Gates

Just as we are about to pass through our very first gate, we encounter the woman with barking tits. Two terrier pups are riding in some sort of holster with her coat wrapped around them so that only the heads poke out. When she sees us staring, she gives them a little boost, lifting them to mid-chest level and making them yip. She smiles beatifically for what must be the hundredth time today.

*

One goes to New York for the people, I say to myself as we sit in gridlock traffic outside Hoboken, NJ on Friday evening with no clear idea of our destination and a non-functioning cell phone. Someone leans on their horn, triggering a brief outbreak of automotive keening like the lowing of cattle on their way to the slaughterhouse. By the time we get close to where we figure we should be going and find a phone, we aren’t sure of anything anymore, and the person we were supposed to meet has given up and gone somewhere else. But the lights! The lights of mid-town Manhattan after dark, across the Hudson River, are almost worth all our anxiety at being trapped and lost. Each building is an icy beacon, a scroll of unreadable Morse code.

*

It turns out we never were lost; we simply thought we were. Is that a consolation or not? If you could place perfect trust in the universe at all times, you would never really be lost, would you?

Pace Dante, the middle of a dark wood is precisely where I feel most at home. It’s these goddamned cities that throw me for a loop. We have built a landscape that says There is no center other than what we can construct or recover from the chaos of our transactions. But if we allow ourselves to believe that the world is without any true mooring, can we ever banish that feeling of being small, helpless animals?

*

On the ferry the next morning, the skyline seems no less fabulous with the sun pouring through the glass canyons. What had shone was now being shone upon, an almost sexual shift in position between buildings and sky. One way or another, the great Western city expresses a yen to cut all ties with the earth. On this soft and swampy island to seek such permanence, to crowd so many erections into a single sky is beyond schizophrenic. What underwrites this?

*

Nueva York de cieno,
Nueva York de alambres y de muerte.
¿Qué angel llevas oculto en la mejilla?
¿Qué voz perfecta dirá las verdades del trigo?
¿Quién el sueño terrible de tus anémonas manchadas?

The New York of mud,
New York of wire meshwork and of death.
What angel do you carry, tucked away in your cheek?
Whose perfect voice will recite the verities of wheat?
Whose terrible dream of your soiled anemones?

Federico Garcí­a Lorca, “Oda á Walt Whitman,” Poeta en Nueva York

*

The poet in New York is forever giving wings to the pigeons, adding pages to a finished book, carving out tunnels in the subway. It’s more or less what everyone has to do to stay sane in the midst of so much superfluity. Christo and Jeanne-Claude with their thousands of helpers, their millions of visitors, have merely given this reflex a name and a frame. Each step we take might as well cross an invisible threshold. What had seemed superfluous has turned into a superfluid, “matter in a unique state characterized by extraordinarily large thermal conductivity and capillarity,” as Webster’s New Collegiate puts it.

*

The New York of mud was fertile enough soil for Frederick Law Olmsted. In the very heart of the wire meshwork of streets, this open, female space pulses with orange carnival. It definitely belongs here, we agree – but what else would you expect from four bloggers? Everything about our online medium spells transience; our very thoughts dress themselves in unrhyming orange.

*

Meeting old friends for the first time, one invariably says about these gatherings of on-line acquaintances. Lorianne writes memorably about gates and strangers, Leslee fills in a number of other details, and our gracious host Elck pledges that his Gates Blog will be as short-lived as the installation it documents.

*

New York is a city of transients and refugees, students and exiles. I sat out on the sidewalk at 8:00 o’clock at night like a ferryman with a broken tiller watching the river flow past: Fire engines. A rumpled looking guy in a tweed jacket. A uniformed security guard doing his best to walk like a cop. A stray sheepdog with so much hair in its eyes it must navigate the streets by sound and smell alone. Young lovers speaking Catalan and kissing in between puffs on their cigarettes.

*

I like this time of year in large part because of the way the low sun lies across the land, turning evergreens and the rare but regular splashes of orange and red incandescent. But I have plenty of opportunities for solitary contemplation at home. The crowds and festive atmosphere in Central Park suit me just fine. I wonder if this woman with a mask on the back of her head might be thinking of the saffron-colored tigers of the Sundarbans, whose preference for the backs of necks can be thwarted in just such a manner? Dogs bark or attack when you stare at them; members of the cat family are famously chary of meeting the eyes of their prey. But what about the man with the waxed moustache? Himself an artist and a photographer, he’s grateful to be photographed, he says.

*

Here on Brush Mountain, every summer we go looking for chicken mushrooms, so called because of their firm flesh and meaty taste. They’re not hard to spot: they form large, bright orange-yellow shelves on rotting logs and at the bases of dead trees. Unlike soil-based fungi, chicken mushrooms are transient – you seldom find them in the same location two years in a row. They stay fresh for a couple weeks – long enough to attract the beetles that eat and spread their spores. (Actually, I’m not sure, but I think that’s how they reproduce.) Sometimes it’s easy to forget that everything wasn’t placed here for our delectation, that it has its own, obscure intentions which our consumption may either serve or thwart.

*

Two beggars on the subway, the first a sad sack who marches from car to car reciting her sorrows and asking people to find it in their hearts to give her whatever small change they can part with. Nobody budges; we all stare sullenly away. But on the stairs to the street, another mendicant makes a merry rhythm by shaking a cup with some coins in the bottom. He’s reclining on one elbow with his knee up, and all he has to do is meet our eyes and we give him all the change in our pockets. “God bless you,” he calls out in a strong and laughing voice, and goes back to jiggling the cup on his knee, now just a little bit lower in pitch. We feel blessed indeed. “I only hope he spends it all on booze,” I say when we get up the street.

*

We drive home in a blinding snowstorm. I-80 is famous for its multi-car pile-ups in bad weather; it’s always the other drivers you have to look out for. So we creep along with the four-way flashers on, orange orange orange. Other cars take the hint and hang way back, switch on their own flashers. Twice we pass fresh accident scenes, signalled by flares and the lights of emergency vehicles.

Ecological historians tell us that fire is the first and most powerful language that human beings ever mastered. Its colors spell fortune and disaster, food and death. Every living being is a slow fire, I think as we pass the first unfortunate car crumpled into the trees of the median strip. We are a beacon and a warning. Each guardian angel wields a flaming sword.

The bell tower in the blonde

You’ve heard of the blonde in the tower – think Rapunzel. This is a story about the bell tower in the blonde.

[A]n oversized portrait of German model Claudia Schiffer, promoting lipstick and shampoo from the French cosmetics company L’Oréal, wrapped the scaffolding around the 167-ft. bell tower of Germany’s best-known church.

Left intentionally in ruins after World War II, Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church stands as a testimony against war and destruction. But in 1999, cracks appeared in the bell tower of a modern church built next to the ruins. The church was on the brink of bankruptcy – so when an advertising firm offered to rent the scaffolding around the tower for the L’Oréal poster, pastor Sylvia von Kekulé agreed. Six months of the Schiffer poster financed the $298,000 bell tower restoration.

Curiously, this commercial expropriation of sacred space was necessary despite the federal government’s support of religion. And it’s becoming a trend.

Throughout Germany, churches are renting their facades for commercial messages. Supporters hail the development as an ingenious fundraising tactic. But critics argue the move dilutes the sacredness of churches.

I’m not sure “dilute” would be the word I’d use. Rather, some more fundamental paradigm shift seems to be at work here. For a parallel, I think we need look no farther than France where, five years ago, another supermodel was chosen as the new, semi-divine symbol of her country.

Laetitia Casta, of Victoria’s Secret and Guess Jeans (1994) fame, was named the symbolic representation of France’s Republic in the 21st century in a vote of the country’s more than 35,000 mayors in October 1999.

The French model became the first official Marianne, an embodiment of liberty, equality, and fraternity and other values of the Republic. The image of Marianne is everywhere in France, in patriotic artwork, and on all official documents.

The representation of Marianne most famous in other countries is that of the bare-breasted woman brandishing a flag and a bayonet in Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People.”

Originally, the emphasis was on this mythical figure’s virgin peasant girl status – a Joan of Arc leading her people to victory. But attention gradually shifted to her breasts, and the people hungered after a goddess of more earthly powers.

“The Republic prefers an opulent, more maternal breast, with its promise of generosity and abundance,” explains writer/historian Maurice Agulhon, who adds that a pair of identically sized and shaped breasts are “an additional symbol of the egalitarian spirit.”

But can a living person really function as a symbol? From an anthropological perspective, I think it would be more accurate to view Casta in part as a sacred power object: an icon, fetish, or idol. At one level, her image does have deep symbolic value, satisfying Victor Turner’s definition of a symbol, in which “norms and values . . . become saturated with emotion, while the gross and basic emotions become ennobled through contact with social values” (The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, Cornell U.P., 1967). But at another level, Casta conveys an undeniable power to her devotees: the power of limited self-transcendence through masturbation.

This may seem like a trivialization of religion, and I suppose it is. But the worship of the human body is nothing new, unfamiliar as it may seem to those with mainstream Christian or Jewish backgrounds. Body and icon can become almost interchangeable in many traditions – including in Christianity, where, at least since St. Francis, mystics male and female have attempted to realize the imitatio Christi within their own bodies, through the reception of the stigmata and other miraculous transformations.

Body can become icon, but icon can also become a supramundane body, an axis mundi, a habitation for the divine. I think that’s what’s happening, in a very rudimentary way, with the bell tower in the blonde. Imagine the parishioners being called to service through the tolling of bells appearing to emanate from the throat or chest of an idealized female image, provocatively cloaking a structure with at least subconscious phallic associations. At this moment, the icon transcends its role as symbol and focus of desire – transcends desire itself, perhaps. As the psycholinguist Walter Ong (Orality and Literacy, Routledge, 1982) reminds us, sound possesses temporality and conveys power beyond what any image can achieve.

Sight isolates, sound incorporates. Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance, sound pours into the hearer. . . . By contrast with vision, the dissecting sense, sound is thus a unifying sense.

Since the practice of religion is largely a communal affair, the production of organized sound is invaluable for its harmonizing and unifying effects. Gods do not write letters; they speak. And what Ong calls the interiority of sound suggests another characteristic of divinity: the ability to animate the inanimate and to inhabit the already living. In the sacred dramas that are at the center of so many religious services and festivals, human beings may lend their bodies to the gods to communicate power or messages to their worshippers. The human beings so inhabited may also then receive a form of homage bordering on worship, no less than more permanent images made from stone or wood.

Music without words can be an especially potent catalyst of polysemic meanings. The divinely animated female icon beside the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church mediated material/commercial and social/national messages. War and sex, peace and commerce were merged into a greater, synergistic whole.

The run-away popularity of the novel The Da Vinci Code, baseless as its claims to historical authenticity may be, suggests that contemporary, post-Christian Europeans and Euro-Americans may be ready for an even more radical return to pagan roots. The public celebration of a hieros gamos or sacred wedding was once a widespread annual event, considered essential to the earth’s continuing fertility and hospitality. Today, with anxieties about global change phenomena reaching an all-time high, especially in Europe, a reinvention of this ritual could go a long way toward calming public anxieties. Modern mass media could turn a sacred wedding into a cathartic and transformative event for millions.

One could well argue that the very public wedding ceremony of Prince Charles and Lady Diana did serve this function. However, traditional, nationalistic themes still shaped the ideological framework. A new, more unified Europe could benefit from a sacred wedding celebration with international, even cosmic connotations within a framework of planetary healing and reconciliation. For example, Laetitia Casta as the avatar of France could unite with a male – or possibly even female – hypostasis of Germany. The very thought fills me with a strange tingly sensation akin to awe.

The art of living

I strongly suspect that a contemporary art of living can be recovered. I believe in the art of suffering, in the art of dying, in the art of living, and, so long as it is in an austere and clearsighted way, in the art of enjoyment, of living it up.
Ivan Illich, Ivan Illich in Conversation (David Calley, House of Anansi Press, 1992)

People of faith can stand to learn a lot from environmentalism and conservation biology: few would dispute this proposition. But is the opposite also true? Can environmentalists and conservation biologists learn from religious and humanistic traditions? In the past year, the flagship magazines of several large conservation organizations have argued that such a cross-fertilization can and must take place. Articles have referenced the increasing efforts of clerics from many faiths to convince their followers that care for the environment/Creation is a sacred duty, and quoted testimonies from environmental activists for whom some form of spiritual awareness and/or practice is an important motivator.

Thus, two important messages have emerged: 1) an awareness of ecological realities and environmental crises should become a focus for faith-based activities; and 2) environmentalists and conservation organizations can improve their outreach efforts if they take the spiritual dimension into account. I’d like to take a small step further and suggest that if environmentalists really want to learn how to unite individual action with social movements and cultural transformation, they should look South, where the situation is the most desperate – and where some of the most creative solutions are beginning to emerge.

The steel drum culture of Trinidad was cited by the late social philosopher Ivan Illich as a model and an archetype for a new approach to cultural production now widely encountered in the global South. Half a century ago, musicians with welding torches discovered that 55-gallon drums discarded by the petrochemical industry could be drums indeed, and a whole new music was born. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. And when this conversion takes place under the sign of a new melange of cultures – call it creolism, call it mestizaje – it can come to possess revelatory, even incarnational power.

By contrast, here in the North we are exhorted to “reduce, reuse, recycle.” This mantra of the waste manager trumpets a reductionist bias in its very first term. Human beings are nothing more than consumers, nodes in an endless cycle of resources. But as the old Anglo-German proverb “waste not, want not” implicitly recognizes, we cannot want without wasting. We cannot waste without wanting. To really understand pollution, we have to understand desire. For that, I believe, we must have recourse to religious and humanistic traditions.

But isn’t economics the true science of human desires? Potentially, yes. But in its most prevalent form, neo-classical and liberal economic theories are burdened by fallacious assumptions that impede a broader understanding. I speak not merely of the habitual externalization of social and environmental costs with which most conservationists are already familiar. According to the usual analysis, this blindness derives from a kind of over-enthusiasm – the cornucopian premise. I would argue (influenced by Illich) that this predilection has deeper roots: in the very notion of environment as Cartesian space through which commodities can circulate with no essential change in quality. The model for this kind of circulation is money – pure medium, with no real content. To reduce the world to commodities or resources is to literally devalue it – ultimately, to equate it with zero.

Recycling is widely viewed as an alternative to waste. But Nature neither wastes nor recycles: she transforms. I believe that humans can and must follow Nature if we are truly to “conserve” our “environment” – inadequate terms that may well be unequal to the task ahead. We need to reinvent the language of use and waste, to begin thinking instead of care and healing. For illustrations of the sorts of directions in which this could lead, I’ll cite just two examples, both from Africa.

“Art from Africa’s junkyards,” an article by Gloria Goodale in the March 21, 2003 Christian Science Monitor, described an exhibition of Senegalese Sufi art that had just opened in Los Angeles.

“Lilting dance music fills the rooms in the first US display of Senegalese Sufi art. But it is not just another piece of radio noise.

“The song, ‘Do You Hear Me, Father Bamba?’ is by the well-known Sufi singer, Youssou N’Dour, singing to his faithful and exhorting them to show their faith in everyday life.

“Indeed, showing the faith might be a good way to describe the intention of ‘A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal,’ at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at the University of California, Los Angeles, through July 27.

“Through various art forms, including murals, glass paintings, and fragile historical documents, the show depicts a community-building vision of Islam that stands in stark contrast to Islamist radicals. ‘This is another, and very important face of Islam,’ says co-curator Allen Roberts, UCLA professor of World Arts and Culture.

“The exhibition, which Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight dubbed as one of L.A.’s top nine art events for 2003, ‘actually began in the junkyards of Senegal,’ says Mary Nooter Roberts, chief curator of the Fowler Museum.

“She and her husband, co- curator Allen Roberts, were in the country nearly 10 years ago and noticed that discarded motor parts were being hammered into sieves. The exhibition explores the impact of one of the most important Sufi movements in the sub-Saharan African nation, known as Mouridism.

“‘There is this thing called the mystique du travail,’ she says, referring to the French phrase ‘the mystique of work,’ that surrounds the Mouridians. ‘They take this dedication to work as a means to salvation to something far beyond even the Protestant work ethic.’

“The Mouridism movement was founded by the Sufi poet and mystic, Sheikh Amadou Bamba (1853-1927), the spiritual leader of some 4 million Senegalese Muslims, including the country’s current president. The most important tenets of the religion are pacifism and hard work, says Ms. Roberts.

“Mouridians, she says, are known for transforming derelict areas of a community into vibrant, livable centers for commerce and political life, through their devotion to labor. Images of the detritus of industrial life being turned into useful objects abound. One photo shows vast piles of oil barrels that will be flattened into trunks.”

Although this article is no longer available for free on the Internet, another, much longer and more scholarly article is. A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal was authored by the exhibition’s curators, Allen F. and Mary Nooter Roberts, and appeared in African Arts magazine (Winter 2002). Roberts and Roberts identify the Muslim concept of baraka, or blessing, as the catalyst for the Mouride synthesis of life and art. Though others have translated this blessing power as “charisma,” they feel the word “aura” does more justice to its popular Senegalese usage. I like the way they put some fairly abstruse theory into play here:

“‘Aura,’ from the Greek, literally means a ‘breeze’ or ‘breath’ (OED 1982:565), and is extended to refer to the inherence of power and presence within a work of art (Freedberg 1989). ‘In the auratic experience the object becomes human, as it were’ (Foster 1988:197), and possesses the capacity to produce a response, bestow well-being, and protect its viewers. Through the theorizing of Walter Benjamin and the debates his work has engendered, ‘aura’ has also come to be associated with the ‘authenticity of a thing … [and] the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced’ (1988:221). When Benjamin wrote that ‘to perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return’ (1988:188), he might have been speaking of a Mouride sense of how their icons possess baraka. That an image with aura has ‘weight, opacity and substance’ and ‘never quite reveals its secret[s]’ (Baudrillard 1983:22-23) also echoes Mouride sentiments. Above all else, Mourides feel that baraka does things: it works, changes, and helps.”

And as the Monitor passage indicates, this is no fringe movement. In the 1980s, Roberts and Roberts note, “At a moment of dire tensions between urban youth and the Senegalese government over a lack of jobs and the collapse of basic city services, young people took to the streets–not to riot, as had been feared, but to refabulate their neighborhoods. That is, they cleaned, reclaimed, repainted, and renamed alienated spaces by endowing them with icons of their own imaginary [sic]. Instead of reminding people of colonial humiliations, new monuments and murals celebrated soccer stars, musicians, politicians, human-rights heroes, and above all, the saints of Senegalese Sufism. Portraits of Amadou Bamba figured importantly in this vibrant collage, and the Saint emerged as an ‘alternative figure in nationalist memory’ standing for and promoting both ‘a rupture in postcolonial memory’ and a ‘new modernity’ (Mamadou Diouf, personal communication, 1995).”

Given that one out of every three sub-Saharan Africans is a Muslim, and considering the instrumental role of Sufi brotherhoods in spreading this more tolerant form of African Islam from the 18th century onwards, we are not grasping at straws here to glimpse in Mouridism the shape of a new and more civilized future. But the inspiration need not be Muslim – or even explicitly religious. From the other end of the continent, Steve Biko delineated “Some African Cultural Concepts” in an essay later selected for The African Philosophy Reader, edited by P.H. Coetzee and A.P.J. Roux and published by Routledge in 1998.

Biko describes African society as fundamentally humanistic and communalistic. He contrasts this with Europeans, among whom “a visitor to someone’s house, with the exception of friends, is always met with the question ‘What can I do for you?'” Seeing people as instruments, as “agents for some particular function” is foreign to the Bantu worldview, he maintains. “We believe in the inherent goodness of man. We enjoy man for himself. We regard our living together not as an unfortunate mishap warranting endless competition among us but a deliberate act of God to make us a community of brothers and sisters jointly involved in the quest for a composite answer to the varied problems of life.”

While these views may be anathema to those who buy into the cant about an ineluctable conflict between “anthropocentrism” and “biocentrism,” I would merely point out that it is precisely our distaste for each others’ company here in the U.S. that fuels the on-going orgy of road building, SUV manufacturing and suburban and exurban sprawl. If Americans were more like Africans, there’d be a hell of a lot more unfragmented wild habitat left, and the air would be a lot cleaner, too.

This humanistic philosophy is on display in another, more recent article from the Christian Science Monitor (they specialize in this kind of hopeful stuff): “From Rubble to Revival,” by Megan Lindow (Feb. 26, 2004). It details the successful struggle of a South African artist, Mandla Mentoor, to galvanize his neighbors and turn their Soweto neighborhood around. Mentoor began as a local activist focused on unemployment, crime, and environmental degradation. He traces his inspiration to the student protest movement of the 1976, in which Steve Biko had played a leading role.

“At first, he says, he recruited young people and unemployed women to salvage paper, cans, and other waste materials to sell, but he quickly realized this was not the best way to make money. So he developed Amandla Waste Creations and began teaching people to use these materials to make low-cost building materials and crafts such as papier-mí¢ché and wire sculptures to sell to tourists. . . . The organization’s first real grant money came when Mentoor won the World Wilderness Forum’s Green Trust Award in 2002. Mentoor’s group voted to use the prize money ($1,500) to buy rakes and masks needed to clean up ‘the mountain.'”

The neighborhood’s visual focal point, a little hillock topped by a water tower, had been strewn with garbage – the legacy of over a decade of local tax revolts against the Apartheid regime, which led to the cessation of all garbage pick-up services. “Criminals frequented the area, women were raped, and local people sometimes found abandoned babies and dead bodies in the rubble, Mentoor recalls. He had the vision to look past all that: to see, instead of wasted space, a unique and powerful place, the neighborhood’s true heart.

“Today . . . the trash is gone, and patches of dusty hillside have been planted with trees and vegetable gardens. Residents have built makeshift theaters and cooking huts, and walls of rock have been piled up to form ‘dialogue circles’ – spaces for meetings, parties, and performances.

“Projects like this reflect a ‘greening’ movement that is slowly spreading in neglected urban townships and degraded rural settlements, where most South Africans live,” the article continues. Part of Mentoor’s genius was to recognize the importance of creating ties to place through community gardening, art, even renaming: “We call this place Somoho, the Soweto Mountain of Hope.” And though the article focuses largely on his vision, it’s clear that hundreds of people are now involved and employed in enterprises ranging from bakeries and sewing shops to film and recording studios.

“Sydney Cindi, who runs the waste-art section of the program, says he’s trying to get young people involved so they won’t make the mistakes he did. He learned to work with clay in prison, where he served four years for robbery. ‘To me, Somoho is not just a project, it’s a school of learning,’ he says. ‘When we started on the mountain it was a dumping place. Now it’s a place where people sit under the trees.'”

“We reject the power-based society of the Westerner that seems to be ever concerned with perfecting their technological know-how while losing out on their spiritual dimension,” Steve Biko declared. “We believe that in the long run the special contribution to the world by Africa will be in this field of human relationships. The great powers of the world may have done wonders in giving the world an industrial and military look, but the great gift still has to come from Africa – giving the world a more human face.” God grant that it be so!

Laughing in church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In short, a pretty corny lot.

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

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

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

Learning language, learning poetry

Metaphor is defined [by Aristotle] in terms of movement.
Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language (Robert Czerny, trans., University of Toronto Press, 1984)

Yesterday’s fresh inch of snow and cold temperatures overnight gave everything a sparkle this morning as the sun rose into a cloudless sky. I remembered my niece Eva’s first use of metaphor at the age of 2 years, 9 months. She had just begun speaking semi-coherently the summer before, when she was in Honduras, and had a very limited vocabulary of mostly Spanish words. One night, during a prolonged Christmastime visit, her grandpa showed her the stars. She always accompanied him to the compost heap/wildlife feeding area after supper, taking out the scraps from the kitchen. It was an exceptionally clear night, and the stars were beautiful; Eva practiced saying “estrellas,” which tripped off her tongue with surprising fluency.

The next day dawned equally clear, and as Eva was riding on my shoulders up to her grandparents’ house for lunch, she surprised me by pointing at the ground and yelling, “Estrellas!” I looked. She was pointing, of course, at the sparkles in the snow.

I don’t suppose this sort of thing is too uncommon. It makes sense that facility with metaphors would be a normal part of language acquisition, since analogic or metaphorical definitions are common for many words (and are probably essential for abstract thinking; all of mathematics is based upon the ability to analogize, for example). Learning a new word involves figuring out the extent of its semantic coverage. In the case just described, was this really an example of the conscious use of metaphor? Perhaps, instead, it was simply an attempt to figure out whether “estrellas” meant solely “sparkly things in the sky,” or if it also included sparkly things elsewhere.

One way or the other, I would like to think that this kind of active, joyous measuring of the world through spoken language is fundamentally poetic. This is the argument Heidegger makes in his essay on a theme from Hölderlin, “‘…Poetically Man Dwells…'” To Heidegger, the comparison of sky with earth is an integral part of this measure-taking. “The upward glance spans the between of sky and earth.” It encompasses “everything that shimmers and blooms in the sky and thus under the sky and thus on earth, everything that sounds and is fragrant, rises and comes – but also everything that goes and stumbles, moans and falls silent, pales and darkens.” The poet does not merely describe such sights, but “calls … that which in its very self-disclosure causes the appearance of that which conceals itself, and indeed as that which conceals itself. In its familiar appearances, the poet calls the alien as that to which the invisible imparts itself in order to remain what it is – unknown.” (Albert Hofstadter, trans., Poetry, Language, Thought, Harper, 1971.) In other words, in her making-strange the poet merely testifies to the ultimate unknowability of everything language seeks to measure and describe.

I remember how fascinated Eva was with birds that year. It helped that her daddy was an ardent birdwatcher, I suppose. But more than that, I think birds appealed to her because they were small and quick, always in motion – just like she was. Her word for bird(s) was “Pio!” and she used it constantly – hardly a bird escaped her attention as we walked around the farm. One evening, we gave her a ballpoint pen and a pad of cheap paper and encouraged her to draw. She would put the pen on a blank page, move it rapidly in circling, sweeping strokes, turn the page and do it again. The pad quickly filled up with actionist creations that had little to do with representational sketching. After a while, one of us asked her what she was doing. “Pio!”

By sheer serendipity, one or two of them did end up looking like birds. I saved one that bore an uncanny resemblance to a resplendent quetzal. I wish I’d saved the whole pad.

Cat's cradle

The more I read about other cultures, the more the uncomfortable conviction grows in my mind that the history of human civilization exemplifies no “upward” progress, but instead progressive disintegration and alienation from the primordial wellsprings of life and spirit. Think, for example, of the supposed conflict between freedom and determinism that so distorts our ability to respond meaningfully to things, to events, to human and non-human others. And such relief one feels, simply to realize that, as phenomenologist Alfonso Lingis points out, “the movements of perception – both the controlled perception which is scientific observation, and the continual perception which is the scientist’s, and our, life – are neither reactions nor adjustments nor intentional and teleological acts, but responses (The Imperative, Indiana U.P., 1998).”

Every culture exhibits ethnocentricity to some extent. For centuries Europeans have described non-Western ways of thought according to a hierarchy that enshrined their own mastery of mechanical technique as the apex to which all others should strive. Thus, cultures appear more or less primitive according to how closely they resemble us (ignoring the fact that such resemblance, in the case of those most like Europeans – Chinese, Arabs, Indians – may derive simply from past culture-sharing). But I suspect that a more accurate understanding of historical evolution would depict cultural preferences as a series of trade-offs. The economic energy generated by the freeing of Western European peasants 1000 years ago may have been largely responsible for the material success and eventual global domination of European civilization. But the vast majority of us are still in thrall to a worldview that seems simplistic, even childish compared to what anthropologists have documented among peoples for whom the alienation of individual from “environment” was nowhere near so complete.

The problem is that civilizations project their social orders upon the cosmos. East and West, from ancient Egypt onward, the logic of empire dictated – or “overcoded,” as Deleuze and Guattari would say – a logic of unities (Dao, Brahman, God, Logos). Only now do we begin to suspect that the true relationships between such binary opponents as freedom and determinism, one and many, subject and object only seem paradoxical as a consequence of the radical attenuation of vital perceptual faculties and the parallel loss of conceptual and linguistic tools.

Since I have already referenced Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, I might as well go ahead and quote them at length. (They are two more of those thinkers, like Paul Feyerabend, whom I have been consciously avoiding because I would like to (re)discover what they uncovered on my own, though the reading of anthropology, history, ecology, poetry.) In A Thousand Plateaus (University of Minnesota Press, 1987) they developed the idea of the rhizome – which for me evokes primarily the fungal kingdom (but more on that some other time) – as a better model for material reality:

“[U]nlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states. The rhizome is reducible neither to the One nor the multiple. It is not the One that becomes Two or even directly three, four, five, etc. It is not a multiple derived from the One, or to which One is added (n + 1). It is composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion. It has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle [milieu] from which it grows and overspills . . . When a multiplicity of this kind changes dimensions, it necessarily changes in nature as well, undergoing a metamorphosis. Unlike a structure, which is defined by a set of points and positions, with binary relations between the points and biunivocal relationships between the positions, the rhizome is made up only of lines . . . ”

The lines of a dance, of a flock of blackbirds wheeling and swirling. The barely fathomable lineaments of coevolution, which is to say, being/becoming as a kind of meshwork (net, internet) of mutual responses, dimension upon dimension. The lines of a string game elaborated to fill the long darkness of the Arctic winter with the mystery and wonder of transformation, a cat’s cradle. Reading Tom Lowenstein’s Ancient Land: Sacred Whale (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1993) last night, I was struck by his description of this game in a lengthy footnote. Perhaps inevitably, as a Westerner, he begins with the apparent essence:

“First, there are the figures themselves whose construction was in harmony with Inuit knowledge of anatomy and the way people made their weapons and equipment. This knowledge of articulation was of special importance to Tikigaq hunters. The composite structure of weapons, traps, and much ritual equipment was modeled on the way that bodies were jointed. Parallel to this and to string-game symbolism were the etched magical diagrams that showed animal silhouettes filled with ‘X-ray’ skeletons or a horizontal ‘lifeline’ which represented a ‘string’ of the soul element.”

Incidentally, this same motif of the lifeline occurs in the traditional pottery designs of Zuni Pueblo; much else that is “Deleuze-Guattarian” could be pointed out among the Pueblo and other agriculturists. A rhizomatic understanding of space-time, however it may be symbolized, is not particular to, say, a hunting-gathering culture as opposed to an agricultural-gathering-hunting one. But to resume:

“An important three-dimensional version of these allusions to body and spirit was the string game – cat’s cradle – which was often accompanied by songs and stories. The medium was a loop of sinew or skin cord whose patterns were developed in two phases. The first was a slow, deliberate weaving in which the outer frame was constructed. This was followed by a series of manipulations which filled the structure with lines, rings, knots and nooses, each part of which was sufficiently tense to stay in place, while flexible enough for the next transformation.

“Flicking and scrambling through each minutely controlled sequence, the fingers created a series of narrative concatenations. Each movement of the diagram had its moment of identity. The forms that hopped, twitched and ran up and down the frame were semi-abstract narrative animations. Most string games showed animals in archetypal, often comic situations . . . Mythic archetypes were guyed and inverted . . .

“But play was brief and, though often technically spectacular, somewhat casual. Like animals that pop up and then vanish, string-game creatures briefly came to life and then melted away . . .

“[W]hether in the hand of a child or an adult the string game was a shamanistic process. Just as shamans constructed magical familiars from dead material and sang life into it as they went, so string-game players hummed over their making, and a creative and destructive process was enacted.”

Barbara G. Myerhoff (Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians, Cornell U.P., 1974) offers a convenient summary of anthropological thinking about so-called primitive thought: that the “savage mind” (Levi-Strauss) embraces a “logic of participation” (Levy-Bruhl) whereby human emotional states and/or moral conditions are believed to influence natural events (Evans-Pritchard). I wonder if these hyphenated thinkers would have called the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi and the great literary prophets of the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, etc.) primitive? Like most ancient writers outside the Greco-Roman orbit, their “savage minds” too assumed that moral choices had natural repercussions. By contrast, the binary logic of Aristotle is predicated upon the abstraction of human thinker/actor from matter/matrix. Since Parmenides our thinkers have seen no delicate meshwork but at best the jealous Hephaestus’ cunning trap, at worst the Gordian knot, an atom to be split. The natural repercussions are not far to seek in a world that has been rent limb from limb. Grasping for “primitive” (i.e., originary) concepts, we speak in hushed terms of holocaust, the burnt offering. In fact, this is a complete misapprehension of the “logic of participation” that guides, too, the priestly knife. An offering to what or whom, save our own hubris?

Influenced by Deleuze and Guattari, I am thinking this morning that the logic of participation is still very much with us, and not merely among artists and mystics. I am constantly encountering people – often those with little formal education – in whom mind, body and world are highly congruent and interlinked. They are hunters, homemakers, mechanics, bus drivers. Whether taciturn or loquacious, they have a way with words – which is to say, with the manipulation of the loose and shifting knots we call symbols.

The difference is that some cultures actively encourage this way of knowing, whereas we actively seek to suppress it through “education.” I was fascinated to learn that one of the traditional practices still prevalent among Bering Sea Inuit, Inupiak and Yupiit is sand-drawing by children – specifically girls. It used to be that their fathers would make elaborately carved ivory “storyknives” or yaaruin for their daughters; today, metal tableknives have largely taken their place. The girls use standard sets of symbols, which vary from village to village, to illustrate imaginative stories upon a canvas of scraped mud or wet sand. (The book Inua: Spirit world of the Bering Sea Eskimo, Willaim W. Fitzhugh and Susan Kaplan, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982, shows examples of storyknives and a reproduction of a traditional knifestory.) The point is that, despite what Lowenstein says about people believing that the myths were true (well, they certainly wouldn’t have viewed them as “archetypes”!) children – and especially girls – were encouraged to play with them, to alter the details if necessary, even to completely subvert them.

Why girls? I imagine this relates to the once-pivotal importance of the female shaman, as the compass point around which her shaman-husband circled in his search for game animals. During the Tikigaq whale hunt, for example, her participation was seen is pivotal: the whole time the men are out, she must remain in a state of apparent inactivity – actually meditation, though the anthropologists’ informants were circumspect about the details – and in some sense she even becomes the whale whom the men seek. This is the logic of participation par excellance.

For both boys and girls, in all societies where survival is closely linked to knowledge of the land/water, the crucial thing is to develop mental maps – in the broadest sense of the term – that are both extremely accurate and highly adaptable. If the various Inuit peoples seem extraordinary to us in this regard, it is simply because the conditions under which they lived were so extreme. Their “stone age” technology was sophisticated, yes, but it didn’t end with merely physical tools. The multiple directives Lingis enumerates – “in the night, the elements, the home, the alien spaces, the carpentry of things, the halos and reflections of things, the faces of fellow humans, and death” – could not be escaped by a permanent flight into hedonism or asceticism, though both were honored in their season.

“Make a map,” our guides Deleuze and Guattari advise, “not a tracing.” This is the sort of stuff one has to read slowly, several times, to fully digest:

“Make a map, not a tracing. The orchid does not reproduce the tracing of the wasp; it forms a map with the wasp, in a rhizome. What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious. It fosters connections between fields, the removal of blockages on bodies without organs, the maximum opening of bodies without organs onto a plane of consistency. It is itself a part of the rhizome. The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation. It can be drawn on a wall, conceived of as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation. . . . A map has multiple entryways, as opposed to the tracing, which always comes back ‘to the same.’ the map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an alleged ‘competence.'”

I wondering now, quite irrelevantly, about the cat in the cat’s cradle. Given that, in pre-modern European thought, the housecat is perhaps the most common familiar or spirit-guardian, I wonder if we can see in our own versions of the string game some repressed memory of shape-shifting, the shamanic dance of nodes across a rhizomatic field?
__________

Update: Thanks to my brother Mark (a Deleuzian scholar and geographer) for reading this over and reassuring me that I am on the right track! I changed only my initial description of the D-G rhizome from “analogy” to “model.” Mark commented (in part) “you can never over-literalize DG; only misconstrue. Most people’s problem is that they assume DG are simply constructing Derridean castles in the air in some sort of cosmic jack-off; they totally miss the fact that DG are attempting to describe and explain how the world/cosmos works. They miss this because to them, the world outside human perception is unattainable, ‘socially constructed’, the ‘Real’ (Lacan), etc., etc. So there
are loads of folks out there trying to playfully use ‘deterritorialization,’ trying to be cute, not understanding that this is a term with a precise definition–a term describing a ‘function’ (actually something more than that, because ‘function’ evokes narrow-minded functionalism).”

I think this is definitely a case of “the less you know in advance, the better!” In response to my defense of using D-G (not to be confused with G-D) for aid in describing intuitions/manipulations of supra-mundane realities (in which they did not believe), Mark replied just now that “the mix-and-match, experimentation (though there’s more of this in Anti-Oedipus) is in the spirit of enjoying and using DG. They are interested in affects, not essences–if Lingis and DG work for you, then they are happy. In DG’s world, what a thing does/is capable of is what determines what it ‘is.'”

I like to think of philosophy like this (phenomenology, broadly defined) as “common sense raised to a higher power.” (But if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably already knew that.) Metaphysics is only interesting to me to the extent that it is useful. And good myths are interesting not as Jungian archetypes but because they are things of beauty. Myths are true in the exact same way that poems are true.
__________

Cross-references: Qarrtsiluni and Building Dwelling Eating.

It’s art, dammit!

I’m not really a religious person. It was never my intention to construct a real shrine. The thing sits there in my living room, just another piece of furniture, with my old boombox and a motley collection of cassette tapes stacked on top of it.

It must be six or seven years, now, since I put the thing together. With a couple other people I was planning a small exhibition of chapbooks by local authors to coincide with the huge annual crafts fair that takes over the nearby college town for five days each summer. We weren’t planning anything fancy, just a table or two and maybe a few performances in the small plaza outside the bookstore.

I had always fantasized about throwing a public demonstration that would be the mirror equivalent of a book burning – a television bashing! You know, the usual activist’s delusion: make an impact by getting on the evening news. But it occurred to me that the bookstore might withdraw its sponsorship if I tried to do something like that, so instead I decided to take a television set and turn it into a faux-Voodoo shrine. I remembered my Dad’s old cabinet TV from the 1950s that had sat in the basement of the barn for decades. We cannibalized it for vacuum tubes when I was a kid – they made great little bombs – but otherwise it was still in pretty good shape.

The disemboweling went relatively quickly; after that, the four knobs had to be cemented back into place. The space created by removing the picture tube was almost 18 inches high and around 20 inches wide and deep. I removed the glass on the front, retaining the hard plastic or fiberglass frame whose ovoid shape alone still evoked a television. I attached a thin plywood back and lined all three sides with aluminum foil.

A good Voodoo shine should be assembled on a stepped platform. Given the limited space, I had to content myself with just three tiers, and covered the whole platform with red cloth. Now for the fun part: collecting the stuff to go on it.

Candlesticks were pretty easy to scrounge up; the largest and most effective were shaped like a pair of cobras. I bought some realistic-looking plastic fruit to go in the polished wooden bowl that went front-and-center. My other additions were even less subtle: a naked Barbie doll with arms upraised; a plastic toy policeman with one arm extended in a Nazi salute; a toy pistol; a bible carved from a piece of anthracite; a red plastic car; a hypodermic needle (unused, obtained through a friend of a friend who I think was a heroin addict); a cracked china pitcher filled with spent .45 and .457 shells; a Santa figurine; whiskey, beer, Coke and Pepsi bottles converted into vases for plastic flowers; a wooden marijuana bowl; and other such flotsam. Coins and monopoly money were scattered about.

What to use for a central image? For a little while I was stumped. But when I described the project to a friend of mine, she said, “What about a black mirror? I have one that I was going to get rid of — used it once for a ritual, but I don’t need it anymore.” “Sounds great!”

It wasn’t much, really. Just a black-backed piece of glass, about five by seven inches, mounted in a cheap wooden picture frame with a fold-out cardboard stand in back. The idea, she explained, was to confound peoples’ expectations. “They look into it expecting to see their reflections, but there’s nothing there.” Perfect!

With the black mirror at the back center, the shrine had a focus. Santa, Barbie and the cop all had something to salute. I had something to light candles and burn incense to.

The outside had to be altered, too. At the top center of each side I mounted a terracotta mask, one black, one tan, from the small collection of folk-art objects my brother had brought back from Honduras. Where the sound came out, below the space where the picture tube had been, dark wooden bars formed a nine-square grid. I cut cardboard to fit the four corners and the center square, thus leaving every other square to show the original speaker cloth. Pasted to the four corner pieces were the words ENJOY / ENSLAVE / CONSUME / OBEY. On the center square went the famous quote from William Blake (misappropriated by some third-rate rock band from the 60s, but I couldn’t help that): “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” The shrine was, after all, a grotto of sorts.

I can’t say that I had either Plato or Bodhidharma in mind, though. This cave was wired. I strung some flashing Christmas lights around the back of the ovoid frame, where they wouldn’t be directly visible. Underneath, where the speaker had been, I stuck a radio tuned to an evangelical AM station – one of the ones with non-stop, ’round the clock, Pentecostal preachers from Kentucky.

This was art for the people. And I have to say, the people seemed to dig it. I reassembled it every morning for three days, and watched folks’ reactions from fifteen feet away where I lounged behind a table of literary goodies. I didn’t sell very many chapbooks, but the shrine got lots of laughs and even a few compliments. Some people tossed coins in it. One young woman asked if she could light an incense stick. I was reminded a bit of the way Japanese people behave at Shinto shrines: that same mixture of reverence and bemusement, animated by the kind of pragmatic superstitiousness one finds among professional gamblers. “Who cares if it’s real or bogus? It sure can’t hurt to go through the motions!”

To me, the whole point was to make people laugh. For all the lack of subtlety, I wasn’t really trying to change anyone’s mind. But who knows? I couldn’t help thinking that my original idea of a television bashing, while it certainly would have attracted more attention, probably wouldn’t have brightened anyone’s day.

Can the merely cynical be invested with a higher value? And if so, would this stepping outside of a stepping-outside require some leap of faith?

Voodoo (a.k.a Voudun, Vodou), the tradition I had been in some sense mocking, is itself supremely pragmatic, seldom requiring more than an open mind to participate in its ceremonies. One isn’t required to surrender one’s own reason or willpower – far from it. “Just try it, see if it works for you,” the priestess advises anthropologist-initiate Karen McCarthy Brown again and again. (See Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, University of California Press, 1991.)

There sits the shrine in my living room, divested of masks and the four cynical words, which quickly warped. The weird thing is, four years ago when I wanted to stop smoking, this shrine to negativity really did seem to help. Through the worst of the craving I kept a half-dozen cigarettes there in the offering bowl, among the plastic fruit. Somehow just seeing them there, day after day, strengthened my resolve.

Addiction is a funny thing, and everyone’s different in the way they have to conquer it. For me, it was a matter of admitting to myself that I would never be able to quit – but I might be able to simply stop. For me, quitting implies finality, and a sense of finality breeds despair.

Tobacco, like most powerful drugs, is a deeply ambiguous substance. To condense and over-simplify just a bit, one could say that addiction is enabled by disrespect. The smoker begins by downplaying the power of the drug while idealizing the pleasure it symbolizes. The addict is an active participant in his continuing delusion, saying to himself, “I am not a slave. I can quit anytime I want.” Most addictions start during youth, because young people tend to think they are immortal and believe that bad luck is for other people. Such naive faith may even be the mirror-image of nihilism: “I am uniquely favored. Everything that happens is for the best; and even if I or others do happen to suffer, it couldn’t be otherwise.” It is the soul’s desperate alibi against the vacuum of nothingness. But eventually the alibi wears thin, and the addict comes to realize that his or her ability to quit hinges upon the merest chance. In the mythology of the American group-therapy movement, this chance is seen as the gift of some Higher Power.

Among the Yoruba, in the tradition directly ancestral to Voodoo, Orunmila is the highest god to whom human beings have direct access. He is the patron of divination, and as the first-born son of the supreme deity has perfect foreknowledge of fate-as-divine-will. His ability to guarantee outcomes, however, is continually challenged and subverted by the random acts of Eshu. This orisha is envisioned as neither good nor bad. “He was compounded out of the elements of chance and accident, and his nature [is] unpredictability” (Harold Courlander, A Treasury of African Folklore, Marlowe and Company, 1996). On the one hand, he may seem comparable to the Adversary, Satan. But in fact he is more: the trickster god without whom creative activity would be impossible — because where and how could inspiration ever operate without a certain element of randomness, an apparent chaos to bring order to?

Eshu — like his New World counterparts Ghede and Legba — is the master of speech and language, and every crossroads is his shrine. He alone “straddles the left and right of our universe,” according to the Ifa priest Wande Abimbola (“Gods Versus Anti-Gods: Conflict and Resolution in the Yoruba Cosmos,” in Evil and the Response of World Religion, ed. William Cenkner, Paragon House, 1997). The hymns of Ifa preach sanity and good will as the best way of deflecting evil, but sacrifice is also essential. Dr. Abimbola notes that “sacrifice is an act of exchange. When one makes sacrifice, one exchanges something dear, or something purchased with one’s own money, in order to sustain personal happiness. Sacrifice involves human beings in a process of exchange or denial of oneself, or giving of one’s time, forsaking one’s pleasure, food, etc., in order to be at peace with both the benevolent and malevolent supernatural powers as well as to be at peace with one’s neighbors, family, the entire environment and ultimately to be at peace with oneself.”

If priests or doctors are sometimes needed for their specialized knowledge, that shouldn’t mean that a client’s only duty is to be – literally or figuratively – patient. “In Vodou,” says Brown, “the one being healed remains active throughout the healing process – from the card reading, in which the client is free to agree or disagree with any diagnosis [the priest or priestess] suggests, to the manufacture of the pwen, in which the client has a direct hand.” (A pwen, “point,” is a charm: according to Brown, a crossroads in time and space where social, psychological and spiritual conditions are concentrated or condensed.)

The cigarettes – those that the mice haven’t chewed up – are still there in the bowl any time I want to have another smoke. The television-grotto is still pure irony, an anti-shrine, as far as I’m concerned. Who am I kidding? I’ve even smoked a few cigars. Religion’s interesting, all right, and there’s a whole lot more to it than meets the eye. But at a certain level, it seems to me, you have to step back and recognize that it’s just so much didactic art accompanied by poetry that you otherwise couldn’t even pay most people to read. The Yoruba people inhabit one of the most deeply religious cultures on the planet, but they keep their sense of humor:

Ijapa [the tortoise] said, “It emerges!”
His son replied, “I grasp it!”
Ijapa asked, “What do you grasp?”
His son asked, “What did you say is emerging?”
(Courlander, op.cit.)