Fr Gioele Galea’s Tħabbat Xtaqtek is a piece of mystical literature, and a truly unique work in the history of Maltese literature. Written in the form of a diary, it is structured as a meditative act, situating itself something in between a prayer and a confession. Albeit being Galea’s first work of prose, undeniably the language possesses strong poetic qualities. While Galea plants one foot in prose, he definitely keeps the other in poetry, the form of literature in which he established himself with his past publications.
Set against the background of St Jerome hermitage in Pascelupo, Tħabbat Xtaqtek is Galea’s attempt to try to reach the Divine. More of a poet than a priest, however, Galea does not resort to religion, as he never puts together spirituality with dogma. This allows him to achieve a perception of things that is not spoiled by custom, rendering his work mystical rather than religious. As poet William Blake believed, the Infinite is within man’s reach only if his “doors of perception are cleansed”. The hermitage serves precisely this purpose: to cleanse his doors of perception. The hermitage, through its emptiness, its silence, its seclusion, the occasional visitors – some cynical, some in despair – ultimately allows him to become “a living soul” and to “see into the life of things”, a positive gain in terms of expanded consciousness.
However, as Galea announces in chapter 49, “the hermitage leads you to the gates of hell – your own personal hell”. Surrounded by rocks, trees and the sound of the waterfall, the narrator enters into a series of inner conflicts and struggles. He constantly resorts to images of thirst and fire, images that in turn give depth and fire to the writing. He is haunted by the imposing presence of silence, which is the major hero of this autobiographical novel.
Even when he has brief encounters with the outside world – such as the encounter with a mysterious woman on a train – the spell of the hermitage is never broken as it keeps lingering in his soul. In other words, the hermitage represents an emotional and spiritual state, and can be said to function as a potent objective correlative, in that emotions are evoked through the sensory experience of the hermitage.
But the hermitage, secluded from materialistic interests, is also the ideal place where to assume an aesthetic attitude towards life. The hermitage can thus be seen as a metaphor of the creative process through which an artist creates his art.
Like all mystics, Galea speaks of things beyond the domain of the senses and the normal powers of human perception. In chapter 28, especially, Galea mentions a specific revelatory moment in his life, which happened years before his admission at the hermitage.
He describes his epiphanic moment in the form of an intense feeling, a “look” or his absorption in the soul of the universe. A feeling that he is truly represented in something that exceeds himself.
This moment is so intimate, so unique, and so literally ineffable that it defies capture in human words. In fact, he confesses that he had never shared this experience before. At the hermitage, however, he reveals this inexplicable moment to his unknown invisible addressee, and indirectly to his readers.
As a number of other mystical writers have shown us, however, the nature of the mystical experience itself is not accessible to language. At a loss of language, these writers start to write in paradoxical terms. To describe his encounter with God in the last Canto of the Paradiso, Dante resorts to a series of profound contradictions in order to articulate the inarticulate, and, likewise does T.S. Eliot in Ash Wednesday. Paradoxically, it seems to be a way to, somehow, describe the indescribable.
Following this legacy, Galea, too, resorts to speaking in paradoxical terms to explain the unexplainable: “Neither presence nor absence…”, “Neither there nor here…”, “In God there is no other God than man…”, “God is man, even if man is not God”, to mention a few. Thus, Galea puts Maltese language in the service of describing modes of the divine, stretching the descriptive powers of the language to the paradoxical language of mysticism.
The “look” he had experienced is again recalled in the last chapter. Now, however, this look is in his own eyes. Because of his experience at the hermitage, he has reached a high level of spiritual awakening and can see the world with “volcano” eyes. Now his eyes understand love, and even outside of the hermitage, his vision continues to emanate from those volcano eyes.
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