I've recently begun another reading of Ernesto Cardinale's Cosmic Canticle. There is a short list of books that I think one never really finishes. These, for me, include Ulysses, the Iliad, Herodotus, Moby Dick, the Bible, and this, the lifetime achievement of one of the more socially engaged thinkers of our time.
A Nicaraguan who studied with Thomas Merton at the Trappist Gethsemane monastery in Kentucky, Cardenal was ordained a priest in 1965. As an early advocate of liberation theology, he was declared an outlaw by the Somoza regime by 1977. After the triumph of the Sandinistas, he was appointed Nicaraguan minister of culture and held the post for nearly a decade. Cardenal has published more than 35 books of poetry in Spanish, most of which have been widely translated.
The Cosmic Canticle, which took thirty years to write, is in the epic tradition of the long poem, and is composed of 43 works that can either be read separately or as a whole. The Canticle is a poem of faith and wonder that attempts to express the miracle of life itself.
Quantum physics has brought us to a point where science increasingly resembles mysticism, and this is where Cardenal begins. “In the Beginning,” he writes, “The entire universe concentrated/in the space of the nucleus of an atom,/ and before that even less, much less than a proton,/ and even less still, an infinitely dense mathematical point,/ And that was Big Bang.”
And on it goes, for 481 pages. Over the course of the Canticle, Cardenal describes an incomprehensible universe struggling to know itself. Drawing broadly upon the natural sciences, Gaia theory, innumerable creation myths and cosmologies, and the history of theological thought from Thales to Chardin, Cardenal seeks the divine in the laws of attraction and explores the inevitability of entropy and mortality.
Interspersed throughout are stories of the heroes and martyrs of his own life. Along with the stories of great love are those of inhumanity and shame. The history of Nicaragua is contained within the history of the universe, and is presented as one more aspect of life seeking to overcome death.
As Erich Fromm wrote in his classic Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, necrophilia expands in the absence of biophilia. Our responsibility, says Cardenal, is to love.
The Canticle is a thinking person’s declaration of faith. “It is as though I have embraced the night/black and void/ and I am void of all/and want nothing/It is as though I had been penetrated by /the Nothing.” And later: “If he loves you more than you yourself/your you is superficial and he is your deep you.”
God, says Cardenal, is hidden in plain sight. This is the sort of book that reminds us, even in the darkest of times, that life surges irresistibly on, and love, that force of attraction that binds us together, is all around.