Scientific authority and the prodigal theory

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Fabre’s unsparing and curmudgeonly critique of theoreticians leads me to wonder: Are theories necessary? The obvious answer is that without some sort of logical framework (notions about natural organization, animal instinct, etc.) Fabre’s own meticulous winnowing of observations for a few grains of authentic insight would have been impossible. But the grander superstructures of imagination, such as the theory of evolution by natural selection, are what struck him as a diversion from the natural scientist’s true tasks of observation, experimentation and (with luck) some limited amount of inductive reasoning.

Most non-Western bodies of knowledge are built solely on a basis of empiricism. This does not prevent them from achieving results whose accuracy (according to our own preconceptions) seems little short of miraculous. Consider the complex recipe for the South American psychotropic drug ayahuasca, a.k.a. yage. Given the tens of thousands of species of herbs and lianas native to this region, and given that the active ingredients in the recipe have very different or even negligible effects when taken in isolation, how can we imagine an experimental process to arrive at the correct formula?

One ethnobotanist I was reading a while back (I think it might have been Mark Plotkin) made the not unreasonable suggestion that, at least in some cases, humans have been able to learn something about the properties of herbs from close observation of animals. He gave one example, based on fieldwork in Central Africa, in which the people he’d been working with had quite recently adopted a new plant (for purposes that turned out to be biomedically sound) after watching chimpanzees use it. Another example from northern South America suggested that observation of tapirs may have led to the local adoption of a new herb.

The inference to be drawn here, I suppose, is that animals can use their superior sense of smell/taste, in combination with finely honed instincts “unimpeded by the thought process” (as the Car Talk guys would say), to find whatever they need for a particular ailment or condition. This in turn implies that humans might have the same ability, within the limitations imposed by our own, vastly inferior olfactory organs. And it occurs to me (as it has surely occurred to anyone else who has read a certain number of ethnobotanical accounts) that mind-altering plants and fungi themselves may play a role in helping people to see/sniff out useful new drugs or drug ingredients. This may seem uncomfortably close to an appeal to revelation: after all, some champions of psychotropes do refer to them as entheogens. But merely altering the way our senses operate (whether by “cleansing the doors of perception” or in fact blocking them up and opening new ones) does not obviate the need for inductive reasoning and the assimilation of a vast body of empirical data. One can easily imagine the medical specialist learning to distinguish certain tastes/smells corresponding to distinct chemical properties, and probably relating those properties in turn to particularities of habitat and even, in some cases, obvious visual clues.

What interests me in all of this is the role that indigenous theory forms in the valid recognition and organization of data. For South American practitioners of traditional medicine, the world-pictures are so fantastic to us that it is difficult to see them as analogous to theory rather than (say) religious dogma. I would counter that, in very many cases I have read about, the shaman is usually among the most pragmatic and open-minded members of any given tribe, and has very little problem (and often great facility) with the self-conscious manipulation of concepts to achieve a best fit with the evidence. But examples from traditional Chinese and Indian sciences may be more helpful here.

Consider acupuncture: accurate almost to a fault in pinpointing nerve endings – and perfected in the complete absence of any accurate knowledge of the human nervous system. A completely imaginary system of lines of life-force (chi) formed not just a theoretical framework but an essential mnemonic for the location of pressure points. One could say the same about the chakra-system of yoga or any of the myriad other conceptual frameworks developed to organize and guide what Sufi writers call “the science of the mind.” Indeed, I doubt that anyone could ever come up with a system such as feng-shui, which seems to embody a genuine and very profound understanding of human perceptions of space, without the aid of a quasi-mystical theory to “explain” the mutual interpenetration of mind and matter.

In all these cases, it seems to me, it doesn’t really matter whether one regards the guiding theories as literal representations or provisional constructs. What matters is the theory’s utility as mnemonic aid and heuristic. But I begin to list dangerously in the direction of that modern disciple of Diogenes, Paul Feyerabend.

I should mention that I generally try to avoid reading Feyerabend simply because his notions and prejudices are so similar to my own. I am afraid that if I were to go through and carefully digest his theories, I would deprive myself of the hundreds of hours of pleasure and bewilderment that would be involved in developing similar ideas all on my own! But this morning I’ll make a small sacrifice for the sake of my faithful readers (he says pompously) and crack the cover of Against Method (Verso, 1978), Chapter 4. Marginal notes in my own chicken scratch indicate I have been here before. So perhaps all of the foregoing is simply an unconscious re-capitulation of Paul Feyerabend? Well, here’s the argument:

There is no idea, however ancient and absurd, that is not capable of improving our knowledge. The whole history of thought is absorbed into science and is used for improving every single theory. Nor is political interference rejected. It may be needed to overcome the chauvinism of science that resists alternatives to the status quo.

As an example of such positive political interference, he cites the Communist Chinese government’s about-face on its original rejection of traditional medicine as primitive. This re-evaluation was sparked by a purge of “bourgeois elements” in the Ministry of Health in 1954 – an event with doubtless very unfortunate consequences for many such “elements.” In fact, given what we now know or strongly suspect about the horrific death tolls from forced collectivization under the banner of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, it seems positively ghoulish to celebrate any political consequence of that unhappy period. But Feyerabend was never one to shy away from provocative conclusions – in fact, he delighted in them. And his evaluation of the “sizable lacunae in Western medicine” seems sound:

[T]here are effects and means of diagnosis which modern medicine cannot repeat and for which it has no explanation . . . Nor can one expect that the customary scientific approach will find an answer. In the case of herbal medicine the approach consists of two steps. First, the herbal concoction is analysed into its chemical constituents. Then the specific effects of each constituent are determined and the total effect on a particular organ explained on their basis. This neglects the possibility that the herb, taken in its entirety, changes the state of the whole organism and that it is this new state of the whole organism rather than a specific part of the herbal concoction that cures the diseased organ. Here as elsewhere knowledge is obtained from a proliferation of views rather than from the determined application of a particular ideology.

The fact that such proliferation may be in some instances propelled by the outside influence of a repressive ideology, religious dogma or, for modern scientists in the West, the almighty dollar (as Feyerabend teasingly suggests) is irony indeed. But in the very next breath he mounts a spirited defense of the importance of a well-developed, untramelled imagination, “not just a road of escape but as a necessary means for discovering and perhaps even changing the features of the world we live in.”

As for the difference between Fabre’s perspective and Feyerabend’s on the relative importance of theories, I think it is about what one would expect given the disparity between their backgrounds and occupations. In any case, they do seem to meet on a common ground of suspicion toward any theory with universalistic or truth-status pretensions. And they would have agreed wholeheartedly in matters relating to the theory of education. Feyerabend concludes Chapter 4 of Against Method by advising the reader “to consult [John Stuart] Mill’s magnificent essay On Liberty.” Considering the connection between Mill and Fabre that I was just writing about the day before yesterday, I guess I better go follow his advice. The gods clearly will it!

Sounds about silence

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A wonderful, brief meditation on silence over at Coffee Sutras provoked a quote from Wallace Stevens (“the blackbird whistling/or just after”) in the comments thread and a longer entry at another blog, Hoarded Ordinaries, in an essay called “A Mind of Winter.” For once, I don’t have a whole lot to add. It’s always nice to see other folks saying what’s on my mind, too!

This is not my beautiful house

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It would be fun to try and put together an anthology of poetic riddles – a modern Exeter Book. This idea has crossed my mind more than once, but all I’ve managed to produce is the following poem (included in my collection Capturing the Hive, which has a kind of insect motif). I confess I am only half-satisfied with it. The problem is, there are two kinds of poems, and the ones that come from many hours of slow, deliberate construction and revision, like this one, are just never as satisfying to me as the ones that spring full-grown from the authentic wells of inspiration. (See the New Year’s squirrel poem for an example of the latter.)


Who’d have guessed the very riddle of a face
pivots on the possibility of a neck?

In your scientific campfire tales
mine is the face of Icarus.
You gave me a ghostly
popped-balloon body & a wild alias–
M.I.A. at Roswell, New Mexico.
Be careful what you call alien.

Too bad your psychics & cryptozoologists
didn’t come to me first. Perhaps my mode
of transport disappoints: no sleek discus, no warp-
driven spheroid, but a flying ship
straight out of Jules Verne – rudder, portholes & all.
Not the sort of future
you’ve come to expect.

Still, if I’m as mantic as you say,
what crystalline possibilities
these lidless eyes suggest, yes?
together with the pair of scalpels
held reverently at the ready as if
to petition, to witch for water,
to haruspect.
My emerald city stretches
over half the summer
& I promise you there’s no manikin
on either side of the curtain.
Now tell my name.

Shah on "The Commanding Self"

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Since I’ve mentioned Idries Shah twice now in the past couple of days – both here and over at Vajrayana Practice – I thought it might be a good time to let the man speak for himself, as it were. Shah was an extremely influential 20th-century Iranian-British teacher in the Naqshbandi tradition of Central Asian and Middle Eastern Sufism. Although it would be much more entertaining to transcribe one of his teaching stories, a passage from the introduction to The Commanding Self (London: The Octagon Press, 1994) seems more appropriate, because it touches on themes I have raised in the past several posts. And unlike the darn-near impenetrable teaching stories (collected in many volumes such as Tales of the Dervishes, Thinkers of the East, Caravan of Dreams, etc.), here he actually tells the reader what he’s about.

It’s a lengthy excerpt, so I stuck it up on a separate page for now. Click here.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

It’s probably far from obvious to a reader of the previous post that The Sylph is in fact a friend of mine who prefers to remain pseudonymous. (I don’t know the cloudshift/photoblogger from Adam, and just plug his blog ’cause I like what he’s trying to do.) I included that e-mail because I really dug the way it played with the “cloud of unknowing” concept. But I do feel a more profound issue is at work here. The Sufi thinker Idries Shah says that the presence of people who feel somewhat lost by the discussion but who nonetheless can listen with an active, open mind is essential in order for any genuine teaching to take place. I don’t know if this would apply here, however, since I am by no means a qualified teacher myself, simply a freelance, masterless student with various headstrong preconceptions about what should constitute a valid teaching. It seems to me that it is a strong possibility, almost an inevitability that, in the course of my blogging, I will bark up many wrong trees. That’s why I feel reassured by the presence of blithe spirits like The Sylph, who can balance bafflement and wisdom and know enough to keep the tongue firmly planted in the cheek at all times!

Meet the cloud

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Yesterday I received the following communication:

“I like reading your blog but have given relatively little thought, when one considers a lifetime of time to think, to most of the topics discussed in ViaNegativa. My presence as blog consumer would best be represented as a virtual cloud floating through the text, lingering on a poem, the odd wisp filtering into cassandra, back to hover over the reference section…weightless…mere vapor. No piece of my mind (yuck) but breath of my attitude.
[signed] The Sylph”

This made me go check on cloudshift/photoblog, my first visit since the New Year. This is a great site with mysterious photos and spontaneous, gnomic interpretations from a practicing Buddhist. (You can tell they’re spontaneous, ’cause he doesn’t bother to correct misspellings and typos.) In the entry for January 6 he could be conjuring our Sylph here. I won’t attempt to describe the photo, but the legend reads as follows:

“Shifting in and out of crowds (clouds), avoiding piercing stares… I followed and lead and pushed on towards my destinaion… It was a sight to see, and a sight to be seen.

“My reflection exists in the eyes of those I love.

When the world is filled with evil,
Transform all mishaps into the path
of bodhi.”

Not bad. But Friday’s cogitation was more along my line. The photographer tilts his head, captures a split-second’s play of light and shadow (red and black and gold) and ruefully admits,

“I apply my conceptual knowledge to my surroundings, and therefore put everything into a small box of my own making. If I can see outside these boundaries, perhaps then I can really see.”

Check it out – and drop some comments in his box. He might be lonely, too. As for me, now that I know Via Negativa has a spirit-guardian, I feel quite reassured.

Sorcery and the limits to knowledge

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Does geography determine culture? The indigenous Mojave people, living in the hottest and one of the bleakest corners of what is now the United States, were obsessed with death. Funerals and mourning anniversaries were their main ceremonials. They were one of the few cultures in which sorcerers – that is to say, shamans who use their powers for self-aggrandizement and murder – practiced openly. “I am going to kill you,” a Mojave sorcerer frankly told the anthropologist A.L. Kroeber in 1910. (1)

One of their sacred stories offers an interesting contrast to the postmodern notion of deus abscondus – a god whose purported abandonment is used to explain manifold suffering and injustice. The first sorcerer kills one of the two creator gods. The other one, his younger brother, has just rescued the people from a world flood which he himself produced. Their Ararat is Avikwame, today known as Newberry Mountain, north of Needles, CA. John Bierhorst describes the conclusion of their Creation cycle in his authoritative Mythology of North America (Oxford UP, 2002, p.102 ):

“On the mountain he gives future shamans their dream power while they stand before him either as unborn children or as little boys. Afterward, he teaches the Mojave to farm, to cook, to speak, and to count, then changes into a fish eagle and flies off ‘without power of recollection, ignorant and infested with vermin.'” (2)

* * * *

It is a commonplace among cultures where magic is regarded as an authentic way of knowing, that knowledge is inherently limited and available only for a price. There is a strong appeal to the idea that many forms of understanding must be hard-won. For example, I’m told you can read the full details of most “secret” tantric teachings – they have been published and translated. But they are nonetheless still hidden, in the sense that their true content can only be grasped by someone who has been gone through proper training and is prepared to receive them.

To take another example, most of us probably have the experience of meeting “uneducated” individuals of a certain age whose every utterance radiates wisdom. (If you haven’t, you need to get out more!) The reason why these kinds of folks seem like sages, and the average PhD does not, presumably stems from the way in which they have acquired their knowledge about the world.

On the other hand: you can decry our society’s own “disenchantment” and the supposed Death of God all you want. But I’ll bet you take for granted things like free public libraries (thank you Andrew Carnegie, you murderously oppressive, self-aggrandizing son-of-a-bitch!). This is the absolute bedrock of civil liberties in the United States: the freedom not only to say what you want and think what you want, but to access knowledge that, in almost every other society the world has ever seen, would have been off-limits to all but an elite few. Sure, we still have “experts” whose typically mendacious interpretations dominate the airwaves. And most professions and disciplines employ occult terminology with a strong gatekeeper function. But we also have – possibly for not much longer – the Freedom of Information Act. Many individual states have Right-to-Know laws. And of course, we have the Internet – though more and more of it is off-limits to non-subscribers.

If, as some say, we are living in the twilight of the Free Information Age, we should be concerned about what this could mean for democracy. The Bush/Cheney regime has displayed an unprecedented obsession with secrecy and utter contempt for laws and customs mandating accountability. The more that the powerful can withhold access to knowledge, the more difficult it becomes to fight them. Thus their monopoly accelerates. What prevents them from becoming like gods – lords of death, arbiters of the planet’s fate? Is there something intrinsic to the power of understanding, that it might ultimately desert those who seek its ultimate control?

* * * *

An afterthought on the Mojave myth: this god, whose name is Mastamho, cannot be equated with deus abscondus. In the first place, however altered and diminished, he is still with the people as long as there are eagles. Moreover, by the ingenius conception of presence-as-future-possibility for the unborn, all religious specialists can claim to have communed with him directly! Which was, of course, the point. As masters of the dream, shamans always have access to the illo tempore of sacred story, the dreamtime where death and forgetfulness can be reversed, humans and animals are all just people and outward forms are, if not quite unreal as Plato thought, infinitely supple. The mind that can master these transformations is indeed a dangerous thing.

(1) I think the date is right. I read this a while back, and don’t have the reference at hand.
(2) Bierhorst should have updated the translation. By “fish eagle” he means, of course, the bald eagle.

Gimme hell!

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After much fussing and several moments of near-panic, I have finally installed a comments feature! So, if there are any postings you’ve had some reactions to, but didn’t want to bother me with an e-mail (always welcome, of course), now you can let me have it! Or just, you know, start a conversation.

For those who (like me) are new to this: click on where it says “Comments” at the end of the post. If you’ve disabled pop-ups on your computer, you will have to hold down the Ctrl key while clicking. Type in name or pseudonymn, e-mail, website url if any – that should be obvious. What isn’t obvious is that it will cut you off at 1000 characters, which is about two medium-length paragraphs. To avoid losing your work, always copy and save before sending. You can do this by right-clicking the mouse with your arrow in the box; paste into a new box by the same method. Pretty nifty, eh?

Apropos of nothing, except that the heading for this post made me think of it: I have Dr. John’s take on an old blues verse running through my head now (can’t remember the title of the song), goes something like –

Give me whiskey
When I get a little frisky,
‘Cause it’s a mighty good thing
When I get a little dry,
Give me tobacco
When i get a little sickly
And give me heaven
Before i die!

Strangers in the earth

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Lost in the woods, a thousand possible avenues opening among the trunks and thickets, panic rising in the throat. Stuck in a shopping mall, fascination at the initial strangeness of it turning sour in the stomach. Is alienation always a bad thing? Isn’t it possible that some very necessary lessons come at the price of a certain disassociation from oneself, from one’s safe nest of habit and comforting thoughts? Perhaps I am groping for a word that doesn’t yet exist, somewhere in the hair’s breadth of difference between alienation and ecstasy, strangeness and intimacy, nothingness and Ein Sof.

Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears;
for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner,
as all my fathers were.
Psalm 39:12

Not for love as the sweet pretend: the children’s game
of deliberate ignorance of each to allow the dreaming.
Not for the impersonal belly nor the heart’s drunkenness
have I come this far, stubborn, disastrous way.
But for relish of those archipelagoes of person.
To hold her in hand, closed as any sparrow,
and call and call forever till she turn from bird
to blowing woods. From woods to jungle. Persimmon.
To light. From light to princess. From princess to woman
in all her fresh particularity of difference.
Then oh, through the underwater time of night,
indecent and still, to speak to her without habit.
This I have done with my life, and am content.
I wish I could tell you how it is in that dark,
standing in the huge singing and alien world.

Jack Gilbert, “Don Giovanni on His Way to Hell.”
Monolithos, Graywolf Press, 1982, 7.

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world.

Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is the reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.

Aldo Leopold, “Thinking Like a Mountain.”
A Sand County Almanac, Oxford UP, 1987 (1949), 129.

Radical hospitality, infinite respect, & all the messy stuff in between

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Manic mode. Press conference tomorrow; today many phone calls to make. Five a.m. and bitter cold. Full moon looking in over my right shoulder. The monkey in my mind – no, screw the tired buddhist cliche – the gray squirrel in my mind is already stirring. Stirring? Hell, she’s racing about in 108 different directions at once!

There’s been a very interesting discussion going on over at The Cassandra Pages for the last three days now (click here for the permalink). It was sparked by a moving & very understated essay in which the author contrasted hearing a sermon by the newly installed New Hampshire Episcopal bishop, Gene Robinson (he whose ordination threatened to split the Anglican church), with a visit afterwards to a typical American mall. How to practice the “radical hospitality and infinite respect” the bishop preached surrounded by such soul-destroying craving and consumerism? How to love the people who manufacture and peddle all this stuff? The message strings are very lively because it’s not just Christians talking to Christians; the Buddhists and agnostics are chiming in, too.

One comment in these discussions was along the lines of, “I don’t believe in higher powers. I guess that’s why I’m not religious.” But it seems to me that questions of how to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” “love thy enemy” and give welcome to the widow, the orphan and the stranger are precisely the beginning and end of religion. I agree with Confucius: metaphysics is a sideshow. Life after death? Don’t be such a baby! You’re going to die. Odds are you’ll suffer quite a bit before you get there. Deal with it.

Faith/trust in [insert name of idol here], at its best and most essential, should mean cultivating a deeply conscious openness toward the world and toward each of its flawed inhabitants – even (or especially) when they are DEEPLY EVIL CYNICAL PSYCHOPATHIC RUMSFELD SADDAM MOTHERFUCKERS WITHOUT A SHRED OF HUMAN DECENCY.

I notice that (as of last night) none of the participants in the discussion had really dealt concretely with “radical hospitality”; they were mostly just exploring the ramifications of “infinite respect.” O.K. But this is a major flaw in our culture, I think. I wonder if our collective tone-deafness toward this most ancient of virtues has something to do with our national origins, in genocide and chattel slavery. But be that as it may, I think the practice of hospitality is one of the things we could most stand to learn from Muslims and/or Arabs. It is very painful to read descriptions of American troops behaving like the Gestapo, abusing the abundant hospitality they are shown when they enter houses unannounced, frightening and insulting their would-be hosts. We just don’t know how to be good guests! It is equally painful to hear about how we have begun fingerprinting every non-White visitor to the U.S.; imprisoning resident aliens and keeping them incommunicado for months for traffic violations or lapsed visas, then deporting them without even giving them a chance to say goodbye to their American families. We don’t know how to be good hosts.

Returning to my evolving midrash on Jacob and Esau (see “history and freedom” entry): the less biblically literate among my readers may not perhaps realize the full import of this tale. And the deeply particularistic language of the Old Testament makes it easy to forget: these are not just individuals, but “corporate persons” – ancestors of two neighboring and usually warring peoples, Israel and Edom, at the time this story was given its final form. In later millennia, Jews of the Diaspora read “Edom” as code for “Christendom.” That’s the background/baggage of this apparently simple story of reconciliation between brothers, with all the grand gestures of radical hospitality and infinite respect.

There’s something else that strikes me. In terms of the structure of the narrative, Jacob’s weird nocturnal wrestling bout comes at the very same place where many years previous, as a mama’s boy fleeing his brother’s wrath, he took a stone for a pillow and dreamed his famous, epiphanic dream. In those terrible sugar-coated Bible Stories For Children that have been the cause of so many former altar boys and choir girls turning their backs on religion, Jacob’s Ladder is right up there with Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors and David and Goliath. The scholars tell us that rather than a ladder we should envision the stairs on a ziggurat, but never mind.

The point to me is that the two stories have a dialectical relationship. Where before Jacob had a dream of a strictly vertical order, with angels going up and down and the Lord standing above all and thundering his promise to multiply Jabob’s descendents – a future market-dominance by his corporate personhood – now we have sleeplessness. A dark night of the soul, a cloud of unknowing. “A man came and wrestled with him until daybreak.” Not (as in Bible Stories for Children) some fluffy-winged angel. God or demon? He doesn’t give out his name. We know only that, the next day when Jacob finally meets up with Esau, he sees the face of God. “And Jacob called the name of the place Penuel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” (Gen. 33:30)

Okey-dokey. But then comes the awful 34th Chapter of Genesis: the first recorded genocide against the inhabitants of what is now called Palestine, perpetrated by Jacob’s sons to avenge the “defiling” of their sister. Has Jacob learned nothing from his two, very different epiphanies?

Actually, he takes no part in the massacre, and in fact chastises his sons. But his rebuke has a decidedly self-serving ring to it: You’ve given me a really bad reputation among the natives here, he says, “and I being few in number, they shall gather themselves together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house. And they said, Should he deal with our sister as a harlot?”(Gen. 34:30-31) God is conspicuously absent until the very end. The pious people who divided the Bible into chapter and verse at a later time put in a chapter break when at last Yahweh speaks up.

“And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel” – that’s where the stone pillow epiphany took place – “and dwell there: and make thee an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother.” (35:1) The voices in my head are saying we gotta go now, quick! And by the way, we better clean up our act. “Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments” (35:2) and they do so. And “the terror of God” comes upon all the cities in their path. Strong stuff.