A walk in the fog

What I love about language
is what I love about fog:
what comes between us and things
grants them their shine.

Mark Doty, “Fog Suite” (See V.N. Dec. 28, “Deeply Superficial”)

Too much happens to ever get it all down. The writer has a running bet with God that he can turn any base metals into gold. I will sacrifice my health and even my privacy; I will bare my soul to the world. Sometimes I even long for a device that would read my thoughts and automatically convert them into text. How many of us who blog wouldn’t jump at the chance to have a computer chip implanted in our brains? Something that would convert every verbalized thought into digital form for eventual download and editing.

Walking in the fog, I can’t help thinking about editing. As every Chinese landscape painter knows, there’s nothing like a little blank space in the middle of the canvas to make the romantic heart go pitter-pat. No wonder lovers feel as if they’re walking in a cloud. Without such selective vision, how could anyone fall in love?

The mountain sounds different in the fog. Nearby noises may be muffled or echo strangely; distant sounds may be amplified. Red-winged blackbirds fly over, invisible but for their calls. On the road to the Far Field, a pileated woodpecker lets me pass within a few feet of the snag where he beats out his baritone ostinato. I can hear two men talking in the valley, dogs and cars and quarry trucks, a ruffed grouse drumming off in the laurel. When I get back to the house the juvenile red-tailed hawk takes off from the vicinity of my front porch, setting off a chorus of alarm calls from all the gray squirrels in the vicinity. Although it’s 7:00 a.m., a screech owl is still trilling – an odd addition to the chorus of song sparrows, cardinals, bluebirds and juncos. A single blackbird seems to have alighted in a nearby treetop. The call of this most common of birds is unusual enough on a dry mountaintop to excite my admiration.

Things look different inside a cloud, too, and not just because of the loss of distance, the sudden drawing-near of the horizon. This morning, for example, I noticed that the distinction between vines and tree trunks had suddenly grown much more arbitrary. A tall skinny sapling can have as many crooks and bends as a wild grapevine. No longer even did they appear as different ways of reaching for the sky, since the sky was now here. My gaze was drawn to the pure form; the illusion of individual purpose had dissolved. It’s too early for spiders, but you know what fog can do to their webs, right? It felt like that: everything glistened. Touch one part and everything will vibrate.

In the dawn light, trees turned deep blue at a little distance. Up close, the trunks shone in a half-dozen shades of green and grayish blue, as lichens threw open all their doors and windows. The trail gleamed, a bright ribbon of yellow-green moss. I was reminded of descriptions of the jeweled buddhaverse of Amida, as in the Pure Land Sutra: “And on every side of these lotus ponds jeweled trees are growing, lovely and radiant with the seven precious gems: gold, silver, beryl, crystal, red pearl, diamond and coral. In the lotus ponds the lotuses grow: blue, bluish, with a blue radiance, blue to behold . . . “

This briefest of excerpts narrowly avoids the endless repetitions that make Buddhist scriptures so tedious to read. I remind myself that they were written for a largely illiterate audience, and were intended to be committed to memory. Absolute novelty is not as memorable as we may think. Indeed, the mind has difficulty even interpreting – let alone memorizing – things too far outside its experience. Thus for the supremely strange Pure Land, created to provide a short-cut to enlightenment for the non-intellectual and the illiterate, only a very repetitive description can permit its assimilation by the habit-bound imagination.

In Japanese, as in Chinese, the ancient Sanskrit invocation Namo Amitabha Buddha became an almost unintelligible spell, na-mu-a-mi-da-boots. Namu does sound like a Japanese verb, and is typically interpreted as such – “I invoke,” “I trust/depend upon,” or even “I become.” Given that verbs bring up the rear in ordinary Japanese sentences, however, the effect would be something like, “I become, Amida Buddha.” But at the same time, the whole phrase is thought of as Amida’s Name. Most Pure Land Buddhists repeat this mantra hundreds of thousands of times over the course of their lives. But theoretically, at least for members of the largest Japanese Pure Land sect, Jodoshinshu, it only takes one, completely heartfelt repetition of the spell to guarantee rebirth among the gem-trees and lotuses, where all ordinary impediments to enlightenment are removed.


I’m currently reading Walter J. Ong’s ground-breaking book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (Routledge, 1982), about which I’m sure I will have much more to say in the coming days and months. Ong summarizes a vast amount of material, much of which is new to me and almost all of which has bearing on the sorts of questions I’ve been concerned with here at Via Negativa. Today, I want to consider his analysis of how the world is understood by illiterate people and by people in mostly or entirely oral cultures.

“Without writing, words as such have no visual presence . . . They are sounds . . . To learn what a primary oral culture is and what the nature of our problem is regarding such a culture, it helps first to reflect on the nature of sound as sound. All sensation takes place in time, but sound has a special relationship to time unlike that of the other fields that register human sensation. Sound exists only when it is going out of existence. It is not simply perishable but essentially evanescent, and it is sensed as evanescent. When I pronounce the word ‘permanence’, by the time I get to the ‘-nence’, the ‘perma-‘ is gone, and has to be gone.

“There is no way to stop sound and have sound. I can stop a moving picture camera and hold one frame fixed on the screen. If I stop the movement of sound, I have nothing – only silence, no sound at all. All sensation takes place in time, but no other sensory field totally resists a holding action, stabilization, in quite this way. Vision can register motion, but it can also register immobility. Indeed, it favors immobility, for to examine something closely by vision, we prefer to have it quiet. . . .

“For anyone who has a sense of what sound means in a primary oral culture, or in a culture not far removed from primary orality, it is not surprising that the Hebrew term dabar means ‘word’ and ‘event’. Malinowski has made the point that among ‘primitive’ (oral) people generally language is a mode of action and not just a countersign of thought . . . Neither is it surprising that oral peoples commonly, and perhaps universally, consider words to have great power. A hunter can see a buffalo, smell, taste and touch a buffalo when the buffalo is completely inert, even dead, but if he hears a buffalo, he better watch out: something is going on. In this sense, all sound, and especially all oral utterance, which comes from inside living organisms, is ‘dynamic.’

“The fact that oral peoples commonly and in all likelihood universally consider words to have magical potency is clearly tied in, at least unconsciously, with the sense of the word as necessarily spoken, sounded, and hence power-driven. Deeply typographic folk forget to think of words as primarily oral, as events, and hence as necessarily powered: for them, words tend rather to be assimilated to things, ‘out there’ on a flat surface.”

Toward the end of the same chapter (“Some psychodynamics of orality”), Ong mentions that, in addition to its evanescence, “Other characteristics of sound also determine or influence oral psychodynamics. The principal one . . . is the unique relationship of sound to interiority when sound is compared to the rest of the senses. This relationship is important because of the interiority of human consciousness and of human communication itself.”

What might we make of using sound, in the form of charged words, to try and actualize a highly visual and essentially static buddhaverse – the inverse of our own “impure” world? Ong’s treatment seems to shed a little light, if you’ll pardon the expression. “To test the physical interior of an object as interior,” he continues, “no sense works so directly as sound. The human sense of sight is adapted best to light diffusely reflected from surfaces . . . A source of light, such as a fire, may be intriguing but it is optically baffling: the eye cannot get a ‘fix’ on anything within the fire. Similarly, a translucent object, such as alabaster, is intriguing because, although it is not a source of light, the eye cannot get a ‘fix’ on it either.”

Thus the radiant and gem-studded Pure Land is designed to baffle and intrigue, to lure and refuse hold. Without the sound of bells and the cries of birds of paradise, it might refuse all entrance to the mind. For our visual perception of depth, Ong says, is limited. “Depth can be perceived by the eye, but most satisfactorily as a series of surfaces: the trunks of trees in a grove, for example, or chairs in an auditorium. The eye does not perceive an interior strictly as an interior: inside a room, the walls it perceives are still surfaces, outsides.” Here I am reminded of Mark Doty’s eloquent defense of light-diffusing surfaces as containing a kind of depth of their own. (Has anyone ever thought to compare Doty’s notion of the salvific effects of shimmer, glitter and radiance with the visualization-based soteriology of Pure Land texts?)

“Taste and smell are not much help in registering interiority or exteriority. Touch is. But touch partly destroys interiority in the process of perceiving it. If I wish to discover by touch whether a box is empty or full, I have to make a hole in the box to insert a hand or finger: this means that the box is to that extent open, to that extent less an interior.

“Hearing can register interiority without violating it. I can rap a box to find out whether it is empty or full or a wall to find out whether it is hollow or solid inside. Or I can ring a coin to find out if it is silver or lead.

“Sounds all register the interior structure of whatever it is that produces them . . .

“Sight isolates, sound incorporates. Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance, sound pours into the hearer. Vision dissects, as Merleau-Ponty has observed. Vision comes to a human being from one direction at a time: to look at a room or at a landscape, I must move my eyes around from one part to another. When I hear, however, I gather sound from every direction at once: I am at the center of my auditory world, which envelops me, establishing me at a kind of core of sensation and existence . . .You can immerse yourself in hearing, in sound. There is no way to immerse yourself in vision.” Now, of course, I picture myself back among the trees, immersed in sound-filled cloud.

Whereas vision dissects, Ong maintains, “The auditory ideal . . . is harmony, a putting together.” To avoid undue Western bias, I would add here that “harmony” might be understood to include all forms of musical coherence. Phenomenologically speaking, syncopation may be more fundamental than harmony per se.

“Interiority and harmony are characteristics of human consciousness . . . What is ‘I’ to me is only ‘you’ to you. And this ‘I’ incorporates experience into itself by ‘getting it all together.’ Knowledge is ultimately not a fractioning but a unifying phenomenon, a striving for harmony. Without harmony, an interior condition, the psyche is in bad health.”

Now to return to the question of how pre-literate people may receive the religious or magical word – and what those of us who are immersed in the garden of the text might be missing. “In a primary oral culture, where the word has its existence only in sound . . . the phenomenology of sound enters deeply into human beings’ feel for existence, as possessed by the spoken word. For the way in which the word is experienced is always momentous in psychic life. The centering aspect of sound . . . affects man’s sense of the cosmos. For oral cultures, the cosmos is an ongoing event with man at its center. Man is the umbilicus mundi, the navel of the world.” Namo Amitabha Buddha!


There remains the matter of editing, of the Pure Land apart from this present, impure one. I have written elsewhere, from an environmental and aesthetic perspective, on the emptiness of the very idea of garbage. (See The Art of Living.) To produce garbage is to sin against the original wholeness and purity of mind. If words are, as Ong suggests, fundamentally evanescent, perhaps our Quixotic attempts to freeze and isolate them are precisely where waste is generated? Recall the possibility I threw out at the beginning of this post: a “bug” that could read and record our verbalized thoughts, the ones we speak silently with perhaps only the faintest motion of lips and tongue. Imagine how much would have to be discarded to make any of it cohere (or harmonize, as Mr. Ong would say)!

But imagine that I could do this editing as I walked, using a completely verbal computer language. This too – all the instructions to the computer – would be discarded or invisible in the eventual (or nearly simultaneous) text. Indeed, from the writer’s vantagepoint all hypertext (as in html) is waste material, is it not? Not for nothing did “garbage in, garbage out” become the mantra of the technorati.

To read to oneself is to become isolated – to edit out the world. “Because in its physical constitution as sound, the spoken word proceeds from the human interior and manifests human beings to one another as conscious interiors, as persons, the spoken word forms human beings into close-knit groups. When a speaker is addressing an audience, the members of the audience normally become a unity, with themselves and with the speaker . . .

“The interiorizing force of the oral word relates in a special way to the sacral, to the ultimate concerns of existence. In most religions the spoken [or sung, or chanted] word functions integrally in ceremonial and devotional life. Eventually in the larger world religions sacred texts develop too, in which the sense of the sacral is attached also to the written word. Still, a textually supported religious tradition can continue to authenticate the primacy of the oral in many ways. In Christianity, for example, the Bible is read aloud at liturgical services. For God is thought of always as ‘speaking’ to human beings, not as writing to them. The orality of the mindset in the Biblical text, even in the epistolary sections, is overwhelming . . . ‘Faith comes through hearing,’ we read in the Letter to the Romans (10:17). ‘The letter kills, the spirit [breath, on which rides the spoken word] gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3:6).” (The parenthetical interpretation is Ong’s.)

The letter kills, the spoken word revives. Hmmm, I don’t know. The fog is thickening . . .

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