Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Yin and Yang of The Song of Solomon

As the days begin to grow longer, the priests dust off the scroll of the Megillot that is read at Passover. On the first day of spring, Equinox, following the example of Yin and Yang, all things are in balance; female and male, dark and light, night and day – one can not be understood in the absence of the other. Passover is also known as the Holiday of Spring and the extreme use of antithetical parallelism in The Song of Solomon, the scroll read in spring, provides an approachable representation of a perfectly balanced and harmonious cosmic dualism, personifying the passage of seasons from winter to spring.

The most apparent contrast in The Song of Solomon, is the female and male characters which represent winter and summer. The most active voice is the female, which is the Yin of the Yin and Yang philosophy. The male, or Yang, of the book is just arriving, “leaping upon the mountains” (S. of S. 2:8), to take his place of dominance as winter turns to spring and calls to Yin to “Arise . . ./and come away;/ for lo, the winter is past” (S. of S. 2:10-11). Yin’s time is winter and “come away” in this instance does not mean to join Yang, but to leave so Yang can take his place at Vernal Equinox.

Equinox is when the time of light and dark are equal, and it happens twice a year. Summer, technically spring, follows winter, but for this argument, Yang represents the warmer weather that follows the colder weather. Yin represents the colder season that is drawn after (S. of S. 1:4). When Yin exclaims “My beloved is mine and I am his” (S. of S. 2:16), it indicates that Yin is in control and phase of dominance will be followed by Yang. Later, at the autumn equinox, when cold follows warm, Yang will wane in turn and the refrain is reversed; “I am my beloved’s and my beloved/is mine” (S. of S. 6:3). One follows the other and the other follows the one, but as one approaches, as in Yin rising to open to Yang’s knock at the door (S. of S. 5:6), the other must recede.

When not the dominant season, the subordinate sleeps or is away, yet still desires the other. Yang is away “Until the day breathes/ and the shadows flee” (S. of S. 2:17), in other words, until the days become longer than the nights. While Yin sleeps, Yang pursues her. Yang says, “I slept but my heart was awake” (S. of S. 5:2) when Yang comes knocking. When Yin does rise in her dream to open the door, Yang “had turned and gone” (S. of S. 2:6). When Yin rises it is Yang’s turn to sleep until “Under the apple tree” (S. of S. 8.5) he is awakened from the long sleep of winter, when mother earth gives birth to new life. The two are destined never to meet. It is a constant seek and not find situation. He is behind a wall (S. of S. 2:9) and she is behind a veil (S. of S. 4:1), yet the evidence of the existence of the other remains everywhere they look.

Yang sees the evidence of Yin’s wintry work “in the clefts of the rock,/ in the covert of the cliff” (S. of S. 2:14), where the warming sun has not yet reached the icy depths of winter. Yin is sustained through winter with the fruits and raisins stored from Yang’s summer (S. of S. 2:5). She sits in the banqueting house “in his/ shadow,/ and his fruit [is] sweet” (S. of S. 2:3). The seeds stored and germinating through winter, “the garden locked,” become the shoots for “an orchard of pomegranates” and all the spices of spring (S. of S: 4.12-14). The benevolent and productive existence of each of the entities is clear and the need for both periods of winter storage inside and summer planting and harvest outside is necessary for survival and must be done at the right time.

All things must occur within their season. The love the characters have for each other is the earth and its abundance. The audience is instructed not to “stir not up nor awaken love / until it please” (S. of S 2:7). Planting must occur in the warmer months and to plow up the ground before it is time is counterproductive. Yin is the little sister that has no breasts (S. of S. 8:8). Yin is charged to keep the vineyards throughout her cold season, but her vineyards cannot produce. She cannot bear fruit because Passover is the time for planting and that is the time that she must go away.

Storage, planting, harvest, winter and summer, Yin is all things civilized and inside, while Yang is more natural and outdoorsy. During the colder months, activity is predominantly confined to the city and indoor events. Yin resides inside the walls and in the city, and her constant desire is to bring Yin into the house and into the chamber. When Yin goes out to seek Yang, she goes “about the/ city,/ in the streets and in the squares” (S. of S. 3:2). Yang, on the other hand, remains outside, “gazing in at the windows, / looking through the lattice” (S. of S. 2:9). His occupation as shepherd keeps him in the pasture, “leaping upon the mountains, / bounding over the hills” (S. of S. 2:8) during the warmer months. The closest they come to meeting is merely the knock on a door at equinox. He knocks from the outside, she answers from within.

Spending his livelihood outside, Yang is “all radiant and ruddy” with wavy and raven-black hair (S. of S. 5:10-11). Yin, in stark contrast, is dark and swarthy as sun-scorched earth after summer. Twice she is described with curly and white hair “like a flock of goats” (S. of S. 4:1, 6:5) with cheeks that are wintry red “like halves of a/ pomegranate” (S. of S. 4:3, 6:7). Cold snow for hair and radiantly tanned skin – if winter and summer were to be personified, this is how they would look. Each are described in comparison with a myriad of natural animal, vegetable and mineral comparisons: stags, doves, clusters of grapes, apple trees, cedar, gold and jewels. If nature is to be personified it must look like its season and be likened to its natural inhabitants.

It takes more than good looks for humankind to relate to a personification of nature. To bring these beings alive, they must also be made to have drives and emotions. They must strive and fail, and love and fear. Yin experiences a thrill and fright when it seems that she and her beloved at last would meet. When Yang puts his hand to the latch of her door, Yin’s “heart was thrilled” (S. of S. 5:4), and when she hears his call her “soul failed” (S. of S. 5:6). Likewise, Yang feels a bit of discomfort and is disturbed by Yin in chapter 6. He likens her to a terrible army. Their constant desire is for each other, but the fear and respect for the other helps to keep them from ever meeting. Their own natures as opposites hold them in their places.

The opposite worlds and nature of the main characters are also reflected in the natures and actions of the minor characters of the book. They are male and female as well but, unlike the main characters who are individuals, these minor characters are grouped together by gender. This adds another level of contrast, the individual versus the group. The female group both mocks and assists Yin in her search for her male counterpart. In their first appearance they helpfully advise Yin to “follow in the tracks of the flock” (S. of S. 1:8). Where summer goes, winter will follow in the same path. Later, however, they ask “what is your beloved” (S. of S. 5:9) that they should help? These female characters represent a contrast of sincere help and mocking disdain. The male characters also display bipolar characteristics. At one point they remain neutral when Yin is found by them when she is “in the streets and in the squares” (S. of S. 3:2). Later, as she is found by the watchmen, she is beaten and wounded (S. of S. 5:7). The watchmen represent the contrast of passive and aggressive behaviors.

In spite of the attitudes of the group of women and the watchmen, nature makes no consideration of person. It simply ‘is.’ Nature continues on its path whether assisted by the women or railed against by the watchmen. The neutrality of nature exists to the benefit and detriment of all. Likewise, in all the contrast found in The Song of Solomon, there is no blatant labeling of good and evil. All of the contrast simply ‘is.’ Light and dark, passive and aggressive, male and female, et cetera—one side or aspect cannot be understood in the absence of the existence of the other. All things have their equal in the opposite. This perfect contrast is a foundation of cosmic dualism, but lacks the antagonistic aspect usually present in the general definition. There is no conflict of a good side against an evil side, and the lack of a competition aspect lends itself to the more harmonious Yin and Yang philosophy. Here is a complementary existence of two sides that point to the existence of a whole or a one.

In the first testament of The Holy Bible there is little to no reference to an afterlife or an existence of a cosmic good side against a cosmic evil side. There is simply life, death, and the God of Abraham. This God is described with the same aspects of the characters in The Song of Solomon. That God is both male and female can be found in the first creation story of Genesis: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1.27). One accounting of the view of God as both a beneficial and detrimental being is reflected in the story of Job. The ‘evil’ in Job’s question, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil” (Job 1.9), is not an evil in active opposition to good, but simply an opposite state of affairs. God is presented as both passive and aggressive, and all things whether desired, such as child birth, or undesired, such as barrenness, is attributed to the whims of God. “It is all one;” Job says, “[God] destroys both the blameless/ and the wicked” (Job 9:22). The common view of God by the descendents of Abraham is that, good, bad and indifferent, he is everything.

In the bigger picture all of the elements, actions, and characteristics work together to create a harmonic world and provide for life. Standing back to see “Who is that coming up from the / wilderness, / leaning upon her beloved?” The seasons ‘lean’ on each other and depend on one another for balance. All that can be seen in the distance is the result of the two sides of Yin and Yang.

The wrath and mercy that God displays at the original Passover is a prime example of God’s dualistic nature. The same sharp dualism is thickly represented in the extreme parallelism of The Song of Solomon, but humanized and balanced in such a way as to create a harmony with nature, humanity and God. Reading The Song of Solomon with the changing of the seasons as a backdrop adds another passive layer that can be used in an attempt to grasp the unknowable nature and the Yin and Yang of existence.

Works Cited
The Book of Job. The Holy Bible. Revised Standard Version. New York:
Meridian, 1962.
The First Book of Moses: Commonly Called Genesis. The Holy Bible. Revised
Standard Version. New York: Meridian, 1962.
The Song of Solomon. The Holy Bible. Revised Standard Version. New York:
Meridian, 1962.

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