Brief Pause in the Organ Recital

by Tomas Tranströmer

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 769

“Brief Pause in the Organ Recital” is a poem about religious experience. Though the words “mystic” and “mysticism” are often applied to Tranströmer and his work, it is important to notice that no revelation, no vision bringing certainty, is vouchsafed to the speaker of this poem. The dream that leads him to affirm the world with “an unshakable PERHAPS” can best be characterized as a secular epiphany or a moment of extraordinary insight.

The cessation of the music enables the poet to hear the traffic outside the cathedral. In Tranströmer’s poetic vocabulary, “traffic” usually symbolizes human intercourse at all levels—the social order and its contextual situation in time and space. The vaguely disturbing murmur of the traffic outside becomes more threatening when the rumble of a heavy trailer-truck causes the cathedral walls to tremble, and the poet immediately associates this with a similarly jarring experience that he had when he was four: Then, safely seated on his mother’s lap, he was protected from social discord. These two images (the sheltering cathedral walls and the mother’s lap) help the poet define the barrier between the safe inner world and the menacing world outside, a characteristic concern of Tranströmer’s. In the interview mentioned above, he said, “I like border regions. I am interested in borders and I am always writing on the borderline—the borderline between the inner world and the outer world. I call this borderline ‘the truth barrier’because that’s the point where you can see the truth.”

The sudden silence also enables him to cross another border. Listening to the beating of his pulse, he becomes aware that, like the music, it too will someday stop. Will it be only a short pause? Placed on the borderline between life and death, the poet finds new meaning in a dream he once had: Alone in a churchyard, surrounded by heather, he is waiting for a friend who, he soon realizes, is already there; death begins turning up the purple light until, becoming a hitherto unknown hue, it merges with the light of dawn and becomes articulate. Is the mysterious friend death or—as one Swedish critic suggests—Christ? Does the purple heather portend death, or does the liturgical association of the color purple with Christ’s passion suggest the idea of resurrection? There is not enough evidence to enable one to answer “yes” or “no” to any of the questions that the poem raises. The most positive answer Tranströmer can give is PERHAPS, which is unshakable.

In crossing the border between dreaming and the waking state, Tranströmer appears to have glimpsed the divine, timeless world that has always been at the heart of religious belief. He senses—but cannot verify—a meaningful order in the universe. This is the point at which humankind usually takes refuge in belief, but Tranströmer seems to feel that it is as limiting to believe in the existence of meaning where none may exist as it is to deny its existence on the grounds of insufficient evidence. Seen in this light, PERHAPS (which is understood to include contradictions and uncertainties) is neither a defeat nor a compromise but a proclamation that the poet chooses to remain open to all possible blueprints of reality.

In the last three stanzas of the poem, Tranströmer uses the image of the book to justify his endorsement of uncertainty. He thinks of the family encyclopedia, with which he taught himself to read as a child. He now realizes, however, that because it attempts to give an abstract picture of the world, to reduce it to a closed and static system, this kind of encyclopedia—ironically described as “all-knowing”—is an inadequate guidebook to the world. His dream experience has convinced him of the supreme value of uncertainty, and he sees that each person contains his or her own individual encyclopedia, one that is written from birth onward on the tabula rasa (or formatted disk) of the mind. No book of certainties, this is one that encompasses contradictions; its pages, as vital as the quivering leaves in a forest, are—like a database—always being updated and restructured by each new wave of information. Although this “open system” is subject to constant revision, however, its basic structure is never destroyed. Would one be justified in seeing the permanence of this inner encyclopedia’s essential structure as somehow analogous to the medieval notion that nature is a book written by God to show humankind how He works in the world? Undoubtedly, Tranströmer’s answer would be “PERHAPS.”

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