Today I want to pose a simple question: can we – should we – feel compassion for those who lack all compassion? Does it even make sense to try and empathize with those who cannot empathize? As an act of imagination, this may be an interesting and even heroic effort. But in real life, things get messier. Psychologists tell us that people with sociopathic, psychopathic and narcissistic personalities are often very charming and charismatic. Many of them have become masters of feigned emotions that they don’t really feel. This strikes me as the perfect foil for a truly loving imagination.

I know I’ve made a number of slighting remarks about the science of psychology in the past, but this is a phenomenon that really interests me. One of my brothers first brought it to my attention several months back, as he struggled to understand the bizarre behavior of a colleague. And as I read descriptions of this disorder, I was reminded of several people I knew or knew of. Here’s some background:

“For many years, psychologists have studied the frightening reality of psychopathic or sociopathic personalities — the serial killers, the child abusers, the pathologically consistent liars and incorrigible thieves. The scientific study of these individuals was systemically organized by Hervey Cleckley and his 1941 classic The Mask of Sanity, and today the specialist Robert Hare is one of the foremost authorities in the field. According to Hare, the key emotional and interpersonal traits defining the psychopathic personality syndrome are: a smooth, glib capability to lie, manipulate and dissemble; a completely callous lack of empathy or concern for others; shallow emotional affect and lack of remorse; and egocentric grandiosity.”

If you happened to be watching television or listening to the radio yesterday evening, you may have heard this fascinating exchange:

“What would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have you learned from it?”

“I wish you would have given me this written question ahead of time, so I could plan for it. (Laughter.) John, I’m sure historians will look back and say, gosh, he could have done it better this way, or that way. You know, I just – I’m sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn’t yet. . . .

“I hope I – I don’t want to sound like I’ve made no mistakes. I’m confident I have. I just haven’t – you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I’m not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one.”

This same individual has often been dismissed as a shallow figurehead or a dimwit, but those who have had the occasion to observe him closely claim he’s neither. For example:

“He has no trouble speaking off the cuff when he’s speaking punitively, when he’s talking about violence, when he’s talking about revenge . . . When he struts and thumps his chest, his syntax and grammar are fine. It’s only when he leaps into the wild blue yonder of compassion, or idealism, or altruism, that he makes these hilarious mistakes. . . . [He] could not say, ‘Shame on me’ to save his life. That’s a completely alien idea to him. This is a guy who is absolutely proud of his own inflexibility and rectitude. . . . He’s all about punishment and death. It would be a grave mistake to just play him for laughs.”

A Google search turned up other curiosities. Some people evidently feel that the best way to deal with the compassion-deprived is with flower power:

“The most important consideration to keep in mind when we take on a difficult case, such as a sociopathic disorder with criminal behavior, is that the person who stands before us is in their essence, a soul/spiritual being, no matter how disturbed. We may need to work in a very slow, progressive way to retrieve the core part of the human soul, and we may very likely need the help of other professionals with specialized expertise. Our efforts will need to include not only what we can accomplish in a given professional session, but ongoing prayer and meditation that holds such a person in the light of understanding and summons their submerged aspects of compassionate feeling and morality. For the practitioner some of the flower essences that can facilitate the necessary insight, compassion and commitment to sustain the healing process are Holly, Yellow Star Tulip, Star Tulip, Calendula, Cosmos, Angelica and Impatiens.”

And it’s not as if such individuals have never laughed or cried:

“Soon after arriving, he was asked to write an essay on a soul-stirring experience in his life to date and he chose the death of his sister. His mother had drilled it into him that it was wrong when writing to repeat words already used. Having employed ‘tears’ once in the essay, he sought a substitute from a thesaurus she had given him and wrote ‘the lacerates ran down my cheeks.’ The essay received a fail grade, accompanied by derogatory comments such as ‘disgraceful.'”

The aforementioned book The Mask of Sanity, by Hervey Clecky, cautions that

“However intelligent, he apparently assumes that other persons are moved by and experience only the ghostly facsimiles of emotion or pseudoemotion known to him. However quick and rational a person may be and however subtle and articulate his teacher, he cannot be taught awareness of significance which he fails to feel. He can learn to use the ordinary words and, if he is very clever, even extraordinarily vivid and eloquent words that signify these matters to other people. He will also learn to reproduce appropriately all the pantomime of feeling; but, as Sherrington said of the decerebrated animal, the feeling itself does not come to pass.”

I have many reservations about the practice of inventing neat little categories to try and bring order to the staggering diversity of “personality types.” But that’s what discriminatory reasoning does, and it’s a powerful tool – where would science be without it? Another classification scheme describes the compassion-deprived as “authoritarian”:

“Authoritarian personalities are organised around rabid hostility to ‘legitimate’ targets, often ones nominated by their parents’ prejudices. Intensely moralistic, they direct it towards despised social groups. As people, they avoid introspection or loving displays, preferring toughness and cynicism. They regard others with suspicion, attributing ulterior motives to the most innocent behaviour. They are liable to be superstitious.”

Indeed, we can all probably think of examples like this one:

“This is a guy who was a torturer, a killer, a maimer; there’s mass graves. I mean, he was a horrible individual that really shocked the country in many ways, shocked it into a kind of – a fear of making decisions toward liberty.”

One might assume that the individual under discussion is Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov. “Independent human rights groups estimate that there are more than 600 politically motivated arrests a year in Uzbekistan, and 6,500 political prisoners, some tortured to death. According to a forensic report commissioned by the British embassy, in August two prisoners were even boiled to death.”

Or we could be discussing the supremely narcissistic and authoritarian Turkmenbashi, who seems rather in a class by himself:

“Last year Mr Niyazov instituted a holiday in honour of the muskmelon, a relative of the watermelon, complete with lavish festivities, and ordered that everybody take part. ‘This godsend has a glorious history,’ national television announced. ‘Our great leader, who has a great love of his nation, has brought the name of the tasty melons to the level of a national holiday.'”

As regular readers of this weblog know, I tend to agree with the Kabbalistic analysis of personality: the sefirot. There’s a lot of appeal to the idea that the will to power/judgement must be counterbalanced by a well-developed capacity to forgive, and that so-called evil results from an excess of the former. “Judge not, that ye be not judged” still seems like good advice – especially when dealing with those for whom the exercise of punitive judgement is second nature. But – to return to the question I began with – should we try and love such people? A woman named Hope advises against getting too close. As she wrote on a message board last week,

“Healing does come although I still have nightmares about this person once in a while however the dream has changed. I have dreamt lately that he’s come back asking for forgiveness and now many years later, I just smile in my dream when he talks about our great life together and in the dream I say who are you trying to kid. In real life the person of whom I speak did try to contact me 1 year later and feigned apologies, and as convincing as he had once been I knew I was not dealing with a normal person and knew I never would. I have been reading some of the postings and see many from people who say they still love their sociopaths and hope they change. They are not capable and never will. All the best to you.”


My brother Mark sent along the following thoughts via e-mail, with permission to reprint here. He is reacting to the article from the Guardian cited above. The remark about all fundamentalists being authoritarian types struck him as particularly absurd. He went on to say, “As you know, I can’t stand Freud; he’s the Marx of the mind. Blaming everything on Mommy and Daddy is easy and convenient; it’s the oldest trick in the book for people trying to open up some sort of a space for Bush so that we may see him (or any/most leaders and bosses) as anything more or less than the (lying liar) sociopaths that they are.

“They are different from us, which is why they are where they are, and we are where we are. Their goals are the goals of the Prince, possibly the most horrifying truthful book ever written. Their lust for power–Stalinists, Maoists, Fascists, Nazis, neo-cons, the blacksmith and sorcerer–is destructive; the joy is in the destruction. All these ‘true’ feelings of the so-called monsters, Tamerlanes, are locked in their black-box interiors; what we get is shadows and creepy smiles, no admittance of guilt, hollow men. The thing is, they don’t UNDERSTAND guilt, because they have extremely reduced or possibly nonexistent capacities for empathy–they just don’t get what ‘society’ is about.

“It horrified me last night that Bush seemed so curious, so lacking–he just could not for the life of him figure out any flaw he might have. You might say ‘But they’re all that way. They have to be, to rule.’ That’s the point–rule IS what I call evil, and a God who rules is the evil/perfect projection. They ARE different, often geniuses, wonderfully creative; ‘no one understands them’; ‘they just can’t have their way.’ They realize with clarity–because they stand so far outside the networks of social relations that define the rest of us poor soaks–just how many flaws the rest of have. Because being social is not a ‘good’ thing, per se.

“They tap into our dissatisfactions. They help us channel our feelings of inadequacy, frustrations, outward, they teach us to hate others and to worship ourselves. They then sit back and enjoy the destruction–Nero fiddling, Rome burning. Capitalistic competition feeds on these principals; in the ‘community of states’ the US is the number one antisocial country in the world–collectively, the American hive-mind doesn’t understand why They hate Us; we’re cleverer than everyone else, we help them solve their problems, and this is how they reward us.

“All of what I am saying is found in one way or another in the classic clinical study of psychopathy, The Mask of Sanity, by Hervey Cleckley. Psychopathy, however, is present in all of us, but passes a threshold in some of us (one out of 25 or 30). It’s not uncommon, and it’s not insanity–it is simply a ‘personality type.’ And, we have very few self-professed psychopaths out there; it’s their ‘loved ones’ who turn for help. They don’t get what the fuss is all about.

“In terms of politicians and other [wielders of] of power, I do know that all this sounds like [the movie] ‘They Live.’ But the idea that they are ‘just like us, but with power’ I believe may be a lie. I haven’t stopped being the way I was just because I’m in charge of a classroom. I haven’t turned into a little dictator. I am not being shaped by my environment to such an extent. . . . Apparently psychopaths–10-20% of the population in jail, at most; probably less–are the ones most easy to ‘rehabilitate.'”

From the NY Times: “Dr. Frans B. M. de Waal, the director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University in Atlanta, has shown that if the normally pugilistic rhesus monkeys are reared with the more conciliatory stumptailed monkeys, the rhesus monkeys learn the value of tolerance, peacemaking and mutual hip-hugging. Dr. de Waal, who wrote an essay to accompany the new baboon study, said in a telephone interview, ‘The good news for humans is that it looks like peaceful conditions, once established, can be maintained,’ he said. ‘And if baboons can do it,’ he said, ‘why not us? The bad news is that you might have to first knock out all the most aggressive males to get there.'”

First, let’s kill all the lawyers. Then, arrange to have all future lawyers reared by stumptailed monkeys. It just might work! And even if it doesn’t, it would make for some great reality TV.

With the kind of naive self-assurance peculiar to the self-taught, I firmly believe I could do a better job leading would-be poets to discover something original about their craft than the majority of professional writing teachers out there today. So why don’t I? Largely because in order to do so I would need to be certified in precisely that form of schooling I reject, which understands the poem as an art object intended for elite consumption. Most academics seem convinced that poetry has (or ought to have) a mainly ornamental function, and that composing poetry involves “self-expression,” understood as the communication of private thoughts and feelings to a properly educated audience.

However, the growth of new, vital poetic traditions in the last few decades of the 20th century relates directly to the spread of liberation movements around the globe. “Free verse” gradually reached its potential to loose the tongues and unchain the spirits of many who had previously been silenced. Poetry had and continues to have the ability to revitalize and even recreate communities, as people imbibe its anti-hierarchical, make-up-your-own-rules message. Surveying ethnographic and literary texts, one finds few generalizations that apply to more than a sizable majority of all the many stylized forms of intensified language that humans have ever dreamed up. But one generalization that does seem almost universal is this: words have something to say. And this: words in the form of poetry or song lyrics can heal.

In my imaginary course for beginning poets, I would work with the students one-on-one to try and fit the teaching to whatever poetics seem most necessary for their own growth. For example, students who agonize about the loss of traditional values might be steered initially toward a neo-Confucian program, while students infected with the germ of psychologism might be exposed to shamanistic thinking. ROTC students could be encouraged to think of poems as a way of making peace, studying the song-duels of the Greenland Eskimos and the poetics of warrior societies like Yemen and Somalia. Excessively rationalistic or super-organized people might learn to let themselves go a bit by imitating certain Beat poets, while more laid-back people would probably profit from an intensive study of highly structured verse forms. Here are some excerpts from a few of the texts I would have on hand.

“A song ain’t just to play with. It’s for a reason. It comes out of the mind. If you got good thoughts that song comes out of your body clear and strong. It’s like praying . . . like the Cedar Smoke. The drum and the rattle carry the song out to everything. The song goes into things . . . into people . . . straightens them out.”

Anon. Washoe Indian, in Straight with the Medicine: Narratives of Washoe Followers of the Tipi Way, as told to Warren L. d’Azevedo, Heyday Books, 1985 (ellipses original)

“A man who desired a spell did not put his mind on word and tunes: he put it on pleasing the supernaturals. He must be a good hunter or a good warrior. Perhaps they would ‘like his ways’ and one day, in a natural sleep, he would hear singing. So does the Papago interpret the trancelike state of the artist who derives his material from the unconscious. ‘He hears a song and he knows it is the hawk singing to him or the great white birds that fly from the ocean.’ . . .

“A man who really longs for dreams does more than wait and be industrious. There are Indians who bid such a man to fast and pray, but not the practical Papago; he asks the would-be singer to perform an act of heroism . . .

“One who has performed an act of heroism has placed himself in contact with the supernatural. It is after this has been done, and not before, that he fasts and waits for the vision. The Papago sternly holds to the belief that visions do not come to the unworthy. But to the worthy man who shows himself humble there comes a dream. And a dream always contains a song.

“To us, with our scheme wherein the singer stands outside the practical scheme of life, and wherein he is thought of . . . as an idler, this philosophy is hardly comprehensible. Yet on it the Papago system of life has worked since time immemorial. The honored men are singers. The man who has fought for his people gets no honor from that fact, but only from the attendant fact that he was able to ‘receive’ – or compose, shall we say – a song. We who take the structure of our own society as a sample of ‘human nature’ might pause over this idea. What of a society which puts no premium whatever on aggressiveness and where the practical man is valued only if he is a poet? What of a society where the misfit, wandering hopelessly misunderstood on the outskirts of life, is not the artist, but the unimaginative young businessman? This society not only exists but has existed for hundreds of years.”

Ruth Murray Underhill, Singing for Power: the Song Magic of the Papago Indians of Southern Arizona, University of California Press, 1938

When you are content, you sing; when you are angry, you make noise.

When one shouts, he is not thinking; when he sings, he is thinking.

A song is tranquil; a noise is not.

When one shouts, his voice is forced; when he sings, it is not.

Basongye proverbs, quoted by Alan P. Merriam in The Anthropology of Music, Northwestern U.P., 1964

“When asked why he took up composing, [the Tiv singer Chen Ugye] gives two reasons: poverty and grief. He states simply, ‘Poverty [ican] made me become a composer.’ But it should be noted that ican has a more explicit range of meaning than our word ‘poverty,’ a range that encompasses ‘difficulties, suffering, physical weakness, a feeling of being disliked by others.’ Ican is often concretized in idiom and song as something that can be tied up, thrown down, defeated; a praise singer is forever noting that so-and-so has dealt with his ican in a dramatic and convincing way.”

Charles Keil, Tiv Song, University of Chicago Press, 1979

The first time I met the blues, mama, they came walking through the woods,
The first time I met the blues, mama, they came walking through the woods,
They stopped at my house first, mama, done me all the harm they could.

Little Brother Montgomery quoted by Houston A. Baker, Jr. in Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory, University of Chicago Press, 1984

Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine. Go to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo.

Matsuo Basho

“Only Dionysius, the god of possession and ‘otherness,’ is able to assure this play of deforming mirrors. In the remarks made earlier concerning the face of the Gorgon, we have seen that frontal representation in classical Greek iconography was reserved for those figures who go beyond the limits allowed for human action; Dionysius holds a privileged place at the center. The god of wine is thus the one who guarantees that the epic myth can be staged and presented face to face before the public; he guarantees that the mask, the enunciator (representing the Self, with his political identity) and the protagonist of the dramatic action (representing the Different, with his ‘mythological’ identity) coexist. Or, to put things somewhat differently, we could say that he assures the recovery of the Other in the Self. He also guarantees, through the process of imitative reversal, the normative, civic values of tragedy.”

Claude Calame, The Craft of Poetic Speech in Ancient Greece, trans. by Janice Orion, Cornell U.P., 1995

If you do not study [the Book of] Poetry, you will not be able to converse.

Confucius, Analects

Nothing approaches The Book of Poetry in setting up standards of right and wrong, in moving Heaven and Earth, and in appealing to spirits and gods. The ancient kings used it to make permanent the tie between husband and wife, to perfect filial reverence, to deepen human relationships, to beautify moral instruction, and to improve the customs of the people.

Poetry is where the heart’s wishes go. What lies in the heart is ‘wish,’ when expressed in words, it is ‘poetry.’ When an emotion stirs within one, one expresses it in words; finding this inadequate, one sighs over it; not content with this, one sings it in poetry; still not satisfied, one unconsciously dances with one’s hands and feet.

Preface/blurb to The Book of Poetry, attributed to Confucius’ disciple Pu Shang (507-400 B.C.E.).

Both of the preceding quotes are from James J. Y. Liu, The Art of Chinese Poetry, University of Chicago Press, 1962

“By far the most important social context in which zamil poetry is composed [by Yemenis] is in the dispute mediation. When a serious conflict breaks out between two or more villages or tribes or two different tribal sections – a conflict that might involve a dispute over land (private property or tribal boundaries), women (abductions, runaways, adulteries), or water rights – warfare among the contending parties often results. . . . The fighting at first is often a kind of symbolic violence in which the offended party tries to restore its honor by a show of force, and almost immediately after the first shots have rung out, intermediaries arrive to try and persuade the parties to agree to a truce . . .

“The intermediaries may arrive chanting a zamil poem . . . announcing their intention of mediating the dispute and offering up cows or sheep for sacrifice in token of their sincerity and good faith. If . . . the plaintiff . . . agrees to a truce, it sets the conditions in numbers of cows, sheep, guns, and, in the most serious conflicts, even hostages . . . These demands are put forward by the intermediaries in the form of zamil poetry. . . .

“It is practically impossible to delimit a class of occasions on which someone might use zamil poetry for his own personal ends. . . . Once I was riding a bus on which more boarding tickets had been sold than there were seats available for passengers, with the result that a luckless passenger who happened to be an old tribesman had to sit on the floor of the vehicle. Resenting the injustice of not having been given a seat like everyone else when he had paid for one, he composed a zamil on the spot voicing his complaint. It had its intended effect: everyone on the bus started to laugh when they heard the poem and taunted the ticket seller, who in turn relinquished his seat to the now greatly mollified old man.”

Stephen C. Caton, “Peaks of Yemen I Summon”: Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe, University of Claifornia Press, 1990

“At the core of the women’s poetry movement is the quest for autonomous self-definition. Shaping that quest is a heritage, external and internal, which opposed female autonomy. ‘If we don’t name ourselves we are nothing,’ says Audre Lorde. . . [To] Adrienne Rich . . . a woman seeking her identity is like a woman trying to give birth to herself:
your mother dead and you unborn
your two hands grasping your head
drawing it down against the blade of life
your nerves the nerves of a midwife
learning her trade

Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, The Women’s Press, 1986

“Choosing words is a waste of time. Let the words choose you, let them choose their own place, time, identity, meaning. Writing is a waste of time in a sense because we try ‘to fit’ words into an order that makes sense to us and to other people. That’s arrogance, ego, artistic illusion. No matter what we do, what we think and feel, what we want words to do for us, we can’t fit them into an order that’s ours. They have their own power, their own magic, wonder, brilliance. Where and how they fit, that has nothing to do with us. The only thing we can do is recognize, admit, and accept that. Let words chose us. Let language empower us, give us beauty and awe. We cannot do anything about it. When we think we can, when we choose words, it is a waste of time.”

Simon J. Ortiz, After and Before the Lightning, University of Arizona Press, 1994

Cross-references: Other quotes and essays on the anthropology of poetics include Poetry or vomit? (on Old Norse poetics); The world of the riddle (Anglo-Saxon); Portrait of a bard (Maninka); Holding forth (Judeo-Christian); Qarrtsiluni and Building Dwelling Eating (Inuit). For some more quotes on masks and the art of drama (including another quote from Underhill’s Singing for Power), see Mask and Pageant.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a little while, how about giving me some feedback? Such as: what I could different, what I could better, what you’d like to see more or less of – that sort of thing. I put together a survey form that you can use if you want to – it’s here (and the link will be permanently archived in the Backgound and Backtalk section at left). I tried to make it as entertaining as possible. But please feel free to make up your own questions, too. Or send me a questionnaire of your own. Thanks!

Right before I woke up
I was having the time of my life.
One for the cutworm & one for the crow,
I told the bartender.


The sky got light without me.
I was in the shower, & then
I had a thought that hurt
& I had to suck on it for awhile.
Four years after my last cigarette
& I’m still a smoker.


All the while I sip my coffee
a tom turkey up on the ridge
recites with great enthusiasm
from the endless list of his virtues.


It’s cold. The sun is trying to shine
through the bare April trees.
The high ceiling of clouds
begins to thin; dim
shadows form. But
the winter wren couldn’t sound
more delighted with
the upturned butternut tree
above the creek, the grotto
where its roots had been.
Troglodytes troglodytes, how
you dance! Bob & bow
& pump the tiny teapot of your body
up & down. Then let
the song spill out: one half
a rush of mountain air, the other
a trickle under the rocks, silver & thin
like an exposed root. I lean
breathless over the porch railing.
Friend, I murmur, spelunker,
little poet, you got it right.


I spotted something I can’t describe.
I’m not even sure I saw
what I think I saw.
But I remember what had been
rattling around in my head
at that very moment:
from the Book of Exodus, that phrase
the bone of the day.


O.K., snakes. All in a ball. The common eastern garter snake. You know what it looks like, right? Only, picture twelve of them (as it turned out), tying & retying an endless knot. There’s one at the center that’s larger than all the others; we’ll assume she’s female. Only she remains calm & relatively still. The others writhe and enwreath her, sliding, trembling, intertwining yellow stripes & green & bluish brown & the pale bellies.

We stood watching as this thing, this mass of snakes rolled slowly down the lawn, fell apart, reformed. It made us dizzy to try & count the heads. Tongues in constant flicker: what an elixir must that pheromone be, we thought, almost jealous, noting no sign of aggression among all those squirming males. Once we saw the female stretch her jaws wide in an apparent yawn.

It was late morning. The sun by this time had broken through the clouds & the temperature had risen from the 20s to nearly 60 degrees Fahrenheit. There was still a bit of shiver in the breeze. It seemed to me as if the whole air trembled, & the titles of books from my poetry collection began to haunt my tongue: The Arrangement of Space. Figures of Speech. The Laws of Falling Bodies.* I thought of clocks and Eden and the fabled ouroborus, the Appalachian hoop snake that’s said to take its tail between its teeth & roll down hills.

At length the female made a break for it, sliding smoothly out & racing off toward the stream. She managed to lose all but one who, perhaps according to plan, caught up with her in a little pit outside the wind. There they made what seemed at last to be the definitive braid. The lawn was full of snakes gliding in all directions, their little pink flames trying to pick up the scent. First two, then three others found the couple & insinuated themselves into the braid as best they could. Another tangle formed, but this time two heads remained still, the smaller male’s resting behind the larger female’s, the tongues quiet in their mouths. For close to an hour those two pairs of nearly sightless eyes stayed pointed in the same direction, gazing toward the maple tree. But who knows what they really saw? A world of pure sensation, I suppose. I remember the sound of Japanese temple bells: not a clang – far from it! But a low & resonant boom you hear with your entire body & it just goes on and on until the hills soak it up & gradually the day returns to its dailiness, with only some minor, barely perceptible shift from what it had been.


Clutch, muse: hold
this tremolo note. Sing
of the cargo cult, the blazing
egg-shaped sun, the long
parturition. Multiple
paternity is common
says the field guide, though
each male deposits a so-called
copulatory plug. The wetter
the summer, it seems,
the larger the clutch.
Dozens of young are possible.
In goldenrod time
the shells will dissolve inside
her oviduct &
the bright-striped
birthlings pass whole
through their mother’s cloaca
& into another dark crack
in the earth or under a rock.
They ball together then, reform
the ball they formed in her body,
ontogeny recapitulating erogeny:
oh beautiful cluster
fuck, oh holy clutch.

*The authors are Martha Collins, Enrique Linh and Kate Light, respectively.

Incidentally, this all happened last Wednesday; I’ve been brooding on it since then.

“In Wonderland, Alice’s White Queen tried to believe several impossible things before breakfast, an exercise we might all consider taking up, or at least consider giving credence to several unlikely things by lunchtime, given how unlikely everything is – from the generation of an oxygen atmosphere by anaerobic bacteria some several billion years ago to, oh, say, Boise Cascade swearing off wood from old-growth forests . . . ”
Rebecca Solnit, The White Queen’s Vision (Orion magazine)


For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin. . . .
I am the silence that is incomprehensible
and the idea whose remembrance is frequent.
I am the voice whose sound is manifold
and the word whose utterance is multiple.
I am the utterance of my name.

“The Thunder: Perfect Mind,” trans. by George MacRae (from The Nag Hammadi Library in English, James Robinson, ed., Harper, 1988)


“The [Gimi] women [of Papua New Guinea] claim that their cannibalism enables men to achieve eternal life. Older women remember that human flesh had a uniquely delectable sweetness, but they assert that their main desire was to prevent the ravages of decomposition. They say to the body: ‘Come to me so you shall not rot on the ground. Let your body dissolve inside me!’ The rotting flesh contains vital essence. Until disintegration is complete, the rotting flesh retains vestiges of the deceased ‘s awareness. Women say, ‘We would not have left a man to rot! We took pity on him and pushed him into the bamboo (cooking vessels) and ate him!’ The cannibalism is necessary for the rebirth of the man’s vital essence. For by eating his flesh, women prepare his bones (the symbol of a man’s essence) to return to the spirit world to fertilize nature.”
Peggy Reeves Sanday, Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System, Cambridge U.P., 1986


“Absolute self-contradiction is the very raison d’etre of the self.”
Nishida Kitaro, Last Writings: Nothingness and the Religious Worldview (David A. Dilworth, trans., University of Hawaii Press, 1987)


“The news of the defeats of Napoleon dampened, as they could not but do, the Messianic movement among the hasidim. It goes without saying that what weighed so heavily upon their hearts was not the fact that he was defeated, but that the life of earth slipped back into its accustomed grooves. Nothing pointed to extraordinary consequences of the things that had come to pass. The man had been viewed as a phenomenon of superhuman or of unhuman stature; as the Gog of the land Magog, he had stamped his way over the supine and beaten nations. A thing so monstrous ought to have been the prelude to some decision of all decisions. And now there was nothing notable except that men breathed more easily. Everywhere men were happy that they had come home, as it were, from the horrors of history into the common course of things in which death occurred on the same wholly human plane as birth.”
Martin Buber, For the Sake of Heaven: A Chronicle, Meridian/JPS, 1953


“Suppose that humans happen to be so constructed that they desire the opportunity for freely undertaken productive work. Suppose that they want to be free from the meddling of technocrats and commissars, bankers and tycoons, mad bombers who engage in psychological tests of will with peasants defending their homes, behavioral scientists who can’t tell a pigeon from a poet, or anyone else who tries to wish freedom and dignity out of existence or beat them into oblivion.”
Noam Chomsky, “For Reasons of State,” Psychology and Ideology, 1973

UPDATE: The best way to compose brief chains of quotes, I’ve found, is not to expend too much thought on them, just plug in the first things that come to mind. One of the first things that came to mind yesterday was to use some lines from the poet Jack Gilbert, but I couldn’t find what I wanted – until now (Monday morning). From Monolithos (Graywolf, 1982), here’s


Imagine if suffering were real.
Imagine if those old people were afraid of death.
What if the midget or the girl with one arm
really felt pain? Imagine how impossible it would be
to live if some people were
alone and afraid all their lives.

I’ve bundled all twelve “little known fun facts” sequentially into a single document and uploaded it to my other website. Please feel free to print out and read at your leisure. (If anyone would prefer to read it in MS Word, I’ll be happy to send it as an e-mail attachment.)

Someone asked if I will be issuing a “Cliff Notes” version. My reply: these are the Cliff Notes!

My only addition consisted of two sentences at the end of the introduction: “Finally, please note that I have made little effort to achieve internal consistency here. How the ‘facts’ enumerated might or might not be built into a systematic argument I leave to the reader’s imagination.” Is that a great cop out, or what?!

Oh, and by the way: Happy Easter!

Fun fact #11: At the time of Jesus, Jews were probably not awaiting the Messiah

The Hebrew Moshiah means simply “the Anointed One.” There are 38 instances of this usage in the Hebrew Bible, and in 36 of them, the King James Bible does employ “Anointed One” – meaning (as the context in each case makes clear), the person singled out by Yahweh for a specific task. In two cases the KJV substitutes “Messiah” (from the Greek Messias): in Daniel 9:25-26. However, even here, in the Hebrew Bible’s one apocalyptic text, it’s evident that – as historian Donald Harmon Akenson says – the passage “is not about the coming of a Messiah in the Christian sense, but about an Anointed One, a purely Judahist usage. . . . Moshiah in Daniel’s ‘seventy weeks’ . . . personifies the situation in which a covenantal relationship between Yahweh and his people will flourish: when the liturgical-sacrificial system operates with its two major components intact, an authentic High Priest, and a purified, daily-sacrificing temple. Moshiah here is the divinely sanctioned system whereby the Chosen people and Yahweh touch and mutually affirm their covenant” (Donald Harmon Akenson, Surpassing Wonder: the Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds, Harcourt Brace, 1998).

In the Hebrew scriptures, then, the term Moshiah refers to priests (e.g. Lev 4:3), prophets (Psalm 105:15) and kings (1 Sam 12:3, 2 Sam 23:1), and in each case it designates a servant of Yahweh. Such service may even be completely unwitting: Cyrus the Great becomes a Moshiah (Isaiah 45:1) for ending the Babylonian captivity. But the figure of a unitary Moshiah of eschatological significance does not exist in the “Old Testament,” except as later tradition (Rabbinical as well as Christian) has read one into it.

Nor is the term Moshiah employed often, or in a manner differing significantly from traditional usage, in the large number of texts produced during the inter-testamental period (Pseudepigrapha, Apocrypha, Dead Sea Scrolls). Akenson concludes from this that “the concept of Messiah was only of peripheral interest to later Second Temple Jerusalem.” But that needn’t mean that a creative, charismatic leader of the period – or his followers – couldn’t have employed the term in a new manner. We know from Josephus that the age was rife with self-styled prophets and insurrectionary leaders, and creative reinterpretations of tradition formed a major part of their modus operandi. This is true of most revolutionary movements, in fact: rarely do the leaders describe their innovations as something completely new. Instead, they tend to cast them as a return (whence revolution) to the roots (whence radical).

However, Akenson would disagree with me here. As a faithful disciple of William of Ockham, he insists upon the fact that “Moshiah, or Messiah, does not emerge as a primary idea until after the Second Temple was pulverized.” Whatever the case, there’s little doubt in my mind that the destruction of the Temple was an absolutely pivotal event for both Judaism and Christianity, precipitating their final and acrimonious divorce.

Fun fact #12: The earliest account of the resurrection, by Paul, implies a belief in a spiritual rather than a bodily resurrection

Paul’s letters are the earliest accounts of the life of Yeshua ben Yosef, and the only canonical or extra-canonical works we can date to before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul states “that Jesus died for ‘our sins,’ that he was buried and rose again on the third day. He was seen by Cephas (one of the twelve apostles) and after that by 500 of his followers simultaneously. After that Jesus was seen by James (his brother) and then by all of the apostles, ‘and last of all he was seen of me also, as one born out of time.'”

That’s Akenson again. As an historian rather than a Biblical scholar, he takes it upon himself to point out a number of fairly obvious, if uncomfortable, truths. Among them: “Paul draws no distinction between his seeing Jesus and the experience of the others. All the believing witnesses (and, according to Paul’s account, it is only believers who see the risen Jesus) had seen the same figure. Paul, in his own writings, does not provide any direct information about his own experience of encountering the resurrected Moshiah. However, the author of the Book of Acts narrates that, within a year or two of Jesus’ death, when Paul, as part of an anti-Christian crusade, is on the road to Damascus, he has a vision of Jesus, sheathed in light from heaven. Paul and the risen Jesus converse briefly, and thereafter Paul becomes a Christian and an enthusiastic proselytizer (Acts 9:1-11). The textual bridging here is obvious enough: Paul’s own account in First Corinthians makes no distinction between his own experience of the resurrected Jesus and that of the other disciples, and in Acts it is clear that he encounters a visual embodiment of the spiritually resurrected Jesus, but not a physically resurrected human being. If one accepts this textual bridge, then it implies that Paul’s own view was that he and the other disciples had encountered a spiritually-raised Christ, but not a physically resurrected Yeshua.”

In fact, Paul makes a special point of distinguishing between “natural” and “spiritual” bodies (1 Cor 15:44), concluding that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God; neither does corruption and incorruption.” But as Akenson notes, the authors of the gospels and Acts “show some difficulty in making up their minds about what form Jesus’ resurrection actually assumed.”

To me, the actual doctrine isn’t as important to the evolution of Christianity as the attempt to enforce doctrinal conformity down through the ages. That, more than anything else, bred an intolerance of the kind of nuance and paradox that one finds more or less at the theological core of all other major religions. Like many moderns, I resist making sharp distinctions between the corporeal and the spiritual, and am equally resistant toward what I regard as excessively literalistic readings on the one hand and excessively intellectualized readings on the other. In the Hebrew Bible, Elijah is taken bodily into heaven (2 Kings 2:1-11), which paradoxically has the effect of allowing him to remain an earthly figure – the very image of the unforeseen Guest, in fact. As William H.C. Propp observes, for modern Jews Elijah has completely replaced the demonic element in the original Passover story – and he is symbolically welcomed into the home, not barred at the door.

In a similar manner, in Christian tradition, the risen Christ returns to earth not merely as Messiah, at the end of time, but potentially right now. For most of the Christian Era, saints and mystics have taught that Jesus is present not merely in the mystery of the Eucharist but in the very real bodies of the widow and the orphan, the homeless and the lepers, the illegal alien and the AIDS victim. (This parallels the official doctrine homologizing Christ with the Church Universal.) The figure of Jesus has also evolved into the preeminent (but far from the only) spirit familiar in the Christian tradition. And with increasing force, down through the centuries, believers have sought to reenact Christ’s self-sacrifice within their own lives, and even within their own bodies: it’s a short step from Imitatio Christi to the stigmata and the Pentecost.

Whatever one makes of the promise of resurrection, and however one views Jesus – as God, as man, or somewhere in between – I think it’s important to acknowledge the centrality of the cross and the empty tomb as symbols of mortality and transcendence in the West. In his thinking about these symbols, the radical Catholic priest Ivan Illich (David Calley, Ivan Illich in Conversation, Anansi, 1992) draws upon the terminology popularized by Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane. “The term sacrum, the Latin noun corresponding to our sacred, has been used for a long time by religious scientists to describe a particular place in the topology of any culture. It refers to an object, a locality, or a sign, that within that culture is believed to be . . . a doorway. I had always thought of it as a threshold, the threshold at which the ultimate appears, that which within that society is considered transcendent. For Eliade, a society becomes a conscious unity not just in relation to neighboring societies – we are not you – but also by defining itself in relation to what’s beyond.”

According to this analysis, the cross should be the Christian sacrum par excellance, and I believe that it is. For Illich, however, “faith in the incarnate word sacrificed on the cross is not a religion and cannot be analyzed within the concepts of religious science.” Well, no doubt the adherents of every tradition would feel that the categories and concepts of anthropologists and comparative religionists fall far short. I would argue that such inadequacy is endemic to the discriminatory process.

But I am struck by the remainder of Illich’s argument.”If there is something analogous to a sacrum in the Christian tradition,” he says, “it is the tomb; and Christian holy places are built around an altar, a table, which stands on top of an empty tomb and is covered by a cupola. It is at this event that Christians remember a historical event and expect one by which history will be closed. This historical event is part of sacred history, from creation to ascension, which will be concluded by the coming-again of the real person, who is Christ. The empty tomb had a powerful, structuring influence on fifteen hundred years of Western history.”

To Illich, this emptiness is far from nothingness, because it is filled with the promise of Life which Christ uniquely embodies. By contrast, he says, our modern attempts to locate “life” either in the uterus (the fertilized zygote) or in the planet as viewed from space (Gaia) are truly empty, in the nihilistic sense. Science doesn’t even recognize this concept of life; it is so much pseudo-scientific idolatry.

Here I am reminded of Dale’s translation, back on March 1 at Vajrayana Practice, of the Buddhist term sunyata: it really means openness, not emptiness, he wrote. From what Illich is saying, the tomb/altar on which the Eucharist is performed is also open in precisely this manner. And my father reminded me the other day that, for Protestants at least, representations of the cross are always empty – or open – as well. A number of interesting and fruitful conclusions might be drawn from this, but I believe it’s up to practicing Christians to draw them. As an amateur scholar and Bibliophile, my job here is finished.

I’ll be away from the computer for much of the day, so I probably won’t get a chance to complete the fifth and final installment of “The Origins of Easter” until tomorrow. To tide you over, here’s a brief essay I wrote last July (reprinted from my other website). I think it kind of demonstrates how much fun one can have if one studiously avoids doing any research whatsoever!


I am wondering about the coal miners’ canaries, the quick & perilous lives that must’ve been their lot, a century or more before they ever gained entrance to the long linguistic half-life of metaphor & byword. Were they rotated, with a different canary assigned to every trick? Or, once drafted, were they kept down there full time? Wouldn’t their bright feathers have faded as the memory of the sun dwindled to a pinprick from a distant lamp? What about their songs of green & silver, palm frond and minnow flash? Even a stray note might’ve turned fey in the face of so much ageless & unattainable fire.

But surely the miners had every reason to keep their guardians as lively as they could. In an era when even epidemics like yellow fever & of course malaria were attributed to bad air, the sacrifice these birds stood ready to make, however unwitting, must’ve seemed a fine, brave thing. I picture them in cages of polished brass, swinging perches lubricated with whale oil, caches of hempseed & sunflower, pressure-activated water fountains, the works. And of course the miners must’ve had lots of superstitions, little amulets wired to the bars: rosaries & crucifixes, probably some patron saint’s emblem. I can even imagine someone entrusted with a cloth of fine white linen to go over the cage during blasting.

Because it’s one thing for the rational mind to accept that the canary must not be shielded from death–that its life is precious mainly for its potential to suddenly cease. But getting the heart to buy into it is another matter. As long as the canary stays safe, we’ll all make it! murmurs the dogmatic pulse, that thick dark stuff that keeps us soft & resilient. Faithful blood that turns red in the presence of oxygen.

Though of course any man who goes down to the coal spits every day the smudgy spore of his own death into his handkerchief. He folds it three ways for politeness’ sake & returns it to a breast coat pocket, where it lies like a little miscarriage pining for milk.

Sooner or later a long-lived canary must’ve become like family: so familiar, so easy to forget. The whistle blows, they get in the cars & half-way up someone says who’s got the bird? And the poor thing will perish there overnight–whether from hunger or from terror, who knows? Because you can’t expect the bosses to let them go back & hunt for it a quarter mile down some new shaft. They split up quickly at the entrance, then, & go straight home, evading their wives’ queries, evincing a sudden interest in weeding the garden. Kneeling in the coal ash-coated dirt, half-expecting to find under every ball of roots some scrap of brightness, a lost coin, a child’s toy whistle.

From the AFP: “No Sunnis, no Shiites, yes for Islamic unity,” the marchers chanted. “We are Sunni and Shiite brothers and will never sell our country.”

Ah, the Brotherhood of Man. Give us a common enemy and we’ll unite, every time. This particular nation-building project is beginning to show real promise.