Locked in a public argument I cannot possibly win with an unknown adversary who may not necessarily be an adversary. The topic? Hardly matters. (Click here if you must know.) Because at root our differences seem to boil down to the choice, apparently arbitrary, of whether to say yes or no. Optimism or pessimism. It’s not a matter of which is right, I think, but simply which choice is less foolish, which will vary according to circumstance.
Or is it in part a question of aesthetics? One of the thought-bubbles that just burst on the coffee-dark surface of my consciousness this morning had to do with the nagging suspicion that much of what makes a person prefer one spiritual or philosophical tradition to another boils down to her aesthetic predilections. The spareness and open spaces of Zen or Islam – or the profuse gorgeousness of Vajrayana and Orthodox Christianity? The Via Negativa – as Lorianne pointed out in a comment on my first Inuit piece – is a way of the desert. If I refuse to commit to one faith tradition, might that not be in part for the seemingly trivial reason that I like to keep one foot in the desert and one in the jungle?
Similarly, there is definitely an aesthetics of nada – it has colored much of the modernist and especially the postmodernist outlook. (Though with writers like Paul Celan, one can never be sure his nada isn’t the flip side of todo, as it was for San Juan de la Cruz.)
A poet these days is an animist almost by nature; I’m no exception. The mainstream of contemporary North American lyric poetry is in complete rebellion against the age-old Western worship of abstractions and the consequent devaluation of the particular. Thus, while part of what makes me admire the apophatic tradition may be a quasi-aesthetic preference for open spaces, darkness and fog, an even stronger factor may be the deep suspicion I harbor toward all universalizing statements that could devalue life. These include, ultimately, both optimistic and pessimistic evaluations.
I am thinking then about the Adversary as a role model. The earliest textual reference to Satan is in – you guessed it – the book of Job. In the folktale-ish opening scene, Satan is among the “sons of God,” the divine courtiers meeting for a formal audience with the Guy Upstairs. Marvin Pope tells us that the name Satan is derived from the name of the Persian secret police. He is an agent provocateur. No Lucifer, but a dark star. A black hole.
The Zennists warn about the dangers of madness for the initiate to their path, and they aren’t kidding. My one and only brush with insanity, at the tender age of 16, was fed by obsessive (mis)reading of translations of D.T. Suzuki. When I envisioned and articulated the terror, it came down precisely to the arbitrariness of the distinction between yes and no. I chose yes, of course, but it was, for a long-time, a self-conscious and therefore ironic choice. I was my own Mephistopheles. (Whatever I have to say about the Adversary cannot possibly improve upon what the cartoonist Walt Kelley had Pogo so famously declare – you know the quote. “We has met the enemy, and they is Us.”)
Mahayana Buddhist texts are godawful boring things to try and read. But in my late teens I couldn’t get enough of them, plowing through the Awakening of Faith, Mulamadhyamakakarika, the Lankavatara, even – I swear – the complete Conze translation of the Prajnaparamita Sutra. Repetitious they were, yes. But probably the repetition was more healing than anything else could have been. Countless variations on a single, intellectually unrealizable paradox.
This is a classic example of homeopathy, of course. I experienced the secular parallel just a few years later, when I discovered blues music at just the time when I most needed that kind of medicine. And blues is – lest we forget – the Devil’s music.
In one of Bessie Smith’s late recordings, “In the House Blues,” the blue devils of loneliness and depression morph into blue-suited policemen, breaking into her house without a warrant. In the even darker “Long Old Road,” from the same recording session with Louis Armstrong, she concludes a parable about life’s journey with a verse that holds out little hope (enjambing where she lingers on a note):
You can’t trust no-
body, you might as well
You can’t trust nobody, you might as well
Found my long-lost Friend and I might as well
stayed at home.
So why does listening to a song like that make one feel better? (This ain’t just me talking; almost every blues performer ever interviewed has described the blues as a kind of medicine.)
I am running out of time to blog this morning. Maybe tomorrow I’ll say something about Tezcatl-Ihpoca, a.k.a. Smoking Mirror. Or not.
Cross-reference: “42” and the entry following, on self-cursing
Postscript: with exquisite synchronicity that the slightly mad-seeming author of Log24.net would appreciate, I just stopped over to the blog of my some-time debate opponent, commonbeauty, to pick up the link included above . . . only to discover that s/he has been posting about via negativa! In a manner that is anything but adversarial. We has met the enemy, and s/he has turned into something like a friend . . .
Corrected and edited around 5:00 p.m.