A Thanksgiving 2012 paratactic by Charlie Loyd. Full acknowledgments would be impractically long – a list of nearly everyone I’ve conversed with in several months – but I only did this because of Allen Tan.
In 1999, David Lee came to my town to read his poems. The last one, if I remember, was Epilogue Scribbled on Four Napkins and One Line on the Palm of a Hand While Sitting in a Back Booth with E. U. Washburn. Its epigraph is from Saint Augustine’s Confessions (XI:27):
The past increases by the diminution of the future, until by the consumption of the future, all is past.
Besides a pig-centric writer, Lee’s been a boxer, seminarian, knuckleball pitcher, and professor. He has a tight belt and a red face, and his exegesis of Augustine is not demure. He drew the line of time in the air and marched from Creation over to Judgment, chewing the future into the past with his hand. Om nom, slurp crunch. He grinned and read aloud a little hoarsely.
poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.
— W. H. Auden, New Year Letter, 1940.
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
— W. H. Auden, In Memory of W. B. Yeats, 1939.
Of the many definitions of poetry, the simplest is still the best: ‘memorable speech.’
— W. H. Auden, The Poet’s Tongue, 1935.
The Classical Maya, the wealthy and educated ones, were readers. Their neighbors the Aztec referred to a semi-mythical region in Maya territory as
Tlillan Tlapallan, often translated as the Place of Wisdom, but literally Red and Black, the colors of Maya writing. Sculptures show people seated on solid words. As well as ink, paper caught the blood of sacrifices. They had a kind of ceramic painting that we call codex style because it emulated the visual language and constraints of books.
I want to show you a codex-style vase that makes a stronger argument than I could for the hyperliteracy of the Classical Maya. First you should know that their theology of time and light was sophisticated in ways that can confuse people like me, raised on the religions of the temperate world. I find I have a strong assumption that spiritual life is attached to the frame of the solar year, with death and barrenness in the winter and rebirth and fertility in the summer. This feels as natural to me as, say, associating birds with freedom, but of course it’s parochial to middle and high latitudes. The annual cycle carries less charge in a place where the winter has no killing frost and the summer sun withers as well as it nourishes. And so although Classical Maya science measured the solstices with extreme precision, the tropical year was only one among several significant cycles: the religious calendar, for example, was based on the length of a pregnancy.
Light finds ways to be loved, and among the Classical Maya it was often in reflection – twinkles and glosses, gleams and caustics. Sometimes this was off water (the path to the underworld) or hematite and pyrite mirrors (windows to the supernatural). Sometimes it was off the polished and engraved pieces of stone, ideally jade, that archaeologists call celtsA
celt is a hand-holdable flattish object that an archaeologist doesn’t recognize. The word begins with an
s sound; its origin is unclear, but probably from a single transcription mistake and not connected to the Celtic peoples. The account of
hut here relies on the accessible and illuminating Reading Maya Art, by Stone and Zender. but they may have called
hut. Worked jade turns translucent and carries wet-looking reflections, and when two pieces knock together, the clink is like a bell or a bird’s call. In art, rows of hut worn as jewelry were sometimes annotated with a glyph that also attends drums and horns.
So let’s look at vase K4010. We see two men, and from their netted hats and half–conch-shell palettes we know they’re scribes. The one on the left has tucked his brushes in his hair; the one on the right, holding his brush, is Itzamna the scribe god. It happens that there are no proper nouns at all on this vase, so how can we tell he’s Itzamna? For one thing, he’s captioned as superlatively learned; that’s a hint. He has narrow lips and wide eyes – another clue. But the giveaway is that he’s shiny. We know this because
hut, a word spelled as a stylized celt, is written on his back and upper arm.
When I asked Marc Zender about this, he wrote:
Deities take the marking because they glow, and because of their associations with the sky, sun, and stars. Otherbrightobjects labeled this way in art include fruit/gourds, reflective surfaces like mirrors/water, sharks, and the sky itself.
So Itzamna’s mimesis-proof visual numinousness is shown not, say, with glare lines, or by having a word near him, or even overlayed on him, but written on his curving flesh. It’s kind of like the European cartoon convention of labelling a personification, but far more fluid: the glyph functions not as a definitional noun but as an adjective allowing an inference.
This, then. This is half-diagetic writing. More than any number of pictures of scribes, more than anything I can put in words, it tells me that I’m looking at a practical literacy more subtle and supple than I can really understand. K4010 is a painting for readers.
Or take this redrawing of part of K511, annotated in Reflections on the Codex Style and the Princeton Vessel, by Erik Velásquez García:
hu’n) is literally
paper, but the term transferred to the paper diadems that nobility wore in various contexts.
We are in the court of God L, a toothless old man involved in commerce, sorcery – thus the owl hat – and Xibalba, the underworld. He is a jaguar god: we can see one coiled above him on his throne, half morphed into the shape of the word for jaguar, and behind it part of a
sh in this orthography, and xoc is the same word for the same thing in English – via sixteenth-century sailors whose accents inserted an
r. For a lovely treatment of the etymology, see The Xoc, the Sharke, and the Sea Dogs: An Historical Encounter, by Tom Jones. Out of frame to the right, another woman is high-pouring chocolate to foam it (and this is a chocolate cup). Out of frame to the left, or really on the other side of the cup, the Hero Twins in masks are making as if to kill a lord of Xibalba, probably on their way to overthrow God L. In Velásquez’s interpretation, this is why the sitting woman is getting the kneeling woman’s attention. In the Kerrs’, the Hero Twins are performing a Hamlet-like play hiding a purpose, and the sitting woman is only amused.
The rabbit scribe is writing in its jaguar-hide–bound codex (and this is a codex-style painting). The Classical Maya saw a rabbit in the moon and connected them with a family of topics around menstruation, fertility, sex, play – and trickery. On vase K1398, we see a rabbit as the antagonist of God L in another version of his overthrow. Yuriy Polyukhovych translates From the accessible, power-inversion–based humor, the sequentialness, and the visually attributed speech, I contend that K1398 is well within the contemporary mainstream Western idea of comics. one of the rabbit’s remarks to God L, a.k.a. Itzamaat in that context, on K1398 as
dip your head; smell your ass [and] penis, Itzamaat (his colleague Dmitri Beliaev argues, on the other hand, for an interpretation ending
smell your ass, penis Itzamaat). If the tellings are similar, the rabbit here might be a spy on the Hero Twins’ side, or about to take advantage of their disruption.
No one knows for sure.
Why doesn’t anyone know?
These people also make use of certain characters or letters, with which they wrote in their books their ancient matters and their sciences, and by these and by drawings and by certain signs in these drawings they understood their affairs and made others understand and taught them. We found a large number of these books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which there were not to be seen superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them great affliction.
— Bishop Diego de Landa Calderón, Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, c. 1566 (translated by Alfred Tozzer), written in Spain after his recall by the Inquisition for excessive brutality against the Maya. This passage likely describes events at the library in Maní on July 12th, 1562. Estimates of the number of books burned that day range from the low tens to the high hundreds.
The surviving Classical Maya books are named after the cities where they are now
the Dresden Codex,
the Madrid Codex, and
the Paris Codex.
New codices are sometimes found among valuables in graves. But the
hu’un of the codices is what we now call archival paper – a substrate of alpha-cellulose treated with alkaline sizing – which doesn’t survive underground. The paper rots away, and what’s left is a water-welded brick of pigment and ashy lime. These corpses of books are kept in hope that the archaeologists of the future might have the tomography and algorithms to recall the red and black as it was.
When I read this on Wikipedia I was amazed, but I couldn’t find a solid citation. I e-mailed the general inquiries address of a reputable research institution and got back an e-mail, signed only with an initial, that confirmed the claim and added (sic):
I have also heard that when these books are found in sealed compartments breached by the archeologist turn to dust with the entrance of the atmosphere.
Sometimes I think about this.
What is lost when we don’t know what the Classical Maya were reading? In other words: What would be useful, in the big picture, about another codex?
I accept the anthropologists’ platitude that every culture is a way of being in the world. It’s what some people have held against everything that came at them for generations. Cultures are how humans make personhood. Anything that does this teaches us who we are. Anything that does this, that can tell us something both other and human, is of incomparable value. In other words: What is useful, in the big picture, about anything except knowing how people have lived?
And what do we owe to the long-dead except that we keep whatever survives of them?
I’ve just been on a tourist trip from Fort Clatsop, at the mouth of the Columbia, up the rivers for 700 kilometers to the site of the Niimíipu (Nez Perce) creation myth at Kamiah. I have more of a chip on my shoulder than usual about a particularly resilient and unacknowledged racism in America: the idea that the indigenous peoples are gone.
It fit well in the old regime of Anglo racism, which did not see that there was anything wrong with unprovoked war; organized massacres and intimidation of civilians; engineering of drought and famine for political ends; open corruption at every level of colonial government; systematic social disruption by deception, coercion, and the mass kidnapping of children; criminalizing cultural property including languages and religions; and outright, persistent treaty-breaking – or, if there was something wrong with it, it wasn’t happening. People with this view could say
the Indians who did not die of diseases that were no one’s fault and wars that were their fault have, with unfortunate but negligible exceptions, come to the bosom of the one true way of life. Let’s memorialize this by taking bits of their cultures out of context as trophies. Clear enough.
But what’s kind of impressive, in the way that a fast-mutating pathogen is impressive, is the way the there-are-no-indigenous-people view has adapted to the post-1975ish, multicultural-ish worldview. Now it presents more like:
What a shameful thing those numerous genocides and 500 years of oppression were. Sadly, authentic native peoples did not survive the onslaught of the evil Anglo people (wink!). Let’s memorialize this by appropriating bits of their cultures out of context. Different words, identical outcome. Something is hidden, covered, held back from its place among us, and this is blamed not on distance or meaning but on the strongest power of all: time.
I remember when I was a small child and my mother mentioned that a friend was trilingual in English, Spanish, and a Mayan language, The rule in English is: Mayan languages; Maya societies, individuals, etc. and I asked how this could be, and she explained that it was because she was Maya. I was bewildered. My information was from Texas-approved textbooks and I assumed that
the Maya were dead.
This is why I kept saying
Classical Maya instead of what you often see in this context, which is
Maya – because I was talking about only one large and diverse swatch of the enormous and mind-bogglingly diverse fabric of Maya peoples and cultures over time and space. Right up to my time and space: there are about as many people who identify as Maya in some form now as when K511 was painted, and the church down the street from me here in Portland holds a mass in Q’anjob’al. And yet I still hear people speaking as if the Maya, or the Haida, or
whoever lived here before Lewis and Clark, are gone. But so romantic.
It works kind of like chivalry does in sexism, I think. It’s an exaggerated regard for what something mostly isn’t – carried on loud enough to hide disregard for what it mostly is.
I grew up in the woods reading science fiction. Outsiders often seemed to think that living in a rural place, without public utilities, using our own well and wood stove, meant that we were living in the past. But we were not. When it was 1996 for them, it was exactly as 1996 for us. And as I read more science fiction, I slowly understood that it was not really about the future. These writers wanted to say things that could just as well have been hung on some other structure.
I’ve heard a Zen saying: drink from the cup as if it’s already broken. Someday it will be, and you will want to have drunk from it with satisfaction instead of having worried about how it would one day break. Seeing its wholeness as temporary lets you treat it as whole.
This fall I wanted to write something about time, and how people use it to say things that don’t have to do with literal time, and how it consumes everything, and some ways of dealing with this. I bookmarked some examples in political discourse. I wanted to unpack ideas of linear progress and eternal growth. I wanted to make a point about the fall of Byzantium, and to contextualize that by mentioning that many major libraries have been destroyed but most were not lucky enough to send out welcomed refugees. The pre-invasion Maya libraries were the first to come to mind because I had happened to be looking at the topography of the Chicxulub crater. The more I read about the history and historiography of Maya writing, and stitched together facts that I hadn’t connected before, the more I found the story I wanted to tell anyway.
I’m not sure what to make of this.
On one hand, I think it’s because the story is found everywhere you can put your feet on the soil of the only known inhabited planet. Certainly for everywhere I’ve lived, I can tell you a little about how people there were displaced and whatever was distinctive about their way of happening was tied, broken, and bundled into the past. I was playing a mind game the other day, figuring out how close to myself I could find these traces. Eventually I got to the cultural artifact closest to me: my name. The fact that I can only half-pronounce my family name when it’s spelled more properly as Llwyd is a tiny reflection of hostile assimilation by the English of the Welsh. My given names come indirectly from two kings who burnt many a religious book, and between whose reigns Cromwell burnt many as well, hoping to squeeze various cultural identities out of England. I’m named after a great granduncle who had these names because his family wanted to remember something in a diaspora. And so on, moving outwards from the words for me through every layer of meaning in the world. It’s everywhere. It’s early morning today and I’ve already seen an implicit claim that
the Civil Rights movement is over.
On the other hand, there is a flavor in what I’ve been doing of appropriation. This is to regard something I don’t understand or embody as a resource from which to draw illustrations of what I’ve already decided I want to say. We can see this most clearly in extremes like the
2012 movement, which has used a misunderstanding of a single page of the Dresden Codex to decide that
the wisdom of
the Mayans foretells a certain unlikely event. To use something composed of real people, especially politically marginalized and persistently abused people, as a sock-puppet for ignorance, and especially to entrain the most uselessly sublimated sense of cultural guilt, as if something will be improved, as if we are helping, by granting dead people the power of soothsaying and doombringing – this is deeply grotesque. To exploit it for profit is worse. It is a face of racism.
In fact. Look at the article I linked there:
Guatemala’s Mayan people
No, some of them. It’s unnecessarily generalizing and journalistically unsupported to present it this way. The message is not weakened by accuracy.
Experts say that for the Maya
Terrific. Which radio station do experts say the Maya would like to listen to today, the classic rock or the adult contemporary? Can we organize some kind of call center so the Maya can call an expert 24 hours a day in case they need help with their culture? No, this is not good enough. Expert archaeological opinion doesn’t really apply to a present-day grievance that doesn’t make claims about, e.g., land rights. This is just gratuitously placing ownership of Maya identity in the hands of people other than the people who live it.
Oxlajuj Ajpop is holding events it considers sacred in five cities
Nnnope. As an atheist, I can be certain that the events are sacred, because sacredness is essentially a quale. Saying something is considered sacred is as weird as saying something looks pretty. If it looks pretty to someone, it is pretty to them, no matter how much anyone else disagrees. If it’s considered sacred, it is sacred. I note that the AFP uses
sacred without qualifier in other contexts for mutually exclusive religions.
I’m not trying to (can’t) score some kind of culture-war points for someone else here. I’m saying that we’re seeing, in our time, people who should know better – presumably unconsciously – promoting complicity with oppressive politics by spinning something contemporary as obsolete.
I bring this up for two reasons. One is that it’s been weighing on me especially since taking that river trip. I saw a lot more active but unintended racism than I expected, and it disturbed me to see that well-meaning people didn’t get what they were doing by speaking as if so many of the people we met belonged to something that only happened in the past tense.
The other reason is that I wanted to use some pieces of Classical Maya art as examples of genius, unliving things that communicate something living, but at the same time examples of half-lost things that have to be seen through a keyhole and deciphered. However many million speakers of Mayan languages today, all the fluent readers of the scribal writing are dead – or, less politely, killed, by militance and policy.
There’s a mixedness here that I think we have to be able to hold in our heads if we want to call ourselves cosmopolitan grown-ups. At one time, the loss of so many Maya people and so much of Maya cultures, the intractable suffering of twenty generations of oppression, and the culpability of the people and ways of thinking that committed that crime and continue in complicity with it – and at the same time the identity, integrity, and self-determinative rights of Maya cultures and peoples as they are.
This mix is everywhere you look. In some places it’s far more consequential and worth careful attention than in other places.
It’s said that at the fall of Constantinople, on May 29th, 1453, Constantine XI, its ruler, disappeared into the crowd. He became a sleeping hero. Mehmed II, the conquerer, walked through the city. When he came to the main palace, he said a distich in Persian:
The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of Caesar;
The owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab.
Afrasiab being a legendary king. I looked up these lines. Sometimes it’s implied that Mehmed composed them on the spot. Sometimes they’re presented as an authorless saying that he recited. As I searched the web and libraries, these lines became a touchstone of scholarship: I learned about storytellers and historians from how they did or didn’t say that they did or didn’t know who wrote them. I saw them attributed to Saadi, sometimes Ferdowsi, and occasionally even Rumi. I e-mailed some professors, who said it was an intriguing question and they’ll tell me if they find anything definite.
Byzantium is one of the reasons why I know more about, say, Plato than about any Classical Maya person. It saw itself as continuous with Rome, and it conserved the greater part of the Classical European writing that we have now while most of that continent was faffing around with feudal wars.
Medievalists tend to frown upon the term
dark ages applied to Europe c. 500–1300 CE, because at any given time there were a few savants rattling around and several astonishingly beautiful cathedrals. Certainly many people were living happily. And some of their things are lovely to me, and hold as much life as anything, but this is true of any time and place, and if we can pity one millennium on one continent more than others, I think medieval Europe is a prime candidate. Take for example the calendar. For eight hundred years there was no collaboration between knowledge, ingenuity, and power sufficient to meet a need as important as a calendar in which farmers could reliably plant their peas on a certain date from one generation to the next and the seasonal holidays could happen in the right seasons. (The fall of Byzantium was in June, not May, by today’s calendar.) The society as a whole was functionally innumerate. Each discipline that used math had to reinvent it. We can hold Hildegard of Bingen and Thomas Aquinas in high regard and still, I think, fairly call it a dark age.
And so it was refugee scholars from Byzantium, and trade with Arabs carrying books from the Gupta flowering in IndiaNotably, positional counting: the idea of zero. Roman numerals cannot be casually multipied and divided. For example, the Romans recognized the concept of compound interest, but avoided all but a few fixed rates that allowed shortcut calculations. So zero democratized complex arithmetic and enabled finance. (This is not the whole truth.), who brought about the European rennaissance (or as we would say in English the re-nascence) of Greek and Roman learning. That was how they saw it, anyway, as the return of something that had been gone. But in retrospect, the Classical European knowledge itself wasn’t as important as its otherness: the way it was outside the frameworks of the spiritual and temporal powers of the day, yet not otherable in the way of the
superstition and lies of the devil in Maya codices, yet clearly worthwhile. The classics were artifacts of another culture that, because they didn’t see the difference between ethnicity and culture that we do, they understood as their own. This gave inspiration – permission – to a cause of exploration that continued through the industrial revolution and is still happening.
In my mind there is this thing, recognizable though not defined: the enlightenment project. I know just one thing that I’m certain belongs to it. When I was small the only live mass medium I had was the CBC Radio, Canada’s national broadcaster, leaking across the border, and every year it carried the Christmas relay from the European Broadcasting Union. The EBU is best known for the Eurovision song contest, an important showcase of bad pop music, but the Christmas broadcast comes from a different angle. It started at some fool hour because of the time zones. Audience noise and tuning sounds. Our host tells us we have to wait a moment for all the stations to switch their relays over. Applause, and a proud announcer begins:
Mesdames et messieurs … or
Signore e signori … or
Mine damer og herrer … or
Hyvät naiset ja herrat … or
Damen und Herren … or
Señoras y señores … and after a few sentences our home announcer begins the English script, telling us what the place looks like and what the program will be: some mix of Christmas, traditional, and contemporary chamber music from this country. Usually some Handel in England and some Mozart in Germany, and Smetana in the Czech Republic, and so on. Accessible, mostly happy, crowd-pleasing stuff. An hour of music, fade out on applause, fade in on a rustling audience and strings tuning up, and a proud announcer begins.
A whole day of this. An announcer never had to say:
We do this because our beautiful things have survived. We pass the feed from Warsaw Pact countries to NATO countries, and from Axis countries to Allied countries, without making a big deal about it, and that’s a big deal. Here we are, side by side, each unique, sharing, seated in comfort but not complacency on our pasts. We’re Europe, and we’re modernity. The music said that clearly enough even for a 12-year-old in the woods to hear: if not to think it, then to know it.
Classical music itself has been dying, unbreakable, on its pedestal. We watch an opera, a reconstruction of a hammy, ill-plotted production of drunken, vibrato-less singers in heinous wigs belting doggerel at a stinking and half-asleep audience, and yet caught by the gills in this network of ridiculous things there are pieces of the sublime, kicking and glittering, and we use this as a way of saying that the people of the past had insides like ours, that they may have worn absurd ruffs and been committed sexists but they felt what we feel sometimes even when we can’t phrase it, but although we’re trying to connect the past to the present, its past-ness is most of what people see, and presently the flower duet from Lakmé is the
before music in an ad for extreme makeovers.
bell hooks quotes Paulo Freire (without citation) in an epigraph for Teaching to Transgress:
… to begin always anew, to make, to reconstruct, and to not spoil, to refuse to bureaucratize the mind, to understand and to live life as a process – live to become …
This is how my culture sounds to me. Maybe not what it is, but what it says it wants, all the time and loud. It’s in the ads. It’s permanent revolution, deconstruction, training montage, freedom, boundary-crossing, discovery, reinvention, validation, catharsis, reconciliation, metamorphosis, level-upping, anointing, heightened sensation, and choice; to be cool, a leader and an outlaw at the same time; for every journey to be a hero’s journey; for love stories to end as soon as the couple knows they’re in love; for everything to be becoming all of the time.
It’s Walt Whitman and Levi’s.
This Americanness, this liminality, this adolescence, the becoming – it belongs in us. It’s good that we have it in our popular culture, where we can reach for it together.
But look. By volume, our culture is mostly advertising. The becoming is loud around us, or its representations are, because of forces that try to control it. Levi’s wants you in a state of reinvention cusping into infatuation because that moment of choice and freedom is when you’re most likely to try a new brand of jeans. Since I think we need the becoming, I have learned to fear it where I see it.
I fear pro sports ad campaigns that use revolutionary and transcendent imagery. Spectator sports are The Man. They are an attenuated, semi-domesticated version of what every legitimate revolution has been against.
I fear for people who, trying to find spiritual power, appropriate the tricksters who inhabit the liminal. Raven, Coyote, Loki, Eris – if they aren’t seen as the other, as dangerous and subversive to you as well as to whatever you consider The Man, they are half-empty. If Raven is your friend, if you have domesticated and trained Raven, Raven cannot teach you anything new when you’re in the liquid-filled–chrysalis moment.
When I go in to the art museum and try not to feel what I see, I am safe but not growing, which is not safe in the long term. When I go in and try to answer everything, I am asking to be threatened to justify asserting myself, which is bullying.
I have to let the art win and wreck up how I was. Then I have freedom: the choice of how to be next.
A lot of hard things happened around me in 2005–2008.
I am sitting on the floor of a room in a psych ward, explaining to a friend why exactly I think it would be such a bad thing for them to make another suicide attempt, and please don’t, please.
Different hospital, different friend, leukemia.
I’m sitting at a table, debating in depth with another friend whether their life-ruining alcoholism is really all that big a deal.
I’m standing on a beach at dusk, swallowing, clearing my throat, swallowing, wiping my eyes, dialing a phone, and hearing my voice tell a fourth friend that, since a car crash that morning, their ex-spouse has been dead.
From time to time I’ll have a nightmare about one of these things. There was also a startup that didn’t take off, romantic washouts, and so on – ordinary disappointments. But I was never the victim, or no worse than others, and I always had something I could work on to make it better. And so by 2009 I might have had more callouses on certain parts of my psyche than most physically secure 25-year–old Americans, but I was not broken.
And then I halfway was. Maybe it was the crises catching up, or the hole left by working on the crises, or the recession, or neurochemical chance. I lost traction. Everything I floated would flounder and loll in the tide. It got worse in 2010. I had every advantage in the world. People who saw my situation from a distance would tell me how much potential I had, and when I asked them not to they smiled knowingly and told me again louder. With everything I had I couldn’t get anything done, so the problem was with me. I lost trust in myself. Anxiety broke the seal between me and the world. Every day I woke up exhausted. I spent a lot of time – probably a thousand hours – doing nothing but trying believe it would pass.
It seemed that entropy, time itself, was disentangling me from cause and effect. Every day I meant less. I was eating potatoes for calories, tofu and bacon for protein, lattes for luxury, and Safeway multivitamins for everything else. I slowly wrote a fair deal of fiction that, with luck, no one else will ever see. I felt transparent. No lover, no child, no property, no garden, nothing made me necessary among things that live and grow. Everything was anxious and timeless.
A little more than two years ago as I write this, the friends whose couch I was staying on in exchange for babysitting moved. I was unemployed. Other friends volunteered their spare room for a few weeks in exchange for nothing – something that makes me grateful all over again as I type this. We middle-class American white men don’t feel helpless in any deep way so very often, and we generally have no idea how to cope when we do. I was filled with gratitude the whole time I felt bad. Everyone I needed to help me did. My mistrust in myself and hazy recognition of my huge advantages precluded self-pity, but I got sensitive in odd ways. When I was staying with the second friends, a week before giving up and going to live with my family, I happened to read some lines by Keats (the
one whose name was writ on water):
I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d.
I remember resting my head on the desk for a good long while after reading that, then getting up and staring out the window for like an hour.
One advantage of the constant anxiety was not caring about stuff. Or it was that I cared so indiscriminately that nothing seemed to matter much more than other things.
I did a lot of gruesome reading about peace and conflict studies. I felt it, but it wasn’t ruining any better mood. It kept striking me how people in the most terrible extremity, as they learn that they will likely die in pain, unremembered, and powerless to help each other, still act with dignity and ingenuity. I won’t trouble your sleep with examples of this, but I tell you that they are compelling. Most people who were not gravely abused as children, and many who were, don’t just have sanity and decency, they glow it. You don’t notice it until you see it against a contrasting background, but it’s always there.
I think that those of us profoundly lucky enough not to be refugees have a lot to learn from those who are.
Visiting Grandma. Either it was just me or everyone else was asleep; I don’t remember. A plane flew very low over the house. There were loud noises in Grandma’s room. She came out and sat with me for a while. We talked about the war. Some nights she had to listen for Allied planes strafing the Red Cross trains, so that when they hit the brakes she would be ready to grab stretchers and drag them into the woods. We are both interested in calligraphy. She took me to her files and found something that had survived from the thirties: a huge sheet she’d lettered of a passage from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Meditations is actually
Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν,
To myself, written in Greek, and studying it in Latin is silly, but German schools of the 1930s were not overly interested in historical rigor. I see this as part of the Neoclassical tradition that still worships marble ruins as such as opposed to Classical European stone art and architecture as it was. My beginner grasp of Latin was fading even then, but she remembered it fairly well, and we figured it out. In George Long’s translation:
Suppose that men kill thee, cut thee in pieces, curse thee. What then can these things do to prevent thy mind from remaining pure, wise, sober, just? For instance, if a man should stand by a limpid pure spring, and curse it, the spring never ceases sending up potable water; and if he should cast clay into it or filth, it will speedily disperse them and wash them out, and will not be at all polluted. How then shalt thou possess a perpetual fountain and not a mere well? By forming thyself hourly to freedom conjoined with contentment, simplicity and modesty.
This is advice that is not advice, like
What would Jesus do? – it gives you no instructions, only a context. I thought of it often.
The poet, typographer, and translator Robert Bringhurst remarks upon a Haida story, usually called
One They Hand Along, as told by Skaay (A Story as Sharp as a Knife, p. 121):
Human beings, in classical Haida, are calledxhaaydla xhaaydaghaay, “surface people.” Skaay also calls themxhaaydla xhitiit ghidaay,XhaaydlaandHaidaare different spellings of the same word. “ordinary surface birds.” Such ideas are widespread in Native American philosophy. The corresponding Navajo term, for example, isnihokáá dine’é, “earth-surface people.” But the Haida term evokes in particular the surface of the sea. “One They Hand Along” is a narrative map locating the world of surface people in relation to the world beneath the waves, which is of special concern to the Haida. The trilogy of which it is a part extends this map to the forest and the sky. We can pass from one world to another, according to these stories, by paddling a canoe across the horizon, or by making a moral choice.
I keep feeling tempted to make a diagnosis: to say that our contemporary state of continuous partial liminality is sick. That my society is always commuting and never at home. That we never stop reminding ourselves that the cup will be broken, and the words reach semantic satiation. But I believe this black ice under our culture reflects things as they really are, the way that in a narrow metaphorical sense we have all been driven from home: not in space, by violence, but in time, by entropy. Giving people access to the true deep contingency of things, to the fact that we’re all on the road and have to make our homes in each other, is terrifying and morally good.
There is a permanent liminal state not subsidized by Levi’s, a disoriented place-between-places where we are all in the becoming. We’re here right now. And now. It’s now. This interface, these instants half in boiling possibilty and half in crystal fact, this place where past and future press – this is the only surface where we ordinary people can live, because it’s the only place where there are choices.
I have my own reading of K511 – one that is only mine, and does not try to be authentic. It’s how I see something I barely begin to understand in a context that its creator must not have imagined. It’s about the rabbit scribe. I choose to suppose that this rabbit is in fact a traitor, and in a few seconds will be overthrowing God L. But for the moment, in my eyes, the rabbit is carefully recording events exactly as we see them – so exactly, in fact, that we are looking at its painting. The rabbit is the narrator, the writer, making this moment permanent, and now it will put down the brush and flip the death god’s jaguar throne and mock him.