We are joined by a new/old spirit, a disembodied voice who insists upon his embodiment. He is blogging from a place where bodies shine with an uncommon radiance that is all their own, and where the dance never ends.

“Among the psychic realities, the feast is a thing in itself, not to be confused with anything else in the world.”
– Karl Kerenyi (quoted in Homo Ludens, by Johan Huizinga)

At the risk of giving away all my secrets, I should mention that often when I come in from my morning coffee-on-the-front-porch ritual with nothing particular in mind to write about, I’ll do one of two things: sit in front of the monitor drumming my fingers and staring at the keys for a while; or grab a book and open it more or less at random. The latter approach closely resembles stichomacy, a form of divination most often practiced with the Bible. You pose a question and open the book haphazardly, without thinking – of course it can’t be random; we must assume some Force or Energy Field or some such is at work. Otherwise the whole exercise is meaningless.

If you want stichomacy to work, it helps to have a good, general question. Yesterday afternoon, I tried using an electronic stichomacy site to help me answer the question, “What shall I make for supper tonight?” The answers were difficult to apply to my situation without a great deal of dexterous so-called interpretation that would best be described as squishy. After a few such exercises, I decided that the gods wanted me to serve zucchini. Which was actually pretty convenient, because I have a ton of it in my refrigerator.

The problem with the electronic site is that it focuses on quantity rather than quality. I don’t care how many hundreds of romance and adventure novels you include, you’re not going to come up with a whole lot of wisdom. This morning, by contrast, I grabbed the massive Treasury of African Folklore by Harold Courlander, with the question “What shall I blog about?” on my mind, and found something right away.

This is from an English translation of a German anthology from the 1930s, Die Stammeslehren des Dschagga. Courlander titles the section “Teachings of the Chagga Elders.” The Chagga people live in East Africa, within the borders of modern Tanzania. The five pieces selected by Courlander are all fairly light-hearted yet conservative and moralistic in the manner typical of traditional oral wisdom. It interested me to open the book up to the following piece – which I had never read before – because I had just been observing the behavior of married couples the other day and thinking to myself, “The happy ones are the couples where the man has uncomplainingly accepted the fact that the woman is almost always right.” I don’t know if I would go so far as to frame this as a general proposition; I can think of plenty of women who are, often enough, quite flagrantly wrong (though not perhaps as often or as flagrantly as men would be). And I realize that I am skating on exceptionally thin ice with both my female readers here, merely by attempting to frame such a generalization in the first place. But hey, right or wrong, I had the thought and I’m not going to apologize for that. And let me hasten to add that I offer up the following more for the language and imagery than for any other reason. But guys, I think the message here is clear: don’t be touching the women’s calabashes!

Nothing on Earth is Cleverer Than the Female Sex
a traditional teaching of the Chagga elders

See, my grandchild! As I teach you, and you children in the older class teach each other, you think: We men are clever. If you see womankind and watch how four or five of them sit together and tell each other things, you think: Instead of chatting here, they ought ot get up, go home and cut grass. As you talk like this to each other, you think in your own minds: They are stupid and ignorant. See, my grandchild, they are not stupid. Nothing in the whole world is cleverer than the female sex. Know this, if you are as other men, you are not as intelligent as a woman. It is only that she is given into your charge. If it were you who were given into her charge, she would surpass you in intelligence. Therefore I tell you, a woman will keep a thing in her head better than you. See, my grandson, you live together and she is your wife. Drive a cow into the house and let her milk it. Now if you feel a bit hungry in the middle of the night, because you have not eaten your fill, then you say to her: If only you had cooked a milk dish, we would have easily eaten our fill! And she says to you: Oh no, there was not enough to cook a milk dish with. Get some more!

See, my grandson, you must realize that a woman is intelligent. For she wants to keep the milk until it is sour, so that when she puts it into the food it is strong enough to give a good taste to it. But you just listen and say nothing. The next day, when the sun rises she says to you: Help me and put a piece of banana branch for the cow, so that it can chew it slowly, while I go to fetch grass. The while you are cutting that piece of banana branch, you think: All right, I’ll examine the calabash to see whether she was deceiving me when she said there was no more milk in it, or if there really isn’t any it it. When you have cut the piece of banana branch, you seize the calabash, you pick it up like that and then put it down again. You don’t drink any of it, oh no! When she comes, you say nothing, get up and go out to where the men are. See, my grandson, the woman seeks out the calabash and thinks: I wonder if when he had cut the piece of banana branch, he took up and looked at the calabash? She goes, finds it and notices that you have turned it around, put it down in another position and were unable to set it down as she did.

If you do this four times, the woman will speak of it behind your back. Then if you are a little rude to her she will go to her family; and if you and they then discuss the matter, and the woman is not properly trained – no one has ever said to her “You must not say such things” – her education having been neglected, she says: Get up and go away from here, monster, you who lift up women’s calabashes. With such words she brings you into great disrepute and you are hated among men. They curse you and say: What is the point of touching women’s calabashes? And the women speak of you and say: I should not like to be married to a man who lifts women’s calabashes!

See, my grandson, as a man you are not capable of setting down anything anywhere so that you can see, as a woman can, whether it has been touched.*

Therefore I tell you: a woman is clever. And if you respect what is women’s business your reputation will not suffer. And your wife will honor you, because she knows that you have learned to keep quiet like other men.

*This does strike me as possibly being an insight of universal applicability. The rest of the lesson drawn here doesn’t seem too applicable to a society like ours where a strict separation between men’s and women’s business thankfully no longer exists, and where communication between the sexes is comparatively free and open. But the fact remains that most men have tunnel vision; we just aren’t as good at perceiving the total situation as a woman is. That much I believe.

But how sneaky of me, really, to adopt the tone and manner of conviction simply for rhetorical effect. How duplicitous. That woman on the next bar stool, would she have looked so impressed if I had added the caveat that full disclosure would have demanded? “Please be advised that taking anything I say at face value may be hazardous to your sense of trust.” Ordinary human decency requires that we leave people’s prejudices largely intact, much of the time. Break this rule too regularly and you will find yourself shunned – take it from me. And the belief in a one-to-one correspondence between word and thing, between signifier and signified – well, you can call it naive if you want to. But try finding an American who doesn’t cling to it. The people who don’t say what they mean and mean what they say, they’re the ones that have brought us all these high taxes and unwed mothers and new mini malls where that trout stream used to be. Politicians, lawyers, bigshots. Middle managers. Liberals. People who talk out of both sides of their mouths, until even they don’t know what they mean. People like me.

This morning I’m thinking how nice it would be to adopt a manageable number of real, unequivocal beliefs. For example:
I believe that there is no such thing as a bad hug. I believe that every prisoner should be given a puppy or a kitten to care for. I believe that shit happens. I believe that someday we will understand, and that when we understand, we will choose to do good. I believe that dirt under the fingernails is a sign of virtue. I believe that people should strive to be as healthy and happy as possible. I believe that everybody is special. There! That wasn’t so hard to write, now, was it?

Ah, but immediately I begin casting about for exceptions. A hug can be unwelcome, poorly executed, or even exploitative. Who says that puppies and kittens really deserve to live behind prison walls? Shit doesn’t just happen – you have to eat something, your digestive system needs to be in good working order, and figuratively speaking, some people just go through life without ever experiencing a rained-out picnic or a broken promise. It stands to reason: there are six billion people in the world. A small fraction must manage to beat the odds.

And so it goes with the rest of the list: “understand” how, to what extent? And for something to be freely chosen, refusal must remain a strong possibility. Therefore, the world will most likely always have so-called evil. And therefore, how can you prove that this isn’t in fact the best of all possible worlds? Without the possibility of wrongdoing, the even more palpable evil of unthinking obedience would destroy any possibility for true goodness, would it not?

One may have dirt under one’s fingernails from working long hours at menial, soul-destroying jobs. Some dirt gets under the skin after a while, until the only way one can feel clean again is to come into work some fine morning cradling a shotgun in one’s freshly scrubbed arms.

Health and happiness? So much is a matter of outlook. And so much necessary work depends on those who are willing to suffer privation. Some may need to sacrifice their own happiness merely to preserve the possibility of happiness for others. Nor can we resolve the issue by claiming simply that each person must seek an appropriate balance between acceptance and renunciation. Where’s the outrage, as Bob Dole used to say with such badly feigned conviction? What ever happened to the notion of a call, of an unhealed wound in the healer’s heart?

Everybody special? Hardly. And the sooner we can purge ourselves of this pernicious notion, the sooner we might be able to see the spark of divinity that shines in every child’s eyes. Fire is fire. From a strictly scientific point of view, this stand-in for Whatever doesn’t even have substantial existence: things burn. “Fire” is a highly imprecise term for the phenomenon of combustion, a chemical process closely resembling oxidation and metabolism. Rust is a slow fire. Heartburn is a medical condition. And this ache in my belly, this burning in my gut, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the tunes I choose to sing.


Then God sent a raven which scratched the ground
in order to show how to hide
the nakedness of his brother.
“Alas, the woe,” said he, “that I could not be
even like the raven and hide
the nakedness of my brother,”
and was filled with remorse.

Al-Qur’an 5:31 (Ahmed Ali, tr., Princeton University Press, 1984)

The ground cries out against me. Everywhere I step, the tiny and opportunistic seeds of invasive weeds fall from the soles of my boots. My breath is corrupt; the kiss of friendship can doom nine out of ten members of an uncontacted tribe. My hugs are fatal, brother raven. You would do well to keep your distance. When you leave this leaky ark to find dry land, don’t look back.

Sometimes I get depressed by all the over-educated people in the world who seem to regard the expression of strong convictions as a mark of poor breeding. At such times I like to re-read this poem by the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939). In particular, the lines:

y pedantones al paño
que miran, callan y piensan
que saben, porque no beben
el vino de las tabernas.

Mala gente que camina
y va apestando la tierra . . .

(and pedants lounging about in their bathrobes
who look on, say nothing, and think
they know, because they don’t drink
in the ordinary bars.

Foul people who go all around the earth
spreading their stink . . . )

Machado lived most of his life in the provinces, employed as a high school French teacher; his poems and prose were not fully appreciated until after his death. The one and only love of his life had a first name eerily reminiscent of Poe’s “rare and radiant maiden”: Leonor Izquierdo. He married her when she was 16 and he 34; she died two years later of consumption. He never remarried. He died one month after fleeing into France ahead of the fascists.

Machado would’ve made a great blogger. His “apocryphal professor,” Juan de Mairena, served as Machado’s alter ego for a nearly endless stream of commentaries on literature, culture, philosophy and politics. He told his students that

We live in an essentially apocryphal world, a cosmos or poem of our own thinking, ordered and structured on undemonstrable suppositions postulated by reason, which we have come to call principles of logical discourse. It is these principles, compacted and synthesized into a principle of identity, that constitute the master supposition of them all: that all things, by the mere fact of their being thought immutable, are anchored forever, as it were, in the river of Heraclitus. The apocryphal character of our world is proved by the existence of logic – our need to put our thinking in accord with itself, to compel it in a sense to see nothing but the supposititious or its postulates, to the exclusion of all other things. In a word, the fact that our whole world is founded on a predicate which might well be erroneous is either dreadful or comforting, depending on the eye of the beholder.

That’s from the Ben Belitt translation of Juan de Mairena (University of California Press, 1963), the only edition I have. (Though Belitt is an execrable translator of poetry – his Neruda volumes for Grove Press are among the few books I would advocate burning – I don’t suppose he can do as much damage to prose.)

Machado maintains a light-hearted mood throughout, in accordance with Mairena’s stated belief that solemn lyricism should be saved for poetry. Last night as I was re-reading these essays, I was struck by how closely Mairena’s views approximate my own. Evidently I had the same reaction on previous readings, because the margins are filled with notes in my own hand – something that, as a librarian’s son, I almost never do to my books. (I guess I must’ve figured it was O.K. to deface a Ben Belitt translation.) The following paragraphs, for example, express a thought I’ve often entertained:

Blasphemy is part and parcel of all popular religion. Beware of the community in which blasphemy does not exist: underneath, atheism runs rampant. Proscribe it with punitive laws as drastic as you please and you will poison the heart of a people and turn their dialogue with divinity into a fraud. Will the God who reads all human hearts allow Himself to be so swindled? He would sooner forgive the professed heretic – never doubt it! – than the latent desecration of the hypocrite who sins in his soul – or more hypocritically still, subverts his blasphemy into prayer.
Blasphemy is more than mere ‘folklore,’ as my teacher Abel Martín used to maintain. In any duly constituted faculty of theology, a chair of blasphemy – in preparation for the doctorate, of course – would be indispensable: occupied by the Devil himself, if possible.

The book is concerned above all else with pedagogy. Machado not only invented an idealized professor; he had him speculate in some detail about what shape an ideal institution of learning might take.

Juan de Mairena had long cherished the idea of founding on his native soil a popular school of wisdom. He abandoned the project only with the death of his teacher, for whom he had destined the chair of poetics and metaphysics. The chair of sophistry he had reserved for himself. . . .

Such a school would flourish in Spain, needless to say, only if there were teachers capable of implementing those aims – and nowhere more so than in Andalusia, where man has not yet been debased by a perverse mystique of hard work, or rather, a feverish pursuit of money for purchasing pleasures and material satisfactions in exchange for muscular exhaustion. . . .

Ours would be a Delphic order of aphorism translated into the vulgate of the Romance languages in suasive rather than categorical terms: “It behooves thee to strive after . . . ” And we would add: “Let no one enter here who presumes to know anything about anything” – not even geometry, which we would probably study as an essentially inexact science. For the keystone of our school, with its two founding chairs like the two blades of a single shears – the chairs of sophistry and metaphysics – would be to reveal to a people, namely, the folk of our native soil, the whole context of their possible thought, the length and breadth of those vast zones where the spirit is alternately illumined and darkened; to induce them to re-contemplate the already contemplated, to un-know the already known and doubt what they already hold in doubt: for that is the only way we can begin to believe in anything.”

I had planned to leave you with that thought, but I just found one more paragraph that perfectly sums up my attitude toward my own sophistry. Perhaps I should append this quote to the “Disclaimer” I wrote last week:

Let me repeat what I have so often told you in the past: always take me with a grain of salt; I have no stock of truths to reveal to you. Nor would I have you assume that my purpose as a teacher is to induce you to mistrust your own thinking. I prefer, rather, to lay bare the mistrust which I have for my own. Disregard the air of conviction I frequently employ with you, which is only a rhetorical or grammatical gambit of language, and my somewhat disrespectful and cavalier manner in alluding from time to time to the great minds of the past. They are only the peevish affectations of a doddering orator in the most provincial sense of the word. Give them a deaf ear.

Hear, hear!

A search of the web doesn’t turn up more than a few pages of select quotes from the profesor apócrifo. There is a blog that purports to contain new thoughts of Juan de Mairena, but it seems more dedicated to math and logic problems than to apophatic sophistry in the spirit of Machado.

Storms in the forecast mostly missed us, though more than once the rumble of thunder came close. I heard the booms from a few scattered fireworks before the rain set in, drowning out the big Fourth of July celebration at the nearby amusement park. I could barely keep my eyes open; the intense humidity we’ve been having makes it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Sitting in my chair, trying to read, my attention kept wandering outside, where the rain was delivering its urgent message to the grass and the leaves. A beautiful music even if I don’t understand the words, I thought, and I lay down on the couch with my head toward the screen door.

An hour later I woke up in the darkness. I was covered in sweat – I felt as if I were drowning in my own clothes. The temperature couldn’t have been higher than 70, and fell to 65 by morning. But with this much humidity, the slightest exertion is enough to overload the body’s cooling mechanisms. How in the world do fat people survive? I stumbled upstairs and got undressed, crawling into bed with only a thin sheet over me. Even still I woke again around 1:00, drenched in sweat as before. Possibly I had been having overly energetic dreams, I thought, but I couldn’t remember a thing. Which was odd, really. It was raining again, very softly. A freight train blowing our crossing sounded as if it were many miles farther away. I realized it was the first train whistle I’d heard since before the holiday.

Perhaps I’m not so different from my suburban cousins, who say they can’t sleep when they visit us because of the lack of traffic noise. They’ve taken to staying in a motel right beside a busy highway instead. I wonder if I haven’t gotten to a similar point in regard to the sound of trains? Having lived here almost continuously since the age of five, with the main east-west trunk line of the old Penn Central Railroad winding right around the entrance of the hollow less than a mile and a half away, I’m so accustomed to hearing trains at all hours of the day and night that I barely notice them anymore. But on major holidays when the trains aren’t running, something just doesn’t seem right.

The trains infiltrated our dreams from the start. Both my brothers report having the same dream that I often had as a kid. We’d be walking home from school – the bus didn’t go up our hollow – when we’d hear a train coming right up the road behind us. We’d run as fast as we could through the tunnel of trees, which at a certain point morphed into the steep stairs and hallway of my parents’ house, straight into our bedrooms. We’d start awake, then, with the long wail and the rhythmic pulse of freight cars ringing in our ears.

When we moved here in 1971, two abandoned houses still stood down at the crossing, remnants of a once-thriving village that actually predated the railroad, which came through in 1850. The last kids to grow up in those houses are in their 70s now. Two of them, brothers, are regular visitors to the crossing area, which is also popular with train spotters for the dramatic views it affords of locomotives coming through the gap. One of the brothers brings his wife, and they sit on lawn chairs about fifty feet from the tracks, near where their house used to sit. “We just come here for the sound,” they told me once. “Can’t ever get enough of that.”

Needless to say, from fifty feet away the sound of a train can be almost deafening, especially the high-pitched scream of the occasional rusty wheel. “That didn’t make it hard to sleep growing up?” I asked. “Hell no! Even when the whole house would shake – which it did just about every time – that didn’t bother us. We got so we loved it.”

How did they make it through the holidays, I wonder? And how well do they sleep now, in their adult lives separated from a sound that once had been such a constant – a sound that for over a hundred years nearly defined the American landscape, full of inchoate longing for the great wide open? I try to imagine that rocking – like sleeping in a large ship and rolling every fifteen minutes with another series of swells. Such regularity at sea would seem supernatural, I suppose – Morse code, an SOS, a warning from the god of storms. Rocking in the bosom of Abraham. When my friend Dave the Voudun initiate comes to visit, he always takes the time to leave an offering down at the tracks: a few gold coins and a shot or two of rum for Ogun, orisha of the forge.

A modern-day Elijah would probably denounce this temptation to see and hear divinity in the powerful by-products of human ingenuity. Only in the pauses between the trains should we perhaps listen for that “still, small voice” that sets the hair on end and the heart on fire.

Elijah may have been the first to advance a critique of storm and earthquake as automatic expressions of transcendental power. Nothing’s automatic, of course. Surrounded by the too-quiet wilderness, surely the prophet longed at first for more pyrotechnics. The 400 prophets of Asherah and the 450 prophets of Baal had been unable to match his single-handed feat of calling down fire from heaven. Having once felt that kind of power, what human being wouldn’t want more and more – wouldn’t come to believe that salvation itself lay in such a mastery over the elements?

The true modern-day Elijahs, I suppose, are the ones who bear unwelcome messages about the need for humility and restraint. For now it seems possible that this long dream of power may soon lead to a violent awakening, through storms of unimaginable ferocity. Perhaps. Coffee mug in hand, I pad out into the still-dripping garden.

I had just been examining my tomato plants the evening before, and their change overnight is astonishing. Each main vine looks about six inches longer, with new flower buds and clusters of rootlets sprouting from every bend. With an almost animal-like intelligence the three plants – all volunteers – are reaching eagerly toward the garden’s open spaces. They are luxuriating in the very humidity that makes me feel trapped, unable to see or think clearly. When I pant, do they welcome the extra carbon dioxide, I wonder?

I bend over and try to move one vine to point it in a more advantageous direction, but it resists my tutelage. When I come back in to type this post, I bring the smell of tomatoes with me – that pungent scent that once reminded more God-fearing folk of witchcraft and poison. But one man’s religion is another’s sorcery, I think. And it turns out that all the while I slept, the steady rain and rush of engines had been following endlessly branching tunnels across the earth.

Some railfan pictures taken from the Plummer’s Hollow crossing can be seen here, here and here. (From this site.)

1. Blog title index

If you want to find an old post more quickly, or simply browse more easily through the archives, you might find this new feature useful. Scroll down the sidebar; it’s right after “Restless natives.” Each title is of course a clickable link; this is similar to the “most recently posted” feature found in many blogs, and indeed will work that way for the index page, which, as you’ve probably noticed, is set to display one week at a time.

I’m sure you more tech-savvy types are snickering at me right now, but I am totally psyched by this new discovery! However, I realize it is no substitute for a real subject index. You can always use Google (put search term(s) plus http://neithernor.blogspot.com into the search window), but I’ve found that that doesn’t always work – apparently I have too many words and not enough links, or something.

Can anyone tell me whether it’s possible to install indexing by categories in Blogger (without upgrading to a paying version)?

2. Burning for you

I’ve also “burned a new feed”: that is, I’ve signed up for a new syndication service, which will supposedly convert the existing Atom feed to RSS (Really Simple Syndication) automatically, if needed; give feeds a uniquely browser-friendly appearance; and even optimize the feed on your “handheld wireless device” – a phrase I can’t still say without smirking. All this is free, through a new company called Feedburner.com. The URL is http://feeds.feedburner.com/ViaNegativa.

I’ve also added a little button (in the Tomb of the Unknown Reader section of the sidebar) whereby one can get each new Via Negativa post magically beamed up to one’s “My Yahoo!” page. Pretty special, eh?

Does anyone out there even read this blog in syndication? If so, were these changes useful to you? I am way out of my freakin’ depth here . . . just doing a slow backstroke and gazing up at the sky, wondering why everything seems so quiet all of a sudden.