Stranger than fiction

I want to keep this clarity as long as I live says the deluded friar Marcos de Niza as he slips a Zuni fetish stone into his wallet. Irony – or higher truth?

Of course, this Marcos is largely a fiction of my own devising [.pdf file]. What little we know of the historical figure does suggest a touching naivete: the anguish at the cruelty of the conquistadors in Peru (as recounted in his letter to Bartolome de las Casas), the unbridled enthusiasm in his Relación for the riches of the North which, if they ever existed, eluded Coronado’s flint-eyed vision. And we glimpse the terrible loneliness and disgrace that must’ve been Marcos’ lot after his final return to the horror scene that was New Spain, as witnessed by his plaintive letter to a friend requesting a shipment of wine from his beloved Provence.

Last night I had a vivid dream involving a young boy who seemed either to be possessed by a god or demon, or to have strongly charismatic and psychopathic tendencies. I half-woke and pondered the novelistic possibilities for a while. Much as I like mystery novels, I am always disappointed when the mystery is solved and tawdry human emotions – almost always greed – are revealed to be the chief motives. Would it be possible to write a satisfying novel where the mystery remained a mystery? I don’t mean so much at the narrative level; I’m more interested in the unknowability of motives than in the difficulty of figuring out what “really” happened a la Akutagawa’s story “In a Grove” (the basis for Kurosawa’s movie Rashomon).

But I guess I already tried that in Cibola, where scholarly disagreement about the reason for Esteban’s death provided the initial spark of inspiration. And regardless of the merits of the final product (concerning which I harbor considerable doubt), there’s no question that my decision to preserve the integrity of the central mystery was key to maintaining my enthusiasm for the project, and may even have prompted some valid new interpretations of events, themselves still under dispute.

In Friar Marcos I saw a modern, conflicted, Charlie Brown-type figure. True to the canons of literary fiction (as opposed to oral epic), Marcos changed and deepened over the course of the poem. The line quoted above was his last; subsequently, the “other Marcos” – a completely fictional Indian oblate who accompanies him on his journey to “Cibola” – gives his own, more worldly take on things. But even if this Marcos knew the real score – that Indians would always be second-class Christians in the view of Church authorities – his Christianity is nonetheless genuine. He rightly senses an equivalence between the scorned “idols” of the old faith and the treasured symbols and fetishes of the new:

The land lives within me
like a nest of nails.

I know what they want from me,
these hypocrites: to renounce
the world, the flesh,
all creatures,
all Indian thoughts.
I know

as much about God as they do,
possibly more: which is to say,
nothing. A night wind,
an obsidian mirror
that fogs with your dying breath.

No prayers, no ticking glass beads
can you take . . . even
the crucified Christ
gets left behind. Why linger
in the doorway, clinging
to the empty frame?

I was born with a caul–
singled out for service to Tlaloc,
rain-god & gourmand.
Cortez came just in time.

The friars say I was given to the church
through a misunderstanding:
it seems my parents were among
the first few thousand converts,
heeded the exhortation to plunder
their former idols.
It seems they were hoping
to save their own skins
from the pox.

Imitatio Cristi indeed–a lamb of God
before I even reached the age of reason.
Now turned scapegoat, put out
to find forage in the desert.
Free to harangue
every whirlwind.

But I don’t have a quarrel with the Lord
of the Close-at-Hand,
only with you who brandish
the law of Love.
You who flaunt
your stylized poverty,
patched robe & cowl
I’m forbidden to wear.
Telling yourselves that more virtue accrues
the more wealth & privilege you’ve had
to give up.

Or if sincerely humble–like this
haunted Frenchman, Marcos–unsuited
for battle. At the mercy of storms
& currents he can’t
even name.

This is an Order where bullies flourish,
men poisoned by envy of our own Founder.
They say the fighting started
while he still walked the earth,
too saintly to understand
the ways of vipers.

They say he preached to birds,
to unschooled fish.
Who went
throughout the world to spread
the gospel. So
we who have gotten
all our news of Heaven
from birds
for ages–
what do we need these friars for?

Ah, but–says the Saint
in my dreams–
they need you.

Pursuing a separate line of thought, an hour ago I pulled an anthology of Islamic writings off the shelf: Windows on the House of Islam, edited by John Reynard (University of California Press, 1998). Opening at random, I encountered a rather startling analysis of idolatry, Commentary on Shabistari’s Garden of Mystery, by Shams ad-Din Lahiji (tr. Leonard Lewisohn).

Since behind the veil of the determined form of each atom of existence the sun of divine unity is latent and concealed, [Shabistari] remarks:
If Muslims knew what idols were, they’d cry
that faith itself is in idolatry.

This means that if the [formalist] Muslim who professes divine unity and disavows the idol was to become aware and conscious of what the idol is in reality, and of whom it is a manifestation, and of what person it is who appears in the idol’s form, he would certainly comprehend that the religion of the Truth lies in idolatry. Since the idol is a theophany of the absolute being Who is God, therefore in respect to its essential reality, the idol is God. Now, considering that the religion and rite of Muslims is Truth-worship and [as has been explained above] idolatry and Truth-worship are now seen to be one and the same thing, therefore true religion is in idolatry!

Since so-called blasphemy of the idolaters arises from their ignorance of the idol’s inner reality, he adds:
And if polytheists could just become aware
of what the idols are they’d have no cause to err in their faith.

. . . And since the ‘heresy’ of the idol worshipper consists solely in his attitude and attention, which is focused in the wrong direction toward the outer form of the idol, the writer observes:
The graven image they have seen
is but external handiwork and form.
And so by Holy Writ their name is ‘infidel.’

. . . Likewise, if you who make claims to Islam and orthodoxy perceive naught but the idol’s visible form and do not envision God hidden behind the veils of its determined form – and it is this particular form which is a corporeal receptacle for God’s theophany – you properly and legally cannot be called a Muslim! In fact, you are an infidel because you have veiled God’s theophany appearing in the idol!

So much for the Taliban! Lahiji adds that a true mystic should become “disillusioned with the false metaphorical Islam, based on the premise that possible being is absolutely distinct and separate from necessary being, God.”

I’m intrigued by the suggestion that metaphors themselves may be idols of a sort. I’ve always felt it’s impossible for a poet not to be an animist on some level. It’s a risky profession. Like Marcos, we may find ourselves lost in admiration for things whose original purposes were far from what we suppose – but does that make the insight any less genuine? If every “truth” is really a lie, then how can we approach Truth except through willful blindness?

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