Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Latens Deitas: Eros, Divine Hiddenness, and the Language of Poetry

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Latens Deitas: Eros, Divine Hiddenness, and the Language of Poetry

Article excerpt

Introduction

EROTIC DESIRE, as the contemporary American novelist Steven Millhauser reminds us, derives its power from the "paradoxes of transparent concealment and opaque revelation." (1) Antonio Canova's sculpture Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss (1793), for instance--where the god's arm partially obscures Psyche's breasts and cloth bunches loosely around her waist--is at once delicately artistic and richly erotic. Pornography, by striking contrast, is not only revolting but boring: by revealing exactly everything, it short-circuits the interval between hiddenness and anticipated disclosure that makes desire possible. So where the pornographer suffocates eros by sealing off the area in which it could move, Canova's sculpture inflames desires by promising more than it reveals and inviting eros to dwell in the space between. In precisely this sense, St. Thomas Aquinas's famous eucharistic poem "Adoro te devote," from which I take the Latin phrase in my title, is a poem of eros. Aquinas's "hidden deity," of course, veiled as it is by the bread and the wine, provokes spiritual rather than carnal desire, but the structure of longing is the same. As he writes in the final stanza:

Jesus, whom I now see hidden [velatum],
I ask you to fulfill what I so desire [sitio],
That seeing your face unveiled [revelata],
I may have the happiness of beholding your glory. (2)

Aquinas's artful placement of sitio between velatum and revelata makes the point clearly: desire subsists in the interval between concealment and disclosure, and indeed it is precisely because the Eucharist "veils" Christ's presence under the species of bread and wine that it also provokes the poet's "desire" for the full "revelation" of that presence in the Kingdom of God.

In somewhat more general terms, the erotic dialectic of concealment and disclosure that characterizes "Adoro te devote" is central to certain, especially mystical, branches of the Christian tradition. (3) In his Life of Moses, for instance, Gregory of Nyssa contends that the elusiveness of the divine essence kindles the soul's desire for ever greater knowledge of and unity with God. (4) St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) picks up the same theme in the rather more overtly erotic context of his Spiritual Canticle (1584), where the bridegroom's elusiveness ("Where have you hidden?" asks the opening line) prompts the bride to race through forests and over mountains in search of her beloved. (5) The Spiritual Canticle takes its coordinates, obviously enough, from the Song of Songs, the locus classicus, in the Judeo-Christian tradition at least, of the relationship between eros and divine hiddenness. (6) That Aquinas should pick up the same theme in, precisely, a poem about the Eucharist opens up a space to reflect on how the "erotic paradoxes" of concealment and disclosure might relate not only to eucharistic theology but also to poetry and poetic language. That is the space I would like to explore in this article. I begin by looking at the Song of Songs itself, or more exactly at the commentary tradition it has engendered, with special attention to the way in which that tradition regularly stages the relationship between bride and bridegroom as an erotic interplay of concealment and disclosure (section 1). (7) Then, in section 2, I try to show how this interplay is related to broader questions of language. Here I shall be especially interested to explore Origen's suggestion that language itself --and especially allegorical language--participates in the erotic dialectic of concealment and revelation that characterizes the content of the Song. Finally, in section 3, I turn to a series of poems by the Spanish eucharistic poet Jose de Valdivielso (1565-1638). I have chosen to focus on Valdivielso for two reasons. First, despite his status as what one critic calls "the prince of eucharistic poetry," his work remains relatively unknown and deserves a wider readership. (8) The second reason is far more important and has two subparts. …

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