An Introductory Note by Bruce Meyer
I have crossed many borders. The first one I experienced was the Peace Bridge,(named for the fact Canada and the United States have not gone to war with each other in over two hundred eight years. When my family travelled from my home city of Toronto to vacations on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, we were asked where we were from and where we were going.
Later in my life, when I lived in Windsor, Ontario, that anomalous city in Canada that is south rather than north of the United States and which the home to the Canadian poet, Peter Hrastovec, whose poem appears in this issue, I was asked where I the same questions travelers encounter. The bridge I traversed was the Ambassador Bridge, a span with two piers that has always reminded me of Hans Holbein’s painting, “The Ambassadors.” Another Canadian poet whose poem appears in this issue of Libretto is Antonia Facciponte, a former student whose debut collection, “To Make a Bridge,” I recently edited. Even her name, Facciponte, means “to create a bridge.”
No matter where I have travelled –Mexico, the Caribbean, or Europe – the questions I am asked reside at the heart of transcendence. The word transcendence addresses the idea of what lies beyond a place or an idea, of reaching for something beyond this world, pursuing answers greater than the questions of self, knowledge, or axiom. What the writers in this issue of Libretto show us is how language is a bridge between what we know and ideas we have not yet dreamed.
Transcendence as a philosophical concept evolved during the English Renaissance. There had been a philosophical conundrum in the Medieval Aristotelean universe, that suggested a shortcoming in categorical epistemology. Philosophers suspected there may be ideas beyond the known realm, and that transendentia were beyond comprehension, if not apprehension, something beyond even the infinite, unnamable, unknown, and beyond explanation. In other words, philosophers sensed there was something beyond the neat categories of matter and existence but they couldn’t say what. Hamlet reminds Horatio that are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy. Hamlet searches himself for answers because he realizes that those who venture to engage transcendence must carry a passport to cross into that puzzling place Hamlet calls, “That undiscover’d country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns.”
In etymological terms, the word “transcendence,” the act of both rising above the known world while moving through it was a relatively new concept for Shakespeare though he only uses the term once in all his plays — in the philosopher’s comedy, As You Like It, where the playwright suggests that a better existence is possible beyond court or country, but just where, he couldn’t say for sure.
Immanuel Kant struggled with the idea of transcendence though it was crucial to his philosophy of transcendental idealism that suggested that greater truths reside beyond space and time. For Kant, as the blues singer B.B. King put it several centuries later, “There has to be a better world somewhere.” Getting to the better world mean crossing perceptual borders, rivers, and bridges that connect this world, at least epistemologically, with higher states of morality. Kant gave transcendence its credibility. To him, the idea of going where no one had gone before or merely perceiving something on the other side of experience and intuition, was essential to being human. When I lived in Windsor, my apartment overlooked the Detroit River. I could see America less than a quarter mile away on the far shore, and I realized that Kant’s ideas had geographical implications. I could look out my window and see a place far more complex than the far country Hamlet considered. The notion both intrigued and terrified me. A frontier implies something on the other side of the frontier, and beyond that places I could not begin to imagine. I did not see America as superior; I saw it as a place beyond my own limits that was the product of a different consciousness.
Transcendence became au currant with imaginative writers such as Goethe in s Faustor in the semi-autobiographical novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Goethe’s characters do more than justify the anxious, Romantic spirit in search of something beyond the familiar. They pointed an entire generation of writers toward what William Wordsworth dubbed the “gleams of half-extinguished thought” and “a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts,” to seek a bridge between the unspeakable and the definable. Prior to speaking his last words about a bottle of wine from an admirer that arrived too late to drink, Beethoven was said to have sat upright in his bed and cried out, “To seek, always to seek! “Transcendence is never about being satisfied. It is the banner cry for those who long for more and are determined to find it through the imagination.
Faust’s desire for something more than mere human experience is not so much a pact with the infernal (as Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus forged) but an innate desire to make language break the comprehension barrier. Because transcendence, and the American transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau, to say nothing of P. B. Shelley’s Prometheus in “Prometheus Unbound,” challenge the ability of language to articulate what has not yet been described, the other side of the border is almost beyond words. Readers gravitate toward the familiar; yet transcendence is the art of encountering the unfamiliar, the strange, the unusual, the unexpected, within the frame of the here and now. Transcendence is more than just a Borgesian play with mirrors because writers want to assure their readers that there really is a land over the rainbow or place farther than the far side of far away.
In the contemporary sense, transcendence carries connotations of the pursuit of the other, of a deeper feeling for the unfamiliar, and in the changing paradigms of today’s world the empathy everyone must embrace in the international battle against racism. This battle is articulate by Uche Nduka in his interview with Su’Eddie Vershima Agema. This spirit of going beyond the familiar can be seen in the photographs of Arun Kapur and the artwork of Stephen Mead and Arpa Mukhopadhyay in this issue of Libretto. In the contemporary idiom, with the idea of transcendence dialed down as in Victor Nandi’s short story “The Accidental Myth-Buster” or A Whittenberg’s “Just Over the Moon,” transcendence is the catalyst, the unseen hand, that moves the events and characters through their narratives to unexpected places. Transcendence in these works becomes the necessary engine for engaged fiction, the process by which characters see beyond themselves into places and experiences they could not previously imagined.
The poem that sums up transcendence in the immediate, human moment, is Adepoju Isiaiah Gbenga’s focused and understated piece about asking his mother what the word meant and being told “…it is when your footprints on the shore / Buries you in, and the ocean’s pulse incessant / Digs you up and feeds you to the fishes.” Transcendence, even in small, touching ways, is something to be feared and loved because it points us to the paradoxes of wonder in life, to moments when we dance “gently, gently homeward,” after being somewhere else in our minds. After such a journey comes the clarity of seeing the world as a much more complex place than mere appearances would lead us to believe. Olajuwon Joseph Olumide’s “Beyond Our Dreams,” states that “Beyond Our Dreams, like the rock of Gibraltar are man’s aspirations,” a state of vision that the early Christian church fathers called “apocalypsis,” a new vision and a new clarity that comes from seeing beyond knowledge and explanation.
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A stab in the dark at what transcendence means in terms of vision came to me one morning in June of 1993. My wife had won a Caribbean cruise on an old, art deco ocean liner, formerly the S.S. France. We had booked an excursion ashore before sunrise one morning to visit the island of St. John. My wife was still in our cabin, preparing for a day on the island. I went topside and leaned on the rail. The ship was anchored but wherever I looked I saw no island though one of the crew insisted it was there, shrouded in fog, even if I could not see it. I was told to have my passport standing by for customs. As I stood and stared into the blinding fog, a green hump took shape in the distance. The cone of the island gradually the island came into focus. We boarded the tender and went ashore. What I found there –a bright orange flowering tree known as a Flamboyant tree, birds of all shapes, sizes, colours, and songs I had never encountered before, and vistas of bays and green hillsides that came into focus as the sun burned off the fog were all there – were beyond anything I had experienced. They took the words right out of my mouth. The experience was one of transcendence. I have spent many hours trying to understand what that day meant, not just from a vacationer’s perspective but from the vantage of a writer.
Writers and artists work in many different realities at once, but the saddest are those who only labour in the world of the familiar. What makes literature and visual art important and lasting is the way the artist makes the beholder sit up and take notice of what has not been seen before. Art, in this sense, awakens; it opens our eyes to people, places, things, and ideas we might have guessed were out there, somewhere, but never had the ability to know with any certainty; and it is fair to say that art and literature begin in the realm of the familiar and make us question what we know, what we see, what we think, and what we feel so that we can see something more, something we suspected was out there but could not prove it existed until the artist or writer opens our eyes for us.
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