Gimme hell!

After much fussing and several moments of near-panic, I have finally installed a comments feature! So, if there are any postings you’ve had some reactions to, but didn’t want to bother me with an e-mail (always welcome, of course), now you can let me have it! Or just, you know, start a conversation.

For those who (like me) are new to this: click on where it says “Comments” at the end of the post. If you’ve disabled pop-ups on your computer, you will have to hold down the Ctrl key while clicking. Type in name or pseudonymn, e-mail, website url if any – that should be obvious. What isn’t obvious is that it will cut you off at 1000 characters, which is about two medium-length paragraphs. To avoid losing your work, always copy and save before sending. You can do this by right-clicking the mouse with your arrow in the box; paste into a new box by the same method. Pretty nifty, eh?

Apropos of nothing, except that the heading for this post made me think of it: I have Dr. John’s take on an old blues verse running through my head now (can’t remember the title of the song), goes something like –

Give me whiskey
When I get a little frisky,
‘Cause it’s a mighty good thing
When I get a little dry,
Give me tobacco
When i get a little sickly
And give me heaven
Before i die!

After the breakdown

One of life’s chief pleasures is discovering great works of literature slumbering peacefully between the covers of a 20-year-old, well-thumbed paperback in the dusty shelves of one’s favorite used bookstore. That’s how last year I became acquainted with the Swedish poet Artur Lundkvist and his searing Agadir.

This is pretty lame of me, but I’m just going to quote the back-cover blurb so you’ll see why I am re-reading this book now. “Artur Lundkvist and his wife survived the massive earthquake in southern Morocco which destroyed Agadir in March 1960, killing almost all of its 40,000 inhabitants. This poem grew out of that experience . . . [It] falls easily into four sections, the opening describing the unearthly calm before the disaster, the second, the disaster itself, the third, the vision of the destroyed city and the fourth, a coda . . . By accurately recording the event, Lundkvist presents a verbal picture as horrible as any surrealist nightmare. Agadir, the shining white city, becomes to the poet’s inner eye a city in which life is clasped by death, a mirage forever reminding him of what may lie in store for all humanity . . . ”

Lundkvist was already a renowned writer at the time of the disaster, apparently, specializing in travel poetry and fluent in eleven languages. In the translation – by U.S. poet William Jay Smith and Leif Sjoberg – each page is a separate, untitled sub-unit with long, Whitmanesque lines. The style is realism with abundant touches of lyricism for the first three sections; the proportions are reversed in the final section, from which I include an excerpt here. I don’t know how to indent lines in Blogger, so some enjambment (depending on the viewer’s screen size) is apparent rather than real. This section is in quotes, indicating that this is not the author’s own voice but that of some other, nameless survivor.

“Words also crumbled, broke into pieces, scattered in shreds,
in vain I tried to find some still unharmed and usable
but found only splinters of metaphors, cracked, like a split mirror;
visions floated about, islands adrift in air as white as milk but thicker,
almost like molten, viscous marble,
trees floated about, torn up by the roots and turning slowly upside down upon themselves,
people floated like driftwood, many whole and outwardly unmarred, others cut in half or worse,
floating about in the white with eyes wide-open, hair streaming upward,
the whole scene spotless and beautiful, like a devastation of statues,
black tabletops turned slowly, became round holes of dark tapering into a streak,
horses floated on their backs, legs galloped in the void,
so many things went by: sandals two by two as if held together by invisible feet, bolts of cloth unrolling,
a sidewalk cafe filled with people leaning over an abyss,
a fire burning in the void, a sports car filled with young girls,
and whether I closed my eyes or kept them open made no difference; the sights were there inside,
my brain was stripped of words, white and blank,
only images floated after the breakdown.”

Artur Lundkvist, Agadir, translated by William Jay Smith and Leif Sjoberg. Ohio UP, 1980, p. 49.

Strangers in the earth

Lost in the woods, a thousand possible avenues opening among the trunks and thickets, panic rising in the throat. Stuck in a shopping mall, fascination at the initial strangeness of it turning sour in the stomach. Is alienation always a bad thing? Isn’t it possible that some very necessary lessons come at the price of a certain disassociation from oneself, from one’s safe nest of habit and comforting thoughts? Perhaps I am groping for a word that doesn’t yet exist, somewhere in the hair’s breadth of difference between alienation and ecstasy, strangeness and intimacy, nothingness and Ein Sof.

Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears;
for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner,
as all my fathers were.
Psalm 39:12

Not for love as the sweet pretend: the children’s game
of deliberate ignorance of each to allow the dreaming.
Not for the impersonal belly nor the heart’s drunkenness
have I come this far, stubborn, disastrous way.
But for relish of those archipelagoes of person.
To hold her in hand, closed as any sparrow,
and call and call forever till she turn from bird
to blowing woods. From woods to jungle. Persimmon.
To light. From light to princess. From princess to woman
in all her fresh particularity of difference.
Then oh, through the underwater time of night,
indecent and still, to speak to her without habit.
This I have done with my life, and am content.
I wish I could tell you how it is in that dark,
standing in the huge singing and alien world.

Jack Gilbert, “Don Giovanni on His Way to Hell.”
Monolithos, Graywolf Press, 1982, 7.

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world.

Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is the reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.

Aldo Leopold, “Thinking Like a Mountain.”
A Sand County Almanac, Oxford UP, 1987 (1949), 129.

Radical hospitality, infinite respect, & all the messy stuff in between

Manic mode. Press conference tomorrow; today many phone calls to make. Five a.m. and bitter cold. Full moon looking in over my right shoulder. The monkey in my mind – no, screw the tired buddhist cliche – the gray squirrel in my mind is already stirring. Stirring? Hell, she’s racing about in 108 different directions at once!

There’s been a very interesting discussion going on over at The Cassandra Pages for the last three days now (click here for the permalink). It was sparked by a moving & very understated essay in which the author contrasted hearing a sermon by the newly installed New Hampshire Episcopal bishop, Gene Robinson (he whose ordination threatened to split the Anglican church), with a visit afterwards to a typical American mall. How to practice the “radical hospitality and infinite respect” the bishop preached surrounded by such soul-destroying craving and consumerism? How to love the people who manufacture and peddle all this stuff? The message strings are very lively because it’s not just Christians talking to Christians; the Buddhists and agnostics are chiming in, too.

One comment in these discussions was along the lines of, “I don’t believe in higher powers. I guess that’s why I’m not religious.” But it seems to me that questions of how to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” “love thy enemy” and give welcome to the widow, the orphan and the stranger are precisely the beginning and end of religion. I agree with Confucius: metaphysics is a sideshow. Life after death? Don’t be such a baby! You’re going to die. Odds are you’ll suffer quite a bit before you get there. Deal with it.

Faith/trust in [insert name of idol here], at its best and most essential, should mean cultivating a deeply conscious openness toward the world and toward each of its flawed inhabitants – even (or especially) when they are DEEPLY EVIL CYNICAL PSYCHOPATHIC RUMSFELD SADDAM MOTHERFUCKERS WITHOUT A SHRED OF HUMAN DECENCY.

I notice that (as of last night) none of the participants in the discussion had really dealt concretely with “radical hospitality”; they were mostly just exploring the ramifications of “infinite respect.” O.K. But this is a major flaw in our culture, I think. I wonder if our collective tone-deafness toward this most ancient of virtues has something to do with our national origins, in genocide and chattel slavery. But be that as it may, I think the practice of hospitality is one of the things we could most stand to learn from Muslims and/or Arabs. It is very painful to read descriptions of American troops behaving like the Gestapo, abusing the abundant hospitality they are shown when they enter houses unannounced, frightening and insulting their would-be hosts. We just don’t know how to be good guests! It is equally painful to hear about how we have begun fingerprinting every non-White visitor to the U.S.; imprisoning resident aliens and keeping them incommunicado for months for traffic violations or lapsed visas, then deporting them without even giving them a chance to say goodbye to their American families. We don’t know how to be good hosts.

Returning to my evolving midrash on Jacob and Esau (see “history and freedom” entry): the less biblically literate among my readers may not perhaps realize the full import of this tale. And the deeply particularistic language of the Old Testament makes it easy to forget: these are not just individuals, but “corporate persons” – ancestors of two neighboring and usually warring peoples, Israel and Edom, at the time this story was given its final form. In later millennia, Jews of the Diaspora read “Edom” as code for “Christendom.” That’s the background/baggage of this apparently simple story of reconciliation between brothers, with all the grand gestures of radical hospitality and infinite respect.

There’s something else that strikes me. In terms of the structure of the narrative, Jacob’s weird nocturnal wrestling bout comes at the very same place where many years previous, as a mama’s boy fleeing his brother’s wrath, he took a stone for a pillow and dreamed his famous, epiphanic dream. In those terrible sugar-coated Bible Stories For Children that have been the cause of so many former altar boys and choir girls turning their backs on religion, Jacob’s Ladder is right up there with Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors and David and Goliath. The scholars tell us that rather than a ladder we should envision the stairs on a ziggurat, but never mind.

The point to me is that the two stories have a dialectical relationship. Where before Jacob had a dream of a strictly vertical order, with angels going up and down and the Lord standing above all and thundering his promise to multiply Jabob’s descendents – a future market-dominance by his corporate personhood – now we have sleeplessness. A dark night of the soul, a cloud of unknowing. “A man came and wrestled with him until daybreak.” Not (as in Bible Stories for Children) some fluffy-winged angel. God or demon? He doesn’t give out his name. We know only that, the next day when Jacob finally meets up with Esau, he sees the face of God. “And Jacob called the name of the place Penuel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” (Gen. 33:30)

Okey-dokey. But then comes the awful 34th Chapter of Genesis: the first recorded genocide against the inhabitants of what is now called Palestine, perpetrated by Jacob’s sons to avenge the “defiling” of their sister. Has Jacob learned nothing from his two, very different epiphanies?

Actually, he takes no part in the massacre, and in fact chastises his sons. But his rebuke has a decidedly self-serving ring to it: You’ve given me a really bad reputation among the natives here, he says, “and I being few in number, they shall gather themselves together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house. And they said, Should he deal with our sister as a harlot?”(Gen. 34:30-31) God is conspicuously absent until the very end. The pious people who divided the Bible into chapter and verse at a later time put in a chapter break when at last Yahweh speaks up.

“And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel” – that’s where the stone pillow epiphany took place – “and dwell there: and make thee an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother.” (35:1) The voices in my head are saying we gotta go now, quick! And by the way, we better clean up our act. “Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments” (35:2) and they do so. And “the terror of God” comes upon all the cities in their path. Strong stuff.

More on cosmogonic myth

In a previous mention of creation mythology I neglected to point out what may not be obvious to some: that the dominant image for what preceded the physical universe as we know it is water. The KJV’s “form, and void” may be too Greek, but the following two clauses cannot be surpassed, either as myth or as poetry. In fact, when the Roman philosopher Longinus wrote his famous treatise On the Sublime, he cited the opening of the Hebrew Bible as Exhibit A:

And the earth was without form,
and void;
and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the breath of God moved upon
the face of the waters. (Gen. 1:2)

– changing only the KJV’s Spirit to breath (ru’ah).

Now it goes almost without saying that this imagery has an ancient pedigree among dwellers of river-valley civilizations, for example among the worshippers of Marduk, among whom the exiled composers of the core of the Hebrew Bible found themselves. (This historical circumstance explains why, as many times as it surfaces in the non-historical books of the Bible, the primordial sea-monster mythos is expunged from the Genesis account. That would have been just too close to the Marduk religion for comfort.)

What is more interesting to me is how widespread this myth is, even among people who were swidden agriculturalists or hunter-gatherers. There is obviously a profound phenomenological basis for it: Earth is the Water Planet, after all. But the true connection undoubtedly is to the waters of the womb.

(Parenthetically, I suppose that the religious significance of shedding blood, as in the act of sacrifice or in holy war, is to mimic or in fact expropriate the birth-giving power of the divine feminine. I freely admit I am poorly read on this subject, however; I invite readers to correct me on this point. My only direct evidence for this substitution was something I recall from an interview with AIM leader Russell Means, where he described the Lakota Sun Dance as men’s attempt to experience something of the pain that women go through in giving birth, through the shedding of their own blood.)

How well the ancients may have anticipated modern, scientific theories of the origins of the universe or solar system is little more than a curiosity as far as I am concerned, being more agnostic than gnostic. But I have to admit it is pretty darn nifty that the notion of precipitation, of stuff kind of gelling, figures so prominently in Genesis and in its immediate antecedent:

When there was no heaven,
no earth, no height, no depth, no name,
when Apsu was alone,
the sweet water, the first begetter; and Tiamat
the bitter water, and that
return to the womb, her Mummu, when there were no gods —

When sweet and bitter
mingled together, no reed was plaited, no rushes
muddied the water,
the gods were nameless, natureless, featureless, then
from Apsu and Tiamat
in the waters gods were created, in the waters
silt precipitated . . .

– The Babylonian Creation, translated by N.K. Sandars in Poems of Heaven and Hell From Ancient Mesopotamia (Penguin, 1971), 73.

Apparently – my source for this is Natural History magazine, sometime in the last two years – a new theory gaining currency is that the “original” Big Bang (a ridiculous and inaccurate term) may in fact have been, in some sense, a precipitation from within a larger Whatever, and that thus there may be many other universes like our own. But whatever. I am mainly interested here in the microcosmos, and the extent to which such formless Beginning may be conceived anew within the human soul.

One can apply the traditional Christian hermeneutic of allegory to the Old and New Testaments and come up with a myriad echoes of the original watery creation: Noah’s Ark, the parting of the Red Sea, the parting of the Jordan at the entry into Canaan, the baptism of Jesus. Not to mention numerous references to YHWH’s power as a sustainer of creation/civilization against the waters that are always threatening to break loose.

I encourage anyone interested in pursuing this topic to read Jon Levenson’s excellent Sinai and Zion: an Entry into the Jewish Bible (Harper, 1985). Referring to the extra-temporal dimension of the sacred, Levenson declares that “These great founding acts, which order reality, we shall call protological, that is to say, partaking of the nature of the beginning of things, on analogy with the term eschatological, which is commonly used by biblical scholars to describe the ‘last things,’ which occur at the ‘end of time.’ According to [B.S.] Childs [in Myth and Reality in the Old Testament], ‘the present world order established by a victory in the past does not continue automatically. It must be continually reactivated in the cult’ (103).”

Levenson goes on to stress that “The perception of time cannot be disengaged from the perception of space. In fact, the mythic symbols to be analyzed exist in radically different modes both of space and of time (p. 104).” This point is essential preparation for his discussion of Zion as the cosmic mountain.

At a secular level, Sinai and Zion should interest anyone who wants to understand how Jerusalem became such a charged place, a preeminent “world navel.” I close with a rabbinical midrash translated by Levenson (118): “The Holy One (blessed be he) created the world like an embryo. Just as the embryo begins at the navel and proceeds onwards from there, so the Holy One (blessed be he) began to create the word from its navel and from there it spread out in different directions.”

There’s no place like OM!

Note to self

The blogosphere, the noosphere, the world-wide web. The labyrinth, the Matrix. The garden of the text. All variations on an age-old gnostic dream that we must finally repudiate, lest it become the altar on which the dismembered corpse of the real world is offered up. Within the world of literature, readers and scholars must remember that all the texts ever committed to writing – let alone those that have survived to the present – represent a tiny fraction of the total body of songs and stories ever created.

If the term texts seems biased, what shall we call them? The critic George Steiner writes about art in general as counter-creation. So for works of language, I am thinking of something like answers to Creation, in the sense of both response and explication. What the world calls up within us.

But we must remember too that words are made by spelling; speech can be charming. The world can still be enchanted, could still be spell-bound. Words are as alive as that other invisible thing, the wind or breath (pneuma, ru’ah, anima): in fact, they are almost the same phenomenon. For the right words can penetrate to the farthest corners of the cosmos, can reach to the very beginning of thought. Like breath they can create and destroy in their own right, and they animate every element of creation: earth and sky, water and especially fire.

These originary sparks of meaning may once have been more concentrated, true, but their scattering throughout the visible world does not make them any less real.

Nor does that scattering challenge the facticity of matter: the maternal, the universal matrix or womb/network that is still essential to survival, even (or especially) for us arrogant moderns, who have devised so many devilishly clever ways to deaden our senses.

Poem for the New Year

The squirrel says: the trees
in which I have slept
are the color of the sun.
Leafless now and clear
all likely pathways. The tree peers
bleary-eyed through every scar
that used to be a leaf,
she is stiff and cold
and full of old voices.
I rub my face and neck against
her bark: wake up!
My tail trembles.
I am rainwater running
up and down the trunk,
from tree to tree I am wind
leaping, making the treetops sway.
Every possible gulf
of space is spanned
by a possible branch, look!
I can taste the kernels
at the tips of possible twigs.
And within me, now, too,
sunlight on branches.
Aching blue sky of January.
Cries of thirst.

Dreaming the garden of the text

Sometime after 3:00 a.m. I had the following dream. In the heart of a large Western city there is a massive building complex that combines a national museum, national library and botanical garden. It is past closing time, but I cannot find the exits.

I am lost in the Medieval section, which appears to contain an authentic cloister, a Romanesque church and a formal garden. It is winter in the garden. I know that the city is right on the other side of the high wall, but how to get there? Useless to ask the guards – I know they will only arrest me and, as an anarchist, I am afraid of falling victim to the terror war that now imprisons all suspected enemies of the state indiscriminately, with no recourse to due process.

In the dusting of snow I notice a set of human footprints disappearing into what looks like a groundhog burrow. I have to take my coat and shirt off to fit inside, but once I do so it turns into a tunnel, then a hallway in a decrepit student housing unit like those I used to party in years ago in State College. The only occupant is a young, very serious-looking woman who looks up from her reading with a kind of calm surprise.

I throw myself on her mercy, imploring her to help me get out, without explaining why it is so urgent that I not be caught. To my surprise, she consents without a word: with one glance she is able to tell that I am both sincere and harmless. I hear the guards coming down the hallway, so I quick grab a volume from the bookshelves that cover the walls of her room and try to act casual.

It turns out to be the first volume of a complete, bilingual edition of the Babylonian Talmud, with the Hebrew and English on facing pages. It’s full of bookmarks, which lead to pencilled notes in the margins in a mixture of both languages. I glance quickly over the shelves and realize that every volume is bristling with bookmarks.

When the guards enter, without giving me a name she introduces me simply as her “friend” (which is especially believable because of my shirtless state). I realize with some shame the awkward position in which I have placed this apparently shy and circumspect young scholar.

At this point the details grow fuzzy, but I remember we all go outside together, escorted by the two or three guards, and accompanied also by a girlfriend of my benefactor who shows up from a nearby apartment. The two of them are laughing and talking together like ordinary women – no sign, now, of a typical intellectual’s introversion. When we hit the streets, my benefactor – who I notice suddenly is very good-looking – sees me off in a way that is meant to appear casual (for the benefit of the guards) but is in fact completely indifferent. A sideways, halfway hug. The suggestion of a smile.

Why did you do this – why not just turn me in? I wanted to ask but could not. I glance back for a final look, and she and her girlfriend are talking animatedly about something else entirely, disappearing among the crowds of revelers on the streets.

Male and female

Addendum to yesterday’s entry on feminist aggadah

Actually, Jewish feminists working to reclaim their heritage do have one advantage over their Muslim and Christian sisters: they already have an abundance of female images of the godhead to draw from. In the book of Proverbs, Wisdom (Hokhmah) is co-eternal with YHWH and is represented there as a goddess of sorts. (This becomes the Christian Sophia.) In later Kabbalah, however, Hokhmah is thought of as male. As the first (or second*) manifestation of godhead – also called the Beginning – it is the point from which Binah (Knowledge) expands. At this point, Binah and Hokhmah become explicitly female and male, egg and semen (to update the imagery slightly from the no-longer-valid notions of semen as seed and womb as passive medium). Of all of Binah’s “daughters” the most famous, which surely predates this schema of the ten Sefirot by hundreds of years, is the hypostasized Divine Presence, the Shekhinah. The central focus of religious effort is to join Tif’eret – the sixth of the ten Sefirot, representing Heaven, Sun, Harmony, Compassion – and Shekhinah, associated with Earth, Moon, Garden of Eden, Justice. A kind of Jewish tantra encourages married mystics to make love on Sabbath Eve in an attempt to realize this divine union in their own bodies. Finally, it’s worth noting that the Sabbath itself is also commonly hypostasized as female.

All this is a little apart from the theme of this blog, except to show the flexibility and creativity of the Western religious imagination once it divests itself of rigid subject/object and mind/body dichotomies. And I don’t think any of it would have been possible without the prior determination of the divine’s absolute unknowability. Putting ultimate reality beyond all conceptual reach licensed the invention of the Sefirot as a kind of heuristic – in fact, it probably necessitated it, both as a focus of devotion for ordinary believers and as a mandala or source code for divine autopoiesis.
____________

*Depending on how closely one identifies Keter with Ein Sof. Multiple versions of the Sefirot diagram (with sometimes divergent descriptions) may be found on the web. Here’s one that’s particularly well done and easy to navigate. Read especially the descriptions of The Right Side (male) and The Left Side (female). The diagram can of course be used as a map of the human body. But I can’t help thinking that there are probably many, more esoteric interpretations that have never been put into print (or at least into translation).

Feminist aggadah

From poet and critic Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s wonderfully iconoclastic The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions (Rutgers UP, 1997):

“To the rest of the world the Jew is marginal. But to Judaism I am marginal. Am woman, unclean. Am Eve. Or worse, am Lilith. Am illiterate. Not mine the arguments of Talmud, not mine the centuries of ecstatic study, the questions and answers twining minutely around the living Word, not mine the Kaballah, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet dancing as if they were attributes of God. These texts, like the Law and the Prophets, are not-me . . . ” (p. 6)

“Touch me not, thou shalt not touch, command the texts. Thou shalt not uncover. But I shall. Thou shalt not eat it lest ye die. I shall not surely die.” (p. 8)

“Reader, you are supposed to ask: does God exist. Is the Holy One in that book real or imagined. And then what about Abraham, Moses, and so on, what is their status vis-a-vis ‘reality.’ Is Abraham in other words a body, a material fact, or is he a spirit, an imagined fact. I confess these questions do not interest me. For who among us, solid flesh though we are, is not partly fictional. And who among us supposes herself the inventor of her own fiction. And who is not just such an aggregation of scraps, just such a patchwork as Abraham, a basket containing millennia. Is God a myth? A set of myths? Then so am I, so are you.” (p. 13)

No doubt an analytic philosopher would laugh us both to scorn, but that’s always the way I’ve reacted to those kinds of questions, too. But here’s the part I really wanted to quote. This is from Ostriker’s commentary on the Garden of Eden:

“Between a child and a parent the initial game is hiding and showing. At first the parent takes the initiative, leading the child into the game. The child is lying flat on her back in the crib, kicking her heels rhythmically, gazing devotedly up at the face of the parent, who gazes in her usual devoted way down at her. Now the parent has the impulse to stimulate extra happiness. So she covers her face for two seconds, then removes her hands, beaming at the child, who instantly breaks into chuckles, wriggling her fat body and beating her fists and feet against the crib mattress. Every time the parent plays I’m-gone-I’m-here, the child laughs, gurgles. To laugh is to understand. To understand is to laugh. Later the child herself will play I’m-gone-I’m-here, putting her fat hands over her face, perhaps peering through her fingers but confident that she herself is invisible or rather pretending to be invisible and then opening her hands and flinging them apart to show her radiant face . . . ” (p.20)

One begins to see the enormity of the sages’ error in barring women from the garden of the text!