On three sides of my cottage
the creek roars HUSH.
Inside, nothing but this
damn computer!


Out on the porch at 4:00 a.m.
to watch the snow melt.
You laugh, but listen:
the fog came and went.
returned. You
can ask the moon.


A raccoon thought it was
the only one awake.
The two of us can’t be alone
on one porch.


Before the snow came
to stay, I had visitors.


I still remember the hound dog look
on that hound dog’s face
when he squatted to take a shit.


When the snow finally recedes, I find
the meadow voles have made off
with half my lawn.


Every spring, bigger holes
show a little more of the spring
that runs
under the lawn.
To ease confusion, let’s call the season


Instant poems for immediate post.
My letter to the world, Emily.
A weblog instead of a steamer trunk.


Read ’em while they’re fresh.
I’ll make more.

Braided creek

Take the wisdom-in-brevity of The Greek Anthology, combine using the renku verve of The Monkey’s Straw Raincoat, and season with the bloozy spontaneity of Lightnin’ Hopkins. The result should come out quite close to Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry (Copper Canyon Press, 2003). I can’t describe it any better than the back cover blurb – which is the only word of explanation:

“Longtime friends, Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser always exchanged poems in their letter writing. After Kooser was diagnosed with cancer several years ago, Harrison found that his friend’s poetry became ‘overwhelmingly vivid,’ and they began a correspondence comprised entirely of brief poems, ‘because that was the essence of what we wanted to say to each other.’

“In these epigrammatic, aphoristic poems, two accomplished poets explore love and friendship and their passionate search for a little wisdom, pausing to celebrate the natural world, aging, everyday things and scenes, and poetry itself. When asked about attributions for the individual poems, one of them replied, ‘Everyone gets tired of this continuing cult of the personality…This book is an assertion in favor of poetry and against credentials.”

I was reminded of this book, which I just acquired last year, by an interchange about Jim Harrison in a comment thread at Tom Montag’s blog. Since two of my most lyrical blogging compatriots think so highly of him, I guess I’d better hie me to the local university library and check out some of his other books.

In the meantime, I’m sure the best way to introduce Braided Creek to you all would be to reproduce a given section of four or more poems in sequence. But as I read around in it this morning, I kept encountering individual verses that reminded me of the blogs and bloggers I follow most faithfully, along with one or two of Via Negativa’s most patient readers.

This, for example, brought to mind a recent post of CB’s:

The one-eyed man must be fearful
of being taken for a birdhouse.

and this another (I’d link to the individual posts, but the links don’t seem to work):

Imagine a gallery
where all the paintings
opened and closed their wings!

For Tom Montag, Marco Polo of the Middlewest:

So the Greeks had amphorae
with friezes of nymphs.
We have coffee mugs with ads
for farm equipment!

Plus this one, surely written by Harrison up in Michigan:

The old Finn (85) walks
twenty-five miles to see his brother.
Why? “I don’t have no car.”

For the Zen dog-walker Lorianne – aside from the mismatched gender, this seemed perfect:

“What would I do for wisdom,”
I cried out as a young man.
Evidently not much. Or so it seems.
Even on walks I follow the dog.

For Helen and Harry, soldiering on through the night and fog at Unknown News:

DNA shows that I’m the Unknown Soldier.
I can’t hear the birds down here,
only politicians shitting out their mouths.

This one reminded me of Beth, the indomitable curator of the Cassandra Pages:

I might have been a welder,
kneeling at a fountain of sparks
in my mask of stars.

For Dale, whose often details the difficulties of precise visualization and other aspects of his Vajrayana practice:

Oh, to write just one poem
that would last as long as that rose
tattooed on her butt!

And in a slightly more serious vein:

The sparrow is not busy,
but hungry.

For Ivy, a real poet who uses emoticons in her comments, and ponders such practical issues as how to conduct oneself at a poetry reading:

The poet holds the podium
in both hands
like a garbage bag full of words.

I have mentioned several times my friend the Voudun initiate. He is also a self-styled wizard and – more to the point – the official archivist of this weblog. His name, too, is Dave. This one’s for you, old hound:

My wife’s lovely dog, Mary, kills
butterflies. They’re easier than birds.
I wonder if Buddha had dog nature.

Then there’s the blithe spirit who reads but rarely leaves a trace, my friend the Sylph. Our conversations sound a bit like this. She admonishes me:

Some days
one needs to hide
from possibility.

And I reply:

Turtle has just one plan
at a time, and every cell
buys into it.

But Caliban always thinks he can be Prospero, I admonish myself.

What prizes and awards will I get for revealing
the location of the human soul? As Nixon said,
I know how to win the war but I’m not telling.


Please support Copper Canyon Press – if you already own Braided Creek, buy some of their other titles. They’re doing it right.

Giving ourselves up

From the AP’s daily dispatch of disinformation comes this puzzling statement:

Without ruling on el Motassadeq’s guilt, the appeals court said the lower court erred because it failed to consider whether the lack of direct evidence from Binalshibh should have influenced its decision.

A lawyer for relatives of Sept. 11 at both trials, Andreas Schulz, said Thursday’s ruling “will certainly be met with incomprehension” by them.

What does it mean to brag about one’s own (or one’s clients’) willful ignorance in this context? Could ignorance be somehow essential to innocence, that sine qua non of victimhood? It certainly inspires more pathos to imagine (say) new prisoners at Auschwitz actually believing the death camp’s motto, “Arbiter Macht Frei” (Work Makes [You] Free). But what about those among the prisoners who were both well aware of the fate that awaited all the camp’s inhabitants, and who were appointed by the Nazis to positions of power over their fellows? Doesn’t the consideration of their fate and motives somewhat muddy the “moral clarity” that neo-conservative nabobs are always nattering about? What does it mean to talk about “victim’s rights” if the right to reconciliation, the right to hold or withhold forgiveness, is routinely overshadowed by the demand for retribution? Should the wronged party in fact be permitted to claim a right to retribution, or should simple recompense suffice?


I wonder if the victim of a crime can ever be repaid in the way that retributive justice seems to demand. In Germanic tribal law, blood guilt could only be averted through arbitration, and the victim (or the victim’s next of kin, in the case of murder) agreeing to some settlement, usually monetary. For truly heinous crimes, exile was the severest penalty. By contrast, in our supposedly more enlightened society, most people don’t see anything wrong with making someone pay for murder, say, by depriving them of freedom and dignity and subjecting them to privation and often extreme violence and psychological trauma for the rest of their life. And we consider this more humane than simply executing them, which at least has the advantage of proportionality to the crime.

“Primitive” law codes, written or unwritten, express a tautological truth that many seem now to have lost sight of: that the legal system was developed to avert lawlessness. Lawlessness, in tribal societies such as those of the ancient Germans or Western Semitic peoples, did not mean primarily “lack of obedience to authority,” because authority tended to be fluid and decentralized. Rather, social disorder equated to illegitimate violence: another tautology. Better to say: disproportionate violence, violence that spirals or threatens to spiral out of control. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” may seem vengeful, but in fact it was intended to replace “an arm for an eye and your firstborn’s life for my tooth.”

What is it about the cycle of revenge that tends to send it spiraling out of control? Years ago my father came up with a physical analogy to describe what happens when individuals remain mired in their own points-of-view. “‘I was willing to go halfway, but he was not!’ How many times do we hear this sort of statement advanced as self-evident proof of reasonableness and good intentions?” my father asked rhetorically. “But here: let’s look at each other from a few feet away. Now, I am going to put my finger where I think the halfway point is. You do the same.” Between our fingers a gap of a few inches remained.

His conclusion: we each have to be willing to go more than half-way toward the other, from our own perspective, if harmony is to be preserved. There must be give as well as take. Is this not the root meaning of forgiveness, I wonder: to give in excess of that which strict justice would seem to require?


Martin Luther King: “Peace is not merely the absence of war, it is the presence of justice.” In this sort of usage, I think, justice is invested with a broader meaning that encompasses both fairness and harmony. It includes seeing oneself as another and seeing another as oneself. To practice respect, to engage in hospitality. It’s not so difficult, really. As the quote with which we began this inquiry strongly suggests, willful ignorance is essential if we are to cling stubbornly to our own perspectives, insist on our unique and fundamental victimhood. No qualifiers are permitted; nuance is impossible. It is an outrage. The very ground cries out for blood.

But simple hospitality and mutual respect do not suffice to bring about social harmony. For proof, one need look no farther than the perpetually warring tribesmen of northern Yemen, or other parts of the world where the canons of hospitality are strictly observed. A more radical form of hospitality seems to be in order, one that transcends bilateral relationships to perceive the intricate web in which we all move, human and non-human alike, the living and the dead and the generations yet to come.

What might such a perspective entail? What are its preconditions? Does it depend upon religious institutions for its propagation, or might it flourish more readily beyond their reach? These are each huge questions; any answers I propose now or in the future must remain highly tentative.


A few angles of approach do suggest themselves. One is the possible centrality of the very kind of unknowing that has been the underlying theme of this weblog. In contrast to willful ignorance, which involves a self-conscious refusing to look/hear/understand, what I call “unknowing” describes a realization of inadequacy to anything approaching full and comprehensive vision/hearing/apprehension. Knowing that one doesn’t know is essential to understanding, both at the mundane and supramundane levels. At the supramundane level, I suppose, one comes acropper of the unknowability of Creation, the way in which the material world exceeds mater/matter at every turn – the way in which “a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” And “more beautiful is the hunt than the pelt,” as the Dutch proverb has it, because when that which is hidden gives itself up for dead, we run the great risk of accepting a diminished role as killer, rather than recipient of a gift which is never fully deserved.

So we can perhaps draw a parallel with the religious concept of faith – not in the usual Christian sense of blind, unwavering belief in absurd propositions, which probably belongs more under the heading of willful ignorance. What I have in mind here is something more universal: the religious person’s sense that they must give themselves up to a higher or deeper power. “No gesture is more significant,” says the philosopher Gabriel Marcel, “than the joined hands of a believer, mutely witnessing that nothing can be done and nothing changed, and that he comes simply to give himself up.” Or in that wonderful phrase of Heschel’s I quoted last week, “Faith is not a product of our will. It occurs without intention, without will. Words expire when uttered, and faith is like the silence that draws lovers near, like a breath that shares in the wind.”

There is a feyness to such faith – a sense of ourselves as hunters no longer, but helpless prey. Lambs of God the great predator. I am reminded of a Vishnavite devotional painting that depicts the petitioner stretched supine across the knees of a multi-armed, multi-headed manifestation of the Godhead, Whose foremost arms end in the razor-clawed forepaws of a lion. The petitioner has been disemboweled; the Divinity’s fangs drip with blood. The petitioner gazes upward, rapt, enraptured.

This sounds horrific until one recalls that god and worshipper are not immutable roles. From the vantage-point of evolution, humans appear as both predator and prey. In the strictly religious realm, one goal in many traditions is personal transcendence through moksa, nirvana, imitatio Christi, etc. God can die within us (in the dark night, in the cloud of unknowing) just as we can die within God. When we partake of the sacrificial lamb or the wafer or the psychadelic mushroom, we are consuming the flesh of God, dissolving it within our own bellies. In these and many other ways, individual human beings are encouraged to strive for a realization that experience and thoughtful reflection tells us is beyond our powers. We need to somehow unite our own inadequate power with what the Pure Land Buddhists call simply Other-Power.

Usually outside the religious realm (at least here in the West) is the self-transcendence experienced during sex. But sex is an interesting case because, at least in its heterosexual form, it contains the implicit promise of a form of literal self-exceeding not possible with other altered states. (The Vajrayanists might argue with me here. I don’t discount at least the possibility of emanation-bodies and the like.) The literature on so-called entheogens – mind-altering drugs used for religious purposes – does suggest that shared visions are possible and even common, at least in some South American traditions. And as Andrew Weil once pointed out, the mind can be trained to do on its own anything that it can be made to do through chemicals. This, incidentally, may reduce the sense of dependence on gods and spirits but, if anything, increases one’s reliance on Other-Power in the form of the guru. Be that as it may, we should be careful not to succumb to the current fashion of treating sex as the standard by which all other self-transcending experiences must be measured. (Western science, too, can breed a form of fundamentalism!)


This discussion of self-transcendence brings us back to the subject of my two most recent posts. Recall, first, Tedlock’s comments about the Newekwe transcending all boundaries. Recall too how the Mudheads offered a graphic representation of material or biological being as grotesque. In the medieval European culture of the carnival, we saw the material body celebrated for its self-transcendence. “It is a body in the act of becoming . . . It is continually built, created, and builds another body. Moreover, the body swallows the world and is itself swallowed by the world,” Bakhtin writes.

This returns us to the dance of predator and prey: “the gaping mouth, the teeth, the swallowing” are central images in the popular-festive system, connecting life and death, the banquet and the underworld. In greater Mesoamerica, of which Zuni was a far-flung part, the swallowing and disgorging underworld merged with the image of the world serpent (roughly analogous to the Sumerian Tiamat, ancestral to the West Semitic Leviathan).

In the Zuni worldview, culture involves a necessary but somehow tragic relinquishing of power: we are literally and figuratively less than our animal selves. Zuni creation myths offer an indigenous analogy to the now-discredited Darwinist myth expressed in the formula “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” The Zuni believe their ancestors emerged from their original home in the dark and watery underworld with webbed fingers and toes, tails and extra sets of genitals on their heads – they were all basically Mudheads. Interestingly, it was a sinister character known as the First Witch who performed the job of civilizing the ancestral Zuni, bringing death into the world at the same time. I am greatly oversimplifying, of course, but this ought to give at least a hint of the kind of deep ambiguity with which the Zuni view our separation from Nature, and the utopian idealism that motivates their efforts to escape the tyranny of death and the dailiness of civilized existence. Levi-Strauss was sufficiently impressed by Zuni theorizing (as recorded originally by Frank Cushing and translated into French) to title one of his influential volumes on structuralist anthropological theory The Raw and the Cooked.

The notion here is of humans as eaters-of-cooked-food who “are what they eat.” Before a newborn can be given a name, shown the sun and welcomed into the world, it must first be “cooked”: placed in a bed of gently heated sand every day for ten days. The originally African practice of circumcision involves a somewhat related realization that to be civilized is to be reduced or refined (the analogy here is with metallurgy and alchemy).

Frank Cushing himself, in his ever-popular monograph Zuni Fetiches, captures the Zuni understanding of their position in the chain of being through a formulation just general enough to permit comparisons with a large number of traditional societies the world over. “The animals, because alike mortal and endowed with similar physical functions and organs, are considered more nearly related to man than are the gods; more nearly related to the gods than is man, because more mysterious, and characterized by specific instincts and powers which man does not of himself possess.”


But of course modern science must show these ancient intuitions to be inaccurate, right? I’m not so sure. The capacity of other animals to experience joy and sorrow, to dream, to anticipate, to recognize their own images in mirrors are fairly well attested now. Several years ago, in an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, psychologist Frans B. M. de Waal reviewed the literature on empathy in rats and monkeys and concluded that, if anything, these creatures displayed more empathy than humans might have shown under similar circumstances. “Perhaps the most compelling evidence for the strength of empathy in monkeys came from a group of psychiatrists led by Jules Masserman at Northwestern University. The researchers reported in 1964 in the American Journal of Psychiatry that rhesus monkeys refuse to pull a chain that delivers food to themselves if doing so gives a shock to a companion. One monkey stopped pulling the chain for 12 days after witnessing another monkey receive a shock. Those primates were literally starving themselves to avoid shocking another animal, clearly a stronger reaction than that of the rats in [Russell] Church’s experiments.”

De Waal proposes some possible explanations for the existence of empathy. One is “emotional contagion” – the way in which even human infants will experience distress at the distress of another. De Waal notes that, though many theorists consider emotional contagion a peculiarly human trait, he has observed it quite commonly among infant rhesus monkeys as well.

“In all of those studies, the most likely explanation of the rats’ and monkeys’ behavior seems to be what, in humans, is called personal distress. That means that the acts of apparent kindness are not based on a concern about the other’s welfare but rather are a way of dealing with the distress of seeing the distress of another individual. For example, young children often get teary-eyed and upset – and run back to their mothers for reassurance – when they see another child fall and cry. They cry not because they are concerned about the other child, but because that child’s emotions vicariously overwhelm them. It is only later, when children develop a distinction between self and other, that they learn to fully separate another’s emotions from their own.”

Or to put it another way, animals and young children experience distress at the distress of another because they have not (or not yet) learned to fully distinguish between themselves and others. As cultured animals, human beings differ from the others not so much in our “level of consciousness” – an obnoxious conceit that implies a hierarchical arrangement with guess who at the top – but in our degree of self-consciousness. That is, our alienation. Thus there is, I believe, a trade-off. And rather than exhaust my limited supply of adjectives along with whatever remains of the reader’s patience, I’ll end by quoting from Rilke’s Eighth Elegy (Duino Elegies, translated by Edward Snow, North Point Press, 2000).

With all its eyes the animal world
beholds the Open. Only our eyes
are as if inverted and set all around it
like traps at its portals to freedom.
What’s outside we only know from the animal’s
countenance; for almost from the first we take a child
and twist him round and force him to gaze
backwards and take in structure, not the Open
that lies so deep in an animal’s face. Free from death.
we see death; the free animal has its demise
perpetually behind it and before it always
God, and when it moves, it moves into eternity,
the way brooks and running springs move. . . .


For a Buddhist perspective on what this Open might look like, and how the self might be transcended, see Dale’s discussion of “Ye Emptynesse of Selfe” at Vajrayana Practice

Houston, we have a problem . . .

In yesterday’s post I had wanted to balance Barbara Tedlock’s description of the Mudheads with a quote about Zuni’s other major order of clowns, the Newekwe, but I ran out of room. In any case, so much has been written about the Zuni in the last 130 years, and their society is so unbelievably complex, it would be nearly impossible to do justice to any aspect of their culture in just one or two posts.

I should mention that my familiarity with this literature stems from a project a couple years ago when I was doing research for my book length poem Cibola. Set in the spring of 1539, the poem attempts to re-create the fateful encounter between the Ashiwi (which is what the Zuni call themselves) and the African shaman-conquistador Esteban. Shiwanna (Zuni) then consisted of six or seven separate pueblos that sat astride the main east-west trade route connecting the High Plains with the Pacific – a conduit for goods such as white shell and buffalo hides – and was also at the terminus of a north-south trade route, source of the ritually important scarlet macaw feathers. There is good reason to suppose that the trade in religious ceremonies and spirit beings (call them gods if you wish) was equally brisk. In the mid-nineteenth century, for example, the Zuni received a new dance from their traditional enemies and trading partners the Navajo which is still performed today. This dance was intended as a remedy for a specific disease outbreak; forgive me if I can’t remember which one (most of the materials I consulted were from the university library). And at the end of the nineteenth century, the Zuni were equally grateful for the assistance of Mormons from a nearby settlement in combating another epidemic, though no new ceremony was gleaned from this experience, as the Mormons relied on faith healing through the laying-on of hands.

Thus, the violent reception of Esteban in 1539 was a mysterious anomaly in Zuni’s history of generally peaceful interchange with its neighbors. (In brief, I believe the Esteban-Marcos expedition was correctly understood as the advance guard for a mission of spiritual conquest, based on a few accidental parallels with other such missions that may have occurred periodically in the region, beginning as far back as the rise of the Chaco/Anasazi culture in the 11th century.) What is most important to understand is the absolute centrality of healing – broadly understood as the proper integration of the individual body and the body politic with the cosmos – to Pueblo religion. Like other religious specialists in Zuni, the clowns are, first and foremost, medicine men.

And as a matter of fact, the Newekwe clowns are regarded as the most powerful among all the myriad religious orders. I believe this relates, once again, to the necessity of laughter, farce and parody as a kind of catalyst for all major transformations. Like Ghede in Haitian religion, the Newekwe command the crossroads between the human and spirit worlds. They resemble our image of a clown or jester much more closely than the Mudheads. They perform between dances in most major festivals, and every performance is a completely original skit. They are permitted to break every taboo, and do so with great glee. Such taboo-breaking very often includes the celebration of the material bodily realm – burlesques of sexual intercourse, non-faked consumption of urine and excrement. Nor is the parody of their more serious brethren off-limits. What Bakhtin described as official and unofficial religious expressions, in the case of medieval Europe, here exist side-by side or in alternation.

Newekwe (the second vowel is long, hence it is sometimes written Neweekwe) means something like Milky Way People, but their “cosmic” nature is anything but ethereal. Bakhtin would have been delighted to hear where they locate the center of the microcosmos: exactly where the carnival locates it, in the belly. “Membership [comes] when a person with a stomach ailment [seeks] help from the society. Neweekwe knowledge not only cures stomach aches but enables clowns to eat any kind, or amount, of food or garbage, including human excrement, and to engage in outrageous public behavior without shame,” Barbara Tedlock writes. By all accounts, even from observers who didn’t understand a word of the language, the Newekwe are extremely funny.

Incidentally, if I quote exclusively from The Beautiful and the Dangerous, that’s only in part because I don’t have many other sources at my elbow. It’s simply one of the best books ever written about the Zuni. It ranks with anything by the justly celebrated Frank Cushing, in fact, whose late 19th-century observations, collected in a number of monographs and anthologies, would be my only other source of corroborating quotes if I had them handy.

Newekwe healing can be seen most clearly in the way they help the tribe to adjust to the shocks of change, acting as interpreters for the often very threatening world that presses in from every side. For example, from the time of the Sputnik launch onward, Newekwe performances began to include burlesques of white men in space. And with the moon landing of Apollo 11, Zunis were faced with a “new threat to their religious beliefs. If what the studio cameras recorded was true and not merely a studio fiction, then the Moon Mother, who together with the Sun Father is the ultimate source of all light and life, had been violated by two crew cuts in a metal space capsule. Not only did these men fail to practice sexual abstinence and make offerings of jeweled cornmeal and prayer feathers before they visited the Moon Mother, but they tramped around on her, planting a TV camera, seismometer, mirror array, solar-wind detector, and a permanently curled plastic American flag in her belly. And then, just before departing, they removed nearly fifty pounds of soil and rock, her sacred flesh, without offering her so much as a prayer.” Tedlock’s informants described the whole space program as Exhibit A to support the general contention that white men are all witches, or spiritual adversaries – “harbingers of the coming of death to the world.”

One afternoon shortly after the disastrous Apollo 13 mission, Tedlock joined the rapt audience as “an astronaut clown climbed up on the tallest building in the Old Pueblo and, making a round ball of himself, was tossed aloft in a blanket by a group of clowns. When he landed on the plaza below, he was surrounded by clowns bearing a stretcher. They hauled him over near the central kiva to a group of nurses and doctors, who examined him carefully with their stethoscopes, pounded him all over with their rubber hammers, took his blood pressure, made him pee into a paper cup, gave him a series of shots in both arms and buttocks with a giant hypodermic syringe, then asked him what it was like on the moon. He reported that there were people, animals, mountains, volcanoes, lakes and watermelons – all to howls of laughter.

“Over and over clowns dressed as satellites, rockets and astronauts ran madly around the village, threw one another into the air, and fell off roofs. Finally, in a wonderfully risqué skit, a clown from Houston Control telephoned the moon to talk with ‘The Man in the Moon Mother.’ Audiences laughed and laughed at the absurdity of space exploration . . . ”

The other Newekwe skits Tedlock describes in detail parodied the annual Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial, making fun not just of other Indians but, more incisively, of Indians who play Indians and the white people who love or hate them. Role reversal and travesty abounded: the “Indians” put drunk “Whitemen” in jail; a transvestite sang “Indian Love Call” in a screeching falsetto; make-believe Plains Indian fancydancers rotated on their bellies in the dirt. And to cap things off, the newly elected members of the tribal council were forced to participate in a blasphemous skit mocking their office and parodying their supposed greed.

“Neweekwe clowning, because it revolves around a continuing discovery, or rediscovery, of religious and secular boundaries, provides an anticreed for a religion that lacks any formal creed, or codified body of doctrine. Beyond creeds and anticreeds, the clowns, by their burlesques, display their ultimate detachment from the particulars of religious beliefs of all kinds. . . . In their gluttony the clowns even violate the boundaries of their biological being: not satisfied with saying the unsayable, they eat the inedible.

“Their path is finally that of the Milky Way, arching clear across the night sky. From this perspective, they see boundaries, of whatever sort, as easy hurdles rather than as walls. Which is why they never laugh at their own jokes but, by causing others to laugh at the leaping of a boundary, share a moment of shamanic detachment with the uninitiated.”

Clown societies such as the Newekwe have probably played a central role in the cultural survival of the Pueblo and Din&#233 peoples. As Aldous Huxley seemed to recognize with his portrayal of Zuni in Brave New World, it is quite possible that we will ourselves fall victim to the on-going spiritual conquest of the Americas – and the world, and worlds beyond – long before these wise and good-humored people ever lose their sense of balance – or their bounce.

Barabara Tedlock’s The Beautiful and the Dangerous remains in print. As a Penguin book, it should be easy to order from your local independent bookstore. But here are the links to Amazon and Powell’s for those who, like me, lack that option.

Unlike the Rio Grande pueblos (which were much more traumatized by Spanish rule), Zuni remains open to tourists during its frequent ritual performances, though photography is strictly forbidden. As the official website of the Zuni Tourism Department says, “there are restrictions in place for non-Zunis wishing to witness our religious activities. We ask that visitors respect our cultural privacy by following the appropriate etiquette and guidelines.” Hiring a guide (necessary for any real exploration of the reservation, including ecotourism) should help visitors avoid giving inadvertent offense. Finally, if you can afford it, please be aware that your support of the Zuni arts is vital to the maintenance of their rich ceremonial life. Cottage-industry production of high-quality arts and crafts helps support around 80% of Zuni households, which allows Zunis to maintain control over the single most endangered resource essential to communal spiritual health: time. Throughout Indian Country, the time-pressures of wage labor have been as much if not more injurious to the practice of native religion than all the efforts of missionaries put together.


“Fun, in fact, is institutionalized. Everyone has pompoms on their desks,
which they shake at celebratory moments.”

– David Streitfeld, “No Gain, Know Pain,” Los Angeles Times for March 2, 2004 [no link – registration required, including personal info.]
(via my brother Steve, who says, “The Brave New World of panopticon corporations!”)

Laughing in church

“‘Consider, therefore, whether you won’t consult a fool.’ ‘Upon my soul,’ replied Panurge, ‘I will. I seem to feel my bowels loosening. A moment before they were all tight and constipated. But just as we have chosen the fine cream of wisdom to advise us, so I should like someone who is a fool of the first water to preside over our new deliberations.’ ‘Triboulet seems sufficient of a fool to me, said Pantagruel. ‘A proper and total fool,’ replied Panurge. ‘A fatal fool.’ ‘A high-toned fool.’ ‘A natural fool.’ ‘A B sharp and B flat fool.’ ‘A celestial fool.’ ‘A terrestrial fool.’ ‘A jovial fool.’ ‘A jolly, mocking fool.’ ‘A mercurial fool.’ ‘A merry, sportive fool.’ ‘A lunatical fool.'” (Etc., for three more pages.)
François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel 3:37-38 (trans. by J. M. Cohen, Penguin, 1963)

In the course of my usual coffee-fueled wool-gathering this morning I realized I have yet to write a single line about Rabelais, or about his foremost interpreter, the 20th-century Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin – like his 16th-century mentor – was the rare example of a scholar who seemed to know a lot about everything, and to remember virtually everything he ever read. Most attempts to develop new theories fail because they attempt to synthesize too much about which the author knows too little. Bakhtin had the sense to restrict his scope to a single author (Rabelais in Rabelais and His World, elsewhere Dostoevsky) and let his discoveries and suggestions about their works ripple outward. Thus, instead of writing a comprehensive history or geography of laughter he situates himself at one pivotal point in human space-time – the Renaissance in Western Europe – and looks in all directions from there.

I was reminded of this while reading some Ashanti folktales about the trickster culture hero Anansi, the spider. It was no more than a tossed-off comment of Bakhtin’s about the original character of religion that first gave me, years ago, what I think is an essential interpretive insight into stories such as these. It’s not that Mircea Eliade’s hypothesis of a separate sacred time existing within but somehow completely apart from ordinary time – illo tempore, as he called it – isn’t useful and important in its own right. But Eliade neglected one key factor: the unique power of laughter to bridge the gap between sacred and secular, between the atemporal utopia and the here-and-now, between the spirit and the body. The king and the fool are born under the same horoscope, says Rabelais. Here is the self-important Anansi, perched ridiculously on a cashew shell “as if he were a chief sitting on a carved stool,” abandoning his role as arbiter among the other animals to claim the right of primogeniture for himself:

“‘If you had come to me first, I would have saved you this argument, for I am the oldest of all creatures. When I was born, the earth itself had not yet been made, and there was nothing to stand on. When my father died, there was no ground to bury him in. So I had to bury him in my head.'”
(Harold Courlander, The Hat-Shaking Dance and Other Ashanti Tales From Ghana, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957)

Laughter pulls the ground out from under us, leaves us hanging, as it were, in mid-air. Ordinary laws are suspended (as in Eliade’s illo tempore) but so, too, is all fear and reverence, all sorrow and anger. In fact, if laughter has been generally outlawed by the so-called world religions, it is because it threatens their monopoly on the primal emotions. You can’t laugh in church. Bakhtin notes that “Early Christianity had already condemned laughter. Tertullian, Cyprian, and John Chrysostom preached against ancient spectacles, especially against the mime and the mime’s jests and laughter. John Chrysostum declared that jests and laughter are not from God but the devil. Only permanent seriousness, remorse, and sorrow for his sins befit the Christian.” (Rabelais and His World, trans. by Helene Iswolsky, Indiana U.P., 1984.)

Bakhtin shows, at least within the Western Christian milieu, the central importance of what he calls “the material bodily element” to the unofficial culture of festive laughter. It is, he writes, a “degrading and regenerating principle.” One has only to read accounts of the sacred clowns of the American Southwest and Mexico (see below) to realize the truth of this insight. If Aristotle was right about laughter being a unique and fundamental human trait, what from the perspective of Christian history appears to be a temporary lapse (in what were, after all, the “Middle Ages”) may instead represent a return to the origins of religious expression: “During the Easter season laughter and jokes were permitted even in church. The priest could tell amusing stories and jokes from the pulpit. Following the days of lenten sadness he could incite his congregation’s gay laughter as a joyous celebration . . . The jokes and stories concerned especially material bodily life, and were of a carnival type. Permission to laugh was granted simultaneously with the permission to eat meat and to resume sexual intercourse.”

Laughter and the grotesque were (are) opposed to death and the fear of death through their very celebration of change and renewal. Bakhtin stresses “the essential relation of festive laughter to time and to the change of season. . . . The gay aspect of the feast presented this happier future of a general material affluence, equality, and freedom, just as the Roman Saturnalia announced the return of the Golden Age. Thus, the medieval feast had, as it were, the face of Janus. Its official, ecclesiastical face was turned to the past and sanctioned the existing order, but the face of the people of the marketplace looked into the future and laughed, attending the funeral of the past and the present.” The comic inversions of the folk festivals included travesty/transvestitism; the reversal of hierarchical orders (jesters turned into kings and bishops); parodies of sacred rituals; and of course the celebration of all that was forbidden: drunkenness, gluttony, debauchery.

If I differ with Bakhtin at all it is only in my sense of the relative value of the spiritual/sacred versus the material/festive. My reading of ethnography over the past several years has convinced me that these two principles need not be ideologically opposed; we don’t need to choose between them. I do agree they we would be better to return to a more Rabelaisian, holistic appreciation of laughter. I think Bakhtin describes very well the diminished role of laughter in the post-16th century West, where “the essential truth about the world and about man cannot be told in laughter.”

Our conception of the body has narrowed as well. In contrast to the grotesque and universal body of the carnival, in the modern view bodies are smooth, closed off, private. Serious art and literature studiously ignores nose, mouth, belly and genitals, concentrating instead on eyes and hands. (Think of the language of love poetry, or the Victorian novel.) Whereas “the grotesque body . . is a body in the act of becoming,” the modern body is complete and strictly limited. I can’t help picturing the contrast between the bodies of local working-class people I know – and the kind of earthy humor they tend to indulge in – and the ideal bodily images of Hollywood and Madison Avenue: “That which protrudes, bulges, sprouts, or branches off (when a body transgresses its limits and a new one begins) is eliminated, hidden or moderated. All orifices of the body are closed. The basis of the image is the individual, strictly limited mass, the impenetrable facade. The opaque surface and the body’s ‘valleys’ acquire an essential meaning as the border of a closed individuality that does not merge with other bodies and with the world. All attributes of the unfinished world are carefully removed . . . The verbal norms of official and literary language . . . prohibit all that is linked with fecundation, pregnancy, childbirth. There is a sharp line of division between familiar speech and ‘correct’ language.” Well, fuck that!

Here’s anthropologist Barbara Tedlock (The Beautiful and the Dangerous, Penguin, 1992) describing one of the two main orders of Zuni clowns:

“I gazed at the ten silly-looking, but nonetheless sacred, serious, even dangerous, Mudhead clowns. Adobe-colored beings in tight-fitting cotton masks with inside-out eyes and doughnut-shaped mouths, simultaneously expressing eternal amazement and voracious hunger. Ears, antennae, and genitals (stuffed with hand-spun cotton, garden seeds, and the dust of human footprints) protruded knoblike from their heads. Without noses or hair, they were naked except for lumpy orange-brown body paint, feathered ear ornaments, black neck scarves, men’s woolen kilts, and women’s blanket dresses, concealing their tied-down penises.”

These ten Mudheads – or Dickheads, we should probably call them – were born through a primordial act of incest, and were the original inhabitants of the Zuni land of the dead, Kachina Village. As real beings who somehow inhabit the bodies of the men who play them every year, they represent more than archetypes: each possesses “a distinguishing personality trait and a sacred gift for humankind.

“Molanhakto, with a miniature rabbit snare dangling from his right earlobe, brought native squash. The Speaker, a daydreamer who rarely spoke, and then only irreverently, carried yellow corn. Great Warrior Priest, a coward, brought blue corn. Bat, in his blanket dress, who feared the dark but saw marvelously well in daylight, red corn. Small Horn, who thought he was invisible, white corn. Small Mouth the glum, gabbling and cackling constantly, offered sweet corn. Old Buck, frisky and giggly as a young girl, black corn. Gamekeeper, in his woman’s dress, speckled corn. Water Drinker, always thirsty, toted his water gourd. And Old Youth, the self-centered, thoughtless adviser of the team, brought the clairvoyance locked tightly within the tiny cracks in parched corn.”

In short, a pretty corny lot.

But what about us, us U.S.ians? By and large, for all the vaunted liberation of sexual mores, the tyranny of the official body remains nearly absolute. Freud, by reducing everything to sex, perhaps shares a great deal of the blame for our continuing discomfort in our own skins. Neurosis is endemic to the psychoanalyzed subject. Modern medicine has reinforced the wall between mind and body, which thus by definition can never truly be healed (made whole). This separation breeds many more. Even for those who abandon themselves to carnality, the body remains unreal: filth or idol, something to be whipped, something to be fetishized. Sex and laughter are still very far apart. Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals, religious and secular alike elevate the same, tortured body inhabited by the same lonely and alienated soul.

Whether we flagellate ourselves like the Shi’a commemorating the death of Hussein or ogle the flagellation of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, our sense of what it means to be compassionate is limited, really, to a single emotion: sorrow. But is it not in shared laughter that people feel most akin? If the goal of religion is, as it proclaims, to promote peace and unite humankind, why is laughter still barred from the churches, temples and mosques? We alternate between the supposed poles of sacred solemnity and profane laughter without perceiving that they form a single axis – that axis on which this whole, vast, bulging, fecund and tragicomic world forever spins.

UPDATE: My sometime debating partner (and faithful reader) commonbeauty has written a highly compatible post, partly in response to this, on ‘vernacular bodies’ in the paintings of Bruegel. A brief and wonderful essay about a fascinating subject – check it out.

Raining blood

Historian Howard Zinn reflects on a photo accompanying an article in The New York Times:

“That was Jeremy Feldbusch, twenty-four years old, a sergeant in the Army Rangers, who was guarding a dam along the Euphrates River on April 3 when a shell exploded 100 feet away, and shrapnel tore into his face. When he came out of a coma in an Army Medical Center five weeks later, he could not see. Two weeks later, he was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, but he still could not see. His father, sitting at his bedside, said: ‘Maybe God thought you had seen enough killing.’

“The newspapers on December 30 reported that 477 American GIs had died in the war. But what is not usually reported is that for every death there are four or five men and women seriously wounded.

‘The term ‘seriously wounded’ does not begin to convey the horror . . . ”


My brother Mark is one of those left-wing college profs you always hear about, taking it upon himself to try and open the eyes of his young and impressionable charges to the crimes of the powerful and the true horrors of war. Thus, his reactions to my post on cinematic violence were particularly incisive: we don’t so much need less exposure to violence, he thinks, but more exposure to truly realistic violence. Mark is not, however, an experienced blogonaut, and was flummoxed by Haloscan’s limit of 1,000 characters or less “for a non-upgraded account.” So he resorted to e-mail (which I have edited slightly to remove typos and correct orthography). Being a Latin Americanist he prefers the term “Usian” to “American” to denote a citizen of the U.S.A.

“I agree with all y’all’s points, but I think that seeing so-called ‘real’ gross violence is somewhat therapeutic (it can turn people way from naive support for wars, for example), and I’m pretty sure I’m not a psychopath. It is truly amazing how few of my conservative, pro-war students can stomach the graphic photos from the Middle East, Chechnya, and so forth, that are floating around the web–photos of what it actually looks like to ‘have one’s head blown off’ are apparently enough to change a lot of folks’ opinions. If we could get the smells in there too, you might be able to convince a few more. In comparison, no fictional movie is ever more than one long, faked orgasm. Usians understand violence as something theatrical, and they like it, are drawn to it, for that reason. Because it is primarily something they experience vicariously, they have the feeling in the backs of their minds that they can always run faster/draw first/survive flaming crashes, etc. Show them real photos of severed Algerian heads with penises stuffed in them, or severed heads in Nanking with cigarettes placed in them–they literally run and vomit. No Hollywood movie will ever show that type of stuff, because it’s considered ‘pornographic,’ so it gets an X rating.

“Some will argue that plenty of Usians experience real violence in their own lives, but I think that many who do become inured and in turn, as they have been kicked since they were children, turn around and kick others (collectively, the State of Israel, for example). They have been dehumanized and are I suppose more prone to dehumanize others; many of the sheltered who haven’t, however, in my opinion, should be shown a little real gore–especially [images of] the children we use for ‘collateral’–and of course they should empty their arsenals into their TVs while Fox is on.”


The Saga of Burnt Njal, arguably the greatest of all the Icelandic sagas, does not shy away from graphic depictions of violence, nor – in contrast to contemporary traditions on the continent – does it idealize them. It chronicles a blood feud that spans generations and engulfs much of northwestern Europe. It also describes the 11th-century conversion of Iceland to Christianity, which is depicted as a more-or-less voluntary, collective decision impelled by the need for a unitary, theological basis for the unwritten constitution – a decision strikingly similar to the one just arrived at by the members of Iraq’s (non-)Governing Council. The anonymous Christian author of Njal’s Saga naturally represents this as something favored by the wisest men of Iceland, who see the new religion’s potential for lessening violence.

What the author does not suggest is that the old beliefs were without basis in “reality.” The matter-of-fact narrative style, common to all the major sagas, actually conforms quite closely to the modern idea of realism. This lends considerable impact to the periodic incursions of the weird, the uncanny and the horrific. From the translation by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson (Penguin, 1960):

“On the morning of Good Friday, it happened in Caithness that a man called Dorrud went outside and saw twelve riders approach a woman’s bower and disappear inside. He walked over to the bower and peered through a window; inside, he could see women with a loom set up before them. Men’s heads were used in place of weights, and men’s intestines for the weft and warp; a sword served as the beater, and the shuttle was an arrow. And these were the verses they were chanting:

‘Blood rains
From the cloudy web
Of the broad loom
Of slaughter.
The web of man,
Grey as armour,
Is now being woven;
The Valkyries
Will cross it
with a crimson weft . . . ‘

“Then they tore the woven cloth from the loom and ripped it to pieces, each keeping the shred she held in her hands. Dorrud left the window and went home. The women mounted their horses and rode away, six to the south and six to the north.

“A similar marvel was seen by Brand Gneistason in the Faroe Islands.

“At Svinafell in Iceland, blood fell on the priest’s stole on Good Friday, and he had to take it off. At Thvattriver on Good Friday, the priest seemed to see an abyss of ocean beside the altar, full of terrible sights, and for a long time was unable to sing Mass.”


I used to listen to a lot of music by bands whose lyrics dealt with these kinds of themes extensively – bands with names like Violence, Slayer, Sepultura.

Pumped with fluid, inside your brain
Pressure in your skull begins pushing through your eyes
Burning flesh, drips away
Test of heat burns your skin, your mind starts to boil
Frigid cold, cracks your limbs
How long can you last
In this frozen water burial?
Sewn together, joining heads
Just a matter of time
‘Til you rip yourselves apart
Millions laid out in their
Crowded tombs
Sickening ways to achieve
The holocaust

Slayer, “Angel of Death,” Reign in Blood (Def American, 1986)

I assure you that years of listening to death metal and punk rock did not desensitize me; quite the opposite. By contrast, the much more cerebral, angst-ridden lyrics of so-called alternative bands left me cold. Raw anger seemed, if nothing else, an honest and heart-felt response to the world we live in. But any more, when I hear the latest reports out of Haiti or Iraq, all I can do is weep.

Just one link (because this is not, after all, a political weblog): War Needs Good Public Relations

Via Negativa cross-references: For more on the sagas, see Poetry or vomit? For more on pre-Christian Europe, see Diagnostic test of certain hypotheses about the Old Norse worldview . . .

Dooryard Eurydices

As daylight lengthens, dawn and dusk grow briefer. I’m already in mourning for their gradual demise. That’s what I like best about winter: these long dawns, slow to the point of luxuriousness – though I suppose it seems odd to use that word about such a frozen season. Days like today, when I sleep in until 5:30, I’m not out on my porch until a quarter to 6:00, by which time it’s tempting to linger long past the time when the coffee in my thermos mug begins to cool. (This is about as sybaritic as it gets for me, folks.) I especially like those minutes right before the sun comes up, when the trees are silhouetted against the clear eastern sky, which has progressed from black through indigo through lighter and lighter shades of blue until it appears almost white. The trees’ bare branches are outlined down to the smallest twig, the superimposed crowns creating (from my perspective) an intricate filigree, black on white. Unaccountably, I am in put in mind of graceful models lounging about in lingerie . . .

And it’s usually around this time of year that the northern cardinals add their voices to the still-rudimentary dawn chorus. They start tuning up in late January, but it’s not until mid-February that their contributions become a regular thing, triggered by the lengthening photoperiod. Theirs is not one of more spectacular bird calls, but there’s something cheerful and spring-like about it, and I guess I’m just happy for anything to listen to besides the supremely monotonous peter-peter-peter of the tufted titmouse. To my ear, most of the time what the cardinal is singing sounds like Purty purty purty. Peterson says: “Voice: Song, clear slurred whistles, lowering in pitch. Several variations: what-cheer cheer cheer, etc.; whoit whoit whoit or birdy birdy birdy, etc. Note, a short thin chip.” I believe I have heard all three variations, but I wonder – how can a whistle be simultaneously “clear” and “slurred”?

Despite its common name, the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) ranges from southern Ontario down to Central America. In fact, its expansion north out of Dixie dates only to the 20th century. It is the quintessential dooryard bird, denizen of brushy and edge habitats, and since it doesn’t migrate one gets to see it in all seasons. Both male and female cardinals are spectacular against the snow; I am especially fond of the female’s more muted tones. No fresh snowfall, no matter how gingerbread-y, seems complete until I have spotted both cardinals. Then, pure magic!

Evidently, at least some American Indians accorded the cardinal a prominent role in their sacred stories. According to John Bierhorst (the Mythology of North America, Oxford, 2002), “In an unusual Orpheus myth recorded among the Cherokee, the people of the ancient time are said to have tried to kill the sun because her rays were too hot. By mistake her daughter was killed instead, and the grief-stricken sun stayed in her house, causing darkness. In hopes of restoring the light, people traveled to the dead land and started carrying the daughter back in a box, not to be opened until they reached home. But before the time was up, they gave in to the young woman’s plea for air, opened the box, and watched her fly off as a cardinal. From this we know that the cardinal is the daughter of the sun. And if the people had obeyed instructions, there would be no permanent death, as there is now.”

James Mooney’s compendium, “Myths of the Cherokee,” published in the Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology in 1900, is available online at the Sacred Text Archive. Here’s the complete myth, Daughter of the Sun. This is a fun story, and very southern: it’s full of snakes and haints and the Little People, and the Sun is a total bitch – kind of a homicidal Scarlett O’Hara. There’s even a horned devil-type dude, and one can see the Native origins of the snake-handling cults: “Since then we pray to the rattlesnake and do not kill him, because he is kind and never tries to bite if we do not disturb him.”

According to Mooney, the Cherokees hear the cardinal’s song as kwish kwish kwish!

Update: A visit to the Encyclopedia Mythica confirmed my nagging suspicion that my original title, “Dooryard Persephones,” was in error. Orpheus’ babe was Eurydice. Interestingly, the parallel with the Cherokee myth extends as far as cause of death: Eurydice, too, was killed by a snakebite.

Blue devils and the legend of Robert Johnson

1. A shady connection

Barely in time for Black History Month, I want to correct a few common misconceptions about Robert Johnson and his supposed pact with the devil.

I hope no one will be too shocked by the news that the 1988 movie Crossroads is a wildly inaccurate guide to the life and death of the historical (as opposed to the mythic) Robert Johnson. For example, in the movie, Willie Brown is a harmonica player, still living in the 1980s. In real life, Willie Brown was an older mentor to Johnson, one of the three or four greatest bottleneck guitarists of the first generation of Delta bluesmen to make it onto record. He died in 1952.

Johnson was far from the only ambitious bluesman of the 20s and 30s to exploit the bad man image, including the European-derived myth of the pact with the devil. According to the recollections of people who knew him, Johnson lived up to the image, constantly fighting and womanizing and using several aliases to keep ahead of the law. But neither “Cross Road Blues” nor “Me and the Devil Blues” were among his signature songs. None of his friends, former flames or traveling companions who were interviewed by blues fans from the 1960s on had ever heard about a pact with the devil.

The connection between the figure of the devil in southern Afro-American folklore and the Yoruba/Dohomean deity Legba is probably valid. But outside of places like New Orleans and the Georgia Sea Islands, explicitly African elements of hoodoo are submerged in a thoroughly Christian milieu. It would be much more accurate to say that a bluesman like Johnson was living out the Christian archetype of the Prodigal Son than to maintain that he was some kind of underground practitioner of an alternate faith. That is to say, he might have been anti-Christian at times, but he wasn’t non-Christian.

Johnson died too young to go through the complete cycle, but many of his contemporaries (Son House, Skip James, Ishmon Bracey, etc.) periodically swung between the two poles of blues singer/sinner and sanctified Christian. The lyrics to Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” are powerful precisely because they exploit this tension and ambiguity. The narrator begins,

I went to the cross road,
fell down on my knees,
I went to the cross road,
fell down on my knees.
Asked the Lord above “Have mercy,
Save poor Bob, if you please.”

So the cross road initially appears to be a Christian image. The strongest echo is of a revival service, with the narrator as a sinner repenting and seeking grace. In the following verse, Johnson seems to echo the parable about the man fallen by the wayside, waiting for a Good Samaritan who never comes:

Mmmm, standin’ at the cross road,
I tried to flag a ride.
Standin’ at the cross road,
I tried to flag a ride.
Didn’t nobody seemed to know me,
everybody passed me by.

Only in the third verse do we catch a note of premonition, but longing for love and/or worry about where the narrator will sleep overshadows it.

Mmm sun goin’ down boy,
dark gon’ catch me here.
Oooo ooee eeee,
boy, dark gonna catch me here.
Ain’t got no lovin’ sweet woman that, love and feel my care.

And then (given the severe time constraints occasioned by 1930s record-cutting techniques) we’re already at the last verse. Johnson seems more interested in reminding his listeners of his relationship to the famous Willie Brown than in suggesting any supernatural partnership:

You can run you can run,
tell my friend, boy, Willie Brown.
You can run,
tell my friend, boy, Willie Brown,
Lord that I’m standin’ at the cross road baby,
I believe I’m sinkin’ down.

2. Singing in tongues

So where did the Robert Johnson-crossroads myth come from? Over-enthusiastic blues scholars, steeped in West African mythology (where the crossroads is indeed a potent symbol) simply invented it in the 1960s. According to blues scholar Gayle Dean Wardlow (Chasin’ That Devil Music, Miller Freeman Books, 1998), it was Pete Welding who, in 1966, first proposed a “selling his soul” interpretation to the song “Cross Road Blues” in an article in Down Beat. I confess I haven’t seen that article, but I do resent the oft-encountered implication that blues songs were primarily autobiographical. Some were, but many were not. I’m bothered by what I see as a persistent unwillingness to accept blues artists as fully creative lyricists who were capable of adopting alternate personas. In fact, their lyrical creativity is well documented: as in modern rap, the ability to extemporize was highly prized. Further, most blues singers employed a variety of dramatic techniques, including alternating voices and dramatic monologues; an authentic blues song is worlds away from the purely personal mode of a contemporary singer-songwriter. We know from an interview with the musician, for example, that Bukka White’s first-person “Fixin’ to Die Blues” was written in the “expected voice” of an alcoholic he once knew.

“In the 1975 book Mystery Train,” Wardlow continues, “Greil Marcus ‘symbolically’ implied Johnson mastered the guitar because of his alleged pact with the devil . . . In 1982, Peter Guralnik added the Ledell Johnson story of Tommy [Johnson] ‘selling his soul’ at midnight at a Delta crossroad.” Tommy Johnson – no relation to Robert – was another master bottleneck guitarist with a decidedly more desperate tone to his lyrics. He also died young, but not under such mysterious circumstances as Robert did: he fell victim to the blue devils of “Canned Heat” (i.e. sterno) and “Alcohol and Jake” – the titles of two of his songs which, according to his contemporaries, did indeed draw heavily on his own circumstances. (See below for more on the blue devils.) Thus it was Tommy – not Robert – Johnson who was portrayed in the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? as having made a pact with the devil.

The only Robert Johnson song to explicitly elaborate upon a connection with the devil is “Me and the Devil Blues.” Though again, some ambiguity remains: is it Satan himself, or is the narrator simply saying his woman is the devil in disguise?

Early this mornin’
when you knocked upon my door.
Early this mornin’, ooh
when you knocked upon my door.
And I said, “Hello, Satan,
I believe it’s time to go.”

But in the second verse, the narrator owns up and admits that it is he who is bedeviled, and he who bedevils others:

Me and the Devil
was walkin’ side by side.
Me and the Devil, ooh
was walkin’ side by side.
And I’m goin’ to beat my woman
until I get satisfied.

While the listener is still recovering from the shock of that boast, Johnson shifts gears. The narrator has the woman speaking up – and psychoanalyzing him. She says he suffers a compulsion he hasn’t come to grips with; he protests that she’s to blame. It’s not clear which of them decides to blame the devil. By the end of the song, the narrator is defiantly proclaiming his own devilish identity. The segue to the last verse exemplifies the “linked verse” technique of blues composition at its best.

She say you don’t see why
that you will dog me ’round.
[spoken:] Now, babe, you know you ain’t doin’ me
right, don’cha?
She say you don’t see why, ooh
that you will dog me ’round.
It must-a be that old evil spirit
so deep down in the ground.

You may bury my body
down by the highway side.
[spoken:] Baby, I don’t care where you bury my
body when I’m dead and gone.
You may bury my body, ooh
down by the highway side.
So my old evil spirit
can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.

It probably go without saying, but the deity Legba is neither evil, nor is he associated with an afterlife destination “deep down in the ground.” This is as Christian a song as anything Black Sabbath ever wrote.

3. Blues as spiritual ju-jitsu

Another Robert Johnson song, “Hellhounds On My Trail,” partakes much less of specifically religious imagery than it may appear to. The eponymous hounds were actually intended to evoke the police and their bloodhounds, according to Wardlow, who traces the verse to a record by an obscure East Texas bluesman. Given the widespread use of bloodhounds during slavery, when church songs often contained coded messages about the Underground Railroad, it’s hard not to hear some echo of an otherwise lost spiritual here.

Diverse roots (or as the philosopher Giles Deleuze would say, multiple rhizomes) are at work here. A modern listener might need reminding that in Johnson’s world the police were anything but enforcers of justice. Instead, they represented an oppressive and brutal system designed to thwart the ambitions and crush the spirits of African Americans. The word “blues” is Anglo in origin, dating from the late 19th century. Its original usage denoted the blue devils that are said to appear to an alcoholic going through delirium tremens. It would not have escaped the attention of African Americans that the police in their blue uniforms were the most visible counterpart to the now-generalized inner torments known as the blues. I can think of a couple lyrics offhand that come close to spelling this out: Bessie Smith’s “In the House Blues,” and the barrelhouse standard known usually as “Vicksburg Blues,” which Howlin’ Wolf turned into “.45 Blues” (with the reference to policemen judiciously removed). But doubtless there are many more.

People on both sides of the sinner-sanctified divide would have agreed about the absolute necessity of spiritual resistance to this internal and external oppression. In fact, what really distinguished the ‘sinners’ was their insistence on individualism and self-expression, as opposed to the collective, communitarian spirit of the black churches. Although it might be a bit of a stretch to say that bluesmen and women were revolting against the accomodationist stance of the churches, explicit, satirical critiques of church people are not hard to find in the recorded blues. Blues singers tended to stereotype preachers as charlatans, only interested in a free meal ticket and easy access to women. Of course, bluesmen often portrayed themselves as rakes and scoundrels too, but the subtext of the many “Preaching Blues” songs is, “at least I’m not a hypocrite.”

Robert Johnson’s own “Preaching Blues,” subtitled “Up Jumped the Devil,” is a fascinating exception to this pattern. More than that, it is a masterpiece, musically as well as lyrically. In it, Johnson suggests a fusion of church and blues through words that, for me, come closer to true Hoodoo Man conjuring than anything else he recorded. The preacher is evoked through Johnson’s style of vocal delivery alone, and the Devil is nothing but the blues personified: a malevolent force that only a visit to the distillery can exorcise.

Mmmmm mmmmm,
I’s up this mornin’,
a blues walkin’ like a man.
I’s up this mornin’
a blues walkin’ like a man.
Worried blues,
give me your right hand.

And the blues fell mama’s child
tore him all upside down.
Blues fell mama’s child
and it tore me all upside down.
Travel on poor Bob,
just cain’t turn you ’round.

The blu-u-u-u-ues
is a low-down, shakin’ chill.
[spoken:] Yes, preach ’em now.
Mmmmm mmmmm,
is a low-down shakin’ chill.
You ain’t never had ’em, I,
I hope you never will.

Well, the blu-ues
is a achin’ old heart disease.
[spoken:] Do it now. You gon’ do it? Tell me about it.
Well the blu-ues
is a low-down achin’ heart disease.
Like consumption,
killing me by degrees.

I been stuttering, oh, oh drive,
oh, oh, drive my blues –
I been stuttering,
I’m ‘onna drive my blues away.
Goin’ to the ‘stil’ry.
Stay out there all day.

4. Real devils, real contests

All too many white blues fans appear deaf to the racial subtext of blues music. They literally don’t want to hear about it: the blues is good time party music, they say. It’s for everybody, regardless of race.

Well, yes. And it is also potent medicine of the homeopathic variety, as countless blues artists have testified. But if the classic country blues songs seem deep and eerie beyond words, it is because they represent a passionate attempt to escape the devils of poverty, racism, violence, alcoholism, alienation and hopelessness. A consideration of the specific social and cultural matrices from which the music emerged should not diminish its universal appeal.

The immense, inland delta formed by the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers has been called “the most southern place on earth.” It is a thoroughly domesticated landscape, a sea of perfectly flat cotton fields stretching from horizon to horizon, interrupted only by mosquito-ridden streams and backwaters. Its floodplain soil is hundreds of feet deep: rich black earth with nary a stone. As so often in the Third World, great natural wealth has permitted the growth of a powerful and vindictive elite who traditionally possessed no sense of responsibility toward land or people. Why conserve? The river and soil will last forever.

Thus, violence or the threat of violence against black sharecroppers was intense and pervasive throughout the period when the greatest bluesmen and women were getting on record. In this climate, explicit references to racism were off-limits, at least in the recording studio. But the desire to escape is palpable in songs like Johnson’s “Walking Blues” and “Traveling Riverside Blues,” and songs about guns (“32-20 Blues”) fairly crackle with electricity. I personally find these sorts of themes far more challenging to contemplate than the sadly diminished echoes of African religion.

Robert Johnson was a brilliant guitarist, and yes, he mastered the instrument quite quickly. But there seems to have been no shortage of musical geniuses in the Delta region in the first four decades of the 20th century. Johnson’s stature among modern-day, white blues fans seems to derive as much from the myth as from the songs. In the case of the latter, Johnson was lucky to have been remarkably well recorded, and to have found many posthumous fans among top-selling rock musicians who covered his songs. In real life, Johnson is said to have had a relatively weak voice, but you don’t hear that on the record. The poor quality of surviving sides by greats like Charley Patton and Willie Brown militates against their ever achieving even the limited form of mainstream popularity accorded to Robert Johnson.

For hard-core country blues fans like me, Johnson doesn’t hold a candle to fellow-Delta natives Son House and Johnny Shines. These men didn’t have the sense to play up the bad man image and to die young, and thus will remain forever unpalatable to the youth culture that grew up with rock ‘n’ roll. But House, Shines and others who managed to live to a ripe old age had the satisfaction of enjoying what those who died young never could: escape. Not only from the daily humiliations of Jim Crow-era apartheid, but even from the bipolar disorder that was African American society under Jim Crow.

The first- and second-generation bluesmen and women who survived into the 1970s and beyond may never have earned have earned great wealth, but they did at least get the satisfaction of mentoring and playing to fanatically respectful audiences of mostly white people. They got their dignity back, and with it, I would guess, experienced the confirmation of their individualistic ethos. The choice between church and blues became less stark, less black-and-white. If the recorded statements and relatively tranquil later lives of the majority of the “elder statesmen of the blues” are any guide, in the last decades of the 20th century blues artists no longer felt themselves to be stranded at a lonely crossroads, forced to choose between go-along-to-get-along and self-destructive defiance. Unlike Willie Brown, Charley Patton, and Tommy and Robert Johnson, they were able finally to beat the devil at his own game.

Note: transcriptions have been modified from those that appear on-line at The Robert Johnson Notebooks, which gives little hint about the extent of scholarly disagreement about some of these lyrics. The “stuttering” interpretation of verse 5 of “Preaching Blues” is my own, but it seems to fit the song’s dis-ease imagery. The website’s interpretation, “I’ve been studyin’ the rain” is extremely far-fetched, in my opinion.

Questioning the pornography of violence

Commonbeauty has a fairly trenchant analysis of The Movie. “As a continuing sign of our impoverished public discourse, there is a silly debate about whether or not the film is ‘anti-semitic.’

“Well, as the kids would say, duh!

“It’s based on the gospels, isn’t it? I have an intimate familiarity with those texts, and I can tell you, they’re not exactly pro-Jew.”

A little farther along: “This film isn’t primarily about ‘God’ or about ‘accuracy’ or about any of the other trite formulations Christians around me (there are a few!) have been spouting. This film is about the power of the camera, the ability of soft-lighting, precious sound design and fake blood to reduce America’s suburban evangelicals to a giant heap of fanatical sobs and thoughtless sighs. It is a work of pornographic fidelity to dangerous and outdated ideas: blood sacrifice, collective guilt and the redemptive power of torture.

“It is no less than this nation deserves, really, that defines its reality either according to what is projected on the lit screen of the movie theatres or what trails across the lit skies of the theatres of war.”

I dropped some comments in the box as is my wont whenever ol’ CB goes on a truly righteous rant. I am particularly interested in his final statement, about our definitions of reality.

It’s true, NPR interviewed folks as they came out of the theatres. The most frequent comment was about how “realistic” it was. Even the people who labeled themselves as non-Christians were impressed by that. But what is so realistic about making a fifteen-minute whipping alluring enough to watch? In real life, most of us – the 95% who are not clinically psychopathic – wouldn’t be able to watch for a fraction of that time.

I don’t want to sound dense here, but what is it about violence that says ‘realism’ to so many people? Or should I be asking, what is it about people’s perceptions of reality that makes them look for it in extreme violence rather than among the thousand odd, beautiful, serendipitous and inscrutable moments, the acts of kindness and thoughtfulness that make our day-to-day lives worth living?

Could it stem perhaps from the modern cult of honesty, which demands that every ornamentation and decoration, every narrative flourish or poetic touch, every mask and costume, even (ideally) the skin itself be stripped away? It reverberates through proverb and cliche: “Bred in the bone.” “Beauty is only skin deep.” “That’s the way I really am, this is how I really feel.” The same cultural predilection that leads us to scorn the civilized art of rhetoric in favor of cant and sound bite and redneck anti-intellectualism. The same naivete that leads us to feel we can ignore the customs and mores of other cultures – and persuades us that the stark language of guns and bombs is all we need to change minds. The same blindness that keeps so many Americans (and Australians, I gather) from discovering an elemental social fact: that the hoary gestures of hospitality and respect, still practiced in places like Iraq and Old Europe, have a purpose, and that that purpose is to humanize. Reality isn’t just there, a given thing, raw matter. We shape it; we embellish, we embroider it. Some, mindful of transcendence, would say: we co-create it.

I’ll leave for sharper minds questions about the role of Hollywood and market forces and pop culture and imperialism. What seems clear to me is that Gibson – and millions of Christians like him – commit a grave error if they think the testimony of the emotions is sufficient. Would you discount the critical and creative faculties in deference to some literal interpretation? An old proverb about hiding a light under a bushel comes to mind. “Literal truth” is an oxymoron; reductionism leads to nihilism and brutality. So-called faith in the literal truth strikes me as little more than the blind worship of power. If you are religious, you might choose to look at it like this: God gave us imaginations for a reason. We need to combine the ancient Jewish teaching Love Thy Neighbor with the ancient maxim of Delphi: Know Thyself.

Know thy neighbor, love thyself.

Or something like that.