This past weekend, as I worked on my essay for Columbus Day, I developed an outline for a far more ambitious piece than what I eventually posted. Up until the last moment, when a quote from Tennyson saved me, I still intended to spend this entire week exploring ramifications of Columbus’ frustrated search for paradise. But when I actually started trying to organize all the material I wanted to cover, I realized that I’d have to embark on months of research and probably end up writing several hundred pages in order to do this topic justice.
The problem is, I know too much about it already, having spent over a year researching and writing a book-length poem on a closely related subject (Cibola). Thinking back over my nine months of blogging, I wonder if my most pleasing essays weren’t those in which I shared my own learning process with the reader, as opposed to those few where I hold forth on something about which I happen to have a pretty well developed opinion already?
In that spirit, I am reading up on the belief system of just one people – the Piaroa, from the upper Orinoco – which I hope to begin posting about before the end of the week. In the meantime, I thought it might be of some interest to share my ideas in outline form. (I know elck, at least, is fond of ennumerated puzzles!) I figure this way – blogging being what it is – I can absolve myself of any further responsibility for thinking these ideas though.
“The Nipple of Paradise”
1. Columbus: Paradise may be located, but not ascended w/out God’s permission
2. Homeric riddle: What we found we killed; what we didn’t find we brought with us. (Used as epigraph for W.S. Merwin’s Vietnam-era book of poems, THE LICE.)
3. Dreaming and madness: quote George Steiner (No Passion Spent) on role of individual and collective dreams in history. The Crusades. Centrality of dreaming to Native American experience of reality, according to which dreaming and waking are complementary states
4. Myth of the Fall present if not prominent in huge number of belief systems. “Original sin” is eating of animal flesh, for which human beings still must atone through disease, death. Acquisition of cultural knowledge essentially tragic. Quote Eliade (Myths, Dreams and Mysteries)
5. Knight of the Sad Countenance vs. Sancho Panza. Quote Bakhtin (Rabelais and His World) on W. European concepts of the earthly paradise as apotheosis of material, lower bodily strata (panza, e.g.). Luilekkerland compared with upside-down/chaotic mythical time of indigenous peoples of W. hemisphere: examples from Yaqui, Tohono O’odham, Iroquois. Inclusion of carnival time w/in sacred calendar (pace Bakhtin) represents attempt to tame uncivilized urges – greed, envy, bloodlust
6. Pilgrimage and displacement – “lost horizon” – Indians not lying when they told conquistadors that earthly paradise lay just beyond the next set of hills
7. Real-world basis for myths. “Isle of St. Brendan,” etc. based on memories of real voyages. “Fountain of Youth” reflects incredible purity of spring water in S. Florida, complicated hydrology and geology, enduring conception of watery paradise (myths of Miami street children). “El Dorado” refers to central figure in Andean ritual drama. “Cibola”/Shiwanna as myth-time version of former (?) centers of power along Chaco Meridian
8. Jesuits in NW New Spain & Paraguay and the fulfillment of Renaissance humanism’s dream of a practical utopia. Pastoralism and cowboys – environmental devastation in the service of a “return to Nature” ethic. From Yaquiland to the kibbutz, selective memory enables successful experiments in communal living. Myths of Piaroa and other, relatively peaceful “indigenous communitarians” are far more realistic about tragedy implicit in trade-offs between nature and culture
9. Gaviotas – a “topian” community in Columbia
We are very free, yet we have few conflicts. We have no priests, no police, no governors. If someone takes up a musical instrument, learns how to play it and joins with others in musical expression, he will never take up a gun. (See here.)
The blogosphere too is a type of utopia, an impossible, placeless place. Those who consider ourselves “bloggers of place” are not merely apart from the mainstream of blogging culture, we stand in some measure opposed to it because we believe that the possibility of salvation/enlightenment/whatever only begins where the links/sidewalks end. From the author of Johnny Cash’s immortal hit, “A Boy Named Sue”:
Where the Sidewalk Ends
There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.
Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.
Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.