It’s art, dammit!

I’m not really a religious person. It was never my intention to construct a real shrine. The thing sits there in my living room, just another piece of furniture, with my old boombox and a motley collection of cassette tapes stacked on top of it.

It must be six or seven years, now, since I put the thing together. With a couple other people I was planning a small exhibition of chapbooks by local authors to coincide with the huge annual crafts fair that takes over the nearby college town for five days each summer. We weren’t planning anything fancy, just a table or two and maybe a few performances in the small plaza outside the bookstore.

I had always fantasized about throwing a public demonstration that would be the mirror equivalent of a book burning – a television bashing! You know, the usual activist’s delusion: make an impact by getting on the evening news. But it occurred to me that the bookstore might withdraw its sponsorship if I tried to do something like that, so instead I decided to take a television set and turn it into a faux-Voodoo shrine. I remembered my Dad’s old cabinet TV from the 1950s that had sat in the basement of the barn for decades. We cannibalized it for vacuum tubes when I was a kid – they made great little bombs – but otherwise it was still in pretty good shape.

The disemboweling went relatively quickly; after that, the four knobs had to be cemented back into place. The space created by removing the picture tube was almost 18 inches high and around 20 inches wide and deep. I removed the glass on the front, retaining the hard plastic or fiberglass frame whose ovoid shape alone still evoked a television. I attached a thin plywood back and lined all three sides with aluminum foil.

A good Voodoo shine should be assembled on a stepped platform. Given the limited space, I had to content myself with just three tiers, and covered the whole platform with red cloth. Now for the fun part: collecting the stuff to go on it.

Candlesticks were pretty easy to scrounge up; the largest and most effective were shaped like a pair of cobras. I bought some realistic-looking plastic fruit to go in the polished wooden bowl that went front-and-center. My other additions were even less subtle: a naked Barbie doll with arms upraised; a plastic toy policeman with one arm extended in a Nazi salute; a toy pistol; a bible carved from a piece of anthracite; a red plastic car; a hypodermic needle (unused, obtained through a friend of a friend who I think was a heroin addict); a cracked china pitcher filled with spent .45 and .457 shells; a Santa figurine; whiskey, beer, Coke and Pepsi bottles converted into vases for plastic flowers; a wooden marijuana bowl; and other such flotsam. Coins and monopoly money were scattered about.

What to use for a central image? For a little while I was stumped. But when I described the project to a friend of mine, she said, “What about a black mirror? I have one that I was going to get rid of — used it once for a ritual, but I don’t need it anymore.” “Sounds great!”

It wasn’t much, really. Just a black-backed piece of glass, about five by seven inches, mounted in a cheap wooden picture frame with a fold-out cardboard stand in back. The idea, she explained, was to confound peoples’ expectations. “They look into it expecting to see their reflections, but there’s nothing there.” Perfect!

With the black mirror at the back center, the shrine had a focus. Santa, Barbie and the cop all had something to salute. I had something to light candles and burn incense to.

The outside had to be altered, too. At the top center of each side I mounted a terracotta mask, one black, one tan, from the small collection of folk-art objects my brother had brought back from Honduras. Where the sound came out, below the space where the picture tube had been, dark wooden bars formed a nine-square grid. I cut cardboard to fit the four corners and the center square, thus leaving every other square to show the original speaker cloth. Pasted to the four corner pieces were the words ENJOY / ENSLAVE / CONSUME / OBEY. On the center square went the famous quote from William Blake (misappropriated by some third-rate rock band from the 60s, but I couldn’t help that): “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” The shrine was, after all, a grotto of sorts.

I can’t say that I had either Plato or Bodhidharma in mind, though. This cave was wired. I strung some flashing Christmas lights around the back of the ovoid frame, where they wouldn’t be directly visible. Underneath, where the speaker had been, I stuck a radio tuned to an evangelical AM station – one of the ones with non-stop, ’round the clock, Pentecostal preachers from Kentucky.

This was art for the people. And I have to say, the people seemed to dig it. I reassembled it every morning for three days, and watched folks’ reactions from fifteen feet away where I lounged behind a table of literary goodies. I didn’t sell very many chapbooks, but the shrine got lots of laughs and even a few compliments. Some people tossed coins in it. One young woman asked if she could light an incense stick. I was reminded a bit of the way Japanese people behave at Shinto shrines: that same mixture of reverence and bemusement, animated by the kind of pragmatic superstitiousness one finds among professional gamblers. “Who cares if it’s real or bogus? It sure can’t hurt to go through the motions!”

To me, the whole point was to make people laugh. For all the lack of subtlety, I wasn’t really trying to change anyone’s mind. But who knows? I couldn’t help thinking that my original idea of a television bashing, while it certainly would have attracted more attention, probably wouldn’t have brightened anyone’s day.

Can the merely cynical be invested with a higher value? And if so, would this stepping outside of a stepping-outside require some leap of faith?

Voodoo (a.k.a Voudun, Vodou), the tradition I had been in some sense mocking, is itself supremely pragmatic, seldom requiring more than an open mind to participate in its ceremonies. One isn’t required to surrender one’s own reason or willpower – far from it. “Just try it, see if it works for you,” the priestess advises anthropologist-initiate Karen McCarthy Brown again and again. (See Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, University of California Press, 1991.)

There sits the shrine in my living room, divested of masks and the four cynical words, which quickly warped. The weird thing is, four years ago when I wanted to stop smoking, this shrine to negativity really did seem to help. Through the worst of the craving I kept a half-dozen cigarettes there in the offering bowl, among the plastic fruit. Somehow just seeing them there, day after day, strengthened my resolve.

Addiction is a funny thing, and everyone’s different in the way they have to conquer it. For me, it was a matter of admitting to myself that I would never be able to quit – but I might be able to simply stop. For me, quitting implies finality, and a sense of finality breeds despair.

Tobacco, like most powerful drugs, is a deeply ambiguous substance. To condense and over-simplify just a bit, one could say that addiction is enabled by disrespect. The smoker begins by downplaying the power of the drug while idealizing the pleasure it symbolizes. The addict is an active participant in his continuing delusion, saying to himself, “I am not a slave. I can quit anytime I want.” Most addictions start during youth, because young people tend to think they are immortal and believe that bad luck is for other people. Such naive faith may even be the mirror-image of nihilism: “I am uniquely favored. Everything that happens is for the best; and even if I or others do happen to suffer, it couldn’t be otherwise.” It is the soul’s desperate alibi against the vacuum of nothingness. But eventually the alibi wears thin, and the addict comes to realize that his or her ability to quit hinges upon the merest chance. In the mythology of the American group-therapy movement, this chance is seen as the gift of some Higher Power.

Among the Yoruba, in the tradition directly ancestral to Voodoo, Orunmila is the highest god to whom human beings have direct access. He is the patron of divination, and as the first-born son of the supreme deity has perfect foreknowledge of fate-as-divine-will. His ability to guarantee outcomes, however, is continually challenged and subverted by the random acts of Eshu. This orisha is envisioned as neither good nor bad. “He was compounded out of the elements of chance and accident, and his nature [is] unpredictability” (Harold Courlander, A Treasury of African Folklore, Marlowe and Company, 1996). On the one hand, he may seem comparable to the Adversary, Satan. But in fact he is more: the trickster god without whom creative activity would be impossible — because where and how could inspiration ever operate without a certain element of randomness, an apparent chaos to bring order to?

Eshu — like his New World counterparts Ghede and Legba — is the master of speech and language, and every crossroads is his shrine. He alone “straddles the left and right of our universe,” according to the Ifa priest Wande Abimbola (“Gods Versus Anti-Gods: Conflict and Resolution in the Yoruba Cosmos,” in Evil and the Response of World Religion, ed. William Cenkner, Paragon House, 1997). The hymns of Ifa preach sanity and good will as the best way of deflecting evil, but sacrifice is also essential. Dr. Abimbola notes that “sacrifice is an act of exchange. When one makes sacrifice, one exchanges something dear, or something purchased with one’s own money, in order to sustain personal happiness. Sacrifice involves human beings in a process of exchange or denial of oneself, or giving of one’s time, forsaking one’s pleasure, food, etc., in order to be at peace with both the benevolent and malevolent supernatural powers as well as to be at peace with one’s neighbors, family, the entire environment and ultimately to be at peace with oneself.”

If priests or doctors are sometimes needed for their specialized knowledge, that shouldn’t mean that a client’s only duty is to be – literally or figuratively – patient. “In Vodou,” says Brown, “the one being healed remains active throughout the healing process – from the card reading, in which the client is free to agree or disagree with any diagnosis [the priest or priestess] suggests, to the manufacture of the pwen, in which the client has a direct hand.” (A pwen, “point,” is a charm: according to Brown, a crossroads in time and space where social, psychological and spiritual conditions are concentrated or condensed.)

The cigarettes – those that the mice haven’t chewed up – are still there in the bowl any time I want to have another smoke. The television-grotto is still pure irony, an anti-shrine, as far as I’m concerned. Who am I kidding? I’ve even smoked a few cigars. Religion’s interesting, all right, and there’s a whole lot more to it than meets the eye. But at a certain level, it seems to me, you have to step back and recognize that it’s just so much didactic art accompanied by poetry that you otherwise couldn’t even pay most people to read. The Yoruba people inhabit one of the most deeply religious cultures on the planet, but they keep their sense of humor:

Ijapa [the tortoise] said, “It emerges!”
His son replied, “I grasp it!”
Ijapa asked, “What do you grasp?”
His son asked, “What did you say is emerging?”
(Courlander, op.cit.)

An apotheosis

A new snowfall; a fresh astonishment of branch and twig. This morning also a fresh batch of bread, from dough that was left to rise all night in the dark kitchen. The resilience and resistance of such dough is a marvel to me, accustomed as I am to the one- or two-hour rise. Like the webs of mycelia that feed the forest, the strands of its meshwork have multiplied and thickened a thousand-fold. It is a veritable city, this rhizomatic complex, this apotheosis of yeast that I will kill and eat.

I am beginning to think of this weblog, too, as a muliplicity rather than a unity. Nevertheless, there have been some unifying themes, which I would like to review this morning by way of a short series of quotes, before striking out in any new direction(s).


“But is it true, as modern psychology often claims, that our religious beliefs are nothing but attempts to satisfy subconscious wishes? That the conception of God is merely a projection of self-seeking emotions, an objectification of subjective needs, the self in disguise? Indeed, the tendency to question the genuineness of man’s concern about God is a challenge no less serious than the tendency to question the existence of God. We are in greater need of a proof for the authenticity of faith than of a proof for the existence of God.

“We have not only forfeited faith; we have lost our faith in the meaning of faith. All we have is a sense of horror. We are afraid of man. We are terrified at our own power. Our proud Western civilization has not withstood the stream of cruelty and crime that burst forth out of the undercurrents of evil in the human soul . . . The flood of wretchedness is sweeping away our monstrous conceit. Who is the Lord? We despair of ever regaining an awareness of Him, of ever regaining faith in the meaning of faith. Indeed, out of a system of ideas where knowledge is power, where values are a synonym for needs, where the pyramid of being is turned upside down – it is hard to find a way to an awareness of God. If the world is only power to us and we are all absorbed in a gold rush, then the only god we may come upon is the golden calf. Nature as a tool box is a world that does not point beyond itself. It is when nature is sensed as mystery and grandeur that it calls upon us to look beyond it . . .

“The sublime is not opposed to the beautiful, and must not, therefore, be considered an esthetic category. The sublime may be sensed in things of beauty as well as in acts of goodness and in the search for truth. The perception of beauty may be the beginning of the experience of the sublime. The sublime is that which we see and are unable to convey. It is the silent allusion of things to a meaning greater than themselves. It is that which all things ultimately stand for; ‘the inveterate silence of the world that remains immune to curiosity and inquisitiveness like distant foliage in the dusk.’ It is that which our word, our forms, our categories can never reach. This is why the sense of the sublime must be regarded as the root of man’s creative activities in art, thought, and noble living . . .

“The sublime, furthermore, is not necessarily related to the vast and the overwhelming in size. It may be sensed in every grain of sand, in every drop of water. Every flower in the summer, every snowflake in the winter, may arouse in us a sense of wonder that is our response to the sublime.”

ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, Jewish Publication Society, 1955.


“Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Whatever the vexations and concerns of their personal lives, their thoughts can find paths that lead to inner contentment and to renewed excitement in living. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.

“I like to remember the distinguished Swedish oceanographer, Otto Pettersson, who died a few years ago at the age of ninety-three, in full possession of his keen mental powers. His son, also world-famous in oceanography, has related in a recent book how intensely his father enjoyed every new experience, every new discovery concerning the world about him.

“‘He was an incurable romantic,’ the son wrote, ‘intensely in love with life and the mysteries of the cosmos.’ When he realized he had not much longer to enjoy the earthly scene, Otto Pettersson said to his son: ‘What will sustain me in my last moments is an infinite curiosity as to what will follow.'”

RACHEL CARSON, The Sense of Wonder, Harper and Row, 1965.

“The stars in the night sky hold no interest for advertisers, for they don’t reflect us. The stars that do reflect us are the kind that appear on talk shows. Since we can’t all appear on TV, our race needs some representatives, and these are the ones sitting on the couch next to Regis and Kathie Lee. If they were of interest because they were actors, Jay Leno would ask them questions about acting – ‘How did you conjure up the mood for that scene?’ Instead, we want to know about their lives, and the lives of other stars they have ‘worked with.’ They are of interest because they are stand-ins for us. By the very act of being important, they redeem the lifetime we have spent watching them . . . Most cultures, historically, have put something else – God or nature or some combination – at the center. But we’ve put these things at the periphery. A consumer society doesn’t need them to function, and it can’t tolerate the limits they might impose; there’s only a need for people.”

BILL MCKIBBEN, The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation, Eerdmans, 1994. (Italics in original – from “Most cultures” through end of quote – removed here.)


“Pure religion, religion as distinct from magic and opposed to it, is the exact contrary of an applied science; for it constitutes a realm where the subject is confronted with something over which he can obtain no hold at all. If the word transcendence describes anything whatever, it must be this – the absolute, impassable gulf that opens between the soul and being whenever being refuses us a hold. No gesture is more significant than the joined hands of a believer, mutely witnessing that nothing can be done and nothing changed, and that he comes simply to give himself up. Whether the gesture is one of dedication or of worship, we can still say that the feeling behind it is the realisation of the holy, and that awe, love and fear all enter into it simultaneously. Notice that there is no question here of a passive state; to assert that would be to imply that the activity of the technician, as he takes, modifies and elaborates, is the only activity worthy of the name.”

GABRIEL MARCEL, Being and Having, trans. Katherine Fisher, Harper Torchbooks, 1961.


That is full; this is full. The full comes out of the full. Taking the full from the full the full itself remains. Aum, peace, peace, peace.

ISA UPANISAD, trans. S. Rhadhakrishnan, The Principal Upanisads, Humanities Press, 1992.


Wisdom Teeth

That time I was marooned
by a toothache – weeping eyes
screwed shut, mouth agape –
I might’ve been taken for someone
in the throes of ecstasy, lying
on the couch with all
the windows open. The weather
was June, and wonderful.
All afternoon I clung to the thread
of the brown thrasher’s song.

Even in extremis it’s simple
to tell a thrasher from his cousin
the catbird: he repeats
almost every improvised line.
Paired phrases sometimes reach
into the low thousands
without repeating.

Pain can sound exactly like
the world, I thought.
Neither can be replicated.
Art lets us exceed
ourselves, and so escape.

both wisdom teeth had to come out.
For a week or two I had to chew
deliberately. Each bite
of food was accompanied
by a mouthful of thought.

Consulting the Mirror

When I look into a mirror, I look at the enemy.
— Darryl Strawberry

Look: the mirror lies.

Not only because it switches sides, but because it doesn’t redeem.

True, it accuses; it judges, yes. For certain, it condemns.

A face’s truest reflection is in moving water: another face.

And the body? The body shines too. Its only true mirror is the body of another.

If I fall in love with a narcissist, am I too condemned?

We say the face of the earth, but never the face of the sky.

If I fall in love with the blue of heaven, who will redeem me then?

What does it mean to make a face?

Why is the straight man essential to the joke?

When you hold one mirror up to another, why doesn’t the world go dark?

Dream of the White Chamber

The M.C. or Main Complex of the World Bank in Washington includes a cafeteria with a vast selection of affordable dishes from a variety of international cuisines. Of course, not just anyone can eat there. You have to know somebody who works for the bank, and he or she has to sign you into the building. (And this was before 9/11.) I was down in D.C. visiting my friend Chris, who worked just a block away and whose girlfriend Seung was a World Bank employee, so it made sense to go there for lunch.

We carried our trays out into an atrium where a faux bistro lured us to sit in a tease of real sunlight. Actually, “atrium” may not be the right word. (I apologize for my ignorance of architecture.) The M.C. is shaped like a hollow, square column, some ten or twenty stories high: every floor opens onto the sky-lit courtyard, which is roofed in glass too thick to admit any view of the clouds.

After about 40 minutes, Seung had to hurry back to work, leaving Chris and me to linger if we wanted. Unless he has a beer in his hand, however, Chris is never one to dawdle for very long. Let’s go back to the office, man, I’ll show you around!

On our way out, I paused to admire a large obelisk made up entirely of video screens, broadcasting satellite television stations from around the globe. Not too profound, as such things go, but provocative nonetheless – like the Washington Monument turned into a Tower of Babel. When I turned around to say something to Chris, he was gone.

I usually enjoy being lost. I searched half-heartedly at first, trying to maintain a brisk enough pace so I wouldn’t stand out as an obvious interloper among all the distinguished-looking people of every nationality who crowded the hallways. No sign of Chris. (It turned out that he had been searching for me at the same time. One of us should’ve just stayed put!)

After about ten minutes of this I gave up and started looking for an exit. Oddly enough, I couldn’t find one. Which was the ground floor? Was there more than one way out? Where was all the light coming from? The janitors I queried in a stairwell merely laughed – whether from nervousness or contempt I couldn’t tell. In my panic I started opening doors at random, briefly interrupting two meetings and backing away from half a dozen soft-walled labyrinths filled with the humming of office machines. It was starting to feel not just like a bad dream but the wrong dream, someone else’s dream that I’d somehow stumbled into. When I finally guessed right and found myself facing the front door, it was all I could do to keep from breaking into a run.

And sure enough – no surprise – I did revisit the World Bank in at least one bad dream that I can remember. It’s maybe six months later. The elevator opens onto a room somewhere in the sub-basement, I step out and there’s my old friend Ben, the one who died from a heroin overdose a couple years before. His head’s shaved bare. He’s lying on a mattress with hundreds of fishhooks emplanted in his skin. I edge closer and see the maze of piano wires that stretch away from the hooks in every direction, anchored in the white concrete of walls and ceiling.

You get used to it, he says. Besides, it’s only for another two years.

It’s not the thought of the pain that frightens me but his monotonal voice. This isn’t the joyful/scornful/angry/despairing rebel I once thought I knew so well. I’m thinking, This must be some kind of stunt double or something. He won’t catch my eye for a single moment, winces every time I look at him.

Look, I’ll call the police, I tell him, but already the guards are closing in. Where are your badge numbers? I demand to see your supervisor! I protest, as someone slips the plastic cuffs around my wrists. A desperate appeal to conscience: God is watching you! I say as calmly as I can, while someone lifts my upper eyelids with a pair of tweezers, first the left then the right, and sprays a burning mist directly onto each eyeball.

There’s a high-pitched giggle that sounds almost as if it could be from Ben. He don’t need no phone call – already got a direct line to the Chief! and a hand falls on my shoulder and rests there a half-second too long.

Without a net

Locked in a public argument I cannot possibly win with an unknown adversary who may not necessarily be an adversary. The topic? Hardly matters. (Click here if you must know.) Because at root our differences seem to boil down to the choice, apparently arbitrary, of whether to say yes or no. Optimism or pessimism. It’s not a matter of which is right, I think, but simply which choice is less foolish, which will vary according to circumstance.

Or is it in part a question of aesthetics? One of the thought-bubbles that just burst on the coffee-dark surface of my consciousness this morning had to do with the nagging suspicion that much of what makes a person prefer one spiritual or philosophical tradition to another boils down to her aesthetic predilections. The spareness and open spaces of Zen or Islam – or the profuse gorgeousness of Vajrayana and Orthodox Christianity? The Via Negativa – as Lorianne pointed out in a comment on my first Inuit piece – is a way of the desert. If I refuse to commit to one faith tradition, might that not be in part for the seemingly trivial reason that I like to keep one foot in the desert and one in the jungle?

Similarly, there is definitely an aesthetics of nada – it has colored much of the modernist and especially the postmodernist outlook. (Though with writers like Paul Celan, one can never be sure his nada isn’t the flip side of todo, as it was for San Juan de la Cruz.)

A poet these days is an animist almost by nature; I’m no exception. The mainstream of contemporary North American lyric poetry is in complete rebellion against the age-old Western worship of abstractions and the consequent devaluation of the particular. Thus, while part of what makes me admire the apophatic tradition may be a quasi-aesthetic preference for open spaces, darkness and fog, an even stronger factor may be the deep suspicion I harbor toward all universalizing statements that could devalue life. These include, ultimately, both optimistic and pessimistic evaluations.

I am thinking then about the Adversary as a role model. The earliest textual reference to Satan is in – you guessed it – the book of Job. In the folktale-ish opening scene, Satan is among the “sons of God,” the divine courtiers meeting for a formal audience with the Guy Upstairs. Marvin Pope tells us that the name Satan is derived from the name of the Persian secret police. He is an agent provocateur. No Lucifer, but a dark star. A black hole.

The Zennists warn about the dangers of madness for the initiate to their path, and they aren’t kidding. My one and only brush with insanity, at the tender age of 16, was fed by obsessive (mis)reading of translations of D.T. Suzuki. When I envisioned and articulated the terror, it came down precisely to the arbitrariness of the distinction between yes and no. I chose yes, of course, but it was, for a long-time, a self-conscious and therefore ironic choice. I was my own Mephistopheles. (Whatever I have to say about the Adversary cannot possibly improve upon what the cartoonist Walt Kelley had Pogo so famously declare – you know the quote. “We has met the enemy, and they is Us.”)

Mahayana Buddhist texts are godawful boring things to try and read. But in my late teens I couldn’t get enough of them, plowing through the Awakening of Faith, Mulamadhyamakakarika, the Lankavatara, even – I swear – the complete Conze translation of the Prajnaparamita Sutra. Repetitious they were, yes. But probably the repetition was more healing than anything else could have been. Countless variations on a single, intellectually unrealizable paradox.

This is a classic example of homeopathy, of course. I experienced the secular parallel just a few years later, when I discovered blues music at just the time when I most needed that kind of medicine. And blues is – lest we forget – the Devil’s music.

In one of Bessie Smith’s late recordings, “In the House Blues,” the blue devils of loneliness and depression morph into blue-suited policemen, breaking into her house without a warrant. In the even darker “Long Old Road,” from the same recording session with Louis Armstrong, she concludes a parable about life’s journey with a verse that holds out little hope (enjambing where she lingers on a note):

You can’t trust no-
body, you might as well
be alone.
You can’t trust nobody, you might as well
be alone.
Found my long-lost Friend and I might as well
stayed at home.

That’s dark.

So why does listening to a song like that make one feel better? (This ain’t just me talking; almost every blues performer ever interviewed has described the blues as a kind of medicine.)

I am running out of time to blog this morning. Maybe tomorrow I’ll say something about Tezcatl-Ihpoca, a.k.a. Smoking Mirror. Or not.
Cross-reference: “42” and the entry following, on self-cursing
Postscript: with exquisite synchronicity that the slightly mad-seeming author of would appreciate, I just stopped over to the blog of my some-time debate opponent, commonbeauty, to pick up the link included above . . . only to discover that s/he has been posting about via negativa! In a manner that is anything but adversarial. We has met the enemy, and s/he has turned into something like a friend . . .
Corrected and edited around 5:00 p.m.

Notes to self

Entirely too much self-consistency of late. Must contradict myself flagrantly and often.

What the hell is “primal fear”? Let’s muddy things up here!

How can we have gotten this far without any substantial discussion of “fear of the unknown”?

The wall. Let’s not talk about the wall. At all. Let’s not talk about the security fence on the border with Mexico. Let’s not talk about the Night of Broken Glass, the Warsaw ghetto of the mind. “If you’re not afraid, you’re not paying attention.” I think I’ll ignore that last remark.

A lover’s indrawn breath. An eyebrow’s arch. The navel’s sightless gaze. Write about the long drought, you chickenshit.

“The beginning of wisdom”? What the hell would I know about that?

All I know is what it ain’t. Neither this nor that. Neti, neti! Picky, picky!

Write more about food preparation, sanitary systems, naked mole rats, gravity and freezing rain. Don’t ever write about . . . you know.

Ravens. Write a brief (!) evocation of ravens. Or just think about it a lot.

Screw the Dao and the horse it rode in on.

It wouldn’t hurt you to finish a book sometime.

Building Dwelling Eating

“Eskimos have a hundred different words for snow,” says the legend. The truth is more interesting: Inuit peoples speak complex, highly agglutinative languages in which the mood/perspective of the speaker has a strong influence upon the shape of the word/sentence. (I don’t really understand this, of course, but I’m imagining something like the Spanish subjunctive run amok.) As a result, Inuit peoples recognize no fixed nominal categories, only pervasive flux.

The implications for philosophy and religion are interesting. According to Phyllis Morrow (“Two Tellings of the Story of Uterneq: ‘The Woman Who Returned From the Dead,'” in Brian Swann’s Coming to Light: Contemporary Translations of the Native Literatures of Native North America, Random House, 1994), it is “impossible and inappropriate to impose a single translation, such as ‘soul,’ on the variety of terms that refer to sensible aspects of personhood: image, breath, warmth, personality, and sound. When asked, Yupiit simply tend to confirm that a variety of terms are used by different people.”

What this could mean for poetics is the main subject of anthropologist Edmund Carpenter’s introduction to the anthology of song texts I cited in yesterday’s post (I Breathe a New Song). He says: “The Eskimo language doesn’t simply name things which already exist. Rather, it brings things-actions (nouns-verbs) into being as it goes along. This idea is reflected in the practice of naming a child at birth: When the mother is in labor, an old woman stands around and says as many different eligible names as she can think of. The child comes out of the womb when its name is called. Thus the naming and the giving birth to the new thing are inextricably linked together.”

Let’s continue with one eye toward a general questioning of the concept of being, that holy grail of the Western thinker errant. In Inuit languages, “all words are forms of the verb ‘to be,’ which itself is lacking.” This is hardly unusual. As I understand it, this verb form – what linguists intriguingly call the copulative – is peculiar to Indo-European languages. And from the ancient Greeks forward, being has been pared with making. In the Hebrew Bible, God “brings things-actions into being” in a manner that is essentially shamanistic and divinatory: the breath of his speech impels or discloses organization from among all that is, in some sense, already present.

But in the Greek interpretation – and thus in the Bible that all of us are familiar with (or not) – God is the Maker: the Poet. (For speakers of modern Greek, says Olga Broumas, “poet is still synonymous with creator, as in the Greek Orthodox credo: I believe in one God, father almighty, poet of sky and earth . . . ” [Perpetua, note to “Etymology”].) The intuition of a Prime Mover must derive at least in part from our own sense of alienation or at least separation from the world of nature.

So even aside from the almost insurmountable challenges of translation, there is a problem simply in trying to fit into our own categories the linguistic arts of any people so fundamentally different in their world-view. “There is really no such thing as Eskimo poetry,” Carpenter admits; “there are only poetic acts by individual Eskimos. The poetry-making matters, not the result. And, since the forms of poetry are traditional, known to everyone, what need is there to keep examples? Like carvings, poems are created, not preserved.”

Ah, what could be more thingish, more obviously tied to a self-conscious making than the example of sculpture?

“As the carver holds the unworked ivory lightly in his hand, turning it this way and that, he whispers, ‘Who are you? Who hides there?’ and then: ‘Ah, Seal!’ He rarely sets out to carve, say, a seal, but picks up the ivory, examines it to find its hidden form and, if that’s not immediately apparent, carves aimlessly until he sees it, humming or chanting as he works. Then he brings it out: Seal, hidden, emerges. It was always there. He didn’t create it: he released it, he helped it step forth.”

I don’t know that this is unique to the Inuit. Many artists in our own culture seem to feel more or less the same way, though there is obviously a continuum (or spectrum) of beliefs about the role/importance of self-conscious decision-making. In my own experience, just letting words come and putting them down, without editing – as so many Beats and neo-Beats advocate – is actually extraordinarily difficult to do right. The editing is not eliminated, simply made coincident with the bringing-to-light. (But note that I just end-rhymed without meaning to!) Potter (and poet) Jack Troy – a pioneer in the introduction of Japanese wood-firing techniques to North America – testifies in his artist’s statement to the difficulty of “seeing [pieces] for what they are.” He says it took him 20 years to unlearn his original desire for “ruthless control.” Frankly, I doubt that the practice comes easily or naturally even to Inuit carvers – I think it would be excessively romantic to maintain otherwise. The ego is an unruly thing in any culture.

Carpenter says that for the Inuit, the closest equivalent to our concept of creation is a term that means “to work on.” He connects this respect for the own-being or self-unveiling of the artist’s subject to the way Inuit build relationships with other people. Numerous accounts of child-rearing and marital relations among various Inuit groups would seem to bear this out.

“It is also their attitude toward nature. Language is the principal tool with which the Eskimos make the natural world a human world. They use many words for ‘snow’ which permit fine distinctions, not simply because they are much concerned with snow, but because snow takes its form from the actions in which it participates: sledding, falling, igloo-building. Different kinds of snow are brought into existence by the Eskimos as they experience the environment and speak; words do not label things already there. Words are like the knife of the carver: they free the idea, the thing, from the general formlessness of the outside . . .

“Poet, like carver, releases form from the bonds of formlessness: he brings it forth into consciousness. He must reveal form in order to protest against a universe that is formless, and the form he reveals should be beautiful.”

It is this protest that particularly interests me. Again, the parallels with the worldview of the ancient Hebrews are striking to me – but that’s probably just because I’ve spent so much time puzzling over the Hebrew Bible, at once so foundational and so alien to our civilization. Although many thinkers and scholars whom I deeply respect have singled out this sense of protest against the natural order of things as a unique feature of Biblical religion, I think it is almost universal. Virtually all belief systems include some version of an atemporal utopia, for example. Nor is the notion of a transcendent deity so unique: implicit in the very concept of the sacred is the notion of that which exceeds our grasp. The sacred is, everywhere, what prohibits our approach, and everywhere the appropriate response is primal fear/awe/wonder.

Does this mean that humans must forever bow their heads in abject submission to the All? Hell no. “The secret of conquering a world greater than himself is not known to the Eskimo [or to us, I would add]. But his role is not passive. He reveals form; he cancels nothingness.

“Eskimos seem to be saying that nature is there, but man alone can free it from its dormant state; that it requires a creative human act before the world explored becomes a world revealed; that the universe acquires form, ‘existence,’ only through man the revealer: he who releases life inherent in nature and guides its expression into beautiful forms.” Here, my relative ignorance of Inuit mythology makes me unable to effectively critique this. But I strongly suspect that shamans, carvers and singers are themselves enacting a becoming-more-alive by identifying with certain mythic beings. Among the Tikigaq of Point Hope, Alaska, for example, male and female shamans identify respectively with the first shaman and the earth crone/maiden who brought him about. Together they slay a whale-like sea monster (shades of the Babylonian Tiamat or Leviathan) and shape the world from its carcass. (Tom Lowenstein talks about this in the introduction to “Two Stories from Tigikaq,” in Coming to Light. His book Ancient Land: Sacred Whale[Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1993] is on my reading list.)

The idea of human co-creation of the world is not completely foreign to the Western tradition. Lurianic Kabbalah is an especially rich vein for this kind of thinking: the goal of the human being is to uncover and elevate holy sparks left over from the original Creation. Abraham Isaac Kook, in The Lights of Holiness (Orot Hakodesh) maintained that “We raise these scattered sparks and arrange them into worlds, constructed within us, in our private and social lives. In proportion to the sparks we raise, our lives are enriched.” Here he is talking more of moral action, of course. If there is a fundamental difference between the Biblical worldview and that of peoples like the Inuit, it is precisely in this sense of the commingling of natural and moral law. Recall the shaman Aua (quoted in yesterday’s post): taboos just are. They are not meant to be just.

Which is not to say that Inuit lack a concept of right behavior: far from it. I wonder how the recently Christianized Inuit have assimilated our notions of justice and divine goodness? Often I tend toward the Daoist view that if a society has to codify rules of behavior, something’s already wrong!

For Rabbi Kook, Creation is both holy and daunting: “We cannot identify the abundant vitality within all living beings, from the smallest to the largest, nor the hidden vitality enfolded within inanimate creation. Everything constantly flows, vibrates, and aspires. Nor can we estimate our own inner abundance. Our inner world is sealed and concealed, linked to a hidden something, a world that is not our world, not yet perceived or probed.

“Everything teems with richness, everything aspires to ascend and be purified. Everything sings, celebrates, serves, develops, uplifts, aspires to be arranged in oneness.” (Translated by Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah, Castle Books, 1997)

What’s different here is context. I mean, literal contextualization: the making and unmaking of world as text. (And at risk of sounding even more ridiculously pretentious: the worlding and unworlding of the text. The analogizing of word to Word and back again, which Kenneth Burke says is a fundamental religious trope.) One specific difference is the cultural preference for unity as opposed to diversity. Recall Phyllis Morrow’s statement about the multiplicity of words for the soul among the Yupiit. Among some groups, apparently, this multiplicity was more than linguistic. “The souls of people, and some animals, were, like so much in the Tikigaq cosmos, multiple and composite. Tikigaq people believed there were three human souls . . . ”

I’m quoting now from the aforementioned Ancient Land: Sacred Whale, which I just went and fetched from my father’s library. I can see that there is much meat here for further digestion:

“‘Tikigaq nuna,’ an old man told me, ‘isn’t real land. At the moment of creation, the land was something else: the animal.’

“This is nigrun, the animal that was, and which still becomes, nuna [land] . . . [T]he mythic process is never complete. The land-whale myth takes place ‘back then’ (taimmani), but back then time, so long as people go on telling stories, is also present and continuous. Myth events are real. ‘The stories,’ storytellers never tired of saying, ‘are true!’ Acts of creation survive in stories. But to keep this life going each generation must repeat the stories and enact them in rituals.”

Where should we be looking, then, for the inner forms, the sparks, the templates of original creation? Has this little exercise in exegesis really been anything more than a pleasant diversion from the exigencies of the day? It’s a whale of a problem, all right, but I think the quarry is becoming a little clearer with every cut of the knife. One can almost begin to see where best to look: right between the one and the many, Infinity and One!

Here I stand,
Humble, with outstretched arms,
For the spirit of the air
Lets glorious food sink down to me.

– Copper River Inuit, from “Religious Hymn to be Sung Wearing a Head Decoration of the Skin of the Great Northern Diver”

Time for some breakfast.


If I were to re-christen this weblog with a name less grand and perhaps a bit more true, I’d have to call it something like, “Thoughts on an Empty Stomach,” or perhaps, “Mind-Farts Before Breakfast”! Because that’s how it comes about: I get up around 4:00 or 5:00, shower, drink coffee (sitting outside if there’s no wind and it’s above 5 degrees), then start picking up books and letting my thoughts wander wherever they want.

So this morning I am going back and forth between poems of the Inuit and the poetic debates of Job and his three friends/adversaries (Chapters 3-21 in the KJV before I am able to put it down). This seems bizarre at first, but eventually (as usual) a pattern emerges. Dissatisfied with my single anthology of Inuit song texts (Richard Lewis, ed., I Breathe a New Song: Poems of the Eskimo, Simon and Schuster, 1971), I go online and search Knud Rasmussen – the great Danish/Inuit polar explorer and anthropologist who is responsible for collecting most of the best song-texts we have. His expeditions took him across the Inuit world, from East Greenland to eastern Siberia.

The Humanistic Texts site includes a page of “Eskimo Songs and Thoughts” collected by Rasmussen. The dialogue with a shaman reprinted below is what made me realize the kinship between these otherwise vastly different bodies of work from two very different sorts of deserts. Of the several discourses on poetics, only the one by Orpingalik (the last selection below) was familiar to me.

For several evenings Knud Rasmussen, Aua, a shaman, and other Eskimos had discussed rules of life and taboo customs of the Iglulik Eskimos. They did not get beyond a long statement of all that was permitted and all that was forbidden, for whenever Rasmussen asked “Why?” they could give no answers.
As if seized by a sudden impulse, Aua took Rasmussen outside with him, where the snow was being lashed about in waves by the wind, and said:

“In order to hunt well and live happily, man must have calm weather. Why this constant succession of blizzards and all this needless hardship for men seeking food for themselves and those they care for? Why? Why?”
Aua then led him to Kublo’s house. A small blubber lamp burned with but the faintest flame, giving out no heat whatever; a couple of children crouched, shivering, under a skin rug on the bench. Aua asked Rasmussen:
“Why should it be cold and comfortless in here? Kublo has been out hunting all day, and if he had got a seal, as he deserved, his wife would now be sitting laughing beside her lamp, letting it burn full, without fear of having no blubber left for tomorrow. The place would be warm and bright and cheerful, the children would come out from under their rugs and enjoy life. Why should it not be so? Why?”
Rasmussen made no answer, and followed him out of the house, into a little snow hut where Aua’s sister, Natseq, lived all by herself because she was ill. A third time Aua looked at Rasmussen and said:
“Why must people be ill and suffer pain? We are all afraid of illness. Here is this old sister of mine; as far as anyone can see, she has done no evil: she has lived through a long life and given birth to healthy children, and now she must suffer before her days end. Why? Why?” . . .
“You see, you are equally unable to give any reason when we ask you why life is as it is. And so it must be. All our customs come from life and turn towards life; we explain nothing, we believe nothing, but in what I have just shown you lies answer to all you ask.
“We fear the weather spirit of earth, that we must fight against to wrest our food from land and sea. We fear Sila [the weather].
“We fear death and hunger in the cold snow huts.
“We fear Takfinakapsfiluk, the great woman down at the bottom of the sea, that rules over all the beasts of the sea.
“We fear the sickness that we meet with daily all around us; not death, but the suffering. We fear the evil spirits of life, those of the air, of the sea and the earth, that can help wicked shamans to harm their fellow men.
“We fear the souls of dead human beings and of the animals we have killed.
“Therefore it is that our fathers have inherited from their fathers all the old rules of life which are based on the experience and wisdom of generations. We do not know how, we cannot say why, but we keep those rules in order that we may live untroubled. And so ignorant are we in spite of all our shamans, that we fear everything unfamiliar. We fear what we see about us, and we fear all the invisible things that are likewise about us, all that we have heard of in our forefathers’ stories and myths. Therefore we have our customs, which are not the same as those of the white men, the white men who live in another land and have need of other ways.”
Aua, Iglulik Eskimo

(Compare, for example, Job 14)

Oh! You strangers only see us happy and free of care. But if you knew the horrors we often have to live through, you would understand too why we are so fond of laughing, why we love food and song and dancing. There is not one among us but has experienced a winter of bad hunting, when many people starved to death around us and when we ourselves only pulled through by accident. I once saw a wise old man hang himself, because he was starving to death; he had retained his senses and preferred to die in time. . .
Qaqortingneq, Netsilik Eskimo

In days gone by, every autumn, we held big feasts for the soul of the whale, feasts which should always be opened with new songs which the men composed. The spirits were to be summoned with fresh words; worn-out songs could never be used when men and women danced and sang in homage to the big quarry. And it was the custom that during the time when the men were finding the words for these hymns, all lamps had to be extinguished. Darkness and stillness were to reign in the festival house. Nothing must disturb them, nothing divert them. In deep silence they sat in the dark, thinking; all the men, both old and young, in fact even the youngest of the boys if only they were old enough to speak. It was this stillness we called qarrtsiluni, which means that one waits for something to burst.
For our forefathers believed that the songs were born in this stillness while all endeavored to think of nothing but beautiful things. Then they take shape in the minds of men and rise up like bubbles from the depths of the sea, bubbles seeking the air in order to burst. That is how the sacred songs are made!
Majuaq, Alaskan Eskimo

Job 4
12 Now a thing was secretly brought to me, and mine ear received a little thereof.
13 In thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men,
14 Fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones to shake.

Job 35
10 But none saith, Where is God my maker, who giveth songs in the night . . .

Job 38
28 Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew?
29 Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?
30 The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.
31 Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?

Songs are thoughts, sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices. Man is moved just like the ice floe sailing here and there out in the current. His thoughts are driven by a flowing force when he feels joy, when he feels fear, when he feels sorrow. Thoughts can wash over him like a flood, making his breath come in gasps and his heart throb. Something, like an abatement in the weather, will keep him thawed up. And then it will happen that we, who always think we are small, will feel still smaller. And we will fear to use words. But it will happen that the words we need will come of themselves. When the words we want to use shoot up of themselves–we get a new song.
Orpingalik, Netsilik Eskimo

Scientific authority and the prodigal theory

Fabre’s unsparing and curmudgeonly critique of theoreticians leads me to wonder: Are theories necessary? The obvious answer is that without some sort of logical framework (notions about natural organization, animal instinct, etc.) Fabre’s own meticulous winnowing of observations for a few grains of authentic insight would have been impossible. But the grander superstructures of imagination, such as the theory of evolution by natural selection, are what struck him as a diversion from the natural scientist’s true tasks of observation, experimentation and (with luck) some limited amount of inductive reasoning.

Most non-Western bodies of knowledge are built solely on a basis of empiricism. This does not prevent them from achieving results whose accuracy (according to our own preconceptions) seems little short of miraculous. Consider the complex recipe for the South American psychotropic drug ayahuasca, a.k.a. yage. Given the tens of thousands of species of herbs and lianas native to this region, and given that the active ingredients in the recipe have very different or even negligible effects when taken in isolation, how can we imagine an experimental process to arrive at the correct formula?

One ethnobotanist I was reading a while back (I think it might have been Mark Plotkin) made the not unreasonable suggestion that, at least in some cases, humans have been able to learn something about the properties of herbs from close observation of animals. He gave one example, based on fieldwork in Central Africa, in which the people he’d been working with had quite recently adopted a new plant (for purposes that turned out to be biomedically sound) after watching chimpanzees use it. Another example from northern South America suggested that observation of tapirs may have led to the local adoption of a new herb.

The inference to be drawn here, I suppose, is that animals can use their superior sense of smell/taste, in combination with finely honed instincts “unimpeded by the thought process” (as the Car Talk guys would say), to find whatever they need for a particular ailment or condition. This in turn implies that humans might have the same ability, within the limitations imposed by our own, vastly inferior olfactory organs. And it occurs to me (as it has surely occurred to anyone else who has read a certain number of ethnobotanical accounts) that mind-altering plants and fungi themselves may play a role in helping people to see/sniff out useful new drugs or drug ingredients. This may seem uncomfortably close to an appeal to revelation: after all, some champions of psychotropes do refer to them as entheogens. But merely altering the way our senses operate (whether by “cleansing the doors of perception” or in fact blocking them up and opening new ones) does not obviate the need for inductive reasoning and the assimilation of a vast body of empirical data. One can easily imagine the medical specialist learning to distinguish certain tastes/smells corresponding to distinct chemical properties, and probably relating those properties in turn to particularities of habitat and even, in some cases, obvious visual clues.

What interests me in all of this is the role that indigenous theory forms in the valid recognition and organization of data. For South American practitioners of traditional medicine, the world-pictures are so fantastic to us that it is difficult to see them as analogous to theory rather than (say) religious dogma. I would counter that, in very many cases I have read about, the shaman is usually among the most pragmatic and open-minded members of any given tribe, and has very little problem (and often great facility) with the self-conscious manipulation of concepts to achieve a best fit with the evidence. But examples from traditional Chinese and Indian sciences may be more helpful here.

Consider acupuncture: accurate almost to a fault in pinpointing nerve endings – and perfected in the complete absence of any accurate knowledge of the human nervous system. A completely imaginary system of lines of life-force (chi) formed not just a theoretical framework but an essential mnemonic for the location of pressure points. One could say the same about the chakra-system of yoga or any of the myriad other conceptual frameworks developed to organize and guide what Sufi writers call “the science of the mind.” Indeed, I doubt that anyone could ever come up with a system such as feng-shui, which seems to embody a genuine and very profound understanding of human perceptions of space, without the aid of a quasi-mystical theory to “explain” the mutual interpenetration of mind and matter.

In all these cases, it seems to me, it doesn’t really matter whether one regards the guiding theories as literal representations or provisional constructs. What matters is the theory’s utility as mnemonic aid and heuristic. But I begin to list dangerously in the direction of that modern disciple of Diogenes, Paul Feyerabend.

I should mention that I generally try to avoid reading Feyerabend simply because his notions and prejudices are so similar to my own. I am afraid that if I were to go through and carefully digest his theories, I would deprive myself of the hundreds of hours of pleasure and bewilderment that would be involved in developing similar ideas all on my own! But this morning I’ll make a small sacrifice for the sake of my faithful readers (he says pompously) and crack the cover of Against Method (Verso, 1978), Chapter 4. Marginal notes in my own chicken scratch indicate I have been here before. So perhaps all of the foregoing is simply an unconscious re-capitulation of Paul Feyerabend? Well, here’s the argument:

There is no idea, however ancient and absurd, that is not capable of improving our knowledge. The whole history of thought is absorbed into science and is used for improving every single theory. Nor is political interference rejected. It may be needed to overcome the chauvinism of science that resists alternatives to the status quo.

As an example of such positive political interference, he cites the Communist Chinese government’s about-face on its original rejection of traditional medicine as primitive. This re-evaluation was sparked by a purge of “bourgeois elements” in the Ministry of Health in 1954 – an event with doubtless very unfortunate consequences for many such “elements.” In fact, given what we now know or strongly suspect about the horrific death tolls from forced collectivization under the banner of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, it seems positively ghoulish to celebrate any political consequence of that unhappy period. But Feyerabend was never one to shy away from provocative conclusions – in fact, he delighted in them. And his evaluation of the “sizable lacunae in Western medicine” seems sound:

[T]here are effects and means of diagnosis which modern medicine cannot repeat and for which it has no explanation . . . Nor can one expect that the customary scientific approach will find an answer. In the case of herbal medicine the approach consists of two steps. First, the herbal concoction is analysed into its chemical constituents. Then the specific effects of each constituent are determined and the total effect on a particular organ explained on their basis. This neglects the possibility that the herb, taken in its entirety, changes the state of the whole organism and that it is this new state of the whole organism rather than a specific part of the herbal concoction that cures the diseased organ. Here as elsewhere knowledge is obtained from a proliferation of views rather than from the determined application of a particular ideology.

The fact that such proliferation may be in some instances propelled by the outside influence of a repressive ideology, religious dogma or, for modern scientists in the West, the almighty dollar (as Feyerabend teasingly suggests) is irony indeed. But in the very next breath he mounts a spirited defense of the importance of a well-developed, untramelled imagination, “not just a road of escape but as a necessary means for discovering and perhaps even changing the features of the world we live in.”

As for the difference between Fabre’s perspective and Feyerabend’s on the relative importance of theories, I think it is about what one would expect given the disparity between their backgrounds and occupations. In any case, they do seem to meet on a common ground of suspicion toward any theory with universalistic or truth-status pretensions. And they would have agreed wholeheartedly in matters relating to the theory of education. Feyerabend concludes Chapter 4 of Against Method by advising the reader “to consult [John Stuart] Mill’s magnificent essay On Liberty.” Considering the connection between Mill and Fabre that I was just writing about the day before yesterday, I guess I better go follow his advice. The gods clearly will it!