Longing (3): Butterfly

Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.

Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”

*

Late morning. I’ve just polished off what I hope are the last re-writes to “Longing (2)” when the intercom buzzes: a phone call. When I go up to my parents’ house, the place is rockin’. Mom’s playing that darn loud music on her kitchen stereo again! I take the call upstairs in her study. It’s my friend Jo, wondering if I’ll be able to attend the Yusuf Komunyakaa reading at Penn State next Friday night. The whole time we’re on the phone, I can hear my mom’s rich mezzo-soprano, singing along with Madama Butterfly – the old RCA Victor recording with Leontyne Price and Richard Tucker.

When I come downstairs, I poke my head in the kitchen. It’s well into Act III. I think they’re at the part where Butterfly is desperately clinging to her last shred of hope.

È qui, è qui . . . . dove è nascosto? (He’s here, he’s here . . . where is he hiding?)

Mom’s mincing onions; her eyes are wet but she’s grinning. “I just love this, it’s so beautiful!” she enthuses. “I keep thinking, ‘You poor girl, why you don’t realize what a bastard he is?'”

*

George R. Farek, in an essay included in the liner notes, “The Failure and Success of Butterfly”:

These frail, fragile creatures, these unheroic heroines who, loving wholly, are wholly broken by love, these are the ones who fired Puccini’s mind. . . .

Puccini did not seek to storm the heavens. His music lives not on a mountain top but in a small house, in the case of Butterfly a very small house with sliding walls, rented for nine hundred and ninety-nine years with the privilege of cancellation at any time. Here the composer was at home, here he could express, in a language of incomparable sensitiveness, the romantic pulse of his heart. . . . To be inspired, he had to, as he himself said, fall in love with his Mimìs and Liùs, and we may take him at his word when he tells us he loved Cio-Cio-San more than any other of his women.

The literary possibilities of the mysterious East were being discovered at the turn of the century and Puccini was aware of it. To the romancers Japan was a country exclusively inhabited by people of refinement where every man’s thoughts were subtle and every woman bowed low in sweet submission. Novels and stories with a Japanese locale abounded and its art was influencing European art, particularly the work of the French impressionists and Whistler. The public, to quote Bunthorne in Patience, longed for all one sees that’s Japanese.

*

Have you ever gone to an opera performance and wondered about the musicians, playing this heart-rending music night after night in darkness down in the pit? When at last they stand and turn, bowing, you applaud as if for fellow audience members who have done an especially fine job of cheering, driving the performers to new, impossible heights of emotion.

Kate Light is the award-winning author of two books of highly urbane poems in the neo-formalist mode, The Laws of Falling Bodies and Open Slowly. She works as a violinist for the New York City Opera. Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting her and attending a reading she gave at Penn State. Given the formidable learning on display in her poems, I was surprised by how unpretentious she was – basically still an ebullient, down-to-earth Midwesterner despite her years of residence in New York. In physical appearance, she rather resembles that Puccini-esque ideal – small, delicate-featured – but the voice in her poems, most of which deal with love in some form, is very wise and anything but fragile.

One of the poems she read that night, a villanelle called “After the Season,” deals directly with her feelings for the characters onstage at the opera. By way of introduction, Light said something like, “Can you imagine what it is like to witness the same tragic errors night after night and feel powerless to stop them?” Yes, of course we can: it is at the root of every opera lover’s longing, the thing, more than anything else, that inspires that lovely throb in the throat.

. . . I am making madness sane, setting prisoners free,
cooling the consumptive cheek, the fevered glow.
Do not talk to me just now; let me be.

Pinkerton and Butterfly make such a happy
couple; Violetta has five gardens now to show …
I am reuniting all the lovers, fishing the drowned from the sea . . .

Please read the complete poem, which appears in her second book, Open Slowly.

*

I remember reading, years ago, about the initial reaction to Western opera among Japanese. It was sometime in the early Meiji era, not long after Japan’s forced opening by Admiral Perry’s black ships. Someone – let’s say the American ambassador – had invited a number of dignitaries to his residence to hear a recital by a well-regarded Italian soprano. The Japanese listened politely as long as they could, but finally they couldn’t take it any more and burst out laughing. The distance between this aesthetic and those governing Japan’s own operatic traditions, Kabuki and Noh, was simply too great.

For years, as a one-time student of Noh dance, I was unable to appreciate Western opera myself. It’s odd, isn’t it, that the same basic emotions – longing and pathos – can give rise to such starkly contrasting aesthetic ideals. Or are they the same emotions? To suppose that they are assumes that such refined feelings can exist independently of the cultures that shape their expression . . .

At any rate, according the liner notes, something similar – and far more disastrous – happened at the world premiere of Butterfly, at La Scala in Milan, on February 17, 1904.

As the gentle chirping of birds was heard, the audience answered: they barked like dogs, burst into cock-a-doodle-doos of roosters, brayed like asses, and mooed like cows as if – [the lead soprano, Rosina] Storchio said – dawn in Japan was taking place in Noah’s Ark. Nothing after that failed to strike the audience as funny. The final scene, the preparation for the suicide and the suicide itself, was heard in comparative quiet, but when the curtain fell, Butterfly ended amidst laughter and derogatory shouts. There were no curtain calls, not a single one.

For a native Italian audience, such a reaction seems inexplicable. Although I confess I’m not a huge fan of Puccini’s music, as I read about this fiasco last night, I found my eyes tearing up with sympathy. And one can’t help but admire his decisiveness and resourcefulness in the face of such humiliation, canceling all scheduled performances, paying off La Scala, withdrawing the score, revising the opera a bit, and finally, on the 28th of May, premiering the revised version in the nearby town of Brescia – an unmitigated triumph. This sensitive and reclusive man, who had little use for heroic male roles in his own works, rose magnificently to the occasion in the service of his fiction, his beloved Butterfly.

*

Why “Butterfly”? The answer seems obvious: butterflies are delicate, ephemeral creatures, easily blown astray by the storms of fate. Then, too, they can symbolize transformative realization, though I’m not sure to what extent Puccini might have been thinking along those lines. Given his penchant for Orientalism, however, he must have read a version of Zhuangzi’s famous parable about dreaming he was a butterfly, then waking to wonder if perhaps instead he himself were merely the dream of a butterfly. Certainly the composer wished to convey a sense of dream-like insubstantiality about the existence of women like Cio-Cio-San, and he had read enough about Japanese aesthetics to understand the value accorded impermanence there.

The literalist in me wonders, though: are butterflies really so helpless? In light of current knowledge, should we perhaps stop thinking of butterflies this way?

As luck would have it, just this morning my mother lent me a copy of the Fall 2004 issue of Hawk Mountain News, which carries her article “Amazing Monarchs.” Yes, of course monarch butterflies are vulnerable to habitat destruction – no less than jaguars or polar bears. But otherwise they seem, collectively, quite resilient, as suggested by their rapid rebound from the massive die-off caused by freezing rain in January 2002. Individually, too, these insects defy human expectations. Individuals weighing just half a gram fly 2,000 miles to a very circumscribed destination they have never seen in central Mexico, over-winter there, and then travel as far north as the southern U.S. the next spring before mating and dying. Just how they manage to navigate is still a hotly contested issue among scientists.

The inter-migrational generations are certainly ephemeral, though being suckled exclusively on milkweed milk makes them nearly invulnerable to predation.

In their summer territory, which includes most of North America, adult monarchs live from two to six weeks. The cycle begins in mid-June, when monarchs can be observed coupling, flying high in the air, abdomen to abdomen. In Pennsylvania, three or four generations are produced each summer.

After mating, the female lays between 630 and 1,260 minute, golden eggs over a 30-day period on the undersides of tender, young milkweed leaves, the exclusive food source for the monarch larvae. Soon after the female lays her eggs, both the adult male and female will die.

A while back I wrote a strange poem about butterflies, based on – yes – a dream I had in which I thought I was a mourning cloak. The mourning cloak and its relative the Compton’s tortoiseshell are the earliest butterflies to emerge in spring, because, unlike the monarchs, they don’t migrate, but over-winter right here. In the dream, I pursued an illicit, inter-species affair with a deeply feminine Compton’s. I awoke feeling an immense sadness and longing, and decided to try and translate that feeling into poetry.

The result was probably, I fear, a bit obscure. I chose the title “Brushfoot,” an allusion to the genus that includes both species, but this is a little misleading since one of the other species mentioned in the poem, the red admiral, is also a brushfoot. Now I’m thinking perhaps I should keep it simple and go with “Butterfly.” It’s currently the opening poem in my manuscript Capturing the Hive – one of three insect poems in that collection – but now I’m wondering if it wasn’t kind of dumb to lead off with such a potentially obscure poem.

Butterfly

I said you, you, until my tongue curled up.
You the delectable pair of antennae,
bright shard
of a tortoise shell
& I in my mourning cloak,
waiting all winter in the form of a dead leaf.
When the warm weather came it didn’t stay,
the new leaves were roused out of their buds
& punished by frost after frost.

The spring ephemerals held
a solid month: bloodroot, mitrewort,
hepatica, Solomon’s seal.
Clouds of pollen filmed our mirrored glasses.
At length the hotter sun conspired
with the encroaching shade
to do away with indeterminacy:
lost spot where we used to meet,
where our tastes coincided,
now & again overlapped.

Our fling appalled
the guardians of natural order, for whom
the world belongs to the young, thrills
to the mastery of monarchs,
the rakish esprit of admirals–all
those that glide from bank
to bank of ranker weeds,
those that soar.
So far from you whose genius it is to flit.

*

Whatever the merit of Puccini’s other guesses about Japan, he wasn’t wrong about the premium placed on childlike fragility in traditional Japanese notions about feminine desirability. I remember how shocked I was back in 1985 when I first arrived in Japan, got on a bus and heard the hyper-feminized voice in the recordings announcing each stop. At the time, this was an ideal that unmarried Japanese women still sought to approximate. After marriage, however, they often underwent a transformation scarcely less astonishing than that of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. Especially after the birth of their first child, women’s voices deepened with authority as they assumed full responsibility for the economic management of the household. Their bodies filled out, once-delicate limbs turning into daikon no ashi, as popular wisdom had it: legs like Japanese radishes, sturdy white columns of pungent flesh.

I gather that Japan has undergone something of a feminist revolution in the two decades since. When I was there, the subject of women’s liberation came up frequently when I talked with co-eds at the college I attended. “American women need liberation more than we do,” they would insist, appealing to a widespread stereotype. “They’re so weak! They have to ask their husbands for money!”

*

The anonymous 12th-century manuscript Tsutsumi Chunagon Monogatari has been called the world’s oldest collection of short stories. Its stories display a concern, unusual for the late Heian period, with the bizarrely comic. They parody the affectations and pretensions of Heian literature with an effect rather like laughter at the performance of a tragic opera.

The most famous of these stories, “The Lady Who Loved Insects,” finds comedy in the affairs of a young, would-be naturalist. Here’s how it begins:

Next door to the lady who loved butterflies was the house of a certain Provincial Inspector. He had an only daughter, to whose upbringing he and his wife devoted endless care. She was a strange girl, and used to say: “Why do people make so much fuss about butterflies and never give a thought to the creatures out of which butterflies grow? It is the Natural Form of things that is always the most important.” She collected all kinds of reptiles and insects such as most people are frightened to touch, and watched them day by day to see what they would turn into, keeping them in various sorts of little boxes and cages. Among these creatures her favourite was the common caterpillar. Hour after hour, her hair pushed back from her eyes, she would sit gazing at the furry black form that nestled in the palm of her hand. She found that other girls were frightened of these pets, and her only companions were a number of rather rough little boys, who were not in the least afraid. She got them to carry about the insect-boxes, find out the name of the insects or, if this could not be done, help her give them new names.

She hated anything that was not natural. Consequently she would not pluck a single hair from her eyebrows nor would she blacken her teeth, saying it was a dirty and disagreeable custom. So morning, noon and night she tended her insects, bending over them with a strange, white gleaming-smile. People on the whole were frightened of her and kept away; the few who ventured to approach her came back with the strangest reports. If anyone showed the slightest distaste for her pets, she would ask him indignantly how he could give way to so silly and vulgar a prejudice, and as she said this she would stare at the visitor under her black, bushy eyebrows in a way that made him extremely uncomfortable.

Her parents thought all this very peculiar and would much rather she had been more like other children; but they saw it was no use arguing with her. She for her part took immense trouble in explaining her ideas, but this only resulted in making them feel that she was much cleverer than they. “No doubt,” they would say, “all you tell us is quite true, and so far as we are concerned you may do as you please. But people as a rule only make pets of charming and pretty things. If it gets about that you keep hairy caterpillars you will be thought a disgusting girl and no one will want to know you.” “I do not mind what they think,” she answered. “I want to inquire into everything that exists and find out how it began. Nothing else interests me. And it is very silly of them to dislike caterpillars, all of which will soon turn into lovely butterflies.” Then she again explained to them carefully how the cocoon, which is like the thick winter clothes that human beings wear, wraps up the caterpillar till its wings have grown and it is ready to be a butterfly. Then it suddenly waves its white sleeves and flits away. . . .

(Arthur Waley, tr., in Madly Singing in the Mountains: An Appreciation of Arthur Waley, Ivan Morris, ed., Creative Arts Book Company, 1981)

The rest of the story, which purports to be the first scroll from a lost novel, records the archly sarcastic poems and practical jokes sent her way by other young ladies and two pretend suitors. A woman who thinks for herself, ha ha. Scientific curiosity about the natural world – how unfeminine and absurd.

But the portrait itself is so compelling, so realistic and so true to type, for anyone who has ever read about the lives of female naturalists in our own society, it’s hard not to feel that it was based on some real person. I’m reminded of the 18th- and 19th-century pioneering women naturalists portrayed in my mother’s book, Women in the Field. At the thought of this long-ago, misunderstood woman, the butt of jokes, the model for an unflattering literary portrait probably circulated widely among the sophisticated young men and women of Kyoto’s incestuous elite, I feel a familiar catch in my throat. Ah, if only . . .

Longing (2): the hidden country

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Longing: Anthology and Meditation

 

Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.

Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”

*

The first text I want to present here today consists of an extended passage from the Kojiki, or Records of Ancient Matters, compiled by order of the Japanese imperial court and completed in 712 A.D. (Donald L. Philippi, tr., University of Tokyo Press, 1968).

After the death of the emperor, the crown prince Ki-Nasi-no-Karu was to have assumed the sun-lineage; but before he ascended the throne, he seduced his younger sister Karu-no-Opo-Iratume, singing this song:

Making a mountain paddy,
Because the mountain is high,
An irrigation pipe is run
Underneath the ground, secretly –

My beloved, whom I have visited
With secret visits;
My spouse, for whom I have wept
With a secret weeping –

Tonight at last
I caress her body with ease.


This is Sirage-Uta [a song ending in a raised pitch; or possibly, a song in the style of the ancient kingdom of Silla, on the Korean peninsula].

Also he sang these songs:

The hail beats down
On the bamboo grass
Sounding
tasi-dasi [i.e., “to the full”] –
After sleeping with her to the full,
Then, even if she leaves me . . .
[or, “Then, even if people try to separate us . . . ]

*

With each other as beloved,
If only we sleep together,
Then, even if we are separated
Like threshed reeds, let us be separated [or “disheveled”] –
If only we sleep together.


These are Pina-Buri no Age-Uta [songs in the rustic style with elevated pitch and/or sentiment].

For this reason the various officials as well as all the people in the kingdom turned against Prince Karu and adhered to [his brother] Anapo-no-Miko.

Prince Karu flees, taking refuge at the palace of an ally. But when Anapo-no-Miko arrives with his army, this supposed ally turns the fugitive over to them, accompanied by appropriate songs (uta). (Presumably acknowledging the semi-divine character of the future emperor, the Kojiki describes the nobleman “lifting up his arms and hitting his thighs . . . dancing and singing.”)

When he was captured, the crown prince sang this song:

O sky-flying
Karu maiden –
Should I cry loudly,
People would know.
Like the pigeons
On Pasa Mountain,
I cry secretly.


Again he sang:

O sky-flying
Karu maiden:
Come hither secretly,
Sleep here and then go your way,
O Karu maiden!


Prince Karu was exiled to the hot springs of Iyo. When about to go into exile he sang this song:

The sky-flying
Birds are also messengers.
When you hear
The cry of the crane,
Ask my name of it.


These three songs are Amada-Buri [Field of Heaven songs].

“Sky-flying” is a conventional epithet for “Karu,” based on the homology with kari, wild geese.

The translator elsewhere notes that, in ancient Japanese religion, birds were credited with the power of revitalizing a person and/or in transporting the spirit. Also, Japanese believed until quite recently that a living person’s spirit could manifest itself in more than one location at the same time. Thus, I suppose, it wouldn’t have been necessary for the prince to have died in order for a crane to transport something of his name/spirit/essence back to the yearning princess. At any rate, the birds are more like avatars than passive messengers here.

Then he sang this song:

If the great lord
Is exiled to an island,
There are ships [or “burial caskets”]
By which I may return.
Leave my sitting-mat alone!
Although I speak
Of sitting-mats, I really mean:
Leave my wife alone!


This song is Pina-Buri no Kata-Orosi [song in a rustic style with a half-descending pitch].

This song has the force of a spell. Prince Karu is threatening to come back from beyond the grave, a threat that would have been taken very seriously. Philippi notes that “the sitting mats of travelers were carefully kept at home and preserved from pollution during their absence in order to ensure their safe return.”

So-Toposi-no-Miko [i.e., Princess Karu] presented a song; the song said:

Oh, do not go, lest you tread
On the oyster shells
On the beach of Apine
Of the summer grass –
Spend the night and return in the morning!

Philippi: “The place name Apine may also mean ‘sleep together.'”

Then later, overwhelmed by her feeling, she went after him. At the time she sang this song:

Since you have set out,
Many days have passed.
Like the
yama-tadu [elderberry] tree,
I will go in search of you;
I can no longer wait.

Since the text itself interrupts the narrative to comment on poetics, perhaps it’s O.K. if I do the same? These – like the first song attributed to the Princess – are both borrowed wholesale from the oral tradition; the last exists in a slightly different version, with different attribution, in the Manyoshu. (Like many of these songs, it employs a device called a pillow-word: a conventional simile based on a homophonal relationship, i.e., a cross between a pun and a metaphor.)

When she caught up with him, he had been waiting and yearning for her, and he sang this song:

On Mount Patuse
Of the hidden country,
On the large ridges
Are erected banners,
On the small ridges
Are erected banners.

As upon a large ridge,
Do you rely upon our troth,
Ah, my beloved spouse.

Like a Tuki bow
Reclining,
Like an Adusa bow
Standing up –

Later, I shall hold you close,
Ah, my beloved spouse!

Philippi notes, “. . . Komoru, ‘to conceal oneself’ . . . might be interpreted here as ‘to hide within the tomb.’ Patuse is known as an ancient burial place. Banners were set up in religious ceremonies and funerals.”

Again he sang this song:

On the river of Patuse
Of the hidden country,
In the upper shallows
A sacred post was staked,
In the lower shallows
A true post was staked.

On the sacred post
Was hung a mirror,
On the true post
Was hung a jewel.

My beloved,
Who is to me as a mirror,
My spouse,
Who is to me as a jewel –

Only if I hear
That she is there,
Do I wish to go home,
Do I yearn for my country.


Thus singing, they committed suicide together.

These two songs are Yomi-Uta [“reading songs,” probably meaning they were chanted with little inflection].

The actions described in the first and second stanzas of this final song have strong theurgic connotations, perhaps evoking rites to cleanse oneself of the pollution of death. Prince Karu is singing a song of conjuration to his wife/sister/mirror, collapsing the present into the immediate future of their death, and the wild country around them into the other world’s back-of-beyond. (Philippi cites a Japanese scholar who “believes this [song] was originally a prayer for safety during a journey.”)

If I quote at such length, risking copyright infringement, it is only because I suspect that the Kojiki is not nearly as well known as it should be among fans of world literature. The translation available on the Internet, by Basil Hall Chamberlain, is painful to read, both for its stilted language and its lack of scholarship. Many of the songs are extremely difficult to translate, so Donald Philippi’s expertise is indispensible. (In addition to his translation of the Kojiki, I highly recommend Philippi’s This Wine of Peace, This Wine of Laughter: A Complete Anthology of Japan’s Earliest Songs [Mushinsha, 1968].)

As Philippi observes, the Prince and Princess Karu story provides “the earliest documentary evidence of the double suicides that so enlivened the stage during the Edo period” a thousand years later. “In fact, the theatre-conscious commentator Nakajima [Etsuji] even claims that this chapter reflects a rudimentary dramatic performance.” I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. In addition, their song exchange prefigures the widespread practice of frequent poem exchanges between friends and lovers that so shaped literary expression during the Heian Period.

The contrast with the Biblical story about the rape of Tamar by her brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13) is striking. Stylistically, they couldn’t be farther apart. In its psychological depth, the entire David cycle resembles a modern novel, while the Prince and Princess Karu story anticipates the poetic profundity of later monogatari. And despite similar openings, the two stories diverge quite widely. Amnon experiences revulsion the moment he has consummated his passion for his sister, and sends her rudely away. The real, enduring longing in that story is revealed at the very end of the chapter, after Amnon is murdered by his brother Absolom in retaliation: “So Absalom fled, and went to Geshur, and was there three years. And the soul of king David longed to go forth unto Absalom: for he was comforted concerning Amnon, seeing he was dead.”

For me, the story from the Kojiki perfectly encapsulates that special sense of longing for unattainable and/or transient beauty that permeates Japanese literature, from the elegies and laments of Kakinomoto no Hitomaru through the great Heian Period poets and novelists such as Ono no Komachi and Lady Murasaki, to the Heike Monogatari and even some of the works of famous monk-poets such as Saigyo, Basho and Ryokan, not to mention the dramas of Seami and Chickamatsu. Donald Keene, the most prolific English-language translator and critic of Japanese literature, put it this way:

Beyond the preference for simplicity and the natural qualities of things lies what is perhaps the most distinctively Japanese aesthetic ideal, perishability. The desire in the West has generally been to achieve artistic immortality, and this has led men to erect monuments in deathless marble. . . . The Japanese have built for impermanence, though paradoxically some of the oldest buildings in the world exist in Japan . . . . Whatever the subject matter of the old poems, the underlying meaning was often an expression of grief over the fragility of beauty and love. Yet the Japanese were keenly aware that without this mortality there could be no beauty.
(Landscapes and Portraits: Appreciations of Japanese Culture, Kodansha, 1971)

Pathos, like other emotions, can best be gotten at through indirection: the blank spaces on the landscape painting no less than the words not uttered outright in a poem are essential to draw the viewer, listener or reader in. The animist mindset of Shinto helped focus poets’ attention on particularities, on the possibilities for sudden illumination inherent in a beautiful detail, long before the introduction of Zen Buddhism. Among the things to which autonomy and spiritual power were attributed, place names, personal names and all other poetic words occupied a prominent position. As the preface to the 9th-century anthology Kokinshu put it:

Japanese poetry has its seeds in the human heart, and takes form in the countless leaves that are words. So much happens to us while we live in this world that we must voice the thoughts that are in our hearts, conveying them through the things we see and the things we hear. We hear the bush warbler singing in the flowers or the voice of frogs that live in the water and know that among all living creatures there is not one that does not have its song. It is poetry that, without exerting force, can move heaven and earth, wake the feelings of the unseen gods and spirits, soften the relations between man and woman, and soothe the heart of the fierce warrior.

(Burton Watson, tr., in From the Country of Eight Islands, Doubleday, 1981)

Out of the countless expressions of this uniquely Japanese take on longing that I could cite from the modern era, let me round off this post with two poems by Takamura Kotaro. Takamura was a sculptor – the son of a carver of Buddhist images – and one of the first 20th-century poets to write successfully in the vernacular. Some of his most memorable poems are those he wrote for and about his common-law wife and fellow artist Chieko, chronicling their three-decade-long relationship from first meeting through her eventual, chronic insanity and death.

Both these poems are translated by Hiroaki Sato, from Chieko and Other Poems of Takamura Kotaro (University Press of Hawaii, 1980).

Chieko Playing With Flowers


Where there is no one on the sands of Kojukuri
Sitting on the sand Chieko plays alone.
Innumerable friends call to Chieko.
Chii, chii, chii, chii, chii
Leaving tiny footprints in the sand,
plovers come near her.
Chieko who is always talking to herself
raises both hands to call them.
Chii, chii, chii
Plovers beg for the shells in her hands.
Chieko scatters them here and there.
Rising up in a flock the plovers call Chieko.
Chii, chii, chii, chii, chii
Leaving off entirely the task of being human,
now having passed into the natural world
Chieko seems just a speck.
Some two hundred yards off in the windbreak, in the evening sun
bathed in pine pollen I stand, forgetting time.

*

Invaluable Chieko

Chieko sees what one cannot see,
hears what one cannot hear.

Chieko goes where one cannot go,
does what one cannot do.

Chieko does not see the living me,
yearns for the me behind me.

Chieko has cast off the weight of suffering,
has strayed out to the endless, desolate zone of beauty.

I persistently hear her call to me, but
Chieko no longer has a ticket to the human world.

Just as I prepare to post, I hear the cries of wild geese overhead, invisible in the thick fog.

Spell: against the moving of mountains

(For what it’s worth, this is Via Negativa’s 500th post.)

The spell says everything connects. Though sometimes I long for a little more randomness in events, you know? Without mere chance, without the notion that the mind can somehow lift itself above the web of causality and inference, where might true autonomy be found?

Dale’s had some interesting things to say lately about the illusory nature of individual autonomy. I alighted on his site mole last night before bed and read a really evocative essay on rain, the nearly endless rain of winter in the Pacific Northwest. This put me in mind of Jorge Teillier with his rain- and nostalgia-drenched poems from his childhood in the south of Chile, and I thought I might start the morning with him.

And so I do. It’s raining here, of course – the remnants of Hurricane Ivan – and I’m sitting on the front porch with my morning coffee and a copy of the bilingual In Order to Talk with the Dead: Selected Poems of Jorge Teillier, translated by Carolyn Wright (University of Texas Press, 1993). I open the book at random, and the first lines I come to are these:

Ruega por mí­, reloj,
en estas horas monótonas como ronroneos de gatos.

Pray for me, clock,
in these hours monotonous as the purring of cats.

And this brings to mind a dream-image from a few hours before: a crate full of purring kittens, each packed carefully away like fine china among rags and crumpled newspapers. I remember setting the crate down on the hardwood floor here in my writing room and lying down next to it, pressing my ear to the floorboards to listen to the loud hum from all that purring.

In reality, of course, it’s my old computer that sits on the floor and hums like a dozen cats. Cats upon cats! It seems as if this computer, the worldwide web and the endless chain of felines at the Infinite Cat Project have begun to blend together in my subconscious.

There was another animal in my dreams, too: a little black bull that ran slow figure eights, trying to escape a matador. But somehow the scene shifted from Spain to Great Britain, prompted perhaps by news of Parliament’s debate over outlawing foxhunts. The bull became not quite a fox but something like a wild boar, I think, and the matador turned into a picador with a sword, then a hunter with a rifle, who walked casually behind the wounded, staggering animal with the barrel almost touching its hide. Why didn’t he shoot?

In Order to Talk with the Dead doesn’t seem to fit my mood this morning – I guess I’m looking for gravity more than nostalgia – so I go back inside and pull a volume of Charles Wright off the shelf: Appalachia (FSG, 1998). Again, I open at random and read:

Only the dead can be born again, and then not much.
I wish I were a mole in the ground,
eyes that see in the dark.

Star-nosed mole, I think. Blind, but carrying a beacon, a prehensile headlamp.

It’s always a dilemma, you see. Should I write poetry or prose this morning?

Wright, in “The Writing Life”:

Give me the names for things, just give me their real names,
Not what we call them, but what
They call themselves when no one’s listening –
At midnight, the moon-plated hemlocks like unstruck bells,
God wandering aimlessly elsewhere.

Elsewhere: there’s a ball I could run with! But I forgot to say that mole in the ground made me think momentarily of the waterlogged soil hereabouts – and then back to cats, again. Because ordinarily that’s the only way I ever get to see a mole: if a cat kills one and then leaves it in the grass when it discovers how bad it tastes. And right on cue – I swear! – a feral cat trots down the driveway. The black one with white stockings, out in the rain no doubt because she’s hungry and has no choice, and/or because she knows the rain will give her cover. Sure enough, she makes it down around the bend and out of sight without a single heckling squirrel or wren marking her passage. It’s been so long since my unilateral cease-fire went into effect that I don’t even remember to squint as I once would have done, drawing an imaginary bead on the back of her neck.

It’s so dark, I think, it might as well be 7:30 at night instead of 7:30 in the morning. Flash floods are forecast for later on today as Ivan moves through, and I worry about our access road. Two days after Frances, a section of the road bank slid into the stream down in the steepest part of the hollow, leaving a new, precipitous drop-off right at the edge of the track. We half expect to walk down to the slide area tomorrow and find the road half gone. If that happens, we’ll be cut off from the outside world for a month or more, until a contractor can get the necessary permits to bring his equipment up and rebuild the bank with limestone riprap.

*

Black cat in the rain, hunter,
avatar of luck I cannot begin
to classify, may the first star you see
herald a clearing sky. May it lead you
to slow prey & a quick kill: mouse
or vole or chipmunk, no star-
nosed mole. May hunger make you
attentive, disinclined to play with
your food. One slip
& the owl’s talons, those four-
pointed throwing stars, can find
their mark. May you keep
your distance from anything
with feathers, large
or small. I’ve never given
you a name, O wary one – I couldn’t
begin to hazard it. The bullets rest
in the cartridge case now
like little gold eyes, any one of which
could bore a blind tunnel through
the back of a neck. Let lead
lodge elsewhere, its paths
uncrossed. May all miners
stay dry in their tunnels, pray
that the mountains stand firm,
don’t backslide, & the creeks
don’t rise.

UPDATE (Saturday morning): The creek rose. Ivan has caused the worst flooding here since Agnes in 1972. The Plummer’s Hollow Road is still there – barely. Several portions are channelized too deeply for auto traffic, however. In addition, the river is over the highway at the bottom of the mountain. It looks as if I’ll be backpacking in groceries for a little while. Oddly, we never lost power.

Bandana

I’m still working my way slowly through Bruce Kapferer’s tour de force on Sri Lankan sorcery practices, The Feast of the Sorcerer. I share with Kapferer the view that an accurate understanding of magic and sorcery offers more valuable insights into the nature of communities and the formation of human consciousness than any amount of social or psychological theory.

Almost every one of Kapferer’s generalizations jibes with what I’ve read about sorcery or witchcraft in other, very different societies (Pueblo, Nahuat, Songhai, Herero, Melanesia). It’s interesting to see how sorcery fits into a Buddhist worldview. The major word for the condition of being ensorcelled is huniyam or suniyam, also the name for the demonic deity most closely associated with sorcery practices. Its derivation is unclear, but

Aduras (exorcists) and some shrine priests (kapuralas) indicate that it is borrowed from the Tamil cuniyam. The lexical definition of this word, and its derivative compounds, carries many of the meanings of Sinhalese ritual and everyday usage: for example, such senses as barrenness, defilement, ruin. Some exorcists tell me that the word comes from the Sanskrit sunya, “void,” and this has similar meaning in Tamil, as, for example, “nonexistence, vacuum, nonentity, defilement.” The notion of sunya has much more resonance with the existential nature of sorcery elaborated in sorcery and antisorcery rites and in the experiences of sorcery victims.

Note that the very ambiguity of the concept of “void” serves its purpose here. The “negative emptiness” of nihilism – a very different, perhaps opposite goal from the “positive emptiness” of nirvana – is of course what is invoked, because

The ultimate effect of sorcery is the radical extinction or obliteration of the victim or the whole circumstance of the victim’s existence, the social relations and the means whereby victims sustain their life world. The fear that people have of sorcery is that it strikes at both the victim and the ground of the victim’s being. The major myths and rites of sorcery express themes of cosmic destruction and renewal. They indicate the condition of sorcery as being a virtual return to the void from which existence springs. Sorcery projects death, actual physical extinction, which is also a chief metaphor for the anguish of sorcery as a kind of death in the midst of life, a living death. The extinction threatened by sorcery is not a release from existence, the source of suffering, as in the achievement of nibbana (nirvana), but an obliteration in the continuity of existence. Again in the myths and major antisorcery rites, the force of the sorcerer and of sorcery is ranged against the Buddha teaching and the ultimate release from existence and suffering. The figure with whom sorcery and the destructive powers of Suniyama are often associated with is Devadatta, a kinsman and follower of Gautama Buddha who broke with his teaching.

“An obliteration in the continuity of existence”: whereas in other societies the ultimate horror involves simple erasure of being (and descendents), the Buddhist influence here makes the situation more complex and – I would have to say – perhaps more accurate. Whether one lives in a relatively atomized, modern urban environment or in a more traditional village setting, one’s reality as a social being arises from one’s participation in a complex web of interactions and attachments. The trick is to interact without getting too caught up in one’s attachments, without surrendering to negative emotions like envy and jealousy, which, in some circumstances, can ensorcell all by themselves. “People may not be aware of the dangers of their talk or realize the envy of their thoughts, but such action can nonetheless cause harm and in effect is sorcery.” Attention and intention are everything.

The notion of binding or tying (bandana,* vb. bandinava) is basic to sorcery action. Sorcerers tie their charms to their victims or bind their victims to their destructive work. The idea of binding or tying has strong associations of union with the sorcerer and of constraint to the terms of a relation dictated by the sorcerer. The term hira bandana (tight or marriage bond) is a sorcery trope that indicates the controlling intimacy of the destructive sorcerer and his victim. Sorcery is infused with the metaphors of sexuality, and these express the intense intimacy of sorcery’s relations as well as its capacity to strike at the core of generative being. . . .

The bond of sorcery limits and denies life. In effect, it is an antirelation, and in the rites to overcome sorcery, the aim is to cut (kapanava) such bonds. . . . The ultimate object of [antisorcery] rites is to tie or bind victims back into the life-regenerative aspects of their life world and to break the life-threatening bond that sorcerers and their demonic agents have established with them. Indeed, the bonds of the sorcerer must be broken, and sorcerers must themselves be bound and contained. Several ritual experts in antisorcery have described to me how they capture the essence of the agents of sorcery in bottles and throw them into the sea. At Kabalava, a major shrine to Suniyam, his destructive potency is understood to be constrained in a book (Kabala Patuna) bound by nine threads.

As I have argued here before, the intimacy of lovers and the intimacy of predator and prey are not necessarily as far apart as we would like to believe. “You either live in love, or you live in fear,” Einstein proclaimed. But we shouldn’t be so naive to assume that this can be a simple, polar opposition. There is a bit of fear even in the strongest love relationship. As the new-to-me blogger Doc Rock (thanks, Tom and Beth!) wrote just yesterday,

War is a conventional, convenient (and until recently all-male) anvil on which to try Character. But it’s not the ultimate test. Not really. Experience has recently taught me that Love is a far greater test of character than War. In Love, one is even more vulnerable, even more at risk, even more fragile, than in War.

And all this talk of binding and testing brings me back to the Bible, once again, and that brief, disquieting story about a boy and his aged father traveling up into the mountains with a load of brushwood . . .
__________

*Yes, this is a cognate with the Hindi word from which the English bandanna derives.

Slug 2

I just bethought myself to go look in An Ark for the Next Millennium, a bilingual book of poems by the Mexican poet José Emilio Pacheco (University of Texas Press, 1991), translated by Margaret Sayers Peden from Pacheco’s Album de Zoología. Nuts, Pacheco beat me to it! Not only that, his piece, “Fisiología de la babosa/Physiology of the Slug” is superior to my prose poem (below) in almost every way, and it even ends with a similar image: “It fears/(with reason)/someone will come/and over his shoulder throw salt on it”.

Unfortunately, the poem has multiple, deep indents, which would be very tiresome to reproduce in HTML. But I’d like to quote the first half of the poem anyway, as run-on text, because it seems highly relevant to a post of elck’s today, on the subject of earthly paradise. I’ll give the Spanish first, followed by Peden’s English.

“La babosa/animal sutil/se recrea/en jardines impávidos/Tiene humedad de musgo/acuosidad/de vida a medio hacerse/Es apenas/un frágil/caracol en proyecto/como anuncio/de algo que aún no existe//En su moroso edén de baba/proclama/que andar por esto mundo/significa/ir dejando/pedazos de uno mismo/en el viaje…”

“The slug/a subtle creature/amuses itself/in indifferent gardens/It is moist like moss/aqueous/like life half-lived/It is little more/than a fragile/shell-in-the-making/like a notice/of something that does not yet exist//In its sluggish, slimy Eden/it proclaims/that to pass through this world/means/to leave/bits of oneself/on the journey…”

“In its morose Eden of slime” (to be a bit more literal about it) – what a delightful line! I admit I still feel some affection for my own conceit of an artist’s or hitchhiker’s thumb. But it is emblematic, perhaps, of my more superficial approach. Pacheco’s slug is no more faithful to the biological “reality” of slugs than mine is, but somehow it manages to say something essential about the world we all inhabit, while my slug remains a narcissist on a quest for artificial highs and illusory utopias. ¡Pobrecito!

The automobile in the Walking Blues

Images of the holy and the damned. The police handcuffing a man who collected old copies of the New York Times and had them stuffed and mounted in flagrant violation of the Endangered Species Act. His two small children left to fend for themselves among the junker cars and the hippies with their experimental solar-powered aircraft. They were ready to go visit their daddy in jail if I would take them – but was that really the right thing to do? I was so confused! It’s never a good idea to sleep past dawn, I find.

Lethargy and impatience are conspiring against my enthusiasm for the written word. But is that all? This time of year can be unsettling for a confirmed bachelor, you know. Everything is thawing and flowing and springing up with unselfconscious abandon. (Is there any other kind?)
A body wishes to be held, & held, & what
Can you do about that?

wrote Larry Levis, greatest among the late 20th-century prophets of the heaven of loneliness –
. . . some final city made entirely
Of light . . .

And what did T.S. Eliot know about April? More than I might care to admit. Mixing memory and desire, I am finding it increasingly difficult to disappear between the keys on the keypad. Whose cruel idea was it to make this “National Poetry Month”? Hell, I can barely stomach Earth Day anymore. All those earnest pleas to be a responsible consumer, live lightly on the earth, etc. – as if that’s enough! But I have been guilty myself of indulging in the even more egregious delusion that Poetry Can Save Us. From which monstrous windmills, oh Don Coyote?

In truth, I woke up this morning with the blues for the blues. To wit: I sure do wish I hadn’t sold all my records off years ago to buy booze! That was so wrong. I especially miss my copy of the 1941 Library of Congress field recordings of Son House, about which an anonymous British reviewer somewhere out in cyberspace writes,

This is a rough ride, but he sure can drive any song home- as does the automobile heard going past on “Walking Blues.”

“Drive.” Where did that come from? And I’m wondering: can anyone who doesn’t own a car in the U.S. of A. – especially if they live out in the sticks – really ever possess “drive”? (Be careful, now!)

Or what about, you know, drives? Maybe I could just make do with a good old-fashioned urge or two. Once again. With feeling.

Got up this morning feelin’
’round for my shoes,
you know ’bout that musta had
them walkin’ blues . . .

Son of House, you knew only a heap of broken images, where the sun beats. But they sure sounded great coming out of that steel guitar! Not to mention the bottle’s severed neck riding on your littlest finger. That afterthought, that fifth wheel. Good for nothing but trouble –

When you vanish into that one cry which means
Your body is no longer quite your own
And when your face looks like a face stricken
From this world, a saint’s face, your eyes closing
On some final city made entirely
Of light . . .

(Levis again, in a completely different context.)

Unreal City, man.

A walk in the fog

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

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

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

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!