A walk in the fog

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

Blue devils and the legend of Robert Johnson

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

1. A shady connection

Barely in time for Black History Month, I want to correct a few common misconceptions about Robert Johnson and his supposed pact with the devil.

I hope no one will be too shocked by the news that the 1988 movie Crossroads is a wildly inaccurate guide to the life and death of the historical (as opposed to the mythic) Robert Johnson. For example, in the movie, Willie Brown is a harmonica player, still living in the 1980s. In real life, Willie Brown was an older mentor to Johnson, one of the three or four greatest bottleneck guitarists of the first generation of Delta bluesmen to make it onto record. He died in 1952.

Johnson was far from the only ambitious bluesman of the 20s and 30s to exploit the bad man image, including the European-derived myth of the pact with the devil. According to the recollections of people who knew him, Johnson lived up to the image, constantly fighting and womanizing and using several aliases to keep ahead of the law. But neither “Cross Road Blues” nor “Me and the Devil Blues” were among his signature songs. None of his friends, former flames or traveling companions who were interviewed by blues fans from the 1960s on had ever heard about a pact with the devil.

The connection between the figure of the devil in southern Afro-American folklore and the Yoruba/Dohomean deity Legba is probably valid. But outside of places like New Orleans and the Georgia Sea Islands, explicitly African elements of hoodoo are submerged in a thoroughly Christian milieu. It would be much more accurate to say that a bluesman like Johnson was living out the Christian archetype of the Prodigal Son than to maintain that he was some kind of underground practitioner of an alternate faith. That is to say, he might have been anti-Christian at times, but he wasn’t non-Christian.

Johnson died too young to go through the complete cycle, but many of his contemporaries (Son House, Skip James, Ishmon Bracey, etc.) periodically swung between the two poles of blues singer/sinner and sanctified Christian. The lyrics to Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” are powerful precisely because they exploit this tension and ambiguity. The narrator begins,

I went to the cross road,
fell down on my knees,
I went to the cross road,
fell down on my knees.
Asked the Lord above “Have mercy,
Save poor Bob, if you please.”

So the cross road initially appears to be a Christian image. The strongest echo is of a revival service, with the narrator as a sinner repenting and seeking grace. In the following verse, Johnson seems to echo the parable about the man fallen by the wayside, waiting for a Good Samaritan who never comes:

Mmmm, standin’ at the cross road,
I tried to flag a ride.
Standin’ at the cross road,
I tried to flag a ride.
Didn’t nobody seemed to know me,
everybody passed me by.

Only in the third verse do we catch a note of premonition, but longing for love and/or worry about where the narrator will sleep overshadows it.

Mmm sun goin’ down boy,
dark gon’ catch me here.
Oooo ooee eeee,
boy, dark gonna catch me here.
Ain’t got no lovin’ sweet woman that, love and feel my care.

And then (given the severe time constraints occasioned by 1930s record-cutting techniques) we’re already at the last verse. Johnson seems more interested in reminding his listeners of his relationship to the famous Willie Brown than in suggesting any supernatural partnership:

You can run you can run,
tell my friend, boy, Willie Brown.
You can run,
tell my friend, boy, Willie Brown,
Lord that I’m standin’ at the cross road baby,
I believe I’m sinkin’ down.

2. Singing in tongues

So where did the Robert Johnson-crossroads myth come from? Over-enthusiastic blues scholars, steeped in West African mythology (where the crossroads is indeed a potent symbol) simply invented it in the 1960s. According to blues scholar Gayle Dean Wardlow (Chasin’ That Devil Music, Miller Freeman Books, 1998), it was Pete Welding who, in 1966, first proposed a “selling his soul” interpretation to the song “Cross Road Blues” in an article in Down Beat. I confess I haven’t seen that article, but I do resent the oft-encountered implication that blues songs were primarily autobiographical. Some were, but many were not. I’m bothered by what I see as a persistent unwillingness to accept blues artists as fully creative lyricists who were capable of adopting alternate personas. In fact, their lyrical creativity is well documented: as in modern rap, the ability to extemporize was highly prized. Further, most blues singers employed a variety of dramatic techniques, including alternating voices and dramatic monologues; an authentic blues song is worlds away from the purely personal mode of a contemporary singer-songwriter. We know from an interview with the musician, for example, that Bukka White’s first-person “Fixin’ to Die Blues” was written in the “expected voice” of an alcoholic he once knew.

“In the 1975 book Mystery Train,” Wardlow continues, “Greil Marcus ‘symbolically’ implied Johnson mastered the guitar because of his alleged pact with the devil . . . In 1982, Peter Guralnik added the Ledell Johnson story of Tommy [Johnson] ‘selling his soul’ at midnight at a Delta crossroad.” Tommy Johnson – no relation to Robert – was another master bottleneck guitarist with a decidedly more desperate tone to his lyrics. He also died young, but not under such mysterious circumstances as Robert did: he fell victim to the blue devils of “Canned Heat” (i.e. sterno) and “Alcohol and Jake” – the titles of two of his songs which, according to his contemporaries, did indeed draw heavily on his own circumstances. (See below for more on the blue devils.) Thus it was Tommy – not Robert – Johnson who was portrayed in the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? as having made a pact with the devil.

The only Robert Johnson song to explicitly elaborate upon a connection with the devil is “Me and the Devil Blues.” Though again, some ambiguity remains: is it Satan himself, or is the narrator simply saying his woman is the devil in disguise?

Early this mornin’
when you knocked upon my door.
Early this mornin’, ooh
when you knocked upon my door.
And I said, “Hello, Satan,
I believe it’s time to go.”

But in the second verse, the narrator owns up and admits that it is he who is bedeviled, and he who bedevils others:

Me and the Devil
was walkin’ side by side.
Me and the Devil, ooh
was walkin’ side by side.
And I’m goin’ to beat my woman
until I get satisfied.

While the listener is still recovering from the shock of that boast, Johnson shifts gears. The narrator has the woman speaking up – and psychoanalyzing him. She says he suffers a compulsion he hasn’t come to grips with; he protests that she’s to blame. It’s not clear which of them decides to blame the devil. By the end of the song, the narrator is defiantly proclaiming his own devilish identity. The segue to the last verse exemplifies the “linked verse” technique of blues composition at its best.

She say you don’t see why
that you will dog me ’round.
[spoken:] Now, babe, you know you ain’t doin’ me
right, don’cha?
She say you don’t see why, ooh
that you will dog me ’round.
It must-a be that old evil spirit
so deep down in the ground.

You may bury my body
down by the highway side.
[spoken:] Baby, I don’t care where you bury my
body when I’m dead and gone.
You may bury my body, ooh
down by the highway side.
So my old evil spirit
can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.

It probably go without saying, but the deity Legba is neither evil, nor is he associated with an afterlife destination “deep down in the ground.” This is as Christian a song as anything Black Sabbath ever wrote.

3. Blues as spiritual ju-jitsu

Another Robert Johnson song, “Hellhounds On My Trail,” partakes much less of specifically religious imagery than it may appear to. The eponymous hounds were actually intended to evoke the police and their bloodhounds, according to Wardlow, who traces the verse to a record by an obscure East Texas bluesman. Given the widespread use of bloodhounds during slavery, when church songs often contained coded messages about the Underground Railroad, it’s hard not to hear some echo of an otherwise lost spiritual here.

Diverse roots (or as the philosopher Giles Deleuze would say, multiple rhizomes) are at work here. A modern listener might need reminding that in Johnson’s world the police were anything but enforcers of justice. Instead, they represented an oppressive and brutal system designed to thwart the ambitions and crush the spirits of African Americans. The word “blues” is Anglo in origin, dating from the late 19th century. Its original usage denoted the blue devils that are said to appear to an alcoholic going through delirium tremens. It would not have escaped the attention of African Americans that the police in their blue uniforms were the most visible counterpart to the now-generalized inner torments known as the blues. I can think of a couple lyrics offhand that come close to spelling this out: Bessie Smith’s “In the House Blues,” and the barrelhouse standard known usually as “Vicksburg Blues,” which Howlin’ Wolf turned into “.45 Blues” (with the reference to policemen judiciously removed). But doubtless there are many more.

People on both sides of the sinner-sanctified divide would have agreed about the absolute necessity of spiritual resistance to this internal and external oppression. In fact, what really distinguished the ‘sinners’ was their insistence on individualism and self-expression, as opposed to the collective, communitarian spirit of the black churches. Although it might be a bit of a stretch to say that bluesmen and women were revolting against the accomodationist stance of the churches, explicit, satirical critiques of church people are not hard to find in the recorded blues. Blues singers tended to stereotype preachers as charlatans, only interested in a free meal ticket and easy access to women. Of course, bluesmen often portrayed themselves as rakes and scoundrels too, but the subtext of the many “Preaching Blues” songs is, “at least I’m not a hypocrite.”

Robert Johnson’s own “Preaching Blues,” subtitled “Up Jumped the Devil,” is a fascinating exception to this pattern. More than that, it is a masterpiece, musically as well as lyrically. In it, Johnson suggests a fusion of church and blues through words that, for me, come closer to true Hoodoo Man conjuring than anything else he recorded. The preacher is evoked through Johnson’s style of vocal delivery alone, and the Devil is nothing but the blues personified: a malevolent force that only a visit to the distillery can exorcise.

Mmmmm mmmmm,
I’s up this mornin’,
a blues walkin’ like a man.
I’s up this mornin’
a blues walkin’ like a man.
Worried blues,
give me your right hand.

And the blues fell mama’s child
tore him all upside down.
Blues fell mama’s child
and it tore me all upside down.
Travel on poor Bob,
just cain’t turn you ’round.

The blu-u-u-u-ues
is a low-down, shakin’ chill.
[spoken:] Yes, preach ’em now.
Mmmmm mmmmm,
is a low-down shakin’ chill.
You ain’t never had ’em, I,
I hope you never will.

Well, the blu-ues
is a achin’ old heart disease.
[spoken:] Do it now. You gon’ do it? Tell me about it.
Well the blu-ues
is a low-down achin’ heart disease.
Like consumption,
killing me by degrees.

I been stuttering, oh, oh drive,
oh, oh, drive my blues –
I been stuttering,
I’m ‘onna drive my blues away.
Goin’ to the ‘stil’ry.
Stay out there all day.

4. Real devils, real contests

All too many white blues fans appear deaf to the racial subtext of blues music. They literally don’t want to hear about it: the blues is good time party music, they say. It’s for everybody, regardless of race.

Well, yes. And it is also potent medicine of the homeopathic variety, as countless blues artists have testified. But if the classic country blues songs seem deep and eerie beyond words, it is because they represent a passionate attempt to escape the devils of poverty, racism, violence, alcoholism, alienation and hopelessness. A consideration of the specific social and cultural matrices from which the music emerged should not diminish its universal appeal.

The immense, inland delta formed by the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers has been called “the most southern place on earth.” It is a thoroughly domesticated landscape, a sea of perfectly flat cotton fields stretching from horizon to horizon, interrupted only by mosquito-ridden streams and backwaters. Its floodplain soil is hundreds of feet deep: rich black earth with nary a stone. As so often in the Third World, great natural wealth has permitted the growth of a powerful and vindictive elite who traditionally possessed no sense of responsibility toward land or people. Why conserve? The river and soil will last forever.

Thus, violence or the threat of violence against black sharecroppers was intense and pervasive throughout the period when the greatest bluesmen and women were getting on record. In this climate, explicit references to racism were off-limits, at least in the recording studio. But the desire to escape is palpable in songs like Johnson’s “Walking Blues” and “Traveling Riverside Blues,” and songs about guns (“32-20 Blues”) fairly crackle with electricity. I personally find these sorts of themes far more challenging to contemplate than the sadly diminished echoes of African religion.

Robert Johnson was a brilliant guitarist, and yes, he mastered the instrument quite quickly. But there seems to have been no shortage of musical geniuses in the Delta region in the first four decades of the 20th century. Johnson’s stature among modern-day, white blues fans seems to derive as much from the myth as from the songs. In the case of the latter, Johnson was lucky to have been remarkably well recorded, and to have found many posthumous fans among top-selling rock musicians who covered his songs. In real life, Johnson is said to have had a relatively weak voice, but you don’t hear that on the record. The poor quality of surviving sides by greats like Charley Patton and Willie Brown militates against their ever achieving even the limited form of mainstream popularity accorded to Robert Johnson.

For hard-core country blues fans like me, Johnson doesn’t hold a candle to fellow-Delta natives Son House and Johnny Shines. These men didn’t have the sense to play up the bad man image and to die young, and thus will remain forever unpalatable to the youth culture that grew up with rock ‘n’ roll. But House, Shines and others who managed to live to a ripe old age had the satisfaction of enjoying what those who died young never could: escape. Not only from the daily humiliations of Jim Crow-era apartheid, but even from the bipolar disorder that was African American society under Jim Crow.

The first- and second-generation bluesmen and women who survived into the 1970s and beyond may never have earned have earned great wealth, but they did at least get the satisfaction of mentoring and playing to fanatically respectful audiences of mostly white people. They got their dignity back, and with it, I would guess, experienced the confirmation of their individualistic ethos. The choice between church and blues became less stark, less black-and-white. If the recorded statements and relatively tranquil later lives of the majority of the “elder statesmen of the blues” are any guide, in the last decades of the 20th century blues artists no longer felt themselves to be stranded at a lonely crossroads, forced to choose between go-along-to-get-along and self-destructive defiance. Unlike Willie Brown, Charley Patton, and Tommy and Robert Johnson, they were able finally to beat the devil at his own game.
__________

Note: transcriptions have been modified from those that appear on-line at The Robert Johnson Notebooks, which gives little hint about the extent of scholarly disagreement about some of these lyrics. The “stuttering” interpretation of verse 5 of “Preaching Blues” is my own, but it seems to fit the song’s dis-ease imagery. The website’s interpretation, “I’ve been studyin’ the rain” is extremely far-fetched, in my opinion.

Portrait of a bard

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

What is the proper role of a poet? What can the public recitation or performance of poetry accomplish at its best – and at its worst? These questions have been popping up in posts and comment boxes in recent days, especially at Ivy is Here and The Middlewesterner (where I haven’t been shy with my own 2 cents). Antonio Savoradin and The Cassandra Pages have also had some interesting thoughts on public recitation and whether or not performing is a necessary part of the contemporary Western poet’s bag of tricks.

This post is not intended to answer any of these questions, but to raise further complexities.

“It is difficult for the Western world to understand the vital importance that the [Maninka] bard has in initiating, mediating and terminating acts,” writes Charles Bird in the introduction to The Songs of Seydou Camara, Vol. I: Kambili.* “The bard is the master of the word and words are considered to have a mystical force which can bring supernatural energies to bear. These energies can both augment and diminish a man’s power to act. In this context, the bard’s responsibility for controlling words is extremely great.”

In his introduction to the portion of the Kambili epic excerpted for Oral Epics from Africa (J. W. Johnson, T. Hale and S. Belcher, eds., Indiana U.P., 1997) – an indispensable anthology for students of world literature – Bird includes a lengthy portrait of the epic’s narrator, Seydou Camara, which I’d like to quote from. As a hunter’s bard, Camara is not a member of the griot (jeli) caste; doubtless one could find a more typical example of a West African bard from which one could perhaps draw some conclusions about the Role of the Poet in Traditional Societies or some such. But every society is different, and every great singer or poet is supremely atypical. Nevertheless, paying attention to the vital poetic traditions of sub-Saharan Africa should give us some indication of what kind of power was once available to poets and singers among, say, the ancient Celtic, Pictish and Germanic peoples of northwestern Europe. Charles Bird writes,

“When the recording of Kambili was made in the spring of 1968, Seydou [Camara] was about fifty years old. He had begun playing indigenous instruments of the Wasulu region [of Mali] as a young boy and had shown considerable promise, particularly on the dan, a six-stringed lute. He began his interest in the donsonkoni, the hunter’s lute-harp, through his initiation and extensive interest in the Komo [secret] societies of the Wasulu region. In his early twenties, he was conscripted into the French army and went to serve in Morocco with the Free French Forces during World War II. After the war, he transferred to the Civil Guard in Mali and was stationed in Timbuktu, where he married his first wife, Kariya Wulen. While in Timbuktu, according to Seydou, he was poisoned by his enemies in the local community, the result of which was what we would probably call a nervous breakdown; Seydou was possessed by jinns. As a consequence, he was dismissed from the service and returned to his native village. Under the care of the famous Kankan Sekouba, Seydou gradually regained his health and devoted himself exclusively to playing the hunter’s lute-harp, serving as a singer for the Wasulu hunters and as a bard for the Komo society. By 1953 he had developed his art to such an extent that he drew the attention of the influential deputy, Jime Jakite. Jakite brought him to a major political rally in Sikasso, where Seydou won the hunters’ bard competition, which elevated him to national celebrity.

Speaking is not easy;
Not being able to speak is not easy.
I’m doing something I’ve learned,
I’m not doing something I was born for.

“He recorded a number of songs for the national radio and his voice was frequently heard on Radio Mali’s broadcasts when I was in Mali in the mid-1960s. When I first met him, Seydou earned his living performing for hunters and their associations at their festivals, funerals, weddings, and baptisms, traveling to many of the towns in southern Mali: Segu, Kutiala, Sikaso, Buguni. He got little for his services, usually receiving a worosongo, the price of kola nuts (about 500 to 1,000 francs, between one and two dollars), a traditional gift usually given as a greeting gesture. He performed whenever and wherever he could, often up to twenty times per month.

“The most important part of Seydou’s poetics was rhythm. He created his lines, unfolded his narratives against the rhythm of his donsonkoni, which itself was dependent on the forceful drive of the iron rasp scraper, among whom the best were his wives, Kariya Wulen and Nunmuso. Seydou’s apprentices played the bass lines on their donsonkonis and Seydou played across the top. Seydou laid his language over the top of this as if his voice were the lead instrument in the ensemble, sometimes locked into the rhythm, sometimes in counterpoint, sometimes somewhere in between . . .

“Seydou was always enigmatic to me. He was a consummate musician. I have yet to hear another lute-harp player with the mechanical mastery, rhythmic drive, and lyrical lilt that Seydou gave his music. To some, Seydou was like a court jester, a buffoon. He loved to clown, to tell off-color jokes and stories that made his audience roar with laughter. Seydou loved women. He had two wives and would have had many more if he could have afforded it. He liked booze of all kinds and he could frequently be found at the local millet beer hall when he had a few francs in his pocket. He would say, from time to time, that he was a Muslim, but he loved to ridicule the Muslim clergy, whose hypocrisy he saw as ludicrous. I never did see him pray . . .

“To others, Seydou was like a priest. His services for the hunters were often of ritual nature, singing songs that empowered his hunter clients to overcome the obstacles of the bush and the wild game they sought to kill. On a number of occasions when I was sitting in his hut talking or listening to him play, a hunter would come in with dried or smoked parts of an antelope as Seydou’s part of the kill. He sang the songs that calmed the unleashed spirits of these slaughtered beasts . . .

“To some, he was a traditional medicine man. His tiny hut was crammed full of powdered roots, leaves, dried unidentifiable animal parts and bones. He had a steady stream of clients to whom he delivered medicines for such ills as menstrual cramps or examination anxiety. He cast divination stones to guide people on new voyages, marriages, business ventures, and hunts. I was in awe of Seydou’s effortless expertise and the efficacy of his arts. I came to see Seydou as my protector. In a place full of things I didn’t and perhaps couldn’t understand, Seydou was always there with talismans, poultices, incantations, and divinations, assuring me that I would be all right.

“The extended text which follows is from the end of the epic [Kambili].

A hunter’s death is not easy for the harp-player, Allah!
A hunter dies for the harp-player.
A farmer dies for the glutton.
A holy man dies for the troubled.
A king dies for his people.
To each man, his funeral song, Kambili.
And should an old bard die,
Call out the hourglass drummer,
Call out the iron rasp scraper,
Call out the jembe drummer.
Have them sing my funeral song.
To each dead man, his funeral song, call Kambili!

“Seydou Camara died in his village, Kabaya, in 1981.”
__________

*This mimeographed volume was issued by the African Studies Center at Indiana University in 1974; no subsequent volumes ever appeared. This is a rare example of an English translation of a West African hunter’s epic (another is the book Hunters and Crocodiles by Gordon Innes and Bakari Sidibe, published by Unesco in 1990; more material is available in French). Its extensive endnotes also have strong ethnographic interest, again because almost all the good studies of Malian (Maninka, Mandinka, Malinke) peoples are in French.

Looking ourselves over

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

1. The apple of the eye

“Incline thine ear unto me, and hear my speech,” prays the ancient Hebrew psalmist. “Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings” (Psalm 17:6,8). Might the non-religious person, too, give voice to one’s innermost feelings and still preserve our essential privacy and sense of wholeness? Is this not what it means to bear witness: to attest to the truth of our experiences without violating the essential mystery of our personhood?

“In the common man’s perception facts appear with a minimum of significance, while to the artist the fact overflows with meaning; things communicate to him more significance than he is able to absorb. Creative living in art, science and religion is a denial of the assumption that man is the source of significance; he merely lends his categories and means of expression to a meaning that is already there. Only those who have lost their sense of meaning would claim that self-expression rather than world-expression is the purpose of living.”
– Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1951).

Amen! The cant about poetry being important primarily as a form of self-expression has always irritated the hell out of me, so I was delighted to stumble across this passage while idly re-reading the first few chapters of Heschel’s manifesto this morning.

Let me hasten to add that I do recognize the importance of writing and other artistic endeavors as forms of therapy. For girls and women, whose thoughts and experiences have traditionally been devalued by the would-be arbiters of taste, the confessional mode – in which “what I really think” and “what really happened to me” are of necessity foregrounded – is said to be especially empowering. Well and good! But of what use is power so obtained if it doesn’t prompt one to go beyond the boundaries of the mundane self – to give voice to the world-self in all its ineffable wonder? That, after all, is the prerogative that male thinkers and artists have sought to preserve for themselves throughout the millennia. Was our mythic mother Eve thinking of mere self-expression or self-aggrandizement when, with her smooth-tongued helper, she obtained the forbidden fruit?

As a sweet apple reddens
on a high branch

at the tip of the topmost bough:
The apple-pickers missed it.

No, they didn’t miss it:
They couldn’t reach it.

– Sappho (trans. Jim Powell, Sappho: A Garland, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1993)

If the root purpose of art is to try and give shape to nameless longings, intuitions and aspirations – to engage in world-expression, or counter-creation as the critic George Steiner puts it – then surely some tact, some reverence toward our material is called for. If poets wish to put some portion of their naked selfhood on display, let them remember that they are as much a mystery to the discovering eye as any other portion of the cosmos. Let artists in the confessional mode strive to be nude rather than naked: the eye must be entranced, not invited to vivisect.

2. Ourselves as others see us

We Anglo-Americans are particularly weak at showing (self)respect and practicing hospitality. Our love of superficial verity – “That’s just the way I am,” “I am just being honest with you” – is childish. At best, we are charmingly innocent; at worst, we are boorish and even brutal in our obliviousness to the feelings of others.

Keith Basso’s study Portraits of “The Whiteman”: Linguistic Play and Cultural Symbols Among the Western Apache (Cambridge U.P., 1979) is one of the few anthropological studies to focus squarely on what happens when the natives turn anthropologist. Through sheer chance (a tape recorder left on when he left the room) Basso stumbled across a genre of improvised comedy in which the Western Apache ape the stereotyped oddities of the Whiteman – a caricature that will strike most readers (myself included) as uncomfortably familiar.

This a funny book and a good read. I will confine myself to listing those Anglo-American traits that Apaches find particularly mystifying or obnoxious, according to Basso (pp. 48-55):

1. “There is no word in Western Apache that corresponds precisely to the English lexeme friend. The nearest equivalent is shich’inzhoni (‘toward me, he is good’), an expression used only by individuals who have known each other for many years and, on the basis of this experience, have developed strong feelings of mutual respect. In contrast, Apaches note, Anglo-Americans refer to and address as ‘friends’ persons they have scarcely met, persisting in this practice even when it is evident from the things they say and do that they hold these individuals in low esteem.” Indians all over the continent are of course painfully aware of this bizarre predilection: the “forked tongue” phenomenon.

2. “Except among persons who enjoy close relations, such as husbands and wives, unsolicited queries concerning an individual’s health or emotional state constitute impertinent violations of personal privacy. If an Apache wishes to discuss such matters, he or she will do so. If not, they are simply nobody’s business. But Anglo-Americans make them their business, and they go about it with a dulling regularity that belies what Apache consider an unnatural curiosity about the inner feelings of other people. This is interpreted as a form of self-indulgence that in turn reflects a disquieting lack of self-control – the same lack of control, Apaches say, that manifests itself in the prying queries of young children and the unrestrained babblings of old people afflicted with senility.” Ouch!

3. The way Anglos publicly acknowledge an individual’s entrance or exit from a gathering, with much fuss and fanfare, can cause that individual to feel “isolated and socially exposed in a way that can be acutely uncomfortable.” Basso nowhere says so, but this kind of gulf in behavior must relate in part to sharp differences in belief about the reality of witchcraft. In many parts of the world, calling undue attention to others or toward one’s self, one’s possessions, etc. is an open invitation to ensorcelling envy (the evil eye, e.g.). However one prefers to think about witch-beliefs, the fact is that in close-knit, village societies, envy is perhaps the single most dangerous and disruptive emotion; every effort must be made not to arouse it.

4. Closely related to this is the taboo against use or overuse of personal names. To many native peoples, the “Whiteman” most appears as a sorcerer in light of his persistent violation of this taboo. “Calling someone by name is sometimes linked to temporarily borrowing a valued possession . . . Just as rights of borrowing imply friendship and solidarity, so do rights of naming . . . Persons who name too much, like persons who borrow too often, can be justly accused of engaging in an obsequious form of exploitation that violates the rights of others. . . . Whitemen are observed to use the same name over and over again in the same conversation. This practice is harder to understand [than the mere use of someone’s name immediately upon learning it]. A frequent explanation, only slightly facetious, is that Whitemen are extremely forgetful and therefore must continually remind themselves of whom they are talking to.” Ouch, again!

5. Constant physical contact – actually, any physical contact, especially between adult males – is regarded with extreme discomfort and alarm, including handshaking and backslapping. (White politicians are not real popular on the rez, apparently.) And as in many cultures, “prolonged eye contact, especially at close quarters, is typically interpreted as an act of aggression, a display of challenge and defiance.” Anecdotal observation suggests to me that this taboo, like the previous two, is in fact observed to some extent among sub-groups of Anglo-Americans as well. Appalachian whites, for example, are similar to Apaches in valuing personal privacy and individual autonomy above all else; preferring understatement to loud acclamations; and engaging in frequent joking among male friends as a substitute for, or sublimation of, aggression. Though handshakes are not avoided, I have often observed avoidance of formal introductions and especially of eye contact. Probably many rural folks would feel much the same way about people from suburban or urban backgrounds as the Western Apache do toward stereo-typed Anglos in general: that they (we) are “entirely too probing with their eyes and hands . . . indicative of a weakly developed capacity for self-restraint and an insolent disregard for the physical integrity of others. As one of my informants put it,” Basso concludes, “‘Whitemen touch each other like they were dogs.'” Arf!

6. What we may consider essential components of hospitality are frequently interpreted by the Apache as arrogant and offensive. This includes insistent invitations to “Come on in!” and “Have a seat!” Basso says, “If a visitor to an Apache home wants to enter it and sit down, he will quietly ask permission, wait until it is given, and then find an unoccupied space within. If not, he will state his business at the door, conduct it there or at a short distance away, and depart after a requisite exchange of pleasantries.” We have often observed this kind of circumspection among our rural Appalachian neighbors, as well. In this regard, I might add, the local importance of front porch sitting is more easily understood. The porch is an extension of the doorway, a neutral space between private and public realms where informal greetings, news and gossip may be exchanged and where folks can come and go, sit or stand as they please, without formal invitation. “To insist that the visitor come inside, to command him, is to overrule his right to do as he pleases,” Basso says.

7. In general, Apache find the way in which Anglos suggest that others do things extremely bossy. Indirection is preferred. For example, instead of suggesting that someone ought to wear a coat if they go hunting, an Apache would say something more innocuous like, “There sure are a lot of mosquitoes around.” Again, the culture of rural whites in Central Pennsylvania exhibits a milder form of the same reserve. The cardinal sin – judging from the number of times one is joked about it – is “getting a swelled head,” thinking one is better than anyone else. At a job site, workers will typically take much longer to perform a task than impatient managerial types deem necessary or efficient – hence the widespread perception of PennDOT workers, for instance, as ass-scratchers and shovel-leaners. On closer inspection, however, the reason for these delays quickly becomes obvious: everyone must be consulted before every major decision. The boss must be very careful to at least go through the motions of consulting the other workers, lest he be perceived as arrogant and obnoxious and lose the respect of his men. This kind of work-place democracy among the laboring classes in Anglo-Saxon society probably goes back a thousand years or more.

8. Another behavior regarded by many Anglos as an expression of courtesy is also seen as discourteous by Apaches: urgently inquiring of a guest what s/he wants or needs in the way of food, drink, etc. Apaches don’t like any questioning that appears to require an immediate response. This deprives others of their right to think things over before speaking. “Apaches agree that Anglo-Americans are inclined to ask too many questions and to repeat the same question (or minor variants of it) too many times. This gives them the appearance of being in a state of extreme hurry and aggravated agitation, which, besides being distinctly unattractive, sometimes causes them to lose sight of what Apaches take to be an obvious and important truth: carefully considered replies to questions are invariably more reliable (because less likely to be retracted or modified) than replies that have been rushed.”

9. The propensity of Anglos to speculate about misfortune and adversity – especially sickness and death – is highly alarming. Talking about trouble is held to contribute to the likelihood of its occurrence; hence, Apaches have the impression that we are “eager to experience hardship and disaster.” This may not be as absurd as it sounds. In the sickroom, such discussion should indeed be nearly taboo, in my opinion. A trusted doctor who pronounces that a patient has so many months to live – unless specifically pressed for such information by the patient himself – should be stripped of her office for violation of the Hippocratic directive, “First, do no harm.” (In Japan, by contrast, doctors will go to extreme lengths to avoid suggesting that patients might be on the way out.) On the other hand, I have the impression that speaking of one’s own death or other personal disasters in a joking fashion – gallows humor – is one very effective way to challenge their power over the imagination – and hence, possibly, to ward them off.

10. Comments regarding the personal appearance of others are widely criticized by Apaches. This has to do, again, with the taboo against directing public attention toward someone. Apaches strenuously avoid the kind of self-consciousness that Whites actively cultivate through minute, constant attention to their own personal appearance. Apaches believe that “Whitemen are deeply absorbed with the surfaces of themselves, an obsession that stems from a powerful need to be publicly perused and to be regarded as separate and distinct from other people.” One informant expressed amazement at the way Anglos look each other over, and the way we strive “to look different all the time. Some change clothes every day.” This critique gathers force when one considers the tremendous burden this looking-over behavior places on poor people in this country to always look and dress their best. It is only the well-to-do who can afford to look slovenly in Anglo society. Interestingly, in pre-modern Europe, crops, livestock and other forms of wealth that had been ensorcelled were said to have been “overlooked” – i.e., looked over by the witch’s envious eye.

11. When Western Apaches imitate Anglo speech, they use a fast, loud and “tense” manner quite opposed to their own cultural preference for low, soft and deliberate speaking. Apaches are fond of saying that “Whitemen are angry even when they’re friendly.” By contrast, as linguist Deborah Tannen noted in a recent essay, people from fast-talking societies, such as Manhattan, tend to regard slow, deliberate speech as a sign of dull wit. (See Languagehat for some additional reactions to this essay.) For what it’s worth, my personal preference is for somewhere in the middle, being on the one hand an inveterate blurter, but neither quick nor witty enough to effectively compete with a Manhattanite!

The world of the riddle

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I am thinking that, rather than alter the previous post, I’ll wait until I trim the unruly poem down to size and then include that in a separate entry at some other time. (I guess if I were at all abashed about putting the messier byproducts of the creative process on display, I’d probably never post a single poem – or even blog at all!)

In the back of my mind as I put it together was the model of the Anglo-Saxon riddle. Those who are unfamiliar with this genre should not think of the parlor-game kind of riddles that are brief and admit of only one answer. In fact, a half-dozen or so of the 96 riddles preserved in the 10th-century Exeter Book are double-entendres. A handful incorporate runes and sophisticated puns, while others stray into vatic modes. Some are riddles in form only, the thing to be guessed at unveiling itself line by line with all the dramatic flair and linguistic flourish at the poet’s disposal. Some are obscure to the modern reader simply because the solution is a thing no longer in use, or a phenomenon that we would designate with more than one word. Such is the case with the opening poems of the collection, which describe tornado, earthquake, seaquake and storm at sea as one, compound being:

Sometimes my Lord corners me;
then he imprisons all that I am
under fertile fields – He frustrates me,
condemns me in my might to darkness,
casts me into a cave where my warden, earth,
sits on my back. I cannot break out
of that dungeon, but I shake halls
and houses; the gabled homes of men
tremble and totter; walls quake,
then overhang. Air floats above earth,
and the face of the ocean seems still
until I burst out from my cramped cell
at my Lord’s bidding . . .

(#3, translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Exeter Book Riddles, Penguin, 1979)

Thus the opening trio of riddles also point beyond their own solutions. The anonymous cleric who compiled the manuscript doubtless wanted to invoke the power of the Almighty, but in a manner appropriate to the medium. The people who composed and delighted in these riddles were – as so many of their greatest poems remind us – a seafaring folk for whom the ocean was a source of both joy and terror. A man’s relationship with the sea was very much like his relationship to the divine: one of awe-struck reliance tempered by feeble efforts at propitiation. The storm and earthquake were signs not only of divine power but of the ultimately fluid and changeable nature of the things we take for granted, setting palaces on fire, uprooting forests, swallowing fleets. Earth and ocean are commingled by the elemental power of the Creator/Destroyer.

. . . Spuming crests crash
against the cliff, dark precipice looming
over deep water; a second tide,
a sombre flood, follows the first;
together they fret against the sheer face,
the rocky coast.
(#3)

This sense of awe (which I define as fear leavened by wonder, or vice versa) is a fundamental part of the outlook of all pre-modern cultures of which I am aware. But many civilizations tend to leave it out of their high-culture products. The Germanic cultures of the so-called Dark Ages were unique in producing (or at least writing down) a body of literature that did not reflect merely the refined sensitivities of an urban aristocracy – refinement so often involving a willful insulation from life’s starker and more humbling circumstances.

There is just enough of this poetry preserved to allow us to form a fairly complete picture of how the universe appeared to the ancient Anglo-Saxons. It is interesting to me how much their outlook anticipates what we have come to think of as the unique heritage of the modern era: the worldview of scientific rationalism. The riddles in particular display a fascination with the world as an endless series of puzzles to be solved. But even poems that are not riddles bristle with kennings, the cunning metaphors that were the skaldic poet’s stock-in-trade. Solving one mystery often points simply to further mystery, but this is felt to be a source of delight rather than frustration. Enough of the pagan outlook has survived the general conversion to Christianity to preserve intact the instinct that all things have inherent value, a unique spirit that is capable of saying its own name, of questioning and calling into question.

I’m a strange creature with various voices:
I can bark like a dog, bleat like a goat,
honk like a goose, shriek like a hawk,
at times I imitate the ashen eagle,
the battle-bird’s cry; the vulture’s croak
trips off my tongue, and the mew of a seagull,
as I sit here, saucily . . .

The translator says of this poem (#24) that it bristles with onomatopoeia in the original. (The evident solution is a jay or magpie.) Another bird riddle, one of uncertain solution, in the very last line spells out the connection between animal vocalization and speech: “They name themselves (#57).”

The challenge can be literal:

He who struggles against my strength,
he who dares grapple with me, discovers immediately
that he will hit the hard floor with his back
if he persists,

says the mead (#27).

As the translator points out in his introduction, by and large the makers of these poems stay resolutely focused on the everyday world of working people. “There are riddles about bucket and bellows, churn and key, ale and mead, anchor and plough; riddles about badger and bullock, the swan, the jay, the swallow, the copulating cock and hen; riddles about the sun and moon, and sudden storms, and ice (p.15).” But in fact, all of Creation is a riddle to be solved:

I stretch beyond the bounds of the world,
I’m smaller than a worm, outstrip the sun,
I shine more brightly than the moon. The swelling seas,
the fair face of the earth and all the green fields,
are within my clasp. I cover the depths,
and plunge beneath hell; I ascend above heaven,
highland of renown; I reach beyond
the boundaries of the land of blessed angels.
I fill far and wide all the corners of the earth
and the ocean streams. Say what my name is.

(# 66, in its entirety)

Thus, although these poems are deeply Christian, they very much partake of the conjurer’s art. The world may be full of terrors, but nothing is too great to be encompassed by the skaldic art. Do we have a word for this kind of unveiling, this Adamic naming that still permits the thing so named to unfold its own destines in secret? Again, I can’t help thinking of the modern scientist who knows that all classification schemes are provisional and that theories, wonderful tools as they are, will always fall far short of a comprehensive description of nature. Like #66, #40 – the longest riddle in the manuscript – also assumes the voice of Creation, the ultimate subject (since God cannot be subjected to such a naming). It abounds with paradox:

My age is much older than this circle of earth
or this middle-world could ever attain,
and I was born yesterday – a baby
from my mother’s womb, acclaimed by men.

This is much closer in spirit to something like the Yoruba hymn to Eshu I quoted here a while back than to the allegorical poems of the high Middle Ages, where abstractions in anthropomorphic form utter moralizing lines glorifying the very small wonders of a rigidly hierarchical, perfectly geometric, Ptolemaic universe. I can’t help thinking that it was this latter spirit, nurtured by the pieties and persecutions of the Roman Church, that produced the true Dark Ages, culminating in wars, famines, pogroms, the burning of heretics, witches and herbalists and the conquest of the New World. All of this activity was, if not caused, at leased licensed by the radical devaluation of nature and deracination of reality that still distinguishes European and Euro-American civilization. What happened, sometime around the 11th century, to turn awe into suspicion, even hatred? The names of things, once sources of wonder, became stereotypes. Wild animals – wolves, eagles, stags – turned into object lessons and heraldic emblems. The rich natural imagery of the Bible was universally seen simply as a code, a set of ciphers. For close to 1000 years, no one in the West would climb a mountain for pleasure or write a poem celebrating the power of the storm.

The way of a naturalist

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Idries Shah’s observation that humility is not merely a virtue but a technical requirement points to the deep kinship between authentic self-knowledge and empirical knowledge about the so-called mundane world. (See the quotes from conservation biologist Reed Noss from one of the entries on December 17.) Islamic mathematicians, geographers and scholars of a thousand years ago made much of this kinship, of course; when Western European naturalists picked up the torch half a millennium later, however, initial allegiance to a kind of decayed theosophy quickly faded. For whatever reason, the greatest revolution in human thinking the world had ever seen bequeathed to us the modern view of a universe in which almost everything is dead, inert, or at best robotic. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, the majority of behaviorists continue to assert that only humans possess “consciousness” (continually redefined to exclude other species that are strongly suspected to dream, anticipate, mourn the dead, experience joy, etc.). Even fellow humans can be shown to operate mostly on the basis of self-centered urges and instincts. It is commonplace to speak of DNA as “programming” – never mind that this completely ignores the role of chance (or God, if you prefer) in shaping all outcomes.

Originally an elite, minority view, this way of looking at the world has become dominant even among those who consider themselves to be most in revolt against modernism (or postmodernism, which is a fairly undistinguished offshoot in my opinion). “Scientific creationism” is an obvious example. But I would go even further: I don’t believe there’s any evidence that literalistic interpretations of religious texts and traditions held any sway before the modern era. Yet today such interpretations are at the root of a worldwide phenomenon – religious fundamentalism – and it isn’t hard to see why. Humans are an intensely visually oriented species; the overwhelming material and technical elaboration of modern societies and the raw power that that confers adds up to an argument that is extremely difficult for the adherents of more traditional worldviews to confront head-on. Even without the direct experience of conquest and slavery or debt-peonage, folks living more-or-less contentedly for centuries on subsistence and gift economies now suddenly understand themselves to be impoverished. Lacking. Inadequate and inferior. (Helena Norberg-Hodge writes movingly about observing this process in the kingdom of Ladakh, where India has been the direct source of the modernist malaise, in her book Ancient Futures.)

A generation or so later, the reaction sets in. But power once gained is difficult to give up, and where the modernist project is concerned that power is expressed in stark, shameless reductionism. The world is nothing more than a grab-bag of resources to be exploited for human use; human beings are nothing more than consumers/taxpayers/voters whose well-being derives ultimately from adequate access to resources. Fundamentalists – be they Christian, Muslim, Ultra-Orthodox Jewish, Hindus, even American Indian – in asserting the validity of their own traditions, attempt to exploit the power of reductionism rather than to challenge its primacy. (They are after all reactionaries, not radicals.) The materialist’s simple-minded dichotomy opposing objective, concrete reality to subjective, imaginary interpretation – “just the facts” vs. “just a myth” – has already insinuated itself into their thoughts and their language.

But all this has been a digression from what was to have been my main topic today. I want to look at a few of the ways in which a modern scientist might cultivate what a Sufi (or Zennist, or Christian mystic) would recognize as authentic ways of knowing. Our guide will be the late Lawrence Kilham.

Lawrence Kilham was a distinguished virologist who also wrote extensively about woodpeckers and crows for the ornithological journals. He is a relatively rare example of a laboratory scientist who also honored – and employed – the skills of a field naturalist. (As most readers are probably aware, the culture of modern science fetishizes laboratory work and, even more, the ‘pure’ theoretics of physics; biologists who engage in such lowly tasks as observation and systematics are near the bottom of the totem pole, along with anthropologists and other unworthy aspirants to the testosterone-charged arenas of Pure or Hard Science.) In the introduction to The American Crow and the Common Raven (Texas A&M Press, 1989), Kilham discusses the kinds of intellectual tools necessary for the scientific enterprise, mostly by quoting others. (Honoring the chain of transmission, as a Sufi might say.) Here, in quoting Kilham, where he simply lists author and date in parentheses, I’ll include the titles of the works referenced.

“‘Each scientist,’ wrote Agnes Arbor (The Mind and the Eye, 1954), ‘should be able to say to himself, like Descartes, that his intention is to build upon a foundation that is all his own.’ This may seem difficult when one is starting out, but it is the only way likely to be enjoyable. There is no such thing as one scientific method that all must follow (J.B. Conant, Two Modes of Thought, 1964). As Nietzsche said of philosophy, ‘This is my way. What is yours? As for the way, there is no such thing.’ Each must find or invent techniques best suited for his individual approach.’ . . .

“Preferring to be a free agent, I have always shunned the idea, whether with birds or viruses, of starting with a hypothetical problem and sticking to it. The challenge is to get from the known to the unknown. Almost any problem can set the wheels in motion. But once under way, I know I can do best by observing all that birds do, taking notes, then reviewing and reflecting on them when I get home. Persisting in this pedestrian fashion I find that something exciting almost always turns up. It is the chance discovery that makes science exciting. As [Konrad] Lorenz (Studies in Animal and Human Behavior, 1970) states in a chapter entitled ‘Companions as Factors in the Bird’s Environment,’ ‘The factual data upon which all of the following investigations are based derived almost entirely from chance observation.’ The chance experiment, he thinks, assures an impartial observer freedom from any initial hypothesis. I have long found such ideas congenial. They echo Louis Pasteur’s dictum, enshrined at the Harvard Medical School . . . that ‘chance favors the prepared mind.’
(Kilham, The American Crow and the Common Raven, 5-6. Emphasis mine.)

Whether in the lab or in the field, Kilham preferred to keep it simple: “I like to work with a minimum of apparatus,” he admits, and quotes Rousseau: “The more ingenious and accurate our instruments, the more unsusceptible and inexpert become our organs: by assembling a heap of machinery about us, we find afterwards none in ourselves.”

For behavioral studies in particular, Kilham says, “All one needs is a pair of field glasses, a notepad, and an open mind. One cannot, at least I cannot, study bird behavior and be occupied with a complicated piece of apparatus. Observing is a full-time occupation. You have to have your mind on what you are doing. Important bits of behavior – a copulation, a glimpse of a passing predator, or something new and unexpected – can take place in seconds. If one’s mind is on a camera, wondering how to get a good picture, one’s mind is not on what a bird is doing; being a good photographer is also a full-time occupation.” And he goes on to describe how one attempt to bring a tape recorder into the field caused him to miss a distressing amount of crow behavior.

“If one concentrates on producing a statistically sound publication, one may overlook much of what the birds are doing. Emphasis will be on covering as many nests or pairs as possible. But in trying to study birds as whole, living entities, noting everything they do, I find that two pairs of woodpeckers or, with crows, two cooperatively breeding groups, is the maximum I can study effectively. I am committed to this approach and thus feel that simple narration, or an anecdotal style, is the soundest way of presenting how animals live.” (Ibid, 7)

One problem with his kind of approach finding a wider acceptance among scientists, Kilham recognizes, is the mechanistic biases of the reigning “scientific” worldview. He quotes the ornithologist Olas Murie, who complained in a 1962 journal article that “we are extremely timid about assigning to other animals any of the mental or psychological traits of man. One would think that the scientist is the perfect fundamentalist, carefully maintaining a wall between man and other animals.”

The problem is that individual observations are hard to quantify. Even the most fascinating or tantalizing observation is likely to be dismissed by the worshippers of Hardness and Purity as anecdotal. Kilham again quotes Lorenz to the effect that the supposed centrality of quantitifiable methods is “one of the dangerous half-truths which fashion is prone to accept.” “The fallacy,” Kilham adds, “is what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead referred to as ‘the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.'” He quotes a biologist named Donald Griffin, who thinks that the mechanistic view of nature is in error not only “because it belittles the value of animals, but because it leads us to a seriously incomplete and misleading picture of reality.”

After a paragraph on statistics and its lack of utility in either of the disciplines which formed his life-work, Kilham concludes, “There is much that is enjoyable in thinking for oneself and studying birds in one’s own way. Few seem to realize that even an ordinary person can make discoveries. The hitch is, as Polanyi (The Study of Man, 1959) pointed out, that ‘you cannot discover or invent anything unless you are convinced that it is there ready to be found. The recognition of this hidden presence is in fact half the battle. It means that you have hit on a real problem and are asking the right questions.’ This book is mainly an account of my search for the ‘hidden presence’ in crows and ravens. There has been no magic involved. Only the thousands of hours of watching, none of which has been dull.” (Ibid, 9-10. Emphasis added.)

We might argue with Kilham’s limited definition of magic, but never mind. The immense significance attached to birds in many different cultures is another topic to reserve for fuller treatment some other time. But I can’t resist closing once again with the motto to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (invoked also in one of the foundational entries for this weblog):

How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?

Death takes a holiday

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the breakdown

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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

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

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

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

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

On the other hand

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Stephen Dunn is one of the luminaries of what I like to think of as the Wisdom School of modern North American poetry. He lives and teaches in New Jersey, and is the quintessential secular humanist. His recent book Riffs and Reciprocities: Prose Pairs (Norton, 1998) is a very interesting experiment in poetic thinking. As is typical of the prose poetry genre, the pieces in this book are short, playful and involve many interesting leaps. What’s new is the call-and-response method of composition. That is to say, each poem or “riff” summons a “reciprocity,” which is usually not quite and often not at all the expected opposite. For example, faces calls up bodies; passion, paradox; fog, luminescence.

In this manner, the reader gets to sample linked thoughts that indulge themselves in all the contradictory messiness of ordinary, healthy thinking, albeit raised to a higher level of gracefulness and precision. (Hmmm, grace and precision, now . . . ) Thus, the book as a whole constitutes a very subtle attack on binary thinking. Highly recommended, like almost all the books I cite on this site (why would I waste my time otherwise?).

In fact, you’ll really have to track down a copy of the book if you want to see what I’m talking about. Not only would reproducing a whole pair be more than I want to risk here, but without the option of facing pages, this medium wouldn’t do it any justice. But since the scroll-like weblog page seems to favor chains of apothegms, let me at least include a few short excerpts. In each case except the fourth (“Acceptance”), the quote includes the ending of that particular piece. While this may distort by implying more finality than the full context would permit, I hope it conveys some sense of the balance and symmetry at work here. (Perhaps we can we think of each quote as one hand clapping?)

from Cynicism (p. 100):
“What do we value? What do we love? A skeptic is no one’s favorite lover, but I can’t help thinking as a skeptic might. I love what’s left after love has been tested. I value the doubt that gets the scientist to the solution. When a skeptic meets a cynic on the street: ‘Nice day, so far,’ the skeptic says. The cynic has to think about that.”

from Indifference (105):
“There’s evidence of life in hatefulness, which is why indifference, not hate, is the opposite of love. Between lovers, what’s worse than a shrug? . . . For those regulars of indifference, to whom so little matters, some synapse between brain and society has snapped, some link between hearts and other hearts. They are beyond hurt, these masters of distance, they don’t permit themselves the sweetness of the tragic world.”

from Religion (27):
“I’m saying this to myself: the sacred cannot be found unless you give up some old version of it. And when you do, mon semblable, mon frere, I swear there’ll be an emptiness it’ll take a lifetime to fill. Indulge, become capricious, give up nothing, Jack my corner grocer said. He was pushing the portobellos, but I was listening with that other, my neediest ear.”

from Acceptance (111):
“And then the expansion of what personal means: another person’s tragedy, a country’s collapse. The larger the personal becomes the greater our helplessness. Better to be furious at one thing, become radiant with purpose. Better to love links and rhythms than all-embracing answers.”

from Erasure (77):
“Any fictionist knows that one event, even if poorly executed, can make another happen, the slightest authenticity creating a path to the hidden. One way to revise: erase something, erase something else, see what’s left standing, then see if it deserves companions. Total erasure makes sense too, a grand cleaning up after the misconceived party, a starting over with a better nothing. The eros of beginnings! Yet even then, who doesn’t desire to leave a trail, barely followable, or dream of being properly found by someone who might exquisitely look and care?”