The mind has its own desires & not all of them are pure: it might find (for example) certain thoughts to be shapely, others adorably waif-like, some as fatal to the other five senses as the Lorelei. For Osip Mandelstam, exiled to the Russian steppe, flocks of poems appeared as goldfinches on his daily walks. In the 12th century, Richard of St. Victor, the most systematic of mystics, discovered that the mind has three pairs of wings. It can soar and circle on any one pair, but maneuvers best with all six wings unfolded. One wonders how many years he labored over his sketches of the soul’s most intimate secrets. Each verse of his Bible was a separate pane stained by a separate sky.
Contemporary North American poetry is deeply particularistic. In a complete about-face from the high fashion of a thousand years ago, when allegory reigned supreme and “creatures” were scorned as fit objects only for the lowest levels of contemplation, today the vast majority of poets seek “no ideas but in beings,” to quote Lawrence Ferlingetti’s slight deformation (in a recent interview) of the famous dictum of William Carlos Williams. I could quote virtually anyone from my private pantheon to bear this out: Mary Oliver, Lucille Clifton, Ai, Chris Llewellyn, etc. The narrative poet Larry Levis makes this praxis explicit in one of the briefest components of his masterwork, Elegy.
As with the Warlpiri dreaming just quoted, particularities from outside the boundaries of the poem itself help advance the reader’s comprehension. For this book, context is everything since the whole forms an almost-unity, with many motifs and images reoccurring throughout. It also helps to know that the author grew up on a large vineyard in California in the 50s and 60s, and thus presumably worked with the man in the photo/poem or with men like him; that he died suddenly and without apparent warning or foreknowledge during the final assembly of the manuscript that became, by some mysterious, tragicomic or theurgic process, his own elegy; and that the book was put in its final form by his great friend Philip Levine, who is known primarily as a poet of the working class. Finally, note that there is both an ironic and literal displacement at work. Are we at a gallery exhibition, in the presence of Johnny Dominguez — or simply staring at the page? Or all three? Self-reflexivity rarely gets more suggestive than this.
Risking charges of copyright infringement as usual, I’ll quote this piece in full. But I strongly recommend the whole book to any and all readers. Buy it, because you’ll want to read it again and again.
Photograph: Migrant Worker, Parlier, California, 1967
I’m going to put Johnny Dominguez right here
In front of you on this page so that
You won’t mistake him for something else,
An idea, for example, of how oppressed
He was, rising with his pan of Thompson Seedless
Grapes from a row of vines. The band
On his white straw hat darkened by sweat, is,
He would remind you, just a hatband.
His hatband. He would remind you of that.
As for the other use, this unforeseen
Labor you have subjected him to, the little
Snacks and white wine of the opening he must
Bear witness to, he would remind you
That he was not put on this earth
To be an example of something else,
Johnny Dominguez, he would hasten to
Remind you, in his chaste way of saying things,
Is not to be used as an example of anything
At all, not even, he would add after
A second or so, that greatest of all
Impossibilities, that unfinishable agenda
Of the stars, that fact, Johnny Dominguez.
– Larry Levis, Elegy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), 12.
Rather than perpetuate certain misunderstandings engendered by the term animism, I am thinking it might be better to speak of particularizing – as opposed to universalizing – traditions. This identifies what, to me, most distinguishes tribal religions from our own: their concern with the inner realities of specific beings, places and events, and the web of relationships that connect the people to them (and to each other). Whereas to speak of animism – or of shamanism, fetishism, etc. – risks placing undue emphasis on certain features that may be more important in some traditions than in others, in an attempt to universalize what resists universalism.
This bias is hard to surmount: we say “the universe” as if unitariness were a fact of nature. (These days, physicists and astronomers seem more and more convinced that the opposite is the case.) The Greek cosmos remains a much more expressive term. A cosmos is a stage where sacred dramas are enacted, where all manner of narratives unfold and intertwine, where the Word becomes flesh – and vice versa, perhaps.
At its most original, a telling partakes of multifaceted particularities. Let’s borrow a bit from literary criticism: we are talking not (or not merely) about texts, but about sacred speech acts. Story and poem, song and dance, the present moment and illo tempore (to use Mircea Eliade’s terminology) may all be fused. Listen to this brief passage from one of the Warlpiri dreamings, from central Australia:
“That person lived always in that place beside that waterhole. The other two lived at Yajarlu. That is where they lived. The child crawled about on her own near the waterhole there.
‘Well, suddenly those two disappeared from there. They disappeared. They went in, forever. No, they did not come out again.
“Later another person, another man came that way, but he did not see them. ‘Ahh, nothing there! I say, what happened to them?’ He tried to find them. Then he went back to the other place where he was living. He lived there a long time, the person who belonged to that place, the old man, Jupurrurla. The old man lived there a long time, in his own country.
“Then he saw the fires. In the west. He saw the fires. ‘They are lighting fires over there! Yes, the people are lighting fires! Later I will go over to look at the burnt-out areas, yes, later I will go over and have a look. I will have a look at the burnt-out areas tomorrow. Tomorrow I will look at them, tomorrow.”
This comes toward the end of a dreaming entitled “To Yarmurnturrngu and How I Came Back to Yajarlu,” told by Jacko Ross Jackamarra and translated by Peggy Rockman Napaljarri and Lee Cataldi (Warlpiri Dreamings and Histories (Yimikirli), HarperCollins, 1994, 37-43.) What a casual reader would consider the main story is already finished; this mysterious passage belongs to the whole by some magic of juxtaposition more familiar to us from lyric poetry than narrative proper.
It is precisely the indirection and allusiveness of this sacred speech act that leads me to believe that the way of silence, the via negativa, may be native to particularizing traditions, too. You’ll have to get a hold of the book yourself to see what I mean. But for now let me quote the translator’s note in full, over-long as that may make this entry.
“Jacko Ross Jakamarra is regarded by other Warlpiri people living at Yuendumu as one of the finest exponents of the traditional narrative. To the Western reader, his way of telling a story may seem strange, cryptic, allusive and apparently disconnected; characters and stories are introduced that do not seem to relate to the apparent plot, the matter of the abducted child.
“However, as the title indicates, what is important is the return of the mother with the child to her home in Yajarlu. In fact what unifies the narrative is place, not character or a single strand of events. All the events in the narrative take place at or in relation to Yajarlu: the theft of the child, its return to its rightful home, the separate but always present concern of the old Jupurrurla for both the people, the mother and child, and the country, and who might be lighting fires. The narrative is about restoring things to their rightful state and position. In this way, at the close of the story, the traveler who is passing through on his way to his own home and relatives provides a coda elegantly emphasizing this central concern.
“There are two other aspects of Jakamarra’s narrative technique which should be noted. One is the allusiveness, which both complements and teases the listeners by demanding they supply details they should know, for example, that Jupurrurla is the owner of Yajarlu. The other is the humour of the dramatized exchanges, the words put in the mouths of the different characters, and also of course the way the narrator acts these out, the way the other woman considers taking the child and decides to do so, the panic of the mother when she discovers the substitution.” (Warlpiri Dreamings and Histories, 43.)
Others have written more eloquently than I can about the importance of place-based narratives in fostering moral and ethical concerns: see especially Bruce Chatwin, Songlines (about the Australian aborigines) and Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places (about the Apache). I merely want to point out that similarly poetic, somewhat humorous narratives of place redolent with hidden lessons and allusions may be found within our own tradition. For example, in Genesis: check out the telling of Abraham’s purchase of a burial place for Sarah (23:3-20).
The conventional complaint one hears this time of year is how commerce has debased gift giving. But we must be careful to distinguish modern American consumerism from commerce per se. As a matter of fact, in many societies the merchant is accounted the most generous and hospitable of individuals. I am not sure that history or anthropology support the notion that trading itself contibutes to the disenchantment of the world, by which all beings are reduced to lifeless objects or resources. The most fundamental economic act is the exchange of gifts. And most religious worldviews are deeply imbued with notions of indebtedness and reciprocity.
A more egregious debasement results from extending the usage of physicists and mathematicians to all of metaphysics, to invent a new category of givenness. Bergson claims that this is the fundamental error of Leibniz, Spinoza and the other prophets of the clockwork universe: they believe that everything is given in this static, essentialist manner pioneered by Aristotle.
The problem with this is that “the language of objects catches only one corner of actual life,” as Martin Buber says. (I and Thou, Walter Kaufmann translation. Scribners, 1970, 69.) Gabriel Marcel builds a bridge between the subjective and objective viewpoints when he writes, “A being is given, not at all in the banal and moreover uncertain sense in which philosophers customarily use this word, but rather insofar as it truly is a gift. Let us carefully refrain here from considering the gift as a thing. On the contrary, it is an act.” (Tragic Wisdom and Beyond, Northwestern University Press, 1973. 54) This is so because true reality is relational – “An object seen in isolation from the whole is not the real thing,” as Fukuoka put it.
In the Christian worldview, one cannot consider gift giving for long without considering the ultimate gift of divine grace. Though not myself a practicing Christian, I’ve always been attracted by this concept, which perfectly embodies the simultaneous transcendence and immanence of Whomever. Though I find the whole notion of the incarnation supremely strange, I can see one obvious, spiritual or psychological value to this mythos. With the Unknowable somehow choosing to make a gift of itself – to take the form of a helpless, newborn infant – the true nature of its relationship with us is revealed to be reciprocal. The gifting can now go both ways; we are no longer overwhelmed by false dichotomies that presuppose a hierarchical order.
This morning I came across a beautiful riff on this theme from the Epistle of James, which was unfamiliar to me because in general I avoid the epistles, not being a very big fan of the apostle Paul. Though traditional in its patriarchy and up-down hierarchical views, its language in the King James version is unsurpassed. The phrase “filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness” does mar the poetry a bit. But I love the way this passage begins with grace and ends with the nitty-gritty of social obligations.
17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.
18 Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
19 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:
20 For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.
21 Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.
22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.
23 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass:
24 For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.
25 But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.
26 If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.
27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.
Despite what Bergson may have thought, Spinoza did not believe in a clockwork universe; he believed in ‘flat multiplicities’: networks of immanent effects (no prime mover, no transcendence) etc. Big inspiration for Deleuze.
– Mark Bonta
My blunder, actually – I was putting words in his mouth. Bergson’s conclusion about L. and S. in Creative Evolution (Mitchell trans.), which you may not agree with, reads as follows: “The resemblances of this new metaphysic to that of the ancients arise from the fact that both suppose ready-made – the former [i.e. Leibniz] above the sensible, the latter [i.e. Spinoza] within the sensible – a science one and complete, with which any reality that the sensible may contain is believed to coincide. For both, reality as well as truth are given in eternity. Both are opposed to the idea of a reality that creates itself gradually, that is, at bottom, to an absolute duration.” (353-354. Italics original.)
In a culture that has lost any sense of words as (potentially) living things – as spells, or as vessels for the spirit (Word) – proverbs decay into cliches. For the word-artist, struggling against the tide, some of these cliches may still possess a certain buoyancy.
This morning, reading in Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution about the necessity of duration to life, for some reason a phrase popped into my head: going nowhere fast! (The exclamation point is endemic.) Like most phrases invented to make conversation interesting, it partakes of hyperbole and humor: since it is already nonsensical to go nowhere, to do so rapidly connotes true desperation and/or imbecility. Where is this ‘nowhere’? Someone like me, living ‘way out in the country, can be said to live in the middle of it. Cities are never described this way, but small towns and suburbs might be. Where then is ‘somewhere’? Over the rainbow, perhaps?
The no-place that is unlike home, Utopia, More’s coinage: so often taken to mean Eutopia, when in fact Dystopia is almost inevitably the consequence of such abstract idealism. The most successful utopias, Martin Buber found in his brief historical survey Paths in Utopia, are those based on a shared belief-system that acknowledges ultimate indebtedness to something Other. A contemporary reader can’t help feeling rather disappointed in the irony and naivete of Buber’s crowning example, the one with which he concludes his survey: the Israeli kibbutz. Of course, a North American (particularly a Pennsylvanian!) can hardly afford to be smug about folks whose eagerness to build more perfect communities blinded them to the fact of usurpation. We are all going nowhere in a hurry!
Is it too much to ask that the stranger, the unsavory foreigner in our midst, be seen as an image of the divine perfection we seek? But this would require us to come to terms with the always-unsatisfactory realities of the present, rather than the over-the-rainbow dreaminess of a land where nothing ever dies. This was the Buddha’s great discovery: existence is inherently unsatisfactory!* Compared to any preconceived notion that privileges our own comfort/gratification, yes. That is why salvation must be sought in the present moment, right here and now.
Let’s remember, then – whether we believe in it or not – the significance of the Christian myth that so many are presently involved in reliving as best they can. Bethlehem is, in the Bible, the quintessential nothing little town in the middle of nowhere. And, as if that isn’t enough, the messiah has to be born in a barn yet! An in-between place, neither wild nor civilized. Where all manner of outlandish gifts and visitors may be received.
*According to scholars of Pali, this is a much better translation of the first of the Four Noble Truths than the traditional, “Life is suffering.”
The sun sings a song of oneness: Take off your dark glasses, undress, succumb! She holds nothing back, that’s why it hurts to look directly in her heart. From too much whiteness, vision fails. The way of light leads straight through the valley of the shadow. (Or something like that.)
After a week of cold, today the temperature is up near 50 degees F. & even with the sun behind the clouds, the six inches of accumulated snow are sinking fast. Unfortunately the flu has kept me inside for four days, missing out on some great x-c skiing.
“Snowblind” was one of the best songs on Black Sabbath’s flawed masterpiece, Vol. 4. I think it was about the perils of cocaine use. One of the many great LPs I sold off, ten years ago or more, to buy alcohol.
Thinking not only of the Deus absconditus, but that all being is inherently recondite,
I recall what natural selection makes of camouflage: those who taste the sweetest are the ones who must hide.
Beware of bright colors, whether in tree frog or beetle!
So sing the gaudy mimics . . .
Today is the solstice.
“We cannot, I think, install ourselves in being itself, we cannot capture or seize it, any more than we can see the source giving off light – all we can see are surfaces illuminated by the light. I think that this comparison between being and light is a fundamental one. And I hardly need mention that at this point I am very close to the Gospel of John where he speaks of the ‘Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.'”
– Gabriel Marcel, Tragic Wisdom and Beyond (Northwestern U. Press, 1973, p.14).
Recent issues of the rival news weeklies Time and Newsweek buzzed with the new-found popularity of early Christian/Gnostic writings. The Gospel of Thomas is, to me, one of the few really thought-provoking among the vast number of extra-canonical Jewish and Christian texts of the inter-Testamental period. I am using the Helmut Koester translation from James Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library, Revised Edition (Harper, 1999).
This Thomas is not the “Doubting Thomas” of the New Testament, but the purported twin or brother of Jesus. As alluded to in the previous entry, pairs of siblings play prominent roles in many of the major narratives in the Hebrew scriptures: Cain and Abel, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Moses and Aaron, Moses and Miriam. I mentioned the tension between wild and settled, and some of these sibling pairs do seem to symbolize that conflict. But there may be a political dimension as well, and not just with Isaac/Ishmael and Jacob/Esau. The two kingdoms of Israel and Judah continue this pattern into the historical books of the OT. And for the last two thousand years, it is no stretch to see Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism as twins and rivals in this same mold.
There is of course an epistomological dimension as well. Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism and Hellenistic philosophy are all, in a sense, stages upon which the ancient conflict between Egyptian monism and Persian dualism played out. Thomas escapes the dilemma by means of the via negativa. The opening verses describe a radical, extra-temporal inversion:
“(1) And he said, ‘Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.’
“(2) Jesus said, ‘Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the all.’
“(3) Jesus said, ‘If those who led you say to you, “See, the kingdom is in the sky,” then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, “It is in the sea,” then the fish of the sea will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will come to realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.’
“(4) Jesus said, ‘The man old in days will not hesitate to ask a small child seven days old about the place of life, and he will live. For many who are first will become last, and they will become one and the same.'”
This type of inversion reminds me of the widespread folk motif of a land where everything is backwards or upside-down; the afterlife is sometimes described in such terms. Certain holidays in many traditions (including pre-modern Europe) were celebrated with such ritual inversions, as an attempt to manifest the other world – a literal utopia. The art of comedy arises from this belief complex, in Japan and Zuni Pueblo no less than in ancient Greece.
Is there a layer of utopian comedy in the Bible? If so, it probably begins with Sarah, who laughed in God’s face, and laughed again when she bore a son at an impossibly advanced age: “And Sarah said, God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me.” (Gen. 21:6) The institution of the Sabbath, with all its inversions of ordinary daily practices, is undeniably utopian, though it may or may not be considered comic.
The gnostic imperative of self-knowledge derives from sources more ancient than Socrates; Socrates himself credited the Oracle at Delphi. Bika Reed’s translation of an Egyptian papyrus, allegedly a libretto for an initiation ceremony, finds this idea in explicit practice over 1,000 years earlier. (Rebel in the Soul, Inner Traditions International, 1987.) Although inevitably our judgements are biased by the chance survival of texts, it’s hard not to see Leviticus 19:18 as an important advance. Apropos of yesterday’s entry on Zen, it seems that “Know thyself” should always be twinned with “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Thomas refers again and again to the necessity of seeing like an infant. This obviously goes beyond comic inversion; I can’t help thinking of the Fukuoka quote I brought in for the second entry of this weblog. As most readers are probably aware, Taoism and Zen make much of this motif. References to drunkenness are reminiscent of Taoism as well, though of course Sufism is the direct heir (think especially of Omar Khayyam). From saying 13: “Thomas said to him, ‘Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying what you are like. Jesus said, ‘I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I have measured out.'” Jesus then takes him aside, we are told, and favors him with three teachings that cannot be expounded, even to the other disciples.
Saying 22 combines all these motifs: “Jesus saw infants being suckled. He said to his disciples, ‘These infants being suckled are like those who enter the kingdom.’ They said to him, ‘Shall we then, as children, enter the kingdom?’
“Jesus said to them, ‘When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter the kingdom.'”
(I reproduce this essay from my website as an introduction to some thoughts on the Gospel of Thomas. I no longer agree with my linking of the Native American twins motif with a wild/civilized dichotomy – only a few tribes have myths that might be interpreted that way. It is definitely true of Cain/Abel, Esau/Jacob and Ishmael/Isaac, however.)
Occasionally, across the gulf that is said to separate us dull-eyed, tin-eared interlopers from the ancient owners of the land, there comes a familiar cry. Some sign of our shared humanity, perhaps, reminding us that for them, too, the world was always an ineluctably tragic place. The great comparative religionist Mircea Eliade somewhere says that the major problem with the myth of the “noble savage” is that the so-called savages, too, believed it–about their own, most distant ancestors. Which is to say, in the mythologies of virtually all peoples, indigenous or otherwise, paradise is lost: either in time, or in space. And it’s this acute sense of fallenness that has given rise to codes of ethical behavior based on Welcome to the widow, the orphan, the stranger in the land. Any one of these wanderers (literal or figurative) could be an emissary from that back-of-beyond in the sky, or in the heart of the hills.
But for many traditions, that seemingly inaccessible realm remains nonetheless at hand, in the form of all that is irreducibly Other, beyond human control or comprehension. For American Indians as for the ancient Hebrews, wilderness constitutes a kind of mirror to the settled, human domain. For both, this relationship is most often symbolized by the sometimes friendly, sometimes antagonistic bond between brothers or twins. As in many cultures, the realm of the sacred manifests itself as a living paradox, a union between the two poles of Human and Wild that may be approached through ritual but only experienced directly at death, or through dream and vision. A place inhabited by the sacred is like a transformer, crackling with power and danger. And in fact, the imperative to protect sacred places is sparking a return to traditional conservation values among Native peoples throughout the hemisphere.
I worry that, in trying to understand such traditional worldviews, we risk distortion by assimilating them to our own abstract dichotomies. For instance, is finding a spirit guide really the romantic errancy that New Age would-be practitioners of shamanism imagine–or simply a pragmatic necessity for survival among potentially malevolent forces? There’s very little that one could call dreamy or sentimental in the visionary experiences of Elijah in I Kings, or of Tecumseh, Black Elk or Handsome Lake.
With this lengthy introduction I offer a quote from historian Anthony F.C. Wallace. At issue here are the dream-therapy customs of the Huron as described by early Jesuit missionaries. To my way of thinking, this has the quality of an environmental morality tale.
“The whole village vied to give the sick person his every wish, for any frustration was a threat to life. A dying man might be seen surrounded by literally thousands of scissors, awls, knives, bells, needles, kettles, blankets, coats, caps, wampum belts, beads, and whatever else the sick man’s fancy, or the hopeful guesses of his friends, suggested. And if he died at last, “He dies,” the people would say, “because his soul wished to eat the flesh of a dog, or a man; because a certain hatchet that he wished for could not be procured; or because a fine pair of leggings that had been taken from him could not be found.” And if, on the other hand, he survived, the gift of the last thing that he wished for during his illness was cherished for the rest of his life.” (The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, Random House, 1969, pp. 70-71.)
As Americans, I believe it is our sacred and patriotic duty to pay much closer attention to the often barely comprehensible demands of our most afflicted: the dreamers and the drug addicts, the autistics and the schizophrenics, the nihilists and the fanatics. Edward Abbey once pointed out that unlimited growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. Out of the depths of our shared sickness, what is it that we truly crave? What gift will save us?