The work of enlightenment

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White shooting star or flowering tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris). Note the bumblebee stealing nectar from the base of one of the flowers

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The bread dough after it has been punched down – the primordial origin of the fabled knuckle sandwich

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Landscape with dried tomatoes (a live shot, not a collage). The blood of the tomato is evaporated as an offering to the sun

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Four nights of dream

I dream of beaten fields, whole landscapes cleansed of desire & pressed flat by an enormous iron. I start awake, not as if from a nightmare but from the ingestion of something too heavy, too incompatible with dreaming. I stumble downstairs & scan the latest headlines: people cutting holes in their attics, standing in water up to their necks. Whole towns smashed to rubble. There are rumors of bodies floating through the streets.

The next night, I dream of meeting my fetch, who resembles me in every way except that he seems to be a bit of a pedant & is not at all good-looking. We join forces to beat up my older brother, who is greatly offended. I wake to stories of gunfire & looting & the president surveying the damage from 20,000 feet.

In the following night’s dream, my nine-year-old niece gets a visit from herself as a five-year-old. They exchange spiteful words & withdraw to a safe distance, glaring. I wake & read about rapes and near-riots in the Superdome, mothers carrying dead children, children standing watch over dead grandparents, helpless to stop the bloating & the grim ministrations of rats.

Early the next morning, I find myself kneeling in my parent’s dining room beside the ghost of a young girl who grows steadily more visible as we talk. I casually touch the black skin of her arm. She feels solid, alive, she giggles & chatters like any five-year-old. “What is your name?” I ask softly. She pretends to mishear. “Her name is Lucy,” she says, holding up her blond doll. “I’m going to go stay in her house now. She lives in a big ol’ mansion on a hill with columns out front.”

My mother watches anxiously from the sofa. “Were those your parents we saw disappearing in the middle of the field?” she wonders. A look of panic crosses the girl’s face. She grips my hand tightly, & I wake. I get a shower & sit outside in a folding canvas chair under the stars, taking small sips of black coffee, then tilting my head all the way back. The Pleiades stand high overhead; Mars glimmers to their right, a bloodshot eye. Meteors flare one after the other & quickly gutter in the dark waters, whichever route they take toward the horizon. I sit breathing in the honeysuckle fragrance of wild tobacco – also called white shooting-star, after the shape of the blossoms – & listen to the crickets stuttering toward dawn.

My Paul Zweig reading project is, I hope, only temporarily stalled. I have been following the news closely, for once, and busying myself with many distractions. The title here plagiarizes Natsume Soseki’s 1908 collection of linked stories translated as Ten Nights of Dream. I’d love to hear from readers who may have had similarly disturbing dreams over the past week.

Arms and the poet (cont’d)

For the first part of this chain of quotes, see here.

The Eskimo song duel is famous for its disputative function in a cultural context where normally the airing of grievances was forbidden….

The song duel owes much of its effectiveness to the ambiguity created by the fact that the single event can at all times be interpreted in two ways: it is at once an artistic festive event and an airing of grievances. An opponent can at any time be said to be doing two things: composing humorous songs and hurling accusations and insults. It should be emphasized that the singer is in fact doing both things at once; it is not a case of pretending to have artistic fun while making veiled attacks. Both aspects of the performance are important, real and inter-connected. The ambiguity of the event itself is compounded by the humorous key: participants are constrained at all times to behave as if all statements in the duel are ironic. At the most essential level, the duality of the event allows the community to continue to function after the duel, since the loser of the duel (if there is one) has not been publicly declared guilty of any serious transgressions. The loser is guilty simply of having performed less well than his opponent in a song contest, and any accusations leveled against him were only ironic.

Songs were of great importance to the Eskimo, and the duelling song was just one of a wide genre. Orpingalik, a Netsilik shaman, expressed the significance of song as an integral part of his culture in a reply to [Knud] Rasmussen’s question regarding the number of songs he had composed:

How many songs I have I cannot tell you. I keep no count of such things. There are so many occasions in one’s life when a sorrow is felt in such a way that the desire comes to sing; and so I know that I have many songs. All my being is song, and I sing as I draw breath.

Good dueling songs – and in fact entire duels – were immortalized. While Rasmussen gathered some of his songs first hand, many of them were sung to him by people who had learned them from their elders. These immortalized songs were occasionally sung in other contexts, providing entertainment and amused reminiscence on informal occasion. A performance in a song duel, therefore, was a contribution to an important and extensive art form.

– Penelope Eckert and Russell Newmark, “Central Eskimo Song Duels: A Contextual Analysis of Ritual Ambiguity,” Ethnology vol. xix, no. 2

By far the most important social context in which zamil poetry is composed [by Yemenis] is in the dispute mediation. When a serious conflict breaks out between two or more villages or tribes or two different tribal sections – a conflict that might involve a dispute over land (private property or tribal boundaries), women (abductions, runaways, adulteries), or water rights – warfare among the contending parties often results…. The fighting at first is often a kind of symbolic violence in which the offended party tries to restore its honor by a show of force, and almost immediately after the first shots have rung out, intermediaries arrive to try and persuade the parties to agree to a truce…

The intermediaries may arrive chanting a zamil poem…announcing their intention of mediating the dispute and offering up cows or sheep for sacrifice in token of their sincerity and good faith. If…the plaintiff…agrees to a truce, it sets the conditions in numbers of cows, sheep, guns, and, in the most serious conflicts, even hostages… These demands are put forward by the intermediaries in the form of zamil poetry….

It is practically impossible to delimit a class of occasions on which someone might use zamil poetry for his own personal ends…. Once I was riding a bus on which more boarding tickets had been sold than there were seats available for passengers, with the result that a luckless passenger who happened to be an old tribesman had to sit on the floor of the vehicle. Resenting the injustice of not having been given a seat like everyone else when he had paid for one, he composed a zamil on the spot voicing his complaint. It had its intended effect: everyone on the bus started to laugh when they heard the poem and taunted the ticket seller, who in turn relinquished his seat to the now greatly mollified old man.

– Stephen C. Caton, “Peaks of Yemen I Summon”: Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe

Egil Skallagrimson received word that there was a new king in Norway and that Arinbjorn had returned to his lands there and was held in high esteem. The Egil composed a poem in Arinbjorn’s praise and sent it to him in Norway, and this is the beginning of it:

I am quick to sing
a noble man’s praises,
but stumble for words
about misers;
freely I speak
of a king’s deeds,
but stay silent
about the people’s lies.

Replete with taunts
for the bearer of lies,
I sing the favours
of my friends;
I have visited many
seats of mild kings,
with the ingenuous
intent of a poet.

Once I had
incurred the wrath
of a mighty king
of Yngling’s line;
I drew a bold hat
over my black hair,
paid a visit
to the war-lord

where that mighty
maker of men
ruled the land from beneath
his helmet of terror.
In York
the king reigned,
rigid of mind,
over rainy shores.

The shining glare
from Eirik’s brow
was not safe to behold
nor free from terror;
when the moons
of that tyrant’s face
shone, serpent-like,
with their awesome glow.

Yet I ventured
my poem to the king,
the bed-prize that Odin
had slithered to claim,
his frothing horn
passed around
to quench
all men’s ears.

No one praised
the beauty of the prize
my poetry earned
in that lavish house
when I accepted from the king
in reward for my verse
my own sable head
to stand my hat on.

My head I won
and with it the two
dark jewels
of my beetling brows,
and the mouth
that had delivered
my head’s ransom
at the king’s knee.

A field of teeth
and my tongue I took back,
and my flapping ears
endowed with sound;
such a gift
was prized higher
than earning gold
from a famous king.

By my side, better
than every other
spreader of treasure,
stood my loyal friend
whom I truly trusted,
growing in stature
with his every deed.

paragon of men . . .

– Bernard Scudder, trans., Egil’s Saga, attributed to Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241)

For more on Inuit poetics, see Qarrtsiluni and Building Dwelling Eating. For more on Egil Skallagrimson and Norse poetics – including a description of the origin myth of poetry, alluded to in Egil’s sixth stanza above – see Poetry or vomit?

Fish puke, bread grunts and other signs of culture

O.K., “Free Willy” fans! Time for another heart-warming story of a captive killer whale who is really just like us. We could call this one “Free Lunch”:

First, the young whale spit regurgitated fish onto the surface of the water, then sank below the water and waited.

If a hungry gull landed on the water, the whale would surge up to the surface, sometimes catching a free meal of his own.

Noonan watched as the same whale set the same trap again and again.

Within a few months, the whale’s younger half brother adopted the practice. Eventually the behavior spread and now five Marineland whales supplement their diet with fresh fowl, the scientist said.

“It looked liked one was watching while the other tried,” Noonan said of the whale’s initial behavior.

The capacity to come up with the gull-baiting strategy and then share the technique with others — known as cultural learning in the scientific world — was once believed to be one of those abilities that separated humans from other animals.

But biologists have since proven certain animals, including dolphins and chimps, do this.

“This is an example in which a new behavior spread through a population,” Noonan said. “We had the opportunity to see a tradition form and spread in exactly the way that cultures do in humans.”

A more sober article in New Scientist summarizes this and several other recent examples of cultural learning, including a new study on chimps:

Chimpanzees appear to be capable of communicating using sounds that refer to specific objects, according to a study of sounds made in response to different foods. It is the first time this ability has been demonstrated in chimps.

Primatologist Katie Slocombe of the University of St Andrews, UK, recorded the grunts made by chimps at nearby Edinburgh Zoo as they collected food at two feeders. One dispensed bread, considered a high-quality treat, and the other doled out apples, a much less sought-after snack.

Slocombe then played back the recordings and watched the reactions of a 6-year-old male named Liberius. The results were striking. After hearing a bread grunt, Liberius spent far more time searching around the bread feeder, while an apple grunt would send him hunting under the apple feeder. Slocombe presented the work at the US Animal Behavior Society meeting in Snowbird, Utah, this month.

This is the first convincing evidence of “referential communication” in chimps, says primatologist Amy Pollick of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Earlier research with a close cousin of the chimpanzee – a male pygmy chimpanzee, or bonobo, named Kanzi – showed that he made specific sounds for four different things: bananas, grapes, juice and yes. But the researchers did not test if the sounds conveyed any meaning to other bonobos, and the same experiments have never been done in chimpanzees.

Liberius, on the other hand, was able to take cues from apple and bread grunts made by at least three different chimpanzees.

This follows closely on the heels of another report of cultural learning among captive chimpanzees. I imagine that in a few years there will be dozens of other examples from many different species of mammals and birds, now that the taboo against studying animal cultures seems finally to have been lifted.

But here’s what I wonder. Suppose the “Free Willy” crowd organizes for the release of the Marineland orcas back into the wild, and they then transmit their new-found bait-and-snatch lore to other killer whales. What will this do to wild populations of seabirds? Will they all prove equally, um, gullible? Take fulmars, for instance. Their diet is described as “oily offal and refuse, fish and cuttles.” Seems as if they might be at high risk here – except that nature (or culture?) may have left them well equipped to retaliate. “Fulmar” means “foul gull” in Icelandic. When disturbed, fulmars hurl a stream of bright-orange, foul-smelling projectile vomit with great accuracy into the eye or other orifice of their attackers. Things could get interesting out on the high seas.

Remembering New Orleans

What is there to say about the destruction of New Orleans that hasn’t already been said elsewhere? As with the 9/11 attacks, I feel somewhat disconnected from what the rest of the country is experiencing, due to my inability to view video images of the tragedy (no T.V., only a dial-up connection to the Internet). I thought that Cornelia Dean and Andrew C. Revkin, writing for The New York Times, did an excellent job of encapsulating the environmental context. Among the blogs I read regularly, Whiskey Bar did the best job of summing things up (see also the comprehensive links list of organizations involved in hurricane relief), and Creature of the Shade offered the invaluable perspective of an urban geographer on the question of whether the city will survive. Creek Running North has had a couple of good posts on the looting – or is it salvage? – to which I can only add that, with 28 percent of its population below poverty level and one of the most brutal police forces in the country, the storm of looting was almost as inevitable as the hurricane itself.

On a more wistful note, a New Orleans reminiscence in 3rd House Journal takes the prize for most lyrical image. “After 10 days in New Orleans, I flew directly to Colorado Springs for a work conference,” Leslee writes, “and when I opened my suitcase steam came out. New Orleans travels with you.”

I have only been to New Orleans once, and most of that time was spent sleeping, so I have no real reminiscences to share. But I think it’s worth reflecting for a few moments on how much we collectively owe this city. Jazz has been called, rightly, America’s greatest gift to the world, and I think it embodies our ideals of freedom, adaptability and individual self-expression better than any other native art-form. That the birthplace of jazz has been dealt this kind of blow at the very same time that America’s other great contribution to world civilization – our national parks system, the first in the world – is under attack, makes me sad beyond words.

One often sees New Orleans described as “America’s most unique city.” This is a polite way of saying that it was one of the few cities in America where, I gather, it was possible to have fun. Street culture was actively encouraged, and the annual party known as Mardi Gras drew hedonists and misfits from all over the country. Why? Because outside of Louisiana, the idea of a high old time in virtually every town and city in this law-and-order-obsessed country is to reproduce the entire civic order in a slow procession through the streets: a parade. Woo-hoo. New Orleans offered a valuable counter-example, as well as a link to pre-Christian religious traditions of both African and European provenance. In vernacular religions the world over, annual, week-long festivals offer a ritualized vision of the world turned upside-down – an age-old image for the spirit world and a valuable reminder of the distance between that world and our own. But the United States was founded upon a different sort of idealism, one that sought to actualize heaven in the here-and-now – that whole, utopian, shining-city-on-a-hill bullshit. The inevitable result has been severe hubris and hypocrisy, social repression and a relentless war against wild nature.

It’s tempting to try and imagine how things might have been different if, instead of putting all its efforts into keeping the Mississippi in a straightjacket, the Army Corps had instead tried to apply a kind of Mardi Gras philosophy. Annual, controlled flooding of the Mississippi – on a much bigger scale than the freshwater diversions currently permitted – might still be able to restore coastal wetlands and reduce the storm surge from future hurricanes. In place of our traditional view in which order – meaning top-down control – is all-good, and chaos – bottom-up insurrection – is all-bad, we need to learn how to value an interplay between the two. If we continue to resist achieving some kind of equilibrium, in the form of social, economic and environmental sustainability, nature will do it for us, and the results will not be pretty.

O.K., I do remember this: a slow, night-time drive through a wide-awake city, and the immense civic pride shown by the African American taxi driver. He swung past one of the cemeteries, explaining why all the coffins were stored in above-ground crypts. When he found out I was a writer, he enthused about local author Anne Rice and her publicity stunt to promote her latest vampire novel: she had herself borne through the streets in an open coffin. They say that jazz originally sprang from the famous New Orleans funeral, in which the slow march to the cemetery switches to an up-tempo dance tune to accompany the mourners back home. Here’s hoping New Orleans can dance back from the crypt once again.

UPDATE: Before you pooh-pooh my conclusion, read this (found here). It very much fits what Jarrett wrote in the comments: “New Orleans — with its ability to produce wonderful stories like this one without having anything like a coherent local economy — may be more performance than place, which is cause for hope. Performances are easier to put back together than places are.”