Writing with the Universe: Marguerite Porete: By Chantal Lunardi

– I –

Marguerite Porete (13th century – 1 June 1310) was a French-speaking mystic and the author of The Mirror of Simple Souls, a work of Christian mysticism dealing with the workings of agape (divine love). She was burnt at the stake for heresy in Paris in 1310 after a lengthy trial, refusing to remove her book from circulation or recant her views (Wikipedia $25).

A rare flower, considered a weed at the time, Marguerite Porete came to me while I was digressing at the library of Simon Fraser University. Digression was my favourite state of mind. Is. I would wander amongst rows of books outside of my assigned multiple fields of study and, with the coming of the online age, gallivant from rare and restricted virtual academic publications to historical novels, folktales, plays, poetry and handwritten journal entries giving me infinite possibilities to roam deeper into remote obscure quadrants. I would cross entire universes of abstractions and sometimes come back on time for dinner, hundreds of pages further away from the end of my dissertation. After reading a French modern translation of Porete’s French book causing her to be burnt at the stake in 1310 however, my own work and digressions didn’t matter anymore. Porete furtively led me out of my PhD mind trap.

“Thought is no longer of worth to me,
Nor work, nor speech.”

I was alone in my own department, a not yet established field of Cognitive Sciences Dr Bruce Clayman, Dean of Graduate Studies at the time, encapsulated for me in what was called Special Arrangements – for those special cases that needed to work beyond their single field of study. Mine had been Anthropology. And this was not enough to search the human cognition I was after. In other words (discourse analysis, mythology, semiology) I was searching for the key that would unlock the mystery of life. Nothing less!

My PhD quest had started quite simply. One ruled piece of paper written on both sides with an orange ink pen I presented to Professor Cercone, the only person I knew of in Canada at the time who could, was, and would work on automated discourse analysis… except for Professor Maranda with whom I had worked previously in Quebec City. I must acknowledge my dearest Anthropologist friend Marie-France Guedon for sending me to meet Doctor Cercone at SFU. Together, we would teach the machine our language and it would do the rest. That’s what I called Artificial Intelligence. As simple as that.

After years of working with computers and discourse analysis during my B.A. and Master’s degrees at Laval University, I had developed a strong impression that our compartmentalized communication was a redundancy of partial versions of our genesis, crippled with holes multiplying themselves with generations of bouncing the same tired and used up ideas, stubbornly refusing to expand our horizons, restricting our field of expertises and our positions. However, I could still sense patterns, waves, rhythms, laden concepts we could pretend to catch and use to better understand ourselves, the whys of our choices, our automated cultural reflexes, our communication, our friends and foes.

Education became one of my fields of study, my population being high school students in the Lower Mainland.  Professor Sandy Dawson offered the warmest compassion during moments of family despair that were adding to the responsibilities of my intellectual journey. Witnessing the birth of a digital culture, I thought it would be witty to use computers to explore how the use of computers could improve the students’ cognitive processes, learning, and multicultural communication. This was indeed a continuation of my Master’s in Anthropology, but in English, in a totally unknown environment, with new people, new departments, more resources. Professor Gates, an Anthropologist, reviewed my many versions, politely indicating where perhaps my disparate odysseys were adding too many pages to my fascinating parenthesis. Professor Jennings, had joined my team from day one with his perfect enthusiasm to improve his French and to work simultaneously on my proposal and its translation, involved as he was already in the Artificial Intelligence project at SFU. He soon became my cover for digression and additional time, as an eminent representative of Philosophy. On Board, I had Computing Sciences, Philosophy, Education, and Anthropology. Things became very soon very complicated, where conceivably the reason for my complex soul to inevitably “digress”. In my defense, with so many possible derivatives, I was perhaps going deeper into my mysterious research and not yet fully known intentions.

Each and every one of my four supervisors from the Departments and Schools mentioned above must have thought that my style and writing meant something meaningful to the others, and they let me be. I was given carte blanche, funding, computers, nerds to program my algorithms, time, friendship, pathways to explore. Committed and passionate, I also had dreams of my quest and could do nothing else but include the resulting metaphors to my dissertation, to the pleasure of some, the question marks of others, and the patience of everyone. I often felt that I could reach the miracle of language, of communication, of intelligence, of our soul. Each time I felt this miracle touching me, coming close enough for me to word it however, it would slip between my keyboard keys and get lost in the trillion bytes of my computer:

Virtual Dream:  I found myself taking a “virage informatique”, what we called this digital shift in Quebec in the early 80s; a sad dream pursued by a technology attempting to recreate a world.  As if virtual reality had originated in the mind of a parent who had lost a child, and who was trying ferociously, unrelentingly to recreate her.  In the dream, I was that parent. I had the certitude that everything being only a question of programming and beliefs, if I believed hard enough, if I could find the right equation of life, she would be back.  Her presence was felt, I could almost touch her, but the essence that makes life was always escaping me.  While the world around me was falling apart and being destroyed, I was working on recreating my lost child with an uncontrollable compulsion.  Nothing else had any meaning but that child, whom I wanted back.  There was always something missing. I added more formula here and more variables there, changing and repeating patterns and algorithms. Always, something was missing.  I was looking in the perfection of a program to find what a human being was about, since in that logic only could I recreate and control life, could I keep what is dear to me, keep what would be unthinkable and unbearable to lose. The further I distanced myself from the pain of her loss, the closer came the crumbling world around me (Section 4.1 of one of my many dissertation drafts).

Statistics were not an official field of my program, but should have been. In graphs, regressions and correlation analyses, I was bending words, sociographics, and meaning to find the mathematical algorithms that would teach the machine where we were from, predict where we were going, and in between… tell me who I was. Somewhere in those numbers, these sequences and in those clusters of words with broken rhythms laid a truth, an answer, a path. And I had sworn to find it.

Many signatures, including mine, had been added to this promise. The Dean of Graduate Studies had been very proud to show those consent marks after months of translation work and several ESL classes at Douglass College. He also said “Chantal, the graduate committee is composed of diversified well known academics with outstanding expertise and not one really understood what you were saying. It is not your English. Can you write in a more simple way?”

I tried. For many hundreds of pages, I tried, but it was impossible. Lack of discipline, of clear clean rows and lines going straight to somewhere predictable, lack of focus some still say today. How could I focus on so many fields at once, with so many old discoveries and philosophers new to me, and semioticians and anthropologists having mid-life crises, and new Feminists and Goddesses, and postmodernists appropriating feminism and storytelling without imperilling their position and gender power, and computer nerds writing about mind and reality? No, no, no. This was not a time for focus or simplicity. This was a time for complex cross-pollination:

What seemed like a simple exploration of a group of adolescents, at a particular time and place of their lives, became difficult to undertake without a profound review of my understanding of culture, communication, cognition, politics, economy, science, technology, power, identity, mythology, religion, education, the self, consciousness, and of course, more. These aspects could hardly be defined without the inextricable links they have with each other; each rich with historical context worth considering. The many attempts to understand and conceptualize ourselves and our environment became a multitude of narratives within specific fields, historical and post-modern, but rarely a conversation between them. The challenge was to make sense of the conversations within each, and to explore the capacities of interchange of definitions, approaches and theories between fields. Which represents the sine qua non of a pluralist mindset, of a multicultural communication (Me, then).

The today version of myself sways between uncontrollable bursts of laughter reading this excerpt of one of my early drafts, shame of such naivety, candour and passion, and deep sense that perhaps I might have been closer to an unattainable truth than ever. The whole time I was learning about theorists and theories and the origin and history of the words we used, the more I felt I should have learned all this in elementary and secondary schools; that we had wasted my time and mind. I could not get rid of this heavy suspicion that we wanted to make a machine intelligent while we were dumbing ourselves down. I should have studied Latin and Greek, and a lot more and a lot better and a lot sooner; along with music and poetry to help digest and assemble everything. I would have been better balanced and equipped to do the work I wanted to do. We messed up my education. With a sense of responsibility inherited from responsible and engaged and knowledgeable teachers, I would have gone for it. We are wasting children’s potential; we wasted me; we are wasting our world. I had to catch up on everything a little late, with little to no guidance.  You may think this has little to do with Porete at the moment, but still, the pain is nonetheless strongly present and needs to be expressed loudly. I will not recant this. Do we still burn women for that?

With all these depressing feelings and uplifting new discoveries, I did not know at the time what to keep, what to weed, where to go from where. None of my supervisors dared to stop such a creative process they may not have understood. So, I kept going hoping for my funding to never dry up.

In my own gardens, I keep everything growing voluntarily until I know their reasons to be. And then, I still keep them, protect them. A little like the fruit of my library research, my gardens are wild of potentially medicinal weeds and other plants I am convinced will turn out divinely with time. I don’t understand why anyone would authoritatively, without any heart or sense of sacredness, eradicate anything they judge unsuitable to their limited grasp of the universe. It had been a shock to learn that one of my gardener-friends was allergic to daisies. She could not touch them without developing a rash and was horrified to see so many in my garden. For her daisies were – just as Marguerite was for the Church in 1300 – a life-threatening weed to be burnt, an attack to a certain cosmic view of order and power… nothing less. I still don’t know what to do with daisies. Can they feed us? Can they contribute to the soil? Yet, I keep the ones that come to my garden. Just before the night settles, in that almost dark moment of the day, daisies are the last tiny luminescence showing a path through a possibly dangerous landscape; evanescing stars not really shedding light but lovingly keeping it alive for a few more minutes to grant us just enough time to safely find our ways.

“Love draws me so high
With her divine gaze”

Of course, I do not want to have too many daisies taking over my vegetable patches. However, unlike the Church, I do not ferociously and fearfully burn them. I transplant bouquets where they can extend light through the forest. It doesn’t always work. I compost some. It’s all about life and regeneration, trials and errors, enlightenment and fertilization of my mind. Not many people can tell my garden is a garden. Its chaos and voluntary contributions nourish me, my eyes, my soul and seem to make sense to a regenerative scheme of growth. We often fear what we do not understand and destroy it. Daisies, Marguerite Porete, other cultures… We strengthen our limited and diminishing views, positions, writing, power… until our soil turns infertile and we bounce the same ideas over and over, blinded by how brilliantly we can do that.

“Theologians and other clerks,
You won’t understand this book,
— However bright your wits –”

This scholarly endless bouncing of abstractions was the exact reason why I had moved to BC from Laval University. To avoid asking the same questions endlessly playing with limited pieces of the same puzzles, or read the same brilliant unintelligible complex French authors. I wrapped up my Master’s dissertation (very dissatisfied), moved to the other side of the country, registered at Simon Fraser University, and learned a new language.  And again, I felt stuck.

After reading some of Marguerite Porete’s work, I arrived at the conclusion that I was going at it all wrong, that I should stop my writing, my analysis, my research.  First, Porete had done the work already, in the 1300s! She had written so beautifully, so clearly. She had gone so deeply into everything I was just scratching the surface of. After such deep experience I could not write in any other form than something closer to the rhythm of the universe, or at least attempt to, or stop denying myself the right to try verse. Only with such beautiful perfectly rhythmed prose verse could I pretend to be worthy of any divine illumination, the one needed to get me to the graduation exit.

I convinced myself I could continue my dissertation only and only if I could write it as a scientific epic poem. But then decided against it. I already had hundreds of pages of philosophical perambulations, and I was not adept at making verse. Moreover, not one of my four advising committee members would have provided an “interesting” in the margins that could have appeased the others’ question marks. I was already juggling from one blessing to another, from one field to the next as my committee members barely understood each others’ language, concepts, or ways. Trusting each other, it might have been that all of my advisors could have given me some approval just so as not to be left behind. Coincidentally the four of them could have faked understanding my work, and contributed to an impossible conundrum. Or they could have just humoured me. They were brilliant people. Brilliant enough to see that something could be brilliant even if you don’t understand it, that it was okay if this whole adventure led nowhere with me way ahead trying to “wrap it up”. They were taking a chance with my work, as well-established academics of that time could. But to accept verses and many more years of me?  If only I could write as Marguerite Porete, I could get not only closer to the truth but right into it and leap into the Artificial Intelligence phenomenon I was exploring and hope today, not contributing to. But I had pushed my luck too much already.

I could not deny this voice, stronger and stronger, accompanied with anxiety attacks and undiagnosticable weird physical symptoms each time I would set foot on the campus: “the answers you are looking for are not here”. I could not write with the University; its rhythm was incompatible with the universe, my health, my life, my family.

Marguerite was not the first hint I received to verse into verse, and simplicity. If you had access to my Linux laptop password protected inner hidden files, you would have found on page 97 of my 2010 version of my 1998 dissertation (I was compelled to write more on that abandoned PhD every 5 years): “Everyday language is a used-up poem … engaged in thoughtful questioning… Poetizing and thinking need each other when they touch upon what is ultimate.  They then share the same neighborhood (Nachbarschaft), which is saying” (Stambaugh, and Heidegger quoted by Stambaugh 1996:452).” It is so funny to quote myself quoting other people quoting other authors. Already 30 years ago, academic texts had become so heavy in acknowledgements of others, of protection of the author, of fear of any risk of plagiarism that we could barely move forward. The point remains that I often find myself looking for the ultimate in the most complicated protective ways, or an intellectual reasonable thoughtful angle. If only I could play with both poetizing and thinking in an everyday language for everyone to say “I get what you are saying”, or “I feel like I am on a journey with you as I read this”.

I woke up one day with one word, loud and assertive enough for me to snap out of whatever slumber I was lost in: “charity”. Auditory hallucination visiting me between dreams, wakes, stress and despair were not rare. This one was shocking. I did not like it. It did not make any sense. Charity. So old fashion. And wrong. I did not believe in charity, although I monthly shared with Amnesty International my meager income to perhaps give me more time to find the key to life before the world collapses. To the self I was at the time, charity was a sort of God-like misplaced value old British Ladies financed by rich landlords do to pass time. I was a single parent with three children, struggling with student loans expiring and shriveling bursaries, fellowships, assisstantships and faith from my disappearing, dying, supervisors.

Marguerite Porete resurrected again last year during my Creative 100 class at Selkirk College, British Columbia. I was drawn to that part of my wild mind and could not see anything else than the path her daisies were still lighting up towards unpredictable but divine unknown destinations. As I wandered that luminous path, I could not stop picking flowers for my creative fellow classmates. For once, I was not alone in my own department. I wanted to share Porete’s poetic insight with the class, but couldn’t find the original verses I had read years ago at the University. Living hundreds of kilometers from SFU, I had to rely on the commoners’ Internet, which didn’t bring me where she was buried, or maybe I lost the art of digressing towards divinity. At SFU, as a paid legitimate registered student, I had access to a complete French semi-modern translation of an Old French text. I do not have a pedant academic community to concur that any of the ones I found from my cabin in the woods, under cedar trees, surrendered with wild low yield gardens are really or exactly a true replica of Porete’s words. These texts and quotes I presented could be faded versions or distant interpretations. Yet, they seem to have kept the essence of what moved me 30 years ago, or so.

Thought Is No Longer Of Worth To Me
by Marguerite Porete

Thought is no longer of worth to me,
Nor work, nor speech.
Love draws me so high
(Thought is no longer of worth to me)
With her divine gaze,
That I have no intent.
Thought is no longer of worth to me.
Nor work, nor speech.

Porete’s search and findings in Agape, leaving behind thinking as no longer of worth, could possibly make this cerebral essay a parody if it weren’t for  Heidegger and Stambaugh; something about trying to use both sides of my brains, perhaps a little more equally. Could this be the essential condition to expand our own mindfulness?

For years after my official departure from the university I kept wandering outside of the familiar discomfort of my academic universes and found other teachers, as brilliant and committed, sometimes approving, sometimes question marking me, often less protective and protected, taking a chance with me. I found myself defending lost causes, with devotion, with the power of my words, my writing, and coincidentally, with my love and care of people of all abilities and origins.

Marguerite Porete was associated with the beguine spiritual movement of the thirteenth century that stressed imitation of Christ’s life through voluntary poverty, care of the poor and sick, and religious devotion (Wikipedia $25)

This is far from an illustrious academic life and closer to me writing now, working with people we see from the point of view of disabilities, often poorer and sicker than not. Did Porete propound this to me 30 years ago?  Am I still following a path of illuminating daisies through a dimming sky? That I am also poorer than wealthy is not voluntary. I would rather not. The wonderful work of the Education Assistant and Community Support Worker I practice is not that well recognized today, either. Is history repeating itself? Is it merely different rhymes of the same story, simply mirroring versions of possibilities into infinity? The work I am doing is taking more of my resources than the compensations it grants. The beggarly financial yield would divert any sane person from such a career. To my great surprise, it is what one could define as charity, without the pecuniary embrace of a husband, for instance, or a beguine community of harmonious women. It is advocacy and a journey through collapsing universes of minds; it is the exact and never-ending fieldwork of my specially arranged cognitive sciences studies, my determination to understand humanity and to make it better no matter the cost and the many dinners I have to skip to pay my rent. Charity is a passion, at moments, consuming all the particles of matters no more significant… until I am reminded to pay my overdue bills.

“Charity is obedient to no created thing, but only to Love.
Charity has nothing of her own,
and even if she had anything,
she does not say that it is hers at all.
Charity abandons her own task and goes
off and does that of others.
Charity asks no return from any creature,
whatever good or happiness she may give.

With every child with difficulties, with each child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) I help find their own way out of the maze of their misfiring brains, helping me question mine as they rewire theirs, comes conversations about the state of our world and humanity we often solve in our small office or sensory room, amid desperate screams, growls, sobs and weak punches leaving more bruises in their heart than on me. Too often this work has to be done in a context of total idiocy and ambushes demanding of me to act as a buffer from authoritative villains lost and confused from their own misfiring brains they believe are brilliant and perfectly adapted to the culture giving them the right to punish, judge, repress and suppress to assert their own cosmic understanding of their equally large ego, that stratosphere protecting their fear that the universe would collapse if a daisy were to penetrate their manicured monoculture and impoverished gardens. I am stepping on somebody else’s plot of dense Devils Clubs where Stinging Nettles struggle to grow and occasional rare mutated blazing flowers are being choked, their petals angry rashes from both the gentle Nettle and the giant Devils Clubs. I am asked to tame the dazzling flowers, transform the Nettle into Devils Club while each and everyone needs each and everyone to further grow their own purpose deeply concealed in their roots. Less Devils and more light are necessary so would be an armure. I maneuver not always successfully through countless erected “woody stems covered in noxious and irritating spines”, rubbing the gentle Nettle the wrong way, flaring the rare flowers even more and yet… in that child I get a smile and a growth of promising neural connections… while losing my marbles, my paid sick days and any hope to ever reduce my maxed-out credit cards, trade-off of my student loan old debt. Insanity or charity? My work is no work anymore, it renders me speechless, brain dead and incapable of sleeping at night. My skin burns and my heart softens and threatens to take me whole. But love. The love in those eyes when a moment of peace and truth is achieved in their tumultuous confused gasping souls, when neural pathways become illuminated enough for them all to breathe better choices towards dawn and hope for their unfolding petals to keep opening every morning. Are such rare moments enough for the world to find its way out of darkening skies? Should I not have taken a most prestigious academic way for such an endeavouring dream?

Few years ago, I met my doppelganger, that mythical twin, a version of myself who stayed, persisted and worked herself into academia. I saw exactly who I was and would have been, so disconnected, so right all the time, so headstrong, so intelligent with occasional flares of brilliance and Fibromyalgia she was managing between her schedule of courses and flights from one university to another, from one publication to the next. It was as if I was talking to a perfect image of myself from another dimension. We first fell in love with each other’s intensity, but soon could not get along. In quantum physics, we talk of infinite possibilities multiplying themselves in other universes created with each and every one of our choices. Time and space and words intertwine in what seems fractured chaotic structures to the narrow vision of the novice outsiders (para-emphas-phrasing Claude Levi-Strauss). All those possibilities! However, quantum physics is wrong. These universes are all here, in the flesh, in the present, the future bending into the past, the bifurcations, the child I used to be now looking at me in a way I never did and creating more universes doing so, and this man, and this grandmother, even this evil politician. They are all me, universes collapsing and spiraling in a nauseating ever changing multicolored fractal kaleidoscope! Sometimes on their own, sometimes engulfing, sometimes in a process of spaghettification, affecting and affected by other self-contained worlds. And, there is no flesh; those AI nerds programming beyond life simulations too late into the night and the next days were right. There is no such reality as we give ourselves the illusion there is. In those moments of love and letting go, of trust and loss, of crossing the boundaries of our binary brain conventions, and of heartbeats echoing the rhythm of the universe, reality is showing itself very differently, so powerfully that one may disappear, burn away, as Marguerite Porete did in those 1300s dark Church era, just to give the rest of us few more minutes of radiance to find our ways.

“Now listen, Reason, says Love, to understand better what you are asking about.

A man who is on fire feels no cold, a man who is drowning knows no thirst.

Now this Soul, says Love, is so burned in Love’s fiery furnace that she has become very fire, so that she feels no fire, for in herself she is fire, through the power of Love which has changed her into the fire of Love.

This fire burns of and through itself, everywhere, incessantly, without consuming any matter or being able to wish to consume it, except only from itself; for whoever feels some perception of Love through matter which he sees or hears outside himself, or through some labor which he there performs of himself is not all fire; rather, there is some matter, together, with the fire.

For men’s labors, and their wanting matter outside themselves to make Love’s love grow in them, is only a blinding of the knowledge of Love’s goodness.

But he who burns with this fire without seeking such matter, without having it or wanting to have it, sees all things so clearly that he values them as they must be valued.

For such a Soul has no matter in her which prevents her from seeing clearly, so that she is alone in it through the power of true humility; and she is common to all through the generosity of perfect charity, and alone in Love, since Perfect Love has taken possession of her.”

Margaret Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls

– 11 –

Notes

1 – For the comfort of complicated souls like mine, in the last Porete’s text quoted, I replaced “God” with “Love”, adding yet another version of Marguerite (Daisy – Daes eage – day’s eye) Porete in the universe. You could also read “in fire” as “pure energy”.

2 – Wikipedia is such an amazing place to start my explorations. It is like having thousands of friendly, accessible and available at all time dissertation advisors. Each time I quote Wikipedia in a published text, I add $25 to my yearly donation, hoping each of my contributions to knowledge will give the world another chance to find a way out of darkness.

– III –

About the Author

Chantal Lunardi was born in Quebec, Canada, and comes from a Polish-Italian-French immigrant family. She moved to British Columbia, Canada, after her Masters in Anthropology at Laval University in order to pursue studies in Cognitive Sciences at Simon Fraser University. Her multidisciplinary PhD (Special Arrangements / Cognitive Sciences) bursting with creativity, could never be quite wrapped up. After many years of academic life and executive/administrative functions in education, research, and the non-profit worlds, she established her residence in the Kootenays (British Columbia). Local newspapers and reviews published some of her creative and activist work (in French and English). During her PhD, Chantal published mainly in Engineering journals adding an anthropological voice to the growing Artificial Intelligence phenomenon.

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