The origins of Easter (part 2)

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Fun fact #4: the “bitter herbs” of the Passover meal were probably lettuce

William Propp translates Exodus 12:8: “And they will eat the meat in this night, fire-roasted; with unleavened bread and bitter lettuce they will eat.” He points out in his notes that Biblical botany is notoriously difficult. The Vulgate translates the word in question “as lactucae agrestes, ‘lettuce of the field,’ and Samaritans still eat wild lettuce for Pesah . . . the linguistic cognates point in the same direction.” The Mishnah permits lettuce, endive and chervil.

As Propp points out, whatever it may have originally denoted, the term employed here became synonymous with bitterness in general, for example in Lamentations 3:15. “Late Jews invariably saw the bitter herbs of Pesah as recalling the Hebrews’ travails in Egypt . . . This might be a very ancient tradition.” But any element possessing such symbolical significance is bound to have more than one meaning. Other scholars cited by Propp believe that this wild lettuce might have had a magical function in warding off misfortune.

Lettuce is a weed: that is to say, it’s a quick-growing annual that flourishes in disturbed ground. The wild form is edible only for a very brief period in the spring – two or three days – before it turns bitter. It occurs to me that this might help explain its use in a festival where everything is supposed to be prepared and eaten in haste. “If the species in question sprouted in the springtime,” Propp observes, “it may simply have been part of the holiday’s seasonal symbolism. Or lettuce may have been a pungent condiment that ultimately became canonical.” Given that the lunar and not the solar calendar determined when the holiday would fall, it seems extremely unlikely that it would regularly coincide with the period of greatest edibility for wild lettuce. Thus, this characteristic of fleeting non-bitterness likely remained merely part of the symbolic gestalt.

But bitterness, which so lends itself to ascetic uses, may also possess more meanings than Propp admits. Bitter herbs such as wormwood were revered throughout the ancient world for their preservative and medicinal effects. Properties traditionally ascribed to lettuce include calmative, hypnotic, sedative and analgesic effects. The milky sap of wild lettuce is said to possess mild opiatelike effects – effects enhanced by its addition to beer or wine. According to Maude Grieve (A Modern Herbal, Dover, 1971 [1931]), “The Ancients held the lettuce in high esteem for its cooling and refreshing properties. The Emperor Augustus attributed his recovery from a dangerous illness to it, built an altar to it, and erected a statue in its honor.”

So here’s the narrow thread by which I connect wild lettuce with Easter: the common practice in the ancient world of using bitter herbs as preservatives and additional inebriants in wine and beer (we still use hops in this way). The wine of the new covenant, which the followers of Yeshua incorporated into Christianity’s central, theophagic rite, may well have been brewed with the “herbs of affliction.” But in that case, isn’t “affliction” a mistranslation?

Not necessarily. Prepared in stronger doses, metheglins (herbed wines) served as medicines for specific ailments. Such medicine would have been both bitter and welcome at the same time – which is largely how the ancient Hebrews understood the figurative medicine that their national deity doled out when needed. Bitter herbs were part of a whole complex of ascetic ritual elements, and the fact that they grew best wild – cultivated lettuce has much weaker properties – must’ve strengthened their association with the practice of a periodic chastising/healing/renewing return to original creation (“wilderness”).

Fun fact #5: the identity of the deity (Christ) with the sacrificial animal (lamb) has ample precedent in the ancient Near East

In The Hills of Adonis (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1968), the very erudite travel writer Colin Thubron sheds some light on the ancient Yahweh-followers’ taboo against eating pork. “The most complex of the animals holy to Astarte was the pig, which the Phoenicians called alpha, ‘the cruel.’ It is thought that during the cutting of the corn a wild swine taking refuge in the dwindling sheaves may have been hailed as god of the harvest; whatever the reason, swine and harvest are linked, and Adonis, at some early stage, perhaps embodied both. In primitive times, it seems, a boar was consecrated as the god and worshipped by a chorus of women who impersonated sows; each year the boar was killed and torn in pieces, his death mourned and his resurrection hailed in the deification of a new boar. Early man saw little distinction between the deity and his sacrifice. A god-king was killed and replaced, and his successor after him. Thus if Adonis was a boar as well as a vegetation spirit, he must suffer death from a boar; and from this mystery – the offering of the god to himself – the classic legend crystallized.”

This illuminates the whole incident of the golden calf and the altar (Exodus 32): recall that the covenant between Israel and Yahweh was performed with the blood of twelve bullocks, one for each tribe. But scholars also note that the Holy of Holies in the ancient temple in the northern kingdom of Israel was topped by the statue of a bull, just as the ark in Solomon’s temple was topped by an anthropomorphic couple, the seraphim (who by the way were probably portrayed in the common position of the hieros gamos – that is to say, in a lovers’ embrace). In Israel, the spirit of Yahweh was envisioned as resting upon this statue of a bull. Thus the story about the golden calf (like many others in the Pentateuch) was intended as a smear against Judah’s rivals. But in fact, this use of bull or calf symbolism borrows directly from the religion of Baal. The story of the golden calf reflects genuine discomfort about the ever-present danger of identifying Yahweh with the sacrificial animal – anathema to followers of his fanatically iconoclastic cult.

Needless to say, the notion of sacrifice as expiation is as Jewish as it is pagan. But the identification of God with the sacrifice represented a radical break with tradition. Christianity departs most fundamentally from its parent religion in the notion of divine incarnation, deicide and resurrection.

The authors of the New Testament were as vicious in their use of propaganda to slight their rabbinical rivals as the priestly redactors of the Torah had been against the practices of the northern kingdom; the fact that the ritual murder of God is fathered upon “the Jews” is the cruelest stroke of all. But it’s interesting that, while the accounts of the trial, crucifixion and resurrection vary widely from one gospel to another, the details of the Eucharist are nearly identical. Most New Testament scholars conclude from this that they represent Rabbi Yeshua’s own midrash; it’s too original, they say, to have plausibly originated otherwise than in the manner described. Pesah is above all a day for remembrance. This, says Yeshua, is how we are to remember him. Not on the cross but in the cup, in the breaking of bread.

What does it mean to incorporate the flesh of god into our own bodies? What does it say about a god that his flesh can be so consumed?

There’s considerable scholarly disagreement about the origin of the fish symbol in Christianity; the ancient Near Eastern dieties Atargatis and Dagon were both worshipped in fish form, and the grounds of their temples included ponds with sacred fish which were periodically consumed by the priests in a theophagic rite. But nearly every element of the Christ myth has ancient antecedents; perhaps they were necessary (the believer thinks) to prepare people’s minds for the coming of Christ. To the skeptic, the prior existence of such themes colored what people saw and how they remembered it. In any case, the most likely direct source for the popularity of the fish symbol can be found in the logical identification of the Eucharist with that other memorable feast of the gospels: the loaves and fishes of Matt 14:13-21. The disciples had been promised that they would become “fishers of people” – and they feed the people with the miraculous wine and bread and fish that permit unending consumption.

This story clearly embodies the transcendent, utopian dimension of the sacral feast. Aside from those who question the historical existence of Yeshua altogether, scholars are unanimous about his eschatology. Whatever else he may have believed, the idea that the utopian “kingdom of god is at hand” almost certainly formed the core of his teaching.

When we eat the sacrifice, we share a meal with God. But to people who believe that God enters into the sacrifice, eating the sacrificial flesh is an entheogenic experience. The Gospel of Thomas, older than the four canonical gospels, attributes the following saying (#3) to Rabbi Yeshua: “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father.”

I quoted this same passage in a post last December (see there for the citation), which also dealt with the book’s explicit treatment of the intoxicating qualities of Yeshua’s teaching. Intimate knowledge of the godhead is not merely nourishing; it is mind-altering. “Because you have drunk,” says Yeshua (Thomas 13), “you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I measured out.” We can of course argue about how literally this image might have been meant. It’s worth remembering that the worship of Dionysius included the sacramental use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, while the Eleusinian mysteries apparently involved consumption of a non-toxic extract of ergot, which would’ve been similar to LSD in its effects. However, like the Plains Indians, the early Christians seem to have been more interested in the use of sensory deprivation, pain and starvation as routes to achieving altered states of consciousness.

Fun fact #6: the image of the Messiah astride a donkey echoes very ancient Middle Eastern practices and (possibly) Egyptian beliefs about enlightenment

Matthew 21:5 quotes Zech 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.” According to the renowned scholar W.F. Albright, in the notes to his translation, with C.S. Mann, of Matthew for the Anchor Bible (1971), the very same language about donkeys was found in the Mari text, a cuneiform tablet from the Mesopotamian city of Haran dating back to the 18th century B.C. “It speaks of the donkey sacrifice as ratifying a treaty between the Apirus (=Hebrews) and various local kings. The figure of the donkey, in the same three words as in the Mari text, occurs again in Gen 49:11 as well as in the text of Zech 9:9.”

The context in Zechariah is explicitly Messianic, referring to the blood of the covenant in v.11, which becomes transformed into wine by v.17: “The Lord of hosts will protect them, and they shall devour, and tread down the sling stones, and they shall drink and roar as if drunk with wine, and be full like a bowl, drenched like the corners of the altar.” In Genesis, the context is Jacob/Israel’s blessing of his sons; it is Judah who is described as “Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass’s colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes.”

But if the Middle Eastern milieu shaped the imagery of the Bible, Egyptian theology was the major source of its core teachings (including monotheism; Memphite theology was functionally monotheistic, despite frequent claims to the contrary). The nearly 4,000 year-old Egyptian text contained in Berlin Papyrus 3024 contains the dialogue of a man with his soul, or as Bika Reed translates the title: Rebel in the Soul: A Dialogue Between Doubt and Mystical Knowledge (Inner Traditions, 1987). The despairing protagonist cries out to his soul,

But in this body, which is yours,
I am the progeny of the great ass Iai!
In you I call forth the Other
O Soul unawakened!
I am the progeny of Iai,
A fire which will never cool
I cause the Other to burst forth
O soul in flame!

Reed notes that “IAI, the Great Ass, is an aspect of the sun ‘god’ with ass’s ears. We find his image in the Book of the Gates . . . [which] depicts the progression of the sun through the night. The twelve hours of the Dark Night are depicted as regions of the Underworld. Each region is an ‘hour’ of the Night and has its gate. To pass the gate, one has to know the name of its Guardian.
“The consciousness moves through the Underworld in a process of slow animation. . . . Iai is found in the section known as the Ninth Hour. In this Ninth Hour, a crisis threatens the progress of the boat [of the Sun]. A double monster, half snake, half crocodile, Shes-Shes, faces the boat.” Iai is offered as bait. “Without the self-sacrifice of Iai, the Barque of the Sun will never traverse the night to the light of dawn.”

As in the story of Balaam’s ass (Num 22:21-33), the donkey is identified with a form of recalcitrance that leads to understanding. Reed riffs: “The act of awakening is inseperable from the act of rebellion. Iai rises, symbolizing the sun circumscibed by ass’s ears. He confronts the Abyss, portrayed as a double monster: His own static, fathomless duality unreconciled. As a double being, sun and ass, Iai is the embodiment of an opposition of forces: a cross. Iai is a cross in human form. The sun is confined between the ears of the rebellious and traditionally recalcitrant ‘Ass.’ In the Gospels, Christ appears mounted on the Ass. It is the Ninth Hour: and about the ninth hour, Jesus called with a loud voice, ‘My God, My god, why hast thou forsaken me?'”

The origins of Easter: little-known fun facts (part 1)

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Here’s an unsystematic presentation of some of the scholarly thinking about Easter and Passover. Regular readers of this blog will not need a disclaimer about my own lack of credentials as a scholar. I’m merely an interested layperson, a religiously inclined agnostic with no particular axes to grind. Please keep in mind that biblical scholars themselves disagree about nearly everything.

I will of necessity favor the reductionist approach, about which I do harbor some reservations. Source-criticism has its roots in the scientism and progressivism of the 19th century. Motivated by the anti-Semitic belief that the Rabbis couldn’t possibly know what the Old Testament was all about, German Protestant scholars began to vivisect the text in an ultimately fruitless search for the “original” meaning of the Bible. By contrast, some recent scholars favor a more holistic approach, focusing on received textual interpretations – the Bible as it has been lived (or selectively ignored) by actual faith communities. But much as I enjoy this latter approach, I won’t be drawing on it much here.

I mention this only to point out that the following compendium of nifty interpretations shouldn’t be read as a guide to what Passover and Easter “really mean.” Such a discussion would involve us in nothing less than a sweeping critique of Judaism and Christianity themselves – which would make for a really, really long post, even for me.

As for what “really happened,” either during the Exodus or the Passion, I’ll be touching on that only negatively, to emphasize how much we DON’T know. Given how little we know about key events of our own time (the JFK assassination, the events of September 11, 2001), we could well argue that such lack of verifiable knowledge is a prime marker of events of transcendent significance in the history of every sacred or secular community. (Yeah, I know – there I go with that via negativa crap again!)

Fun fact # 1: The Last Supper was a Passover meal

C. S. Mann, in his translation of Mark for the Anchor Bible (Doubleday, 1986), summarizes the evidence as follows:

“1. The prescriptions for Passover in Exod 12:26-27 and 13:8 require that at each celebration the father of the family was to explain the reasons for the gathering, and bring to mind the redemption of the people.

“2. The custom of explaining the particular manner of the meal was faithfully observed and remains to this day.

“3. In Jesus’ time on the afternoon before the full moon of Nisan, thousands of lambs were brought in to the temple courts of Jerusalem to be slaughtered, commemorating the deliverance of the Hebrew from Egypt (cf. Exod 12:21-25).

“4. The Passover meal began after sunset in families and in groups such as that of Jesus and his disciples. The meal began with bitter herbs and a fruit relish. The roasted lamb was brought in but not yet eaten. This was the occasion for the head of the gathering to explain the particular features of the meal. This obligation was treated with great emphasis, and Rabbi Gamaliel (claimed as Paul’s teacher in Acts 22:3) insisted that the Passover command was not observed unless three things were explained: the Paschal lamb, the unleavened bread, and the bitter herbs.

“5. Interpretations were not invariable or fixed. The unleavened cakes might be explained as exemplifying the haste with which the Hebrews left their exile (so leaving no time for the dough to rise), or as signaling the “bread of affliction” (Ps 80:5), or even as a contrast to the abundance to be expected in the Age of Blessings to come. [See below, Fun fact #3, for much more on unleavened bread.]

“6. What we appear to have, therefore, in the words of interpretation used by Jesus with the bread and cup [in Mark 14:22-26 – “This is my body . . . This is the blood of the Covenant”] is nothing more or less than the customary exercise by a head of household at Passover.” What was radical about Jesus’ ministry was his inclusion of sinners and outcasts in his adoptive family gathered at the table for the Passover feast.

So reinterpreting paschal motifs is not as sacrilegious an activity as it might appear! What’s profane here, what keeps mere exegesis from becoming inspired midrash, is the disembodied setting – all the more so for being not merely textual but digital, virtual: in cyberspace. Judaism and Christianity are both blood religions, which is why I like them. And table fellowship remains central to Jewish and Christian concepts of blessing and the creation of sacred space.

Fun fact #2: The word usually translated as “Passover” may mean something else

My source here is William H.C. Propp’s magisterial new (1999) translation and commentary for the Anchor Bible, Exodus 1-18:

“We are uncertain of the original derivation and meaning of Pesah. Exodus provides an explanation of sorts: the blood of Pesah caused Yahweh to pâsah over Israel’s houses (12:13, 23, 27). This bears all the earmarks of folk etymology yet cannot be dismissed out of hand.” According to one traditional interpretation, which Propp himself inclines toward, the root verb might actually mean “protect,” referring to Yahweh’s protection of the Israelites’ houses from the Destroyer.

“But even accepting the Bible’s explanation, we are not certain what the crucial verb means. If pâsah means “pass (over),” then “Passover” is an acceptable translation for Pesah. If, however, pâsah refers specifically to hopping or skipping, matters are less clear.” Here’s where it gets fun.

“Some posit an archaic, limping dance connected with the holiday, comparing the dance of Baal’s priests in 1 Kgs 18:26 . . . The ultimate in conjecture is Keel (1972): the limping dance imitated the progress of the deformed demon of the East Wind, the ‘Destroyer.’ Others imagine a paschal ritual of skipping over a threshold (Zeph 1:8-9; cf. 1 Sam 4:5). But if pâsah means ‘protect,’ then Pesah simply means ‘protection.'”

But in that case, the cynic might add, the whole sacrificial lamb/destroying angel schtick takes on the distinct aura of a protection racket.

Fun fact #3: yeast is unholy

As an amateur baker and homebrewer, this is my favorite fun fact. The Feast of Unleavened Bread (Massot) required the complete eradication of leavening, and therein – according to Propp – lay its uniqueness. “Unleavened cakes were baked the year round for various sacral and secular purposes . . . To judge from Exodus 12, neglecting to eat them during Massôt would be at most a peccadillo. Instead, the severest sanctions apply to the eating of leavened food . . . Here may lie the holiday’s original significance.

“The process of fermentation must have seemed mysterious to the ancients. Fermentation of grain yields not only toothsome bread but also intoxicating spirits . . . Leaven in particular is fraught with poignant, multivalent symbolism. Leavening entails both putrefaction and growth, death and life; its pungent odor reaches every corner of the house.” Amen, brother!

“Leaven is incompatible with . . . ‘ultimate holiness.'” Propp suggests elsewhere that the priestly obsession with maximal purity means, among other things, that “an offering should be eaten not only at or near sacred space but during or near sacred time.” Not only can putrefaction not have been involved in the production of consecrated food, but such food must be eaten within strictly circumscribed periods (usually one day or less) to minimize the risk of spoilage. The prototype here is, of course, Manna. Propp also speculates that “The prohibition of hoarding [Exod 16:19-24] is a test of Israel’s faith in Providence. Perhaps for sacrifices, too, one must eat the meat one shares with Yahweh heartily, without concern for the matter.” These additional nuances in interpretation make the ban on yeast a little easier to sympathize with.

“During the week of Unleavened Bread, not just the home but the entire land of Israel becomes like a vast altar to Yahweh, leaven-free,” Propp says, and goes on to offer a parenthetical “SPECULATION: While leaven and honey are never offered to Yahweh (Lev 2:11), salt accompanies every sacrifice (Lev 2:13). Eating one’s overlord’s salt has well-known covenantal overtones (Num 18:19; Ezra 4:14; 2 Chr 13:5). But salt may also be considered leaven’s opposite. While one is the product and agent of decay and defilement, the other preserves. Salt, in the proper hands, can repel death itself (2 Kgs 2:20-21) and is compatible with God’s absolute holiness.”

I don’t know about you, but I just eat this stuff up! To save time, however, I’ll pass over a paragraph discussing postbiblical Jewish references (blog posts must be read on the same day they are written, or they start to go bad).

“Apart from the association with purity, unleavened bread may have been considered more primitive, closer to the created order and hence more sacred than leavened . . . Leaven and fermentation symbolized civilization. Deut 29:6 recalls Israel’s desert wanderings as an austere time when ‘(leavened?) bread you did not eat, and wine or beer you did not drink.’ . . . Just as one fasts on certain days or undertakes temporary vows of abstinence to show independence of food, so one periodically avoids leavened bread and eats the purer massôt to attain a higher spiritual-ritual state.”

O.K., now get this. “The disposal of leaven has still deeper significance. Yeast is in theory immortal. The Israelite’s entire chronometric system, however, and their entire worldview presuppose that time is not a continuous stream. It is and must be periodically interrupted. Six workdays are punctuated by the Sabbath; six years of agricultural labor are punctuated by the Year of Release; forty-nine years of commerce are punctuated by the Jubilee; each life ends with a death. Israelite history itself is punctuated by periods of absence from Canaan . . . The laws of Unleavened Bread ensure that the bread by which people live does not transcend time, at least within the Holy Land. Once a year, all yeast must be killed, with a week of separation before the souring of a new batch. It is crucial that aliens within the land also comply, lest their old leaven be used after the holiday to circumvent the taboo.”

The only thing I would add here is that the pre-modern understanding of yeast as a spirit would’ve reinforced the sense of competition with Yahweh and especially with his creative Breath. Actually, Propp does sort of admit the possibility a little later, speculating that some people may have believed that demons were attracted to leavening.

He concludes: “The Festival of Unleavened Bread is primarily a rite of riddance. Leaven symbolizes the undesirable: misfortune, evil intentions and especially ritual impurity.” Rabbinical commentators tended to associate yeast with pridefulness; I assume this belief must be unattested for earlier periods or Propp would’ve mentioned it. “To purge is to make a fresh start, to experience catharsis. This understanding fits well with the historical context of the holiday. In the month of New Grain, the Hebrews cast off centuries of oppression and assumed a holier, more ascetic status for their desert wanderings and subsequent national life. It also fits the seasonal aspect, for, throughout the world, equinoxes are opportunities for fresh beginnings.”

Diogenes’ Tub (12)

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Reuters: “The White House will vet ‘line by line’ the report of an independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks before it is publicly released, the commission chairman said on Sunday.”

Interesting how journalistic accuracy increasingly suffers without the abundant use of quotation marks: “Independent” commission. Iraqi “sovereignty.” “Patriot” Act. Department of “Defense.” “President” Bush.

Kinder toten lieder

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

A well blogged and much linked-to article in the Miami New Times about the folklore of street children has lost little of its power to fascinate and appall since it first appeared in 1997.

“Folktales are the only work of beauty a displaced people can keep,” [Virginia Hamilton] explains. “And their power can transcend class and race lines because they address visceral questions: Why side with good when evil is clearly winning? If I am killed, how can I make my life resonate beyond the grave?”

That sense of mission, writes Harvard psychologist Robert Coles in The Spiritual Life of Children, may explain why some children in crisis — and perhaps the adults they become — are brave, decent, and imaginative, while others more privileged can be “callous, mean-spirited, and mediocre.” The homeless child in Miami and elsewhere lives in a world where violence and death are commonplace, where it’s highly advantageous to grovel before the powerful and shun the weak, and where adult rescuers are nowhere to be found. Yet what Coles calls the “ability to grasp onto ideals larger than oneself and exert influence for good” — a sense of mission — is nurtured in eerie, beautiful, shelter folktales.



homage to the homeless children of Dade County, Florida

chalk outline on the sidewalk
too small for an adult

someone crawled
under the yellow caution tape & placed
eight carnations in the upper left
side of the missing torso


lullaby lullaboo
dream of the lady dressed in blue
blue shining skin blue diamond eye
blue of the ocean blue of the sky
lullaby lullaboo
ask her to teach her name to you


mother sleeps on a bed of plastic bags
child stands watch against
police & petty thieves &
the terrible screamers
his word for the junkies suddenly
starved for junk

God has gone missing for months now
they say

the boy keeps watch under the street lamp
hour after hour in the neon glow
craning his neck for
the flash of an angel’s
ant-like wing


the kids in the shelter share secrets
it is all they have


everyone knows the necromancy
to summon Bloody Mary
it’s as easy as taking a ride from a stranger
or going to sleep & never waking up

you stand in front of a mirror
in a darkened room
& chant her name until
with a ripple of wind
she shatters out

flying daggers of glass
cut short the scream before
it leaves your throat

your last vision will be of her
crooning low
unholy mother of no one
weeping dark blood
from empty sockets

but why anyone would crave
such a necromance
the stories never say


street children devour television
for hidden messages

friends met only once
in whispered midnight talks
turn up dead on the 6:00 o’clock news

the anchor calls it crossfire
a drive-by shooting but
the kids know better

Kofi Annan is always looking helpless
the world’s at war

grownups scream at each other
& this too they call


the kids make a pact: whoever dies
will bring back news

once a spirit knows your face
it can always find you

whereas the angels are beleaguered
& hard to summon
their names are difficult
& all they can do is say
hold on


the social worker asked
a ten-year-old girl in the homeless shelter
to make a self-portrait

she pulled a gray crayon from the box
& drew a gravestone with
her name on it


Leon is twelve
he’s lived on the streets for six years now
looks tired all the time
says he’s not so sure about the angels anymore
do they care can they win are they even there
but still believes his dreams
can foretell the future
& he says
Sometimes I dream that when I die soon
I’ll be in some high great place
where people have
time to conversate
& even if there’s no God or heaven
it won’t be too bad


if this were a lullaby
who would sing it?

but it’s in the nature of lullabies
that those who sing them never believe
what they’re singing

lullaboo lullaby
driven from their home in the sky
the angels are hiding in the Everglades
among the cypress & palmetto blades
giant alligators guard them there
hurricanes grow flowers to put in their hair

lullaby lullaboo
if you’re brave & good you’ll go there too
across the clear river an ocean of calm
grass for a pillow
& a canopy of palm
they say the angels feed on light
you have to rest if you want to fight

Such imagination exclaim the students of folklore
forgetting how escaped slaves
& Seminole Indians fought the United
States Army for forty years
from the swamps of Florida
& in the end were undefeated

roads don’t go there
& you’ll never get there if you cry

so go to sleep
some dreams are better if they don’t come true

Diogenes’ Tub (11)

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

From the Guardian: “President Bill Clinton’s administration knew Rwanda was being engulfed by genocide in April 1994 but buried the information to justify its inaction, according to classified documents made available for the first time.

“Senior officials privately used the word genocide within 16 days of the start of the killings . . . However, the administration did not publicly use the word genocide until May 25 and even then diluted its impact by saying ‘acts of genocide.’

“Ms Des Forges said: ‘They feared this word would generate public opinion which would demand some sort of action and they didn’t want to act. It was a very pragmatic determination.'”

That’s the trouble with genocide – it’s always such a dratted inconvenience.

A crooked mile

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

There was a crooked man
And he walked a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence
Against a crooked stile.
He had a crooked cat
Who caught a crooked mouse
And they all lived together
In a little crooked house.

All of my miles have been crooked. I couldn’t go straight if I tried. People who talk in straight lines – theirs is a lonely and enviable calmness of mind. Or so it seems.

Ah, to be crazy like a fox. Weaving in and out of hedges, jumping ditches, skulking through the corn. The crafty opportunist, the mighty slayer of field mice.

It’s true that an old housemate of mine used to claim I bore an uncanny resemblance to Redd Foxx’s character on Sanford and Son. What resemblance the actor bore to his animal namesake we could well dispute. (I’m sure there’s a story there, but I don’t know it.) In any case, I’d much rather be a gray fox, reclusive inhabitant of the deep forest, climber of trees, halfway between a dog and a cat.

Contrary, my mother used to call me (and still does on occasion). If there are only two alternatives I’ll look for a third. In the company of boosters I’m an aginner – and vice versa. Even as I type this, the words come out wrong. Flagrantly wrong. Dyslexic. Dyslogic.

In a comment thread, C.B. wonders if I’m that bum outside the 34th street station he gave fifty cents to last Tuesday. No, but I think I could be! In all of literature there is no character I identify with so wholeheartedly as the madman of Chu. This is the guy who is said in the Analects to have accosted Confucius with a song,

Hey Phoenix! Phoenix!
What can anyone really do about the decline of virtue?
It’s useless to blame the past;
You can chase the future if you want.
Enough, enough!
These days it’s worth your life just to take office.

“Confucius got down from his carriage and tried to talk with him, but the man hurried off to avoid him, and he didn’t get the chance.”

This “virtue” (de) can also be translated “power.” It includes both innate ability and cultivated knack or strength of character. (This is the de in Daodejing.)

Zhuangzi gives an expanded version of the madman’s song. In A. C. Graham’s translation:

When Confucius travelled to Ch’u, Chieh Yü the madman of Ch’u wandered at his gate crying

‘Phoenix! Phoenix!
What’s to be done about Power’s decline?
Of the age to come we can’t be sure,
To the age gone there’s no road back.

When the Empire has the Way
The sage succeeds in it.
When the Empire lacks the Way
The sage survives in it.
In this time of ours, enough
If he dodges execution.

Good luck is lighter than a feather,
None knows how to bear its weight.
Mishap is heavier than the earth,
None knows how to get out of its way.

Enough, enough!
Of using Power to reign over men.
Beware, beware!
Of marking ground and bustling us inside.

Thistle, thistle,
Don’t wound me as I walk.
My walk goes backward and goes crooked,
Don’t wound my feet.

The trees in the mountain plunder themselves,
The grease in the flame sizzles itself.
Cinnamon has a taste, so they hack it down.
Lacquer has a use, so they strip it off.

All men know the uses of the useful, but no one knows the uses of the useless.’

“Good luck is lighter than a feather” reminds me of the fellow I read about in the news this morning, a Canadian who managed to sit on his winning lottery ticket, worth $23 million, for close to a year until he had all his ducks in a row. There’s a man of rare virtue! Compared to him, we’re all a little crooked, I guess.

I found a dime
just before that homeless guy saw it.
Felt good all morning.

The Directorate of Joy

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Since I don’t have the time for an original entry this morning, here’s something from my files. This appeared as an op-ed in the Centre Daily Times – the main newspaper for the region surrounding Penn State’s University Park campus – back in November 2002. This region is known to Penn State fans and other local boosters as Happy Valley.

A post on “non-lethal” weapons breaks the pattern of non-political or anti-political writing here at Via Negativa, but it does give some background for a passing comment I made in Tuesday’s post, “The mutter of all bums.” By sheer happenstance, the origianl op-ed came out within days of a Russian police assault on a Moscow theater that had been taken over by Chechen rebels. Over a hundred people died from exposure to the supposedly non-lethal chemical weapon injected by the police. I forget the name of the chemical, but it was indeed one of the main subjects of the Penn State study. Most (but not all) would probably have lived had they been given proper, immediate medical attention.

The P.R. flunky for this program did respond to my attack with an op-ed of his own. However, the only charge he denied was that this research was inappropriate for a public university. He didn’t specifically address whether or not it violates the Chemical Weapons Convention. I think it’s a pretty sure bet that one topic we will not hear Bush and Kerry debate in the upcoming months is the United States’ own growing stockpiles of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

The military’s obsessive and incessant use of acronymns and code-words remains a source of fascination for me.


I sat staring at my computer screen in disbelief, the address line of my browser keyed to My beloved alma mater Penn State is code-named MCRU, “Marine Corps Research University”? That can’t be right!

Surely what they really mean is something like “The Beatrice Q. and James P. Rugglethorpe III Marine Corps Research University.” It just has such a better ring to it.

MCRU was maybe the tenth semi-digestible new acronym I’d encountered in the course of an afternoon of web surfing. With an Iraq war looming, I was checking out some of the more arcane implications of an MRC (Major Regional Conflict), which seems to differ from MOOTW (Military Operations Other Than War) chiefly in the size and number of bombs dropped and missiles lobbed. The largest and toughest chunk of word-salad was still lodged halfway down my throat: JNLWD, the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate.

If an acronym is long and unpronounceable, why use it? For simplicity’s sake, hereafter I’ll refer to the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate by an abbreviation, “Joy.”

Joy is a Pentagon initiative that contracts for research at the ARL (Applied Research Lab) at Penn State/MCRU, and at several other facilities around the country. “Non-lethal weapons” (NLWs), it turns out, is a catch-all category for anything that can be used to hurt, maim or incapacitate without actually killing people. Some weapons are classified as non-lethal because, if used in a certain way, they don’t kill human targets most of the time: rubber-coated bullets when they’re fired at the ground, for instance, or very brief, agonizing bursts of microwave radiation (both subjects of Penn State research).

But what really captured my fancy was the Joy-sponsored research into what one pair of military strategists rhapsodically describe as “neural inhibitors, gastrointestinal convulsives, neuropharmacological agents, calmative agents, and disassociative hallucinogens,” including such familiar drugs as Prozac and Valium; opiates “hundreds of times more potent” than heroin; a drug called Precedex that “increases patients’ reaction to electric shock”; even GBH (“the date rape drug”). Military planners prefer to lump all these chemical NLWs together as “calmatives”.

I’m quoting in part from a 50-page report produced for the Directorate by the College of Medicine and ARL, entitled The Advantages and Limitations of Calmatives for Use as a Non-Lethal Technique. Deploying a potent cocktail of Militarese and Medicalese, the report describes calmatives as “pharmaceutical agents . . . with a profile of producing a calm-like state,” with “physiological and behavioral effects [that] range from amelioration of anxiety, mild sedation, hypnotic effects to coma and death.” Ideally, of course, they would be administered in doses designed to produce merely “a less agitated, groggy, sleepy-like state” or “a stunned state of consciousness.”

Who’d have thought that the theme of Bobby McPherrin’s body slapping, sleepy-like hit of yesteryear, “Don’t worry, be happy,” might one day be enforceable by riot police?

The authors point out that such chemicals “offer specific advantages in a non-lethal warfare setting.” They don’t say exactly what such a setting might involve, though they do allude to situations involving an “agitated population,” exemplified at one point by “a group of hungry refugees . . . excited over the distribution of food,” and at another point they suggest helpfully that certain drugs offer superior “control of an individual.”

Non-lethal warfare? How very politically correct (PC)!

The foreigners and liberals at the Hamburg- and Austin-based Sunshine Project have a serious bee up their butt about this research. They’ve been using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain a number of classified documents (including the report cited above) which, they claim, add up to a pretty damning conclusion: that the US military is in direct violation of international law, specifically the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

Not only does the R&D program itself constitute a violation but, they say, Joy is currently flouting CWC rules even further by testing a delivery system: the 81mm M252 mortar, which has a range of 2.5 km., according to recent FOIA-obtained documents. The sunshiners whine about the danger of escalation if “non-lethal” chemical weapons are used in battlefield situations, wring their hands over the possibility of a new chemical arms race, and go so far as to imply that using chemical weapons against Iraq would make us (U.S.) vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy!

The Sunshine Project’s latest bombshell is a press release dated 27 September, maintaining that experiments with human subjects are planned, or may indeed already have been conducted. Their evidence consists of a murkily written contract, dated 29 January 2002, between the Directorate and MCRU.

Actually, this isn’t too hard to believe. Anecdotal evidence suggests that close to half the student population of Penn State/MCRU on any given Friday night descends rapidly into a “stunned state of consciousness.” And was it really just a coincidence that Arts Fest revelers somehow didn’t feel like rioting this year?

The Directorate, for its part, tells the Associated Press (AP) that it has decided to “step back and make sure the use of calmatives would not violate the Chemical Weapons Convention.” Part of “making sure” apparently includes denying the release of over two thirds of the documents requested; ordering the US National Academies of Science not to release unclassified documents deposited in their public archives by Joy; and even by classifying their own internal, legal review–a tacit admission that thoughts themselves can be dangerous.

Which, come to think of it, is almost an inevitable conclusion, if you begin (as the Penn State study does) with the premise that resistance to authority constitutes a treatable psychological disorder.

But apparently they didn’t “make sure” soon enough. Already-released records indicate that back in 2000 our British allies–timid as always!–protested that the calmatives program was illegal. Joy simply replied that it would proceed anyway: “If there are promising technologies that DOD [Department of Defense] is prohibited from pursuing, set up MOA [Memorandum of Agreement] with DOJ [Department of Justice] or DOE [Department of Energy].”

Translation: “Pass the buck and damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

Space doesn’t permit more than a mention of some of the ironies surrounding the Joy Directorate’s work. Where to begin? In Afghanistan, where opium production under U.S. occupation has rebounded to pre-Taliban levels? In the Andes, where peasants’ coca crops are destroyed by U.S. taxpayer-subsidized military aircraft indiscriminately spraying deadly chemicals?

How about in Happy Valley, where a moralizing university president has encouraged police to crack down on underage drinkers, and where students are suspended or expelled for possession of a quarter bag of pot?

On the second week of October, the Sunshine Project presented its case at the Chemical Weapons Convention conference at the Hague. Oddly, its suggestion that the UN send a weapons inspection team to the US was greeted with resounding silence. (All I can say is, they better not try flying their black helicopters over Beaver Stadium!)

Hmmm, that’s strange–I feel this sudden, uncontrollable urge to lie down on the couch . . . turn on the television . . . watch football . . .

The text of the Chemical Weapons Convention may be found here or here. Since this essay was published, the ARL has removed most of the offending material from its website, though the most damning documents (including the report I quoted from) are archived here by the Sunshine Project. Access to the MCRU’s website has also been restricted. An example of the military’s thinking about the legal and ethical status of non-lethal weapons may be viewed here.

Housekeeping note

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


I finally sent Haloscan some money, which means that comments can now be as long as a whopping 3000 characters each – and they will be preserved indefinitely! My ability to edit comments is vastly simplified, so let me know via e-mail anytime you want to change something you said (be it as minor as a typo or misspelling). I also get e-mail notification when someone leaves a comment, which is particularly helpful if it’s in response to a post in the archive.

I’m having a problem with early comments not registering. From about the first week of February on back, all comments are incorrectly labeled as “(0)” whether they are there or not. But nothing seems to have been lost, which is the main thing. If anyone knows how to fix this, please let me know. Also, I don’t understand this “trackback” feature too well. Do folks who have it at their own blogs really find it useful? I’m reluctant to add too many features that might confuse people who aren’t regular blogonauts.

The girl in the raincoat

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The electric went out this morning just as I was casting about for something to blog about. April fool! We were without power for three hours altogether. It was raining too hard to go for a walk, so I found myself reading in the only chair in the house with enough natural light – the one in front of my computer. Damn, I live in a cave!

When the lights went out I had been reading Jorge Tellier, whose nostalgic poems about his childhood in the rainy South of Chile should have been a perfect accompaniment for such a gloomy day. However, they didn’t seem quite what I wanted, and I had to resist the temptation to pull out a volume of Georg Trakl translations instead.

Nostalgia is such a self-indulgent mood. It’s the daydreamer’s ultimate escape, “the country of nevermore” (el país de nunca jamás), as Tellier calls the landscape of his childhood. It is lost in the way we would like to be lost ourselves, distracted forever in a world made from pure longing. It is not the true heaven of the mystic – which exists in the present moment if it exists at all – but its doppelganger, the Land of Faery, the paradise beyond death. How else to explain the apparent paradox that experiences we were in fact barely present for can assume in nostalgic recollection such portentous and idyllic proportions?

And pondering still Walter Ong’s theories about the transition from orality to literacy, I’m wondering if nostalgia might stem in part from a reaction against the increasing irony, the distancing of consciousness from world that literacy entails? We remember with special clarity those years before full literacy, when bedtime stories and ghost stories had such power to entrance or terrify us. The stories we invented then about ourselves and that others told about us probably still form the most solid substratum of our self-identity.

I’m thinking (with some nostalgia) about a woman I used to work with – one of those rare people gifted with what I can only call a pure heart. (William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, described such people as once-born.) I remember her talking once about her largely unhappy childhood, and how she still pictured herself as the little girl in a raincoat with her back to the camera, poking at the water in a puddle with a stick. Yes, I thought, for all her cheerfulness there was something of that sad little girl, deep down – as if a photo I’d never seen had captured her very soul.

I don’t want to rehash past arguments to the effect that the notion of a single, unitary soul is a recent and minority view. What’s indisputable to me is that this substratum of the self formed in early childhood is inhabited by an uninvited guest, whom we may or may not consider a friend: our own death. (I am trying to avoid the terminology of modern psychology, in which I have little grounding.) Communication with the dead involves us in a very special kind of language, older than human speech: the figurative language of omens, markings, gestures, involuntary actions and reactions quicker than thought. Here’s the title poem from Carolyn Wright’s translation for the University of Texas Press (1993), In Order to Talk with the Dead: Selected Poems of Jorge Tellier. I have altered the last two lines just a bit.

In order to talk with the dead
you have to choose words
that they recognize as easily
as their hands
recognized the fur of their dogs in the dark.
Words clear and calm
as water of the torrent tamed in the wineglass
or chairs the mother puts in order
after the guests have left.
Words that night shelters
as marshes do their ghostly fires.

In order to talk with the dead
you have to know how to wait:
they are fearful
like the first steps of a child.
But if we are patient
one day they will answer us
with a poplar leaf trapped in a broken mirror,
with a flame that suddenly revives in the fireplace,
with a dark return of birds
before the gaze of a girl
who waits on the threshold, motionless.

Para hablar con los muertos
por Jorge Tellier

Para hablar con los muertos
hay que elegir palabras
que ellos reconozcan tan fácilmente
como sus manos
reconocían el pelaje de sus perros en la oscuridad.
Palabras claras y tranquilas
como el agua del torrente domesticada en la copa
o las sillas ordenades por la madre
después que se han ido los invitados.
Palabras que la noche acoja
como a los fuegos fatuos los pantanos.

Para hablar con los muertos
hay que saber esperar:
ellos son miedosos
como los primeros pasos de un niño.
Pero si tenemos paciencia
un día nos responderán
con una hoja de álamo atrapado por un espejo roto,
con una llama de súbito reanimada en la chimenea,
con un regreso oscuro de pájaros
frente a la mirada de una muchacha
que aguarda inmóvil en el umbral.

A walk in the fog

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

What I love about language
is what I love about fog:
what comes between us and things
grants them their shine.

Mark Doty, “Fog Suite” (See V.N. Dec. 28, “Deeply Superficial”)

Too much happens to ever get it all down. The writer has a running bet with God that he can turn any base metals into gold. I will sacrifice my health and even my privacy; I will bare my soul to the world. Sometimes I even long for a device that would read my thoughts and automatically convert them into text. How many of us who blog wouldn’t jump at the chance to have a computer chip implanted in our brains? Something that would convert every verbalized thought into digital form for eventual download and editing.

Walking in the fog, I can’t help thinking about editing. As every Chinese landscape painter knows, there’s nothing like a little blank space in the middle of the canvas to make the romantic heart go pitter-pat. No wonder lovers feel as if they’re walking in a cloud. Without such selective vision, how could anyone fall in love?

The mountain sounds different in the fog. Nearby noises may be muffled or echo strangely; distant sounds may be amplified. Red-winged blackbirds fly over, invisible but for their calls. On the road to the Far Field, a pileated woodpecker lets me pass within a few feet of the snag where he beats out his baritone ostinato. I can hear two men talking in the valley, dogs and cars and quarry trucks, a ruffed grouse drumming off in the laurel. When I get back to the house the juvenile red-tailed hawk takes off from the vicinity of my front porch, setting off a chorus of alarm calls from all the gray squirrels in the vicinity. Although it’s 7:00 a.m., a screech owl is still trilling – an odd addition to the chorus of song sparrows, cardinals, bluebirds and juncos. A single blackbird seems to have alighted in a nearby treetop. The call of this most common of birds is unusual enough on a dry mountaintop to excite my admiration.

Things look different inside a cloud, too, and not just because of the loss of distance, the sudden drawing-near of the horizon. This morning, for example, I noticed that the distinction between vines and tree trunks had suddenly grown much more arbitrary. A tall skinny sapling can have as many crooks and bends as a wild grapevine. No longer even did they appear as different ways of reaching for the sky, since the sky was now here. My gaze was drawn to the pure form; the illusion of individual purpose had dissolved. It’s too early for spiders, but you know what fog can do to their webs, right? It felt like that: everything glistened. Touch one part and everything will vibrate.

In the dawn light, trees turned deep blue at a little distance. Up close, the trunks shone in a half-dozen shades of green and grayish blue, as lichens threw open all their doors and windows. The trail gleamed, a bright ribbon of yellow-green moss. I was reminded of descriptions of the jeweled buddhaverse of Amida, as in the Pure Land Sutra: “And on every side of these lotus ponds jeweled trees are growing, lovely and radiant with the seven precious gems: gold, silver, beryl, crystal, red pearl, diamond and coral. In the lotus ponds the lotuses grow: blue, bluish, with a blue radiance, blue to behold . . . “

This briefest of excerpts narrowly avoids the endless repetitions that make Buddhist scriptures so tedious to read. I remind myself that they were written for a largely illiterate audience, and were intended to be committed to memory. Absolute novelty is not as memorable as we may think. Indeed, the mind has difficulty even interpreting – let alone memorizing – things too far outside its experience. Thus for the supremely strange Pure Land, created to provide a short-cut to enlightenment for the non-intellectual and the illiterate, only a very repetitive description can permit its assimilation by the habit-bound imagination.

In Japanese, as in Chinese, the ancient Sanskrit invocation Namo Amitabha Buddha became an almost unintelligible spell, na-mu-a-mi-da-boots. Namu does sound like a Japanese verb, and is typically interpreted as such – “I invoke,” “I trust/depend upon,” or even “I become.” Given that verbs bring up the rear in ordinary Japanese sentences, however, the effect would be something like, “I become, Amida Buddha.” But at the same time, the whole phrase is thought of as Amida’s Name. Most Pure Land Buddhists repeat this mantra hundreds of thousands of times over the course of their lives. But theoretically, at least for members of the largest Japanese Pure Land sect, Jodoshinshu, it only takes one, completely heartfelt repetition of the spell to guarantee rebirth among the gem-trees and lotuses, where all ordinary impediments to enlightenment are removed.


I’m currently reading Walter J. Ong’s ground-breaking book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (Routledge, 1982), about which I’m sure I will have much more to say in the coming days and months. Ong summarizes a vast amount of material, much of which is new to me and almost all of which has bearing on the sorts of questions I’ve been concerned with here at Via Negativa. Today, I want to consider his analysis of how the world is understood by illiterate people and by people in mostly or entirely oral cultures.

“Without writing, words as such have no visual presence . . . They are sounds . . . To learn what a primary oral culture is and what the nature of our problem is regarding such a culture, it helps first to reflect on the nature of sound as sound. All sensation takes place in time, but sound has a special relationship to time unlike that of the other fields that register human sensation. Sound exists only when it is going out of existence. It is not simply perishable but essentially evanescent, and it is sensed as evanescent. When I pronounce the word ‘permanence’, by the time I get to the ‘-nence’, the ‘perma-‘ is gone, and has to be gone.

“There is no way to stop sound and have sound. I can stop a moving picture camera and hold one frame fixed on the screen. If I stop the movement of sound, I have nothing – only silence, no sound at all. All sensation takes place in time, but no other sensory field totally resists a holding action, stabilization, in quite this way. Vision can register motion, but it can also register immobility. Indeed, it favors immobility, for to examine something closely by vision, we prefer to have it quiet. . . .

“For anyone who has a sense of what sound means in a primary oral culture, or in a culture not far removed from primary orality, it is not surprising that the Hebrew term dabar means ‘word’ and ‘event’. Malinowski has made the point that among ‘primitive’ (oral) people generally language is a mode of action and not just a countersign of thought . . . Neither is it surprising that oral peoples commonly, and perhaps universally, consider words to have great power. A hunter can see a buffalo, smell, taste and touch a buffalo when the buffalo is completely inert, even dead, but if he hears a buffalo, he better watch out: something is going on. In this sense, all sound, and especially all oral utterance, which comes from inside living organisms, is ‘dynamic.’

“The fact that oral peoples commonly and in all likelihood universally consider words to have magical potency is clearly tied in, at least unconsciously, with the sense of the word as necessarily spoken, sounded, and hence power-driven. Deeply typographic folk forget to think of words as primarily oral, as events, and hence as necessarily powered: for them, words tend rather to be assimilated to things, ‘out there’ on a flat surface.”

Toward the end of the same chapter (“Some psychodynamics of orality”), Ong mentions that, in addition to its evanescence, “Other characteristics of sound also determine or influence oral psychodynamics. The principal one . . . is the unique relationship of sound to interiority when sound is compared to the rest of the senses. This relationship is important because of the interiority of human consciousness and of human communication itself.”

What might we make of using sound, in the form of charged words, to try and actualize a highly visual and essentially static buddhaverse – the inverse of our own “impure” world? Ong’s treatment seems to shed a little light, if you’ll pardon the expression. “To test the physical interior of an object as interior,” he continues, “no sense works so directly as sound. The human sense of sight is adapted best to light diffusely reflected from surfaces . . . A source of light, such as a fire, may be intriguing but it is optically baffling: the eye cannot get a ‘fix’ on anything within the fire. Similarly, a translucent object, such as alabaster, is intriguing because, although it is not a source of light, the eye cannot get a ‘fix’ on it either.”

Thus the radiant and gem-studded Pure Land is designed to baffle and intrigue, to lure and refuse hold. Without the sound of bells and the cries of birds of paradise, it might refuse all entrance to the mind. For our visual perception of depth, Ong says, is limited. “Depth can be perceived by the eye, but most satisfactorily as a series of surfaces: the trunks of trees in a grove, for example, or chairs in an auditorium. The eye does not perceive an interior strictly as an interior: inside a room, the walls it perceives are still surfaces, outsides.” Here I am reminded of Mark Doty’s eloquent defense of light-diffusing surfaces as containing a kind of depth of their own. (Has anyone ever thought to compare Doty’s notion of the salvific effects of shimmer, glitter and radiance with the visualization-based soteriology of Pure Land texts?)

“Taste and smell are not much help in registering interiority or exteriority. Touch is. But touch partly destroys interiority in the process of perceiving it. If I wish to discover by touch whether a box is empty or full, I have to make a hole in the box to insert a hand or finger: this means that the box is to that extent open, to that extent less an interior.

“Hearing can register interiority without violating it. I can rap a box to find out whether it is empty or full or a wall to find out whether it is hollow or solid inside. Or I can ring a coin to find out if it is silver or lead.

“Sounds all register the interior structure of whatever it is that produces them . . .

“Sight isolates, sound incorporates. Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance, sound pours into the hearer. Vision dissects, as Merleau-Ponty has observed. Vision comes to a human being from one direction at a time: to look at a room or at a landscape, I must move my eyes around from one part to another. When I hear, however, I gather sound from every direction at once: I am at the center of my auditory world, which envelops me, establishing me at a kind of core of sensation and existence . . .You can immerse yourself in hearing, in sound. There is no way to immerse yourself in vision.” Now, of course, I picture myself back among the trees, immersed in sound-filled cloud.

Whereas vision dissects, Ong maintains, “The auditory ideal . . . is harmony, a putting together.” To avoid undue Western bias, I would add here that “harmony” might be understood to include all forms of musical coherence. Phenomenologically speaking, syncopation may be more fundamental than harmony per se.

“Interiority and harmony are characteristics of human consciousness . . . What is ‘I’ to me is only ‘you’ to you. And this ‘I’ incorporates experience into itself by ‘getting it all together.’ Knowledge is ultimately not a fractioning but a unifying phenomenon, a striving for harmony. Without harmony, an interior condition, the psyche is in bad health.”

Now to return to the question of how pre-literate people may receive the religious or magical word – and what those of us who are immersed in the garden of the text might be missing. “In a primary oral culture, where the word has its existence only in sound . . . the phenomenology of sound enters deeply into human beings’ feel for existence, as possessed by the spoken word. For the way in which the word is experienced is always momentous in psychic life. The centering aspect of sound . . . affects man’s sense of the cosmos. For oral cultures, the cosmos is an ongoing event with man at its center. Man is the umbilicus mundi, the navel of the world.” Namo Amitabha Buddha!


There remains the matter of editing, of the Pure Land apart from this present, impure one. I have written elsewhere, from an environmental and aesthetic perspective, on the emptiness of the very idea of garbage. (See The Art of Living.) To produce garbage is to sin against the original wholeness and purity of mind. If words are, as Ong suggests, fundamentally evanescent, perhaps our Quixotic attempts to freeze and isolate them are precisely where waste is generated? Recall the possibility I threw out at the beginning of this post: a “bug” that could read and record our verbalized thoughts, the ones we speak silently with perhaps only the faintest motion of lips and tongue. Imagine how much would have to be discarded to make any of it cohere (or harmonize, as Mr. Ong would say)!

But imagine that I could do this editing as I walked, using a completely verbal computer language. This too – all the instructions to the computer – would be discarded or invisible in the eventual (or nearly simultaneous) text. Indeed, from the writer’s vantagepoint all hypertext (as in html) is waste material, is it not? Not for nothing did “garbage in, garbage out” become the mantra of the technorati.

To read to oneself is to become isolated – to edit out the world. “Because in its physical constitution as sound, the spoken word proceeds from the human interior and manifests human beings to one another as conscious interiors, as persons, the spoken word forms human beings into close-knit groups. When a speaker is addressing an audience, the members of the audience normally become a unity, with themselves and with the speaker . . .

“The interiorizing force of the oral word relates in a special way to the sacral, to the ultimate concerns of existence. In most religions the spoken [or sung, or chanted] word functions integrally in ceremonial and devotional life. Eventually in the larger world religions sacred texts develop too, in which the sense of the sacral is attached also to the written word. Still, a textually supported religious tradition can continue to authenticate the primacy of the oral in many ways. In Christianity, for example, the Bible is read aloud at liturgical services. For God is thought of always as ‘speaking’ to human beings, not as writing to them. The orality of the mindset in the Biblical text, even in the epistolary sections, is overwhelming . . . ‘Faith comes through hearing,’ we read in the Letter to the Romans (10:17). ‘The letter kills, the spirit [breath, on which rides the spoken word] gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3:6).” (The parenthetical interpretation is Ong’s.)

The letter kills, the spoken word revives. Hmmm, I don’t know. The fog is thickening . . .