Several years ago, when I was reading Edward Snow’s translations of Rilke’s Book of Images* for the first time, I set about trying to write the mirror image of a Rilkean portrait. The end product was nowhere near his league, of course, but I still include it among those few I am willing to share because I like the way it describes without describing. Our theme being the via negativa, it seems appropriate to reproduce it here.

NUDE

A pile of shed
garments on
the hardwood floor
rising in layers
of ever thinner
firmament,
from denim
to lightest cotton
to breath-
less silk &
a trickle
of sunlight
spilling through a crack
in the curtains.
While
the prim unwrinkled
bed, the generic night-
stand pinned under
a thick phone book
& the blank TV atop
a chest
of drawers
all resist
engagement: nothing
to capture
the enchanted gaze
or even the bemused
appraisal.
No stage
hand could stand
such inattention
to properties,
such utter abandon as
this room’s lone
occupant displays.

–From the manuscript entitled Capturing the Hive, p. 57.

*Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Images. Translated by Edward Snow (bilingual edition), North Point Press, 1991. (The original, Das Buch der Bilder, was published in 1902 and greatly expanded in 1906. Rilke was one of the 20th century’s three or four greatest poets, and Snow is without a doubt his greatest translator.)

Last year at this time I was putting together a deliberately chaotic personal website. Now, as the longest night of the year approaches, without really thinking about the timing I’ve launched this weblog to document and celebrate the limits to human knowledge – if possible, to “speak the shade.”

And being the kind of crank that I am, as others are celebrating the return of light, I will be mourning the gradual loss of darkness. My cousin Josh sent around the .url for a site on Celebrating Winter Solstice as a Pagan. As usual with this kind of thing I feel a vague nausea at the squishiness of it all. All the world’s a spiritual Wal-Mart – let’s go shopping! Put everything that comforts in your basket, and let nothing you dismay!

I have a theory that the Hebrews fled Egypt to get away from just this sort of thing. Memphite theologians developed a whole system for squeezing the life out of local traditions and sweeping up everything with a Vacuum. Next thing you know, over-awed Greek merchants are pulling their money out of pagan temples to endow chairs in philosophy. This was the original spiritual conquest – not so different in its methods from the economic colonialism that Athens made such a science of.

The Romans were New Agers par excellance. Christianity was just one of a whole panoply of exotic cults that found favor in the later days of the empire. Goddess worship was rife among upper-class matrons. The Roman legionnaires tended to worship Mithra, the Persian personification of light, apparently because his cult celebrated loyalty, obedience, fraternity and celibacy as its chief virtues. Ironically, Persia was Rome’s arch military rival for hundreds of years, but the prestige of its religious traditions was immense in the ancient world. “There was a Persian dispersion similar to that of the Israelites. Communities of magi were established not only in eastern Asia Minor, but in Galatia, Phrygia, Lydia and even in Egypt. Everywhere they remained attached to their customs and beliefs with persistent tenacity.” (Franz Cumont, Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, Dover, 1956, p. 139.)

Yes, Virginia, there were Magi. It is thanks to their influence that Christian doctrine ended up demonizing Nature and propagating the absurd doctrine of Original Sin.

The Romans saw themselves as a tolerant and enlightened people. What they didn’t like about Christians was their ideological intolerance, their claim to a monopoly on truth. They were dangerous subversives, because they refused to acknowledge the divinity of the emperor. Both Roman and Christian – like the Muslims after them – insisted that they were pursuing the way toward peace and justice and the Brotherhood of Man. It was a clash of competing universalisms. The verdict is still out on which ideology triumphed.

Blah blah blah, whatever. Meanwhile I have become “attached with tenacity” to the phrase, “Persian dispersion!” No wonder Cumont’s translator(s) chose to remain anonymous!

dude, what kind of blog is that? I can’t even make fun of you in the comment threads. How am I supposed to infiltrate and undermine nothing? I am an anti-nothing and want my right to dissent back!
– Jim K.

(Dave’s note: bookmark Jim’s own blog for all your northwest PA news needs, www.seamuspress.com.)

I read your blog some. Lots of nuggets there but, in general, it hurts my head. Too much at once for me, end result is mental chaos…for me. Good ideas tend to have more power when they’re all by themselves on a page…IMHO
– Snoid

Interesting.
– Marcia B.

There is no substitute for conversation…there just isn’t.
* * * *
Since reading your blog I look at my old pants very differently.
– Lucy B.

too deep for me. play some skynrd.
– Mark B.

Spanish speakers are especially handy with proverbs. There are several websites that compile dichos (sayings). Folk Wisdom of Mexico, by Jeff Sellers (Chronicle Books, 1994), is a beautifully illustrated little volume with pretty good translations – the emphasis is on making the translation sound proverbial, too.

Here’s a selection of some of the most Sufi-like, with apologies for the lack of diacritical marks (I’ll use “ny” for the enye). My few comments are in parentheses. The translations are by Sellers, except when starred.

Como dijo la mosca, “Andamos arrando!”
The fly atop the ox declares: “We are plowing this field!”

Hay mas tiempo que vida.
There is more time than life.

El valiente vive hasta que el cobarde quiere.
The brave one lives as long as the coward lets him.

Hay que aprender a perder antes de saber jugar.
One must learn how to lose before learning how to play.

La amistad sincera es un alma repartida en dos cuerpos.
True friendship is one soul shared by two bodies.
(Wonderful people, that have this as a common saying!)

La conversacion es el plasto del alma.
Conversation is food for the soul.

Con paciencia y salivita un elefante se coge a una hormiguita.
*With patience and a bit of spit, an elephant can pick up an ant.

El que mucha abarca, poco aprieta.
He who grabs much grasps little.
(There is a profusion of Mexican dichos about the folly of greed and the importance of being satisfied with little. Do we have ANY sayings like that in Gringolandia?)

No da el que puede, sino el que quiere.
It’s not the able who give, but the desirous.

Cada quien puede hacer de sus calzones un palote.
*Anyone is entitled to make a kite out of his pants.
(This is my favorite!)

Ganar un pleito es adquirir un pollo y perder una vaca.
To win a dispute is to gain a chicken and lose a cow.

Mata mas una esperanza que un desenganyo.
*More people are killed by hope than disenchantment.

La malicia va mas alla de la realidad.
*Malice leaves reality in the dust.

Cada quien es duenyo de su miedo.
*Everyone is a master of their own fear.

El muchacho malcriado dondequiera encuentra padre.
*The spoiled child finds a father wherever he goes.

Quien mas mira menos ve.
The more one looks, the less one sees.

El tiempo cura y nos mata.
*Time is a doctor: it cures and then it kills.

Closely related to the ban on (mis)using the Name is the taboo against Image-making. Obviously, there is a great diversity in the understanding of this commandment among the People of the Book. Rather than doing the obvious and going to Muslim sources, however, I propose to quote the Christian mystic Eckhart — as interpreted by a contemporary, secular Jewish poet, Stanley Kunitz. You’ll see why in a second:

The Image-Maker

A wind passed over my mind,
insidious and cold.
It is a thought, I thought,
but it was only its shadow.
Words came,
or the breath of my sisters,
with a black rustle of wings.
They came with a summons
that followed a blessing.
I could not believe
I too would be punished.
Perhaps it is time to go,
to slip alone, as at a birth,
out of this glowing house
where all my children danced.
Seductive Night! I have stood
at my casement the longest hour,
watching the acid wafer
of the moon slowly dissolving
in a scud of cloud, and heard
the farthest hidden stars
calling my name.
I listen, but I avert my ears
from Meister Eckhart’s warning:
All things must be forsaken.
God scorns
to show Himself among images.

(Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected, Norton, 1995. 122.)

“I avert my ears”: I love that!

This is something else that intrigues me. There are a myriad versions of the self-curse, usually beginning with (and sometimes going no further than) “Well, I’ll be . . . ” The biblical commandment refers only to using the name of God in vain . . . which often leads me to wonder whether selfish, petitionary prayers — the staple of TV ministries — may not, in fact, be blasphemous! (What could be more vain, more of a presumption and an offense against the divine will, than praying for a new SUV?)

Let’s remember the original point of this commandment: to ensure divine sovereignty/autonomy by situating the deity beyond all human control. In the magico-religious worldview, ritual naming – invoking – is a fundamental assertion of power over the being or object named. Hence YHWH’s bullshitting answer to the soon-to-be wizard Moses at the burning bush: “I will be who I will be. Tell them I Will Be has sent you!” To regard the wagering of oneself also as a transgression would seem to involve the slightly unorthodox notion of the God within.

Job’s wife’s utterance is powerful precisely because of this kind of ambiguity. In an age that could not conceive of atheism, the worst one could do was to invite one’s own damnation. But this was also an age without the belief in an afterlife reward for the virtuous. God favors his chosen with the promise of innumerable descendents. So is Job’s wife really advising him to court damnation? He will go down to Sheol one way or another, and God has already killed off all his heirs. Any possibility of further blessings thus seems already out of the question.

Pious people have always had a huge problem with Job. He is in the end rewarded for talking back to God, and his friends are severely chastised because they insist on mouthing pieties! Job’s God asserts for all time that the ultimate heresy is presuming to pass judgement in God’s stead, which encompasses, finally, any definitive statement about “life, the universe, and everything!”

Scholars maintain that the prologue and epilogue derive from the folk tradition, the remainder being the work of a master poet. Thus, in the prologue Job gives one answer to his wife, and over the course of the dialogues with his companions, a very different answer. But obviously the composer/poet left the preliminary answer intact for a reason. What at first seems to be submission to the will of a transcendent, unknowable deity is transformed into an unflinching belief in one’s own innocence and integrity — even against God Himself.

The prominent old testament scholar Marvin H. Pope, in his Job volume for the Anchor Bible, says that the passage Christians have traditionally understood as an anachronistic reference to Jesus — “I know my Redeemer liveth” in the King James Version — is in reality a plea for a lawyer. Well, I’ll be damned!

In my mind (and maybe in reality, who knows?) the beginning of the via negativa in the West has its roots in the anti-authoritarianism of the ancient Hebrews, who gave us first the prophets, then the great wisdom literature of Job, Ecclesiastes, certain psalms, and of course the Proverbs. The process of redaction involved — among many other things — the principle that context could alter content, sometimes by 180 degrees. Pagan hymns such as Psalms 19 and 104 and the Song of Songs were not shunned, but captured and converted. Popular sayings were elevated by inclusion within aristocratic compositions about the ineffable.

A fascinating article from a recent issue of the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament (27:2, Dec. 2002, 223-235), by Laura Joffe, references Douglas Adams in its title, “The Answer to the Meaning of Life, the Universe and the Elohistic Psalter.” (In Adams’ comic novel Life, the Universe and Everything, the answer to the meaning of life is revealed to be . . . 42!) Here’s the abstract. (Apotropaic means ‘designed to avert evil.’)

“This article asks why the Elohistic Psalter (Pss. 42-83) was commissioned. It is suggested that the Elohistic Psalter was constructed in order to invoke a ‘magic triangle’ (comprising God’s name, the number 42, and a blessing) for some apotropaic purpose. It is argued that this theory gains credence from two areas: first, the importance of numerical organization of large groups of Psalms; and, second, the history of the number 42, which in biblical times was a number of disaster, and in later Jewish tradition became associated with a protective name of God.”

I’m no big fan of numerology, but toward the end of the article Joffe gets at a point that has always been of great interest to me: “How does the biblical curse of 42 relate to the Elohistic Psalter — the blessing of 42? Blessing and cursing themselves are closely related concepts, often mentioned together (Deut. 11.26-28; Josh. 8.34; Ps. 109.17-18; Prov. 27.14). In the prose prologue to Job, the same root [Hebrew letters given] serves for both blessing (1.21) and cursing (1.5, 11; 2.5).”

So in Job’s famous renunciation speech — “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” — may we hear a little ambiguity, even irony, in that “blessed”? It’s even more a matter of interpretation with Job’s wife’s sole speaking part. In light of this new information, I would advocate switching “curse” to “bless” in the translation, enhancing the bitterness with sarcasm: “Then his wife spoke up and said, “Why do you still cling to your faith? Bless God and die.”

Joffe continues with other examples from the Old Testament, concluding, “The curse of 42 that invoked the name of God could be effectively warded off by a blessing that also involved 42 and the name of God.” In a footnote, she wisely points out that “Using like to fight like features highly in both the ancient and modern worlds. The eye that protects against the evil eye, homeopathic medicine and immunization, are all examples of the same thing.”

“GodDAMN!” one may say with the utmost reverence, upon seeing something particularly striking (usually a woman). The simplest invocation of all — “Oh, God!” — may operate as both blessing and mild oath at the same time, depending on the circumstances: for example, in the throes of sexual rapture.

This will get us into the even murkier territory of distinguishing between sacred and profane, if we go any further. Best to leave it alone for now.

In Rabbinical Judaism, hermeneutics – deep reading and critical analysis – became the explicit substitute for the act of sacrifice. The connection, I take it, is that both are discriminatory. In Christianity, sacrifice continues, but in a more sublimated form: the rite of eucharist. In both cases, the tendancy is away from violence.

Pueblo religion transformed the bloody sacrificial traditions of greater Mesoamerica in a similarly ingeneous fashion. Prayers are animated, given shape, by carved and feathered prayer sticks fashioned by the petitioner himself, or in the case of a woman by her husband. They are, in fact, effigies of the petitioner. Their use is phenomenologically similar to the act of crossing oneself.

It is at this crossroads in the self that the most important sacrifice is enacted.

Every nation-state is built around an altar; ours is no different. But I am not sure what to think about altared states of being: the bull that turned into a god in the ancient Near East, the Mesoamerican serpent demanding that the whole world shed its skin. Like so many moderns, I prefer the living with their claws and hooves, their manes and humps and barbs, their scales, their feathers. When I eat them, it is not for power. At most I might sketch their shadows, I might dream of trading colors for a world of scent. I have no ambition to don a theurgist’s cloak or wield a jewel-encrusted letter-opener to read a supposed message from another supposed world: this one’s enough. To suck the marrow yet would be too much. I don’t taste half of what I eat.

We can’t let things get too far along without quoting Dickinson. From R.W. Franklin’s Reading Edition (as opposed to the Variorum), The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Belknap Press/Harvard, 1999), p. 392:

Finding is the first Act
The second, loss,
Third, Expedition for the “Golden Fleece”

Fourth, no Discovery –
Fifth, no Crew –
Finally, no Golden Fleece –
Jason, sham, too –