It’s art, dammit!

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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.)

Death takes a holiday

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Pica raises the question of violence and religion in the comments thread to yesterday’s post. Is violence at some level intrinsic to religion, or is it simply something that insinuates itself into the myths and/or ceremonies of cultures that are violent, or were violent in the past? To what extent might religion license and perpetuate violence? These are huge questions, and if I seem like a coward to dodge them (or pass them off onto my Dad, who is a peace scholar), so be it.

The journalist and longtime war correspondent Chris Hedge’s book, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, offers a rare example of a completely unsparing portrayal of modern warfare. He examines, at great depth and with abundant examples from the classics, the hold that warfare has over our imagination – how exciting and addictive it can become to writers like himself. Hedges is a former seminary student, and as the title suggests, he does not shy away from critiquing the role of religion or religious-seeming behavior. With good reason: the language of sacrifice is still used heavily by those who seek to give large-scale, organized butchery an air of nobility. (Liberals have criticized Bush for not employing the language of collective national sacrifice often enough. His response to 9/11 was “Go shopping!”)

Whether or not we can say that most religions are built on a foundation of violence, I think it is almost axiomatic that nation-states are. Patriotism is a covert form of religion, in my opinion – covert in the sense that it is disguised simply as the bedrock of all civic virtue. In the U.S.A., patriotism is particularly virulent because of our lack of an official state religion. This only works as long as we are in denial about the true nature of the situation, given the First Amendment’s clear guarantee of a freedom from religion. There is almost no escape from patriotism, especially during times of war. In virtually no other country that is not a totalitarian regime can one observe national symbols displayed everywhere, including in homes and offices. Like any icon or fetish, the U.S. flag transcends mere symbolic value. It is not only highly charged and ambiguous, invested with multiple meanings (anthropologist Victor Turner’s definition of a symbol), but for many people, I believe, it actually is animated somehow by a mystical essence (America, Freedom). It requires regular feedings of blood to retain its power – or so I would conclude from the most commonly cited justification for banning flag desecration: that the flag is sacred because so many people have died for it.

To be opposed to violence as a legitimate way of accomplishing social ends is perhaps the most revolutionary stance you can take. People from all over the political spectrum react with horror, disgust or simply bemused condescension to such a position. “Of course we, who are grownups, understand that sometimes unpleasant tasks are necessary, the world being as it is.” In fact, it is rare that the proponents of violence do not immediately resort to essentialist arguments about “human nature” – which suggests to me a strong tendency toward avoidance of the specific dilemmas that peaceniks tend to annoy us with. It may not be an exaggeration to say that such discussions are in fact taboo. At any rate, this brings us back to one of the main themes of this weblog, which is, can we say anything meaningful about (human) nature at all?

The 16th-century Quiche Mayan text Popol Vuh (see the Dennis Tedlock translation published by Simon and Schuster) is full of violence – murder, cannibalism, you name it. Its story of the journey of the hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, to the underworld of Xibalba to defeat the lords of death pivots on what I consider a profound insight into the nature of violence. The twins allow themselves to be killed and bring themselves back to life through their own power but – unlike Christ’s resurrection – that act alone does not constitute a complete victory over death. They use a combination of what we might call high and low magic – that is to say, transformations of both surface appearances and deeper identities – to compose a comic and enticing display. Traveling through Xibalba in the guise of ragamuffin acrobats and parlor magicians, they amaze all and sundry by their songs and dances, which include real sacrifices of one brother by the other, followed by his resurrection. News of this spectacle quickly reaches the ears of the rulers, who have them summoned to the palace.

The lords of death thus are enticed to become willing participants in their own destruction: their power is turned back upon them. “Sacrifice my dog, and bring him back to life again,” the chief lord says eagerly. They do so. “Set fire to my house.” The hall is engulfed in flames, but miraculously no one is injured – just like a Hollywood action-adventure flick! “Make a sacrifice without death!” Universal delight. “Do each other!” Pandemonium.

“And then the hearts of the lords were filled with longing, with yearning for the dance of Hunahpu and Xbalanque, so then came these words from One and Seven Death:

“‘Do it to us! Sacrifice us!'” they said. “‘Sacrifice both of us!'” said One and Seven Death to Hunahpu and Xbalanque.

“‘Very well. You ought to come back to life. After all, aren’t you Death? And aren’t we making you happy, along with the vassals of your domain?’ they told the lords.” (Tedlock, Popol Vuh, 153)

And of course they don’t come back to life. Caught up in violence-for-the-sake-of-violence, they fail to understand the higher import of the game.

One message I take from this is that comedy does triumph over tragedy in the end. Both may employ violence, but for completely different ends. If you look at the world in its tragic aspect, it will appear that violence is inevitable: are we not, after all, part of the food chain? Isn’t biology destiny? We carry our deaths within us; our appetites are without limit. Life is, as the Buddha observed, unsatisfactory. But – cruel as it seems – the very fact that death is no respecter of persons suggests the limitations of the tragic view, which cannot get beyond the perspective of the individual organism.

A friend of mine who is a Voudun initiate is ridden (“possessed”) by Ghede* during the spontaneous sacred dramas that are at the center of almost all Voudun convocations. Ghede is the orisha (“god”) of the crossroads and the graveyard, and acts as the master of ceremonies in these dramas because he is an intermediary between life and death. (As with many peasant religions, the main focus of Voudun is simply to commune with the ancestors.) Ghede is a quintessentially comic, Rabelaisian figure. He wears dark glasses, smokes a stogie, and drinks Bacardi 151 straight from the bottle with no apparent effect. (My friend says the effect does hit him after the orisha goes away, though not nearly as hard as it would if he had drunk an equivalent amount in a purely secular context. He knows from rum.) Ghede is extremely fond of dirty jokes and is certainly no respecter of persons, poking fun at everyone who crosses his path.

Ghede is subversive. There is a famous incident in which he simultaneously possessed hundreds of people in Port-au-Prince back during the days of the dictator Baby Doc Duvalier. (Keep in mind that Duvalier himself used Voudun to project an image as a lord of death, with his secret police acting as the dreaded Tonton Macoutes or bogeymen.) Picture a crowd of men wearing black suits, dark glasses and big, ear-splitting grins, striding jauntily along with the aid of white canes, making their unruly way (an anti-army!) up the broad avenue to the very gates of the palace while the dictator cowers inside. Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap go the canes upon the gate, an anarchic rhythm like a sudden hail of bullets. Ghede has a message for you: the doctor is in. “Nothing cures everything like death,” my friend is fond of intoning.

As I’ve mentioned before, I think that religion is fundamentally utopian, thus comic. At one level, the denial of death’s importance simply helps perpetuate violence and suffering. At a more advanced stage of awareness, the self that perishes is seen as extrinsic to the real self, part of the play of transformations in which death is a mediator rather than the final judge.
__________
*Also spelled Gede, Guede.