“Here’s the thing,” he said, and proceeded to outline an abstract situation. The vernacular always insists upon concreteness.


As my grandfather aged, his memory for the names of things and of people grew poorer and poorer. “Take the, the thingyou know – and give it to that woman!” would be a typical communication. His speech grew as cryptic and open to interpretation as the utterances of an oracle. The thing, that woman: though the particulars escaped him, he held tight to the facticity of life. He clung to life, too, because the whole notion of an afterlife always seemed suspiciously mystical to him, religious (and otherwise orthodox) as he was.


“It’s raining cats and dogs!” It’s interesting how a purely formal “it” that doesn’t even rise to the level of an abstraction can be presumed responsible for such outrageous acts of violence against household pets.


“Literally”: figuratively, as in “The stream was literally alive with fish,” or “His eloquence literally swept the audience from its feet.” These examples are courtesy of Ambrose Bierce,Write it Right. It’s easy to understand why a linguistic prescriptivist like Bierce would be so outraged by this all-too-common subversion of the meaning of literal meaning. “Write it right”: there’s only one way to do things. But vernacular speech will readily abandon semantic precision in favor of maximal playfulness and color.


“Biblical inerrancy”: a doctrine that imputes to the Christian Bible the unique property of lending itself only to one kind of interpretation – my own. These interpretations are said to be literal, operating on the assumption that whatever words and phrases mean to me is exactly the same as what they have meant to all people throughout history. For this to be possible despite the vagaries of linguistic change and the necessity of translation, the device of divine inspiration is trotted out. But if such inspiration is available to all sincere believers, why do we need to insist on doctrinal rigidity in the first place? Biblical inerrancy thus constitutes a hermeneutics of suspicion, even paranoia, predicated on a complete lack of trust in one’s fellow human beings. Can anyone so lacking in trust really be considered a person of faith? I can’t help thinking that the advocates of Biblical inerrancy and other forms of fundamentalism are the enemies of true religion. For such people, belief is a simple matter of unthinking obedience. Revelation is confused with the unfolding of power, a making so rather than a making whole.* They love Big Brother.


To the authors of the Bible, believing in superficialities and placing one’s trust in mere words are the primary attributes of the fool:

Lying lips cover over hatred, and a fool utters slander.
Proverbs 10:18

The heart of the righteous meditates on its answer, and the mouth of fools babbles forth evil.
Proverbs 15:28

The heart of the wise seeks out knowledge, the mouth of fools pursues foolishness.
Proverbs 15:14

(Translations by James Kugel, from The Great Poems of the Bible, The Free Press, 1999.)

But though believers have an obligation to seek out wisdom, the inner meanings of some things are inaccessible.

There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not:
The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.

Proverbs 30:18-19 (KJV)


I can’t help wondering what a Biblical literalist would make of the preceding passage. Three or four, which is it? Are we to presume that only the first three of the four “things” listed are “too wonderful”? And if so, are we meant to suppose that “the way of a man with a maid” is just wonderful enough?

(Well, it’s enough for me!)

*This is a slight modification of something I wrote here in a recent comments thread.

Here’s an entrepreneur who should be an inspiration to us all.

Of course, the idea of making art from garbage is nothing new. Back in March, I wrote about a Senegalese Sufi sect that takes the art of recycling to a whole new level. In that essay, I suggested that biological existence is largely a matter of recycling, and that culturally speaking, we are what we discard. But art should really be a verb, not a noun. Once you finish with that big ol’ apple, what will you do with the core?

In the generally confused condition of society at that time, many diverse and some dubious enterprises were linked with the cause of religion. One electrical appliance dealer founded a sect called Denshin-kyô (Religion of the Electricity God), dedicated to the worship of its eponymous deity and Thomas Alva Edison. Another sect, called Kôdôji-kyô, was organized specifically for the purpose of tax evasion. The founder, a man knowledgeable in the law, saw an opportunity under the then existing legislation to register any business enterprise as a religious juridical person and thus gain exemption from the payment of income taxes. For instance, the owner of a restaurant could call his business a church and could say that its purpose was to propagate the teaching that “life is religion.” His customers would be devotees. The satisfaction of hunger would be salvation. Money received would be offerings made by the faithful in gratitude for salvation. Ergo, the restaurateur really would receive no income, hence he need not pay income taxes. This idea proved so attractive to business proprietors that for about two years (1947-1948), the founder was the head of a thriving organization that licensed as churches a wide range of enterprises, including restaurants, dress shops, art shops, beauty salons, and even brothels. Needless to say, the law was amended to close these loopholes.

H. Neill McFarland, The Rush Hour of the Gods: A Study of the New Religious Movements in Japan (Harper, 1967)

Graceful living in itself is a noble art: slovenly and neglectful of such things as I tend to be, I am full of admiration for those who can consistently convert the spaces where they live and work into places where the mind is engaged and delighted at every turn. I think of the descriptions I have read of Neruda’s house on Isla Negra, full of charismatic objects from a lifetime of collecting, the rafters covered with inscriptions from his many visitors. Somewhere he had acquired a taxidermist’s mount of an entire horse, and he set it right in the middle of the largest room – an example of flagrantly bad taste that never failed to appall visitors from Venezuela, he said in his memoirs. But given their national obsession with so-called beauty contests, I can’t help wondering: what the hell do Venezuelans know about beauty?

“I want a city of my own,” my friend L. said yesterday. She had been dreaming of a large barn that she could clean up and convert into an artist’s workshop. The point, as I understand it, is not to aspire to some sort of static perfection a la Martha Stewart, but to discover or create a space where one’s mood might shift with the movement of light across the walls and floor, a place hospitable to the mind’s eye. To have all the tools one needs, and nothing between one’s impulse to design and build and its realization. To move alone through such a space – and thereby, perhaps, to conquer loneliness?

. . . oh rosa seperada
del tronco del rosal despedazado
que la profundidad convertió en archipiélago,
oh estralla natural, diadema verde,
sola en tu solitaria dinastía . . .
(Pablo Neruda, La Rosa Seperada)

A city of my own: I think first of William Carlos Williams’ masterpiece Paterson, in which the river, the waterfall and the city of Paterson, New Jersey are merged into one, anthropomorphic being – the poet’s alter ego. But I had been thinking of Paterson anyway, as I hiked quickly through the ravines at Rickett’s Glen yesterday, a spot famous for its 22 spectacular waterfalls among the towering hemlocks and pines of an old-growth forest. For all his repetition of the maxim “No ideas but in things,” in all of the 250-odd pages of Paterson, does Williams ever once manage to convey any concrete impression of what the falls look, sound, smell and taste like? Do they ever rise above the level of self-consciously created myth and modernist symbol? Like the unicorn in the medieval tapestry that the poet invokes toward the end of the book, the Paterson Falls seem more of an object we are meant to admire than any real presence that might engage our senses. As Lawrence Ferlinghetti noted in a recent interview, shouldn’t we really be saying “No ideas but in beings“?

The sun
winding the yellow bindweed about a
bush; worms and gnats, life under a stone.
The pitiful snake with its mosaic skin
and frantic tongue. The horse, the bull
the whole din of fracturing thought
as it falls tinnily to nothing upon the streets
and the absurd dignity of a locomotive
hauling freight —
(William Carlos Williams, Paterson)

A city of one’s own: the parallel with the title of Virginia Woolf’s famous book got me thinking about the extent to which women might be able to achieve this quintessential male fantasy of the private workshop – the garage, basement or barn converted into just such a sanctum as my friend dreams about. Aside from artists, I wonder how many women do harbor dreams of this sort? For my mother, the woods and meadows of the square mile of mountaintop land she owns jointly with my father seem to be domain enough. Her 33-year engagement with this land has been both passionate and creative, yielding a stream of essays, articles and books. She frequently laments the absence of any interest in Nature among other women her age (mid 60s); most of her friends are younger.

A wind blew, from what quarter I knew not, but it lifted the half-grown leaves so there was a flash of silver-gray in the air. It was the time between the lights when the colours undergo their intensification and purples and golds burn in windowpanes like the beat of an excitable heart; when for some reason the beauty of the world revealed and yet soon to perish (here I pushed into the garden, for, unwisely, the door was left open and no beadles seemed about), the beauty of the world which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.
(Virginia Woolf, a Room of One’s Own)

If the behavior of small children is any guide, curiosity toward the natural world is inborn. So I can only suppose that women’s feeling of alienation from Nature is a result of internalized social norms and values, such as the perception of the outside as dirty, messy and – above all, perhaps – dangerous. But might the success of this conditioning derive in part from the very impulse to feel at home in the world? Given proper knowledge and appreciation of the natural world, there’s no reason why girls as well as boys can’t grow up with a finely honed appreciation of that which resists our attempts to neaten up and exert control.

. . . Had I lived in rural England before the nineteenth century, I might have gone out on St. John’s Eve (June 24) in search of fern seed, especially those of bracken. I would also have carried along twelve pewter plates. Under the first bracken I could find, I would have stacked the twelve plates and waited until midnight. At that time, it was believed, the invisible fern seeds would pass through the first eleven plates and land on the twelfth.

The twelfth plate’s seeds would confer magical powers on me. I, too, would be invisible. Even better, I would understand the language of wild animals.
(Marcia Bonta, Appalachian Summer)

I began by talking about “graceful living”: to me, this implies above all a sense of balance and harmony. Artists and naturalists alike can teach us how to recognize the grace that already suffuses the world without our intervention. Between the garden and the wilderness, it seems to me, we need not erect a barrier as stark as the ring of fencing that encloses the unicorn in the tapestry. But if we value our sanity, we must resist the impulse to civilize and manage every square inch of the back forty. Here’s a poem by Wendell Berry that frames the challenge as succinctly and eloquently as anything I’ve ever read.

To the Unseeable Animal

My daughter: “I hope there’s an animal
somewhere that nobody has ever seen.
And I hope nobody ever sees it.”

Being, whose flesh dissolves
at our glance, knower
of the secret sums and measures,
you are always here,
dwelling in the oldest sycamores,
visiting the faithful springs
when they are dark and the foxes
have crept to their edges.
I have come upon pools
in streams, places overgrown
with the woods’ shadow,
where I knew you had rested,
watching the little fish
hang still in the flow;
as I approached they seemed
particles of your clear mind
disappearing among the rocks.
I have walked deep in the woods
in the early morning, sure
that while I slept
your gaze passed over me.
That we do no know you
is your perfection
and our hope. The darkness
keeps us near you.

(Wendell Berry, Farming: A Handbook)


I see from Google that at least one individual claims that the aforementioned Rickett’s Glen harbors just such an unseen animal: the Rickett’s Glen Sasquatch.

I’ll be gone all weekend, so here’s a bonus post for today.

I’m reading Boiling Energy: Community Healing Among the Kalahari Kung, by Richard Katz (Harvard University Press, 1982). This is a groundbreaking study of the central ritual of the Kung, one of the click language-speaking San peoples of Southern Africa (formerly known by the derogatory name “Bushmen”). They have attracted a great deal of anthropological attention due to their uniquely egalitarian social structures and (up until two or three decades ago) their sole dependence on gathering and hunting for survival. While we should be wary of romanticizing the Kung, as representatives of a way of life that was universal for Homo sapiens for 95 percent of its existence, and as inhabitants of the African savanna – the cradle of human evolution – they may have a great deal to tell us about human nature.

Such, at any rate, was the author’s assumption when he traveled to the Kalahari desert of remote northwestern Botswana in 1968. Though he spent only three months among the Kung as a participant-observer, he brought the training of a PhD in clinical psychology to bear, and he benefited from the insights of other team members in the Harvard Kalahari Research Group, especially Richard Lee (who also served as his interpreter) and Megan Bielsele. Rather than write the book immediately upon his return, Katz says, he decided to let the lessons percolate for over a decade. This also gave him the opportunity to absorb many of the other findings that came out of the Harvard team’s ten-year-long research effort.

Although I’m less than halfway through the book, I am very excited to find many of my own, pet theories about human nature seemingly validated. For example, long-time readers of Via Negativa might remember my holding forth on more than one occasion about the centrality of healing to religious experience. I’ve also been looking for ways to relate such experience with communal dancing and consciousness-altering festivals, which only in the last couple of millennia have been seen as profane activities. Katz writes,

For the Kung, healing is more than curing, more than the application of medicine. Healing seeks to establish health and growth on physical, psychological, social, and spiritual levels; it involves work on the individual, the group, and the surrounding environment and cosmos. Healing pervades Kung culture, as a fundamental integrating and enhancing force. The culture’s emphasis on sharing and egalitarianism, its vital life of the spirit and strong community, are expressed in and supported by the healing tradition. The central tradition is the all-night healing dance.

Four times a month on the average, night signals the start of the healing dance. The women sit around the fire, singing and rhythmically clapping. The men, sometimes joined by women, dance around the singers. As the dance intensifies, num or spiritual energy is activated by the healers, both men and women, but mostly among the dancing men. As num is activated in them, they begin to kia or experience an enhancement of their consciousness. While experiencing kia, they heal all those at the dance. Before the sun rises the next morning, the dance usually ends. Those at the dance find it exciting, joyful, powerful. “Being at a dance makes our hearts happy,” the Kung say.

Pace Mircea Eliade, the Kung have no concept of a domain of the sacred separate from the profane. “Like hunting, gathering or socializing, dancing is another thing they do,” Katz says. Crude jokes are common even when healers are deep in kia. “The earthiness of the Kung’s jokes is very much a part of their contact with the supernatural.”

The Kung do not conceive of a division between matter and spirit. God is a real person, and god’s home a real place. Both are described in detail as precise and intimate as in a Buddhist Pure Land visualization sutra.

The concrete reality of healing is acknowledged simply and repeatedly by the healers. Wa Na talks about the healers who used to travel at night in the form of lions of god; they were real lions, different from normal lions, but no less real. . . . Num really does exist. It actually boils, and it is painful. For the Kung, there is no philosophical distinction: experiences of healing are simply one other event, concrete and real, in their everyday lives. . . .

The reality of the unseen is captured in the phenomenon of num “killing” the healer, or of the healer “dying” in kia. I often hear: “You want num? Don’t you know it is painful and can kill you?” I learn what those who become healers must know. To “kill” is not simply a metaphor, a statement about the overpowering strength of num, a warning about the difficulty of getting it, a test of one’s desire to heal it. Although the Kung distinguish between final death, when the soul permanently leaves the body, and the death of kia, when the soul goes out but then hopefully returns, there is only one experience of death, and the experience is what matters.

Kau Dwa is teaching me that lesson as I struggle to maintain my Western notions of reality. “Kau Dwa,” I ask, “you have told me that in kia you must die. Does that mean really die?”


“I mean really die.”


“You mean like when you are buried beneath the ground?” I am struggling with my words.

“Yes,” replies Kau Dwa with enthusiasm. “Yes, just like that!”

“They are the same?”

“Yes, the same. It is death I speak of,” he affirms.

“No difference?” I almost plead.

“It is death,” he responds firmly but softly.

“The death where you never come back?” I am nearly at the end of my logical rope.

“Yes,” he says simply. “It is that bad. It is the death that kills us all.”

“But the healers get up, and a dead person doesn’t.” My statement trails off into a question.

“That is true,” Kau Dwa replies quietly, with a smile, “healers may come alive again.”

Death happens when the gods and spirits take a person into their own country. Thus, even though the Kung are famously peaceful in their relations with other people, their relationships with divinity are often quite agonistic.

An experienced healer can see the spirits hovering around the edge of a dance; they remain invisible to all others. After diagnosing the cause of an illness, healers may plead with the spirits to make the illness go away. . . .

Though the lesser god and the spirits may inhabit the darkness outside the dance because they enjoy watching the dance, the ever-present danger is that they will also bring sickness and death. The healer’s job is to drive them away, thereby preventing sickness from striking anyone. Usually the healers’ friendly overtures to the gods or spirits become more assertive. “Get out of here. You are a bad thing.” “Go chase yourself. You will not take this child. I will beat you.” Often healers yell out insulting or profane phrases to the gods and spirits. They scream at them, calling them “Big penis,” or “Elephant-penis,” or “You will shit,” or “Filthy face,” meaning a face covered with excrement. The healer often becomes aggressive, even violent, toward the gods, gesturing menacingly and hurling sticks into the darkness to drive away the spirits.

Katz rigorously avoids cross-cultural comparisons. For right now, I’ll follow his example, except to point out that the “gods” mentioned here are really only two, a greater and lesser divinity who seem to have a similar relationship as that between God and the Satan in the book of Job. As in many mythologies of indigenous peoples, the great god is more of a “straight man” and the lesser god is a trickster. They share the same name – a not uncommon situation in Kung society, where

The namesake relationship is . . . the most open, informal, and free relationship available in the society. This relationship between the lesser and greater gods allows for a full and varied set of interactions between them, including trickery and laughter as well as deference and obedience.

Some mornings arrive like an eighteenth century cabinet of curiosities dropped from the sky. Here are skins, skeletons, gemstones, artifacts of unknown use. The world is my juju. Other mornings shine mysteriously: an ancient bronze goblet brimful with ceremonial wine. The former lend themselves more easily to poems; the latter command a kind of silence from which it seems more difficult to break free.

This morning is one of those latter kind. After days and days of humidity, a cold front has brought a May-time clarity to the infinitely regressive and effulgent surfaces of July – which is a very pompous way of saying, My God, it’s fine out! I want to go look closely at things, to find a spot where I can sit and wait for things to happen, far from the infernal humming of this old computer. I would like for once to spot a fox in a tree or an ovenbird in an oven. Have the sharp-shinned hawks fledged yet? Has anyone picked the black raspberries inside the deer exclosure? Is the pennyroyal ready to be gathered for tea? These are the kind of questions that matter. All this other stuff I’ve been writing about here in the unreal precincts of Via Negativa – well, if it helps my office-bound friends escape the monotony of their own mornings for a little while, I guess my time has been well spent. But still . . .