July 2, 2021
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
“thing within thing up to the very pinnacle of source” – Plotinus
When two mirrors face each other, whatever appears in the mirror seems to endlessly repeat. Actually, light bounces off the surface duplicating the image each time. The endless reflections are all contained within the mirror, which is the main container.
This image helps me to unpack Plotinus’s idea of the way that humans interact with the Intellectual-Principle. I often use another image or text as a tool to rephrase or reformat a complex idea. Today, I am thinking of the way that Plotinus speaks about the hierarchy which descends from The One, or The All. In the Fifth Tractate of the Fifth Ennead, partially titled “That the Intellectual Beings are not outside the Intellectual-Principle,” (for the record, the Intellectual-Principle is not equivalent to the One, but that is a topic for another day) he explains that:
“Everything brought into being under some principle not itself is contained either within its maker or, if there is any intermediate, within that: having a prior always essential to its being, it needs that prior always, otherwise it would not be contained at all. It is the order of nature: The last in the immediately preceding lasts, things of the order of the Firsts within their prior-firsts, and so thing within thing up to the very pinnacle of source.”
In order to visualize this hierarchy, I like to think of two mirrors facing each other. However, seeds also come to mind, as already containing everything essential to the plant. Or I can use artistic representations to help me visualize it. For example, the video of Adele singing “Send My Love,” begins with a single image of Adele in a floral dress with a black background. Though truncated, her image reflects on the floor as if into a pool of water. Shadow images enter the video after about 30 seconds of the song. Images continue to splinter, but always maintain an upright alignment grounded in the original image. Various images of her body sway, swirl or separate but come back to center. Her hands also show layer upon layer as we hear a single message, but see simultaneous representations of the emotions that go along with the splintering or separation.
Another example might be found in Sandra Cisneros’s short story “Eleven.” It begins:
“What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. … And you don’t feel like eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are – underneath the year that makes you eleven.”
This gives a tree ring example of the container. The greater entity always contains the smaller, and grows from within. For me, Cisneros’s story pairs nicely with the “order of nature” according to Plotinus and his notion of the “last in the immediately preceding lasts.”
Wallace Stevens often writes in that same vein. Try out “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” for instance, in which the narrator says, “I was of three minds,/ like a tree/ in which there are three blackbirds.” Or in “Anecdote of the Jar,” the surrounding landscape literally bends to the jar and is shaped by the jar making one question which one is the container. Or, finally, Stevens’s poem “The Idea of Order at Key West” reflects the notion that all things are tied together. Moreover, it demonstrates how the viewer is also part of the created world while simultaneously grasping at the world’s origins. As a woman sings, the bystanders (the narrator, or you and I, perhaps) watch and listen:
“It was her voice that made
the sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
in which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
whatever self it had, became the self
that was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
as we beheld her striding there alone,
knew that there never was a world for her
except the one she sang, and singing, made.
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
the maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
and of ourselves and of our origins,
in ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.”
These “ghostlier demarcations” are the shadowy substance of Adele’s video or the hidden five year old in an eleven year old body. So, like a matryoshka doll, “thing within thing up to the very pinnacle of source” expands with our imagination and our ability to visualize as many different examples as possible.
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