Dave Bonta

“It is difficult to punctuate Heraclitus’ writings because it is unclear whether a word goes with what follows or with what precedes it,” Aristotle drily observed (see Philosopher or blog?). This is one of the first and most obvious indications that Heraclitus’ Account may have resembled the enigmatic Chinese text Laozi (a.k.a. Daodejing).

Classical Chinese lacked punctuation altogether. What grammarians call particles – one-syllable words whose function is to denote possession, interrogation, emphasis, etc. – served instead. (Think of them as punctuation marks that you pronounce.) In addition, fairly regular meter and end-rhyme aided enormously in the reading of poetic works like the Laozi. But entire schools of interpretation have coalesced around opposing views on comma placement in this most gnomic of texts. The lack of differentiation between singular and plural adds to the confusion.

Take the famous opening chapter. The first couplet is uncontroversial; translations vary simply because of the difficulty of translating Dao as both noun and verb.
Dao ke dao, fei chang dao; ming ke ming, fei chang ming.
“The dao (knowledge/way) that can be known/followed is not the constant/enduring/eternal Dao;
The name that can be named is not the constant Name.”

The comma wars begin with the very next couplet:
Wu ming tian di zhi shi; yu ming wan wu zhi mu.
“Without name(s) heaven-earth [possessive particle] beginning; having name(s) ten-thousand creatures [possessive particle] mother.”
D. C. Lau, dean of the most prominent contemporary school of Western scholars of philosophical Daoism, in his translation for Penguin (Tao Te Ching, 1963), followed the more conventional interpretation. Based on a comma placement after the second character in each clause, he got:
“The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.”
But an edition I picked up in Taiwan – part of a series of critical editions of the classics designed for college students – places the comma after the first syllable in each clause. This is possible because wu has the stand-alone meaning “void,” and yu is the common word for “being.” This produces a reading something as follows:
“Void: a name for the beginning of the cosmos;
Being: a name for the mother of the myriad creatures.”

The divergence between interpretations continues for the rest of this chapter, which is in many ways a key to the whole work. For example, the third couplet appears to deal with the question of desire. Lau translates,
“Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets;
But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations,”
with “it” understood to refer to the Dao.
But equally plausible is the following:
“Thus, eternal void: seek to contemplate its mysteries;
Eternal being: seek to contemplate its manifestations.”

One can begin to see why the Daodejing has become the second-most-translated book in the world, right after the Bible. I once came up with a semi-facetious translation of the first chapter that was predicated upon the assumption that the author was something of a cynic. This is possible with just one more turn of the interpretative wheel. In D. C. Lau’s translation the last portion of the chapter reads:
“These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery –
The gateway of the manifold secrets.”

Sounds properly mystical, doesn’t it? The trouble is, we have no way of knowing whether that was the original intent of the author(s). After all, he/they did use the pseudonym Old Fellow (Laozi). Since all sages were presumed to be old and venerable, this is tantamount to signing it “Mr. Smith” or “Mr. Jones.” What were they trying to hide? Was the whole thing just a spoof on a genre which may have included many dozens of earnest attempts to repeat the critical success of the great Zhuangzi? (The evidence from some newly discovered texts argues strongly for reversing the traditional chronological ordering of the two classics of so-called philosophical Daoism – probably not a real category at all, by the way.)

The late Warring States Period was a time of profound disillusionment. Zhuangzi includes sections that espouse philosophies of primitivism and of rational self-interest (the Yangist school). The latter contains what may be the original encounter-of-an-earnest-worthy-with-a-wise-old-fisherman dialogue. This (or another like it) was presumably the basis for the “Daoist” story of the cynical fisherman (cited in Monday’s post) who tells Chu Yuan to become one with the fishes.

The morass of competing views about Life, the Universe and Everything was no doubt troubling to many in this period. But for some it must have been a source of amusement, as well. I have no good evidence for this, but it tickles my fancy to think of the Laozi as a deliberately obscure book, in which the esoteric interpretation is actually the expected or exoteric reading, and the hidden or truly esoteric meaning is – well, something as follows:

“These two categories, emerging together, (appear to) name different (things), so their coincidence is taken for a mystery. One mystery after another! (This opens) the floodgates to endless obscurantism.”

A snow date sounds like a most delectable fruit: chewy at first, but quickly dissolving on the tongue. Fanciful? Perhaps, but don’t laugh. When I was a kid, my mother used to make snow ice cream.

Back then, a new snowfall could be wonderful in so many ways. First and foremost, it might let us stay home from school (not always a given in the bad old days before the fear of litigation overwhelmed common sense). It promised the highest and purest forms of outdoor adventure: sledding and tobogganing; snowmen and snow forts and snowball battles; and the elemental pleasure of walking spellbound through a transfigured forest. After a long day out in the snow, it gave one a good feeling to strip off wet boots, socks and pants and pile them to dry behind the woodstove. And sometimes, right before dinner, Mom would give one of us a bowl to fill with fresh, unmarked snow – “I’m making snow ice cream for dessert tonight!” Magic words!

These habits were formed in Maine in the late sixties, then transferred to central Pennsylvania where we moved in 1971, when I was five. For most of the 70s, snowy winters were the norm, back before global climate change really began to have a noticeable impact. Since then, it’s been hit-or-miss; 2001-2002 was the Year Without a Winter. But now that we’ve entered a strange new cycle of heavy precipitation, which began early last March, the snow is back with a vengeance. I feel some of the excitement of my childhood returning. This morning’s snowstorm lured me out for over an hour, wallowing along in snowshoes through the woods, my glasses fogging up repeatedly from the exertion.

When I drop down to the road and divest myself of snowshoes for the walk back up the hollow, it is absolutely quiet except for the faint trickling of the stream and the shhh of flakes against tree trunks and branches. I resign myself to walking without glasses – it is simply too much trouble to keep them clear. As soon as I take them off all detail is lost; I am myopic as an owl in daylight. I feel suddenly small and vulnerable. A hint of nameless panic rises in my chest for a second or two before I can shake it off. What if the winter never ends? How long would my perverse enjoyment of the season hold out?

The new snow – 8 or 9 inches already – has obscured all the spots along the road bank where the white-tailed deer have been pawing down through the snow in search of edible scraps of rhizomes and dried leaves. They’re starving. There was virtually no acorn crop, and their numbers are up as a result of poor hunting success: high winds and heavy snows conspired to keep hunters from connecting with their quarry on the biggest days of the regular deer season. Already we have eaten the last of this year’s venison steak. I fear for all the evergreen seedlings – white pine and pitch pine, hemlock and rhododendron -that have yet to make it above the browse line. A half-dozen years of good hunting had given them a respite, and I was beginning to nourish hopes of the woods someday recovering even a normal herbaceous layer.

Now those hopes are in jeopardy. In the course of my brief walk this morning I have already scared up five deer. As I watch them flounder through the ever-deepening snow, my emotions are a peculiar mix of pity and a cruel hope: not necessarily that they will starve to death, but at least that the coyotes will get quite a few of them before the winter’s out. All it would take, my father commented this morning, would be a good freezing rain on top of a couple feet of snow. Enough of a crust to give firm footing to the coyotes would mean death to as many deer as they had time and appetite to chase down. From what I read, the eastern coyote is already having a significant impact on populations of adult deer in the Adirondacks, where deep snows confine them to yarding areas every winter. This won’t make up for the eradication of the top predators, cougars and wolves, whose year-round predation would compel the deer to completely alter their feeding habits. But it might help a bit.

These kinds of mixed feelings are precisely what make us pine for the simplicity of childhood, I think. Back then, the only serpent in the garden was the far-off and easily ignored payment that would be exacted for our unscheduled holidays: I mean the real snow dates, those awful make-up days that could fill an extra week or two in early June. Climate change was barely a rumor in the 1970s. Children and adults alike were spared the angst of having to decide whether any given weather event was “natural” and a thing to be celebrated, or might in fact be the unnatural result of our mushrooming numbers and our collective over-consumption of fossil fuels. For me, I think the innocence began to fade around 1980, when the news about acid precipitation first hit it big. Here in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, downwind from the coal-fired power plants of the Ohio Valley, acid rain monitors have recorded some of the lowest pH readings in the country. Winter, we learned, could be the worst time of year for acid deposition, especially from the increasingly frequent ice storms and the ridge-hugging fogs that accompanied them.

With all the worries about air pollution, my mother stopped making snow ice cream. Right about the same time, our neighbors began clearcutting their sections of the forest, and fed with easy browse the deer numbers skyrocketed. From my father’s decade-long battle to preserve our access road and watershed from the worst effects of lumbering, I learned perhaps the most valuable and most scarring lesson that can mark one’s passage into adulthood: that you have to fight for what you love. No victories are permanent, and nothing should ever be taken for granted.

The woods are in some ways a little wilder now than in my childhood. Black bear were once so scarce that we could raise bees without any fencing. Now, our end of the mountain is part of the home range of a female bear who raises a new litter of cubs every two years. Ospreys and bald eagles are increasingly common along the larger streams in the vicinity. Fishers have repopulated the area following almost a century of absence. Most marvelous of all is the arrival of the eastern coyote – not an original inhabitant, but with enough wolf genes to qualify as an honorary native. And sightings of cougars in the East become every year more numerous and harder to dismiss.

Are we foolish to hope for comparable success with efforts to reverse global climate change? The unholy alliance of multinational corporate power and an increasingly imperial United States government certainly seems intractable. On the other hand, due in large part to the unremitting agitation of untold thousands of activists over the last couple decades, power plants are slowly cleaning up their act. If the northeastern states are successful in their efforts to strengthen the Clean Air Act and call the power industry to accounts, it’s just barely conceivable that someday snow will once again be good enough to eat.

My mother says she doesn’t remember the recipe she used for snow ice cream. Here’s one I found on-line that’s probably pretty close. The author’s childhood memories mirror mine.

Of the most ancient origins,
who can tell the story?
Before “above” and “below,”
how to venture a description?
With light and darkness undivided,
who can discriminate between this and that?
The supposed chaos of forms without substance –
how do we know anything about it?

Thus begin the Questions of Heaven (Tian Wen), a 4th-century B.C. text from southern China. This short book consists entirely of questions, addressing first cosmology, then mythology and history. Modern scholars have their own questions about the work: why was it compiled? What genre should we assign it to?

One traditional view is that it may have been a kind of final exam for candidates to public or ritual office in the ancient kingdom of Chu. Thus, we should read the title as “Divine Questionnaire.” But David Hawkes, translator of Ch’u Tz’u: Songs of the South – the larger anthology of works that includes Tian Wen (Oxford U.P., 1959) – argues that the questions are in fact riddles. “One of the indications that the questioner . . . is neither asking for information nor challenging accepted beliefs is the frequency with which he uses kennings and other riddling devices in order to conceal the subject of his questions . . . If this explanation is correct, it would seem to follow that [Tian Wen] was written as pure entertainment, and not with a view to fulfilling any religious or philosophical function.”

Although there is obviously a strong riddling quality to the work, I am more inclined to view it as a collection of questions for Heaven. (Heaven was still personalized as a divinity during the time it was written.) In other words, I see it as a secularized, poetic version of the questions posed ritually to Heaven during divination. The I Qing (I Ch’ing) and its innumerable commentaries testify to the immense philosophical significance accorded to the arts of divination in ancient China.

And in fact, one of the companion texts to Tian Wen, Bu Zhu, consists of two brief dialogue-stories in which the limits of divination are assessed. Both address the mythic poet-scholar-public servant Chu Yuan’s Hamlet-like dilemma (in Hawkes’ translation):

“‘Is it better,’ Chu Yuan asked [the diviner Jan Yin] ‘to be painstakingly honest, simple-hearted and loyal,
Or to keep out of trouble by welcoming each change as it comes?
Is it better to hoe the weeds and put one’s strength into husbandry,
Or to win a name for oneself by dancing attendance on the great?
Is it better to risk one’s life by speaking truthfully and without concealment,
Or to save one’s skin by following the whims of the wealthy and high-placed? . . .
Of these alternatives, which is auspicious and which is ill-omened?
Which is to be avoided and which is to be followed?
The world is turbulent and impure:
They call a cicada’s wing heavy and a ton weight light;
The brazen bell is smashed and discarded; the earthen crock is thunderously sounded.
The slanderer proudly struts; the wise man lurks unknown.
Alas, all is silence: no one knows of my integrity.’
Jan Yin threw aside the divining stalks and excused himself.
‘There are times,’ he said, ‘when a foot is too short; and there are times when an inch is too long.
There are times in which the instruments [of divination] are of no avail, in which knowledge can give no enlightenment.
There are things which my calculations cannot attain, over which the divinity has no power.
My lord, for one with your mind and with resolution such as yours,
The tortoise [shell] and the divining stalks are really unable to help.'”

In the other dialogue, a cynical fisherman advises him basically just to “go with the flow” and ape his corrupt lords. Chu Yuan’s famous suicide by drowning is anticipated in the mean-spirited suggestion that he try to become more like the fish.

The posing of questions without obvious or immediate answers may possess superior powers to educate or enlighten: one thinks immediately of the koan (gong-an), literally “question/response,” in which the response is not merely provisional but tailored to the needs of the questioner and the exigencies of the occasion. To quote more or less at random:

“What was [Bodhidharma’s] purpose in coming from the West?”
The Master replied, “[You must be hungry after such a long trip;] there’s gruel and rice on the long bench!”
(Master Yunmen, trans. by Urs App, Kodansha, 1994)

“What was the intention of the Patriarch [Bodhidharma] when he came from the West?”
The Master replied, “What good is it to mumble in one’s sleep in broad daylight?”

The closest modern literary parallel to Tian Wen of which I’m aware is by the indefatigable Pablo Neruda, El Libro de las Preguntas, or The Book of Questions. This is one of his last and most playful works, ably translated by William O’Daly for Copper Canyon Press (1991). It begins:

Why don’t the immense airplanes
fly around with their children?

Which yellow bird
fills its nest with lemons?

Why don’t they train helicopters
to suck honey from the sunlight?

Where did the full moon leave
its sack of flour tonight?

A similar playfulness infects the last poems of the equally prolific William Stafford. (Despite my gentle mocking of him the other day, I do place Stafford in the same class as Neruda – two of the greatest poets of the last century.) In “Facts” he questions the most basic data of received opinion about the world:

‘Zurich is in the Alps.’ I learned
that, and had a fact. But I thought the Alps
were in South America. Then I learned
that’s the Andes – the Alps are somewhere
else. And Zurich is famous, for something.

So I gave up fact and went to myth:
Zurich is the name of a tropical bird that
whets its bill on the ironwood tree in south America
singing about life and how good facts are. . . .

Another poem in the same collection (Even in Quiet Places, Confluence Press, 1996), echoes the traditional reading of Tian Wen: an existential questionnaire.

My NEA Poem

A blank place on the page,
like this here “______,”
means, oh it means,
you know, but not said.

And it is better when you come to these
“______”s again
to leave blank places.

But some people
get a grant
and want to show
artistic freedom;

So all they say is,
and “______.”

Also among Stafford’s final works are the almost effortless-seeming Methow River Poems, written in answer to a request from a couple of imaginative forest rangers for a series of poetry road signs. Out of the twenty he submitted, seven were ultimately chosen to be etched and mounted on signs along the North Cascades Highway in Washington state. These are poems that, in a very understated way, go to the heart of our call-and-response relationship with the world,

. . . the elaborate give-and-take,
this bowing to sun and moon, day or night,
winter, summer, storm, still – this tranquil
chaos that seems to be going somewhere.
(“Time for Serenity, Anyone?”)

In the Afterword to Even in Quiet Places, William Stafford’s son Kim asks, “What do we make of a line like, ‘How you stand here is important’? The line hardly says anything, asserts nothing in particular, turns in place clear as water or air.” He goes on to describe an incident from his youth in which his father deflected the attention of a gang of Hell’s Angels solely by adopting “the most pronounced nonchalance I had ever seen, a kind of studied slouch. His baggy pants helped, and the way he leaned back into his left heel, face turned up. It was the quiet, the insistent, the unmistakable posture of a pacifist: Nothing is going to happen. You can do as you will. You will not draw me into violence.

I can’t help thinking William Stafford would’ve given a more useful response to the disgraced exile Chu Yuan than either the diviner or the cynical fisherman.

Suddenly this dream you are having matches
everyone’s dream, and the result is the world.
If a different call came there wouldn’t be any
world, or you, or the river, or owls calling.

How you stand here is important. How you
listen for the next things to happen. How you breathe.

William Stafford, “Being a Person”

Cross-reference: The world of the riddle.

Heraclitus the Obscure: as Heidegger notes, this was his reputation even to the ancients who had access to his intact works. He lived near Ephesus in Asia Minor in the 6th-5th centuries B.C., and apparently spent at least part of his life as a hermit in the mountains. His writings are lost; all we have are fragments preserved among the critiques and summaries of others.

Aristotle, in Rhetoric:
“It is difficult to punctuate Heraclitus’ writings because it is unclear whether a word goes with what follows or with what precedes it. E.g. at the very beginning of his treatise, where he says:
Of this account which holds forever men prove uncomprehending,
It is unclear which ‘forever’ goes with.”

From what one may surmise about Heraclitus’ belief-system and love of riddles, is it not conceivable that such ambiguities were planted deliberately to confound the pedants? Incidentally, the use of such ambiguous pivot-words was highly prized by the classical Japanese poets. Elusiveness and allusiveness were thought to go together; some measure of obscurity was required to elicit the strongest aesthetic response.

From Hippolytus (Refutation of All Heresies) we learn that Heraclitus may have preached the existence of a monad similar to the Dao of his presumably unknown contemporaries in China. Hippolytus clearly indulges in a rather free interpretation, however, in order to cast Heraclitus into the role of a proto-Christian heretic:
“Heraclitus says that the universe is divisible and indivisible, generated and ungenerated, mortal and immortal, Word and Eternity, Father and Son, God and Justice.
Listening not to me but to the account, it is wise to agree that all things are one,
says Heraclitus. That everyone is ignorant of this and does not agree he states as follows:
They do not comprehend how, in differing, it agrees with itself – a backward-turning connection, like that of a bow and a lyre.
That an account exists always, being the universe and eternal, he says in this way:
Of this account which holds forever men prove uncomprehending, both before hearing it and when they have heard it. For although all things come about in accordance with this account, they are like tiros as they try the words and deeds which I expound as I divide up each thing according to its nature and try to say how it is.
That the universe is a child and an eternal king of all things for all eternity he states as follows:
Eternity is a child at play, playing draughts: the kingdom is a child’s.

All these quotes are translated by Jonathon Barnes, in Early Greek Philosophy (Penguin, 1987), with the exception of the following (also originating in Hippolytus), which is poet W. S. Merwin’s version (used as the epigram for his book The Lice). Heraclitus said,
All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice: they said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”

It seems that Heraclitus used paradox to suggest more than mere nominalism; like Laozi and Zhuangzi, he apparently felt that the limitations of language reflect unconscious biases of perspective:
The sea is most pure and most polluted water: for fish, drinkable and life-preserving; for men, undrinkable and death-dealing.
Also in a strongly Daoist vein are reports that he stressed the pig’s use of mud and the chicken’s preference for dust or ashes to bathe in, with the implication that human values are without ultimate significance.

Hippolytus claims that Heraclitus preached the undifferentiation of terms such as up and down, straight and crooked, dark and light, good and bad. But elsewhere it appears that he did not believe such opposites fully dissolve into One, but maintain a dialectical separateness. How much of this was playfulness or koan-like riddling is of course impossible to tell. According to one source, he took advantage of the ambiguity of the word “bios,” which meant both “life” and “bow”:
The name of the bow is bios, its function death.
In a similar vein, he is said to have thought that the mortal and the immortal feed off each other:
Gods are mortal, humans immortal, living their death, dying their life.

One of the briefest fragments seems to contain the quintessence of Heraclitus’ teachings:
Nature likes to hide itself.
But the word translated here as “nature,” according to Heidegger (Early Greek Thinking, trans. by David Krell and Frank Capuzzi, Harper and Row, 1984) should be interpreted more along the lines of “emergence” or “upsurging” than “essence of things,” which is impermissible before Plato. This makes it more of a piece with the other sayings about opposites, i.e., “The emerging longs for concealment.” (The rest of Heiddeger’s analysis strikes me as a reconstruction no less fanciful than that of Clement or Hippolytus, the difference being that Heidegger sought an ancestor where the other two wanted a foil.)

The popular favorite among the sayings of Heraclitus is reported from several sources, but the version with which most of us are familiar comes from a paraphrase by Plutarch. “For it is not possible to step twice into the same river, according to Heraclitus, nor to touch mortal substance twice in any condition: by the swiftness and speed of its change, it scatters and collects itself again – or rather, it is not again and later but simultaneously that it comes together and departs, approaches and retires.”

The ordinary interpretation holds that a simple acknowledgement of mutability is meant, but Plutarch’s last phrase implies that some more radical notion is in play. This impression is reinforced by another version:
We step and do not step into the same river, we are and we are not.
Is this a comment on time, on being – or both?

Heraclitus may have viewed motion as intrinsic to life; Theophrastes reports that he cited a kind of beer, evidently consumed while still in an active state: “The barley-drink separates if it is not moving.”

Then, too, it appears that water or moisture in his cosmology was closely identified with the source of life and death. It is interesting to speculate to what extent the phenomenon of fermentation may have played a role in shaping this view, since yeast was the prototypical activating spirit in much pre-modern thought. (In English, “ghost” and “yeast” are cognates.) According to Numenius, “Heraclitus says that for souls it is pleasure or death to become moist, and that for them the fall into mortal life is pleasure; and elsewhere that we live their death and they live our death.” And John Stobaeus cited various sayings that suggest Heraclitus preached temperance, including:
A man when he is drunk is led by a boy, stumbling, not knowing where he goes, his soul moist.
A dry soul is wisest and best.

This may point to a wider critique of desire or attachment, in the Buddhist sense – a logical extension of the insistence that thinkers look beyond appearances and not get caught up in ultimately illusory discriminations. It may also relate to his famous distaste for the bacchanals of the worshippers of Dionysius, for mobs in general, and for violence.
You should quench violence more quickly than arson.
The people should fight for the law as for the city wall.

And Justice is strife, he is reported to have said.

By “strife,” however, he probably meant something akin to the notion of a dynamic equilibrium. He scorned the raving prophetesses of Asia Minor for never yielding to mirth. He had little time for either great philosophers or the ignorant who looked up to them, and refused the role of law-giver when it was offered to him by the Ephesians. Truth should be sought in the particularities of life, a bow that bends back upon itself. According to one source, Heraclitus likened seizing upon a single moment, being or event to the attempt to find the beginning or end-point of a circle. Any given point contains both a beginning and an end.

For the present, then, I’ll conclude this brief chrestomathy with a sketch by Timon, quoted in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, keeping in mind the Heideggerian interpretation of emergence or rising as key to “essence”:
Among them Heraclitus the mocker, the reviler of the mob,
the riddler, rose up.

For it may be in the role of trickster or adversary that we can best understand what he was up to, this distant cousin to both Zhuangzi and the mythic Aztec sorcerer Tezcatl-Ihpoca, the Enemy of Both Sides.

In winter, figure and ground trade places. The leafless trees stand out against the snow, allowing more comprehensive and more intimate views of the forest. The composition of whole stands is now more immediately obvious; one can pick out the big trees and the snags, see where saplings crowd a recent windthrow gap, admire the contrast between deciduous and conifer, straight and twisted, rough-boled and smooth. Up close, details of the bark delight the eye in the same way as do the winter resident songbirds. The lightning stripes on whistlewood and the melancholy, five-note whistle of the white-throated sparrow alike lead the mind onto untrodden paths – which is more than metaphor, of course. Winter is, above all, a summons to discovery.

Given sufficient depth of snow, most logs and other impediments to off-trail wandering are buried and forgotten, and the clumsy snowshoe becomes an instrument of relatively free and easy exploration. And the snow gives one so much more to investigate! For those of us who are not expert trackers, it is a source of constant revelation. This shallow depression with an imprint of feathers on either side marks where a ruffed grouse spent the night, having flown headfirst into a snowbank and pulled a quilt of powder over it so as to leave no tracks for a predator to follow. But this indentation, also flanked by wing prints, marks the literal end of the path for a white-footed mouse. Here the arrow-straight lope of the tireless coyote; there the fantastic tangle of prints where courting cottontails fandangoed in the moonlight.

But the new freedom the winter offers can’t be won without effort. Every new trail-breaking is a labor; familiar routes that in summer months could be covered in an easy half-hour before dinner now assume the proportions of an epic struggle. One grows accustomed to the slightly metallic taste of oxygen-hungry blood crowding the small vessels of mouth and throat. But that has its limit, and one shares with the other animals a certain preference for the road more traveled by. On a walk early last week, I found myself following an old trail of bootprints which showed signs of having been used by more than one pair of human feet. The original pioneer had laid a course that doubtless many others had followed, step by step. The tracks had been partially covered by that morning’s snowfall, but were still in use. Sometime earlier in the day a coyote had come through, carefully placing its paws in the indentations to avoid the deeper snow in between. A white tailed deer had followed suit sometime later, and now here I came with my snowshoes obliterating the whole record.

I fell to thinking about prints in general: are they ever really erased? Or do they simply await new techniques, new ways of seeing, for their recovery? I had just been reading about how researchers in Iceland are using remote sensing tools that measure electrical resistance in the earth in order to locate where the turf walls of houses had been 1000 years ago. Correlated with layers of ash from known volcanic eruptions, and mapped with GPS data, archaeologists are able to uncover the patterns of human dwelling through time and space. Clued in by an anomaly in architecture found elsewhere only at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, they believe they have discovered the very longhouse built by the fierce Gudrid upon her return from Vinland.

Of course, this is no different in kind from countless other discoveries arising from the meticulous and ingenious sleuthing of archaeologists. I am struck especially by the results of excavations of unprepossessing spots – certain riverbanks out west where people cleaned and dried salmon for millennia, for example. Better yet, good camping places rediscovered anew by parties of hunters and wayfarers for ten thousand years: I am thinking of course of the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in southwestern Pennsylvania, home to some of the earliest remains of human habitation in North America. Radiocarbon datings as old as 14,000 years B.P. have been suggested for artifacts from the deepest layers; much more recent deposits have yielded evidence of the earliest maize (ca. 350 B.C.) and the earliest squash and ceramics (1115-965 B.C.) in the region. But how many other such sites just like it still await discovery?

Think of photography: not so much an invention as a discovery of how to preserve the imprint of light and shadow on certain insoluble salts of silver. I am especially charmed by the efforts and enthusiasm of the legions of self-styled lomographers, whose populist aesthetic seeks nothing less than to document the entire surface of the earth at every moment. They are, in a sense, archaeologists of the present.

Ogotemmeli, the blind Dogon elder whose discourses on traditional religious ideas were such a revelation to ethnocentric French anthropologists of the mid-20th century, emphasized above all else the importance of seeing patterns as the path to true wisdom. The universe is given shape by a series of primordial Words of increasing complexity, which Marcel Griaule (Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas, Oxford U.P., 1965) likened to the three dimensions of Euclidian geometry. The first Word was the line of braided fibres, which could be made into clothing – the fundament of civilized existence. “It manifested on earth the first act in the ordering of the universe and the revelation of the helicoid sign in the form of an unbroken line,” Griaule discovered. “For the fibres fell in coils, symbol of tornadoes, of the whirlings of torrents, of eddies and whirlwinds, of the undulating movements of reptiles.” The second Word, less occult, was the revelation of the arts of spinning and weaving, and the third was the fully three-dimensional granary, originally modeled on an inverted, woven basket. And the granary became the template for the entire cosmos, echoed in a plethora of other symbols: the termite mound; the spindle-whorl; the head of the smith’s hammer, his four-sided anvil, and his invisible female side; the very torso of the twinned divinity (Nummo).

Weaving is a form of speech, the Dogon say, and cultivation is a form of weaving. Patterns define our membership in the human race: to be naked – without the patterning Word – is to be speechless. But the animals, lacking speech, are in some measure superior, “because they belong to the bush and do not have to work,” Ogotemmeli explains. The possession of patterns and the intelligence to perceive and elaborate them is thus a highly ambiguous thing, Griaule found. It seems that the speaking and the speechless are intimately intertwined in a manner directly analogous to the relationship between the civilized and the wild. “‘The animal,’ said Ogotemmeli finally, ‘is, as it were, man’s twin.'”

Fascinating that the African – so similar in his outlook to the European in many ways – can advance an apologia for civilization that does not presume the obliteration of all competitors and the triumphant imposition of the human pattern upon all wild Nature. This morning, as I prepare to go off to a meeting of the Pennsylvania Wildlands Recovery Project, I am thinking that we Americans would do well to trade our rigid, either/or dichotomies for the more flexible and forgiving dualities perceived by sages such as Ogotemmeli.

Humans, like coyotes, are denizens of the in-between, the savanna, the forest edge. Now, through ecology and evolutionary biology, we are beginning to descry intricate patterns where before we had seen mere disorder. We are discovering just how much our own survival – including the survival of the imagination – is linked to the preservation of wild habitat. Wilderness, in our own culture, exists under the sign of the untrammeled. But some human trammeling is benign and necessary: the song, the poem, the drawing or photograph. The rock shelter with its ancient fire ring. We need to learn new ways to interweave the trammeled and the untrammeled: to see in the speechless wild, as Ogotemmeli did, the completion and perfection of the divine Word.

Everyone strives to learn what they don’t know;
few strive to learn what they already know.
– Zhuangzi

I stare at the keyboard as if willing the poems to come forth
& damn me if they don’t! Letter by letter
like the heads of grouse chicks popping up
through the dense grid of feathers
on their mother’s back.
Car & horse switch places back & forth –
a not uncommon thing to happen in a dream –
but what I remember in the shower is how,
when the bottom dropped away & the wheels
became swimming, circling hooves,
a raft of sea ducks lifted from the far shore.
Sure it’s corny to write about birds as angels
but May Swenson can, & gets away with it.
I think now of the sharpie that missed his prey
yesterday by the bird feeder & slammed
full force into the bow window. I ran out
onto the porch in time to see him drop
from a momentary perch in the cedar
& land head-down in the snow, tail twitching.
A half-hour later, dinner in the oven,
I look again: gone. The first juncos
are returning by twos & threes to
the strewn millet.
On snowshoes crossing the wind-
groomed field, sun at
my back, the hissing granules
in motion around my feet

now & again rise like
genies released from their lamps
to spin, veering off
across the field

or growing to sudden whiteout
that tempts me to turn, gaze full
into the sun’s
nimbus of wind! Then calm again,

the sharp silhouettes of spruce
take shape on the hill. I turn back,
under the trackless sky
resume my plodding, trailing behind

this long blue figure whose outlandish legs
lift high with every step,
deliberate as a heron stalking
shimmery fish.
Bill Stafford – rest in peace – was dead
wrong. Daily practice may make poems,
but to stop at one’s an impossibility – at least
for those of us, less given to gravity,
in whom enthusiasm rises almost
to the level of possession. Get thee hence,
old workshopper – I’m not buying.
I would trade a hundred inspired lines
for a half-dozen real evening grosbeaks
crowding into the feeder on any
January morning.

NOTES: The May Swenson poem referenced is “Angels at ‘Unsubdued.'”
William Stafford – in many ways the godfather of contemporary North American poetry – is famous for encouraging poets to write a poem every day. For one recent appreciation, see here.

1. The apple of the eye

“Incline thine ear unto me, and hear my speech,” prays the ancient Hebrew psalmist. “Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings” (Psalm 17:6,8). Might the non-religious person, too, give voice to one’s innermost feelings and still preserve our essential privacy and sense of wholeness? Is this not what it means to bear witness: to attest to the truth of our experiences without violating the essential mystery of our personhood?

“In the common man’s perception facts appear with a minimum of significance, while to the artist the fact overflows with meaning; things communicate to him more significance than he is able to absorb. Creative living in art, science and religion is a denial of the assumption that man is the source of significance; he merely lends his categories and means of expression to a meaning that is already there. Only those who have lost their sense of meaning would claim that self-expression rather than world-expression is the purpose of living.”
– Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1951).

Amen! The cant about poetry being important primarily as a form of self-expression has always irritated the hell out of me, so I was delighted to stumble across this passage while idly re-reading the first few chapters of Heschel’s manifesto this morning.

Let me hasten to add that I do recognize the importance of writing and other artistic endeavors as forms of therapy. For girls and women, whose thoughts and experiences have traditionally been devalued by the would-be arbiters of taste, the confessional mode – in which “what I really think” and “what really happened to me” are of necessity foregrounded – is said to be especially empowering. Well and good! But of what use is power so obtained if it doesn’t prompt one to go beyond the boundaries of the mundane self – to give voice to the world-self in all its ineffable wonder? That, after all, is the prerogative that male thinkers and artists have sought to preserve for themselves throughout the millennia. Was our mythic mother Eve thinking of mere self-expression or self-aggrandizement when, with her smooth-tongued helper, she obtained the forbidden fruit?

As a sweet apple reddens
on a high branch

at the tip of the topmost bough:
The apple-pickers missed it.

No, they didn’t miss it:
They couldn’t reach it.

– Sappho (trans. Jim Powell, Sappho: A Garland, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1993)

If the root purpose of art is to try and give shape to nameless longings, intuitions and aspirations – to engage in world-expression, or counter-creation as the critic George Steiner puts it – then surely some tact, some reverence toward our material is called for. If poets wish to put some portion of their naked selfhood on display, let them remember that they are as much a mystery to the discovering eye as any other portion of the cosmos. Let artists in the confessional mode strive to be nude rather than naked: the eye must be entranced, not invited to vivisect.

2. Ourselves as others see us

We Anglo-Americans are particularly weak at showing (self)respect and practicing hospitality. Our love of superficial verity – “That’s just the way I am,” “I am just being honest with you” – is childish. At best, we are charmingly innocent; at worst, we are boorish and even brutal in our obliviousness to the feelings of others.

Keith Basso’s study Portraits of “The Whiteman”: Linguistic Play and Cultural Symbols Among the Western Apache (Cambridge U.P., 1979) is one of the few anthropological studies to focus squarely on what happens when the natives turn anthropologist. Through sheer chance (a tape recorder left on when he left the room) Basso stumbled across a genre of improvised comedy in which the Western Apache ape the stereotyped oddities of the Whiteman – a caricature that will strike most readers (myself included) as uncomfortably familiar.

This a funny book and a good read. I will confine myself to listing those Anglo-American traits that Apaches find particularly mystifying or obnoxious, according to Basso (pp. 48-55):

1. “There is no word in Western Apache that corresponds precisely to the English lexeme friend. The nearest equivalent is shich’inzhoni (‘toward me, he is good’), an expression used only by individuals who have known each other for many years and, on the basis of this experience, have developed strong feelings of mutual respect. In contrast, Apaches note, Anglo-Americans refer to and address as ‘friends’ persons they have scarcely met, persisting in this practice even when it is evident from the things they say and do that they hold these individuals in low esteem.” Indians all over the continent are of course painfully aware of this bizarre predilection: the “forked tongue” phenomenon.

2. “Except among persons who enjoy close relations, such as husbands and wives, unsolicited queries concerning an individual’s health or emotional state constitute impertinent violations of personal privacy. If an Apache wishes to discuss such matters, he or she will do so. If not, they are simply nobody’s business. But Anglo-Americans make them their business, and they go about it with a dulling regularity that belies what Apache consider an unnatural curiosity about the inner feelings of other people. This is interpreted as a form of self-indulgence that in turn reflects a disquieting lack of self-control – the same lack of control, Apaches say, that manifests itself in the prying queries of young children and the unrestrained babblings of old people afflicted with senility.” Ouch!

3. The way Anglos publicly acknowledge an individual’s entrance or exit from a gathering, with much fuss and fanfare, can cause that individual to feel “isolated and socially exposed in a way that can be acutely uncomfortable.” Basso nowhere says so, but this kind of gulf in behavior must relate in part to sharp differences in belief about the reality of witchcraft. In many parts of the world, calling undue attention to others or toward one’s self, one’s possessions, etc. is an open invitation to ensorcelling envy (the evil eye, e.g.). However one prefers to think about witch-beliefs, the fact is that in close-knit, village societies, envy is perhaps the single most dangerous and disruptive emotion; every effort must be made not to arouse it.

4. Closely related to this is the taboo against use or overuse of personal names. To many native peoples, the “Whiteman” most appears as a sorcerer in light of his persistent violation of this taboo. “Calling someone by name is sometimes linked to temporarily borrowing a valued possession . . . Just as rights of borrowing imply friendship and solidarity, so do rights of naming . . . Persons who name too much, like persons who borrow too often, can be justly accused of engaging in an obsequious form of exploitation that violates the rights of others. . . . Whitemen are observed to use the same name over and over again in the same conversation. This practice is harder to understand [than the mere use of someone’s name immediately upon learning it]. A frequent explanation, only slightly facetious, is that Whitemen are extremely forgetful and therefore must continually remind themselves of whom they are talking to.” Ouch, again!

5. Constant physical contact – actually, any physical contact, especially between adult males – is regarded with extreme discomfort and alarm, including handshaking and backslapping. (White politicians are not real popular on the rez, apparently.) And as in many cultures, “prolonged eye contact, especially at close quarters, is typically interpreted as an act of aggression, a display of challenge and defiance.” Anecdotal observation suggests to me that this taboo, like the previous two, is in fact observed to some extent among sub-groups of Anglo-Americans as well. Appalachian whites, for example, are similar to Apaches in valuing personal privacy and individual autonomy above all else; preferring understatement to loud acclamations; and engaging in frequent joking among male friends as a substitute for, or sublimation of, aggression. Though handshakes are not avoided, I have often observed avoidance of formal introductions and especially of eye contact. Probably many rural folks would feel much the same way about people from suburban or urban backgrounds as the Western Apache do toward stereo-typed Anglos in general: that they (we) are “entirely too probing with their eyes and hands . . . indicative of a weakly developed capacity for self-restraint and an insolent disregard for the physical integrity of others. As one of my informants put it,” Basso concludes, “‘Whitemen touch each other like they were dogs.'” Arf!

6. What we may consider essential components of hospitality are frequently interpreted by the Apache as arrogant and offensive. This includes insistent invitations to “Come on in!” and “Have a seat!” Basso says, “If a visitor to an Apache home wants to enter it and sit down, he will quietly ask permission, wait until it is given, and then find an unoccupied space within. If not, he will state his business at the door, conduct it there or at a short distance away, and depart after a requisite exchange of pleasantries.” We have often observed this kind of circumspection among our rural Appalachian neighbors, as well. In this regard, I might add, the local importance of front porch sitting is more easily understood. The porch is an extension of the doorway, a neutral space between private and public realms where informal greetings, news and gossip may be exchanged and where folks can come and go, sit or stand as they please, without formal invitation. “To insist that the visitor come inside, to command him, is to overrule his right to do as he pleases,” Basso says.

7. In general, Apache find the way in which Anglos suggest that others do things extremely bossy. Indirection is preferred. For example, instead of suggesting that someone ought to wear a coat if they go hunting, an Apache would say something more innocuous like, “There sure are a lot of mosquitoes around.” Again, the culture of rural whites in Central Pennsylvania exhibits a milder form of the same reserve. The cardinal sin – judging from the number of times one is joked about it – is “getting a swelled head,” thinking one is better than anyone else. At a job site, workers will typically take much longer to perform a task than impatient managerial types deem necessary or efficient – hence the widespread perception of PennDOT workers, for instance, as ass-scratchers and shovel-leaners. On closer inspection, however, the reason for these delays quickly becomes obvious: everyone must be consulted before every major decision. The boss must be very careful to at least go through the motions of consulting the other workers, lest he be perceived as arrogant and obnoxious and lose the respect of his men. This kind of work-place democracy among the laboring classes in Anglo-Saxon society probably goes back a thousand years or more.

8. Another behavior regarded by many Anglos as an expression of courtesy is also seen as discourteous by Apaches: urgently inquiring of a guest what s/he wants or needs in the way of food, drink, etc. Apaches don’t like any questioning that appears to require an immediate response. This deprives others of their right to think things over before speaking. “Apaches agree that Anglo-Americans are inclined to ask too many questions and to repeat the same question (or minor variants of it) too many times. This gives them the appearance of being in a state of extreme hurry and aggravated agitation, which, besides being distinctly unattractive, sometimes causes them to lose sight of what Apaches take to be an obvious and important truth: carefully considered replies to questions are invariably more reliable (because less likely to be retracted or modified) than replies that have been rushed.”

9. The propensity of Anglos to speculate about misfortune and adversity – especially sickness and death – is highly alarming. Talking about trouble is held to contribute to the likelihood of its occurrence; hence, Apaches have the impression that we are “eager to experience hardship and disaster.” This may not be as absurd as it sounds. In the sickroom, such discussion should indeed be nearly taboo, in my opinion. A trusted doctor who pronounces that a patient has so many months to live – unless specifically pressed for such information by the patient himself – should be stripped of her office for violation of the Hippocratic directive, “First, do no harm.” (In Japan, by contrast, doctors will go to extreme lengths to avoid suggesting that patients might be on the way out.) On the other hand, I have the impression that speaking of one’s own death or other personal disasters in a joking fashion – gallows humor – is one very effective way to challenge their power over the imagination – and hence, possibly, to ward them off.

10. Comments regarding the personal appearance of others are widely criticized by Apaches. This has to do, again, with the taboo against directing public attention toward someone. Apaches strenuously avoid the kind of self-consciousness that Whites actively cultivate through minute, constant attention to their own personal appearance. Apaches believe that “Whitemen are deeply absorbed with the surfaces of themselves, an obsession that stems from a powerful need to be publicly perused and to be regarded as separate and distinct from other people.” One informant expressed amazement at the way Anglos look each other over, and the way we strive “to look different all the time. Some change clothes every day.” This critique gathers force when one considers the tremendous burden this looking-over behavior places on poor people in this country to always look and dress their best. It is only the well-to-do who can afford to look slovenly in Anglo society. Interestingly, in pre-modern Europe, crops, livestock and other forms of wealth that had been ensorcelled were said to have been “overlooked” – i.e., looked over by the witch’s envious eye.

11. When Western Apaches imitate Anglo speech, they use a fast, loud and “tense” manner quite opposed to their own cultural preference for low, soft and deliberate speaking. Apaches are fond of saying that “Whitemen are angry even when they’re friendly.” By contrast, as linguist Deborah Tannen noted in a recent essay, people from fast-talking societies, such as Manhattan, tend to regard slow, deliberate speech as a sign of dull wit. (See Languagehat for some additional reactions to this essay.) For what it’s worth, my personal preference is for somewhere in the middle, being on the one hand an inveterate blurter, but neither quick nor witty enough to effectively compete with a Manhattanite!

From “Emerging God,” by Philip Clayton. The Christian Century, January 13, 2004:

“In one sense it’s a truism to note that things emerge. Once there was no universe and then, after the Big Bang, there was an exploding world of stars and galaxies. Once the earth was unpopulated and later it was teeming with primitive life forms. Once there were apes living in trees and then there were Mozart, Einstein and Gandhi. But the new empirical studies of emergence move far beyond truisms. A growing number of scientists and theorists of science are working to formulate fundamental laws that explain why cosmic evolution produces more and more complex things and behaviors, perhaps even by necessity. Especially significant for religionists, they are also arguing that the resulting sciences of emergence will break the strangle-hold that reductionist explanations have had on science.

“These scientists turn our attention to ‘the laws of becoming’: the inherent tendency toward an increase in complexity, self-organization, and the production of emergent wholes that are more than the sum of their parts. Perhaps, many suggest, it’s a basic rule or pattern of this universe that it gives rise to ever more complex states of affairs, ever new and different emergent realities. (See Stuart Kauffman’s Investigations and Harold Morowitz’s The Emergence of Everything.) Assume that these theorists are right and that it is an inherent feature of our universe to produce new types of entities and new levels of complexity. What might this fact tell us about the existence and the nature of God?

“Traditional theology looked backward: it postulated God as the cause of all things. Emergentist theology looks forward: it postulates God as the goal toward which all things are heading. Moreover, if God stood at the beginning and designed a universe intended to produce Jesus, then God would have to use deterministic laws to reliably bring about the desired outcomes. Where the deterministic processes, on their own, are insufficient to produce a theologically acceptable world, God would have to intervene into the natural order, setting aside the original laws in order to bring about a different, nonlaw-like outcome. Divine action then becomes the working of miracles, the breaking of laws; and God becomes, paradigmatically, the being whose nature and actions are opposed to nature. This opposition of God and nature has been disastrous.

“Emergence, in contrast, suggests a very different model of the God-world relationship. In this model God sets in motion a process of ongoing creativity. The laws are not deterministic laws but ‘stochastic’ or probabilistic: although regularities still exist, the exact outcomes are not determined in advance. More and more complex states of affairs arise in the course of natural history through an open-ended process. With the increase in complexity new entities emerge-the classical world out of the quantum world, molecules and chemical processes out of atomic structures, simple living organisms out of complex molecular structures. Then come complex multicellular organisms, societies of animals with new emergent properties at the ecosystem level, and, finally, conscious beings who create culture, use symbolic language-and experience the first intimations of transcendence.

“CONCEIVED ACCORDING to the model of emergence, God is no longer the cosmic lawgiver. The result is a far cry from Calvin’s God, who must predestine all outcomes ‘before the foundation of the world.’ Instead, God guides the process of creativity. God and creatures together compose the melodies of the unfolding world, as it were, without preordaining the outcome. Emergentists note that this God must rejoice in the unfolding richness and variety, apparently willing to affirm the openness of the process and the uncertainty of particular outcomes. On this model, God’s finite partners are the sum total of agents in the world, and all join in the process of creation. In Philip Hefner’s beautiful phrase, we become ‘created co-creators’ with God.

“Finally, in the emergence model God does not sit impassively above the process, untouched and unchanged by the vicissitudes of cosmic history. Instead, there must be emergence within God as well. God is affected by the pain of creatures, is genuinely responsive to their calls, acquires experiences as a result of these interactions that were not present beforehand-all ideas familiar to readers of process theology (or Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God). Ultimately, is not such a picture of God closer to the biblical witness than the distant God-above-time of classical philosophical theism?”

If you want to read the rest of the article, it’s available online only through the ProQuest database. Your local public or college library may subscribe – but then, they probably get the Century too – a lot of good articles in this issue.

As a new mythology, this has real promise. However, as the article also acknowledges, it really isn’t all that new: emergence theology is basically just pantheism with a twist. And pantheism is no better than traditional theology at explaining such urgent questions as “the mystery of evil,” as Clayton calls it.

I suppose I am most interested in the more mundane applications of the emerging discipline of emergence. I’ve studied forest ecology to some fair extent and it has occurred to me more than once that a mature forest ecosystem is an “emergent whole that is more than the sum of its parts.” (And needless to say, I’m for anything that promises to “break the stranglehold that reductionist explanations have had on science.”)

Yesterday my mother forwarded a copy of the lengthy expose on child sex slavery in the U.S., “The Girls Next Door” by Peter Landesman, from the NY Times Magazine. Even though I thought I already knew all this stuff, still, as they say, the devil is in the details. Here are a few of the details I found particularly disturbing:

“Andrea told me she was transported to Juarez dozens of times. During one visit, when she was about 7 years old, the trafficker took her to the Radisson Casa Grande Hotel, where there was a john waiting in a room. The john was an older American man, and he read Bible passages to her before and after having sex with her. Andrea described other rooms she remembered in other hotels in Mexico: the Howard Johnson in Leon, the Crowne Plaza in Guadalajara. She remembers most of all the ceiling patterns. ‘When I was taken to Mexico, I knew things were going to be different,’ she said. The ‘customers’ were American businessmen. ‘The men who went there had higher positions, had more to lose if they were caught doing these things on the other side of the border. I was told my purpose was to keep these men from abusing their own kids.’ Later she told me: ‘The white kids you could beat but you couldn’t mark. But with Mexican kids you could do whatever you wanted. They’re untraceable. You lose nothing by killing them.'”

“‘They’d get you hungry then to train you’ to have oral sex, she said. ‘They’d put honey on a man. For the littlest kids, you had to learn not to gag. And they would push things in you so you would open up better. We learned responses. Like if they wanted us to be sultry or sexy or scared. Most of them wanted you scared. When I got older I’d teach the younger kids how to float away so things didn’t hurt.'”

“‘There’s a vast misunderstanding of what coercion is, of how little it takes to make someone a slave,’ Gary Haugen of International Justice Mission said. ‘The destruction of dignity and sense of self, these girls’ sense of resignation. . . . ‘ He didn’t finish the sentence.”

“There were streams of Web pages of thumbnail images of young women of every ethnicity in obvious distress, bound, gagged, contorted. The agents in the room pointed out probable injuries from torture. Cyberauctions for some of the women were in progress; one had exceeded $300,000. ‘With new Internet technology,’ Woo said, ‘pornography is becoming more pervasive. With Web cams we’re seeing more live molestation of children.’ One of [the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency]’s recent successes, Operation Hamlet, broke up a ring of adults who traded images and videos of themselves forcing sex on their own young children.”

“[T]he supply of cheap girls and young women to feed the global appetite appears to be limitless. And it’s possible that the crimes committed against them in the U.S. cut deeper than elsewhere, precisely because so many of them are snared by the glittery promise of an America that turns out to be not their salvation but their place of destruction.”

“Even Andrea, who was born in the United States and spoke English, says she never thought of escaping, ‘because what’s out there? What’s out there was scarier. We had customers who were police, so you were not going to go talk to a cop. We had this customer from Nevada who was a child psychologist, so you’re not going to go talk to a social worker. So who are you going to talk to?'”

I’d been planning to blog on the question of evil, but it’s such a huge topic. In some ways theology and mythology help us get a grip on it, but in other ways they simply muddy the water. (Throwing in the whole problem of suffering, for instance, is a distraction. Job’s conundrum, the problem of cosmic or situational evil – i.e., when bad things happen to good people – has really nothing in common with questions about what the Rabbis wisely identify as the Evil Urge.) Psychology helps a little too, but it doesn’t tell us what we most need to know – such as, why be good at all? Where does altruism come from? How can love, which seems so weak and puny, overwhelm terror and hatred, sometimes even cure indifference – arguably the greatest sin of all? My evolving position on the question of evil is partly liberal (just following rules and obeying commandments isn’t enough) and partly conservative (bad backgrounds, mental instability, etc. do not excuse or even always help to explain the origin of evil in the human heart).

But this morning, the catharsis of writing a poem in the style of my guru Ai (Cruelty, Killing Floor, Sin, Greed, etc.). Sometimes I think the only rational response to radical evil is the practice of radical empathy – even if one still feels at some level that bastards like this deserve to die slowly. It is easy to speak for the victim; who will speak for the perpetrator? Is the exercise even worthwhile? Does it ennoble or diminish us, to try and see the world through the eyes of sick, violent psychopaths?

For those who aren’t familiar with it, please click on the link and read the entire 19th chapter of Genesis.


Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man;
let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you,
and do ye to them as is good in your eyes . . .


We crouch
before You: two sinners
filled with darkness. Who
made us so
but You? This daughter
of mine, already a harlot,
and I a sometime preacher: each
a little of the dove, a little of
the serpent. Belly to belly
with the dust. If I were nothing
but my sin, would I
still crave, time & again, those
whistling wings her
fingers around
the parts of me oh God that are most
apart from You?
Ah, these wide
brown eyes, the little animal
aching its back, knocking against
the ribcage, ah, the temblors that shake
the flat plain of her chest!
Not too much longer & yes, corruption
will flower here too: original sin,
twin cities puffed with hubris.
I have read in Your Book how
the righteous Lot offered
his own daughters to the mob –
to no good end. What
happens afterward is no different
from any of this. In the end
no one is spared, not even
the wife. Your fire descends
and descends. There is no
clean start.

The more I read about other cultures, the more the uncomfortable conviction grows in my mind that the history of human civilization exemplifies no “upward” progress, but instead progressive disintegration and alienation from the primordial wellsprings of life and spirit. Think, for example, of the supposed conflict between freedom and determinism that so distorts our ability to respond meaningfully to things, to events, to human and non-human others. And such relief one feels, simply to realize that, as phenomenologist Alfonso Lingis points out, “the movements of perception – both the controlled perception which is scientific observation, and the continual perception which is the scientist’s, and our, life – are neither reactions nor adjustments nor intentional and teleological acts, but responses (The Imperative, Indiana U.P., 1998).”

Every culture exhibits ethnocentricity to some extent. For centuries Europeans have described non-Western ways of thought according to a hierarchy that enshrined their own mastery of mechanical technique as the apex to which all others should strive. Thus, cultures appear more or less primitive according to how closely they resemble us (ignoring the fact that such resemblance, in the case of those most like Europeans – Chinese, Arabs, Indians – may derive simply from past culture-sharing). But I suspect that a more accurate understanding of historical evolution would depict cultural preferences as a series of trade-offs. The economic energy generated by the freeing of Western European peasants 1000 years ago may have been largely responsible for the material success and eventual global domination of European civilization. But the vast majority of us are still in thrall to a worldview that seems simplistic, even childish compared to what anthropologists have documented among peoples for whom the alienation of individual from “environment” was nowhere near so complete.

The problem is that civilizations project their social orders upon the cosmos. East and West, from ancient Egypt onward, the logic of empire dictated – or “overcoded,” as Deleuze and Guattari would say – a logic of unities (Dao, Brahman, God, Logos). Only now do we begin to suspect that the true relationships between such binary opponents as freedom and determinism, one and many, subject and object only seem paradoxical as a consequence of the radical attenuation of vital perceptual faculties and the parallel loss of conceptual and linguistic tools.

Since I have already referenced Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, I might as well go ahead and quote them at length. (They are two more of those thinkers, like Paul Feyerabend, whom I have been consciously avoiding because I would like to (re)discover what they uncovered on my own, though the reading of anthropology, history, ecology, poetry.) In A Thousand Plateaus (University of Minnesota Press, 1987) they developed the idea of the rhizome – which for me evokes primarily the fungal kingdom (but more on that some other time) – as a better model for material reality:

“[U]nlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states. The rhizome is reducible neither to the One nor the multiple. It is not the One that becomes Two or even directly three, four, five, etc. It is not a multiple derived from the One, or to which One is added (n + 1). It is composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion. It has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle [milieu] from which it grows and overspills . . . When a multiplicity of this kind changes dimensions, it necessarily changes in nature as well, undergoing a metamorphosis. Unlike a structure, which is defined by a set of points and positions, with binary relations between the points and biunivocal relationships between the positions, the rhizome is made up only of lines . . . ”

The lines of a dance, of a flock of blackbirds wheeling and swirling. The barely fathomable lineaments of coevolution, which is to say, being/becoming as a kind of meshwork (net, internet) of mutual responses, dimension upon dimension. The lines of a string game elaborated to fill the long darkness of the Arctic winter with the mystery and wonder of transformation, a cat’s cradle. Reading Tom Lowenstein’s Ancient Land: Sacred Whale (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1993) last night, I was struck by his description of this game in a lengthy footnote. Perhaps inevitably, as a Westerner, he begins with the apparent essence:

“First, there are the figures themselves whose construction was in harmony with Inuit knowledge of anatomy and the way people made their weapons and equipment. This knowledge of articulation was of special importance to Tikigaq hunters. The composite structure of weapons, traps, and much ritual equipment was modeled on the way that bodies were jointed. Parallel to this and to string-game symbolism were the etched magical diagrams that showed animal silhouettes filled with ‘X-ray’ skeletons or a horizontal ‘lifeline’ which represented a ‘string’ of the soul element.”

Incidentally, this same motif of the lifeline occurs in the traditional pottery designs of Zuni Pueblo; much else that is “Deleuze-Guattarian” could be pointed out among the Pueblo and other agriculturists. A rhizomatic understanding of space-time, however it may be symbolized, is not particular to, say, a hunting-gathering culture as opposed to an agricultural-gathering-hunting one. But to resume:

“An important three-dimensional version of these allusions to body and spirit was the string game – cat’s cradle – which was often accompanied by songs and stories. The medium was a loop of sinew or skin cord whose patterns were developed in two phases. The first was a slow, deliberate weaving in which the outer frame was constructed. This was followed by a series of manipulations which filled the structure with lines, rings, knots and nooses, each part of which was sufficiently tense to stay in place, while flexible enough for the next transformation.

“Flicking and scrambling through each minutely controlled sequence, the fingers created a series of narrative concatenations. Each movement of the diagram had its moment of identity. The forms that hopped, twitched and ran up and down the frame were semi-abstract narrative animations. Most string games showed animals in archetypal, often comic situations . . . Mythic archetypes were guyed and inverted . . .

“But play was brief and, though often technically spectacular, somewhat casual. Like animals that pop up and then vanish, string-game creatures briefly came to life and then melted away . . .

“[W]hether in the hand of a child or an adult the string game was a shamanistic process. Just as shamans constructed magical familiars from dead material and sang life into it as they went, so string-game players hummed over their making, and a creative and destructive process was enacted.”

Barbara G. Myerhoff (Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians, Cornell U.P., 1974) offers a convenient summary of anthropological thinking about so-called primitive thought: that the “savage mind” (Levi-Strauss) embraces a “logic of participation” (Levy-Bruhl) whereby human emotional states and/or moral conditions are believed to influence natural events (Evans-Pritchard). I wonder if these hyphenated thinkers would have called the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi and the great literary prophets of the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, etc.) primitive? Like most ancient writers outside the Greco-Roman orbit, their “savage minds” too assumed that moral choices had natural repercussions. By contrast, the binary logic of Aristotle is predicated upon the abstraction of human thinker/actor from matter/matrix. Since Parmenides our thinkers have seen no delicate meshwork but at best the jealous Hephaestus’ cunning trap, at worst the Gordian knot, an atom to be split. The natural repercussions are not far to seek in a world that has been rent limb from limb. Grasping for “primitive” (i.e., originary) concepts, we speak in hushed terms of holocaust, the burnt offering. In fact, this is a complete misapprehension of the “logic of participation” that guides, too, the priestly knife. An offering to what or whom, save our own hubris?

Influenced by Deleuze and Guattari, I am thinking this morning that the logic of participation is still very much with us, and not merely among artists and mystics. I am constantly encountering people – often those with little formal education – in whom mind, body and world are highly congruent and interlinked. They are hunters, homemakers, mechanics, bus drivers. Whether taciturn or loquacious, they have a way with words – which is to say, with the manipulation of the loose and shifting knots we call symbols.

The difference is that some cultures actively encourage this way of knowing, whereas we actively seek to suppress it through “education.” I was fascinated to learn that one of the traditional practices still prevalent among Bering Sea Inuit, Inupiak and Yupiit is sand-drawing by children – specifically girls. It used to be that their fathers would make elaborately carved ivory “storyknives” or yaaruin for their daughters; today, metal tableknives have largely taken their place. The girls use standard sets of symbols, which vary from village to village, to illustrate imaginative stories upon a canvas of scraped mud or wet sand. (The book Inua: Spirit world of the Bering Sea Eskimo, Willaim W. Fitzhugh and Susan Kaplan, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982, shows examples of storyknives and a reproduction of a traditional knifestory.) The point is that, despite what Lowenstein says about people believing that the myths were true (well, they certainly wouldn’t have viewed them as “archetypes”!) children – and especially girls – were encouraged to play with them, to alter the details if necessary, even to completely subvert them.

Why girls? I imagine this relates to the once-pivotal importance of the female shaman, as the compass point around which her shaman-husband circled in his search for game animals. During the Tikigaq whale hunt, for example, her participation was seen is pivotal: the whole time the men are out, she must remain in a state of apparent inactivity – actually meditation, though the anthropologists’ informants were circumspect about the details – and in some sense she even becomes the whale whom the men seek. This is the logic of participation par excellance.

For both boys and girls, in all societies where survival is closely linked to knowledge of the land/water, the crucial thing is to develop mental maps – in the broadest sense of the term – that are both extremely accurate and highly adaptable. If the various Inuit peoples seem extraordinary to us in this regard, it is simply because the conditions under which they lived were so extreme. Their “stone age” technology was sophisticated, yes, but it didn’t end with merely physical tools. The multiple directives Lingis enumerates – “in the night, the elements, the home, the alien spaces, the carpentry of things, the halos and reflections of things, the faces of fellow humans, and death” – could not be escaped by a permanent flight into hedonism or asceticism, though both were honored in their season.

“Make a map,” our guides Deleuze and Guattari advise, “not a tracing.” This is the sort of stuff one has to read slowly, several times, to fully digest:

“Make a map, not a tracing. The orchid does not reproduce the tracing of the wasp; it forms a map with the wasp, in a rhizome. What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious. It fosters connections between fields, the removal of blockages on bodies without organs, the maximum opening of bodies without organs onto a plane of consistency. It is itself a part of the rhizome. The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation. It can be drawn on a wall, conceived of as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation. . . . A map has multiple entryways, as opposed to the tracing, which always comes back ‘to the same.’ the map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an alleged ‘competence.'”

I wondering now, quite irrelevantly, about the cat in the cat’s cradle. Given that, in pre-modern European thought, the housecat is perhaps the most common familiar or spirit-guardian, I wonder if we can see in our own versions of the string game some repressed memory of shape-shifting, the shamanic dance of nodes across a rhizomatic field?

Update: Thanks to my brother Mark (a Deleuzian scholar and geographer) for reading this over and reassuring me that I am on the right track! I changed only my initial description of the D-G rhizome from “analogy” to “model.” Mark commented (in part) “you can never over-literalize DG; only misconstrue. Most people’s problem is that they assume DG are simply constructing Derridean castles in the air in some sort of cosmic jack-off; they totally miss the fact that DG are attempting to describe and explain how the world/cosmos works. They miss this because to them, the world outside human perception is unattainable, ‘socially constructed’, the ‘Real’ (Lacan), etc., etc. So there
are loads of folks out there trying to playfully use ‘deterritorialization,’ trying to be cute, not understanding that this is a term with a precise definition–a term describing a ‘function’ (actually something more than that, because ‘function’ evokes narrow-minded functionalism).”

I think this is definitely a case of “the less you know in advance, the better!” In response to my defense of using D-G (not to be confused with G-D) for aid in describing intuitions/manipulations of supra-mundane realities (in which they did not believe), Mark replied just now that “the mix-and-match, experimentation (though there’s more of this in Anti-Oedipus) is in the spirit of enjoying and using DG. They are interested in affects, not essences–if Lingis and DG work for you, then they are happy. In DG’s world, what a thing does/is capable of is what determines what it ‘is.'”

I like to think of philosophy like this (phenomenology, broadly defined) as “common sense raised to a higher power.” (But if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably already knew that.) Metaphysics is only interesting to me to the extent that it is useful. And good myths are interesting not as Jungian archetypes but because they are things of beauty. Myths are true in the exact same way that poems are true.

Cross-references: Qarrtsiluni and Building Dwelling Eating.