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.

Cat's cradle

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-references: Qarrtsiluni and Building Dwelling Eating.

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.”

It’s art, dammit!

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An apotheosis

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

A new snowfall; a fresh astonishment of branch and twig. This morning also a fresh batch of bread, from dough that was left to rise all night in the dark kitchen. The resilience and resistance of such dough is a marvel to me, accustomed as I am to the one- or two-hour rise. Like the webs of mycelia that feed the forest, the strands of its meshwork have multiplied and thickened a thousand-fold. It is a veritable city, this rhizomatic complex, this apotheosis of yeast that I will kill and eat.

I am beginning to think of this weblog, too, as a muliplicity rather than a unity. Nevertheless, there have been some unifying themes, which I would like to review this morning by way of a short series of quotes, before striking out in any new direction(s).


“But is it true, as modern psychology often claims, that our religious beliefs are nothing but attempts to satisfy subconscious wishes? That the conception of God is merely a projection of self-seeking emotions, an objectification of subjective needs, the self in disguise? Indeed, the tendency to question the genuineness of man’s concern about God is a challenge no less serious than the tendency to question the existence of God. We are in greater need of a proof for the authenticity of faith than of a proof for the existence of God.

“We have not only forfeited faith; we have lost our faith in the meaning of faith. All we have is a sense of horror. We are afraid of man. We are terrified at our own power. Our proud Western civilization has not withstood the stream of cruelty and crime that burst forth out of the undercurrents of evil in the human soul . . . The flood of wretchedness is sweeping away our monstrous conceit. Who is the Lord? We despair of ever regaining an awareness of Him, of ever regaining faith in the meaning of faith. Indeed, out of a system of ideas where knowledge is power, where values are a synonym for needs, where the pyramid of being is turned upside down – it is hard to find a way to an awareness of God. If the world is only power to us and we are all absorbed in a gold rush, then the only god we may come upon is the golden calf. Nature as a tool box is a world that does not point beyond itself. It is when nature is sensed as mystery and grandeur that it calls upon us to look beyond it . . .

“The sublime is not opposed to the beautiful, and must not, therefore, be considered an esthetic category. The sublime may be sensed in things of beauty as well as in acts of goodness and in the search for truth. The perception of beauty may be the beginning of the experience of the sublime. The sublime is that which we see and are unable to convey. It is the silent allusion of things to a meaning greater than themselves. It is that which all things ultimately stand for; ‘the inveterate silence of the world that remains immune to curiosity and inquisitiveness like distant foliage in the dusk.’ It is that which our word, our forms, our categories can never reach. This is why the sense of the sublime must be regarded as the root of man’s creative activities in art, thought, and noble living . . .

“The sublime, furthermore, is not necessarily related to the vast and the overwhelming in size. It may be sensed in every grain of sand, in every drop of water. Every flower in the summer, every snowflake in the winter, may arouse in us a sense of wonder that is our response to the sublime.”

ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, Jewish Publication Society, 1955.


“Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Whatever the vexations and concerns of their personal lives, their thoughts can find paths that lead to inner contentment and to renewed excitement in living. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.

“I like to remember the distinguished Swedish oceanographer, Otto Pettersson, who died a few years ago at the age of ninety-three, in full possession of his keen mental powers. His son, also world-famous in oceanography, has related in a recent book how intensely his father enjoyed every new experience, every new discovery concerning the world about him.

“‘He was an incurable romantic,’ the son wrote, ‘intensely in love with life and the mysteries of the cosmos.’ When he realized he had not much longer to enjoy the earthly scene, Otto Pettersson said to his son: ‘What will sustain me in my last moments is an infinite curiosity as to what will follow.'”

RACHEL CARSON, The Sense of Wonder, Harper and Row, 1965.

“The stars in the night sky hold no interest for advertisers, for they don’t reflect us. The stars that do reflect us are the kind that appear on talk shows. Since we can’t all appear on TV, our race needs some representatives, and these are the ones sitting on the couch next to Regis and Kathie Lee. If they were of interest because they were actors, Jay Leno would ask them questions about acting – ‘How did you conjure up the mood for that scene?’ Instead, we want to know about their lives, and the lives of other stars they have ‘worked with.’ They are of interest because they are stand-ins for us. By the very act of being important, they redeem the lifetime we have spent watching them . . . Most cultures, historically, have put something else – God or nature or some combination – at the center. But we’ve put these things at the periphery. A consumer society doesn’t need them to function, and it can’t tolerate the limits they might impose; there’s only a need for people.”

BILL MCKIBBEN, The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation, Eerdmans, 1994. (Italics in original – from “Most cultures” through end of quote – removed here.)


“Pure religion, religion as distinct from magic and opposed to it, is the exact contrary of an applied science; for it constitutes a realm where the subject is confronted with something over which he can obtain no hold at all. If the word transcendence describes anything whatever, it must be this – the absolute, impassable gulf that opens between the soul and being whenever being refuses us a hold. No gesture is more significant than the joined hands of a believer, mutely witnessing that nothing can be done and nothing changed, and that he comes simply to give himself up. Whether the gesture is one of dedication or of worship, we can still say that the feeling behind it is the realisation of the holy, and that awe, love and fear all enter into it simultaneously. Notice that there is no question here of a passive state; to assert that would be to imply that the activity of the technician, as he takes, modifies and elaborates, is the only activity worthy of the name.”

GABRIEL MARCEL, Being and Having, trans. Katherine Fisher, Harper Torchbooks, 1961.


That is full; this is full. The full comes out of the full. Taking the full from the full the full itself remains. Aum, peace, peace, peace.

ISA UPANISAD, trans. S. Rhadhakrishnan, The Principal Upanisads, Humanities Press, 1992.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Wisdom Teeth

That time I was marooned
by a toothache – weeping eyes
screwed shut, mouth agape –
I might’ve been taken for someone
in the throes of ecstasy, lying
on the couch with all
the windows open. The weather
was June, and wonderful.
All afternoon I clung to the thread
of the brown thrasher’s song.

Even in extremis it’s simple
to tell a thrasher from his cousin
the catbird: he repeats
almost every improvised line.
Paired phrases sometimes reach
into the low thousands
without repeating.

Pain can sound exactly like
the world, I thought.
Neither can be replicated.
Art lets us exceed
ourselves, and so escape.

both wisdom teeth had to come out.
For a week or two I had to chew
deliberately. Each bite
of food was accompanied
by a mouthful of thought.

Consulting the Mirror

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

When I look into a mirror, I look at the enemy.
— Darryl Strawberry

Look: the mirror lies.

Not only because it switches sides, but because it doesn’t redeem.

True, it accuses; it judges, yes. For certain, it condemns.

A face’s truest reflection is in moving water: another face.

And the body? The body shines too. Its only true mirror is the body of another.

If I fall in love with a narcissist, am I too condemned?

We say the face of the earth, but never the face of the sky.

If I fall in love with the blue of heaven, who will redeem me then?

What does it mean to make a face?

Why is the straight man essential to the joke?

When you hold one mirror up to another, why doesn’t the world go dark?

Dream of the White Chamber

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The M.C. or Main Complex of the World Bank in Washington includes a cafeteria with a vast selection of affordable dishes from a variety of international cuisines. Of course, not just anyone can eat there. You have to know somebody who works for the bank, and he or she has to sign you into the building. (And this was before 9/11.) I was down in D.C. visiting my friend Chris, who worked just a block away and whose girlfriend Seung was a World Bank employee, so it made sense to go there for lunch.

We carried our trays out into an atrium where a faux bistro lured us to sit in a tease of real sunlight. Actually, “atrium” may not be the right word. (I apologize for my ignorance of architecture.) The M.C. is shaped like a hollow, square column, some ten or twenty stories high: every floor opens onto the sky-lit courtyard, which is roofed in glass too thick to admit any view of the clouds.

After about 40 minutes, Seung had to hurry back to work, leaving Chris and me to linger if we wanted. Unless he has a beer in his hand, however, Chris is never one to dawdle for very long. Let’s go back to the office, man, I’ll show you around!

On our way out, I paused to admire a large obelisk made up entirely of video screens, broadcasting satellite television stations from around the globe. Not too profound, as such things go, but provocative nonetheless – like the Washington Monument turned into a Tower of Babel. When I turned around to say something to Chris, he was gone.

I usually enjoy being lost. I searched half-heartedly at first, trying to maintain a brisk enough pace so I wouldn’t stand out as an obvious interloper among all the distinguished-looking people of every nationality who crowded the hallways. No sign of Chris. (It turned out that he had been searching for me at the same time. One of us should’ve just stayed put!)

After about ten minutes of this I gave up and started looking for an exit. Oddly enough, I couldn’t find one. Which was the ground floor? Was there more than one way out? Where was all the light coming from? The janitors I queried in a stairwell merely laughed – whether from nervousness or contempt I couldn’t tell. In my panic I started opening doors at random, briefly interrupting two meetings and backing away from half a dozen soft-walled labyrinths filled with the humming of office machines. It was starting to feel not just like a bad dream but the wrong dream, someone else’s dream that I’d somehow stumbled into. When I finally guessed right and found myself facing the front door, it was all I could do to keep from breaking into a run.

And sure enough – no surprise – I did revisit the World Bank in at least one bad dream that I can remember. It’s maybe six months later. The elevator opens onto a room somewhere in the sub-basement, I step out and there’s my old friend Ben, the one who died from a heroin overdose a couple years before. His head’s shaved bare. He’s lying on a mattress with hundreds of fishhooks emplanted in his skin. I edge closer and see the maze of piano wires that stretch away from the hooks in every direction, anchored in the white concrete of walls and ceiling.

You get used to it, he says. Besides, it’s only for another two years.

It’s not the thought of the pain that frightens me but his monotonal voice. This isn’t the joyful/scornful/angry/despairing rebel I once thought I knew so well. I’m thinking, This must be some kind of stunt double or something. He won’t catch my eye for a single moment, winces every time I look at him.

Look, I’ll call the police, I tell him, but already the guards are closing in. Where are your badge numbers? I demand to see your supervisor! I protest, as someone slips the plastic cuffs around my wrists. A desperate appeal to conscience: God is watching you! I say as calmly as I can, while someone lifts my upper eyelids with a pair of tweezers, first the left then the right, and sprays a burning mist directly onto each eyeball.

There’s a high-pitched giggle that sounds almost as if it could be from Ben. He don’t need no phone call – already got a direct line to the Chief! and a hand falls on my shoulder and rests there a half-second too long.

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.