I’m spreading the second coat of varnish, moving the paintbrush to the beat of my old boombox and wondering if that might be just the magic needed to ensure a danceable floor. It already possesses a kind of visual music: a metronome in one direction, since all the floorboards are the same width, but at right angles to the grain, the very shallow grooves left by the floor sander every time I paused it, made visible by the varnish, form a more varied but still somewhat regular pattern: step step rest. Step step rest.
Strange stuff, polyurethane — paint without pigment, its presence detectable only by the gloss and extra depth it imparts to surfaces. Like some people’s idea of God, I suppose. And maybe because I just “got down on my bended knees” myself, my old cassette copy of the song Burning Hell, by John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat, seems like a perfect fit right now.
The appealing thing about the song is that the narrator’s skepticism is wholly focused on the afterlife; there’s no mention of God or devil, though one could certainly argue that their non-existence is implied:
Ain’t no heaven,
ain’t no burning hell.
When I die, where I go,
nobody can tell.
The song is culturally if not theologically Christian, borrowing imagery and a vocal delivery from the charismatic churches. The protagonist asks a deacon to pray for him, and also prays himself, all night long, in the spirit of “help Thou my unbelief.” But apparently it doesn’t do any good: there’s no epiphany, the prayer goes unanswered, and the song concludes as skeptically as it began.
The funny thing is that it doesn’t come off as despairing at all, but defiant and ultimately joyful. John Lee Hooker certainly didn’t invent the style of blues known as boogie, but his concept of it was fairly unique: verses of varying length, as much spontaneity as possible in verbal and musical lines, and an overall impression of songs as mere fragments of something essentially endless. Many of Hooker’s songs are more laid-back than “Burning Hell,” but all of them tap into the same, hypnotic groove, for lack of a better term.
I’ve loved that groove ever since I first heard it, which may be as much as thirty years ago, when my older brother first started playing clawhammer banjo. Though now associated with Appalachian string band music, it’s the old, African style of playing, featuring a bum-ditty beat with the thumb hammering out a drone note. Some sort of drone occurs in many, perhaps most, styles of traditional music the world over, especially those influenced by contact with Islam and the muezzin’s call to prayer — certainly the case with most musical traditions brought to the New World by West Africans. Even the explicit focus on drones in Indian classical music dates back only to the Mogul period, though its subsequent popularity on the subcontinent probably also reflects indigenous metaphysical concepts. According to an online paper on the subject, “the function of the drone or tonicizing ground in Indian classical music is rooted in the ancient Hindu philosophies: it is the physical manifestation of OM.”
So while “Burning Hell” celebrates spiritual homelessness, Hooker’s droning boogie guitar groove is anything but OMless.
Given the title of this blog, I’m sure you’d all be disappointed if I didn’t go on to point out that doubt is a very fruitful position. In fact, I do think about this sort of thing a lot, but have moved away from blogging about it because I don’t feel I have too many original insights on the subject. All I know is that for me, affiliation with some spiritual tradition or another is an on-going temptation I feel I must resist if I am ever to learn anything about reality, whatever that may consist of. As I’ve said before, one of my base assumptions is that if some doctrine or dogma makes me feel good, it can’t possibly be true. “Ain’t no heaven, ain’t no burning hell” has the appeal of a good mantra for me, teaching non-attachment to the self — something that most of the major religions also agree is a good thing, though perhaps only in the same way that Marxist-Leninism preaches the ultimate disappearance of the state.
At any rate, despite spending half an hour sweeping and vacuuming in advance of the varnishing, I’m still finding a few stray bits of dirt as I go along — a fragment of leaf, a hair, a small piece of broomstraw. I could get up and carry them over to the waste basket in the other room, but that would break the rhythm, so instead I shove them into my pocket. The really tiny grains of dirt can be pushed into the cracks between the floorboards, where 150 years of accumulated crud has acquired the status and patina of a deliberately applied grout. I’m reminded of the ancient riddle, quoted by Heraclitus:
What we found, we caught and killed.
What we couldn’t find, we brought with us.
The accepted answer is lice, but it could be almost anything. Atheists and believers both could probably take a lesson from it.