The art museum’s smallest room
is filled with miniature landscapes.
We stop in front of each,
& my 8-year-old niece waits for me
to hoist her up by the armpits
for a five-second look.


I learn a new word from the exhibit’s title: purlieu. “A frequently visited place, an outlying district,” says Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate. In the plural, “Confines, bounds” as well as “Neighborhood, environs.” From the French, “to go through,” it came into use in the Middle Ages, when it had a fairly specific denotation: “ME purlewe land severed from an English royal forest by perambulation.”


Later, she watches from
the back seat of the car as
a ten-dollar bill change hands. Giggles.
“They hold the money
as if it were fragile!
she whispers in my ear.


Eva and I go for a ramble in the new snow, me with the big plastic saucer under my arm. She discovers tracking: “If you follow an animal’s tracks, you can tell where it went!” But the squirrels elude pursuit on the ground for longer than the distance between two trees. Then it’s time to re-examine our own tracks. Walking forward, craning around to see what we would see if we were tracking ourselves. We’re detectives now, she decides.

She follows tracks to where they disappear in a hole or under a log, wants to begin excavating on the spot. I remember this fascination with burrows going back to when she was four, if not earlier. “What lives here?” was one of her first intelligible questions. Now more and more this question comes accompanied by a wish: to live there too. At any given charismatic opening in the woods: “This would be a great place for a kind of a house. Well, not with walls or anything. Just to sleep in. This summer we could camp here. We can bring blankets and make tea.”

We follow a deer trail through the woods, pause to inspect weasel and mouse trails. “How far is the spruce grove?” “We’re not heading for the spruce grove. In fact, we’re going in the opposite direction.” “Are we ever going to find these deer?” “Probably not. These prints were made before last night’s additional snow.”

So it seems animal tracks can’t be trusted to take you where you want to go. The chief detective looks for something else to investigate. Thirsty, makes a discovery: the snow right here doesn’t quite taste quite the same as the snow over there. Or so she says. We thread though the laurel to the woods road and make our way to the top of the field, stopping every ten feet to sample the snow.

“Can’t you taste the difference?” “Um, no. See, you lose your sense of taste when you grow up. That’s one of the great things about being a kid.” “This one tastes like cotton candy!” “I’ve never had cotton candy. What does it taste like?” “I don’t know. I’ve never had it either.”

At the edge of the field, a new wish: to walk without leaving any footprints. “What if you just ran really, really fast?” She tries it: no luck. I reason with her. “You saw all the squirrel tracks. Squirrels weigh less than a pound! Think about it – even the mice leave tracks. The only things that don’t are the ones with wings.”

At last, the spruce grove at the top of the field: the ultimate outdoor living room. Destination of countless picnic excursions with her Nanna. With me she plays tour guide, gets exasperated at my evident familiarity with the spot. Our footprints cross paths with a pair of turkey tracks, a lone coyote. We cut back into the field just soon enough to avoid the deer carcass, which neither of us mentions. “I love the view from up here,” she says. Ridge after ridge stretching away to the east.

Time to put the saucer to use. We go to the edge of the steepest hill and my heart sinks. I grew up with sleds you could steer; with the saucer, gravity has almost the only say over where you end up. But determined to cut a good trail I sit down in the thing and lie back, trusting in my outstretched legs to keep me pointed downhill. Bump bump bump, a half-turn and I’m at the bottom looking up. I shout something cheerful, trying hard to keep the shakiness out of my voice. On the brow of the hill a small red figure jumps up and down with glee.

I would’ve been terrified at her age, but I don’t tell her that. “Now hold on tight and be careful!” “Give me a push!” A quarter of my weight, she goes airborne at each bump. At the second one her hat flies off. Spinning around, going backwards or forwards, it’s one continuous shriek all the way down. Then here she comes charging back up the hill, half-unbuttoned coat flapping, stopping to examine the places where the saucer left the ground. “Did you see me flying?”


Snow in March
brings marvels:
a phoebe diving for snow fleas,
the track of a chipmunk,
a turkey vulture flapping its wings.

Diogenes’ Tub (6)

From the LA Times: “‘If you are intellectual and have a lot of book learning and talk in ways that make that clear, then you are feminized,’ said Messner, who researches gender stereotypes. ‘You are seen as someone who could waffle when it comes time to make a big decision. All of that is code for not being masculine enough.’ . . . Polls indicate more women remain preoccupied with so-called ‘soft’ issues such as jobs, education and healthcare.”

Actually, all issues of any kind are now clearly “soft.” Seeing who’s hardest isn’t about issues, it’s about guns. Desperate times require desperate measures, say the manly men. I agree. For the health of the republic, the time has clearly come for male suffrage to be revoked.

One-hit wonders

the bad penny
the wooden nickle & one
lousy dime
met up in
my pocket & tried
a trio gig

but as
you might expect
the penny kept returning
to the same tired riff
the nickle was dread-
fully flat
the dime couldn’t
keep time &
they all struggled
to make the changes

it’s sad
when these bit
players get big
without paying their dues

The calculus of luck

Ungrateful keyboard! I wake myself up two hours early to write and all you can do is sit there. Your so-called keys stay locked. My brain says write, my heart says hum to yourself.

The new snow stopped falling sometime in the night and a few stars were blinking in and out of the clouds by 5:00. Every snowfall has its own properties; this one brings the trains closer and drives the gurgle of the stream farther away. As I sat out on the porch with my coffee I was admiring as I do so often the unique pitch of each eastbound locomotive whistling the crossings: Bellwood, Tipton, Grazierville, Tyrone, Plummer’s Hollow, Birmingham. Now all I can do is sit here and hum, writing about writing about nothing. Because important things have been happening too fast for me to record, unless I were to turn myself into a writing machine with no time left over to experience anything except in retrospect. So I guess I’ll have to break an unwritten rule here and resort to bullet points, so as not to forgo all mention of:

~ The courtship flights of the woodcock at dusk almost every evening for the past week – the way it can slip in and out of sight against the almost-dark clouds, the sudden transition from strange nasal peent to the rapid piccolo it makes somehow with its wings, rushing across the sky in wide arcs like a released balloon

~ The week-long Visit of the Beloved Granddaughter (my niece Eva) from Mississippi, and her 8th birthday celebration yesterday in the snow she welcomed as “a present from God – I mean from Santa!”

~ The scavenger hunt for birthday presents, and the riddles my dad and I had dreamed up for clues leading from one present to the next all over the farm

~ Some of the things collected before the snow fell: ruffed grouse feathers; jawbones from winter-killed deer; bird’s nests; a large handful of wild grape tendrils, each one an eloquent restatement of the beauty in clinging, the unique possibilities of attachment

~ My mother saying yesterday morning as the birds mobbed the strewn seeds: “I wonder if a fox sparrow will show up today?” and a fox sparrow showing up two hours later, obligingly digging his trademark holes in the snow, the song sparrows and juncos giving him a wide wake

~ The very punctual return of the eastern phoebe in the middle of the snowstorm. I was attending to e-mail yesterday afternoon when he landed on a branch of the mulberry sapling right outside the window where I type and flicked his tail up and down three times.

It’s light now and I can see what the night brought: just the barest additional skim of snow on top of yesterday’s five inches. Today, we’re off to Penn State to visit museums – always a fun thing to do in the company of a bright and inquisitive 8-year-old.

I don’t get to enjoy the company of children very often – especially children who love nature, poetry and all the other things that exercise the imagination. So naturally I’ve been enjoying the excuse to relive my childhood for a few days (who knew that tinkertoys could still be so much fun?!). Fueling my enthusiasm, too, is the marvelous, multi-authored literary experiment unfolding over at Commonbeauty, “The Archaeology of Childhood.” The entries are in the form of personal letters between participants, describing an illness or an affliction suffered during the writer’s childhood and what it meant to him or her. The results have been very moving – not a dud yet. As Tom Montag observed a couple days ago, this is an experiment that takes advantage of the unique possibilities of the blogosphere for spontaneity and immediacy.

I believe today will see the seventh and final installment of this unique experiment, so if you have the time to stop over you can read the whole series from start to finish.


When I began thinking about luck yesterday it was with a specific destination in mind, but I ended up somewhere else instead. I’ll start again, with the “reprint” of an essay off my other website that’s also in the spirit of the archaeology of childhood. This was written in January of last year, as the chorus of harpies calling for “shock and awe” in Baghdad was rising to a crescendo.



There were always rats in the barn when I was a kid. We kept the chicken feed in wooden bins reinforced with sheet metal but they still managed to chew through. My father said that a Norway rat could chew a hole in a lead pipe in twelve hours, and I believed him. He put out d-con rat poison, but it never got them all. We tried not to think about how it worked: slow death by dehydration.

Then when we cleaned out the shed, we found dozens of mummified rats hidden in the scrapwood pile. My brothers and I kept the most gruesome examples for a long time, bringing them out to show visitors. The mummies were completely hairless, and their tough yellow-brown hides made them seem less animal than vegetable, dried seed husks or corn stalks in winter. Except, that is, for their heads, the place where their eyes had been. “Look at this one! It’s still got all its teeth!” “Why is it grinning like that?”

The rats had excavated an extensive subway system connecting barn, shed, and compost heap. The only way to catch more than a glimpse was to sit very still in the basement of the barn for a while, for instance with a loaded .22. They were part of the natural order of things, and it never occurred to me that they could die out. But one day a few years after we stopped keeping chickens and the raccoons killed the last of our Muscovy ducks, I realized there weren’t any more rats around. Their major tunnel entrances were all grown up with weeds.

My niece Eva comes to visit at least once a year, at Christmas. Two years ago, when she was four, she and her Uncle Steve discovered a mummified duck under the hay in the barn basement. Something had eaten half its face, but otherwise it was in pretty good shape. Eva was fascinated. Every day for the rest of her visit she would beg to be taken down to the barn to see the dead duck. Nor was it a passing fancy–a year later she was still visiting it faithfully at its resting-place on the hay of the next-to-last stall.

Had I been thinking, I probably could have predicted that Eva’s first poem would include a duck–very much alive, with ducklings in tow. In my family, we’re fond of attempting such auguries about people, about the weather, about world affairs, though we never bet any money on them. For major events, like elections or impending wars, everyone will predict a different outcome.

These days, there’s fierce competition for the worst-case scenario. No one actually wants it to come true, of course–in fact, some of us cling to the notion that a bad thing can’t happen if it has been fully exposed in advance. But even if it does come to pass, someone at least can enjoy the brief frisson of its discovery. “Why is it grinning like that?”


This brings me to what I wanted to mention in yesterday’s post: the role of luck/grace in the birthing of any truly original poem or work of art. I don’t mean to discount the importance of practice, practice, practice. In fact, I think that Pasteur’s dictum, “Chance favors the prepared mind,” perfectly captures the relationship of preparation to inspired discovery. All I’m saying is that such discovery is utterly chancey – as my experience this morning with the mute keyboard reconfirms. And that it comes from some specific place, some spot in the in-between of earth and sky: all genius was originally of place. The word applied to the production of an artist only by the once-conventional presumption that inspiration is (as its eymology still implies) a species of possession.

I had been invited to participate in a poetry reading for State College’s First Night celebration a year ago, and as usual I brought my audience with me in the form of the extended family. Eva was then six going on seven and wanted to know what kind of tree was this “poetry” I was going to read about. She sat with me in the front row throughout the entire two-hour reading – a fairly hyper, high-energy kid who is also blessed with the ability to concentrate. A month or two later, her daddy helped her type her very first poem and I proudly e-mailed it around to all my friends. She hasn’t written anything like it since, and I have no intention of pushing her.

by Eva Bonta (6 going on 7 years old)

How would it be to smell
like a flower and the petals
fall off from cold wet breeze
pink and silver yellow.

The birds fly up to
their nest as hot as the
sun with their hot smooth
egg. The frog at the
pond croaked once more
as the Duck with her
Duck-lings go silently to
bed when the moon is

What I told the fortuneteller

From the vault (Capturing the Hive). Every aspiring poet sooner or later takes on Joan of Arc. I imagined not so much the fanatic Maid of Orleans shouldering the immense weight of her own destiny, but a real prophetess, a kind of Gypsy Queen with humor and confidence to spare.


Like a fly in amber this world
she wants to save: golden. Brittle.
A talisman that burrows into the breast,
impervious to all but the sharpest instruments.

Or with a spin of the wheel, an ordinary pebble
wedged under the shoe
of her carousel horse.

While the world she has no use for
goes soft, pulpy, membranous,
inebriate with shadows.
Wobbles like an old newsreel
about the Enemy: delusional.
It cannot be bargained with.

In her neck of the woods it’s no big deal
to hear voices. I don’t get
love letters,
she jokes as
she suits up. Just chain mail.
With her left palm making
circles on her scalp: rosemary oil,
specific for vagaries of the brain –
equally good for weddings as
for wakes – and henna,
for that hint of flames.

Even so, to ride without a helmet –
Men will follow a flag only
if they think it’s inviolate.

I watch the unlit spliff
in the corner of her mouth
bobbing, waggling
with every consonant.
Little white bone how you shake,
how you never fall!


If forced to describe my own religious beliefs – I mean the things I really believe, not the things I would like to think that I believe in because they appeal to me intellectually – I would have to conclude that I worship Lady Luck.
What a disgrace! How more immature and egotistical could I get? For we know, don’t we, that one man’s good fortune is another’s disaster? Luck seems finite almost by definition. She is capricious, imperious, beholden to no one by herself. At least give her a pair of wings and call her Grace!

But hold on a second. It’s all in the interpretation, yes? If I can convince myself that everything that happens to me happened for the best, luck becomes, in effect, infinite. Plus, there is no reason why I can’t share in the good fortune of another – or, if the occasion demands, try to mitigate another’s bad luck by sharing from my own virtually inexhaustible store of good will. (Good will and good luck are close cousins; I haven’t quite figured out the relationship, but I don’t think you can have one without the other.)

O.K., but what morality? Despite my abundant admiration for Judaism, Buddhism and the other Organized Religions, I guess I still incline toward the position of the ancient Daoists: that the explicit formulation of an ethical system is a sign of failure. Only chronic social chaos and the disintegration of ordinary human bonds can explain the need to spell out something so self-evident. Most people know intuitively that you shouldn’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself – it’s human nature to avoid conflict and work for social harmony. Our minds and bodies revolt against the artificial pressures of conflict and competition: 98% of men will crack up after 60 days of continuous conflict, according to studies of British troops during World War II. And the pressures of life under monopoly capitalism destroy the bodies of the rulers along with the ruled: their insides turn themselves into knots.

Thus when Daoism itself, in competition with Buddhism, morphed into a religion, it focused on body-as-microcosm, with this-worldly, personal immortality as the unreachable utopian goal. The Chinese are a uniquely earthy people. In Chinese popular religion – a rich blend of Buddhism, Daoism and folk beliefs of diverse origin – the god of good fortune is a quintessentially Rabelaisian figure, like Santa Claus crossed with the Carnival King. And yes, divinatory systems like I Qing and astrology occupy an honored place – much as they do in peasant religions the world over.

To die-hard rationalists, this sort of belief system is anathema. But I think they’re missing the point. In virtually every traditional society I’ve ever read about, personal auguries are meant to function much as the communal fortunes told by the nebiim (“prophets”) of the Hebrew Bible: as visions of what could happen, not what will happen. It makes sense that fortunes read for an individual’s benefit would tend to be quite a bit sunnier than the national prophecies of Isaiah et.al.: their purpose is self-empowerment, not moral self-questioning.

But what is morality? If it involves nothing more than an utterly fatalistic dependence on the inscrutable will of an infinitely wiser and more powerful Being – the situation, I fear, with vast numbers of the adherents of Organized Religions – it seems more likely to breed irresponsibility. “Why should I care about the earth? It’s in God’s hands. Why should I involve myself in social change movements? It’s up to God to change people’s hearts.”

So yes, my trusting in Fortune may seem naive and superstitious. It certainly seems that way to me, sometimes! But to the extent that reliance on Lady Luck has taught me to expand my definition of fortune to include, basically, the very “music of what happens,”* is it such a bad thing? And if I end up viewing my life as the result of an active collaboration between my own imagination and the sum total of social and natural events that are too fearsome and wondrous and complex for any human mind ever to encompass – well, that leaves me in pretty good company. As near as I can tell, the vast majority of all the people who ever lived believed something very similar.

*from the Fenian Cycle, translated by James Stephens in Irish Fairy Stories and reprinted in John Montague, ed., The Book of Irish Verse (Macmillan, 1974):


Once, as they rested on a chase, a debate arose among the Fianna-Finn as to what was the finest music in the world.

‘Tell us that,’ said Fionn, turning to Oisin.

‘The cuckoo calling from the tree that is highest in the hedge,’ cried his merry son.

‘A good sound,’ sad Fionn. ‘And you, Oscar,’ he asked, ‘what is to your mind the finest of music?’

‘The top of music is the ring of a spear on a shield,’ cried the stout lad.

‘It is a good sound,’ said Fionn.

And the other champions told their delight: the belling of a stag across water, the baying of a tuneful pack heard in the distance, the song of a lark, the laughter of a gleeful girl, or the whisper of a moved one.

‘They are good sounds all,’ said Fionn.

‘Tell us chief,’ one ventured, ‘what do you think?’

‘The music of what happens,’ said great Fionn, ‘that is the finest music in the world.’

Diogenes’ Tub (5)

From the Associated Press: Outside the Popular Party headquarters, some 100 supporters chanted “Viva España! Viva Aznar” and waved party flags although there was nothing to celebrate.

How rare to encounter such honesty about patriotism and team spirit in the mainstream media!

My kingdom for a box!

“Thinking outside the box.” Not here, folks. Though I don’t claim immunity to the occasional appeal of sophistry (hell, I’ll quote anything if it supports whatever position I happen to be holding at the moment), I would never be so foolish as to claim that thinking – even of the most poetic, artistic variety – can take place outside some kind of “box.” It can be any shape; it can be as large as you please; it can overlap only to a very small extent – if at all – with received thinking. It can and should be a very topologically malleable sort of box. But I can’t see how any meaningful expression could take place apart from such framing. And the frame employed, if we are paying proper attention, will always seem something of an arbitrary imposition, a superfluity, extrinsic to “objective reality.”

I don’t discount the possibility of direct apprehension of reality unmediated by thought/language, of course. In fact, I’m inclined to think such apprehensions are rather more common than we might suppose. I will go so far as to propose that all kernels of insight, the sparks of inspiration out of which genuine thinking arises, represent in fact the commonest version of such direct, unmediated seeing. Let’s ignore for now the possibility that more complete, more fully transformative realizations can be had. I want to ask the poets and artists out there: isn’t this what keeps you writing/creating, really, this realization of something that cannot quite be put into words/forms?

And such an experience does seem transformative, at least in a small way. I think of how Rilke ended his famous poem about the “Archaic Torso of Apollo”: Du mußt dein Leben ändern – “You must change your life.” Because of that, that summons one feels at the heart of an authentic insight, one feels one must keep trying, poem after poem. If I can just find the optimal words in the optimal sequence, then something very similar to my original intuition might be passed along, might be felt in turn by the properly attentive reader or listener.

And who can’t read or listen with the necessary degree of openness? Who are these people who say things like “I just don’t understand poetry?” What’s wrong with them? What’s wrong with us, that we don’t know what they’re talking about when they say that? Perhaps they have been taught that every poem is a puzzle to be solved, that it takes a peculiar kind of intelligence to unlock it. But whence the insensitivity to that which lies beyond language? No normal five year-old seems ever to suffer from the obtuseness that so frequently afflicts otherwise intelligent adults who imagine a one-to-one correspondence between words and reality.

Such ignorance is not inborn, I believe, but must be deliberately inculcated through years of intellectual bullying and the meticulous application of soul-destroying curricula. Eventually, if all works according to the lesson plan, the Möbius river of time shrinks into a one-way street, and the Klein bottle of imaginative space acquires a definite inside and outside: it becomes a non-topological box, a mental jail cell. This is the box that must not only be thought outside of: it must be escaped for good.

Plastic words

I should explain what I meant by the term “plastic words” in the essay-poem about tundra swans (which Tom Montag at The Middlewesterner has generously designated “Link of the week.” Thanks, Tom!). Fortunately, I just remembered where I had shelved my copy of Uwe Poerksen’s Plastic Words: The Tyranny of a Modular Language (Jutta Mason and David Cayley, translators, Penn State U.P., 1995). Since I don’t have more than three or four books on linguistics, they are shelved with poetics and litcrit. I’m getting increasingly good at hiding things from myself…

Poerksen is a German medievalist. I imagine it was his professional background that gave him enough of an alientated perspective to recognize a feature of modernity that others had overlooked. He identifies a small class of words that have been liberated from their original context in the sciences, where they had highly specialized meanings, and are now liberally employed in academic/bureaucratic/managerial contexts mainly for prestige.

The phenomenon of plastic words has often been described and held up for ridicule under various headings, especially in its academic form. But Poerksen isn’t some curmudgeonly prescriptivist intent on returning modern language to some golden age of “correct” usage that never existed. His alarm stems from the perception that the newly modular language he identifies is spreading its tentacles into every facet of ordinary life, from food to health care to environmental protection. In the hands of what left-libertarian economist Michael Albert calls the coordinator class, plastic words like development, project, strategy, problem, says Poerksen, “become the building blocks for plans and solutions that may seem utopian but end up impoverishing the world.”

The book isn’t too long, nor are its arguments too complex. I won’t attempt to outline Poerksen’s entire argument. Let me just quote the opening paragraphs, include a stripped-down definition of a plastic word, add a few thoughts of my own, and conclude with an example relevant to yesterday’s post on anorexia.

Plastic words are not new in how they look but in how they are used. They have been fashioned for the purpose of laying down the tracks and outlining the routes of a civilization that is covering the world with gathering speed. Their origins can no longer be discerned. They resemble one another. It is as though there were a place somewhere in the world where these words were released at intervals, as though at an unknown place there existed a factory releasing them complete from its assembly line, or as if they were coming into being simultaneously in many different places.

They may not be noticed, but they are present everywhere: in the speeches of politicians and on the drawing boards of city planners, at academic conferences, and in the ever more taken-for-granted in-between world of the media. They invade private conversation. When they first appear, they are fashionable and command attention; but then they merge with the everyday and soon seem commonsense.

In the spring of 1985 I attended a conference in the little Mexican mountain city of Tepotzlan, involving several noted industrialists, politicians, and academics of that country. The discussion was about how Mexico could take advantage of the most recent developments in high technology. Please note: not whether this ought to be done, but how. … The discussion was dominated by a number of words that floated through it like driftwood: ‘progresso,’ ‘proceso,’ ‘modernización,’ ‘necesidades,’ ‘comunicación,’ ‘información,’ ‘crisis,’ ‘desarrollo.’ The North American expressed himself a little differently. He replaced ‘desarrollo’ with ‘development,’ and was ahead of the others in that he seemed to be already settled on the high plateau of ‘high tech,’ whereas they had to orient themselves toward the shining mountaintop of the future by using his position as a marker…

I was only an accidental guest at this meeting; and, during a break, I remarked to a Mexican friend that the talk seemed to consist of no more than a hundred words. My friend shook his head and said quickly: ‘With a hundred words you could become president! Here there are barely fifty.’

Or perhaps there were only fifteen…

Like any self-respecting German scholar – especially one on a self-appointed campaign against vagueness – Poerksen is not content to discuss the problem in general terms. He identifies 30 criteria that must be satisfied for a word to qualify as fully “plastic.” But determined to make his findings useful to the general reader, he boils these down into nine “essential characteristics”:

A. [A plastic word] originates from science and technology and resembles a building block. It is a stereotype.
B. It has an inclusive function and is a ‘key for everything.’
C. It is a reductive concept, impoverished in content.
D. It grasps history as nature.
E. Connotation and function predominate.
F. It generates needs and uniformity.
G. It renders speech hierarchical and colonizes it, establishing an elite of experts and serving as their ‘resource.’
H. It belongs to a still very recent international code.
I. It limits speech to words, shutting out expressive gesture.

So, do ‘development’ and ‘sexuality’ mean the same thing? It seems to me that they signify different things, but what they signify is less important than what they mean. And the meaning is the same. These are close relatives of the myth of everyday life described by Roland Barthes. They are idols, magical and empty.

This last sentence, by the way, hints at the one connection I wish the author had not left unexplored. In pre-modern Europe, as Poerksen must know, word-magic was at least as prominent as it is today. Though we have lost the sense that words can actually carry power in some essential way, I do feel that spells and other forms of charged speech constitute the most direct precursor to the modern planner’s use of plastic words. In European spells, much of the language was deliberate nonsense in which “connotation and function predominated.”

Investing language with magical power is a very different phenomenon from the use of modular language, which is by definition denatured of content. All I’m saying is that the latter doesn’t arise from a complete cultural vacuum, as Poerksen seems to suggest. In fact, the use of language to obscure rather than to elucidate seems universal, and might in fact be a major driver of linguistic evolution, to the extent that people invent new words and new ways of expressing themselves in part to differentiate themselves from the surrounding society or a neighboring society. Thus, it only makes sense that the increasingly internationalized club of ‘experts’ would want to devise their own lingo, the use of which connotes membership in the cognoscenti at the same time that it excludes the hoi polloi. Its plasticity arises from the shallowness and fundamental dishonesty of this new culture’s belief-system. But what elite has ever been willing to admit to itself the true nature of power?

I’ll close with one example of Poerksen’s that ties into a theme from yesterday’s post: the increasingly vague and modular use of the word “health.”

No one who is healthy talks about her health. Nothing is bothering her; she doesn’t lack anything. There is no reason for her to speak of this ‘nothing,’ since she doesn’t notice it. She only begins to speak of it when her body forces itself on her attention: then she talks about her illnesses, if they come, or the memory of her pains. the word ‘health’ comes up infrequently in the old texts, and when it does, it designates an absence: it means ‘uninjured,’ ‘alive.’ whoever was healthy lacked nothing. But in the time in which we live health has become a virtue, of which we keenly feel the lack. This lack has now been implanted in everyday consciousness. So we are constantly talking about our illnesses.

When the concept of health gets loose in the vernacular, it generates new forms of deviance. Originally, it was a rather unobtrusive idea, but that was before it was authorized and sanctified by experts. Now it introduces arbitrary boundaries into the continuum of experience, erecting a barrier between ‘healthy’ and ‘sick,’ and specifying a norm that has been set ever higher, so that ever more people are identified as sick. …

The scientists’ awareness that ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’ are distinctions located on a shifting scale are lost. The notion of a norm that emerges from this particular vocabulary, of a healthy middle range that lies between ‘too high’ and ‘too low,’ has become a fixed standard in ordinary life. This norm is set at a level that we somehow always fail to reach. And so, because of the authority residing in a normative language, the continuum of experience is measured against a fixed yardstick, with the result that we are constantly asking ourselves: Aren’t we coming down with something? Isn’t something wrong with us? When the yardstick is passed into our own hands in the name of prevention or personal responsibility, we become in effect our own clients. It turns out that no one is ‘healthy’ any more.

Our bodies, our saints

This morning I am thinking about icon worship and its connections not merely to sexuality (as in yesterday’s post) but to the literal imitatio Christi of many mystics, especially since St. Francis (who was, in many ways, a second Christ). Not content with taking into themselves the body and blood of Christ, they seek to replicate his suffering in their own bodies, often receiving the stigmata as a reward. The fact that so many of these mystics have been women subverts traditional concepts about the gender of divinity. Beth at The Cassandra Pages posted about “holy anorexia,” the subject of a recent article in the London Review of Books. The author, Hilary Mantel, observes about many fasting female mystics that “Starvation was a constant in these women’s lives. It melted their flesh away, so that the beating of their hearts could be seen behind the racks of their ribs. It made them one with the poor and destitute, and united them with the image of Christ on the cross . . . ” This post provoked some interesting reactions in the comments thread, as well.

To say this is a disturbing subject would be a vast understatement. Anorexia and bulimia both fall into the category of what anthropologists consider cultural afflictions: conditions endemic to specific cultures and rarely found outside them. The “running amok” behavior of Melanesians is one example. Such conditions are often greatly susceptible to treatment by traditional, faith-based medicine, so perhaps in the case of anorexia we should consider to what extent Western Christian practices may have helped young women exert control over a condition that seems to derive, at least in part, from the fear of losing control. One of Beth’s readers stated that she felt as if she were “feeding the jinnis” when she put food into her own body. Apparently, then, she experiences her body as no longer fully her own.

From both a religious and a romantic perspective, this perception is not necessarily problematic. (I know – that’s easy for me to say. Can the canons of romantic love be supposed historically to have fed this neurosis, if that’s what it is?) In fact, if traditional ways of knowing can be trusted, this experience may be initiatory, leading to a profound realization of communion or exstasis. Then, too, it makes sense to try to conquer the anorexic’s fear or sense of helplessness through a homeopathic approach: fear can be conquered by love, and the anorexic can only love her own body if she regards it as, in some sense, the body of another. So she turns herself into an icon.

But this latter analysis privileges the modern, “scientific” framing of the problem, which I find perhaps even more unsettling. Modern psychology will medicalize everything if you give it half a chance; even love is regarded as a neurotic obsession. I feel Bakhtin gives us better clues in this case: the self-denying, self-escaping body of Lent contrasts with the self-indulging and self-exceeding body of Carnival. Both are expressions of transcendence, but face in opposite directions, as it were. And since Aristotle if not before, the Western soul has been deprived of any obvious route of escape from these opposing terms, these twin archetypes. Paradox has not been honored as an authentic way of self-knowledge. The law of the excluded middle traditionally ruled out any transformation of negative Lack into positive Openness (sunyata) such as Buddhist ontology encourages.

I was reminded of this a little while back by a citation in Log24.net of a paper about Hamlet, pointing out that “nothing” was Elizabethan slang for the vagina. This gave me a funny feeling, because I remembered a paper I wrote about Hamlet way back in college in which I analyzed the language of nothingness in Hamlet, and I sure don’t remember finding any such discussion of the true meaning of the insults Hamlet flung in poor Ophelia’s face. But thinking now about the original meaning and sordid history of so-called hysteria, I wonder how I could have missed it? In a semantic system where “nunnery” could mean both a holy community and a whorehouse, and where “want” – meaning both desire and lack – was the basis of innumerable puns, it only makes sense that woman’s sex be seen as both nullity and matrix – the world/stage for (male) action.

What passes through the mind of the more ordinary worshipper of saints? Does she see something of herself in the starved child or the virgin burned alive by sadistic pagan kings? What role does the saint’s image play in the worship of believers both ordinary and mystical?

Those who didn’t have the time to soldier through the entire, lengthy essay I linked to the other day, A Saint in the City, by Allen F. and Mary Nooter Roberts, would’ve missed the following quote: “Mourides use the term ‘mirror’ to refer to how they see themselves in Bamba’s portrait, and in the words of the Mouride artist Mot Gueye, such reflection occurs as he paints the image. Such visual hagiography is an active process of identity formation conceptually located between memory and history. That is, hagiography retains origins as diffuse as memory, yet it can be as purposeful and politically driven as history. Hagiography causes or permits one to become swept up by a saint’s biographical narrative in such a way that one’s life becomes an extension of the saint’s. As Edith Wyschograd [Saints and Postmodernism, University of Chicago Press, 1990] asserts, saints’ lives do not merely exist, they are constructed and reconstructed endlessly, ensuring that they are perpetuated in a present that is continuously grafted onto the pure potentiality of a remembered past.”

In a footnote, the Robertses state that “Similar metaphors abound in Sufism outside of Senegal, for ‘the mirror (mazhar) of signs reflects the visible and announces the invisible,’ while the speculation that Sufism encourages ‘consists of polishing the mirror of the soul.'” (The quotes here are translated from Jean-Michel Hirt, Le miroir du Prophete: Psychanalyse et Islam, Bernard Grasset, 1993.)

Perhaps the logical next step in this discussion would take us toward Eastern Orthodoxy, but let’s return to Roman Catholicism instead. There’s a beautiful book by the Chicana poet Pat Mora that should interest anyone who wants to understand the inner experience of icon devotion. It’s called Aunt Carmen’s Book of Practical Saints. Beacon Press spared no expense in publishing it – the full-color reproductions of folk-art saint’s images (santos) are crucial accompaniments to the poems. We learn about what scholars call Sonoran Christianity through a delightful series of prosopopoeic prayers. “Aunt Carmen is impatient with cerebral notions of faith,” says the dust-jacket blurb, “but she knows her saints.” And learning about her life and thoughts inter alia, in the course of reading what she has to say to the santos, is of course half the fun.

Carmen honors and reveres the saints without becoming in any way subservient, a distinction I think that may be lost on many who have abandoned ritualized religious expression in favor of a purely private spirituality. Carmen’s “practical” approach to icon devotion is revealed in her prayer to the patron saint of cooks, San Pascual Bailón:

Like all saints, you’re a mirror.
We make of you what we need.

Carmen is an octogenarian widow and pillar-of-the-church who plays at being crotchety and inscrutable in order to keep the young priest in his place. This is important because some local practices are far from orthodox, such as the very Mexican reverence for La Muerte – not a saint, but a black-shawled, female skeleton with a Cupid’s bow and arrow:

You don’t belong, fea Doña Sebastiana.

Some pull you in a rock-filled cart,
a penance they impose
when the priest’s not looking.
They fear his frowns.
He fears mine and well he should.

Carmen wonders at the reactions of her God (mi Diosito):

¡Ay! What must He think,
this modern religion with no backbone,
no Latin, no chanting, no confession,
no fiery scoldings, just priests frowning
and electric candles. A church that fears
fire – and women. The same world inside
and out. No transformation. No mystery.

The poem’s concluding stanzas are appropriate to the season and worth quoting in full.

Ash Wednesday. “Thou art dust
and unto dust thou shalt return,”
the priest said today. He frowns
when I drag you from the closet at Lent.
You don’t belong,
but I save what can be useful.
You’re not official, yet you’re persistent,
¿verdad, Comadre? You and I
can be informal. Dos viejitas.
You don’t scare me.
I’ll look you eye to eye.

Shoot, Doña Sebastiana. Go ahead.
Slipping out of this crumpled body
will probably feel good, like slipping off
my winter coat in spring. I’ll feel
lighter, more my true self,
ready to visit with mis santos,
have a real conversation, revel
in their words, shining, like candles.