A bad case of the mumbles

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The screen comes to life in a way that pen & paper never could. The cursor taps its foot. Down below, the computer hums. I am humming this morning a phrase from a song I learned off the radio a good while back. It was in Arabic, I think, or maybe Urdu. No, I am whistling under my breath – all breath, that is: pitch, but no tune. (If you don’t know what I mean I can’t help you. Have you ever tried to describe whistling to someone who can’t whistle? Better to hum, then!) I line my words up as if they were in a poem, but no one’s fooled: my thoughts this morning are nothing but humdrum prose. Sad-eyed, like a hound squatting to take a dump. Glum. I should get with it, act as if I believed words were lifeless dumb inert mechanical servants. Why persist in this fe adorable que el Destino blasfema, this strange irreligion of mine? I have never seen a man turn into a bird, but I believe it is distinctly possible. I have never been shaken by a god inside or out, gourd rattle that I am. I want to shout hey HEY! Ho! but all I can do is giggle. Let others wave signs & chant. Slogans fill me with dread: words outfitted in little uniforms & made to march in a circle. They proclaim we are sincere but anger is so terribly untrue! I would go dressed for an off-color skit about extinction & the first bird Noah released from the ark – not that pale clay pigeon but the other, the one they were all anxious to get rid of because he spoke raucously & out of turn. Said Awk, ark & took off. Awkward fact, too, that he never came back. And while Noah was getting drunk & putting on a show, somewhere a raven was circling, building a great hoop of sticks at the top of the tallest tree, flying all over the earth with branches in his bill. Or something like that. With a better soundtrack, of course.
[Alguna] fe adorable… is a quote from Vallejo, “Los Heraraldos Negros” – “[Some] cherished faith that Fate laid a curse upon.”

The Dao of Jones

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

“It is difficult to punctuate Heraclitus’ writings because it is unclear whether a word goes with what follows or with what precedes it,” Aristotle drily observed (see Philosopher or blog?). This is one of the first and most obvious indications that Heraclitus’ Account may have resembled the enigmatic Chinese text Laozi (a.k.a. Daodejing).

Classical Chinese lacked punctuation altogether. What grammarians call particles – one-syllable words whose function is to denote possession, interrogation, emphasis, etc. – served instead. (Think of them as punctuation marks that you pronounce.) In addition, fairly regular meter and end-rhyme aided enormously in the reading of poetic works like the Laozi. But entire schools of interpretation have coalesced around opposing views on comma placement in this most gnomic of texts. The lack of differentiation between singular and plural adds to the confusion.

Take the famous opening chapter. The first couplet is uncontroversial; translations vary simply because of the difficulty of translating Dao as both noun and verb.
Dao ke dao, fei chang dao; ming ke ming, fei chang ming.
“The dao (knowledge/way) that can be known/followed is not the constant/enduring/eternal Dao;
The name that can be named is not the constant Name.”

The comma wars begin with the very next couplet:
Wu ming tian di zhi shi; yu ming wan wu zhi mu.
“Without name(s) heaven-earth [possessive particle] beginning; having name(s) ten-thousand creatures [possessive particle] mother.”
D. C. Lau, dean of the most prominent contemporary school of Western scholars of philosophical Daoism, in his translation for Penguin (Tao Te Ching, 1963), followed the more conventional interpretation. Based on a comma placement after the second character in each clause, he got:
“The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.”
But an edition I picked up in Taiwan – part of a series of critical editions of the classics designed for college students – places the comma after the first syllable in each clause. This is possible because wu has the stand-alone meaning “void,” and yu is the common word for “being.” This produces a reading something as follows:
“Void: a name for the beginning of the cosmos;
Being: a name for the mother of the myriad creatures.”

The divergence between interpretations continues for the rest of this chapter, which is in many ways a key to the whole work. For example, the third couplet appears to deal with the question of desire. Lau translates,
“Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets;
But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations,”
with “it” understood to refer to the Dao.
But equally plausible is the following:
“Thus, eternal void: seek to contemplate its mysteries;
Eternal being: seek to contemplate its manifestations.”

One can begin to see why the Daodejing has become the second-most-translated book in the world, right after the Bible. I once came up with a semi-facetious translation of the first chapter that was predicated upon the assumption that the author was something of a cynic. This is possible with just one more turn of the interpretative wheel. In D. C. Lau’s translation the last portion of the chapter reads:
“These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery –
The gateway of the manifold secrets.”

Sounds properly mystical, doesn’t it? The trouble is, we have no way of knowing whether that was the original intent of the author(s). After all, he/they did use the pseudonym Old Fellow (Laozi). Since all sages were presumed to be old and venerable, this is tantamount to signing it “Mr. Smith” or “Mr. Jones.” What were they trying to hide? Was the whole thing just a spoof on a genre which may have included many dozens of earnest attempts to repeat the critical success of the great Zhuangzi? (The evidence from some newly discovered texts argues strongly for reversing the traditional chronological ordering of the two classics of so-called philosophical Daoism – probably not a real category at all, by the way.)

The late Warring States Period was a time of profound disillusionment. Zhuangzi includes sections that espouse philosophies of primitivism and of rational self-interest (the Yangist school). The latter contains what may be the original encounter-of-an-earnest-worthy-with-a-wise-old-fisherman dialogue. This (or another like it) was presumably the basis for the “Daoist” story of the cynical fisherman (cited in Monday’s post) who tells Chu Yuan to become one with the fishes.

The morass of competing views about Life, the Universe and Everything was no doubt troubling to many in this period. But for some it must have been a source of amusement, as well. I have no good evidence for this, but it tickles my fancy to think of the Laozi as a deliberately obscure book, in which the esoteric interpretation is actually the expected or exoteric reading, and the hidden or truly esoteric meaning is – well, something as follows:

“These two categories, emerging together, (appear to) name different (things), so their coincidence is taken for a mystery. One mystery after another! (This opens) the floodgates to endless obscurantism.”

Snow good enough to eat

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

A snow date sounds like a most delectable fruit: chewy at first, but quickly dissolving on the tongue. Fanciful? Perhaps, but don’t laugh. When I was a kid, my mother used to make snow ice cream.

Back then, a new snowfall could be wonderful in so many ways. First and foremost, it might let us stay home from school (not always a given in the bad old days before the fear of litigation overwhelmed common sense). It promised the highest and purest forms of outdoor adventure: sledding and tobogganing; snowmen and snow forts and snowball battles; and the elemental pleasure of walking spellbound through a transfigured forest. After a long day out in the snow, it gave one a good feeling to strip off wet boots, socks and pants and pile them to dry behind the woodstove. And sometimes, right before dinner, Mom would give one of us a bowl to fill with fresh, unmarked snow – “I’m making snow ice cream for dessert tonight!” Magic words!

These habits were formed in Maine in the late sixties, then transferred to central Pennsylvania where we moved in 1971, when I was five. For most of the 70s, snowy winters were the norm, back before global climate change really began to have a noticeable impact. Since then, it’s been hit-or-miss; 2001-2002 was the Year Without a Winter. But now that we’ve entered a strange new cycle of heavy precipitation, which began early last March, the snow is back with a vengeance. I feel some of the excitement of my childhood returning. This morning’s snowstorm lured me out for over an hour, wallowing along in snowshoes through the woods, my glasses fogging up repeatedly from the exertion.

When I drop down to the road and divest myself of snowshoes for the walk back up the hollow, it is absolutely quiet except for the faint trickling of the stream and the shhh of flakes against tree trunks and branches. I resign myself to walking without glasses – it is simply too much trouble to keep them clear. As soon as I take them off all detail is lost; I am myopic as an owl in daylight. I feel suddenly small and vulnerable. A hint of nameless panic rises in my chest for a second or two before I can shake it off. What if the winter never ends? How long would my perverse enjoyment of the season hold out?

The new snow – 8 or 9 inches already – has obscured all the spots along the road bank where the white-tailed deer have been pawing down through the snow in search of edible scraps of rhizomes and dried leaves. They’re starving. There was virtually no acorn crop, and their numbers are up as a result of poor hunting success: high winds and heavy snows conspired to keep hunters from connecting with their quarry on the biggest days of the regular deer season. Already we have eaten the last of this year’s venison steak. I fear for all the evergreen seedlings – white pine and pitch pine, hemlock and rhododendron -that have yet to make it above the browse line. A half-dozen years of good hunting had given them a respite, and I was beginning to nourish hopes of the woods someday recovering even a normal herbaceous layer.

Now those hopes are in jeopardy. In the course of my brief walk this morning I have already scared up five deer. As I watch them flounder through the ever-deepening snow, my emotions are a peculiar mix of pity and a cruel hope: not necessarily that they will starve to death, but at least that the coyotes will get quite a few of them before the winter’s out. All it would take, my father commented this morning, would be a good freezing rain on top of a couple feet of snow. Enough of a crust to give firm footing to the coyotes would mean death to as many deer as they had time and appetite to chase down. From what I read, the eastern coyote is already having a significant impact on populations of adult deer in the Adirondacks, where deep snows confine them to yarding areas every winter. This won’t make up for the eradication of the top predators, cougars and wolves, whose year-round predation would compel the deer to completely alter their feeding habits. But it might help a bit.

These kinds of mixed feelings are precisely what make us pine for the simplicity of childhood, I think. Back then, the only serpent in the garden was the far-off and easily ignored payment that would be exacted for our unscheduled holidays: I mean the real snow dates, those awful make-up days that could fill an extra week or two in early June. Climate change was barely a rumor in the 1970s. Children and adults alike were spared the angst of having to decide whether any given weather event was “natural” and a thing to be celebrated, or might in fact be the unnatural result of our mushrooming numbers and our collective over-consumption of fossil fuels. For me, I think the innocence began to fade around 1980, when the news about acid precipitation first hit it big. Here in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, downwind from the coal-fired power plants of the Ohio Valley, acid rain monitors have recorded some of the lowest pH readings in the country. Winter, we learned, could be the worst time of year for acid deposition, especially from the increasingly frequent ice storms and the ridge-hugging fogs that accompanied them.

With all the worries about air pollution, my mother stopped making snow ice cream. Right about the same time, our neighbors began clearcutting their sections of the forest, and fed with easy browse the deer numbers skyrocketed. From my father’s decade-long battle to preserve our access road and watershed from the worst effects of lumbering, I learned perhaps the most valuable and most scarring lesson that can mark one’s passage into adulthood: that you have to fight for what you love. No victories are permanent, and nothing should ever be taken for granted.

The woods are in some ways a little wilder now than in my childhood. Black bear were once so scarce that we could raise bees without any fencing. Now, our end of the mountain is part of the home range of a female bear who raises a new litter of cubs every two years. Ospreys and bald eagles are increasingly common along the larger streams in the vicinity. Fishers have repopulated the area following almost a century of absence. Most marvelous of all is the arrival of the eastern coyote – not an original inhabitant, but with enough wolf genes to qualify as an honorary native. And sightings of cougars in the East become every year more numerous and harder to dismiss.

Are we foolish to hope for comparable success with efforts to reverse global climate change? The unholy alliance of multinational corporate power and an increasingly imperial United States government certainly seems intractable. On the other hand, due in large part to the unremitting agitation of untold thousands of activists over the last couple decades, power plants are slowly cleaning up their act. If the northeastern states are successful in their efforts to strengthen the Clean Air Act and call the power industry to accounts, it’s just barely conceivable that someday snow will once again be good enough to eat.

My mother says she doesn’t remember the recipe she used for snow ice cream. Here’s one I found on-line that’s probably pretty close. The author’s childhood memories mirror mine.

Divining the wild

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

In winter, figure and ground trade places. The leafless trees stand out against the snow, allowing more comprehensive and more intimate views of the forest. The composition of whole stands is now more immediately obvious; one can pick out the big trees and the snags, see where saplings crowd a recent windthrow gap, admire the contrast between deciduous and conifer, straight and twisted, rough-boled and smooth. Up close, details of the bark delight the eye in the same way as do the winter resident songbirds. The lightning stripes on whistlewood and the melancholy, five-note whistle of the white-throated sparrow alike lead the mind onto untrodden paths – which is more than metaphor, of course. Winter is, above all, a summons to discovery.

Given sufficient depth of snow, most logs and other impediments to off-trail wandering are buried and forgotten, and the clumsy snowshoe becomes an instrument of relatively free and easy exploration. And the snow gives one so much more to investigate! For those of us who are not expert trackers, it is a source of constant revelation. This shallow depression with an imprint of feathers on either side marks where a ruffed grouse spent the night, having flown headfirst into a snowbank and pulled a quilt of powder over it so as to leave no tracks for a predator to follow. But this indentation, also flanked by wing prints, marks the literal end of the path for a white-footed mouse. Here the arrow-straight lope of the tireless coyote; there the fantastic tangle of prints where courting cottontails fandangoed in the moonlight.

But the new freedom the winter offers can’t be won without effort. Every new trail-breaking is a labor; familiar routes that in summer months could be covered in an easy half-hour before dinner now assume the proportions of an epic struggle. One grows accustomed to the slightly metallic taste of oxygen-hungry blood crowding the small vessels of mouth and throat. But that has its limit, and one shares with the other animals a certain preference for the road more traveled by. On a walk early last week, I found myself following an old trail of bootprints which showed signs of having been used by more than one pair of human feet. The original pioneer had laid a course that doubtless many others had followed, step by step. The tracks had been partially covered by that morning’s snowfall, but were still in use. Sometime earlier in the day a coyote had come through, carefully placing its paws in the indentations to avoid the deeper snow in between. A white tailed deer had followed suit sometime later, and now here I came with my snowshoes obliterating the whole record.

I fell to thinking about prints in general: are they ever really erased? Or do they simply await new techniques, new ways of seeing, for their recovery? I had just been reading about how researchers in Iceland are using remote sensing tools that measure electrical resistance in the earth in order to locate where the turf walls of houses had been 1000 years ago. Correlated with layers of ash from known volcanic eruptions, and mapped with GPS data, archaeologists are able to uncover the patterns of human dwelling through time and space. Clued in by an anomaly in architecture found elsewhere only at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, they believe they have discovered the very longhouse built by the fierce Gudrid upon her return from Vinland.

Of course, this is no different in kind from countless other discoveries arising from the meticulous and ingenious sleuthing of archaeologists. I am struck especially by the results of excavations of unprepossessing spots – certain riverbanks out west where people cleaned and dried salmon for millennia, for example. Better yet, good camping places rediscovered anew by parties of hunters and wayfarers for ten thousand years: I am thinking of course of the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in southwestern Pennsylvania, home to some of the earliest remains of human habitation in North America. Radiocarbon datings as old as 14,000 years B.P. have been suggested for artifacts from the deepest layers; much more recent deposits have yielded evidence of the earliest maize (ca. 350 B.C.) and the earliest squash and ceramics (1115-965 B.C.) in the region. But how many other such sites just like it still await discovery?

Think of photography: not so much an invention as a discovery of how to preserve the imprint of light and shadow on certain insoluble salts of silver. I am especially charmed by the efforts and enthusiasm of the legions of self-styled lomographers, whose populist aesthetic seeks nothing less than to document the entire surface of the earth at every moment. They are, in a sense, archaeologists of the present.

Ogotemmeli, the blind Dogon elder whose discourses on traditional religious ideas were such a revelation to ethnocentric French anthropologists of the mid-20th century, emphasized above all else the importance of seeing patterns as the path to true wisdom. The universe is given shape by a series of primordial Words of increasing complexity, which Marcel Griaule (Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas, Oxford U.P., 1965) likened to the three dimensions of Euclidian geometry. The first Word was the line of braided fibres, which could be made into clothing – the fundament of civilized existence. “It manifested on earth the first act in the ordering of the universe and the revelation of the helicoid sign in the form of an unbroken line,” Griaule discovered. “For the fibres fell in coils, symbol of tornadoes, of the whirlings of torrents, of eddies and whirlwinds, of the undulating movements of reptiles.” The second Word, less occult, was the revelation of the arts of spinning and weaving, and the third was the fully three-dimensional granary, originally modeled on an inverted, woven basket. And the granary became the template for the entire cosmos, echoed in a plethora of other symbols: the termite mound; the spindle-whorl; the head of the smith’s hammer, his four-sided anvil, and his invisible female side; the very torso of the twinned divinity (Nummo).

Weaving is a form of speech, the Dogon say, and cultivation is a form of weaving. Patterns define our membership in the human race: to be naked – without the patterning Word – is to be speechless. But the animals, lacking speech, are in some measure superior, “because they belong to the bush and do not have to work,” Ogotemmeli explains. The possession of patterns and the intelligence to perceive and elaborate them is thus a highly ambiguous thing, Griaule found. It seems that the speaking and the speechless are intimately intertwined in a manner directly analogous to the relationship between the civilized and the wild. “‘The animal,’ said Ogotemmeli finally, ‘is, as it were, man’s twin.'”

Fascinating that the African – so similar in his outlook to the European in many ways – can advance an apologia for civilization that does not presume the obliteration of all competitors and the triumphant imposition of the human pattern upon all wild Nature. This morning, as I prepare to go off to a meeting of the Pennsylvania Wildlands Recovery Project, I am thinking that we Americans would do well to trade our rigid, either/or dichotomies for the more flexible and forgiving dualities perceived by sages such as Ogotemmeli.

Humans, like coyotes, are denizens of the in-between, the savanna, the forest edge. Now, through ecology and evolutionary biology, we are beginning to descry intricate patterns where before we had seen mere disorder. We are discovering just how much our own survival – including the survival of the imagination – is linked to the preservation of wild habitat. Wilderness, in our own culture, exists under the sign of the untrammeled. But some human trammeling is benign and necessary: the song, the poem, the drawing or photograph. The rock shelter with its ancient fire ring. We need to learn new ways to interweave the trammeled and the untrammeled: to see in the speechless wild, as Ogotemmeli did, the completion and perfection of the divine Word.

Emerging God

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

From “Emerging God,” by Philip Clayton. The Christian Century, January 13, 2004:

“In one sense it’s a truism to note that things emerge. Once there was no universe and then, after the Big Bang, there was an exploding world of stars and galaxies. Once the earth was unpopulated and later it was teeming with primitive life forms. Once there were apes living in trees and then there were Mozart, Einstein and Gandhi. But the new empirical studies of emergence move far beyond truisms. A growing number of scientists and theorists of science are working to formulate fundamental laws that explain why cosmic evolution produces more and more complex things and behaviors, perhaps even by necessity. Especially significant for religionists, they are also arguing that the resulting sciences of emergence will break the strangle-hold that reductionist explanations have had on science.

“These scientists turn our attention to ‘the laws of becoming’: the inherent tendency toward an increase in complexity, self-organization, and the production of emergent wholes that are more than the sum of their parts. Perhaps, many suggest, it’s a basic rule or pattern of this universe that it gives rise to ever more complex states of affairs, ever new and different emergent realities. (See Stuart Kauffman’s Investigations and Harold Morowitz’s The Emergence of Everything.) Assume that these theorists are right and that it is an inherent feature of our universe to produce new types of entities and new levels of complexity. What might this fact tell us about the existence and the nature of God?

“Traditional theology looked backward: it postulated God as the cause of all things. Emergentist theology looks forward: it postulates God as the goal toward which all things are heading. Moreover, if God stood at the beginning and designed a universe intended to produce Jesus, then God would have to use deterministic laws to reliably bring about the desired outcomes. Where the deterministic processes, on their own, are insufficient to produce a theologically acceptable world, God would have to intervene into the natural order, setting aside the original laws in order to bring about a different, nonlaw-like outcome. Divine action then becomes the working of miracles, the breaking of laws; and God becomes, paradigmatically, the being whose nature and actions are opposed to nature. This opposition of God and nature has been disastrous.

“Emergence, in contrast, suggests a very different model of the God-world relationship. In this model God sets in motion a process of ongoing creativity. The laws are not deterministic laws but ‘stochastic’ or probabilistic: although regularities still exist, the exact outcomes are not determined in advance. More and more complex states of affairs arise in the course of natural history through an open-ended process. With the increase in complexity new entities emerge-the classical world out of the quantum world, molecules and chemical processes out of atomic structures, simple living organisms out of complex molecular structures. Then come complex multicellular organisms, societies of animals with new emergent properties at the ecosystem level, and, finally, conscious beings who create culture, use symbolic language-and experience the first intimations of transcendence.

“CONCEIVED ACCORDING to the model of emergence, God is no longer the cosmic lawgiver. The result is a far cry from Calvin’s God, who must predestine all outcomes ‘before the foundation of the world.’ Instead, God guides the process of creativity. God and creatures together compose the melodies of the unfolding world, as it were, without preordaining the outcome. Emergentists note that this God must rejoice in the unfolding richness and variety, apparently willing to affirm the openness of the process and the uncertainty of particular outcomes. On this model, God’s finite partners are the sum total of agents in the world, and all join in the process of creation. In Philip Hefner’s beautiful phrase, we become ‘created co-creators’ with God.

“Finally, in the emergence model God does not sit impassively above the process, untouched and unchanged by the vicissitudes of cosmic history. Instead, there must be emergence within God as well. God is affected by the pain of creatures, is genuinely responsive to their calls, acquires experiences as a result of these interactions that were not present beforehand-all ideas familiar to readers of process theology (or Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God). Ultimately, is not such a picture of God closer to the biblical witness than the distant God-above-time of classical philosophical theism?”

If you want to read the rest of the article, it’s available online only through the ProQuest database. Your local public or college library may subscribe – but then, they probably get the Century too – a lot of good articles in this issue.

As a new mythology, this has real promise. However, as the article also acknowledges, it really isn’t all that new: emergence theology is basically just pantheism with a twist. And pantheism is no better than traditional theology at explaining such urgent questions as “the mystery of evil,” as Clayton calls it.

I suppose I am most interested in the more mundane applications of the emerging discipline of emergence. I’ve studied forest ecology to some fair extent and it has occurred to me more than once that a mature forest ecosystem is an “emergent whole that is more than the sum of its parts.” (And needless to say, I’m for anything that promises to “break the stranglehold that reductionist explanations have had on science.”)

Welcome to Hell

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Yesterday my mother forwarded a copy of the lengthy expose on child sex slavery in the U.S., “The Girls Next Door” by Peter Landesman, from the NY Times Magazine. Even though I thought I already knew all this stuff, still, as they say, the devil is in the details. Here are a few of the details I found particularly disturbing:

“Andrea told me she was transported to Juarez dozens of times. During one visit, when she was about 7 years old, the trafficker took her to the Radisson Casa Grande Hotel, where there was a john waiting in a room. The john was an older American man, and he read Bible passages to her before and after having sex with her. Andrea described other rooms she remembered in other hotels in Mexico: the Howard Johnson in Leon, the Crowne Plaza in Guadalajara. She remembers most of all the ceiling patterns. ‘When I was taken to Mexico, I knew things were going to be different,’ she said. The ‘customers’ were American businessmen. ‘The men who went there had higher positions, had more to lose if they were caught doing these things on the other side of the border. I was told my purpose was to keep these men from abusing their own kids.’ Later she told me: ‘The white kids you could beat but you couldn’t mark. But with Mexican kids you could do whatever you wanted. They’re untraceable. You lose nothing by killing them.'”

“‘They’d get you hungry then to train you’ to have oral sex, she said. ‘They’d put honey on a man. For the littlest kids, you had to learn not to gag. And they would push things in you so you would open up better. We learned responses. Like if they wanted us to be sultry or sexy or scared. Most of them wanted you scared. When I got older I’d teach the younger kids how to float away so things didn’t hurt.'”

“‘There’s a vast misunderstanding of what coercion is, of how little it takes to make someone a slave,’ Gary Haugen of International Justice Mission said. ‘The destruction of dignity and sense of self, these girls’ sense of resignation. . . . ‘ He didn’t finish the sentence.”

“There were streams of Web pages of thumbnail images of young women of every ethnicity in obvious distress, bound, gagged, contorted. The agents in the room pointed out probable injuries from torture. Cyberauctions for some of the women were in progress; one had exceeded $300,000. ‘With new Internet technology,’ Woo said, ‘pornography is becoming more pervasive. With Web cams we’re seeing more live molestation of children.’ One of [the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency]’s recent successes, Operation Hamlet, broke up a ring of adults who traded images and videos of themselves forcing sex on their own young children.”

“[T]he supply of cheap girls and young women to feed the global appetite appears to be limitless. And it’s possible that the crimes committed against them in the U.S. cut deeper than elsewhere, precisely because so many of them are snared by the glittery promise of an America that turns out to be not their salvation but their place of destruction.”

“Even Andrea, who was born in the United States and spoke English, says she never thought of escaping, ‘because what’s out there? What’s out there was scarier. We had customers who were police, so you were not going to go talk to a cop. We had this customer from Nevada who was a child psychologist, so you’re not going to go talk to a social worker. So who are you going to talk to?'”

I’d been planning to blog on the question of evil, but it’s such a huge topic. In some ways theology and mythology help us get a grip on it, but in other ways they simply muddy the water. (Throwing in the whole problem of suffering, for instance, is a distraction. Job’s conundrum, the problem of cosmic or situational evil – i.e., when bad things happen to good people – has really nothing in common with questions about what the Rabbis wisely identify as the Evil Urge.) Psychology helps a little too, but it doesn’t tell us what we most need to know – such as, why be good at all? Where does altruism come from? How can love, which seems so weak and puny, overwhelm terror and hatred, sometimes even cure indifference – arguably the greatest sin of all? My evolving position on the question of evil is partly liberal (just following rules and obeying commandments isn’t enough) and partly conservative (bad backgrounds, mental instability, etc. do not excuse or even always help to explain the origin of evil in the human heart).

But this morning, the catharsis of writing a poem in the style of my guru Ai (Cruelty, Killing Floor, Sin, Greed, etc.). Sometimes I think the only rational response to radical evil is the practice of radical empathy – even if one still feels at some level that bastards like this deserve to die slowly. It is easy to speak for the victim; who will speak for the perpetrator? Is the exercise even worthwhile? Does it ennoble or diminish us, to try and see the world through the eyes of sick, violent psychopaths?

For those who aren’t familiar with it, please click on the link and read the entire 19th chapter of Genesis.


Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man;
let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you,
and do ye to them as is good in your eyes . . .


We crouch
before You: two sinners
filled with darkness. Who
made us so
but You? This daughter
of mine, already a harlot,
and I a sometime preacher: each
a little of the dove, a little of
the serpent. Belly to belly
with the dust. If I were nothing
but my sin, would I
still crave, time & again, those
whistling wings her
fingers around
the parts of me oh God that are most
apart from You?
Ah, these wide
brown eyes, the little animal
aching its back, knocking against
the ribcage, ah, the temblors that shake
the flat plain of her chest!
Not too much longer & yes, corruption
will flower here too: original sin,
twin cities puffed with hubris.
I have read in Your Book how
the righteous Lot offered
his own daughters to the mob –
to no good end. What
happens afterward is no different
from any of this. In the end
no one is spared, not even
the wife. Your fire descends
and descends. There is no
clean start.

From Japan, via Poland, via California . . .

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Six inches of fresh snow with flakes still in the air at mid-morning. A friend who works at Penn State had told me she might ski up the hollow this morning if the university closed, but according to the radio “non-essential employees” must still report to work by 10:30. Looking out across the snowy yard and the curve of driveway skirting the edge of the woods, I am reminded of a poem a courtesan wrote with one swift dash of her brush across a scented page in the 11th century – a celebration of the ephemeral that somehow still makes the throat catch all these centuries later. Czelaw Milosz, whose taste in poetry is impeccable, called attention to it in his blog-like journal A Year of the Hunter (trans. Madeline G. Levine, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1994). In the entry for February 26, 1988, Milosz wrote,

“I have an overwhelming aversion to discoursing on poetry, an aversion that sets me apart from the thousands of theoreticians, scholastics, martyrs of one or another “ism” who construct their university careers on that “ism.” I prefer a poem that was written a thousand years ago by the Japanese woman poet Izumi Shikibu (974-1034):

If he whom I wait for
Should come now, what will I do?
This morning the snow-covered garden
Is so beautiful without a trace of footprints.

“Is such poem an instrument of knowledge? Yes, of knowledge, and on a more profound level than philosophy.”

Without a net

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Locked in a public argument I cannot possibly win with an unknown adversary who may not necessarily be an adversary. The topic? Hardly matters. (Click here if you must know.) Because at root our differences seem to boil down to the choice, apparently arbitrary, of whether to say yes or no. Optimism or pessimism. It’s not a matter of which is right, I think, but simply which choice is less foolish, which will vary according to circumstance.

Or is it in part a question of aesthetics? One of the thought-bubbles that just burst on the coffee-dark surface of my consciousness this morning had to do with the nagging suspicion that much of what makes a person prefer one spiritual or philosophical tradition to another boils down to her aesthetic predilections. The spareness and open spaces of Zen or Islam – or the profuse gorgeousness of Vajrayana and Orthodox Christianity? The Via Negativa – as Lorianne pointed out in a comment on my first Inuit piece – is a way of the desert. If I refuse to commit to one faith tradition, might that not be in part for the seemingly trivial reason that I like to keep one foot in the desert and one in the jungle?

Similarly, there is definitely an aesthetics of nada – it has colored much of the modernist and especially the postmodernist outlook. (Though with writers like Paul Celan, one can never be sure his nada isn’t the flip side of todo, as it was for San Juan de la Cruz.)

A poet these days is an animist almost by nature; I’m no exception. The mainstream of contemporary North American lyric poetry is in complete rebellion against the age-old Western worship of abstractions and the consequent devaluation of the particular. Thus, while part of what makes me admire the apophatic tradition may be a quasi-aesthetic preference for open spaces, darkness and fog, an even stronger factor may be the deep suspicion I harbor toward all universalizing statements that could devalue life. These include, ultimately, both optimistic and pessimistic evaluations.

I am thinking then about the Adversary as a role model. The earliest textual reference to Satan is in – you guessed it – the book of Job. In the folktale-ish opening scene, Satan is among the “sons of God,” the divine courtiers meeting for a formal audience with the Guy Upstairs. Marvin Pope tells us that the name Satan is derived from the name of the Persian secret police. He is an agent provocateur. No Lucifer, but a dark star. A black hole.

The Zennists warn about the dangers of madness for the initiate to their path, and they aren’t kidding. My one and only brush with insanity, at the tender age of 16, was fed by obsessive (mis)reading of translations of D.T. Suzuki. When I envisioned and articulated the terror, it came down precisely to the arbitrariness of the distinction between yes and no. I chose yes, of course, but it was, for a long-time, a self-conscious and therefore ironic choice. I was my own Mephistopheles. (Whatever I have to say about the Adversary cannot possibly improve upon what the cartoonist Walt Kelley had Pogo so famously declare – you know the quote. “We has met the enemy, and they is Us.”)

Mahayana Buddhist texts are godawful boring things to try and read. But in my late teens I couldn’t get enough of them, plowing through the Awakening of Faith, Mulamadhyamakakarika, the Lankavatara, even – I swear – the complete Conze translation of the Prajnaparamita Sutra. Repetitious they were, yes. But probably the repetition was more healing than anything else could have been. Countless variations on a single, intellectually unrealizable paradox.

This is a classic example of homeopathy, of course. I experienced the secular parallel just a few years later, when I discovered blues music at just the time when I most needed that kind of medicine. And blues is – lest we forget – the Devil’s music.

In one of Bessie Smith’s late recordings, “In the House Blues,” the blue devils of loneliness and depression morph into blue-suited policemen, breaking into her house without a warrant. In the even darker “Long Old Road,” from the same recording session with Louis Armstrong, she concludes a parable about life’s journey with a verse that holds out little hope (enjambing where she lingers on a note):

You can’t trust no-
body, you might as well
be alone.
You can’t trust nobody, you might as well
be alone.
Found my long-lost Friend and I might as well
stayed at home.

That’s dark.

So why does listening to a song like that make one feel better? (This ain’t just me talking; almost every blues performer ever interviewed has described the blues as a kind of medicine.)

I am running out of time to blog this morning. Maybe tomorrow I’ll say something about Tezcatl-Ihpoca, a.k.a. Smoking Mirror. Or not.
Cross-reference: “42” and the entry following, on self-cursing
Postscript: with exquisite synchronicity that the slightly mad-seeming author of Log24.net would appreciate, I just stopped over to the blog of my some-time debate opponent, commonbeauty, to pick up the link included above . . . only to discover that s/he has been posting about via negativa! In a manner that is anything but adversarial. We has met the enemy, and s/he has turned into something like a friend . . .
Corrected and edited around 5:00 p.m.

Notes to self

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Entirely too much self-consistency of late. Must contradict myself flagrantly and often.

What the hell is “primal fear”? Let’s muddy things up here!

How can we have gotten this far without any substantial discussion of “fear of the unknown”?

The wall. Let’s not talk about the wall. At all. Let’s not talk about the security fence on the border with Mexico. Let’s not talk about the Night of Broken Glass, the Warsaw ghetto of the mind. “If you’re not afraid, you’re not paying attention.” I think I’ll ignore that last remark.

A lover’s indrawn breath. An eyebrow’s arch. The navel’s sightless gaze. Write about the long drought, you chickenshit.

“The beginning of wisdom”? What the hell would I know about that?

All I know is what it ain’t. Neither this nor that. Neti, neti! Picky, picky!

Write more about food preparation, sanitary systems, naked mole rats, gravity and freezing rain. Don’t ever write about . . . you know.

Ravens. Write a brief (!) evocation of ravens. Or just think about it a lot.

Screw the Dao and the horse it rode in on.

It wouldn’t hurt you to finish a book sometime.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

If I were to re-christen this weblog with a name less grand and perhaps a bit more true, I’d have to call it something like, “Thoughts on an Empty Stomach,” or perhaps, “Mind-Farts Before Breakfast”! Because that’s how it comes about: I get up around 4:00 or 5:00, shower, drink coffee (sitting outside if there’s no wind and it’s above 5 degrees), then start picking up books and letting my thoughts wander wherever they want.

So this morning I am going back and forth between poems of the Inuit and the poetic debates of Job and his three friends/adversaries (Chapters 3-21 in the KJV before I am able to put it down). This seems bizarre at first, but eventually (as usual) a pattern emerges. Dissatisfied with my single anthology of Inuit song texts (Richard Lewis, ed., I Breathe a New Song: Poems of the Eskimo, Simon and Schuster, 1971), I go online and search Knud Rasmussen – the great Danish/Inuit polar explorer and anthropologist who is responsible for collecting most of the best song-texts we have. His expeditions took him across the Inuit world, from East Greenland to eastern Siberia.

The Humanistic Texts site includes a page of “Eskimo Songs and Thoughts” collected by Rasmussen. The dialogue with a shaman reprinted below is what made me realize the kinship between these otherwise vastly different bodies of work from two very different sorts of deserts. Of the several discourses on poetics, only the one by Orpingalik (the last selection below) was familiar to me.

For several evenings Knud Rasmussen, Aua, a shaman, and other Eskimos had discussed rules of life and taboo customs of the Iglulik Eskimos. They did not get beyond a long statement of all that was permitted and all that was forbidden, for whenever Rasmussen asked “Why?” they could give no answers.
As if seized by a sudden impulse, Aua took Rasmussen outside with him, where the snow was being lashed about in waves by the wind, and said:

“In order to hunt well and live happily, man must have calm weather. Why this constant succession of blizzards and all this needless hardship for men seeking food for themselves and those they care for? Why? Why?”
Aua then led him to Kublo’s house. A small blubber lamp burned with but the faintest flame, giving out no heat whatever; a couple of children crouched, shivering, under a skin rug on the bench. Aua asked Rasmussen:
“Why should it be cold and comfortless in here? Kublo has been out hunting all day, and if he had got a seal, as he deserved, his wife would now be sitting laughing beside her lamp, letting it burn full, without fear of having no blubber left for tomorrow. The place would be warm and bright and cheerful, the children would come out from under their rugs and enjoy life. Why should it not be so? Why?”
Rasmussen made no answer, and followed him out of the house, into a little snow hut where Aua’s sister, Natseq, lived all by herself because she was ill. A third time Aua looked at Rasmussen and said:
“Why must people be ill and suffer pain? We are all afraid of illness. Here is this old sister of mine; as far as anyone can see, she has done no evil: she has lived through a long life and given birth to healthy children, and now she must suffer before her days end. Why? Why?” . . .
“You see, you are equally unable to give any reason when we ask you why life is as it is. And so it must be. All our customs come from life and turn towards life; we explain nothing, we believe nothing, but in what I have just shown you lies answer to all you ask.
“We fear the weather spirit of earth, that we must fight against to wrest our food from land and sea. We fear Sila [the weather].
“We fear death and hunger in the cold snow huts.
“We fear Takfinakapsfiluk, the great woman down at the bottom of the sea, that rules over all the beasts of the sea.
“We fear the sickness that we meet with daily all around us; not death, but the suffering. We fear the evil spirits of life, those of the air, of the sea and the earth, that can help wicked shamans to harm their fellow men.
“We fear the souls of dead human beings and of the animals we have killed.
“Therefore it is that our fathers have inherited from their fathers all the old rules of life which are based on the experience and wisdom of generations. We do not know how, we cannot say why, but we keep those rules in order that we may live untroubled. And so ignorant are we in spite of all our shamans, that we fear everything unfamiliar. We fear what we see about us, and we fear all the invisible things that are likewise about us, all that we have heard of in our forefathers’ stories and myths. Therefore we have our customs, which are not the same as those of the white men, the white men who live in another land and have need of other ways.”
Aua, Iglulik Eskimo

(Compare, for example, Job 14)

Oh! You strangers only see us happy and free of care. But if you knew the horrors we often have to live through, you would understand too why we are so fond of laughing, why we love food and song and dancing. There is not one among us but has experienced a winter of bad hunting, when many people starved to death around us and when we ourselves only pulled through by accident. I once saw a wise old man hang himself, because he was starving to death; he had retained his senses and preferred to die in time. . .
Qaqortingneq, Netsilik Eskimo

In days gone by, every autumn, we held big feasts for the soul of the whale, feasts which should always be opened with new songs which the men composed. The spirits were to be summoned with fresh words; worn-out songs could never be used when men and women danced and sang in homage to the big quarry. And it was the custom that during the time when the men were finding the words for these hymns, all lamps had to be extinguished. Darkness and stillness were to reign in the festival house. Nothing must disturb them, nothing divert them. In deep silence they sat in the dark, thinking; all the men, both old and young, in fact even the youngest of the boys if only they were old enough to speak. It was this stillness we called qarrtsiluni, which means that one waits for something to burst.
For our forefathers believed that the songs were born in this stillness while all endeavored to think of nothing but beautiful things. Then they take shape in the minds of men and rise up like bubbles from the depths of the sea, bubbles seeking the air in order to burst. That is how the sacred songs are made!
Majuaq, Alaskan Eskimo

Job 4
12 Now a thing was secretly brought to me, and mine ear received a little thereof.
13 In thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men,
14 Fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones to shake.

Job 35
10 But none saith, Where is God my maker, who giveth songs in the night . . .

Job 38
28 Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew?
29 Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?
30 The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.
31 Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?

Songs are thoughts, sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices. Man is moved just like the ice floe sailing here and there out in the current. His thoughts are driven by a flowing force when he feels joy, when he feels fear, when he feels sorrow. Thoughts can wash over him like a flood, making his breath come in gasps and his heart throb. Something, like an abatement in the weather, will keep him thawed up. And then it will happen that we, who always think we are small, will feel still smaller. And we will fear to use words. But it will happen that the words we need will come of themselves. When the words we want to use shoot up of themselves–we get a new song.
Orpingalik, Netsilik Eskimo