Beauty and the beast

Graceful living in itself is a noble art: slovenly and neglectful of such things as I tend to be, I am full of admiration for those who can consistently convert the spaces where they live and work into places where the mind is engaged and delighted at every turn. I think of the descriptions I have read of Neruda’s house on Isla Negra, full of charismatic objects from a lifetime of collecting, the rafters covered with inscriptions from his many visitors. Somewhere he had acquired a taxidermist’s mount of an entire horse, and he set it right in the middle of the largest room – an example of flagrantly bad taste that never failed to appall visitors from Venezuela, he said in his memoirs. But given their national obsession with so-called beauty contests, I can’t help wondering: what the hell do Venezuelans know about beauty?

“I want a city of my own,” my friend L. said yesterday. She had been dreaming of a large barn that she could clean up and convert into an artist’s workshop. The point, as I understand it, is not to aspire to some sort of static perfection a la Martha Stewart, but to discover or create a space where one’s mood might shift with the movement of light across the walls and floor, a place hospitable to the mind’s eye. To have all the tools one needs, and nothing between one’s impulse to design and build and its realization. To move alone through such a space – and thereby, perhaps, to conquer loneliness?

. . . oh rosa seperada
del tronco del rosal despedazado
que la profundidad convertió en archipiélago,
oh estralla natural, diadema verde,
sola en tu solitaria dinastía . . .
(Pablo Neruda, La Rosa Seperada)

A city of my own: I think first of William Carlos Williams’ masterpiece Paterson, in which the river, the waterfall and the city of Paterson, New Jersey are merged into one, anthropomorphic being – the poet’s alter ego. But I had been thinking of Paterson anyway, as I hiked quickly through the ravines at Rickett’s Glen yesterday, a spot famous for its 22 spectacular waterfalls among the towering hemlocks and pines of an old-growth forest. For all his repetition of the maxim “No ideas but in things,” in all of the 250-odd pages of Paterson, does Williams ever once manage to convey any concrete impression of what the falls look, sound, smell and taste like? Do they ever rise above the level of self-consciously created myth and modernist symbol? Like the unicorn in the medieval tapestry that the poet invokes toward the end of the book, the Paterson Falls seem more of an object we are meant to admire than any real presence that might engage our senses. As Lawrence Ferlinghetti noted in a recent interview, shouldn’t we really be saying “No ideas but in beings“?

The sun
winding the yellow bindweed about a
bush; worms and gnats, life under a stone.
The pitiful snake with its mosaic skin
and frantic tongue. The horse, the bull
the whole din of fracturing thought
as it falls tinnily to nothing upon the streets
and the absurd dignity of a locomotive
hauling freight —
(William Carlos Williams, Paterson)

A city of one’s own: the parallel with the title of Virginia Woolf’s famous book got me thinking about the extent to which women might be able to achieve this quintessential male fantasy of the private workshop – the garage, basement or barn converted into just such a sanctum as my friend dreams about. Aside from artists, I wonder how many women do harbor dreams of this sort? For my mother, the woods and meadows of the square mile of mountaintop land she owns jointly with my father seem to be domain enough. Her 33-year engagement with this land has been both passionate and creative, yielding a stream of essays, articles and books. She frequently laments the absence of any interest in Nature among other women her age (mid 60s); most of her friends are younger.

A wind blew, from what quarter I knew not, but it lifted the half-grown leaves so there was a flash of silver-gray in the air. It was the time between the lights when the colours undergo their intensification and purples and golds burn in windowpanes like the beat of an excitable heart; when for some reason the beauty of the world revealed and yet soon to perish (here I pushed into the garden, for, unwisely, the door was left open and no beadles seemed about), the beauty of the world which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.
(Virginia Woolf, a Room of One’s Own)

If the behavior of small children is any guide, curiosity toward the natural world is inborn. So I can only suppose that women’s feeling of alienation from Nature is a result of internalized social norms and values, such as the perception of the outside as dirty, messy and – above all, perhaps – dangerous. But might the success of this conditioning derive in part from the very impulse to feel at home in the world? Given proper knowledge and appreciation of the natural world, there’s no reason why girls as well as boys can’t grow up with a finely honed appreciation of that which resists our attempts to neaten up and exert control.

. . . Had I lived in rural England before the nineteenth century, I might have gone out on St. John’s Eve (June 24) in search of fern seed, especially those of bracken. I would also have carried along twelve pewter plates. Under the first bracken I could find, I would have stacked the twelve plates and waited until midnight. At that time, it was believed, the invisible fern seeds would pass through the first eleven plates and land on the twelfth.

The twelfth plate’s seeds would confer magical powers on me. I, too, would be invisible. Even better, I would understand the language of wild animals.
(Marcia Bonta, Appalachian Summer)

I began by talking about “graceful living”: to me, this implies above all a sense of balance and harmony. Artists and naturalists alike can teach us how to recognize the grace that already suffuses the world without our intervention. Between the garden and the wilderness, it seems to me, we need not erect a barrier as stark as the ring of fencing that encloses the unicorn in the tapestry. But if we value our sanity, we must resist the impulse to civilize and manage every square inch of the back forty. Here’s a poem by Wendell Berry that frames the challenge as succinctly and eloquently as anything I’ve ever read.

To the Unseeable Animal

My daughter: “I hope there’s an animal
somewhere that nobody has ever seen.
And I hope nobody ever sees it.”

Being, whose flesh dissolves
at our glance, knower
of the secret sums and measures,
you are always here,
dwelling in the oldest sycamores,
visiting the faithful springs
when they are dark and the foxes
have crept to their edges.
I have come upon pools
in streams, places overgrown
with the woods’ shadow,
where I knew you had rested,
watching the little fish
hang still in the flow;
as I approached they seemed
particles of your clear mind
disappearing among the rocks.
I have walked deep in the woods
in the early morning, sure
that while I slept
your gaze passed over me.
That we do no know you
is your perfection
and our hope. The darkness
keeps us near you.

(Wendell Berry, Farming: A Handbook)


I see from Google that at least one individual claims that the aforementioned Rickett’s Glen harbors just such an unseen animal: the Rickett’s Glen Sasquatch.

Back to the basics

I’ll be gone all weekend, so here’s a bonus post for today.

I’m reading Boiling Energy: Community Healing Among the Kalahari Kung, by Richard Katz (Harvard University Press, 1982). This is a groundbreaking study of the central ritual of the Kung, one of the click language-speaking San peoples of Southern Africa (formerly known by the derogatory name “Bushmen”). They have attracted a great deal of anthropological attention due to their uniquely egalitarian social structures and (up until two or three decades ago) their sole dependence on gathering and hunting for survival. While we should be wary of romanticizing the Kung, as representatives of a way of life that was universal for Homo sapiens for 95 percent of its existence, and as inhabitants of the African savanna – the cradle of human evolution – they may have a great deal to tell us about human nature.

Such, at any rate, was the author’s assumption when he traveled to the Kalahari desert of remote northwestern Botswana in 1968. Though he spent only three months among the Kung as a participant-observer, he brought the training of a PhD in clinical psychology to bear, and he benefited from the insights of other team members in the Harvard Kalahari Research Group, especially Richard Lee (who also served as his interpreter) and Megan Bielsele. Rather than write the book immediately upon his return, Katz says, he decided to let the lessons percolate for over a decade. This also gave him the opportunity to absorb many of the other findings that came out of the Harvard team’s ten-year-long research effort.

Although I’m less than halfway through the book, I am very excited to find many of my own, pet theories about human nature seemingly validated. For example, long-time readers of Via Negativa might remember my holding forth on more than one occasion about the centrality of healing to religious experience. I’ve also been looking for ways to relate such experience with communal dancing and consciousness-altering festivals, which only in the last couple of millennia have been seen as profane activities. Katz writes,

For the Kung, healing is more than curing, more than the application of medicine. Healing seeks to establish health and growth on physical, psychological, social, and spiritual levels; it involves work on the individual, the group, and the surrounding environment and cosmos. Healing pervades Kung culture, as a fundamental integrating and enhancing force. The culture’s emphasis on sharing and egalitarianism, its vital life of the spirit and strong community, are expressed in and supported by the healing tradition. The central tradition is the all-night healing dance.

Four times a month on the average, night signals the start of the healing dance. The women sit around the fire, singing and rhythmically clapping. The men, sometimes joined by women, dance around the singers. As the dance intensifies, num or spiritual energy is activated by the healers, both men and women, but mostly among the dancing men. As num is activated in them, they begin to kia or experience an enhancement of their consciousness. While experiencing kia, they heal all those at the dance. Before the sun rises the next morning, the dance usually ends. Those at the dance find it exciting, joyful, powerful. “Being at a dance makes our hearts happy,” the Kung say.

Pace Mircea Eliade, the Kung have no concept of a domain of the sacred separate from the profane. “Like hunting, gathering or socializing, dancing is another thing they do,” Katz says. Crude jokes are common even when healers are deep in kia. “The earthiness of the Kung’s jokes is very much a part of their contact with the supernatural.”

The Kung do not conceive of a division between matter and spirit. God is a real person, and god’s home a real place. Both are described in detail as precise and intimate as in a Buddhist Pure Land visualization sutra.

The concrete reality of healing is acknowledged simply and repeatedly by the healers. Wa Na talks about the healers who used to travel at night in the form of lions of god; they were real lions, different from normal lions, but no less real. . . . Num really does exist. It actually boils, and it is painful. For the Kung, there is no philosophical distinction: experiences of healing are simply one other event, concrete and real, in their everyday lives. . . .

The reality of the unseen is captured in the phenomenon of num “killing” the healer, or of the healer “dying” in kia. I often hear: “You want num? Don’t you know it is painful and can kill you?” I learn what those who become healers must know. To “kill” is not simply a metaphor, a statement about the overpowering strength of num, a warning about the difficulty of getting it, a test of one’s desire to heal it. Although the Kung distinguish between final death, when the soul permanently leaves the body, and the death of kia, when the soul goes out but then hopefully returns, there is only one experience of death, and the experience is what matters.

Kau Dwa is teaching me that lesson as I struggle to maintain my Western notions of reality. “Kau Dwa,” I ask, “you have told me that in kia you must die. Does that mean really die?”


“I mean really die.”


“You mean like when you are buried beneath the ground?” I am struggling with my words.

“Yes,” replies Kau Dwa with enthusiasm. “Yes, just like that!”

“They are the same?”

“Yes, the same. It is death I speak of,” he affirms.

“No difference?” I almost plead.

“It is death,” he responds firmly but softly.

“The death where you never come back?” I am nearly at the end of my logical rope.

“Yes,” he says simply. “It is that bad. It is the death that kills us all.”

“But the healers get up, and a dead person doesn’t.” My statement trails off into a question.

“That is true,” Kau Dwa replies quietly, with a smile, “healers may come alive again.”

Death happens when the gods and spirits take a person into their own country. Thus, even though the Kung are famously peaceful in their relations with other people, their relationships with divinity are often quite agonistic.

An experienced healer can see the spirits hovering around the edge of a dance; they remain invisible to all others. After diagnosing the cause of an illness, healers may plead with the spirits to make the illness go away. . . .

Though the lesser god and the spirits may inhabit the darkness outside the dance because they enjoy watching the dance, the ever-present danger is that they will also bring sickness and death. The healer’s job is to drive them away, thereby preventing sickness from striking anyone. Usually the healers’ friendly overtures to the gods or spirits become more assertive. “Get out of here. You are a bad thing.” “Go chase yourself. You will not take this child. I will beat you.” Often healers yell out insulting or profane phrases to the gods and spirits. They scream at them, calling them “Big penis,” or “Elephant-penis,” or “You will shit,” or “Filthy face,” meaning a face covered with excrement. The healer often becomes aggressive, even violent, toward the gods, gesturing menacingly and hurling sticks into the darkness to drive away the spirits.

Katz rigorously avoids cross-cultural comparisons. For right now, I’ll follow his example, except to point out that the “gods” mentioned here are really only two, a greater and lesser divinity who seem to have a similar relationship as that between God and the Satan in the book of Job. As in many mythologies of indigenous peoples, the great god is more of a “straight man” and the lesser god is a trickster. They share the same name – a not uncommon situation in Kung society, where

The namesake relationship is . . . the most open, informal, and free relationship available in the society. This relationship between the lesser and greater gods allows for a full and varied set of interactions between them, including trickery and laughter as well as deference and obedience.

Ars brevis

Some mornings arrive like an eighteenth century cabinet of curiosities dropped from the sky. Here are skins, skeletons, gemstones, artifacts of unknown use. The world is my juju. Other mornings shine mysteriously: an ancient bronze goblet brimful with ceremonial wine. The former lend themselves more easily to poems; the latter command a kind of silence from which it seems more difficult to break free.

This morning is one of those latter kind. After days and days of humidity, a cold front has brought a May-time clarity to the infinitely regressive and effulgent surfaces of July – which is a very pompous way of saying, My God, it’s fine out! I want to go look closely at things, to find a spot where I can sit and wait for things to happen, far from the infernal humming of this old computer. I would like for once to spot a fox in a tree or an ovenbird in an oven. Have the sharp-shinned hawks fledged yet? Has anyone picked the black raspberries inside the deer exclosure? Is the pennyroyal ready to be gathered for tea? These are the kind of questions that matter. All this other stuff I’ve been writing about here in the unreal precincts of Via Negativa – well, if it helps my office-bound friends escape the monotony of their own mornings for a little while, I guess my time has been well spent. But still . . .

Return of the prodigal blogger

We are joined by a new/old spirit, a disembodied voice who insists upon his embodiment. He is blogging from a place where bodies shine with an uncommon radiance that is all their own, and where the dance never ends.

“Among the psychic realities, the feast is a thing in itself, not to be confused with anything else in the world.”
– Karl Kerenyi (quoted in Homo Ludens, by Johan Huizinga)

Of calabashes and men

At the risk of giving away all my secrets, I should mention that often when I come in from my morning coffee-on-the-front-porch ritual with nothing particular in mind to write about, I’ll do one of two things: sit in front of the monitor drumming my fingers and staring at the keys for a while; or grab a book and open it more or less at random. The latter approach closely resembles stichomacy, a form of divination most often practiced with the Bible. You pose a question and open the book haphazardly, without thinking – of course it can’t be random; we must assume some Force or Energy Field or some such is at work. Otherwise the whole exercise is meaningless.

If you want stichomacy to work, it helps to have a good, general question. Yesterday afternoon, I tried using an electronic stichomacy site to help me answer the question, “What shall I make for supper tonight?” The answers were difficult to apply to my situation without a great deal of dexterous so-called interpretation that would best be described as squishy. After a few such exercises, I decided that the gods wanted me to serve zucchini. Which was actually pretty convenient, because I have a ton of it in my refrigerator.

The problem with the electronic site is that it focuses on quantity rather than quality. I don’t care how many hundreds of romance and adventure novels you include, you’re not going to come up with a whole lot of wisdom. This morning, by contrast, I grabbed the massive Treasury of African Folklore by Harold Courlander, with the question “What shall I blog about?” on my mind, and found something right away.

This is from an English translation of a German anthology from the 1930s, Die Stammeslehren des Dschagga. Courlander titles the section “Teachings of the Chagga Elders.” The Chagga people live in East Africa, within the borders of modern Tanzania. The five pieces selected by Courlander are all fairly light-hearted yet conservative and moralistic in the manner typical of traditional oral wisdom. It interested me to open the book up to the following piece – which I had never read before – because I had just been observing the behavior of married couples the other day and thinking to myself, “The happy ones are the couples where the man has uncomplainingly accepted the fact that the woman is almost always right.” I don’t know if I would go so far as to frame this as a general proposition; I can think of plenty of women who are, often enough, quite flagrantly wrong (though not perhaps as often or as flagrantly as men would be). And I realize that I am skating on exceptionally thin ice with both my female readers here, merely by attempting to frame such a generalization in the first place. But hey, right or wrong, I had the thought and I’m not going to apologize for that. And let me hasten to add that I offer up the following more for the language and imagery than for any other reason. But guys, I think the message here is clear: don’t be touching the women’s calabashes!

Nothing on Earth is Cleverer Than the Female Sex
a traditional teaching of the Chagga elders

See, my grandchild! As I teach you, and you children in the older class teach each other, you think: We men are clever. If you see womankind and watch how four or five of them sit together and tell each other things, you think: Instead of chatting here, they ought ot get up, go home and cut grass. As you talk like this to each other, you think in your own minds: They are stupid and ignorant. See, my grandchild, they are not stupid. Nothing in the whole world is cleverer than the female sex. Know this, if you are as other men, you are not as intelligent as a woman. It is only that she is given into your charge. If it were you who were given into her charge, she would surpass you in intelligence. Therefore I tell you, a woman will keep a thing in her head better than you. See, my grandson, you live together and she is your wife. Drive a cow into the house and let her milk it. Now if you feel a bit hungry in the middle of the night, because you have not eaten your fill, then you say to her: If only you had cooked a milk dish, we would have easily eaten our fill! And she says to you: Oh no, there was not enough to cook a milk dish with. Get some more!

See, my grandson, you must realize that a woman is intelligent. For she wants to keep the milk until it is sour, so that when she puts it into the food it is strong enough to give a good taste to it. But you just listen and say nothing. The next day, when the sun rises she says to you: Help me and put a piece of banana branch for the cow, so that it can chew it slowly, while I go to fetch grass. The while you are cutting that piece of banana branch, you think: All right, I’ll examine the calabash to see whether she was deceiving me when she said there was no more milk in it, or if there really isn’t any it it. When you have cut the piece of banana branch, you seize the calabash, you pick it up like that and then put it down again. You don’t drink any of it, oh no! When she comes, you say nothing, get up and go out to where the men are. See, my grandson, the woman seeks out the calabash and thinks: I wonder if when he had cut the piece of banana branch, he took up and looked at the calabash? She goes, finds it and notices that you have turned it around, put it down in another position and were unable to set it down as she did.

If you do this four times, the woman will speak of it behind your back. Then if you are a little rude to her she will go to her family; and if you and they then discuss the matter, and the woman is not properly trained – no one has ever said to her “You must not say such things” – her education having been neglected, she says: Get up and go away from here, monster, you who lift up women’s calabashes. With such words she brings you into great disrepute and you are hated among men. They curse you and say: What is the point of touching women’s calabashes? And the women speak of you and say: I should not like to be married to a man who lifts women’s calabashes!

See, my grandson, as a man you are not capable of setting down anything anywhere so that you can see, as a woman can, whether it has been touched.*

Therefore I tell you: a woman is clever. And if you respect what is women’s business your reputation will not suffer. And your wife will honor you, because she knows that you have learned to keep quiet like other men.

*This does strike me as possibly being an insight of universal applicability. The rest of the lesson drawn here doesn’t seem too applicable to a society like ours where a strict separation between men’s and women’s business thankfully no longer exists, and where communication between the sexes is comparatively free and open. But the fact remains that most men have tunnel vision; we just aren’t as good at perceiving the total situation as a woman is. That much I believe.

Helping my unbelief

But how sneaky of me, really, to adopt the tone and manner of conviction simply for rhetorical effect. How duplicitous. That woman on the next bar stool, would she have looked so impressed if I had added the caveat that full disclosure would have demanded? “Please be advised that taking anything I say at face value may be hazardous to your sense of trust.” Ordinary human decency requires that we leave people’s prejudices largely intact, much of the time. Break this rule too regularly and you will find yourself shunned – take it from me. And the belief in a one-to-one correspondence between word and thing, between signifier and signified – well, you can call it naive if you want to. But try finding an American who doesn’t cling to it. The people who don’t say what they mean and mean what they say, they’re the ones that have brought us all these high taxes and unwed mothers and new mini malls where that trout stream used to be. Politicians, lawyers, bigshots. Middle managers. Liberals. People who talk out of both sides of their mouths, until even they don’t know what they mean. People like me.

This morning I’m thinking how nice it would be to adopt a manageable number of real, unequivocal beliefs. For example:
I believe that there is no such thing as a bad hug. I believe that every prisoner should be given a puppy or a kitten to care for. I believe that shit happens. I believe that someday we will understand, and that when we understand, we will choose to do good. I believe that dirt under the fingernails is a sign of virtue. I believe that people should strive to be as healthy and happy as possible. I believe that everybody is special. There! That wasn’t so hard to write, now, was it?

Ah, but immediately I begin casting about for exceptions. A hug can be unwelcome, poorly executed, or even exploitative. Who says that puppies and kittens really deserve to live behind prison walls? Shit doesn’t just happen – you have to eat something, your digestive system needs to be in good working order, and figuratively speaking, some people just go through life without ever experiencing a rained-out picnic or a broken promise. It stands to reason: there are six billion people in the world. A small fraction must manage to beat the odds.

And so it goes with the rest of the list: “understand” how, to what extent? And for something to be freely chosen, refusal must remain a strong possibility. Therefore, the world will most likely always have so-called evil. And therefore, how can you prove that this isn’t in fact the best of all possible worlds? Without the possibility of wrongdoing, the even more palpable evil of unthinking obedience would destroy any possibility for true goodness, would it not?

One may have dirt under one’s fingernails from working long hours at menial, soul-destroying jobs. Some dirt gets under the skin after a while, until the only way one can feel clean again is to come into work some fine morning cradling a shotgun in one’s freshly scrubbed arms.

Health and happiness? So much is a matter of outlook. And so much necessary work depends on those who are willing to suffer privation. Some may need to sacrifice their own happiness merely to preserve the possibility of happiness for others. Nor can we resolve the issue by claiming simply that each person must seek an appropriate balance between acceptance and renunciation. Where’s the outrage, as Bob Dole used to say with such badly feigned conviction? What ever happened to the notion of a call, of an unhealed wound in the healer’s heart?

Everybody special? Hardly. And the sooner we can purge ourselves of this pernicious notion, the sooner we might be able to see the spark of divinity that shines in every child’s eyes. Fire is fire. From a strictly scientific point of view, this stand-in for Whatever doesn’t even have substantial existence: things burn. “Fire” is a highly imprecise term for the phenomenon of combustion, a chemical process closely resembling oxidation and metabolism. Rust is a slow fire. Heartburn is a medical condition. And this ache in my belly, this burning in my gut, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the tunes I choose to sing.


Then God sent a raven which scratched the ground
in order to show how to hide
the nakedness of his brother.
“Alas, the woe,” said he, “that I could not be
even like the raven and hide
the nakedness of my brother,”
and was filled with remorse.

Al-Qur’an 5:31 (Ahmed Ali, tr., Princeton University Press, 1984)

The ground cries out against me. Everywhere I step, the tiny and opportunistic seeds of invasive weeds fall from the soles of my boots. My breath is corrupt; the kiss of friendship can doom nine out of ten members of an uncontacted tribe. My hugs are fatal, brother raven. You would do well to keep your distance. When you leave this leaky ark to find dry land, don’t look back.