Dave Bonta

This is something else that intrigues me. There are a myriad versions of the self-curse, usually beginning with (and sometimes going no further than) “Well, I’ll be . . . ” The biblical commandment refers only to using the name of God in vain . . . which often leads me to wonder whether selfish, petitionary prayers — the staple of TV ministries — may not, in fact, be blasphemous! (What could be more vain, more of a presumption and an offense against the divine will, than praying for a new SUV?)

Let’s remember the original point of this commandment: to ensure divine sovereignty/autonomy by situating the deity beyond all human control. In the magico-religious worldview, ritual naming – invoking – is a fundamental assertion of power over the being or object named. Hence YHWH’s bullshitting answer to the soon-to-be wizard Moses at the burning bush: “I will be who I will be. Tell them I Will Be has sent you!” To regard the wagering of oneself also as a transgression would seem to involve the slightly unorthodox notion of the God within.

Job’s wife’s utterance is powerful precisely because of this kind of ambiguity. In an age that could not conceive of atheism, the worst one could do was to invite one’s own damnation. But this was also an age without the belief in an afterlife reward for the virtuous. God favors his chosen with the promise of innumerable descendents. So is Job’s wife really advising him to court damnation? He will go down to Sheol one way or another, and God has already killed off all his heirs. Any possibility of further blessings thus seems already out of the question.

Pious people have always had a huge problem with Job. He is in the end rewarded for talking back to God, and his friends are severely chastised because they insist on mouthing pieties! Job’s God asserts for all time that the ultimate heresy is presuming to pass judgement in God’s stead, which encompasses, finally, any definitive statement about “life, the universe, and everything!”

Scholars maintain that the prologue and epilogue derive from the folk tradition, the remainder being the work of a master poet. Thus, in the prologue Job gives one answer to his wife, and over the course of the dialogues with his companions, a very different answer. But obviously the composer/poet left the preliminary answer intact for a reason. What at first seems to be submission to the will of a transcendent, unknowable deity is transformed into an unflinching belief in one’s own innocence and integrity — even against God Himself.

The prominent old testament scholar Marvin H. Pope, in his Job volume for the Anchor Bible, says that the passage Christians have traditionally understood as an anachronistic reference to Jesus — “I know my Redeemer liveth” in the King James Version — is in reality a plea for a lawyer. Well, I’ll be damned!

In my mind (and maybe in reality, who knows?) the beginning of the via negativa in the West has its roots in the anti-authoritarianism of the ancient Hebrews, who gave us first the prophets, then the great wisdom literature of Job, Ecclesiastes, certain psalms, and of course the Proverbs. The process of redaction involved — among many other things — the principle that context could alter content, sometimes by 180 degrees. Pagan hymns such as Psalms 19 and 104 and the Song of Songs were not shunned, but captured and converted. Popular sayings were elevated by inclusion within aristocratic compositions about the ineffable.

A fascinating article from a recent issue of the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament (27:2, Dec. 2002, 223-235), by Laura Joffe, references Douglas Adams in its title, “The Answer to the Meaning of Life, the Universe and the Elohistic Psalter.” (In Adams’ comic novel Life, the Universe and Everything, the answer to the meaning of life is revealed to be . . . 42!) Here’s the abstract. (Apotropaic means ‘designed to avert evil.’)

“This article asks why the Elohistic Psalter (Pss. 42-83) was commissioned. It is suggested that the Elohistic Psalter was constructed in order to invoke a ‘magic triangle’ (comprising God’s name, the number 42, and a blessing) for some apotropaic purpose. It is argued that this theory gains credence from two areas: first, the importance of numerical organization of large groups of Psalms; and, second, the history of the number 42, which in biblical times was a number of disaster, and in later Jewish tradition became associated with a protective name of God.”

I’m no big fan of numerology, but toward the end of the article Joffe gets at a point that has always been of great interest to me: “How does the biblical curse of 42 relate to the Elohistic Psalter — the blessing of 42? Blessing and cursing themselves are closely related concepts, often mentioned together (Deut. 11.26-28; Josh. 8.34; Ps. 109.17-18; Prov. 27.14). In the prose prologue to Job, the same root [Hebrew letters given] serves for both blessing (1.21) and cursing (1.5, 11; 2.5).”

So in Job’s famous renunciation speech — “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” — may we hear a little ambiguity, even irony, in that “blessed”? It’s even more a matter of interpretation with Job’s wife’s sole speaking part. In light of this new information, I would advocate switching “curse” to “bless” in the translation, enhancing the bitterness with sarcasm: “Then his wife spoke up and said, “Why do you still cling to your faith? Bless God and die.”

Joffe continues with other examples from the Old Testament, concluding, “The curse of 42 that invoked the name of God could be effectively warded off by a blessing that also involved 42 and the name of God.” In a footnote, she wisely points out that “Using like to fight like features highly in both the ancient and modern worlds. The eye that protects against the evil eye, homeopathic medicine and immunization, are all examples of the same thing.”

“GodDAMN!” one may say with the utmost reverence, upon seeing something particularly striking (usually a woman). The simplest invocation of all — “Oh, God!” — may operate as both blessing and mild oath at the same time, depending on the circumstances: for example, in the throes of sexual rapture.

This will get us into the even murkier territory of distinguishing between sacred and profane, if we go any further. Best to leave it alone for now.

In Rabbinical Judaism, hermeneutics – deep reading and critical analysis – became the explicit substitute for the act of sacrifice. The connection, I take it, is that both are discriminatory. In Christianity, sacrifice continues, but in a more sublimated form: the rite of eucharist. In both cases, the tendancy is away from violence.

Pueblo religion transformed the bloody sacrificial traditions of greater Mesoamerica in a similarly ingeneous fashion. Prayers are animated, given shape, by carved and feathered prayer sticks fashioned by the petitioner himself, or in the case of a woman by her husband. They are, in fact, effigies of the petitioner. Their use is phenomenologically similar to the act of crossing oneself.

It is at this crossroads in the self that the most important sacrifice is enacted.

Every nation-state is built around an altar; ours is no different. But I am not sure what to think about altared states of being: the bull that turned into a god in the ancient Near East, the Mesoamerican serpent demanding that the whole world shed its skin. Like so many moderns, I prefer the living with their claws and hooves, their manes and humps and barbs, their scales, their feathers. When I eat them, it is not for power. At most I might sketch their shadows, I might dream of trading colors for a world of scent. I have no ambition to don a theurgist’s cloak or wield a jewel-encrusted letter-opener to read a supposed message from another supposed world: this one’s enough. To suck the marrow yet would be too much. I don’t taste half of what I eat.

We can’t let things get too far along without quoting Dickinson. From R.W. Franklin’s Reading Edition (as opposed to the Variorum), The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Belknap Press/Harvard, 1999), p. 392:

Finding is the first Act
The second, loss,
Third, Expedition for the “Golden Fleece”

Fourth, no Discovery –
Fifth, no Crew –
Finally, no Golden Fleece –
Jason, sham, too –

Here’s one more by Celan. I hope this qualifies as “fair use.” I give it in its entirety because it may well serve as the motto for this whole exercise, and because I am hoping that maybe one or two people who are NOT lit-crit types or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school elitists will feel inspired to seek out Celan’s work.

Speak, You Also

Speak, you also,
speak as the last,
have your say.

Speak —
But keep yes and no unsplit.
And give your say this meaning:
give it the shade.

Give it shade enough,
give it as much
as you know has been dealt out between
midnight and midday and midnight.

Look around:
look how it all leaps alive —
where death is! Alive!
He speaks truly who speaks the shade.

But now shrinks the place where you stand:
Where now, stripped by shade, will you go?
Upward. Grope your way up.
Thinner you grow, less knowable, finer.
Finer: a thread by which
it wants to be lowered, the star:
to float farther down, down below
where it sees itself gleam: in the swell
of wandering words.

(Hamburger, Poems of Paul Celan, 101.)

So along with love and laughter, let us add paradox and ambiguity to our armory. It is nowhere near as easy to distinguish the mystic from the nihilist as I implied a moment ago. Paul Celan may be our best 20th-century witness to this ambiguity:

Praised be your name, no one.
For your sake
we shall flower.
Towards
you.

Gelobt seist du, Niemand.
Dir zulieb wollen
wir bluhn.
Dir
entgegen.

–“Psalm,” translated by Michael Hamburger (Poems of Paul Celan, Persea Books, 1995, 178/179). The whole poem is available elsewhere on the web, in an inferior translation. Keep in mind that Celan was Jewish, had lost both his parents in the holocaust, and wrote in the language of their destroyers — or, in fact, invented his own German, according to Hamburger’s introduction. “The seemingly negative theology of his great poem ‘Psalm’ has been shown to have antecedents in both Jewish and Christian mysticism, and Celan is known to have been well versed in both . . . Celan’s religion — and there can be no doubt as to his profoundly religious sensibility, whatever he may have believed or not believed — had to come to grips with the experience of being God-forsaken.” (31).

Blake also maintained that “There is No Natural Religion,” which I take to mean (in part) that all religious expressions are profoundly cultural. They grow out of unique revelations, in response to the particularities of geography, history, and social setting. It is demeaning both to religion and to Nature to imply otherwise. Of equal importance, in my opinion, is the realization that there is no such thing as a primitive religion, unless it be the religion of a five-year-old or a simpleton. Anthropologists know this well, but have done a poor job of communicating it to the general public. In fact, the belief systems encountered in so-called indigenous or village settings are often vastly most complex and sophisticated than the would-be universal religions.

From the Yoruba tradition, here is a praise-song for Eshu, the god of fate, translated by Ulli Beier in his wonderful book Yoruba Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 1970) and reprinted in The Penguin Book of Oral Poetry (ed. by Ruth Finnegan, 1978. Page 150).

Eshu, the god of fate

Eshu turns right into wrong, wrong into right.
When he is angry, he hits a stone until it bleeds.
When he is angry, he sits on the skin of an ant.
When he is angry, he weeps tears of blood.
Eshu slept in the house –
But the house was too small for him.
Eshu slept on the veranda –
But the veranda was too small for him.
Eshu slept in a nut –
At last he could stretch himself.
Eshu walked through the ground-nut farm.
The tuft of his head was just visible.
If it had not been for his huge size,
He would not be visible at all.
Lying down, his head hits the roof.
Standing up, he cannot look into the cooking-pot.
He throws a stone today
and hits a bird yesterday.

Nothing is for sale here. When I say free I mean untrammeled, unrestrained, self-owned, of inherent value, beyond price. Free love, that old anarchist shibboleth: how quickly in a capitalist society it comes to mean “love without any emotional investment!”

Reductionism is the handmaiden of power: in the law, in modern medicine, in the applied sciences, in finance. Thus, at the heart of power is a great nullity. Not the fertile mystery of the via negativa, much less the zero of mathematicians, but an absolute (and therefore lying) zero. A wanting that can never be satisfied. (In almost every society where people fear witchcraft/sorcery, they understand it to derive from an excess of envy.)

To the reductionist’s “nothing more than” I counter with “nothing less than.” This is a fundamental distinction. Every being is a mystery, and we are each mysterious to ourselves. The reason is simple: “Time and chance happeneth to them all.” (Why doesn’t every MacIntosh apple tree look exactly like every other? After all, they are perfect clones!)

After Nagasaki, after the holocaust? The nothingness of absolutism will continue to envelop worlds as long as it is not countered with love and laughter. We are in the middle of the sixth great extinction event. More than ever, we need to make ourselves vulnerable to the not-always-tender mercies of the cosmic trickster, the god who laughs at himself. Coyote. Job’s nemesis.

Blake’s motto from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell still hits home:

How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?

I am not a profoundly original thinker, merely a good synthesist. Syncretism is always a temptation I must work to avoid: a decent respect for the integrity of different peoples and their traditions demands it. (Which is not to say that creolism or mestizaje is something to be scorned — far from it!)

I’m hoping this format, which favors shorter expressions, will encourage precision. Unbloggerlike, I want to write not the way I talk but in a slightly more controlled fashion. Most important, to write in anticipation of response, and therefore to leave quite a bit unsaid. (Free hosting at blogspot.com so far precludes a response form, but I’m hoping that will come. In the meantime, feel free to e-mail me.)