Longing (2): the hidden country

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Longing: Anthology and Meditation


Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.

Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”


The first text I want to present here today consists of an extended passage from the Kojiki, or Records of Ancient Matters, compiled by order of the Japanese imperial court and completed in 712 A.D. (Donald L. Philippi, tr., University of Tokyo Press, 1968).

After the death of the emperor, the crown prince Ki-Nasi-no-Karu was to have assumed the sun-lineage; but before he ascended the throne, he seduced his younger sister Karu-no-Opo-Iratume, singing this song:

Making a mountain paddy,
Because the mountain is high,
An irrigation pipe is run
Underneath the ground, secretly –

My beloved, whom I have visited
With secret visits;
My spouse, for whom I have wept
With a secret weeping –

Tonight at last
I caress her body with ease.

This is Sirage-Uta [a song ending in a raised pitch; or possibly, a song in the style of the ancient kingdom of Silla, on the Korean peninsula].

Also he sang these songs:

The hail beats down
On the bamboo grass
tasi-dasi [i.e., “to the full”] –
After sleeping with her to the full,
Then, even if she leaves me . . .
[or, “Then, even if people try to separate us . . . ]


With each other as beloved,
If only we sleep together,
Then, even if we are separated
Like threshed reeds, let us be separated [or “disheveled”] –
If only we sleep together.

These are Pina-Buri no Age-Uta [songs in the rustic style with elevated pitch and/or sentiment].

For this reason the various officials as well as all the people in the kingdom turned against Prince Karu and adhered to [his brother] Anapo-no-Miko.

Prince Karu flees, taking refuge at the palace of an ally. But when Anapo-no-Miko arrives with his army, this supposed ally turns the fugitive over to them, accompanied by appropriate songs (uta). (Presumably acknowledging the semi-divine character of the future emperor, the Kojiki describes the nobleman “lifting up his arms and hitting his thighs . . . dancing and singing.”)

When he was captured, the crown prince sang this song:

O sky-flying
Karu maiden –
Should I cry loudly,
People would know.
Like the pigeons
On Pasa Mountain,
I cry secretly.

Again he sang:

O sky-flying
Karu maiden:
Come hither secretly,
Sleep here and then go your way,
O Karu maiden!

Prince Karu was exiled to the hot springs of Iyo. When about to go into exile he sang this song:

The sky-flying
Birds are also messengers.
When you hear
The cry of the crane,
Ask my name of it.

These three songs are Amada-Buri [Field of Heaven songs].

“Sky-flying” is a conventional epithet for “Karu,” based on the homology with kari, wild geese.

The translator elsewhere notes that, in ancient Japanese religion, birds were credited with the power of revitalizing a person and/or in transporting the spirit. Also, Japanese believed until quite recently that a living person’s spirit could manifest itself in more than one location at the same time. Thus, I suppose, it wouldn’t have been necessary for the prince to have died in order for a crane to transport something of his name/spirit/essence back to the yearning princess. At any rate, the birds are more like avatars than passive messengers here.

Then he sang this song:

If the great lord
Is exiled to an island,
There are ships [or “burial caskets”]
By which I may return.
Leave my sitting-mat alone!
Although I speak
Of sitting-mats, I really mean:
Leave my wife alone!

This song is Pina-Buri no Kata-Orosi [song in a rustic style with a half-descending pitch].

This song has the force of a spell. Prince Karu is threatening to come back from beyond the grave, a threat that would have been taken very seriously. Philippi notes that “the sitting mats of travelers were carefully kept at home and preserved from pollution during their absence in order to ensure their safe return.”

So-Toposi-no-Miko [i.e., Princess Karu] presented a song; the song said:

Oh, do not go, lest you tread
On the oyster shells
On the beach of Apine
Of the summer grass –
Spend the night and return in the morning!

Philippi: “The place name Apine may also mean ‘sleep together.'”

Then later, overwhelmed by her feeling, she went after him. At the time she sang this song:

Since you have set out,
Many days have passed.
Like the
yama-tadu [elderberry] tree,
I will go in search of you;
I can no longer wait.

Since the text itself interrupts the narrative to comment on poetics, perhaps it’s O.K. if I do the same? These – like the first song attributed to the Princess – are both borrowed wholesale from the oral tradition; the last exists in a slightly different version, with different attribution, in the Manyoshu. (Like many of these songs, it employs a device called a pillow-word: a conventional simile based on a homophonal relationship, i.e., a cross between a pun and a metaphor.)

When she caught up with him, he had been waiting and yearning for her, and he sang this song:

On Mount Patuse
Of the hidden country,
On the large ridges
Are erected banners,
On the small ridges
Are erected banners.

As upon a large ridge,
Do you rely upon our troth,
Ah, my beloved spouse.

Like a Tuki bow
Like an Adusa bow
Standing up –

Later, I shall hold you close,
Ah, my beloved spouse!

Philippi notes, “. . . Komoru, ‘to conceal oneself’ . . . might be interpreted here as ‘to hide within the tomb.’ Patuse is known as an ancient burial place. Banners were set up in religious ceremonies and funerals.”

Again he sang this song:

On the river of Patuse
Of the hidden country,
In the upper shallows
A sacred post was staked,
In the lower shallows
A true post was staked.

On the sacred post
Was hung a mirror,
On the true post
Was hung a jewel.

My beloved,
Who is to me as a mirror,
My spouse,
Who is to me as a jewel –

Only if I hear
That she is there,
Do I wish to go home,
Do I yearn for my country.

Thus singing, they committed suicide together.

These two songs are Yomi-Uta [“reading songs,” probably meaning they were chanted with little inflection].

The actions described in the first and second stanzas of this final song have strong theurgic connotations, perhaps evoking rites to cleanse oneself of the pollution of death. Prince Karu is singing a song of conjuration to his wife/sister/mirror, collapsing the present into the immediate future of their death, and the wild country around them into the other world’s back-of-beyond. (Philippi cites a Japanese scholar who “believes this [song] was originally a prayer for safety during a journey.”)

If I quote at such length, risking copyright infringement, it is only because I suspect that the Kojiki is not nearly as well known as it should be among fans of world literature. The translation available on the Internet, by Basil Hall Chamberlain, is painful to read, both for its stilted language and its lack of scholarship. Many of the songs are extremely difficult to translate, so Donald Philippi’s expertise is indispensible. (In addition to his translation of the Kojiki, I highly recommend Philippi’s This Wine of Peace, This Wine of Laughter: A Complete Anthology of Japan’s Earliest Songs [Mushinsha, 1968].)

As Philippi observes, the Prince and Princess Karu story provides “the earliest documentary evidence of the double suicides that so enlivened the stage during the Edo period” a thousand years later. “In fact, the theatre-conscious commentator Nakajima [Etsuji] even claims that this chapter reflects a rudimentary dramatic performance.” I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. In addition, their song exchange prefigures the widespread practice of frequent poem exchanges between friends and lovers that so shaped literary expression during the Heian Period.

The contrast with the Biblical story about the rape of Tamar by her brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13) is striking. Stylistically, they couldn’t be farther apart. In its psychological depth, the entire David cycle resembles a modern novel, while the Prince and Princess Karu story anticipates the poetic profundity of later monogatari. And despite similar openings, the two stories diverge quite widely. Amnon experiences revulsion the moment he has consummated his passion for his sister, and sends her rudely away. The real, enduring longing in that story is revealed at the very end of the chapter, after Amnon is murdered by his brother Absolom in retaliation: “So Absalom fled, and went to Geshur, and was there three years. And the soul of king David longed to go forth unto Absalom: for he was comforted concerning Amnon, seeing he was dead.”

For me, the story from the Kojiki perfectly encapsulates that special sense of longing for unattainable and/or transient beauty that permeates Japanese literature, from the elegies and laments of Kakinomoto no Hitomaru through the great Heian Period poets and novelists such as Ono no Komachi and Lady Murasaki, to the Heike Monogatari and even some of the works of famous monk-poets such as Saigyo, Basho and Ryokan, not to mention the dramas of Seami and Chickamatsu. Donald Keene, the most prolific English-language translator and critic of Japanese literature, put it this way:

Beyond the preference for simplicity and the natural qualities of things lies what is perhaps the most distinctively Japanese aesthetic ideal, perishability. The desire in the West has generally been to achieve artistic immortality, and this has led men to erect monuments in deathless marble. . . . The Japanese have built for impermanence, though paradoxically some of the oldest buildings in the world exist in Japan . . . . Whatever the subject matter of the old poems, the underlying meaning was often an expression of grief over the fragility of beauty and love. Yet the Japanese were keenly aware that without this mortality there could be no beauty.
(Landscapes and Portraits: Appreciations of Japanese Culture, Kodansha, 1971)

Pathos, like other emotions, can best be gotten at through indirection: the blank spaces on the landscape painting no less than the words not uttered outright in a poem are essential to draw the viewer, listener or reader in. The animist mindset of Shinto helped focus poets’ attention on particularities, on the possibilities for sudden illumination inherent in a beautiful detail, long before the introduction of Zen Buddhism. Among the things to which autonomy and spiritual power were attributed, place names, personal names and all other poetic words occupied a prominent position. As the preface to the 9th-century anthology Kokinshu put it:

Japanese poetry has its seeds in the human heart, and takes form in the countless leaves that are words. So much happens to us while we live in this world that we must voice the thoughts that are in our hearts, conveying them through the things we see and the things we hear. We hear the bush warbler singing in the flowers or the voice of frogs that live in the water and know that among all living creatures there is not one that does not have its song. It is poetry that, without exerting force, can move heaven and earth, wake the feelings of the unseen gods and spirits, soften the relations between man and woman, and soothe the heart of the fierce warrior.

(Burton Watson, tr., in From the Country of Eight Islands, Doubleday, 1981)

Out of the countless expressions of this uniquely Japanese take on longing that I could cite from the modern era, let me round off this post with two poems by Takamura Kotaro. Takamura was a sculptor – the son of a carver of Buddhist images – and one of the first 20th-century poets to write successfully in the vernacular. Some of his most memorable poems are those he wrote for and about his common-law wife and fellow artist Chieko, chronicling their three-decade-long relationship from first meeting through her eventual, chronic insanity and death.

Both these poems are translated by Hiroaki Sato, from Chieko and Other Poems of Takamura Kotaro (University Press of Hawaii, 1980).

Chieko Playing With Flowers

Where there is no one on the sands of Kojukuri
Sitting on the sand Chieko plays alone.
Innumerable friends call to Chieko.
Chii, chii, chii, chii, chii
Leaving tiny footprints in the sand,
plovers come near her.
Chieko who is always talking to herself
raises both hands to call them.
Chii, chii, chii
Plovers beg for the shells in her hands.
Chieko scatters them here and there.
Rising up in a flock the plovers call Chieko.
Chii, chii, chii, chii, chii
Leaving off entirely the task of being human,
now having passed into the natural world
Chieko seems just a speck.
Some two hundred yards off in the windbreak, in the evening sun
bathed in pine pollen I stand, forgetting time.


Invaluable Chieko

Chieko sees what one cannot see,
hears what one cannot hear.

Chieko goes where one cannot go,
does what one cannot do.

Chieko does not see the living me,
yearns for the me behind me.

Chieko has cast off the weight of suffering,
has strayed out to the endless, desolate zone of beauty.

I persistently hear her call to me, but
Chieko no longer has a ticket to the human world.

Just as I prepare to post, I hear the cries of wild geese overhead, invisible in the thick fog.

Longing (4): mindfulness

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Longing: Anthology and Meditation


Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.

Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”

1. Whale souls

Silent reading, as we know it in the West, is a relatively recent phenomenon, says Ivan Illich, popularized only in the 12th century by the influential French abbot Hugh of St. Victor. Prior to that time, even a monk reading alone in his cell would sound the words out. How else could their full power be felt?

The origin of silent prayer is not so easy to pinpoint. The practice of meditation in one form or another is probably as old as the hunter’s profession. Such meditations – of necessity silent, so as not to spook the game – need not be the especial province of men, either. A while back I quoted Tom Lowenstein (Ancient Land, Sacred Whale, FSG, 1993) about the bowhead hunt as formerly practiced by the Inuit of Tikigaq, in North Alaska. The male and female skinboat owners (umialik) had equally potent roles in visualizing and conjuring the prey animal:

In contrast to her “Raven” husband’s freedom on the sea, the woman umialik stayed at home in her iglu and did nothing for most of the whale hunt. This, in essence, was her mythic role. Secluded and overtly idle like the uiluaqtaq of the story, the umialik woman was completely passive. . . . Within this inertia lay shamanistic power. How this functioned may be seen in the umialik’s parallel actions.

The woman’s springtime ritual in fact started on the sea-ice. On the first day of the hunt, when the male crew left Tikigaq, the woman walked ahead to the open water. With the help of the woman the crew would have found a good place to wait, and the woman lay down on the ice with her head pointing toward Tikigaq while the men embarked and pushed off from the ice. After travelling a short distance the steersman brought his boat round and returned to the ice-edge. Silently, the harpooner leaned over the prow, dipped his weapon in the water opposite the woman and then touched her parka. When she had been “struck”, the woman got up and, without looking back, walked home.

The moment she reached her iglu the woman ceased activity, and for the rest of the hunt sat passively on the sleeping bench. . . . While her posture on the ice had resembled the rising whale and the position of her head indicated the direction from which the whale must come, woman had been the whale’s body. In her ritual tranquility she now enacted the whale’s soul. Not only did she transmit to the whales the generous passivity that whales were supposed to feel towards their hunters, but she already was the whale’s soul, resident within her Tikigaq iglu, suspended between the conditions of life and death that the hunt counterpoised and made sacred.

It is difficult for most of us to grasp the depth of affection one might feel toward an Animal whose body is not only food but also the Land itself. How the overtly active man and the overtly passive woman together contrive to weave a net of longing for the beloved animal was at the heart of the annual drama of the Tikigaq Inuit.

Quiet as the woman remains, she and her husband are in balanced partnership. . . . But the whale brought home through the shared operation implies a third partner in the myth-role. This third partner is the land itself. Land, like the woman, is externally quiet but dynamic within. And like all symbols of the whale hunt the land remains ambiguous. . . . Tikigaq [peninsula] is primal sea-beast, its iglus microcosmic versions of the whale and the sea-beast. When a Tikigaq harpooner strikes the land whale stirs; when the katak [iglu entrance hole] gives birth with the death of a bowhead the whale in the katak is both Tikigaq nuna [land], and bowhead, and just katak.

As Lowenstein’s informants put it:

Samaruna said:
These small whales, inutuqs,
small round fat ones
come to us from down there,
from their country south of us.

The women sit at home.
They are whale souls in their iglus.
The whales listen and sing.
They hear Tikigaq singing.

Listen to the north wind!
Listen to the sea-ice!
Listen to the inutuq
rising, breathing!

2. A mindful god

According to Jewish tradition, silent prayer was invented by a woman.

Now there was a certain man of Ramathaimzophim, of mount Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah, the son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephrathite. And he had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah: and Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

And this man went up out of his city yearly to worship and to sacrifice unto the LORD of hosts in Shiloh. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, the priests of the LORD, were there. And when the time was that Elkanah offered, he gave to Peninnah his wife, and to all her sons and her daughters, portions. But unto Hannah he gave a worthy portion; for he loved Hannah: but the LORD had shut up her womb.

And her adversary [i.e. Peninnah] also provoked her sore, for to make her fret, because the LORD had shut up her womb. And as he did so year by year, when she went up to the house of the LORD, so she provoked her; therefore she wept, and did not eat. Then said Elkanah her husband to her, Hannah, why weepest thou, and why eatest thou not, and why is thy heart grieved? Am not I better to thee than ten sons?

So Hannah rose up after they had eaten in Shiloh, and after they had drunk.

Now Eli the priest sat upon a seat by a post of the temple of the LORD.

And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the LORD, and wept sore. And she vowed a vow, and said, O LORD of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the LORD all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head.

And it came to pass, as she continued praying before the LORD, that Eli marked her mouth. Now Hannah, she spake in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard: therefore Eli thought she had been drunken. And Eli said unto her, How long wilt thou be drunken? Put away thy wine from thee. And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the LORD. Count not thine handmaid for a daughter of Belial: for out of the abundance of my complaint and grief have I spoken hitherto.

Then Eli answered and said, Go in peace: and the God of Israel grant thee thy petition that thou hast asked of him. And she said, Let thine handmaid find grace in thy sight. So the woman went her way, and did eat, and her countenance was no more sad.

And they rose up in the morning early, and worshipped before the LORD, and returned, and came to their house to Ramah: and Elkanah knew Hannah his wife; and the LORD remembered her.

Wherefore it came to pass, when the time was come about after Hannah had conceived, that she bare a son, and called his name Samuel, saying, Because I have asked him of the LORD. And the man Elkanah, and all his house, went up to offer unto the LORD the yearly sacrifice, and his vow. But Hannah went not up; for she said unto her husband, I will not go up until the child be weaned, and then I will bring him, that he may appear before the LORD, and there abide for ever. And Elkanah her husband said unto her, Do what seemeth thee good; tarry until thou have weaned him; only the LORD establish his word.

So the woman abode, and gave her son suck until she weaned him. And when she had weaned him, she took him up with her, with three bullocks, and one ephah of flour, and a bottle of wine, and brought him unto the house of the LORD in Shiloh: and the child was young. And they slew a bullock, and brought the child to Eli. And she said, Oh my lord, as thy soul liveth, my lord, I am the woman that stood by thee here, praying unto the LORD. For this child I prayed; and the LORD hath given me my petition which I asked of him. Therefore also I have lent him to the LORD; as long as he liveth he shall be lent to the LORD. And he worshipped the LORD there.

Thus the King James Bible, 1 Samuel 1. For Hannah’s song of thanksgiving – model for Miriam’s song, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) – let’s turn to the Anchor Bible translation by P. Kyle McCarter, Jr.

[Hannah] said:

My heart exults in Yahweh!
My horn is raised by my god!
My mouth is stretched over my enemies!
I rejoice in my vindication.
For there is no holy one like Yahweh,
And no mountain like our god!
Do not speak haughtily
Or let arrogance out of your mouth.
For Yahweh is a mindful god,
And a god who balances his actions:
The bows of the mighty are broken,
While the feeble are girded with armor;
The sated have hired out for bread,
While the hungry are fattened on food;
The childless wife has borne seven,
While the mother of many sons is bereaved.
It is Yahweh who slays and quickens,
Who sends down to Sheol and brings up.
It is Yahweh who makes poor and makes rich,
Who debases and also exalts;
Who raises the poor from the dust,
From the scrap heaps lifts the needy,
To give them a seat with noblemen
And grant them a chair of honor.
For the straits of the earth are Yahweh’s . . .

3. Red wedding

Behold, a female anthropologist married a god, a warrior diety of a people doubly exiled: first from Africa, then from Haiti. Like the god of Israel in exile ramifying into the ten-fold sefirot, this god too has subdivided.

As Sen Jak Majè (Saint James the Elder), Ogou is a “man of war” who fights for what is right and just. As Ogou Panama, he is a pèsònaj (an important person) who demands to be treated with ceremony and deference. As Ogou Ferray, he is fierce and uncompromising. As Ogou Badagri, he is shy, handsome, brave and loyal. Yet, as Ogou Yamson, he is an unreliable drunkard who finds power in booze and swaggering talk; and, as Ag&#232ou, he is a liar and beggar. And when Ogou is called by the names Achade or Shango (the two are sometimes conflated into one character), he is said to be a sorceror.
(Karen McCarthy Brown: Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, University of California Press, 1991)

There are many more Ogou besides these, says Brown. What qualities unite them?

Ogou teaches that to live one must fight. Pride, endurance, self-assertion, discipline, and a firm commitment to justice are qualities that bring success. But in one turn of the screw, pride can become braggadocio, endurance can become stubbornness, self-assertion fades into mere bullying, and discipline is transformed into tyranny. An overly developed sense of justice, one that is tempered neither by humor nor by graceful resignation, can lead to suicidal rage. . . . Because the constructive and destructive parts of Ogou’s character are so close together, none of the various Ogou is good or evil, right or wrong, in a simple, unqualified way. Each contains his own paradoxes of personality, which are teased out in possession-performance and in song. In July of 1979, for example, [Brown’s priestess] Alourdes’s community sang a lively song for all the Ogou:

Ki-ki-li-ki, o-ewa!
Papa Ogou, tou piti kon sa.
Papa Ogou, anraje.

Cock-a-doodle doo!
Papa Ogou, all children are like that.
Papa Ogou, enraged.

Such lean phrasing, replete with double and triple entendre, is characteristic of Vodou songs. From one perspective, Ogou is counseled in this song to show forbearance toward his children, his followers. From another, Ogou is a strutting banty rooster who throws childish tantrums when he cannot have his way.

As with the storm-god Yahweh’s evolution into the LORD of Rabbinical Judaism and Christianity, when the African gods crossed the ocean, they “submerged their connections to the natural world and elaborated their social messages.” But they did not at the same time retreat into an ever-more remote heaven, accessible only to true believers and only in the afterlife. Quite the opposite: the gods became more down-to-earth and accessible, entering directly into the bodies of their followers for frequent dramatic performances that mingled high seriousness and low comedy. And whereas the People of the Book stress the believer’s inner intention, all one needs to bring to the Vodou spirits (in addition to the appropriate offerings) is an open mind. “Try it and see if it work for you,” the priestess Alourdes urges her clients.

Vodou practitioners have little use for abstractions. “Vodou seldom halts its kinaesthetic and sensory drama to force its wisdom into concept or precept; proverbs, anecdotes, ancestral tales, and songs are the only vehicles subtle and flexible enough to cradle the messages when the truths of Vodou are put into words,” Brown notes. In this respect, it resembles indigenous and village-based religions the world over. In some sense, can we not agree with the ancient Chinese philosophers who argued that when religion has to promulgate formal precepts, it’s simply a sign that society has entered a crisis phase, a breakdown in communal norms? Viewed from the ethnocentric perspective of inhabitants of an urbanized civilization, we tend to view “tribal” religions as earlier stages in a progressive evolution leading (of course) to us, and perhaps beyond. But which kind of religion tends more closely to reflect the true, mind-boggling complexity of nature? Is the desert- or alpine-dweller’s longing for transcendent Godhead, moksha or nirvana automatically superior to the Vodou priestess’s regular experiences of immanence within a rainforest-like profusion of sacred roles?

But of course, there’s no reason to see transcendence and immanence as necessarily opposed; Haitians certainly don’t. Virtually all Vodou devotees consider themselves good Catholics. They would disagree strongly with my use of the term “god” for Ogou – he is considered a spirit.

Bondye (God) is singular and supreme in Haitian Vodou. He is a deity with roots in the Christian god as well as in the so-called high gods of West Africa. Yet in the Haitian view of things, Bondye, like his African models, rarely gets involved with individual human lives. Attention to the everyday drama of life is the work of his “angels,” the Vodou spirits. . . .

In Vodou, as in virtually all religions, “the spirits select their special devotees, not the reverse.” In fact, I suggest that if we are to draw any meaningful distinction whatsoever between religion and magic, this question of who selects whom would make an excellent criterion. The sorcerer commands and attempts to exert control over the animating forces of the universe with little concern for their own sovereignty or well-being. The religious person petitions, offers sacrifice, bows in thanksgiving, offers devotion. The religious person partakes; the sorceror consumes. For in many, many cultures the relationship to the sacred finds symbol and expression in the most essential forms of union: eating and making love.

Within Alourdes’s group of special spirits, one stands out. He is her mèt tèt (the master of her head), Ogou Badagri. But the dominance of Ogou Badagri in her life does not go unchecked. . . . For example, even if a situation has called out the aggression of the Ogou in Alourdes, Gede can possess her and put the matter in an entirely different light through his iconoclastic humor. . . .

Because Alourdes has gone through the Vodou marriage to Ogou Badagri, she calls him her “husband.” She sets aside one night a week for him. On this night, she receives the handsome soldier in dreams, and no human lover shares her bed. . . .

The most striking part of Ogou Badagri’s character is his ability to endure in the face of trials that would break many others. . . . Forsaking attack, Alourdes, like Badagri, chooses wakefulness. She draws her power around her like a cloak, holding it close to her body. She does not dream of extending herself outward and conquering the world. Rather, she controls what experience has taught her she is able to control – herself.

The anthropologist too has Ogou around her head. From the very beginning of her involvement with Vodou, she says, “every priest or priestess who chose to make a diagnosis told me that Papa Ogou was my mèt tèt.”

Although I had witnessed many Vodou marriages and been fascinated by them, I originally had no intention of going through the ritual myself. Then, one day in 1980 when I was alone in my apartment and full of rage (I had some things to be angry about at that period of my life), I found myself muttering, “Stop trying to make the anger go away. It only makes it worse. It’s yours. Marry it!” I picked up the phone and called Alourdes.

Brown resolved to do, as she put it, “fieldwork on my own psyche.” Alourdes performed divination, diagnosing her as suffering from a blockage of will or energy. She thinks too much, acts too timidly. As Brown explains, “a life of energy or flow” is the Vodou ideal. “The goal of all Vodou ritualizing is to echofe (heat things up) so that people and situations shift and move, and healing transformations can occur.”

The marriage took place the next month at Ogou’s regularly scheduled July birthday party. Around two o’clock in the morning, when the songs summoning Ogou began, I excused myself from the twenty-five or so people gathered around Alourdes’s sumptuous altar tables. I went upstairs to change into my wedding clothes – a bright red sundress purchased especially for the occasion and, on my head, a red satin scarf. When I came down the stairs half an hour later, everyone oohed and aahed over my fine attire. Everyone, that is, except Papa Ogou.

He had mounted Alourdes in my absence, and I found him decked out in his own finery, his red velvet military jacket with the gold epaulets. But Ogou ignored me. I stood by patiently while he talked to one person after another without acknowledging my presence. No matter how I maneuvered, he always managed to keep his back to me.

Everyone was getting nervous. One woman said, “Papa Ogou, your beautiful bride is here, behind you. Don’t you want to talk to her?” Ogou ignored the question. Then a man whispered in my ear, “Go on!” and gave me a shove in front of Ogou. The spirit looked at me with a cold eye. “What do you want?” he asked. I found my voice. “I am here to marry you. You promised you would marry me. You have made me wait a long time. I am ready.” Papa Ogou threw back his head and laughed. It was a deep, rich laugh. “Begin the ceremony!” he shouted, and, taking my arm, he propelled me toward the largest of the altar tables. Once again, Ogou had taught me the warrior’s lesson: know what you want and fight for it.

4. Pronouncing no name

The African American poet Lucille Clifton composed a moving series of poems on her husband Fred’s death from leukemia at the age of 49. They are included in her book Next (BOA Editions, 1987). Toward the end, Lucille’s own voice has become submerged in the voice of her dying husband:

leukemia as dream/ritual

it is night in my room.
the woman beside me is dying.
a small girl stands
at the foot of my bed.
she is crying and carrying wine
and a wafer.
her name is the name i would have given
the daughter i would have liked to have had.
she grieves for herself and
not for the woman.
she mourns the future and
not the past.
she offers me her small communion.
i roll the wafer and wine on my tongue.
i accept my body. i accept my blood.
eat she whispers. drink and eat.


chorus: lucille

something is growing in the strong man.
it is blooming, they say, but not a flower.
he has planted so much in me. so much.
i am not wiling, gardener, to give you up to this.


the death of fred clifton
age 49

i seemed to be drawn
to the center of myself
leaving the edges of me
in the hands of my wife
and i saw with the most amazing
so that i had not eyes but
and, rising and turning
through my skin,
there was all around not the
shapes of things
but oh, at last, the things


“i’m going back to my true identity”
fjc 11/84

i was ready to return
to my rightful name.
i saw it hovering near
in blazoned script
and, passing through fire,
i claimed it. here
is a box of stars
for my living wife.
tell her to scatter them
pronouncing no name.
tell her there is no deathless name
a body can pronounce.

Postscript on masochism vs. longing

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Longing: Anthology and Meditation


In partial answer to a point raised by Siona in the [now lost] comments to my fifth meditation on longing: “We’re all masochists. Look at the country we live in. Look at how we treat ourselves. Look at how we’re treated. At least those who’ve taken on the label are brave enough – or clear-eyed enough – to admit it. Or perhaps it’s that they’re taking ownership of their abuse.”

Yesterday morning, when I was pulling toast out of the toaster oven, the knuckle of my left index finger brushed the hot coil with an audible sizzle. Since I felt nothing, my immediate reaction was surprise followed by fascination, almost a childish pleasure, at the shape of the mark: a little hollow of melted flesh. I felt the same kind of interest I might bring to some mindless entertainment on television: “mindless” in the sense of absent-minded, the way one might strip the seeds from a blade of grass in passing. The scratching of an obscure itch – except that in the beginning, the scratching makes the itch. Five seconds ago I knew nothing about this; now I can’t look away. Hey, maybe there’s something better on the other channels . . .

I’m an ex-smoker. I know a little bit about how one can satisfy oneself to death. But it isn’t ourselves we’re killing – not intentionally. It’s time – a kind of time peculiar to a culture of disenchantment. The smoker’s habit grows out of the universal human urge to break up the otherwise too-uniform flow. To build dams, you might say, for the music and excitement of the falls as well as for the quiet pools that form behind them, and the immense power that can provide.

Now let’s kick it up a notch. What about deliberate self-torture, or consensual sado-masochism? I can well believe some people might suffer from such a monstrous itch that only this most extreme form of scratching offers relief – or better, release. Others say that giving themselves what they do not want is a route – even a religious practice – to the overcoming of wanting. Still others may feel, in an ownership society (as the new Republican buzzword has it), that masochism is a way to stake a claim on one’s own suffering, and thus to experience power rather than powerlessness. In any case, in the presence of great pain I would expect to feel something approaching pleasure through the achievement of almost-pure focus.

It’s probably a truism to say that masochism is all about breaking down the barriers between pleasure and pain. But to the extent that the masochist means to go beyond desire, any experience of pleasure could be self-defeating. Perhaps the point is to break one’s attachment to the experience of pleasure or pain, to train oneself to accept whatever comes with equanimity? But in that case, why go through all the agony? Just meditate, for crying out loud!

Ah, but I suppose it’s nothing but cultural prejudice that leads me to favor one technique for mental discipline over another. Cross-cultural comparisons strongly suggest that, in a properly sacred and ritualized context, starvation and self-torture (Plains Indians) can be as useful a tool for self-transcendence as strong drugs (much of native South America), trance-dancing (Kung, Balinese) or meditative practices (Tibet).

Absent such a context, however, the possibility of the supposedly transcended self simply beginning to inhabit the tool strikes me as a very potent danger. How to avoid taking pride in one’s deprivation? Self-abuse, vernacular wisdom calls the most ubiquitous form of self-indulgence. The release provided by an addict’s hit is like the freedom equated with slavery by the Ministry of Truth in 1984. This makes sense: the tyrant is to the body politic as the masochist is to his own body. That “almost-pure focus” would never seem quiet pure enough.

What the habit-bound mind considers freedom – the escape from craving or compulsion – is like the delusion of a small child who thinks that when she shuts her eyes she disappears. One often sees a similar behavior among tyrannical regimes . . .

“Just be!” say the less intellectual among seekers – if that’s still the right word for them. (Such, in fact, is my own inclination, simple-minded pseudo-Daoist that I am.) Whatever you do, focus on that. Enter fully into every task, every object of attention. But this is a little deceptive; the flow cannot be halted, and one blocks it at one’s peril, as I have suggested (arguing by analogy with water – I said I was a pseudo-Daoist!). Motion is intrinsic to the process of world/self discovery: “There was a child went forth,” the poem wisely begins.

With motion we have change in position, we have distance between self A and self B. We have, then, longing – as Sufis especially have always recognized. Longing becomes pen and palimpsest with which to inscribe something paradoxical: inhabiting no-place, aspiring to no-aspiration. What are we after, really? You say, perhaps, Emptiness. I say, tentatively, You. But we can’t know what we need until we find it – and who needs it then? When you get the far shore, you ditch the raft. And in any case (whispers the sadist on my right shoulder) it’s more than you deserve.

But then in my left ear: more is your birthright. Don’t you believe in grace? The door’s open. The table’s set. O taste and see.

COMMENTS [reprinted from Haloscan]

Ah, finally you confront “it”, the subject of the longing you’ve been hitherto analogically circling.

But the thing, now, is whether “longing” and “wanting” are different things, whether “longing” is the desire of the self to be one with its self, while wanting is about aquisition, ownership, even when what is being owned is pained.

You would think the senseless difficulty of religion would be reason enough to abandon it but, truth be told, that is precisely the part of it that one misses the most. The pointless dumb interminable work of the spirit.

The title “the unbearable lightness of being” always made me uncomfortable. Now I’m wondering whether that isn’t because it was TRUE all along.

One cannot live blithely, or separately from the heaviness of things.

– elck


“even when what is being owned is pain”

– elck


‘Longing’ also has a pleasure/pain edge to it, as if a person might revel in it somewhat.



it’s pleasure because longing sparks the imagination and away it runs. The fantasy is often enough.

the sylph


Ms/Mr Sylph:

“The wanting binds you, but the longing sets you free,” shall we say? Sometimes, yes. Othertimes, I’m not so sure.

Though, now that I think on it, in that loevly quintipartite opus of his, Dave didn’t seem to make much of a distinction between “longing” and it’s cousin “wanting something real bad.” (“Real bad” in any sense of the words). So, there’s Hannah, desiring a child, and there’s Prince Karu who’s got the jones real bad for his own sister.



Thanks for these very helpful comments.

But the thing, now, is whether “longing” and “wanting” are different things – that’s already more than one “thing/s”!

I’d say they both are and are not the same. (You know I always try to dance between an outright rejection of reductionism and a cautious acknowledgement of its power.) I have been using “wanting” to refer to shallower desires and “longing” for deeper ones, because I think usage reflects such a distinction. But we can certainly argue about the validity of such a distinction. In any case, as I have tried to show, the range of emotions included in this one word longing run the gamut from creative to destructive, enlightening to addictive to despair-inducing.

If I may go out on a limb for a moment, I’d like to suggest that one of the major ways in which institutionalized religion tends to get it wrong is in trying to design “one size fits all” ideologies and practices. If you take the attitude that religion is/should be MEDICINE, then clearly the message must be tailored to the needs of the seeker/patient. One person might find comfort in loss of control – and thus should be challenged to pursue a more disciplined path – while another tends to want to control everything – and thus would be better off with some version of the “watercourse way.”

One cannot live blithely, or separately from the heaviness of things. I agree.

‘Longing’ also has a pleasure/pain edge to it, as if a person might revel in it somewhat. Of course. (This postscript would’ve been stronger had I pointed that out).

it’s pleasure because longing sparks the imagination and away it runs. The fantasy is often enough.
But all fantasies must end – and then we are back with that heaviness elck spoke of, no?



For better or for worse, I took my cue from Mr. Hass: desire is full / of endless distances. The meaning changes somewhat if you pause at the end of the line, does it not? (Of course, poets revel in ambiguity. Japanese poetics recognizes and selects for words that do double duty, as “full” does here: they are called pivot words.)

Desire can seem full, sufficient. But in fact it is empty – or full of caesura, of the abyss, of the great wide open. Hence longing.



the heaviness will always be there. And it should be entertained but why let it control the psyche any longer than it’s necessary to “get a grip”…the spirit takes flight at will, at stimulae…let the imagination rule and be ever thankful for your faculties. Observe the present and get lost in it.

the sylph


I love talking about the impossible, the untalkable.
That we can shamelessly do so here is a chief pleasure of the Via.

(I’m saddened to see the number of blogs in this neighborhood that are taking down their comments boxes).



Sylph: Amen!

elck – Thanks. But what else is there to talk about, really?

(I agree. I’m never quite sure what to do at a blog without comments. That’s one of the things i most like about the blogging medium – the way readers can become authors, and vice versa, the fact that we know we can be called to task for everything we write.)



Yes but



sometimes I am crushed
burnt and scattered
with longing

It’s a little too easy to talk



( )



I think it’s interesting that the comment thread went more into the word heaviness and less into the preceeding word separately. I could be in a different space here but…

To me longing is simply the desire to be one with, rather than separate from. My version of this would be our soul longs to reconnect with the energy of all souls, that it was rended separate from by the birth of our existance. But you could also posit it is separation from the mother who we experienced our first moments of awakening inside of, or separation from our sense of true identity as culture pushes and pulls us away from our central spirit.

Then longing to me is about wanting reconnection, and wanting is about wishing to feel better when the reconnection has not happened, and religion is about telling people how to reconnect, and desire is wanting something to fill the hole left by the disconnection. Anything to distract us from being separate, whether it’s numbing or stuffing or deducting or compulsing, and the farther away we feel, the more addictive it becomes. I wonder if the pain in masochism isn’t the reminder that we must be connected for someone or something else to have created pain in our bodies or psyches?
On a side note, as much as I’ve tried to confront my biases about S&M practices, the ones where a lot of pain and humiliation is inflicted and the participants talk about the total trust strike me as simply a way for people to prove they are unworthy of being treated well, proving to themselves they deserve to be punished… because the people I’ve known in that community had huge self esteem issues and it didn’t seem to me that the community was healing those. But again, I am likely just biased.



I have a hard time venerating masochism. I engaged in my own forms of severe self-abnegation for far too long, and have had a little too much interaction with the world of SI (self-injurers). I don’t see masochistic practices as being that different, and I’d be inclined, again, to compare them more to the self-destructive impulses of caged animals than to something as clarifying as meditation. The essential drive might be similar (and, to a smaller extent, the focused intensity of the experience), but Westernized masochism is, I think, far more a distraction from an intolerable boredom or an intolerable fear than an searching for real insight.

My own experience, which others might construe as extreme self-discipline, was rather of a total loss of control into the ‘discipline.’ I would be inclined to believe that masochists feel something similar: they need that feeling of abasement and pain, and they need that fix. It’s not much a “technique for self discipline.” It’s true that the self is lost in these struggles, but in a horrible and twisted way. It’s hard to articulate: there’s a temporary reprieve, a release, from one’s being, but in the wrong direction. If I sound biased, it’s because I am: I’ve walked through that fire, and it’s not a Holy flame.

I am generalizing, though, and for that I apologize. I’ve also veered madly away from the direction of the other comments. So I’ll stop.

I do like, though, what susurra has to say about separateness and connection. I’d like to mention the importance of connection with others: masochistic communities would fill this need; too, we feel more than ever disconnected from those around us, from those with whom we share a country. No wonder longing is topical.



Susurra and Siona – thanks for the thoughtful remarks. I agree with most of what you have written here.

Eliade says all cultures have a myth of separation, a “fall from grace” if you will. This sense of separation from from the cosmos seems to be an integral part of human consciousness.

I would go so far as to say that it might be one way in which human consciousness differs from that of other animals – except that, as Siona rightly points out, caged animals and pets exhibit many human-like pathologies – including self-mutilation.

I’ve had friends who have talked enthusiastically about S&M experiences, but these were isolated transgressions, and in a social context (S&M parties), not habitual components of their day-to-day lives. But yeah, I haven’t made up my mind on the subject & don’t feel any great need to. Especially since I WANNA BE WHIPPED, RIGHT NOW!!

O.K., just kidding.

I definitely defer to Siona’s experience and insights here. I guess I should’ve made it clear in the essay that I was postulating a few possible mental states of masochists for the sake of the argument. I was trying to take on such a mindset, and see what it felt like. But I didn’t mean to suggest that the examples I gave covered all bases, or even that they were particularly representational.

AIM leader Russel Means, an Oglala Lakota, maintains that the origin of the Sun Dance lies in the belief that men should try to experience a pain comparable to what women go through in childbirth.

Re: veering, whatever gave you the idea that wasn’t welcome here?! Take another look at the yellow street sign at the top of the page. If you don’t veer, you’re dead!



On the subject of separation, Lorianne’s post of that title is a must-read.