--and now that it's just you and me, a couple of sleeping gypsies--maybe you could tell me--I mean just between you and me--now that we're alone--what do you think Rousseau's lion wants with us?


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