Spiritual Bridges: Across Time and Space

Aqsa Ijaz on Thomas Harrison

Of Bridges
Of Bridges: A Poetic and Philosophical Account by Thomas Harrison. University of Chicago Press, 2021. 304pp, $35 cloth.

Bridges, of all kinds, have traditionally represented our desire to know and connect with what’s on the other side. They symbolize our hopes to traverse vast and sometimes impossible distances across time and space. As I finished reading Thomas Harrison’s fascinating new book, entitled Of Bridges: A Poetic and Philosophical Account, I remembered that it was the image of the bridge that my grandfather gave me when, as a young girl, I asked him about the nature of our existence and the life hereafter.

Fond as he was of metaphors, he explained to me that our journey here is like walking on a bridge (pul) a kind of crossing over to the other side. He wanted me to understand the transitory nature of life, which like a bridge allows us only a passage to the other side–not a home. Reading Harrison’s meditations on “word bridges”, it struck me that my grandfather used the ultimate bridging capacity of language, i.e., the metaphor to make me comprehend what was essentially incomprehensible. Through the inherent paradox of a bridge; he connected me to the other side in a figure of speech but essentially kept me separate from it. In language, he joined for me what was essentially apart.

Language not only names reality; it also shapes what it purports to express. In this play of dual motion, it closes and opens distances simultaneously and reinforces the idea that understanding is a never-ending process of coming to terms with paradoxes rather and being weary of limiting certainties.  The Urdu word for death (inteqāl) actually means “crossing over to the other side”, or more accurately, “to transfer”. My grandfather chose this word deliberately among the host of other colloquial Urdu and Persian options to name as well as constitute the incomprehensible phenomenon his annoying granddaughter was curious to understand. By invoking the word inteqāl in its full metaphoric capacity, he initiated me into an existential awareness of our inherent separation that any understanding of bridges must accommodate. This strangely animating “bridge-event”, as Harrison calls it, provided me with a structure of experience between connection and distance and transformed my perception of bridges, relationships, and life forever. He enabled me to experience a paradox.

At the heart of Harrison’s book is this desire to share the myriad and often invisible ways in which we experience and use the seemingly mundane architectural phenomenon of bridges in our lives. Bridges become a noun, a verb, a mood, and a condition of being as we become conscious of how bridge-like our existence in all its paradoxical possibilities is. Bridges figuratively become part of our being in the world as we enact connection and experience communication. In a slightly extended capacity of experiencing music, they provide a deeper mode of listening when we think of musical hearing as bridging over the void between the singer and the listener while also keeping them separate in the harmony of melodies. In other words, in deploying the constitutive capacity of language, they provide us with a conceptual scaffolding to comprehend, even if only partially, the dazzling depths and infinite possibilities of being alive.

Notwithstanding the criticisms that the book may elicit for its kaleidoscopic presentation of its subject, Of Bridges offers us a transformative journey through its thoughtful pages. The driving force of this book is the desire to make its readers experience the journey that our fellow humans have undergone without really bridging the gap that separates us from them culturally and historically. And to me, one of the most refreshing aspects of this book is that it defends no singular position about bridges. It offers us an opportunity to be attentive to our lives as a kind of bridge that my grandfather spoke of when I wanted to traverse an impossible distance in time.

The famous Persian poet, Jalaluddin Rumi personifies this human quest in his unforgettable “Song of the Reed Flute” in which the reed flute laments and celebrates simultaneously its separation from the cosmic origin and its ability to connect with it in poetry and song. The experience of paradox is challenging, for we are used to striving for certainties that assure us of ourselves and keep us from spilling over. The language we use to name our certainties keep us on this side of the bridge, contained and secure. But as soon as we enter the space of metaphor, we spill over into the realm of paradox that reveals to us a fulsome experience of being on the bridge, allowing us a connection with what remains essentially separate.

Harrison invites us to partake of this challenging experience as he shows in his chapter Great Bridge-Building of God how humans have used scriptures, myths and indigenous traditions to navigate this desire to connect with realms beyond through making in language and visual arts what he calls “spiritual bridges”. He presents us with the rainbows of the Native Americans and bird bridges between astral divinities in Chinese and Japanese legends. We also follow him into a brief but important exposition of the bridge in Islamic eschatology (As-Sirāt) that’s laid over on the miseries of Hell and is thinner than a hair and sharper than a sword.

All of these culturally diverse strands of God’s bridge-building and the desired continuity of believers culminate in his thought-provoking discussion of the Austrian writer, Hermann Broch’s dense 1945 novel, The Death of Virgil. It is in this section that we see Harrison trying to bring these culturally diverse imaginings of spiritual bridges in the concrete analysis of a novel that is invested in examining what Hannah Arendt called “the space between the no longer and not yet”.  Again, the language shapes what it purports to express as the “no longer” of ending life and the “not yet” of one’s imminent death forms a figurative bridge that despite the pragmatic demands of life here seeks the other side of the story; a yearning that is represented throughout the world’s mystical and religious narratives that Harrison implicitly brings together in his succinct analysis.

But the space of metaphoric thinking need not be limited to words and images only; sound and music too shapes this experience and enables a different kind of perception of gaps and voids that we seek to fill as we navigate our lives. Harrison writes:

 “Sound is our tie to the invisible. It penetrates walls, seeps through floors, rings over rooftops and mountain peaks. It brings notice of distance, which hardly can be said of the other four senses. If we close our eyes and concentrate on the sounds reaching our ears, we sense the individual location of each, transmitting contours and textures of living activity… Sonorous events emanate from places that are often visually indeterminate. They enter the hearing and subside. The listening mind gathers together a vibrating world of particulars each with its own being, timbre and scale.”

Sound too is a kind of bridge that is material and spiritual at the same time. It not only enters the subterranean realms of one’s inner self through transcendental clarity of a voice or a melody it is also an experience of being physically touched. Anyone who has truly experienced a piece of music or has sought to hear the voice of one’s beloved knows it well that it is the voice of the beloved that caresses us when we find ourselves at great geographical distances, and often a piece of music physically heals us when the experience of those distances pierces us. In his chapter, entitled “Musical Bridges” Harrison gives us inspired glimpses into how sound brings the absent near through a unique presence that only our sense of hearing can enable us to experience. I find this chapter all the more significant because as we develop ever-defined high-resolution visual technology these days, the experience of listening and the emphasis on sound is ever more muddled and ‘downgraded’, as Harrison puts it, lamenting the loss of focused attention and presence that only sound can provide. As a musician myself, I know all too well that when sound becomes music it intensifies that relationship with presence, which requires heightened interpretive attention; an experience that Harrison illuminates well through a fascinating reading of the Italian poet, Giacomo Leopardi’s reflections on sounds as bridgers of distance.

In what Walter Benjamin calls our “fall into language” that dilates the space of our comprehension among music, images, words and poetry, our experience of the world is informed by a forest-like density of metaphoric thinking that continuously remains on a bridge of translation.

While such acts of translation that aspire to bridging minds, meanings, and their expression, there is something in these acts that ultimately remains untranslatable. Too often, our words don’t say what we mean, as T.S Eliot lamented in his Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. That is the limit of language when we are on the side of the bridge where we are contained and secure in our linear certainties.

Only in the linguistic act of comprehension that allows what Harrsion calls the bridge-like thinking, the two unlikely possibilities are brought together, made comprehensible in the realm of paradox. And yet the distance remains, for one never really crosses over to the other side, where meaning resides. The great 19th century Urdu poet, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib captured it well when he wrote the immortal verses that still resonate throughout the Persianate world:

As awareness tries to ensnare you in the net of understanding,
Meaning remains the bird that eludes the realm of speech.

At the heart of these verses, Ghalib enacted the paradoxical experience of bridges that Harrison offers us in his book. Ghalib’s verses have kept even the most discerning translators in the throes of the dilemma that Harrison’s ascribes to the desire for resolution and for bridging in the poetics of metaphor.

How to respect the eternal apartness and elusiveness of things while making them “dance together”? Ghalib, being the wordsmith he was, played on the Persian word (shanidan) which means “to hear” but also “to understand, to grasp” and conjugated it as (dām-e-shanidan) which means “the trap of understanding” – singularly making meaning possible and illusionary at the same time.

Unlike Ghalib, however, Harrison does not leave us scratching our heads in our metaphoric encounter with the invisible; he makes us experience this paradox of bridges by inviting us to follow him in the disparate connections across time and space.

Aqsa Ijaz is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University, where she teaches all levels of Urdu. Her research at McGill focuses on the North Indian reception of a 12th-century Persian poet, Nizami Ganjavi and his beautiful love stories. In addition to her scholarly work, she is a writer, translator, singer and photographer. Her essays can be found in L.A Review of Books, World Literature Today , The Herald, and elsewhere.