Pride and prejudice

Today I’m feeling more focused than I was yesterday, so I’ll take the risk of putting down some fairly scattered impressions and seeing if I can make some sense out of the whole.

To begin with, here’s something for Dale, in reference especially to a recent comment thread at Vajrayana Practice. Actually, it’s an encore presentation, as they say on Car Talk. This odd epigraph appears as a preface to the first part of my book Spoil (which is beginning to give off a bit of a musty odor, I must say). I was picturing two stone buddhas – or perhaps two stoned buddhists – facing each other . . .

The hedonist bows to the image of the ascetic–& vice versa.
It turns out that the buddha in the mirror is an agent provocateur.
You find yourself grimacing, baring your teeth.
Anything to wipe that smile off its face.


It turned out that The Buddha in the Mirror was the title of a popular book explaining the tenets of Soka Gakkai. Now, if there’s one branch of Buddhism that leaves a bad taste in my mouth, it’s this sect (and to some extent the other followers of Nichiren as well). Why? Because they are just like Christian fundamentalists: their praxis is basic in the extreme, admitting of little nuance, and they state outright that if you don’t belong to their little club, you’re more-or-less screwed. To which I always have the same reaction: if salvation means I have to spend eternity with self-righteous pricks like you, who needs it?


Beyond the quicksand claims of fundamentalists and other true believers to possess a monopoly on the Truth stretches a somewhat less treacherous swamp: the almost universal tendency to assume that others would be happier if only they were more like us. I approached this from one angle with my screed on classism and racism the other day. But many of us simply get caught up in our enthusiasms. And of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to “convert” others to various forms of fandom, as long as one is reasonably respectful about it. But sometimes I do worry that I can be awfully obnoxious about it.

Yesterday I found myself once again trying to nudge a friend of mine into starting a blog. She gently reminded me that she has a variety of very good reasons not to keep one. In some of her remarks about her own reticence I heard echoes of the Amish critique of our “English” cult of self esteem. For an Amish, to sign one’s name to a creative product is suspect (though the nature writer and organic farmer David Kline gets away with it), and to publish one’s photo is virtually impossible. Why? Such gestures are seen as too “prideful.” Now, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to bend my pride and submit to communal authority as the Amish do for one second. But that doesn’t mean I’m content to be a puffed-up asshole, either. And I do like the fact that the Amish emphasis on peacefulness includes a profound disinclination to try and convert others to their way of thinking.

In this regard, they differ sharply from even their closest cousins-in-faith, the more conservative Mennonite sects. Not entirely coincidentally, most old-order Amish honor the Bible’s exhortation to “works” as well as faith. They tend not to want to take the easy way out and say, just believe this one thing and you’ll get to heaven. Submitting to communal authority does not invariably entail mindless obedience, it seems. But I suppose one must expect a certain mental agility from people who are so un-American as to agonize over the possible social consequences of every new technology.


Speaking of faith and works, here’s rich irony. The April 20 Christian Century reports:

On the presidential campaign trail, Senator John Kerry (D., Mass.) is using the New Testament’s Letter of James to imply that the Bush administration may be long on expressing faith but lacks compassionate deeds in dealing with hunger and joblessness. Following Kerry’s appearance in a St. Louis church, a White House spokesman decried the ploy as “exploitation of scripture.”

To shouts of approval on March 28 from worshipers at New Northside Missionary Baptist Church, Kerry cited two verses from James, first 2:14, then 1:22.

“The scriptures say, ‘What does it profit my brethren if some say he has faith but does not have works?’ When we look at what’s happening in America today, where are the works of compassion? Because it’s also written, ‘Be doers of the word and not hearers only,'” he said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Likewise, Time magazine’s Web site reported that Kerry told a Mississippi congregation on March 7 that President Bush does not practice the “compassionate conservatism” he preaches. The Massachusetts senator then cited James 2:14, saying, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?” Bush, a United Methodist, has referred to his beliefs while promoting his faith-based initiative and on other occasions.

In speaking at the St. Louis church, Kerry vaguely criticized “our present national leadership.” But a spokesman for Bush, Steve Schmidt, said the senator’s comments were “beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse and a sad exploitation of scripture for political attack.”


In other news, a bunch of Christian pastors concerned about the environment sent Bush a letter encouraging him to actually read the Bible.


It’s always interesting to hear Republicrats make solemn pronouncements about “the bounds of acceptable discourse.” What does this mean? Could anyone give me an example of unacceptable discourse?

O.K., how about this: Iraq would probably do just fine if the occupying troops pulled out tomorrow. Civil war is highly unlikely to break out. The Sunnis and the Shiites are not at each other’s throats. And somehow Iraqis managed to rebuild almost all the country’s infrastructure destroyed during the 1991 war, which was far more devastating, in less than a year – without the help of Halliburton, Bechtel, the United States Marines, Blackwater/CIA agents, or even the United Nations . . . which was doing its darndest to prevent said reconstruction through economic sanctions and by giving carte blanche to the U.S. and British to continue bombing the crap out of the country for the next ten years.

But perhaps you, like Senator Kerry, consider yourself a liberal and a humanitarian. Don’t we have a responsibility to fix what we have broken? Sure. But exercising such responsibility would be almost unprecedented for the United States (with the exception of the Marshall Plan, which we can debate about). So maybe we’d better experiment, first, and try to fix things up in Afghanistan some – say, commit to paying, dollar-for-dollar, as much as we paid for the ordnance we dropped. That might sound sort of minimal, but it would probably prove impossible to get the bipartisan warhorses in Congress to sign on to anything more ambitious. If it works out and we decide to apply our new-found expertise in reconstruction elsewhere, I’m sure any new, sovereign government of Iraq would be more than happy to accept reparations. (But I forgot, Iraq was supposed to pay for its own reconstruction!)

Shouldn’t we get the U.N. to send peacekeeping troops? But as long as Iraq is occupied by foreign powers, there won’t be any peace to keep. If the U.N. had armies of peacemakers, they could send those. You know, people with experience in democratic organizing, building the cultural infrastructure of a pluralistic society: unions, public libraries, grassroots advocacy groups, zoning boards, all that boring stuff. Such folks could really be quite useful, I think. But for some reason, we in the “international community” of “civilized nations” always leave such essential functions up to poorly funded (and not always democratically run) non-governmental organizations. (Talk about an abrogation of responsibility!) And peacekeeping troops under the aegis of the U.N. would probably be even less effective than the U.S. and British troops who are there now, because not only would they be acting under false pretenses, if recent incidents in Kosovo are any guide, they wouldn’t even be willing to do what occupying armies must do to maintain “peace” – kill people.

Now let me go wash my mouth out with soap, and examine the other side of the coin. What constitutes acceptable discourse?

Money! That’s what the Supreme Court – and the “liberal” ACLU – have said. Money is a form of speech. You can look it up.

What else? How about: Bombs! Great big bombs! All kinds of bombs, and mortars, and grenades, and live ammunition, and things that go explody-boom! That’s what G.W. said over a year ago, wasn’t it, at the very beginning of the bombing campaign, when the evil not-so-genius Wolfowitz convinced him that Iraqi generals would turn Saddam in if we gave them half a chance. We weren’t just bombing, Bush said, we were “sending a message to Saddam.” Then when that didn’t work – something got lost in the translation, perhaps? – we dusted off the not-so-moderate Secretary Powell’s “shock and awe” doctrine. The thinking there seems to have been along the lines of, “These superstitious heathen believe in an angry, punishing sky god. If we drop lots of things from the sky that go boom, they’ll think we’re God and fall down in awe! Then, they’ll welcome our troops with flowers!” Don’t believe me? Check out the original brand name – oops, I mean code name – for the bombing campaign: Operation Infinite Justice.

The foregoing rant was triggered by a remark from Christian Science Monitor reporter Scott Peterson last night on NPR. Reporting from Fallujah, Peterson admitted that the “cease fire” was a fiction – but a useful fiction, he said, because it was a way of keeping communication channels open. If words don’t work, the Marine commander told Peterson, we drop 100-lb. bombs for a while. It’s the only language these people understand.


As long as I’m depressing the hell out of you, I ought to mention another article from the same issue of The Christian Century cited above. “Church Failure: Remembering Rwanda,” by David P. Gushee, concludes that the presence of Christian institutions did nothing to prevent genocide either in Rwanda or in Nazi Germany. “It cannot be assumed that the people gathered to hear the Word proclaimed and to participate in the sacraments are serious about the Christian faith. . . . Jesus himself said that the seed of the gospel is scattered on all different kinds of ground; only one of the four kinds of soil that he mentions has the quality needed for fruitfulness.”

This is a crucial point all too often ignored by both religious and non- or anti-religious people. Religions are, inevitably, an imperfect means to achieve highly provisional ends. At best, we should expect that religious institutions work to provide healing. Complete and irreversible transformation of self or society seems not only unlikely, but quite possibly dangerous as well. I would go so far as to suggest that people who believe in such totalizing transformations, be they secular revolutionaries or religious folks, are precisely the sort of people most likely to heed calls to war, genocide or ecocide.

Unfortunately, folks in every religion have a tendency to believe that a profound conversion, or a mystical experience, or satori, or the achievement of any number of other exalted states will solve everything. Thank goodness that religions also produce people like Mother Theresa, Dorothy Day, Gustavo Gutierrez and Desmond Tutu to perennially remind us that God’s agendas are very different from our own.

Now, perhaps some of you are wishing I would stop making these political remarks and restrict myself to spiritual speculations, nature poetry and the like. I wish I could! But I’ve just never been very good at keeping things in separate mental compartments.

We have our work cut out for us. Get right with God or the Universe or the Emptiness of the Self if you must. But don’t keep your mouth shut about everything else – and whatever you do, don’t let the sons of bitches get away with claiming it’s all in our name! If you’re a Christian, pressure your priest or minister to join in efforts like the one I mentioned above – and write the White House and the newspapers yourself. (Never underestimate the power of a well-written letter-to-the-editor!) Agitate in whatever way and to whatever degree you can, without losing your sense of humor, your compassion or your religion.

As David Gushee notes, history shows again and again that “when a ruling elite decides to target a group of people in a society, most of the people who are not targeted will not resist, whatever their religious affiliation. To put it bluntly: politics usually matters more than religion does; or, politics co-opts religion and thus neutralizes it. To put it even more bluntly: people are sheep. Most will go along with what their elites tell them to think and do. Few have the intellectual, spiritual or moral capacity to resist either the genocidal thinking of elites or the genocide itself once it begins.”

May I strive with all my might, through this weblog or otherwise, to help bring about a world where this would no longer be the case – and where treating any injustice, no matter how seemingly minor, as the price of progress would be beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse. Inshallah.

Morning exercise

Madrugada. Get up, get up. Questions crowd my brain even before I am fully awake. I can feel a modern-day version of the Tian Wen bubbling in my gut. How wrong it seems to advance and defend propositions, to use the declarative mode at all. How joyfully wrong! And having read the Buddhist ruminations of Hoarded Ordinaries just before bed (I hoard them up, you see, and read a whole week at a time), I am bowing to my own teacher, the tireless coyote of the mind. (When was the last time you saw a monkey roaming freely in the wild, Lorianne? Or is that the point behind the metaphor, that we keep monkeys in cages? Ah, a new Disney classic waiting to made: Free the Mind-Monkey!)

Coffee. A new book so good I can’t bring myself to go outside and sit on my porch as I do every morning to give my mind a chance to pick up some fresh scent-trails, listen for the snap of a twig three miles off. But for no good reason I am happy, happy. I can’t decide whether to sing or shout, so I just keep quiet. But that’s probably O.K.

Juan Ramón Jiménez, you didn’t tell the whole truth. There are such things as holy fools, yes, but in your ceaseless gravity I sense a grave digger quite a bit more pious than the clowns in Hamlet. I want to alter the third line of your famous poem: with the substitution of a single word, everything changes. Así:

Mis pies ¡qué hondos en la tierra!
Mis alas ¡qué altas en el cielo!
–¡Y qué dolor alegría
de corazón distendido!–

My feet, so deep in the earth!
My wings, so far up in the heavens!
–And in the heart stretched
between them, such suffering happiness!–

– or was that really such a dramatic change, I wonder?

Alba. Waiting for the sun. A cold front has blown in, leaving the sky almost cloudless except along the horizon. I’m standing with my back to the 30-year-old spruce grove at the top of the field, looking at the familiar panorama of ridge after ridge, the long, low wrinkles on the earth’s skin that are the sign of great senescence for these so-called mountains.

Familiar? Wait a second. If I didn’t already know what I was looking at, how would I be able to tell that the thin band of cloud stretching the length of the horizon isn’t in fact a farther, higher range? It’s just a shade lighter than Tussey, Nittany and Bald Eagle Mountains below it – as it should be if it were a slightly more distant sierra, towering, I figure, some 15,000 feet higher than the measly 2,400 feet attained by the present mountains.

The longer I stare, the less convinced I am that this is not the case. I could be a time traveler, gazing back a couple hundred million years to the Appalachians’ first upheaval. The Appalachian orogeny (one of my favorite words!). But it doesn’t feel that way; I’m too fully locked into the present. And the funny thing is, for no good reason I can think of, ever since I left the house I have been whistling under my breath, over and over, a theme from Hovhaness’ Mysterious Mountain. I mean, I haven’t listened to that in close to two months – and the last time I did, I felt more than a little bored with it. It’s hardly a complex work, and I know every goddamn note. It seemed utterly familiar, though still an old friend to be sure. Like someone we know too well to be surprised by any longer, if that’s not too trite a way of putting it.

So anyway here I am, and I can’t get this tune out of my head . . . Well, I don’t try, actually. I am a big believer in the use of monotony as a kind of mental floss. The coyote gets that enticing scent in his nostrils and he can’t leave it, you know, he just keeps on trotting, mile after mile, neither too fast nor too slow – eating up the horizon. There’s an odd noise in the grove behind me – it sounds like nothing so much as a brief snatch of human conversation, a man and a woman. Maybe a squirrel or something – I have been hearing a chewing noise off and on. But I had sort of pegged that for a porcupine. Well, the sound doesn’t repeat itself, so who knows?

Minute by minute the sky changes, the red-orange band getting darker, but the mysterious mountains looming up behind the familiar ones only seem to grow more solid. I wish I were either a better writer or at least a blogger with a camera, so that I could show you exactly what it looks like. The one break in the ridge of cloud is east-northeast, right where the sun ought to rise. And as I watch, a broad, dark line emerges above this gap, a good 20,000 feet higher than the main chain: the crest of some hidden Himalayan masif. Orange sky above it, pale “clouds” (actually, the absence of cloud) around its imaginary slopes. The sky glows. I have a sudden realization: my glasses are really, really dirty!

Amanecer. The spell doesn’t break. (Never. Not as long as the Wile E. Coyote of the mind keeps bouncing back!) What happens instead is that a new spell is cast overtop of it. One mask is traded for another. Mt. Sumeru breaks into a dozen sun-touched fragments, floating blue stones edged in fire. Then up up up up up like nothing you ever saw comes the mask you can never really see without going blind. What color is it, I wonder? I’m not talking about that old yellow dwarf, that astronomical body, I’m talking about the sun. It gives off a reddish light at the moment, but that won’t last for more than a few minutes. I turn and enter the spruce grove. Now that the wait is over, one craves the close-at-hand.

The coyotes have been worrying the deer carcass quite a bit since the last time I checked. (This is one of probably at least twenty-five such carcasses within a half-mile radius. It was a tough winter.) The front legs are splayed out at right angles to the chest cavity, which has been cleaned down to the ribs, but the hind feet are together and point straight back. In other words, this deer carcass seems to have been arranged to resemble Christ on the cross – there’s Coyote for you! – with the hide pulled up like a cowl around the neck; the head is missing. A patch of reddish orange light stretches toward it. I am noticing details of moss and twig, I am keeping my ears open – the dawn chorus is past its peak, of course – and there’s a call I recognize but can’t quite place. Four high notes in a row, quasi-mechanical – just once. Bird of prey, I think, but which one?

As I leave the grove I am thinking again about some of the recent observations from the two Buddhist bloggers I read the most faithfully, Dale and Lorianne. The wordless Hovhaness tune is momentarily overwritten by some remembered lines from the thrash band Pantera (taken completely out of context, but what isn’t?). In typical thrash metal style the lyrics were hurled, halfway between a song and a shout –
it’s time to RISE
it’s time to RISE
it’s time to RISE

– and it gives me a chuckle to think about either Dale or Lorianne actually listening to this kind of music.

Día. I head down along the nearly 200-year-old, moss-covered woods road we call Laurel Ridge Trail. I am anxious for the fate of all the tiny, tender leaves of the oaks after this below-freezing night – the sun can’t rise fast enough for them. Ten minutes later, as I’m descending the ridge with Hovhaness once again ghosting in and out on my breath, I suddenly remember who it is that makes that monotonous call I heard on the other side of the spruce grove: the saw-whet owl.

If you go to my mother’s website, you can see a picture of a saw-whet owl perching on her hand. You can also see, down at the bottom of the page, what the view from the top of the field looks like. Meanwhile, I will think about some of the other posts I could have come up with had I not decided to write this one. Meanwhile, terrible things will take place all over the world – some of them preventable, some not. Meanwhile, the poet Arthur Sze, author of The Redshifting Web, will sleep off a hangover and wonder just when synchronicity became so utterly predictable. Meanwhile, I will try – and fail – to recover a rare, original thought that occurred to me just moments after remembering about saw-whets. How utterly unmindful of me! But the sun also rises. The coyote also pauses to mark his territory. Truly the light is sweet, says the Bible. Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.

UPDATE: Title changed 4/29 – I already used “Good morning, blues”! I am starting to seriously repeat myself & I haven’t even been at this for half a year! (If it gets too bad, I will switch to an all-poetry format.) Incidentally, the last two quotes above do not occur sequentially in the Bible; “Truly the light is sweet…” comes from Ecclesiastes, whereas “Man is born unto trouble” may be found in Chapter 5 of Job. (But you probably knew that.) Incidentally #2: It’s safe to say I would never have become such a fan of the Bible were it not for the inclusion of these two books, along with the Song of Songs. Can you name any other sacred texts generous enough to admit the voices of radical skepticism and eroticism?

Being different, learning difference

1. Who you lookin’ at?

I don’t know how it was where you grew up, but among white working class folks in Central Pennsylvania, if you think for yourself and people don’t like you, you’re weird . . . but if they do like or at least respect you, you’re merely “differnt.” As in, “Yeah, you know, Bonta, he’s, well . . . differnt!” It’s kind of like being African American: not necessarily a bad thing, but always worth mentioning. “Yeah, you know, them fellas that came out to replace my water heater was both colored. Nice guys, though.” And ever so slowly, one sees a similar acceptance of gays and lesbians beginning to spread – at least among women and the more emotionally secure among the straight men. Although I kind of doubt that some of the more colorful terminology for people so flagrantry different will go away any time soon.

This contrasts markedly, of course, with the ethos of college-educated WASPs. Sometimes it’s comical the extent to which members of this tribe (in which I include myself) will go to avoid even drawing attention to another’s ethnicity or sexual orientation. We tend to be acutely aware of the fact that such statements as I have quoted above presume stereotyped qualities. And we have a nearly unshakeable belief in the power of correct language to enforce correct thinking.

This view has its blind spots, of course. For some reason, it’s almost always O.K. to make fun of poor or working class white folks – precisely because they are presumed to be uniformly prejudiced toward, um, *cough*, you know . . . People of Color. This supposed failing appears to give carte blanche for their “betters” to ridicule everything about them and their culture – which isn’t even afforded the dignity of authenticity, being viewed instead as a warped or immature version of our own.

This is in fact consistent with the ideology of white supremacy, which is insidious precisely because it is invisible, a blind spot. How many times have you heard folks in the media refer to white people as if they have no ethnicity? And isn’t this how many WASPS view ourselves? “Color” comes from without: poor people are almost by definition colorful, even if they’re white hillbillies or Okies. Good for entertainment. But we – we seem bland, even to ourselves. Here, the Spanish word blanco includes just the right range of meanings: White. Blank. Target: what everyone is after. We are the default setting.

What I’m saying here is that most of us supposedly better educated, middle class white folks are no more enlightened than our working class counterparts. Members of both moieties are capable of tolerance, though almost inevitably they take themselves as standards of normalcy. No, the Ku Klux Klan doesn’t win many converts from among the well-to-do: the language of open hatred and rage is, well, uncultured. Thus, the better educated prefer to talk about “reverse discrimination” (originally a Klan idea, by the way) and “cultures of poverty/dependency” (which never seems to include the imaginatively impoverished and connection-dependent scions of wealthy families, such as our current “president”). The highly educated elites of both major political parties, in a rare display of bipartisanship in the mid-90s, had little trouble convincing themselves and significant portions of their power bases that shredding the social safety net would actually do those lazy people on welfare a huge favor. Aside from then-Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, hardly any voices in mainstream political circles or in the media were willing to confront the obvious fact that very few corporations could survive a minute without massive taxpayer subsidies. That’s good welfare, necessary for the survival of the rich.

Well-educated white folk, no matter how conservative, never speak publicly in racialist terms. But simply changing the language hasn’t changed the reality for poor people in this country and around the world. Nor, I’m afraid, has it altered the fundamental mindframe. While it’s impolite to openly challenge African American claims to Culture (aside from the deformed, immature kind), a mention of “ebonics” at a white cocktail party is almost always a laugh line, except perhaps among confirmed liberals. The huge, unexamined assumption at the heart of white supremacy is that They want/need to be like Us. They are un- or underdeveloped; huge swaths of the planet are viewed as being in desperate need of something called development. (Even many liberal environmentalists, who decry the destruction caused by developers in the U.S., believe this.) Everyone envies and wishes to emulate the American Way of Life, our leaders solemnly atone – and probably sincerely believe, in company with many others.

In Manufacturing Consent and other books, Noam Chomsky has advanced a sort of loose model to try and explain how political indoctrination can happen in a free society. Ever-more-restricted ownership of the mass media is of course one key element. But just as critical, Chomsky finds, is the way the educational system tends to enforce conformity and to weed out those who are too different. For example, much of the workload required to get a PhD is needless and inhuman, unless you assume that a good part of the reason for educational hierarchies in the first place is to serve as social sorting mechanisms. In that case, it makes sense to try and guarantee that the folks at the top of the intellectual pyramid are adept at swallowing their pride, jumping through hoops, and manipulating ideas according to carefully prescribed, peer-reviewed and enforced standards. (That’s not to say this always succeeds, I hasten to point out, given that at least six regular readers, including both my brothers, have PhDs, and none seem all that brainwashed! But in fact my brothers’ descriptions of their fellow grad students and professors were not encouraging, to say the least.)

Even without the class-based analysis, it seems intuitively obvious that academia constitutes a culture largely dominated by white men, and that new aspirants to the fold must adapt themselves to that culture either by internalizing its (white, male) norms, or by finding a way to maintain ideological independence without making too many overt faux pas (at least until they get tenure). And it’s perhaps unavoidable for members of any given culture both to want to enforce such norms, and to regard themselves as the standard against which all others should be measured. In addition, it is generally unthinkable for members of any priviledged class to question the ideological basis of priviledge in the presumption of specialness. The problem becomes particularly acute, however, when that culture holds a near-monopoly on the licensing of thinkable thoughts within a larger society that views itself as egalitarian.

But aside from the egalitarianism, this is nothing new. Ever since the invention of writing systems, the folks who knew how to write made fun of those who didn’t. Humor at the expense of ignorant bumpkins can be found in the earliest cuneiform texts. Walter Ong, whose invaluable Orality and Literacy I quoted from a while back, goes so far as to suggest that much of what we measure as “intelligence” simply reflects the degree to which a given mind has internalized and learned to reproduce uniquely literate thought-patterns.

2. Who you callin’ dumb?

Bigotry can take many forms; the perception of East Asians or Jews as more intelligent can be as damaging as the still-widespread perception among whites that black people (for example) are in some way just not as smart as we are. Again, this is the sort of sentiment one hardly dares to whisper in polite society. But I sort of doubt that the book The Bell Curve became a bestseller on the strength of sales to KKK members alone. And, as I’ve suggested, the willingness of middle-class folks to believe that “poor white trash” are dumb as dirt shows that most people do indeed regard intelligence as inborn and as correlating to some extent with class, if not skin color as well.

Most public school teachers have long ago stopped wondering why so few “good” kids end up in the remedial classes, and why so few kids from poor families ever score high enough in I.Q. tests to make it into gifted or advanced placement classes. It’s easier to believe that we live in a meritocracy, and that social differences reflect measurable genetic differences, than to question the tests themselves.

It was always painfully obvious to me that my good fortune in coming from a highly literate family was the main thing that gave me both the ability and (as time went on) the confidence to ace all manner of standardized tests. But over the years I’ve also come to appreciate the apparent irony that so often those with the least facility for the kind of abstract thinking I excel at possess a superior way with words. I find myself thinking, “If only we could properly educate these people who lard their speech with proverbs and other colorful expressions and who tell stories so expressively – if only we could turn them all into writers!”

Semi-literate people are also, for lack of a better term, semi-oral. Walter Ong showcases a study by the Soviet psychologist A.R. Luria, who “did extensive fieldwork with illiterate (that is, oral) persons and somewhat literate persons in the remoter areas of Uzbekistan . . . and Kirghizia in the Soviet Union during the years 1931-2 . . .

“[Luria] identifies the persons he interviews on a scale ranging from illiteracy to various levels of moderate literacy and his data fall clearly into the classes of orally based versus chirographically based noetic processes. The contrasts that show between illiterates . . . and literates as such are marked and certainly significant . . . and they show what work reported on and cited by [J.C.] Carothers (1959) also shows: it takes only a moderate degree of literacy to make a tremendous difference in thought processes.”

The methodology was informal and relaxed, encouraging subjects to answer questions (or not) as naturally as possible. The subjects were, of course, unfamiliar with standardized tests, but that only makes the conclusions more valuable for the insights they offer into how kids from illiterate or semi-literate backgrounds perform on IQ tests. (Even in my own case, I still recall quite vividly how frightened and disoriented I felt during what I later realized was my first encounter with an intelligence test. I had not yet learned to read. Interestingly, when I took the test again a few years later, after I had become a voracious reader, my score improved by over 25 points. Had it not been for direct pressure from my parents – as intellectuals, honorary members of the local elite – I never would have been given the opportunity for a re-test.)

Ong draws attention to five main conclusions, which I’ll try to do justice to with fairly brief quotes. (For those interested in pursuing this subject, Luria’s own book, Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundation, has apparently been translated into English.)

“(1) Illiterate (oral) subjects identified geometrical figures by assigning them the names of objects, never abstractly as circles, squares, etc. . . . ”

“(2) Subjects were presented with drawings of four objects, three belonging to one category and the fourth to another, and were asked to group together those that were similar or could be placed in one group or designated by one word. One series consisted of drawings of the objects hammer, saw, log, hatchet. Illiterate subjects consistently thought of the group not in categorical terms (three tools, the log not a tool) but in terms of practical situations – ‘situational thinking’ – without adverting at all to the classification ‘tool’ as applying to all but the log. If you are a workman with tools and see a log, you think of applying the tool to it, not of keeping the tool away from it in what it was made for – in some weird intellectual game. A 25-year-old illiterate peasant: ‘They’re all alike. The saw will saw the log and the hatchet will chop it into small pieces. If one of these has to go, I’d throw out the hatchet. It doesn’t do as good a job as the saw.’ Told that the hammer, saw and hatchet are all tools, he discounts the categorical class and persists in situational thinking: ‘Yes, but even if we have tools, we still need wood – otherwise we can’t build anything.’ Asked why another person had rejected one item in another series of four that he felt all belonged together, he replied, ‘Probably that kind of thinking runs in his blood.'”

As expected, subjects with a few years of schooling answered “correctly.” Those who were semi-literate “mingled situational grouping and categorical grouping, though the latter predominated.”

Luria also attempted to teach abstract classification to each of his illiterate subjects, but they invariably resisted learning: “They were convinced that thinking other than operational thinking, that is, categorical thinking, was not important, uninteresting, trivializing.” I have often felt that myself. Much as I love to indulge in it, the invention and proliferation of categories – mental boxes – leads one further away from reality, not closer to it. And I wonder: how does “categorical thinking” differ from what Buddhists, for example, label discriminatory thinking? To what extent might the direct intuitions of artists and mystics represent simply a return to preliteracy, an escape from thought patterns ingrained by “chirographically based noetic processes”?

Finding # 3 in Ong’s summary involves reactions to “formally syllogistic and inferential reasoning,” the alphabetically-enabled invention of the ancient Greeks. In sum: “Syllogisms relate to thought, but in practical matters no one operates in formally stated syllogisms.” Ong cites philosopher James Fernandez, who “has pointed out that a syllogism is self-contained: its conclusions are drawn from its premises only. He notes that persons not academically educated are not acquainted with this special ground rule but tend rather in their interpretation of given statements, in a syllogism as elsewhere, to go beyond the statements themselves, as one does normally in real-life situations or riddles . . . I would add the observation that a syllogism is thus like a text, fixed, boxed-off, isolated. This fact dramatizes the chirographic base of logic. The riddle belongs to the oral world. To solve a riddle, canniness is needed: one draws on knowledge, often deeply subconscious, beyond the words themselves in the riddle.”

And I would add that if in fact the category “intelligence” corresponds to anything in nature, it might well be this very canniness – a great word! A few people are prodigies, simply somehow more swift from birth onward. For most others, canniness – or wisdom – comes, if it comes at all, through life experience and through association with individuals who already possess such wisdom, especially grandparents and other elders. One trains oneself in the value of insight, the development of intuitions and the cultivation of special knacks – none likely to come through schooling as we know it.

Luria’s fourth significant finding was that non-literate people resisted even the logic behind definitions. Rather than describing concrete things, they preferred to give examples, though this didn’t seemed to reflect any lack of facility with description. “‘Say you go to a place where there are no cars. What will you tell people [a car is]?’ ‘If I go, I’ll tell them that buses have four legs, chairs in front for people to sit on, a roof for shade and an engine. But when you get right down to it, I’d say: “If you get in a car and go for a drive, you’ll find out.”‘”

“(5) Luria’s illiterates had difficulty in articulate self-analysis. Self-analysis requires a certain demolition of situational thinking. It calls for isolation of the self, around which the entire lived world swirls for each individual person, removal of the center of every situation from that situation enough to allow the center, the self, to be examined and described.” One man was asked to describe his shortcomings: “‘This year I sowed one pood of wheat, and we’re gradually fixing the shortcomings.'” (A pood is a Russian unit of weight, equivalent to 36.11 lbs.) Luria asked one of his subjects, “Well, people are different – calm, hot-tempered, or sometimes their memory is poor. What do you think of yourself?” “We behave well – if we were bad people, no one would respect us.” This exemplifies, as Ong notes, “Self-evaluation modulated into group evaluation (‘we’) and then handled in terms of expected reactions from others.

“Another man, a peasant aged 36, asked what sort of person he was, responded with touching and humane directness: ‘What can I say about my own heart? How can I talk about my character? Ask others; they can tell you about me. I myself can’t say anything.'”

Ong concludes: “It is perhaps impossible to devise a test in writing or even an oral test shaped in a literate setting that would assess accurately the native intellectual abilities of persons from a highly oral culture.” The use of examinations to sort people came into use in the West only in recent centuries; the use of written exams to create and maintain the ruling classes in East Asia is much more ancient and contains valuable lessons for those who care to look. But I’ll have to leave that for another post.

I don’t want to minimize the importance and, indeed, the many rewards of mastering what Ong calls the grapholect: the dialect of the ruling class – in our case, standard English – that becomes the repository of written culture and the key to the whole, vast garden of the text. To use an analogy, my belief in the absolutely essential importance of large tracts of wilderness does not diminish my fondness for human society. In fact, in my view, the latter quickly grows sterile and unhealthy without regular infusions from the former realm. In like manner, I see the persistence of folk culture and the oral lifeworld of felt experience as necessary for the continued vitality of literate culture.

We can argue about whether or to what extent ethnocentricity or in-group exclusivity might be “natural” or inevitable. But history and anthropology do offer abundant examples to suggest the power of ameliorating influences. Multiculturalism has been the norm for most peoples throughout history. Monolingualism such as many WASPs experience it seems quite rare – especially if we consider additional competence in a non-standard English dialect to constitute a form of bilingualism. If I’d been a little less “differnt” and a little more social back when I was in public school, I might be able to claim such bilingualism myself.

I explain a few things

This month, my plan for full-spectrum dominance of the blogosphere has claimed its first two victims. Alas, poor Tonio, I didn’t know him very well at all! He never gave me a chance. Of course, he didn’t exactly go – this is cyberspace. There’s no elsewhere. You’re either here or you’re not, but most of you who are here are only here for a few minutes each day, so your presence is not merely virtual but suppositional as well. I’m like that cat Schrödinger, ya know?

Ergo, as long as I forebear from gathering site statistics, it’s as easy for me to imagine that I am talking to a large crowd from atop the good soapbox Via Negativa as it is to believe that I am preaching to the choir (& who more worthy of a sermon, after all?) – as it is to acknowledge that I am mainly talking to myself: my most inattentive audience by far! The larger the crowd, I says to myself, the more attention I get. Yes, Master Bates, says my sardonic self back to me.

“Commonbeauty” couldn’t take the heat, the pressure, the constant strain. The blogosphere is a cruel mistress. He had other fish to fry. And unlike me, he always eschewed cliches! What a sap.

Perhaps my most fiendish scheme is to prevent other potential competitors from entering the arena in the first place. I have set up a dozen front companies – venture capitalists and talent scouts – always on the lookout for fresh perspectives and exciting new ideas to smother to death under virtual wheelbarrow loads of money, sex and drugs. Those statistics you’ve seen, about how 90 percent of new blogs fizzle out after just three or four entries? You think that’s an accident? FOOL! Listen: we will bury you.

Needless to say, this is quite an undertaking. “I’ll be the last guy to let you down,” says the undertaker. He doesn’t know that his employees are mounting a union drive that will culminate with the collectivization of the whole enterprise. That’s what you get for hiring Diggers.

I do my own digging with a golden shovel. It works fine as long as I don’t hit a rock. When gold goes up against sandstone, guess who wins? Little grains of quartz, the commonest crystal in the world. Apply heat & pressure over a few million years & boom! you got a mountain. Put gold in it, & you get California. Thus Hollywood. McDonalds. Full-spectrum dominance, babe. Even as you read this, my agents are fanning out across the Internet, launching surfeit-of-service attacks on your blog hosts, distracting the U.S. copyright office’s attention from your numerous & flagrant violations with the fata morgana of file sharing, stuffing your puny comment boxes with fatuous & irrelevant messages.

But I am, as you know, an armchair mystic. As long as my butt is comfortable and my belly is full, I can babble bliss with the best of ’em. The whole purpose of religion, says the Chinese-German philosopher Ni Qi, is to ensure good digestion. So why should I tolerate sedition right in my gut?

I speak, of course, of the not-so-cynical speaker of Diogenese whose tub-thumping act has provided a sort of low amusement in these parts. At first, he was content to quote something and add just a line or two of his own, as we agreed. But then he started to get a little full of himself – that’s my department, says I. So we had a little talk, Mr. Dead Greek Anti-Philosopher Dude & me. I showed him the invisible corpse of the albino elephant, expatiated on the common end of all beauty – he could see what sand trap I was driving at. Is that where he wanted to end up? On the street, right outside the 34th Street Station, with a can full of pencils instead of a modem and a cardboard sign instead of a blog?

Yes, it was.

So today, even as I ease the capacious & distinctly malodorous Tub of Diogenes into an unmarked grave, I play midwife to the bitch called Payback & help whelp a new feature. From an all-but-imaginary post outside the 34th Street Station in Madhatter, New Jerk City, the thinker formerly known as Diogenes will telegraph Words On the Street. No more links to the Internet, no more content-providing safety net. These Words must be brief enough to fit on a cardboard sign – but pithy enough to sell pencils to the dark-suited illuminati of the PDA.

In addition – or rather, in substitution – the non-feature formerly known as Counter will be re-christened the Tomb of the Unknown Reader. I imagine y’all as pilgrims, dontcha know, visiting such holey sites wherever they be found, hither and (mostly) yon. Picture, if you will, a low and humble stone, far from the madhatting crowd at the 34th Street Station, in the middle of a peaceful grove on the great gray green greasy banks of the Limpopo River. Where the statistics go – not to die (for they were hardly ever alive) – but to pray for rebirth as fully sentient beings.

So Reader, beware. Anywhere else, you could become a statistic. Walk carefully. Don’t give out change unless you’re willing to change something of your own: your name, your clothes, your beautiful house, your internet service provider. Don’t give credit where credit isn’t due: “Visa” won’t actually get you across borders; “American Express” is a slow boat to China; “Mastercard” is a slave’s badge. You can go to the gypsy. You can go to the ant. Or you can come here. Don’t settle for anything less.

Remembering Jack

Up at dawn for some musical multi-tasking: listening to white-throated sparrows through the open window while playing a Leadbelly cassette and flipping through a sheaf of poems by Jack McManis.

Jack was my mentor in poetry, someone who taught largely through silence – he only ever commented on things he liked. He led writing workshops for 25 years at Penn State, but I never actually took a class from him. Instead, we met regularly in his office to exchange poems, starting with once-a-week visits in 1978 when I was in eighth grade, and continuing (with somewhat declining frequency) until Jack’s death in 1989.

Jack McManis was one of the first generation of post-war college poetry teachers. He placed poems often enough in magazines and anthologies, but – much to the distress of his numerous friends and supportive colleagues – never got around to finishing a book-length collection. This omission stemmed partly from the alcoholism that consumed the first half of his life and partly from the altruistic energy that consumed much of the second half. (I didn’t realize until well after his death just how active he had been in Alcoholics Anonymous, helping set up chapters all over the country.)

Jack grew up in southern California, fought in the Pacific in World War II, and was an excellent tennis player – at one time he was the tenth-ranked amateur player in the country. He helped found the poetry magazine Pivot, which still survives, though he was always content to remain Associate Editor. His former students include Diane Ackerman and the late Agha Shahid Ali.

Even after achieving sobriety and becoming a “born-again Anglican,” Jack was no saint in the conventional sense of the term. He office reeked of the snuff he dipped from a silver box, and he loved to try and get others hooked on the stuff. (I always refused it – I’ve never been big on the idea of nasal ingestion.) Although his satires and parodies grew a little less biting after his recovery, he never stopped writing them. Nor were bawdy subjects off-limits: a poem about his neighbor’s wife’s ass was one of his standards at poetry readings.

Jack’s favorite poet was Hart Crane; other favorites included William Carlos Williams, Melvin B. Tolson and Theodore Roethke (who also taught briefly at Penn State). He believed that a poet should be “drenched in words,” as he once wrote me, quoting Hart Crane. He was haunted by Crane’s death – he committed suicide in April 1932 by leaping off a boat in the Caribbean and feeding himself to the sharks. This more than anything seemed to symbolize the end of innocence for Jack, who grew up in the Roaring Twenties. In one satire, he imagined the Statue of Liberty being buried at sea: “slide her down / to the oil shark / republic.” Sharks seemed to possess a kind of limit-value for Jack, as in the following elegy.


by the breakwater after the funeral,
Corona del Mar, California

My father, John, a gentle dusty man,
loved the country earth and what it grows.
He most loved lowly and neglected things
we glance at or gaze past but rarely see:
hawberries, snaky wildgrape, wormed crabapples,
swamp shade pools under willow oaks that home
nightsinging whippoorwills and clacking treetoads.
What reliquary for my father’s love
of earth? Wind-driven leaves and locust shells?
Earth crumbled over him, put out his stars
and hushed the cardinal’s clear water-fife
back in his boyhood Indiana woods
still whistling in the now, now lost to him.
My father’s Baptist testimony praised
all these as God’s. He praised the blind fin.

Love as your father loved, the preacher said.
I hear his hands wash now in slap and seethe
of wave on rock and wonder how to love
all this, my father, you its lover gone:
this sky of tearless blue, it’s dead-man’s-float
of the day moon and that lone firefly ghosting
hope, last night flown where in the too-bright noon?
O these feed the blind fin’s tidal appetite –
the sharkfin there by the quay carving its track
straight out, out into the afterbirth grey-green
Pacific and maybe on to infinity
shredding our mirages, love and time,
that fin’s synoptic arrow tugging sun
– to drown the sun? All worship the blind fin.

Like many of us, Jack hated to let a poem go. There are no definitive versions, just endless rewrites. The above poem seems to have been his last revision, although I admit I did substitute one line from an earlier version that I liked better – I don’t think Jack would have minded. Now, as I continue to leaf through my folders of his poems, I’m finding so much more that I can’t pass up! How about if I just put a few things down, assemble a brief, fairly random collection of McManis fragments, a la the Greek Anthology?

Tin can sacristan,
cling clang buoy!
. . .
I dream and look over
the rail at flaking
light churning,
pouring out
electric tears
as I lose self
in the jewelry
of water.

I was born
in a heat wave:
South Chicago.
Headfirst I popped out
crying for a drink . . .

And what about sweetsinging Bobby Jones gone paralytic,
Big Bill Tilden humbled in prison and Paavo Nurmi, Finn
ironman, loping off into Arctic twilight, last marathon
against a ghostly polar bear tireless as time?

(“Child of the Twenties in the Eighties”)

So the twenties, time of the great gestures! And whose
were greater than yours, St. Slapstick? You who spun truth
in crazy pantomime, though it’s half-past mayhem, time for me
to return to the missing persons bureau of the eighties, before
the onrushing manifest planet spill me in the whistlestop dark,
my keepsakes scattered in cinders, let me spin off the rods
not in mourning but laughing far down in my bones, tickled
by you, old holy pie thrower!


Let Satch blast out for you, Gabe,
that trumpet note
we’re just dying to hear.

(“Conceit for a Cloudy Halloween ’82”)

The Puerto Rican
counterman comes
and pries
the pair of clowns
out of that
glass coffin.

(“Daily Circus at the Automat / New York City”)

A long time ago
(but not so long)
when we pilgrimaged
down to Avenue C
in the cell-block
Lower East Side
to see Leadbelly,
America’s great folk
poet and musicman
(before the polio
things ate his spine),
sitting straight
in a chair in
his walk-up flat
he told us how when
he heard JS Bach
he couldn’t keep
still, but thumped
with his hands
and his feet and
from time to time
broke out into
half-chant and
“The beat and the
repeat and the
jubilee,” he said,
“shake the lyrics
out of me like
a hound dog
being gristed
and ground around
in a song mill!”

(“Kin: Remembering Leadbelly,” Prairie Schooner, Summer 1971)

I’ll prop the saint erect again come spring
but now his milky eyes feed on the grosbeaks.

(“Letter to a Friend Before the February Thaw”)

Inside the crinkled ghost-transparent tent
she’s stretched out gaunt, a green sarcophagus
suspended in seawater, head stuck out
of the bedsheet envelope and pillow-propped,
hawk nose thrust up a wedge to split the air,
to reach, to strain up to the source of it –
that dense life juice she mouths and gums and gulps.
Pinched nostrils labor hard ringed faint with blue-
fadeblue of robin eggshells on cement,
the cheeks caved in to make the forehead loom . . .
All birdmouth gaping she sucks air so hard
I listen for the wind-work hiss of lung,
but stillness hangs a curtain round her mouth
that quivers in and out and seems a stranger
to the frozen skull, the sheeted body mound –
the last sign visible of life the twist
of thin lips flexing their beseeching O.

If I woke where she is in a cloud of green,
what thoughts would consciousness, a broken wing,
flap fluttering against the swoongreen cage?
Or if eyes opened, tried to weave a way
through blear, what make of all the blurring ghosts
beyond the cave and gliding by like fish?
These the loved dead that slip my hands in dreams?

(“Life Mask”)

Finally, here’s a Jack McManis poem I couldn’t resist including in its entirety.


–Sir, some sacrilegious clown
has gone and dotted
that Tintoretto sunset
with tiny fly specks.
–There, there, and there.
–Don’t touch the painting
you fool! Those
aren’t fly specks,
they’re birds.
Tempo giasco
with the Old Master.
The birds
on background of pink sky
are humorous.
–Yes, the birds are fun.
–Yes, loads of fun.
–Oh, I see what you mean.
Just a minute, Sir.
Let me write that down.
The birds are fun.

Last fall my friend Jo, who is in the process of moving very gradually to Arizona, prevailed upon me to take what she calls the Jack McManis tree. This is a handsome, four-foot-tall Norfolk pine that used to belong to Jack. It doesn’t travel very well – the slight bruising and bending necessary to transport it home in the car caused extensive needle loss in the upper branches. But with plenty of light and water it’s growing vigorously now, and if anything has become more attractive as a result of this partial damage to its symmetry. Most of my house is too dark for plants; the only place I could put it was right at the opposite end of the table from where I write.

Thus it happens that when I look up from the screen I find myself staring absent-mindedly into the foliage of the Jack McManis tree. And sometimes then I am transported back to Jack’s “bartelby den of an office,” as he once described it, sitting companionably with sheaves of each other’s recent poems in our laps. I hear Old Main tolling the quarter hour. Then the rattle of a page, and an appreciative grunt gives way to a chuckle, the blowing of a nose. “What a great line,” he enthuses, and I crane my neck, staring with pretended comprehension at another pure accident, learning slowly and without realizing it how to value those moments when the words come mostly on their own.

Goodbye, and thanks for all the fish

“Things are getting a bit quiet here because I am happily occupied in the embodied world. There are many felicities, both in the realm of the obvious and in the territory of the secret.

“I have been thinking also about the fate of this blog, the good ship commonbeauty, and about how to give this enjoyable little experiment the graceful and natural death it deserves.

“Two strange thoughts have accompanied this. First, a couple of lines over at Lois’s page (heart@work), in which she talks about the inexpressibility of many of the experiences she’s been having (April 14). Somehow, that touched something very real in me. My blog, which has aided my acts of witness, has also been, in its own way, an impediment to witness. I am curious about the unprinted territory commanded by Socrates and by Gautama and by Yeshua and their many nameless ilk.

“The second is an article at Dave’s page (vianegativa) which, oddly enough, I have not yet read. It is the recent article on poetics (April 13), and I have this instinctive feeling that, when I finally do read it, the attention I will wish to pay its prescriptions will leave me precious little blogging time! So, blame Dave. . . . ”

commonbeauty 18 April 2004

“The strangeness happens when Joel (the Carey character) discovers that his unhappy, impulsive girl-friend, Clementine, has had her memories of him erased, so she can move on unencumbered by the past. Distraught, Joel decides to do the same thing. The complication arises when, as his memories of her are being deleted, he changes his mind. The movie surprised me with its somber ending (which, of course, I will not divulge).

“According to Hollywood, if you deliver solid entertainment and viewers enjoy themselves, they won’t care about trivial things like inconsistency, improbability or impossibility. With regard to Jim Carey’s latest movie, I found that to be true. The fact that memory erasure technology is totally inconsistent with current science or any conceivable future science didn’t dampen my enjoyment one bit. . . .

“Memories aren’t like individual data files stored on a computer hard drive. Memories are actually recreated on the fly, much as web pages are recreated new every time they are requested. So you can’t locate them anywhere in the brain for erasure. Also, different parts of the brain are involved in generating these memories. Furthermore, people program their own brains as they grow up, so every human brain is programmed a little differently. So memory generation doesn’t work exactly the same way in every brain. In short, no brain scientist on Earth could even imagine a technology that would permit the erasure of specific memories. It’s one of those things that probably will never happen . . . ”

Book of Life 21 April 2004

“Recently, a friend confessed that her memoirs had replaced her actual memories – her original impressions, images, interpretations, and emotions overwritten by the revisions stored on her laptop hard drive. Notebook scribbles, structured paragraphs, aestheticized dialogue. These are her reality now.

“‘I will be telling a story,’ she said. ‘And my husband will stop me. That is not what happened, he will say. That is what you wrote.’

“This is not to say her memoirs lie. Rather, it points to the ways in which essays are shaped – formally, aesthetically, emotionally, and otherwise. Creative nonfiction writers do not merely retrieve and record the artifacts of their lives, digging them out from the sediment and arranging them for display. They imbue them with meaning. In order to create that meaning, they reshape the emotional, psychological, or temporal contexts. Subtle as this process may be, it is also extremely powerful.

“But something even more fundamental – more powerful – is revealed by my friend’s story. When original memories are replaced by our crafted ones, what does this mean? Just like in archaeology, the site is destroyed by our own digging. Forever altered. . . . ”

evidentiary: alchemy 6 April 2004