Shah on "The Commanding Self"

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Since I’ve mentioned Idries Shah twice now in the past couple of days – both here and over at Vajrayana Practice – I thought it might be a good time to let the man speak for himself, as it were. Shah was an extremely influential 20th-century Iranian-British teacher in the Naqshbandi tradition of Central Asian and Middle Eastern Sufism. Although it would be much more entertaining to transcribe one of his teaching stories, a passage from the introduction to The Commanding Self (London: The Octagon Press, 1994) seems more appropriate, because it touches on themes I have raised in the past several posts. And unlike the darn-near impenetrable teaching stories (collected in many volumes such as Tales of the Dervishes, Thinkers of the East, Caravan of Dreams, etc.), here he actually tells the reader what he’s about.

It’s a lengthy excerpt, so I stuck it up on a separate page for now. Click here.

Death takes a holiday

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Pica raises the question of violence and religion in the comments thread to yesterday’s post. Is violence at some level intrinsic to religion, or is it simply something that insinuates itself into the myths and/or ceremonies of cultures that are violent, or were violent in the past? To what extent might religion license and perpetuate violence? These are huge questions, and if I seem like a coward to dodge them (or pass them off onto my Dad, who is a peace scholar), so be it.

The journalist and longtime war correspondent Chris Hedge’s book, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, offers a rare example of a completely unsparing portrayal of modern warfare. He examines, at great depth and with abundant examples from the classics, the hold that warfare has over our imagination – how exciting and addictive it can become to writers like himself. Hedges is a former seminary student, and as the title suggests, he does not shy away from critiquing the role of religion or religious-seeming behavior. With good reason: the language of sacrifice is still used heavily by those who seek to give large-scale, organized butchery an air of nobility. (Liberals have criticized Bush for not employing the language of collective national sacrifice often enough. His response to 9/11 was “Go shopping!”)

Whether or not we can say that most religions are built on a foundation of violence, I think it is almost axiomatic that nation-states are. Patriotism is a covert form of religion, in my opinion – covert in the sense that it is disguised simply as the bedrock of all civic virtue. In the U.S.A., patriotism is particularly virulent because of our lack of an official state religion. This only works as long as we are in denial about the true nature of the situation, given the First Amendment’s clear guarantee of a freedom from religion. There is almost no escape from patriotism, especially during times of war. In virtually no other country that is not a totalitarian regime can one observe national symbols displayed everywhere, including in homes and offices. Like any icon or fetish, the U.S. flag transcends mere symbolic value. It is not only highly charged and ambiguous, invested with multiple meanings (anthropologist Victor Turner’s definition of a symbol), but for many people, I believe, it actually is animated somehow by a mystical essence (America, Freedom). It requires regular feedings of blood to retain its power – or so I would conclude from the most commonly cited justification for banning flag desecration: that the flag is sacred because so many people have died for it.

To be opposed to violence as a legitimate way of accomplishing social ends is perhaps the most revolutionary stance you can take. People from all over the political spectrum react with horror, disgust or simply bemused condescension to such a position. “Of course we, who are grownups, understand that sometimes unpleasant tasks are necessary, the world being as it is.” In fact, it is rare that the proponents of violence do not immediately resort to essentialist arguments about “human nature” – which suggests to me a strong tendency toward avoidance of the specific dilemmas that peaceniks tend to annoy us with. It may not be an exaggeration to say that such discussions are in fact taboo. At any rate, this brings us back to one of the main themes of this weblog, which is, can we say anything meaningful about (human) nature at all?

The 16th-century Quiche Mayan text Popol Vuh (see the Dennis Tedlock translation published by Simon and Schuster) is full of violence – murder, cannibalism, you name it. Its story of the journey of the hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, to the underworld of Xibalba to defeat the lords of death pivots on what I consider a profound insight into the nature of violence. The twins allow themselves to be killed and bring themselves back to life through their own power but – unlike Christ’s resurrection – that act alone does not constitute a complete victory over death. They use a combination of what we might call high and low magic – that is to say, transformations of both surface appearances and deeper identities – to compose a comic and enticing display. Traveling through Xibalba in the guise of ragamuffin acrobats and parlor magicians, they amaze all and sundry by their songs and dances, which include real sacrifices of one brother by the other, followed by his resurrection. News of this spectacle quickly reaches the ears of the rulers, who have them summoned to the palace.

The lords of death thus are enticed to become willing participants in their own destruction: their power is turned back upon them. “Sacrifice my dog, and bring him back to life again,” the chief lord says eagerly. They do so. “Set fire to my house.” The hall is engulfed in flames, but miraculously no one is injured – just like a Hollywood action-adventure flick! “Make a sacrifice without death!” Universal delight. “Do each other!” Pandemonium.

“And then the hearts of the lords were filled with longing, with yearning for the dance of Hunahpu and Xbalanque, so then came these words from One and Seven Death:

“‘Do it to us! Sacrifice us!'” they said. “‘Sacrifice both of us!'” said One and Seven Death to Hunahpu and Xbalanque.

“‘Very well. You ought to come back to life. After all, aren’t you Death? And aren’t we making you happy, along with the vassals of your domain?’ they told the lords.” (Tedlock, Popol Vuh, 153)

And of course they don’t come back to life. Caught up in violence-for-the-sake-of-violence, they fail to understand the higher import of the game.

One message I take from this is that comedy does triumph over tragedy in the end. Both may employ violence, but for completely different ends. If you look at the world in its tragic aspect, it will appear that violence is inevitable: are we not, after all, part of the food chain? Isn’t biology destiny? We carry our deaths within us; our appetites are without limit. Life is, as the Buddha observed, unsatisfactory. But – cruel as it seems – the very fact that death is no respecter of persons suggests the limitations of the tragic view, which cannot get beyond the perspective of the individual organism.

A friend of mine who is a Voudun initiate is ridden (“possessed”) by Ghede* during the spontaneous sacred dramas that are at the center of almost all Voudun convocations. Ghede is the orisha (“god”) of the crossroads and the graveyard, and acts as the master of ceremonies in these dramas because he is an intermediary between life and death. (As with many peasant religions, the main focus of Voudun is simply to commune with the ancestors.) Ghede is a quintessentially comic, Rabelaisian figure. He wears dark glasses, smokes a stogie, and drinks Bacardi 151 straight from the bottle with no apparent effect. (My friend says the effect does hit him after the orisha goes away, though not nearly as hard as it would if he had drunk an equivalent amount in a purely secular context. He knows from rum.) Ghede is extremely fond of dirty jokes and is certainly no respecter of persons, poking fun at everyone who crosses his path.

Ghede is subversive. There is a famous incident in which he simultaneously possessed hundreds of people in Port-au-Prince back during the days of the dictator Baby Doc Duvalier. (Keep in mind that Duvalier himself used Voudun to project an image as a lord of death, with his secret police acting as the dreaded Tonton Macoutes or bogeymen.) Picture a crowd of men wearing black suits, dark glasses and big, ear-splitting grins, striding jauntily along with the aid of white canes, making their unruly way (an anti-army!) up the broad avenue to the very gates of the palace while the dictator cowers inside. Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap go the canes upon the gate, an anarchic rhythm like a sudden hail of bullets. Ghede has a message for you: the doctor is in. “Nothing cures everything like death,” my friend is fond of intoning.

As I’ve mentioned before, I think that religion is fundamentally utopian, thus comic. At one level, the denial of death’s importance simply helps perpetuate violence and suffering. At a more advanced stage of awareness, the self that perishes is seen as extrinsic to the real self, part of the play of transformations in which death is a mediator rather than the final judge.
__________
*Also spelled Gede, Guede.

Clarification

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It’s probably far from obvious to a reader of the previous post that The Sylph is in fact a friend of mine who prefers to remain pseudonymous. (I don’t know the cloudshift/photoblogger from Adam, and just plug his blog ’cause I like what he’s trying to do.) I included that e-mail because I really dug the way it played with the “cloud of unknowing” concept. But I do feel a more profound issue is at work here. The Sufi thinker Idries Shah says that the presence of people who feel somewhat lost by the discussion but who nonetheless can listen with an active, open mind is essential in order for any genuine teaching to take place. I don’t know if this would apply here, however, since I am by no means a qualified teacher myself, simply a freelance, masterless student with various headstrong preconceptions about what should constitute a valid teaching. It seems to me that it is a strong possibility, almost an inevitability that, in the course of my blogging, I will bark up many wrong trees. That’s why I feel reassured by the presence of blithe spirits like The Sylph, who can balance bafflement and wisdom and know enough to keep the tongue firmly planted in the cheek at all times!

Meet the cloud

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Yesterday I received the following communication:

“I like reading your blog but have given relatively little thought, when one considers a lifetime of time to think, to most of the topics discussed in ViaNegativa. My presence as blog consumer would best be represented as a virtual cloud floating through the text, lingering on a poem, the odd wisp filtering into cassandra, back to hover over the reference section…weightless…mere vapor. No piece of my mind (yuck) but breath of my attitude.
[signed] The Sylph”

This made me go check on cloudshift/photoblog, my first visit since the New Year. This is a great site with mysterious photos and spontaneous, gnomic interpretations from a practicing Buddhist. (You can tell they’re spontaneous, ’cause he doesn’t bother to correct misspellings and typos.) In the entry for January 6 he could be conjuring our Sylph here. I won’t attempt to describe the photo, but the legend reads as follows:

“Shifting in and out of crowds (clouds), avoiding piercing stares… I followed and lead and pushed on towards my destinaion… It was a sight to see, and a sight to be seen.

“My reflection exists in the eyes of those I love.

“Lojong:
When the world is filled with evil,
Transform all mishaps into the path
of bodhi.”

Not bad. But Friday’s cogitation was more along my line. The photographer tilts his head, captures a split-second’s play of light and shadow (red and black and gold) and ruefully admits,

“I apply my conceptual knowledge to my surroundings, and therefore put everything into a small box of my own making. If I can see outside these boundaries, perhaps then I can really see.”

Check it out – and drop some comments in his box. He might be lonely, too. As for me, now that I know Via Negativa has a spirit-guardian, I feel quite reassured.

Sorcery and the limits to knowledge

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Does geography determine culture? The indigenous Mojave people, living in the hottest and one of the bleakest corners of what is now the United States, were obsessed with death. Funerals and mourning anniversaries were their main ceremonials. They were one of the few cultures in which sorcerers – that is to say, shamans who use their powers for self-aggrandizement and murder – practiced openly. “I am going to kill you,” a Mojave sorcerer frankly told the anthropologist A.L. Kroeber in 1910. (1)

One of their sacred stories offers an interesting contrast to the postmodern notion of deus abscondus – a god whose purported abandonment is used to explain manifold suffering and injustice. The first sorcerer kills one of the two creator gods. The other one, his younger brother, has just rescued the people from a world flood which he himself produced. Their Ararat is Avikwame, today known as Newberry Mountain, north of Needles, CA. John Bierhorst describes the conclusion of their Creation cycle in his authoritative Mythology of North America (Oxford UP, 2002, p.102 ):

“On the mountain he gives future shamans their dream power while they stand before him either as unborn children or as little boys. Afterward, he teaches the Mojave to farm, to cook, to speak, and to count, then changes into a fish eagle and flies off ‘without power of recollection, ignorant and infested with vermin.'” (2)

* * * *

It is a commonplace among cultures where magic is regarded as an authentic way of knowing, that knowledge is inherently limited and available only for a price. There is a strong appeal to the idea that many forms of understanding must be hard-won. For example, I’m told you can read the full details of most “secret” tantric teachings – they have been published and translated. But they are nonetheless still hidden, in the sense that their true content can only be grasped by someone who has been gone through proper training and is prepared to receive them.

To take another example, most of us probably have the experience of meeting “uneducated” individuals of a certain age whose every utterance radiates wisdom. (If you haven’t, you need to get out more!) The reason why these kinds of folks seem like sages, and the average PhD does not, presumably stems from the way in which they have acquired their knowledge about the world.

On the other hand: you can decry our society’s own “disenchantment” and the supposed Death of God all you want. But I’ll bet you take for granted things like free public libraries (thank you Andrew Carnegie, you murderously oppressive, self-aggrandizing son-of-a-bitch!). This is the absolute bedrock of civil liberties in the United States: the freedom not only to say what you want and think what you want, but to access knowledge that, in almost every other society the world has ever seen, would have been off-limits to all but an elite few. Sure, we still have “experts” whose typically mendacious interpretations dominate the airwaves. And most professions and disciplines employ occult terminology with a strong gatekeeper function. But we also have – possibly for not much longer – the Freedom of Information Act. Many individual states have Right-to-Know laws. And of course, we have the Internet – though more and more of it is off-limits to non-subscribers.

If, as some say, we are living in the twilight of the Free Information Age, we should be concerned about what this could mean for democracy. The Bush/Cheney regime has displayed an unprecedented obsession with secrecy and utter contempt for laws and customs mandating accountability. The more that the powerful can withhold access to knowledge, the more difficult it becomes to fight them. Thus their monopoly accelerates. What prevents them from becoming like gods – lords of death, arbiters of the planet’s fate? Is there something intrinsic to the power of understanding, that it might ultimately desert those who seek its ultimate control?

* * * *

An afterthought on the Mojave myth: this god, whose name is Mastamho, cannot be equated with deus abscondus. In the first place, however altered and diminished, he is still with the people as long as there are eagles. Moreover, by the ingenius conception of presence-as-future-possibility for the unborn, all religious specialists can claim to have communed with him directly! Which was, of course, the point. As masters of the dream, shamans always have access to the illo tempore of sacred story, the dreamtime where death and forgetfulness can be reversed, humans and animals are all just people and outward forms are, if not quite unreal as Plato thought, infinitely supple. The mind that can master these transformations is indeed a dangerous thing.
_________

(1) I think the date is right. I read this a while back, and don’t have the reference at hand.
(2) Bierhorst should have updated the translation. By “fish eagle” he means, of course, the bald eagle.

Gimme hell!

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After much fussing and several moments of near-panic, I have finally installed a comments feature! So, if there are any postings you’ve had some reactions to, but didn’t want to bother me with an e-mail (always welcome, of course), now you can let me have it! Or just, you know, start a conversation.

For those who (like me) are new to this: click on where it says “Comments” at the end of the post. If you’ve disabled pop-ups on your computer, you will have to hold down the Ctrl key while clicking. Type in name or pseudonymn, e-mail, website url if any – that should be obvious. What isn’t obvious is that it will cut you off at 1000 characters, which is about two medium-length paragraphs. To avoid losing your work, always copy and save before sending. You can do this by right-clicking the mouse with your arrow in the box; paste into a new box by the same method. Pretty nifty, eh?

Apropos of nothing, except that the heading for this post made me think of it: I have Dr. John’s take on an old blues verse running through my head now (can’t remember the title of the song), goes something like –

Give me whiskey
When I get a little frisky,
‘Cause it’s a mighty good thing
When I get a little dry,
Give me tobacco
When i get a little sickly
And give me heaven
Before i die!

After the breakdown

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One of life’s chief pleasures is discovering great works of literature slumbering peacefully between the covers of a 20-year-old, well-thumbed paperback in the dusty shelves of one’s favorite used bookstore. That’s how last year I became acquainted with the Swedish poet Artur Lundkvist and his searing Agadir.

This is pretty lame of me, but I’m just going to quote the back-cover blurb so you’ll see why I am re-reading this book now. “Artur Lundkvist and his wife survived the massive earthquake in southern Morocco which destroyed Agadir in March 1960, killing almost all of its 40,000 inhabitants. This poem grew out of that experience . . . [It] falls easily into four sections, the opening describing the unearthly calm before the disaster, the second, the disaster itself, the third, the vision of the destroyed city and the fourth, a coda . . . By accurately recording the event, Lundkvist presents a verbal picture as horrible as any surrealist nightmare. Agadir, the shining white city, becomes to the poet’s inner eye a city in which life is clasped by death, a mirage forever reminding him of what may lie in store for all humanity . . . ”

Lundkvist was already a renowned writer at the time of the disaster, apparently, specializing in travel poetry and fluent in eleven languages. In the translation – by U.S. poet William Jay Smith and Leif Sjoberg – each page is a separate, untitled sub-unit with long, Whitmanesque lines. The style is realism with abundant touches of lyricism for the first three sections; the proportions are reversed in the final section, from which I include an excerpt here. I don’t know how to indent lines in Blogger, so some enjambment (depending on the viewer’s screen size) is apparent rather than real. This section is in quotes, indicating that this is not the author’s own voice but that of some other, nameless survivor.

“Words also crumbled, broke into pieces, scattered in shreds,
in vain I tried to find some still unharmed and usable
but found only splinters of metaphors, cracked, like a split mirror;
visions floated about, islands adrift in air as white as milk but thicker,
almost like molten, viscous marble,
trees floated about, torn up by the roots and turning slowly upside down upon themselves,
people floated like driftwood, many whole and outwardly unmarred, others cut in half or worse,
floating about in the white with eyes wide-open, hair streaming upward,
the whole scene spotless and beautiful, like a devastation of statues,
black tabletops turned slowly, became round holes of dark tapering into a streak,
horses floated on their backs, legs galloped in the void,
so many things went by: sandals two by two as if held together by invisible feet, bolts of cloth unrolling,
a sidewalk cafe filled with people leaning over an abyss,
a fire burning in the void, a sports car filled with young girls,
and whether I closed my eyes or kept them open made no difference; the sights were there inside,
my brain was stripped of words, white and blank,
only images floated after the breakdown.”

Artur Lundkvist, Agadir, translated by William Jay Smith and Leif Sjoberg. Ohio UP, 1980, p. 49.

Strangers in the earth

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Lost in the woods, a thousand possible avenues opening among the trunks and thickets, panic rising in the throat. Stuck in a shopping mall, fascination at the initial strangeness of it turning sour in the stomach. Is alienation always a bad thing? Isn’t it possible that some very necessary lessons come at the price of a certain disassociation from oneself, from one’s safe nest of habit and comforting thoughts? Perhaps I am groping for a word that doesn’t yet exist, somewhere in the hair’s breadth of difference between alienation and ecstasy, strangeness and intimacy, nothingness and Ein Sof.

Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears;
for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner,
as all my fathers were.
Psalm 39:12

Not for love as the sweet pretend: the children’s game
of deliberate ignorance of each to allow the dreaming.
Not for the impersonal belly nor the heart’s drunkenness
have I come this far, stubborn, disastrous way.
But for relish of those archipelagoes of person.
To hold her in hand, closed as any sparrow,
and call and call forever till she turn from bird
to blowing woods. From woods to jungle. Persimmon.
To light. From light to princess. From princess to woman
in all her fresh particularity of difference.
Then oh, through the underwater time of night,
indecent and still, to speak to her without habit.
This I have done with my life, and am content.
I wish I could tell you how it is in that dark,
standing in the huge singing and alien world.

Jack Gilbert, “Don Giovanni on His Way to Hell.”
Monolithos, Graywolf Press, 1982, 7.

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world.

Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is the reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.

Aldo Leopold, “Thinking Like a Mountain.”
A Sand County Almanac, Oxford UP, 1987 (1949), 129.

Radical hospitality, infinite respect, & all the messy stuff in between

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Manic mode. Press conference tomorrow; today many phone calls to make. Five a.m. and bitter cold. Full moon looking in over my right shoulder. The monkey in my mind – no, screw the tired buddhist cliche – the gray squirrel in my mind is already stirring. Stirring? Hell, she’s racing about in 108 different directions at once!

There’s been a very interesting discussion going on over at The Cassandra Pages for the last three days now (click here for the permalink). It was sparked by a moving & very understated essay in which the author contrasted hearing a sermon by the newly installed New Hampshire Episcopal bishop, Gene Robinson (he whose ordination threatened to split the Anglican church), with a visit afterwards to a typical American mall. How to practice the “radical hospitality and infinite respect” the bishop preached surrounded by such soul-destroying craving and consumerism? How to love the people who manufacture and peddle all this stuff? The message strings are very lively because it’s not just Christians talking to Christians; the Buddhists and agnostics are chiming in, too.

One comment in these discussions was along the lines of, “I don’t believe in higher powers. I guess that’s why I’m not religious.” But it seems to me that questions of how to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” “love thy enemy” and give welcome to the widow, the orphan and the stranger are precisely the beginning and end of religion. I agree with Confucius: metaphysics is a sideshow. Life after death? Don’t be such a baby! You’re going to die. Odds are you’ll suffer quite a bit before you get there. Deal with it.

Faith/trust in [insert name of idol here], at its best and most essential, should mean cultivating a deeply conscious openness toward the world and toward each of its flawed inhabitants – even (or especially) when they are DEEPLY EVIL CYNICAL PSYCHOPATHIC RUMSFELD SADDAM MOTHERFUCKERS WITHOUT A SHRED OF HUMAN DECENCY.

I notice that (as of last night) none of the participants in the discussion had really dealt concretely with “radical hospitality”; they were mostly just exploring the ramifications of “infinite respect.” O.K. But this is a major flaw in our culture, I think. I wonder if our collective tone-deafness toward this most ancient of virtues has something to do with our national origins, in genocide and chattel slavery. But be that as it may, I think the practice of hospitality is one of the things we could most stand to learn from Muslims and/or Arabs. It is very painful to read descriptions of American troops behaving like the Gestapo, abusing the abundant hospitality they are shown when they enter houses unannounced, frightening and insulting their would-be hosts. We just don’t know how to be good guests! It is equally painful to hear about how we have begun fingerprinting every non-White visitor to the U.S.; imprisoning resident aliens and keeping them incommunicado for months for traffic violations or lapsed visas, then deporting them without even giving them a chance to say goodbye to their American families. We don’t know how to be good hosts.

Returning to my evolving midrash on Jacob and Esau (see “history and freedom” entry): the less biblically literate among my readers may not perhaps realize the full import of this tale. And the deeply particularistic language of the Old Testament makes it easy to forget: these are not just individuals, but “corporate persons” – ancestors of two neighboring and usually warring peoples, Israel and Edom, at the time this story was given its final form. In later millennia, Jews of the Diaspora read “Edom” as code for “Christendom.” That’s the background/baggage of this apparently simple story of reconciliation between brothers, with all the grand gestures of radical hospitality and infinite respect.

There’s something else that strikes me. In terms of the structure of the narrative, Jacob’s weird nocturnal wrestling bout comes at the very same place where many years previous, as a mama’s boy fleeing his brother’s wrath, he took a stone for a pillow and dreamed his famous, epiphanic dream. In those terrible sugar-coated Bible Stories For Children that have been the cause of so many former altar boys and choir girls turning their backs on religion, Jacob’s Ladder is right up there with Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors and David and Goliath. The scholars tell us that rather than a ladder we should envision the stairs on a ziggurat, but never mind.

The point to me is that the two stories have a dialectical relationship. Where before Jacob had a dream of a strictly vertical order, with angels going up and down and the Lord standing above all and thundering his promise to multiply Jabob’s descendents – a future market-dominance by his corporate personhood – now we have sleeplessness. A dark night of the soul, a cloud of unknowing. “A man came and wrestled with him until daybreak.” Not (as in Bible Stories for Children) some fluffy-winged angel. God or demon? He doesn’t give out his name. We know only that, the next day when Jacob finally meets up with Esau, he sees the face of God. “And Jacob called the name of the place Penuel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” (Gen. 33:30)

Okey-dokey. But then comes the awful 34th Chapter of Genesis: the first recorded genocide against the inhabitants of what is now called Palestine, perpetrated by Jacob’s sons to avenge the “defiling” of their sister. Has Jacob learned nothing from his two, very different epiphanies?

Actually, he takes no part in the massacre, and in fact chastises his sons. But his rebuke has a decidedly self-serving ring to it: You’ve given me a really bad reputation among the natives here, he says, “and I being few in number, they shall gather themselves together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house. And they said, Should he deal with our sister as a harlot?”(Gen. 34:30-31) God is conspicuously absent until the very end. The pious people who divided the Bible into chapter and verse at a later time put in a chapter break when at last Yahweh speaks up.

“And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel” – that’s where the stone pillow epiphany took place – “and dwell there: and make thee an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother.” (35:1) The voices in my head are saying we gotta go now, quick! And by the way, we better clean up our act. “Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments” (35:2) and they do so. And “the terror of God” comes upon all the cities in their path. Strong stuff.

More on cosmogonic myth

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In a previous mention of creation mythology I neglected to point out what may not be obvious to some: that the dominant image for what preceded the physical universe as we know it is water. The KJV’s “form, and void” may be too Greek, but the following two clauses cannot be surpassed, either as myth or as poetry. In fact, when the Roman philosopher Longinus wrote his famous treatise On the Sublime, he cited the opening of the Hebrew Bible as Exhibit A:

And the earth was without form,
and void;
and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the breath of God moved upon
the face of the waters. (Gen. 1:2)

– changing only the KJV’s Spirit to breath (ru’ah).

Now it goes almost without saying that this imagery has an ancient pedigree among dwellers of river-valley civilizations, for example among the worshippers of Marduk, among whom the exiled composers of the core of the Hebrew Bible found themselves. (This historical circumstance explains why, as many times as it surfaces in the non-historical books of the Bible, the primordial sea-monster mythos is expunged from the Genesis account. That would have been just too close to the Marduk religion for comfort.)

What is more interesting to me is how widespread this myth is, even among people who were swidden agriculturalists or hunter-gatherers. There is obviously a profound phenomenological basis for it: Earth is the Water Planet, after all. But the true connection undoubtedly is to the waters of the womb.

(Parenthetically, I suppose that the religious significance of shedding blood, as in the act of sacrifice or in holy war, is to mimic or in fact expropriate the birth-giving power of the divine feminine. I freely admit I am poorly read on this subject, however; I invite readers to correct me on this point. My only direct evidence for this substitution was something I recall from an interview with AIM leader Russell Means, where he described the Lakota Sun Dance as men’s attempt to experience something of the pain that women go through in giving birth, through the shedding of their own blood.)

How well the ancients may have anticipated modern, scientific theories of the origins of the universe or solar system is little more than a curiosity as far as I am concerned, being more agnostic than gnostic. But I have to admit it is pretty darn nifty that the notion of precipitation, of stuff kind of gelling, figures so prominently in Genesis and in its immediate antecedent:

When there was no heaven,
no earth, no height, no depth, no name,
when Apsu was alone,
the sweet water, the first begetter; and Tiamat
the bitter water, and that
return to the womb, her Mummu, when there were no gods —

When sweet and bitter
mingled together, no reed was plaited, no rushes
muddied the water,
the gods were nameless, natureless, featureless, then
from Apsu and Tiamat
in the waters gods were created, in the waters
silt precipitated . . .

– The Babylonian Creation, translated by N.K. Sandars in Poems of Heaven and Hell From Ancient Mesopotamia (Penguin, 1971), 73.

Apparently – my source for this is Natural History magazine, sometime in the last two years – a new theory gaining currency is that the “original” Big Bang (a ridiculous and inaccurate term) may in fact have been, in some sense, a precipitation from within a larger Whatever, and that thus there may be many other universes like our own. But whatever. I am mainly interested here in the microcosmos, and the extent to which such formless Beginning may be conceived anew within the human soul.

One can apply the traditional Christian hermeneutic of allegory to the Old and New Testaments and come up with a myriad echoes of the original watery creation: Noah’s Ark, the parting of the Red Sea, the parting of the Jordan at the entry into Canaan, the baptism of Jesus. Not to mention numerous references to YHWH’s power as a sustainer of creation/civilization against the waters that are always threatening to break loose.

I encourage anyone interested in pursuing this topic to read Jon Levenson’s excellent Sinai and Zion: an Entry into the Jewish Bible (Harper, 1985). Referring to the extra-temporal dimension of the sacred, Levenson declares that “These great founding acts, which order reality, we shall call protological, that is to say, partaking of the nature of the beginning of things, on analogy with the term eschatological, which is commonly used by biblical scholars to describe the ‘last things,’ which occur at the ‘end of time.’ According to [B.S.] Childs [in Myth and Reality in the Old Testament], ‘the present world order established by a victory in the past does not continue automatically. It must be continually reactivated in the cult’ (103).”

Levenson goes on to stress that “The perception of time cannot be disengaged from the perception of space. In fact, the mythic symbols to be analyzed exist in radically different modes both of space and of time (p. 104).” This point is essential preparation for his discussion of Zion as the cosmic mountain.

At a secular level, Sinai and Zion should interest anyone who wants to understand how Jerusalem became such a charged place, a preeminent “world navel.” I close with a rabbinical midrash translated by Levenson (118): “The Holy One (blessed be he) created the world like an embryo. Just as the embryo begins at the navel and proceeds onwards from there, so the Holy One (blessed be he) began to create the word from its navel and from there it spread out in different directions.”

There’s no place like OM!