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The Book of Wings: Skytree

Module by: Marcia Brennan. E-mail the authorEdited By: Frederick Moody, Ben Allen

Summary: Chapter Fifteen of Marcia Brennan's Flowering Light: Kabbalistic Mysticism and the Art of Elliot R. Wolfson

Figure 1: Elliot R. Wolfson, Skytree, 2006. © Elliot R. Wolfson.
Figure 1 (graphics2.jpg)

Flowering Light -- buy from Rice University Press. “Words are wings woven / by tongue & tooth.” And by the strokes of a brush or the lines of a pen. If words on a page and brushstrokes on canvas can be imagined as the individual filaments that make up the plumes of feathers, then books and paintings can be viewed metaphorically as creatures of flight. The ideas they contain can also be seen as mysterious presences that crawl through the narrow pathways of the mind, across the dark, fertile terrain of the creative imagination. In the depths of this receptive ground, ideas take root and flourish, then slide and shimmer through lush branches, while overhead, birds perch lightly on outstretched arboreal limbs.

Imagine that you are walking among the trees that grow in the garden of flowering light. As you allow your mind and body to float, you feel as though your spirit has become interwoven in the patterns of the tree limbs that form an intertwined canopy overhead. Words come freely into your consciousness. As you continue to walk, the words turn into winged presences that flutter before your eyes, gently transforming into different colors, shapes, sizes, and patterns. You suddenly feel as though you have reached a place where philology and ornithology have become a single subject. While contemplating the vision of words on wings, you look down, and you see a bright white feather standing on your path, perched upright on a bed of ivy. You pick the feather up and carry it home, knowing full well that you can use this plume to write your own stories, as wings make words.

Wolfson’s painting Skytree (2006) is an etheric image in which clouds appear to be woven from violet and white feathers spun into delicate, floating configurations set against an intensely blue sky. Passages of modulated white pigment reveal scattered hints of lavender and magenta, while subtle orange undertones are discernible within the tangled limbs of the painting’s illuminated ground. Compositionally, this abstract image evokes the silhouette of a blossoming tree, a plumed presence standing where wisps of clouds have become rooted in the sky.

Wolfson has noted that this painting is related to the image of the Shekhinah, and that in kabbalistic symbolism the Shekhinah is sometimes described as a tree. Descending from the heavens, the Shekhinah is said to provide a source of celestial grounding for the earth, as this emanation of divine light occupies a foundational position at the base of the sefirotic schema (fig. 7). Yet as Wolfson also observes in Alef, Mem, Tau, it is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that carries the ambivalent feminine associations of the final sefirot: “In zoharic symbolism, Malkhut [another name for Shekhinah] is linked symbolically to the Tree of Knowledge, which is identified further as the Tree of Death.”1 Thus exemplifying another expression of the coincidentia oppositorum, Wolfson observes that these intertwined images are related “to the mystical enlightenment that discerns that death is contained in life, that the demonic is in the divine,” and that in zoharic sources, death is figured as a “female, primordial serpent.”2

This vertiginous interplay of the terrestrial and celestial domains, of life and death becoming clothed in shifting veils of trees, serpents, and flights of light, becomes expressed in poetic form in Wolfson’s “feathers of text”:

golden
feather
stroke
serpent
spleen
slithering
down
faltering
sight
in night
become
night
incalculably
dark
tunnel
light
vision
split
tipping
point
memory
tumble

As in so many of Wolfson’s poems, the spare vertical structure of “feathers of text” resembles a ladder, with each word representing a descending step. Much like Skytree, “feathers of text” can be approached as a diaphanous tissue of transient consciousness, a vision presented through an aesthetic reversal of rooting down from the source while pulling up from the root. Variously composed of golden feathers and shimmering snakeskin, the body of the poem forms a hybrid, chimerical creature: that of the paradox. The term itself is composed of the prefix para, which indicates a sense of direction, specifically a location that is beside, alongside of, or beyond; while the root, dox, descends from dokein, which means to think or to seem.3 A paradox thus presents an open invitation to think alongside of—or alternatively, the gift of thinking beyond—which in moments of ascending consciousness may lead viewers through a descent into open sky as they climb down the lines of a poem.

As embodiments of paradoxical creativity, Skytree and “feathers of text” represent coincidentia oppositora that simultaneously encompass the tunnel and the journey, the darkness and the light, eros and thanatos, the slithering snakeskin and the golden feathers. Conjoined by a single shaft of doubled meaning, the story of the fall can thus be read as a story of flight, a vision drawn in a single stroke yet projected onto a split screen. Taken together, Skytree and “feathers of text” present complementary paradoxical visions in which creatures of land and sky offer themselves as vehicles for the eye and mind to take flight. Words are wings.

Footnotes

  1. Wolfson, Alef, Mem, Tau, p. 259, n. 71.
  2. Wolfson, Alef, Mem, Tau, pp. 173- 74.
  3. Regarding the concept of paradox in relation to mysticism, skepticism, and transcendence, see Matthew C. Bagger, The Uses of Paradox: Religion, Self-Transformation, and the Absurd (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

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