My kingdom for a box!

“Thinking outside the box.” Not here, folks. Though I don’t claim immunity to the occasional appeal of sophistry (hell, I’ll quote anything if it supports whatever position I happen to be holding at the moment), I would never be so foolish as to claim that thinking – even of the most poetic, artistic variety – can take place outside some kind of “box.” It can be any shape; it can be as large as you please; it can overlap only to a very small extent – if at all – with received thinking. It can and should be a very topologically malleable sort of box. But I can’t see how any meaningful expression could take place apart from such framing. And the frame employed, if we are paying proper attention, will always seem something of an arbitrary imposition, a superfluity, extrinsic to “objective reality.”

I don’t discount the possibility of direct apprehension of reality unmediated by thought/language, of course. In fact, I’m inclined to think such apprehensions are rather more common than we might suppose. I will go so far as to propose that all kernels of insight, the sparks of inspiration out of which genuine thinking arises, represent in fact the commonest version of such direct, unmediated seeing. Let’s ignore for now the possibility that more complete, more fully transformative realizations can be had. I want to ask the poets and artists out there: isn’t this what keeps you writing/creating, really, this realization of something that cannot quite be put into words/forms?

And such an experience does seem transformative, at least in a small way. I think of how Rilke ended his famous poem about the “Archaic Torso of Apollo”: Du mußt dein Leben ändern – “You must change your life.” Because of that, that summons one feels at the heart of an authentic insight, one feels one must keep trying, poem after poem. If I can just find the optimal words in the optimal sequence, then something very similar to my original intuition might be passed along, might be felt in turn by the properly attentive reader or listener.

And who can’t read or listen with the necessary degree of openness? Who are these people who say things like “I just don’t understand poetry?” What’s wrong with them? What’s wrong with us, that we don’t know what they’re talking about when they say that? Perhaps they have been taught that every poem is a puzzle to be solved, that it takes a peculiar kind of intelligence to unlock it. But whence the insensitivity to that which lies beyond language? No normal five year-old seems ever to suffer from the obtuseness that so frequently afflicts otherwise intelligent adults who imagine a one-to-one correspondence between words and reality.

Such ignorance is not inborn, I believe, but must be deliberately inculcated through years of intellectual bullying and the meticulous application of soul-destroying curricula. Eventually, if all works according to the lesson plan, the Möbius river of time shrinks into a one-way street, and the Klein bottle of imaginative space acquires a definite inside and outside: it becomes a non-topological box, a mental jail cell. This is the box that must not only be thought outside of: it must be escaped for good.

Plastic words

I should explain what I meant by the term “plastic words” in the essay-poem about tundra swans (which Tom Montag at The Middlewesterner has generously designated “Link of the week.” Thanks, Tom!). Fortunately, I just remembered where I had shelved my copy of Uwe Poerksen’s Plastic Words: The Tyranny of a Modular Language (Jutta Mason and David Cayley, translators, Penn State U.P., 1995). Since I don’t have more than three or four books on linguistics, they are shelved with poetics and litcrit. I’m getting increasingly good at hiding things from myself…

Poerksen is a German medievalist. I imagine it was his professional background that gave him enough of an alientated perspective to recognize a feature of modernity that others had overlooked. He identifies a small class of words that have been liberated from their original context in the sciences, where they had highly specialized meanings, and are now liberally employed in academic/bureaucratic/managerial contexts mainly for prestige.

The phenomenon of plastic words has often been described and held up for ridicule under various headings, especially in its academic form. But Poerksen isn’t some curmudgeonly prescriptivist intent on returning modern language to some golden age of “correct” usage that never existed. His alarm stems from the perception that the newly modular language he identifies is spreading its tentacles into every facet of ordinary life, from food to health care to environmental protection. In the hands of what left-libertarian economist Michael Albert calls the coordinator class, plastic words like development, project, strategy, problem, says Poerksen, “become the building blocks for plans and solutions that may seem utopian but end up impoverishing the world.”

The book isn’t too long, nor are its arguments too complex. I won’t attempt to outline Poerksen’s entire argument. Let me just quote the opening paragraphs, include a stripped-down definition of a plastic word, add a few thoughts of my own, and conclude with an example relevant to yesterday’s post on anorexia.

Plastic words are not new in how they look but in how they are used. They have been fashioned for the purpose of laying down the tracks and outlining the routes of a civilization that is covering the world with gathering speed. Their origins can no longer be discerned. They resemble one another. It is as though there were a place somewhere in the world where these words were released at intervals, as though at an unknown place there existed a factory releasing them complete from its assembly line, or as if they were coming into being simultaneously in many different places.

They may not be noticed, but they are present everywhere: in the speeches of politicians and on the drawing boards of city planners, at academic conferences, and in the ever more taken-for-granted in-between world of the media. They invade private conversation. When they first appear, they are fashionable and command attention; but then they merge with the everyday and soon seem commonsense.

In the spring of 1985 I attended a conference in the little Mexican mountain city of Tepotzlan, involving several noted industrialists, politicians, and academics of that country. The discussion was about how Mexico could take advantage of the most recent developments in high technology. Please note: not whether this ought to be done, but how. … The discussion was dominated by a number of words that floated through it like driftwood: ‘progresso,’ ‘proceso,’ ‘modernización,’ ‘necesidades,’ ‘comunicación,’ ‘información,’ ‘crisis,’ ‘desarrollo.’ The North American expressed himself a little differently. He replaced ‘desarrollo’ with ‘development,’ and was ahead of the others in that he seemed to be already settled on the high plateau of ‘high tech,’ whereas they had to orient themselves toward the shining mountaintop of the future by using his position as a marker…

I was only an accidental guest at this meeting; and, during a break, I remarked to a Mexican friend that the talk seemed to consist of no more than a hundred words. My friend shook his head and said quickly: ‘With a hundred words you could become president! Here there are barely fifty.’

Or perhaps there were only fifteen…

Like any self-respecting German scholar – especially one on a self-appointed campaign against vagueness – Poerksen is not content to discuss the problem in general terms. He identifies 30 criteria that must be satisfied for a word to qualify as fully “plastic.” But determined to make his findings useful to the general reader, he boils these down into nine “essential characteristics”:

A. [A plastic word] originates from science and technology and resembles a building block. It is a stereotype.
B. It has an inclusive function and is a ‘key for everything.’
C. It is a reductive concept, impoverished in content.
D. It grasps history as nature.
E. Connotation and function predominate.
F. It generates needs and uniformity.
G. It renders speech hierarchical and colonizes it, establishing an elite of experts and serving as their ‘resource.’
H. It belongs to a still very recent international code.
I. It limits speech to words, shutting out expressive gesture.

So, do ‘development’ and ‘sexuality’ mean the same thing? It seems to me that they signify different things, but what they signify is less important than what they mean. And the meaning is the same. These are close relatives of the myth of everyday life described by Roland Barthes. They are idols, magical and empty.

This last sentence, by the way, hints at the one connection I wish the author had not left unexplored. In pre-modern Europe, as Poerksen must know, word-magic was at least as prominent as it is today. Though we have lost the sense that words can actually carry power in some essential way, I do feel that spells and other forms of charged speech constitute the most direct precursor to the modern planner’s use of plastic words. In European spells, much of the language was deliberate nonsense in which “connotation and function predominated.”

Investing language with magical power is a very different phenomenon from the use of modular language, which is by definition denatured of content. All I’m saying is that the latter doesn’t arise from a complete cultural vacuum, as Poerksen seems to suggest. In fact, the use of language to obscure rather than to elucidate seems universal, and might in fact be a major driver of linguistic evolution, to the extent that people invent new words and new ways of expressing themselves in part to differentiate themselves from the surrounding society or a neighboring society. Thus, it only makes sense that the increasingly internationalized club of ‘experts’ would want to devise their own lingo, the use of which connotes membership in the cognoscenti at the same time that it excludes the hoi polloi. Its plasticity arises from the shallowness and fundamental dishonesty of this new culture’s belief-system. But what elite has ever been willing to admit to itself the true nature of power?

I’ll close with one example of Poerksen’s that ties into a theme from yesterday’s post: the increasingly vague and modular use of the word “health.”

No one who is healthy talks about her health. Nothing is bothering her; she doesn’t lack anything. There is no reason for her to speak of this ‘nothing,’ since she doesn’t notice it. She only begins to speak of it when her body forces itself on her attention: then she talks about her illnesses, if they come, or the memory of her pains. the word ‘health’ comes up infrequently in the old texts, and when it does, it designates an absence: it means ‘uninjured,’ ‘alive.’ whoever was healthy lacked nothing. But in the time in which we live health has become a virtue, of which we keenly feel the lack. This lack has now been implanted in everyday consciousness. So we are constantly talking about our illnesses.

When the concept of health gets loose in the vernacular, it generates new forms of deviance. Originally, it was a rather unobtrusive idea, but that was before it was authorized and sanctified by experts. Now it introduces arbitrary boundaries into the continuum of experience, erecting a barrier between ‘healthy’ and ‘sick,’ and specifying a norm that has been set ever higher, so that ever more people are identified as sick. …

The scientists’ awareness that ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’ are distinctions located on a shifting scale are lost. The notion of a norm that emerges from this particular vocabulary, of a healthy middle range that lies between ‘too high’ and ‘too low,’ has become a fixed standard in ordinary life. This norm is set at a level that we somehow always fail to reach. And so, because of the authority residing in a normative language, the continuum of experience is measured against a fixed yardstick, with the result that we are constantly asking ourselves: Aren’t we coming down with something? Isn’t something wrong with us? When the yardstick is passed into our own hands in the name of prevention or personal responsibility, we become in effect our own clients. It turns out that no one is ‘healthy’ any more.

Our bodies, our saints

This morning I am thinking about icon worship and its connections not merely to sexuality (as in yesterday’s post) but to the literal imitatio Christi of many mystics, especially since St. Francis (who was, in many ways, a second Christ). Not content with taking into themselves the body and blood of Christ, they seek to replicate his suffering in their own bodies, often receiving the stigmata as a reward. The fact that so many of these mystics have been women subverts traditional concepts about the gender of divinity. Beth at The Cassandra Pages posted about “holy anorexia,” the subject of a recent article in the London Review of Books. The author, Hilary Mantel, observes about many fasting female mystics that “Starvation was a constant in these women’s lives. It melted their flesh away, so that the beating of their hearts could be seen behind the racks of their ribs. It made them one with the poor and destitute, and united them with the image of Christ on the cross . . . ” This post provoked some interesting reactions in the comments thread, as well.

To say this is a disturbing subject would be a vast understatement. Anorexia and bulimia both fall into the category of what anthropologists consider cultural afflictions: conditions endemic to specific cultures and rarely found outside them. The “running amok” behavior of Melanesians is one example. Such conditions are often greatly susceptible to treatment by traditional, faith-based medicine, so perhaps in the case of anorexia we should consider to what extent Western Christian practices may have helped young women exert control over a condition that seems to derive, at least in part, from the fear of losing control. One of Beth’s readers stated that she felt as if she were “feeding the jinnis” when she put food into her own body. Apparently, then, she experiences her body as no longer fully her own.

From both a religious and a romantic perspective, this perception is not necessarily problematic. (I know – that’s easy for me to say. Can the canons of romantic love be supposed historically to have fed this neurosis, if that’s what it is?) In fact, if traditional ways of knowing can be trusted, this experience may be initiatory, leading to a profound realization of communion or exstasis. Then, too, it makes sense to try to conquer the anorexic’s fear or sense of helplessness through a homeopathic approach: fear can be conquered by love, and the anorexic can only love her own body if she regards it as, in some sense, the body of another. So she turns herself into an icon.

But this latter analysis privileges the modern, “scientific” framing of the problem, which I find perhaps even more unsettling. Modern psychology will medicalize everything if you give it half a chance; even love is regarded as a neurotic obsession. I feel Bakhtin gives us better clues in this case: the self-denying, self-escaping body of Lent contrasts with the self-indulging and self-exceeding body of Carnival. Both are expressions of transcendence, but face in opposite directions, as it were. And since Aristotle if not before, the Western soul has been deprived of any obvious route of escape from these opposing terms, these twin archetypes. Paradox has not been honored as an authentic way of self-knowledge. The law of the excluded middle traditionally ruled out any transformation of negative Lack into positive Openness (sunyata) such as Buddhist ontology encourages.

I was reminded of this a little while back by a citation in of a paper about Hamlet, pointing out that “nothing” was Elizabethan slang for the vagina. This gave me a funny feeling, because I remembered a paper I wrote about Hamlet way back in college in which I analyzed the language of nothingness in Hamlet, and I sure don’t remember finding any such discussion of the true meaning of the insults Hamlet flung in poor Ophelia’s face. But thinking now about the original meaning and sordid history of so-called hysteria, I wonder how I could have missed it? In a semantic system where “nunnery” could mean both a holy community and a whorehouse, and where “want” – meaning both desire and lack – was the basis of innumerable puns, it only makes sense that woman’s sex be seen as both nullity and matrix – the world/stage for (male) action.

What passes through the mind of the more ordinary worshipper of saints? Does she see something of herself in the starved child or the virgin burned alive by sadistic pagan kings? What role does the saint’s image play in the worship of believers both ordinary and mystical?

Those who didn’t have the time to soldier through the entire, lengthy essay I linked to the other day, A Saint in the City, by Allen F. and Mary Nooter Roberts, would’ve missed the following quote: “Mourides use the term ‘mirror’ to refer to how they see themselves in Bamba’s portrait, and in the words of the Mouride artist Mot Gueye, such reflection occurs as he paints the image. Such visual hagiography is an active process of identity formation conceptually located between memory and history. That is, hagiography retains origins as diffuse as memory, yet it can be as purposeful and politically driven as history. Hagiography causes or permits one to become swept up by a saint’s biographical narrative in such a way that one’s life becomes an extension of the saint’s. As Edith Wyschograd [Saints and Postmodernism, University of Chicago Press, 1990] asserts, saints’ lives do not merely exist, they are constructed and reconstructed endlessly, ensuring that they are perpetuated in a present that is continuously grafted onto the pure potentiality of a remembered past.”

In a footnote, the Robertses state that “Similar metaphors abound in Sufism outside of Senegal, for ‘the mirror (mazhar) of signs reflects the visible and announces the invisible,’ while the speculation that Sufism encourages ‘consists of polishing the mirror of the soul.'” (The quotes here are translated from Jean-Michel Hirt, Le miroir du Prophete: Psychanalyse et Islam, Bernard Grasset, 1993.)

Perhaps the logical next step in this discussion would take us toward Eastern Orthodoxy, but let’s return to Roman Catholicism instead. There’s a beautiful book by the Chicana poet Pat Mora that should interest anyone who wants to understand the inner experience of icon devotion. It’s called Aunt Carmen’s Book of Practical Saints. Beacon Press spared no expense in publishing it – the full-color reproductions of folk-art saint’s images (santos) are crucial accompaniments to the poems. We learn about what scholars call Sonoran Christianity through a delightful series of prosopopoeic prayers. “Aunt Carmen is impatient with cerebral notions of faith,” says the dust-jacket blurb, “but she knows her saints.” And learning about her life and thoughts inter alia, in the course of reading what she has to say to the santos, is of course half the fun.

Carmen honors and reveres the saints without becoming in any way subservient, a distinction I think that may be lost on many who have abandoned ritualized religious expression in favor of a purely private spirituality. Carmen’s “practical” approach to icon devotion is revealed in her prayer to the patron saint of cooks, San Pascual Bailón:

Like all saints, you’re a mirror.
We make of you what we need.

Carmen is an octogenarian widow and pillar-of-the-church who plays at being crotchety and inscrutable in order to keep the young priest in his place. This is important because some local practices are far from orthodox, such as the very Mexican reverence for La Muerte – not a saint, but a black-shawled, female skeleton with a Cupid’s bow and arrow:

You don’t belong, fea Doña Sebastiana.

Some pull you in a rock-filled cart,
a penance they impose
when the priest’s not looking.
They fear his frowns.
He fears mine and well he should.

Carmen wonders at the reactions of her God (mi Diosito):

¡Ay! What must He think,
this modern religion with no backbone,
no Latin, no chanting, no confession,
no fiery scoldings, just priests frowning
and electric candles. A church that fears
fire – and women. The same world inside
and out. No transformation. No mystery.

The poem’s concluding stanzas are appropriate to the season and worth quoting in full.

Ash Wednesday. “Thou art dust
and unto dust thou shalt return,”
the priest said today. He frowns
when I drag you from the closet at Lent.
You don’t belong,
but I save what can be useful.
You’re not official, yet you’re persistent,
¿verdad, Comadre? You and I
can be informal. Dos viejitas.
You don’t scare me.
I’ll look you eye to eye.

Shoot, Doña Sebastiana. Go ahead.
Slipping out of this crumpled body
will probably feel good, like slipping off
my winter coat in spring. I’ll feel
lighter, more my true self,
ready to visit with mis santos,
have a real conversation, revel
in their words, shining, like candles.

Diogenes’ Tub (4)

By their clichés shall ye know them:

“You can’t eat your cake and have it too,” says the environmentalist Cassandra.

“In a perfect world . . . ” says the politician with a shudder.

“The end-times are drawing near!” says the evangelist whose wife calls him “the minuteman” behind his back.

Loving Kuanyin

Notice to Readers: For the next ten days or so, family and other obligations will prevent the kind of in-depth blogging you’ve come to know and love (?). I will still post something every day: expect to see a lot more of Diogenes, for example. I can also post material from the vast pile of second-rate and experimental stuff I’ve written over the years, not to mention my better poetry, translations, etc. What I love best about blogging is seeing what comes out of the keyboard when I sit down to write first thing in the morning, so the loss may be more mine than yours. For today, here’s a little entry that’s sure to increase the number of Google hits: my first (and probably last) entry in the ever-popular genre of religious porn. Enjoy.

My first lover was Kuanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. She faked her orgasms.

The first time we slept together, I was a little shy – ashamed of my scrawny frame. “Close your eyes until I get in bed,” I warned her. “It doesn’t matter. My hands have eyes in them.” It was true!

Kuanyin didn’t like it when I called her a goddess. “I am just an ordinary woman,” she would say. “Yeah, and the Dalai Lama’s just a simple monk.”
“He’d better be. The Tantrayanists all think he’s ME!”
“Well, say the Dalai Lama IS Avalokiteshvara. Where does that leave Kuanyin?” “Where does it leave Chenrezig?”
“Lost in translation, no doubt.”
“A bodhisattva is, by definition, never lost!”
“Oh? What about just now?”
“That orgasm was faked, for your benefit. A prime example of Upaya, ‘skillful means.'”
Interesting pillow talk, at any rate. Having a sense of humor, I learned, is somehow related to the ability to lose one’s temper. Kuanyin, of course, had neither – though when she saw that I missed them, she tried hard to pretend. But whatever else she might have been, she was not an actress.

The Lotus Sutra says she has a “boundless ocean store of blessings.” I was the surfer dude, just riding the swells.

“Why are your earlobes so long?”
“Why do you think?”
“Mmm, neck rings!”
“You are so unenlightened!”
“Yeah. Listen. If you wanna do the thousand-arm thing, I just want to let you know that’s fine with me.”
“Pervert. I will be what I will be!”
“Yahweh said that, too.”
“He did? When?”
“At the burning bush, when Moses asked his name.”
“Silly Hebrews, seeking God in a burning bush.”
“The world is full of people seeking religion in a burning bush,” I said, moving my hand over the obvious spot. Her breasts grew points like little vajras.

We didn’t always talk like this in bed. Actually, we didn’t do much of anything in bed. Tantric sex? Fuggetaboutit. I was an idealist, she was an ideal: it was that simple. Besides, I’ve never liked the excessively girlish, vulnerable types. I mean, Billie Holiday is O.K. now and then, but if I had to wake up every morning with the blues all ’round my bed, I’d want to wake up with Bessie Smith.

Speaking of which, I remember another illuminating exchange. She was whispering sweet nothings in my ear – literally. I was lying there just starting to drift off when I heard, “Sariputra! Form does not differ from the void, nor the void from form. Form is identical with void, void is identical with form . . . ” I startled. “Will you stop that! It’s going to spoil my sleep!” She looked hurt (as if!) so I added in a soothing voice, “I want to dream about you, not about nothingness!”
“That’s your problem, you only want to dream! Don’t you want to Wake Up?”
Oh boy, I thought, here we go. “Well, since you asked, no. Having to be awake all the time sounds like a total freakin’ nightmare, babe. I went five days without sleep one time and by the end of it I was starting to hallucinate. It wasn’t pretty.”
“But of course you can still sleep when your body needs to sleep. You’re missing the point.”
“The point is maybe it’s a bad analogy. Like this whole ‘enlightenment’ concept. I like the dark. It makes you feel things differently. If the objects of all sense perceptions are equally illusory, why should we privilege just one sense, vision, to convey inadequate and provisional concepts about the void?”
“Do you want me to tell you what enlightenment sounds like, smells like, tastes like, feels like?”
“You don’t have to, babe,” I assured her, running my fingers over the perfect and uncomprehending mirror of her face.

I’ll admit it, I enjoyed the murmur that followed us down the street. I did my best to hide my pride and look properly humble, of course. She was turning me into a first-class hypocrite before I’d even taken the Buddhist vows. “Why should I take refuge in the Sangha? I got you,” I said whenever she raised the issue. “Direct transmission, mind to mind. Just you and me, babe.”

You think she wore saffron robes or something? Guess again. She dressed like a high-class prostitute. Come to think of it, she was a high-class prostitute. Or at least, that’s what she did for a living. Said her parents were poor dirt farmers and she had eight siblings to put through school. It was funny to think of all the slobs who just used her to get their rocks off, passing up the chance of a lifetime – hell, the chance of a thousand lifetimes, if you believe in karma. You would have thought the blazing mandorla was a dead giveaway. But apparently, I was the only one who could see it.

“No, you don’t have any special attainments,” she assured me, “just maybe a little more aptitude than the average John – er, Joe.”
“How come I knew who you were, then?”
“I’ve yet to see any evidence of that.”
“Aw, c’mon, surely something’s rubbed off on me by now.”
“Rubbed off! As if I were Aladdin’s lamp!”
“Not hardly! I would never be so crude. Besides, they say you can’t put a genie back in the bottle a second time.”
“Exactly,” she said, erroneously believing I was Making Progress instead of just being a jerk, as usual. “A genie can’t grant you something you already possess.”

You might find this hard to believe, but it was me who broke up with her, not the other way around. I don’t think she ever understood why.
“Are you hurt?” I asked Kuanyin.
“No, just disappointed. I haven’t experienced ‘hurt’ in ten thousand kalpas.”
“Well, that’s why I’m leaving you, goddess.”
“I am not a goddess!”
“And that’s the other reason. Number 1, you feel nothing. I can’t even hope to hurt you. Your needs are shallow, of the body only. Number 2, I want to worship, and you won’t let me. All compassion and no passion make Jack a dull boy.”
“That amounts to just one reason: I am not who you wanted me to be. I’m not who you think I should be. But I tell you, it’s all in your mind – which in Chinese, as you know, includes what you Westerners call the heart. In reality, I am a prostitute and you’ve got your head permanently stuck in the clouds. This role-playing game was your idea from the start. You have never listened to a thing I had to say!”

That was her last gambit. She was wrong, of course. I wrote down everything she said every time we were together, immediately after I got home. Over the years, I have polished just a bit, mostly restricting myself to a little rearranging to put her aphorisms into a bit more logical sequence. No fancy title, just the New Kuanyin Sutra. I’ll publish it when the time is right.

Do you think I’d look good in a saffron robe?

Diogenes’ tub (3)

I keep hearing about wars over religion, get all excited but – alas! – just another boring old war for property or power. Imagine a world where people believed passionately enough about ideas to kill each other over that and nothing else!

In the evening news

What happens in the meantime has nothing to do with us. The wide-eyed stories about angelic visitations are all beside the point, and here’s why. All day Tuesday the tundra swans streamed north, great “V”s each some fifty birds strong, with two, three, sometimes as many as four flocks strung out across the sky at the same time. You hear them first, high notes from a tuneless music of the soul, as if all the klezmer clarinets in the world had decided to start talking at the same time.

Hearing the first few distant notes you scan the sky, clear but for a scrim of cloud along the horizon. There! Bring the binoculars up: my god. Long white tireless wings going wft wft wft, outstretched necks tipped in a black you can’t quite see against the blue, bodies white, so white the contrast with the sky almost hurts the eyes. They’re rowing, you think. They’re singing as they go, like all good boatmen. Flotillas of kayaks in the sky’s unending lake.

They’ve spent the winter in the inland waterways of the mid-Atlantic coast and now the tundra is calling them from two thousand miles away. Get a map and draw a straight line between the huge impoundment at Middle Creek in southeastern Pennsylvania and Lake Erie: it’ll go right over our mountaintop farm. And when the swans go they all go together, lifting off from Middle Creek in a dizzying rush of thousands all at once, I’m told. Some spring I will have to go there with our birder friends who make the pilgrimage every year – not to watch so much as to listen. I want to hear how such liquid fluting gets transformed all of a sudden into a rhythmless symphony for brushes on still air.

I went for a walk in the starlight around 8:00 p.m., stood in the woods for a while and listened as the flocks kept going over, straining my eyes, focusing on one part of the sky to try and catch the blink of stars crossed by wings. A great-horned owl was booming from just over the ridge: odd juxtaposition, but of course in Nature there’s no such thing as dissonance (though no harmony, either, except in retrospect).

Wednesday morning when I sat outside at 5 a.m. the swans were still going over. I thought about the day ahead in which I would go off to a conference held by and for biologists and bureaucrats from the state and federal wildlife agencies. Long talks filled with acronyms and plastic words like develop, manage, enhance. Language like a cold fog. Power that points, projected toward horizons that can by definition never be reached. If we could only leap – just for a moment! – into the unimaginable waters of the mind of a swan! I am reminded of the title of a book I once looked at, on the history of Buddhism in America: How the White Swans Came to the Lake. Does Buddhism tell us anything useful about the minds of animals, I wonder? I think it merely repeats that old rumor, the one so many wildlife managers regard as the most dangerous heresy: that animal minds are no different from ours in their original clarity, their wildness.

So all night while we slept there were swans going over the house, way up over everything. This thought is beyond humbling. I think of some of what they have to cross in the course of their journey and it makes me weep, right there on the porch, clutching my coffee cup.


The evening before, during a lull in the music I had walked on up to the top of the ridge and looked at the lights for a while. It’s a farm valley; the lights are yard lights put up supposedly to discourage burglars and vandals. Over the past 10 years as the Amish have moved in these lights have dwindled, at the same time that the town on the other side of the ridge has installed street lights so bright the whole northern portion of the night sky is lost. The spreading darkness in this valley seems especially friendly to me because we’ve gotten to know these new neighbors better than we ever knew our old ones, whom we never had much reason to know because their only thought is cows. The Amish, by contrast, have dozens of different ventures going on at every farm. The ultimate conservatives, they are, paradoxically, among the most imaginative of farmers.

I can easily picture one of the maiden aunts
at the farm across the valley walking
back to her cottage from the main house
and hearing the swans. She pauses
long enough to wipe the last of the dish soap
from her hands onto her apron, smiling to
herself, not bothering to look up because
what’s to see? And after a moment
goes back to tell the others, who will also
want to come listen.

I will keep their names out of this, but
respect still permits I hope a sketch –
unadorned, of course – employing
only shades of black and navy blue
and saying nothing of the white strands
tucked primly under the bonnet.
The constellations all have names
in German. Venus would’ve already set
behind the horizon, which for them
is this very ridge where I stand, busy
with my embroidering.

This lady I’m telling you about keeps a store
stocked with wholegrains, kitchenware
and quilts, quilts. She and the others
have spent all winter at them: in March
they bulge from the shelves. But
her store has in addition a rack of books;
the books include field guides to the birds.
She knows plenty about swans, I’ll bet –
as much as anyone.

But about some things she knows a bit less,
and at times I suspect she feels that lack
as a sadness, maybe a hurt. Think of it:
even a radio is off-limits. Spring
comes unheralded except by signs
like this. What has she heard
in the course of her fifty years?
Her faith forbids all music made
by the too-clever hand of man.
Teenaged boys can run wild until
they get married and baptized – thus
some of the men may once
have corrupted their hearing
with instruments beyond the plain voice.

But for an Amish woman, standing outside
in early evening with her tired eyes
grateful for the darkness, pausing
for a long moment to be
alone with it, this
swan music must sound
like the purest praise.


Poor Mr. Gray. There’s nothing more to say.
Who will recite the monologue of your final act?
Dragged from the East River, two months gone,
they knew you only by your teeth.

On the radio that evening I heard someone
discussing your WASP heritage in the same breath
as your mother’s suicide and the devastating accident
two years ago in Ireland. It all added up, Spalding:

you were the victim of your own WASPy introversion.
Things might’ve been different if you’d just been
a little less you. Next time, see
if you can work on that, O.K.?

Revised March 11. This ain’t my favoritest poem by a long shot but it’s gonna stay up, just because I don’t want to leave readers with the impression (after Tuesday’s blog) that I meant in any way to blame the victim for his suicide.

Notes from Diogenes’ Tub (2)

Tom at The Middlewesterner has an occasional feature he calls “I may not be very political, but…” which has inspired me to add this, similarly occasional, brief and anti-political (not apolitical!) feature to an otherwise non-political blog. Yesterday, Tom wrote “If I hear too many more people say ‘we have to preserve the sanctity of marriage,’ I just might have to start agitating for a ‘No Divorce’ Amendment.”

Well, don’t think that ain’t what’s in the backs of some folks’ minds. Zealots like Delay and Santorum will tell you, if you ask, that adultery should be punishable by law, for instance. Some members of Congress, I’ve heard, don’t believe any sex outside of procreation should be permitted.

It’s just like murder: the only reason governments don’t like people killing other people is it threatens their monopoly on killing, right? Ditto with screwing.

Swimming to Cambodia

This entry honors the memory of Spalding Gray, whose body was just pulled from the East River. I saw him perform once about ten years ago, thanks to my friend Crazy Dave who had won an extra ticket from the local NPR station.

For a couple hours last night I was plagued by the demon Anxiety. I call it a demon because it exists solely to torment, it can’t be reasoned with or bought off. The only way to neutralize its attacks is to give in, to laugh at its antics until it gets disgusted and goes away. So that’s what I did, and I was dreaming for quite some time before this imaginary being – whose name is oddly identical with my own – caught on and woke me up again.

But by then my sleeping self had gained the upper hand. This “real me” is far more familiar to my readers, I’m sure, than I am in my guise as the self-conscious author. That’s because (I’m guessing) your own “real me” is much the same: an androgynous shapeshifter who can be visible or invisible, single or multiple, who can fly, swim, leap tall buildings at a single bound, even occupy two places at the same time. Best of all, it can disappear. Here’s St. Emily (#255 in the R.F. Franklin edition – the new standard, because it preserves the orthography, spelling etc. favored by the poet herself):

The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea –
Forgets her own locality
As I, in Thee –

She knows herself an incense small –
Yet small, she sighs, if all, is all,
How larger – be?

The Ocean, smiles at her conceit –
But she, forgetting Amphitrite –
Pleads “Me”?

I had to resort to the Encyclopedia Mythica for Amphitrite: in Greek mythology, the queen of the sea. When Poseidon wanted to take her for a wife, she hid from him in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, until betrayed by a dolphin. (Now the poem makes sense!)

I find it oddly comforting that sleep psychologists fail to agree on even the most basic premises: why we dream, why we even need to sleep. Actually, as a semi-professional bullshit artist and the proprietor of this perhaps ironically named weblog, gaps in official knowledge are, for me, something positive: resources to be exploited. Like a Daoist, I believe fervently in the necessity of the not-there, and I place great trust in the usefulness of the useless. Our second text this morning is from A.C. Graham’s translation of Chuang-Tzu, once again.

There is a place in Sung, Ching-shih, where catalpas, cypresses and mulberries thrive. But a tree an arm-length or two around will be chopped down by someone who wants a post to tether his monkey, a tree of three or four spans by someone seeking a ridge-pole for an imposing roof, a tree of seven or eight spans by the family of a noble or rich merchant looking for a sideplank for his coffin. So they do not last out the years Heaven has assigned them, but die in mid-journey under the axe. This is the trouble with being stuff which is good for something. Similarly in the sacrifice to the god of the river it is forbidden to cast into the waters an ox with a white forehead, a pig with a turned-up snout or a man with piles. These are all known to be exempt by shamans and priests, being things they deem bearers of ill-luck. They are the very things which the daemonic man will deem supremely lucky.

Graham uses this archaic word “daemonic” to translate shen, one of the prime attributes of the sage. He points out in the introduction that “Although Chuang-Tzu shares the general tendency of Confucians and Taoists to think of Heaven as an impersonal power rather than as an emperor issuing his decrees up in the sky, his attitude has a strong element of numinous awe . . . It is clear that Chuang-Tzu does not in any simple sense believe in a personal God, but he does think of Heaven and the Way as transcending the distinction between personal and impersonal (which would be as unreal to him as any other dichotomies), and of awe as though for a person as an appropriate attitude to the inscrutable forces wiser than ourselves, throughout the cosmos and in the depths of our own hearts, which he calls ‘daemonic.'”

So this daemon of Graham/Chuang-tzu is quite unlike the demon I was talking about a moment ago. Or so I would like to think. In Spalding Gray fashion I am looking back over my life, particularly the uncomfortable, shameful, and humiliating parts that I would like very much to forget. I am remembering the six years of purgatory beginning with my entry into the seventh grade, in which I suddenly found myself a social outcast. I say purgatory rather than hell because in fact outright tormentors were few, especially after my brother Steve, who was two years ahead of me, beat the shit out of a kid who had been reputed to be tough. Throughout junior and senior high school I was able to maintain a strictly pacifist, turn-the-other-cheek policy, safe under the nuclear umbrella of a big brother who could kick ass.

Well, I shouldn’t say strictly pacifist. I did drum on a mushhead one time, but that almost doesn’t count. Or at least it didn’t seem to at the time.

The mushheads came from a family of highly inbred, semi-retarded, grotesquely misshapen people who were as mean as they were ugly. They had heads shaped like toadstools (hence the moniker) and names out of Snow White: Skippy, Pappy, Happy and a couple younger ones whose handles I forget. When I was in the 11th grade and had long since stopped riding the school bus, one of them – I think it was Happy – took to following me through the town portion of my three-mile route home, heckling all the way. This took the somewhat surreal form of yelling “Heckle! Heckle!” and when he tired of that, “Heckle-Jeckle! Heckle-Jeckle!”

This was almost tolerable and indeed somewhat amusing – or it might’ve been if I hadn’t taken myself so doggone seriously. I would ignore the heckling until stones started to fly. Due to the fact that he and his brothers were born without wingbones (so their pediatrician told my mother one time), Happy couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, much less the rail-thin frame of a bucktoothed wierdo bookworm who preferred walking to riding the bus. (Each of the mushheads had been barred from the bus for life, I think.) But when the stones started coming uncomfortably close I’d turn around and make like I was going to go after him, which was usually all it took to produce panic and an inglorious retreat.

I’m ashamed to admit that one time, in a vain attempt to drive him away for good, I ran back, grabbed him and shoved him to the ground. He lay in the middle of the street groveling and gabbling and thrashing about: think Gollum on a bad hair day. I’d be lying if I told you I felt any pity then. As best I can recall, I felt disgust bordering on active loathing. What a loathsome, self-centered creature I was! No wonder I didn’t have any friends.

To his credit, Happy remained undeterred in his heckling of the Dr. Jeckle Who Could Not Hyde. The daemonic was strong in him. I don’t know where he and his brothers are today, but I doubt they’re off getting mangled or blown up in Iraq. In fact, I’d be surprised if they aren’t living in reasonable comfort on S.S.I. Chuang-tzu again:

Cripple Shu – his chin is buried down in his navel, his shoulders are higher than his crown, the knobbly bone at the base of his neck points toward the sky, the five pipes to the spine are right up on top, his two thighbones make another pair of ribs. By plying the needle and doing laundry he makes enough to feed himself, and when he rattles the sticks telling fortunes for a handful of grain he is making enough to feed ten. If the authorities are press-ganging soldiers the cripple strolls in the middle of them flipping back his sleeves; if they are conscripting work parties he is excused as a chronic invalid; if they are doling out grain to the sick he gets three measures, and ten bundles of firewood besides. Even someone crippled in body manages to support himself and last out the years assigned him by Heaven. If you make a cripple of the Power in you, you can do better still!

Words to live by? Hell no. According to his friend Hui-tzu, these stories of Chuang-tzu’s are nothing but “useless words.” (Ah, to blog as uselessly as that!)

When I was a teenager I tried earnestly to take the words of Jesus to heart: “Turn the other cheek.” I’m afraid I succeeded only in becoming a hypocrite – a creature worthy of exorcism, as my would-be guru Happy undoubtedly perceived. In my twenties I added a corollary: “Turn the other cheek. It’s the best way to piss someone off.” Thus I was able to deform an idealistic piece of advice into something truly useful, the ultimate move in the game of social ju-jitsu. And in middle age I have deformed it still further, so that this once sublime dictum has turned into “Turn the other butt-cheek!” But that’s the best way I’ve found to deal with my inner demons.

Here at Via Negativa, especially, the joke is always on me, folks: drink up! Take yourself too seriously, and the next thing you know you’ll be feeding the fishes. Stay twisted and you won’t be in danger of Poseidon eyeing you up, and the priests at the temple to the river god will turn away in disgust. Even if Heaven ain’t happenin’, God don’t make no junk.