Thursday, June 30, 2005

Neoplatonism and Christian Symbolism in Gwendolyn MacEwen’s poem “Manzini: Escape Artist”

I was cleaning out my filling cabinet when I came across a bunch of old essays I had written for school. I wrote this paper for my CanLit class when I was an undergrad student at the University of Windsor. Our assignment was to pick a poem from the anthology that we had never read before, and do a brief two-page explication of it. Here was my attempt. It certainly is not, let’s say, comprehensive, but I thought it was well enough written for an undergrad. I was taking a philosophy course that same year — can you tell? Got to love an essay that starts, “Throughout history man has sought…” Not to mention the conclusion, which is perfunctory at best. Hey, I was only in second year. Besides it can’t be too bad, I got an A.

Throughout history man has sought a means by which he can escape from the physical world and the mortality connected to it. In Gwendolyn MacEwen’s poem “Manzini: Escape Artist”, Manzini becomes a symbolic representation of humanity’s search for freedom from earthly bonds. MacEwen combines Neoplatonic doctrine and Christian imagery to poeticize the quest of the human soul in attaining immortality.

In Plato’s belief, the body is a source of imprisonment. In Timaeus he defines the two worlds that underlie reality; the first one is the invisible, eternal realm of thought, and the second realm is visible and corporeal. According to Plato, the task of humans is to attain control over the sensations of their bodies. If one succeeds, the soul will shed its bodily prison and be re-united with the eternal, divine spirit. If one fails, the soul will be trapped in a cycle of reincarnation. In this view, the soul is eternal and good, preexisting the body which is a source of evil and mortality.

These views are clearly expressed in MacEwen’s poem. This is evident in her description of Manzini’s ropes, which are like “tendons…worn/ on the outside-/ as though his own guts were the ropes”. Manzini is able to transcend his material prison by freeing himself from his skin, and throwing “his entrails/ white upon the floor”. In his attempt to achieve freedom from the limitations of the natural world “there are no bonds except the flesh”.

MacEwen also utilizes Christian imagery. She describes Manzini as having a “leaf across his sex”. In Genesis, once Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit they realized they were naked and sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves. An obvious allusion to Adam in the Garden of Eden, Manzini’s struggle with his flesh-made ropes can then be seen symbolically as Adam’s struggle with earthly temptation.

For disobeying God, humanity is cast out of Eden and becomes subject to mortality. Death, then, is not viewed as a natural process, but rather as a punishment for sin. Manzini is only able to free himself from his fallen state of humanity by metaphorically shedding his skin of sin. He is described as finally being free when he “slid as snake from/ his own sweet agonized skin”. The snake imagery, once again alluding to Genesis, is a symbol of evil and sin. Manzini, however, is able to free himself from this stain of sin which is inherited by all of Adam’s descendents, thereby reclaiming his lost innocence.

MacEwen may have been influenced by the Christian theologian Saint Augustine, who interpreted the story of Genesis as one of human bondage. In his Confessions, he states that through original sin humanity is “shackled by the bond of death”. According to Augustine, sexual desire and the body are sources of sin and corruption. The body is made inferior to the soul, and its sensations must be mastered by the mind. This parallels Plato’s view of the body as being an earthly prison for the soul. Manzini is a culmination of both Neoplatonic and Christian thought. He figuratively represents humanity’s struggle to free itself from the “bonds [of]… the flesh”, a line which is repeated throughout the poem thereby stressing its importance.

With its repetitions, the poem is reminiscent of a chant. This creates an insistent rhythm, which gives it an incantatory affect. Chants are characteristic of magic charms, ritual and prophecies. Therefore, by using this form, MacEwen links her subject matter to the mythic past. Like a storyteller, she employs direct speech. She writes, “listen-/ there was this boy, Manzini”. The line break after “listen” forces the reader to pause, as if hearing an oral story. The reader is drawn into the tale.

By synthesizing Greek and Christian cosmologies, MacEwen constructs a modern myth suitable for today’s audience. “Manzini: Escape Artist” becomes a dramatization of the soul’s quest for freedom from its bodily prison and humanity’s search for immortality. Her chant like style is particularly suited for the spiritual themes she explores, linking the poem to the mythic past.