Every nation-state is built around an altar; ours is no different. But I am not sure what to think about altared states of being: the bull that turned into a god in the ancient Near East, the Mesoamerican serpent demanding that the whole world shed its skin. Like so many moderns, I prefer the living with their claws and hooves, their manes and humps and barbs, their scales, their feathers. When I eat them, it is not for power. At most I might sketch their shadows, I might dream of trading colors for a world of scent. I have no ambition to don a theurgist’s cloak or wield a jewel-encrusted letter-opener to read a supposed message from another supposed world: this one’s enough. To suck the marrow yet would be too much. I don’t taste half of what I eat.
We can’t let things get too far along without quoting Dickinson. From R.W. Franklin’s Reading Edition (as opposed to the Variorum), The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Belknap Press/Harvard, 1999), p. 392:
Finding is the first Act
The second, loss,
Third, Expedition for the “Golden Fleece”
Fourth, no Discovery –
Fifth, no Crew –
Finally, no Golden Fleece –
Jason, sham, too –
Here’s one more by Celan. I hope this qualifies as “fair use.” I give it in its entirety because it may well serve as the motto for this whole exercise, and because I am hoping that maybe one or two people who are NOT lit-crit types or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school elitists will feel inspired to seek out Celan’s work.
Speak, You Also
Speak, you also,
speak as the last,
have your say.
But keep yes and no unsplit.
And give your say this meaning:
give it the shade.
Give it shade enough,
give it as much
as you know has been dealt out between
midnight and midday and midnight.
look how it all leaps alive —
where death is! Alive!
He speaks truly who speaks the shade.
But now shrinks the place where you stand:
Where now, stripped by shade, will you go?
Upward. Grope your way up.
Thinner you grow, less knowable, finer.
Finer: a thread by which
it wants to be lowered, the star:
to float farther down, down below
where it sees itself gleam: in the swell
of wandering words.
(Hamburger, Poems of Paul Celan, 101.)
So along with love and laughter, let us add paradox and ambiguity to our armory. It is nowhere near as easy to distinguish the mystic from the nihilist as I implied a moment ago. Paul Celan may be our best 20th-century witness to this ambiguity:
Praised be your name, no one.
For your sake
we shall flower.
Gelobt seist du, Niemand.
Dir zulieb wollen
–“Psalm,” translated by Michael Hamburger (Poems of Paul Celan, Persea Books, 1995, 178/179). The whole poem is available elsewhere on the web, in an inferior translation. Keep in mind that Celan was Jewish, had lost both his parents in the holocaust, and wrote in the language of their destroyers — or, in fact, invented his own German, according to Hamburger’s introduction. “The seemingly negative theology of his great poem ‘Psalm’ has been shown to have antecedents in both Jewish and Christian mysticism, and Celan is known to have been well versed in both . . . Celan’s religion — and there can be no doubt as to his profoundly religious sensibility, whatever he may have believed or not believed — had to come to grips with the experience of being God-forsaken.” (31).
Blake also maintained that “There is No Natural Religion,” which I take to mean (in part) that all religious expressions are profoundly cultural. They grow out of unique revelations, in response to the particularities of geography, history, and social setting. It is demeaning both to religion and to Nature to imply otherwise. Of equal importance, in my opinion, is the realization that there is no such thing as a primitive religion, unless it be the religion of a five-year-old or a simpleton. Anthropologists know this well, but have done a poor job of communicating it to the general public. In fact, the belief systems encountered in so-called indigenous or village settings are often vastly most complex and sophisticated than the would-be universal religions.
From the Yoruba tradition, here is a praise-song for Eshu, the god of fate, translated by Ulli Beier in his wonderful book Yoruba Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 1970) and reprinted in The Penguin Book of Oral Poetry (ed. by Ruth Finnegan, 1978. Page 150).
Eshu, the god of fate
Eshu turns right into wrong, wrong into right.
When he is angry, he hits a stone until it bleeds.
When he is angry, he sits on the skin of an ant.
When he is angry, he weeps tears of blood.
Eshu slept in the house –
But the house was too small for him.
Eshu slept on the veranda –
But the veranda was too small for him.
Eshu slept in a nut –
At last he could stretch himself.
Eshu walked through the ground-nut farm.
The tuft of his head was just visible.
If it had not been for his huge size,
He would not be visible at all.
Lying down, his head hits the roof.
Standing up, he cannot look into the cooking-pot.
He throws a stone today
and hits a bird yesterday.
Nothing is for sale here. When I say free I mean untrammeled, unrestrained, self-owned, of inherent value, beyond price. Free love, that old anarchist shibboleth: how quickly in a capitalist society it comes to mean “love without any emotional investment!”
Reductionism is the handmaiden of power: in the law, in modern medicine, in the applied sciences, in finance. Thus, at the heart of power is a great nullity. Not the fertile mystery of the via negativa, much less the zero of mathematicians, but an absolute (and therefore lying) zero. A wanting that can never be satisfied. (In almost every society where people fear witchcraft/sorcery, they understand it to derive from an excess of envy.)
To the reductionist’s “nothing more than” I counter with “nothing less than.” This is a fundamental distinction. Every being is a mystery, and we are each mysterious to ourselves. The reason is simple: “Time and chance happeneth to them all.” (Why doesn’t every MacIntosh apple tree look exactly like every other? After all, they are perfect clones!)
After Nagasaki, after the holocaust? The nothingness of absolutism will continue to envelop worlds as long as it is not countered with love and laughter. We are in the middle of the sixth great extinction event. More than ever, we need to make ourselves vulnerable to the not-always-tender mercies of the cosmic trickster, the god who laughs at himself. Coyote. Job’s nemesis.
Blake’s motto from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell still hits home:
How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?
I am not a profoundly original thinker, merely a good synthesist. Syncretism is always a temptation I must work to avoid: a decent respect for the integrity of different peoples and their traditions demands it. (Which is not to say that creolism or mestizaje is something to be scorned — far from it!)
I’m hoping this format, which favors shorter expressions, will encourage precision. Unbloggerlike, I want to write not the way I talk but in a slightly more controlled fashion. Most important, to write in anticipation of response, and therefore to leave quite a bit unsaid. (Free hosting at blogspot.com so far precludes a response form, but I’m hoping that will come. In the meantime, feel free to e-mail me.)
Via Martin Buber. (Nahman/Nachman of Bratzlav/Bratslav was a 19th-century composer of mysterious, parable-like stories – a hasidic version of the sufi teaching stories – which probably constitute Kafka’s single greatest influence.)
“Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav has handed down to us these words of his great-grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov: ‘Alas! The world is full of enormous lights and mysteries, and man shuts them from himself with one small hand!'”
(Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters. Shocken, 1947. 74.)
Conservation biologists Reed Noss and Allen Cooperrider:
“We must first define what we mean by natural. Though one of the most ambiguous in the conservation lexicon, the term natural persists because it signifies something of great esthetic and spiritual significance to many people. Naturalness may also have scientific values, not the least of which is that it provides a buffer for our ignorance. That is, natural forests have ecological qualities that we have barely begun to fathom and have no idea of how to replicate.”
(Saving Nature’s Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity. Island Press, 1994. 189.)
Elsewhere, Reed Noss and co-authors Michael O’Connell and Dennis Murphy write:
“ECOSYSTEMS ARE NOT ONLY MORE COMPLEX THAN WE THINK, BUT MORE COMPLEX THAN WE CAN THINK. This statement, attributed to ecologist Frank Egler, reflects the tremendous complexities scientists encounter when trying to understand the organisms and systems they study. Nature at all levels of biological organization – genes, populations, species, communities, ecosystems, landscapes – encompasses many phenomena that cannot be perceived, measured, or understood using the traditional methods of scientific inquiry. Hence, uncertainty is high for all results obtained. New developments in science are not likely to break down entirely the perceptual barriers. Even with the most sophisticated rational tools imaginable, reductionism and other rational approaches to understanding Nature have their limits.
“Although ecologists often have a good general understanding of natural ecosystems, there are always surprises. The proper response to lack of full knowledge about Nature is humility . . . ”
(The Science of Conservation Planning: Habitat Conservation Under the Endangered Species Act. Island Press, 1997. 76.)
From Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming (Rodale, 1978):
“Scientists think they can understand nature. That is the stand they take. Because they are convinced that they can understand nature, they are committed to investigating nature and putting it to use. But I think an understanding of nature lies beyond human intelligence.
“I often tell the young people in the huts on the mountain, who come here to help out and to learn about natural farming, that anyone can see the trees up on the mountain. They can see the green of the leaves; they can see the rice plants. They think they know what green is. In contact with nature morning and night, they sometimes come to think they know nature. But when they think they are beginning to know nature, they can be sure that they are on the wrong track.
“Why is it impossible to know nature? That which is conceived to be nature is only the idea of nature arising in each person’s mind. The ones who see true nature are infants. They see without thinking, straight and clear. If even the names of plants are known, a mandarin orange tree of the citrus family, a pine of the pine family, nature is not seen in its true form.
“An object seen in isolation from the whole is not the real thing.”