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W. E. B L A C K Denver University Ethic and Metaphysic: A Study of John G. Neihardt The nature of our concept of reality determines the nature of our actions because every ethical act is performed within a meta­ physical framework. In his writings, John G. Neihardt has in­ vestigated this relation of attitude to action, of metaphysics to ethics; and especially two of his lengthy poems The Divine Enchantment, a poem of Hindu mysticism, and The Song of the Messiah, a poetic treatment of the Sioux ghost-dance religion, demonstrate his state­ ment that “our conception of values, by which we live, must grow out of our genuine belief as to what is real”.1 For Neihardt the search for the reality upon which he could predicate his life grew from a vision and an early study of Eastern philosophy. “In the summer when Neihardt was eleven .. . he had a serious attack of fever, an experience that left a deep impression on his spiritual life. . . . On his recovery . . . the ‘shaping dream’ of being a poet had become a fixed idea.”2 This illness became for him what the “power visions” had been to the Indians: the divine indication of the path he must follow. This illness also turned Neihardt to mysticism, for he relates that during the fever he was pulled through the air at such speed that the wind became glass beneath his feet. By the time he reached college age, this mysticism had led him into a spiritual journey to the East. ^ohn Neihardt, Poetic Values (New York, 1925), p. vii. 2Julius House, John G. Neihardt, Man and Poet (Wayne, Nebraska, 1920), p .9. 206 Western American Literature Armed with Max Muller’s Vedanta Philosophy, he sought and found a translation of the Upanishads. The annotations pen­ cilled in Neihardt’s copy . . . suggest his particular attraction toward the concept of the ultimate god, its warnings against both ignorance and intellectual pride. The influence of this book upon The Divine Enchantment is inescapable.3 Neihardt’s first presentation of his thought is The Divine En­ chantment, subtitled A Mystical Poem, published privately in 1900. It is the survivor of four “mythological epics” attempted during this period. The Divine Enchantment, in an edition of 500 copies, escaped destruction; yet despite favorable reviews—the Chicago Tribune providing the exception—Neihardt apparently was not satisfied with this juvenilia for, as House stated in 1920, “wherever he finds a copy in circulation, he buys and destroys it”.4 The Divine Enchantment recounts the tale of the virgin Devanaguy who, according to ancient prophecies, would bear Christna, the incarnation of Vishnu. The tyrant Kansa has im­ prisoned her to prevent this, yet Vishnu nonetheless “over-shadows” and impregnates her. “During the term of her gestation, Devanaguy was transported by a continual ecstatic dream.”5 It is the revelation of this dream which forms the central content of the poem. The book The Bible in India by the Jesuit missionary Louis Jacolliot suggested to Neihardt the use of this tale comparable to that of the Immaculate Conception; but it is the metaphysical rather than the narrative element which dominates Neihardt’s adaptation. The philosophical premises which underlie The Divine En­ chantment and Neihardt’s subsequent works are rooted in two Hindu triads. The first is composed of Brahman, Universal Being; of Atman, the ego of the individual consciousness; and Maya, illusion created not by our perception of the phenomenal world but by the concept of individuality which accepts only a partial, and hence faulty, view.6 To escape maya, it is necessary to transcend a partial view; it is necessary to attain Nirvana. The three stations leading to Nirvana form the second triad basic to our understanding of Neihardt’s metaphysics. 8George Grant, The Poetic Development of John G. Neihardt (Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1958), pp. 36-37. 4House, op. cit., p. 16. 5John Neihardt, Divine Enchantment {New York, 1900), p. 5. 8John Neihardt, Poetic Values, p. 25. A Study of John G. Neihardt 207 The first station is Waking Consciousness, a state of awareness totally blinded by illusion. The second is the Dream-sleep, a partial loss of self; and the third is...


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