Building Dwelling Eating

“Eskimos have a hundred different words for snow,” says the legend. The truth is more interesting: Inuit peoples speak complex, highly agglutinative languages in which the mood/perspective of the speaker has a strong influence upon the shape of the word/sentence. (I don’t really understand this, of course, but I’m imagining something like the Spanish subjunctive run amok.) As a result, Inuit peoples recognize no fixed nominal categories, only pervasive flux.

The implications for philosophy and religion are interesting. According to Phyllis Morrow (“Two Tellings of the Story of Uterneq: ‘The Woman Who Returned From the Dead,'” in Brian Swann’s Coming to Light: Contemporary Translations of the Native Literatures of Native North America, Random House, 1994), it is “impossible and inappropriate to impose a single translation, such as ‘soul,’ on the variety of terms that refer to sensible aspects of personhood: image, breath, warmth, personality, and sound. When asked, Yupiit simply tend to confirm that a variety of terms are used by different people.”

What this could mean for poetics is the main subject of anthropologist Edmund Carpenter’s introduction to the anthology of song texts I cited in yesterday’s post (I Breathe a New Song). He says: “The Eskimo language doesn’t simply name things which already exist. Rather, it brings things-actions (nouns-verbs) into being as it goes along. This idea is reflected in the practice of naming a child at birth: When the mother is in labor, an old woman stands around and says as many different eligible names as she can think of. The child comes out of the womb when its name is called. Thus the naming and the giving birth to the new thing are inextricably linked together.”

Let’s continue with one eye toward a general questioning of the concept of being, that holy grail of the Western thinker errant. In Inuit languages, “all words are forms of the verb ‘to be,’ which itself is lacking.” This is hardly unusual. As I understand it, this verb form – what linguists intriguingly call the copulative – is peculiar to Indo-European languages. And from the ancient Greeks forward, being has been pared with making. In the Hebrew Bible, God “brings things-actions into being” in a manner that is essentially shamanistic and divinatory: the breath of his speech impels or discloses organization from among all that is, in some sense, already present.

But in the Greek interpretation – and thus in the Bible that all of us are familiar with (or not) – God is the Maker: the Poet. (For speakers of modern Greek, says Olga Broumas, “poet is still synonymous with creator, as in the Greek Orthodox credo: I believe in one God, father almighty, poet of sky and earth . . . ” [Perpetua, note to “Etymology”].) The intuition of a Prime Mover must derive at least in part from our own sense of alienation or at least separation from the world of nature.

So even aside from the almost insurmountable challenges of translation, there is a problem simply in trying to fit into our own categories the linguistic arts of any people so fundamentally different in their world-view. “There is really no such thing as Eskimo poetry,” Carpenter admits; “there are only poetic acts by individual Eskimos. The poetry-making matters, not the result. And, since the forms of poetry are traditional, known to everyone, what need is there to keep examples? Like carvings, poems are created, not preserved.”

Ah, what could be more thingish, more obviously tied to a self-conscious making than the example of sculpture?

“As the carver holds the unworked ivory lightly in his hand, turning it this way and that, he whispers, ‘Who are you? Who hides there?’ and then: ‘Ah, Seal!’ He rarely sets out to carve, say, a seal, but picks up the ivory, examines it to find its hidden form and, if that’s not immediately apparent, carves aimlessly until he sees it, humming or chanting as he works. Then he brings it out: Seal, hidden, emerges. It was always there. He didn’t create it: he released it, he helped it step forth.”

I don’t know that this is unique to the Inuit. Many artists in our own culture seem to feel more or less the same way, though there is obviously a continuum (or spectrum) of beliefs about the role/importance of self-conscious decision-making. In my own experience, just letting words come and putting them down, without editing – as so many Beats and neo-Beats advocate – is actually extraordinarily difficult to do right. The editing is not eliminated, simply made coincident with the bringing-to-light. (But note that I just end-rhymed without meaning to!) Potter (and poet) Jack Troy – a pioneer in the introduction of Japanese wood-firing techniques to North America – testifies in his artist’s statement to the difficulty of “seeing [pieces] for what they are.” He says it took him 20 years to unlearn his original desire for “ruthless control.” Frankly, I doubt that the practice comes easily or naturally even to Inuit carvers – I think it would be excessively romantic to maintain otherwise. The ego is an unruly thing in any culture.

Carpenter says that for the Inuit, the closest equivalent to our concept of creation is a term that means “to work on.” He connects this respect for the own-being or self-unveiling of the artist’s subject to the way Inuit build relationships with other people. Numerous accounts of child-rearing and marital relations among various Inuit groups would seem to bear this out.

“It is also their attitude toward nature. Language is the principal tool with which the Eskimos make the natural world a human world. They use many words for ‘snow’ which permit fine distinctions, not simply because they are much concerned with snow, but because snow takes its form from the actions in which it participates: sledding, falling, igloo-building. Different kinds of snow are brought into existence by the Eskimos as they experience the environment and speak; words do not label things already there. Words are like the knife of the carver: they free the idea, the thing, from the general formlessness of the outside . . .

“Poet, like carver, releases form from the bonds of formlessness: he brings it forth into consciousness. He must reveal form in order to protest against a universe that is formless, and the form he reveals should be beautiful.”

It is this protest that particularly interests me. Again, the parallels with the worldview of the ancient Hebrews are striking to me – but that’s probably just because I’ve spent so much time puzzling over the Hebrew Bible, at once so foundational and so alien to our civilization. Although many thinkers and scholars whom I deeply respect have singled out this sense of protest against the natural order of things as a unique feature of Biblical religion, I think it is almost universal. Virtually all belief systems include some version of an atemporal utopia, for example. Nor is the notion of a transcendent deity so unique: implicit in the very concept of the sacred is the notion of that which exceeds our grasp. The sacred is, everywhere, what prohibits our approach, and everywhere the appropriate response is primal fear/awe/wonder.

Does this mean that humans must forever bow their heads in abject submission to the All? Hell no. “The secret of conquering a world greater than himself is not known to the Eskimo [or to us, I would add]. But his role is not passive. He reveals form; he cancels nothingness.

“Eskimos seem to be saying that nature is there, but man alone can free it from its dormant state; that it requires a creative human act before the world explored becomes a world revealed; that the universe acquires form, ‘existence,’ only through man the revealer: he who releases life inherent in nature and guides its expression into beautiful forms.” Here, my relative ignorance of Inuit mythology makes me unable to effectively critique this. But I strongly suspect that shamans, carvers and singers are themselves enacting a becoming-more-alive by identifying with certain mythic beings. Among the Tikigaq of Point Hope, Alaska, for example, male and female shamans identify respectively with the first shaman and the earth crone/maiden who brought him about. Together they slay a whale-like sea monster (shades of the Babylonian Tiamat or Leviathan) and shape the world from its carcass. (Tom Lowenstein talks about this in the introduction to “Two Stories from Tigikaq,” in Coming to Light. His book Ancient Land: Sacred Whale[Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1993] is on my reading list.)

The idea of human co-creation of the world is not completely foreign to the Western tradition. Lurianic Kabbalah is an especially rich vein for this kind of thinking: the goal of the human being is to uncover and elevate holy sparks left over from the original Creation. Abraham Isaac Kook, in The Lights of Holiness (Orot Hakodesh) maintained that “We raise these scattered sparks and arrange them into worlds, constructed within us, in our private and social lives. In proportion to the sparks we raise, our lives are enriched.” Here he is talking more of moral action, of course. If there is a fundamental difference between the Biblical worldview and that of peoples like the Inuit, it is precisely in this sense of the commingling of natural and moral law. Recall the shaman Aua (quoted in yesterday’s post): taboos just are. They are not meant to be just.

Which is not to say that Inuit lack a concept of right behavior: far from it. I wonder how the recently Christianized Inuit have assimilated our notions of justice and divine goodness? Often I tend toward the Daoist view that if a society has to codify rules of behavior, something’s already wrong!

For Rabbi Kook, Creation is both holy and daunting: “We cannot identify the abundant vitality within all living beings, from the smallest to the largest, nor the hidden vitality enfolded within inanimate creation. Everything constantly flows, vibrates, and aspires. Nor can we estimate our own inner abundance. Our inner world is sealed and concealed, linked to a hidden something, a world that is not our world, not yet perceived or probed.

“Everything teems with richness, everything aspires to ascend and be purified. Everything sings, celebrates, serves, develops, uplifts, aspires to be arranged in oneness.” (Translated by Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah, Castle Books, 1997)

What’s different here is context. I mean, literal contextualization: the making and unmaking of world as text. (And at risk of sounding even more ridiculously pretentious: the worlding and unworlding of the text. The analogizing of word to Word and back again, which Kenneth Burke says is a fundamental religious trope.) One specific difference is the cultural preference for unity as opposed to diversity. Recall Phyllis Morrow’s statement about the multiplicity of words for the soul among the Yupiit. Among some groups, apparently, this multiplicity was more than linguistic. “The souls of people, and some animals, were, like so much in the Tikigaq cosmos, multiple and composite. Tikigaq people believed there were three human souls . . . ”

I’m quoting now from the aforementioned Ancient Land: Sacred Whale, which I just went and fetched from my father’s library. I can see that there is much meat here for further digestion:

“‘Tikigaq nuna,’ an old man told me, ‘isn’t real land. At the moment of creation, the land was something else: the animal.’

“This is nigrun, the animal that was, and which still becomes, nuna [land] . . . [T]he mythic process is never complete. The land-whale myth takes place ‘back then’ (taimmani), but back then time, so long as people go on telling stories, is also present and continuous. Myth events are real. ‘The stories,’ storytellers never tired of saying, ‘are true!’ Acts of creation survive in stories. But to keep this life going each generation must repeat the stories and enact them in rituals.”

Where should we be looking, then, for the inner forms, the sparks, the templates of original creation? Has this little exercise in exegesis really been anything more than a pleasant diversion from the exigencies of the day? It’s a whale of a problem, all right, but I think the quarry is becoming a little clearer with every cut of the knife. One can almost begin to see where best to look: right between the one and the many, Infinity and One!

Here I stand,
Humble, with outstretched arms,
For the spirit of the air
Lets glorious food sink down to me.

– Copper River Inuit, from “Religious Hymn to be Sung Wearing a Head Decoration of the Skin of the Great Northern Diver”

Time for some breakfast.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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