When I first began teaching in the Netherlands, I marveled at the herds of Dutch bikes that swarmed the streets. Exiting Velorama, Nijmegen’s tightly packed little bike museum, I jokingly said to a colleague, “The Dutch imagination is profoundly ‘bicyciular.’” Each time I was back in Nijmegen, I had to walk past a bike shop. I would stop and press my nose to the window. Shouldn’t a man, now ensconced upon a Dutch chair of ritual studies, ride a fine Dutch bike? The high prices of those hardy, brilliantly engineered machines only intensified my lust. Dutch bikes are sexy, but not in the cheesy way that Harley Davidson motorcycles are made to appear sexy by draping a babe across the rear fender. Until recently, no one in North America thought Dutch bikes were sexy. They are so heavy. Their rear ends (their booties) are too big and their tires, skinny. Their chains are not tantalizingly exposed to public view. And you perch on the saddle, upright, exposing little that is interesting from behind.
I was proud to be magnificently alone in my appreciation of the beauty of Dutch bikes. As far as I knew, no one else in Canada or the U.S. was lusting after them. Then suddenly everything changed. Dutch bikes have now become a fashion accessory for American males. The phrase “Dutch-inspired” is selling not only bikes in Seattle, Brooklyn, and Toronto but men’s clothing in New York. So now I am a little embarrassed to be casting such a fashionable item as the privileged symbol for this article. I’ve begun to worry that, should I ever own a good Dutch bike, I might have to adopt a classier dress code.
I could argue that a rite is a structure, placing myself in the august company of Claude Levi-Strauss. Or I could claim that it is dynamic, casting myself as a fellow traveler of Heidelberg’s Dynamics of Ritual project. But probably because I was teaching ritual studies in the Flat Land of the Bike, an odd sentence lodged like a thorn in my brain: “A rite is like a good Dutch bike: If it is broken, it’s worth fixing.” The sentence may seem flippant, but it would not go away.
I made the mistake of telling some doctoral students about my not-so-secret desire for a fine Dutch bike. Later they invited me on a country ride and loaned me a “true” (not a “fine”) Dutch bike: only one gear, a fender needing to be wired on, and its paint fading. The experience tempted me to modify the sentence in my head, “A rite is like a ‘true’ Dutch bike, so it probably needs fixing.”
Before I begin the Quixotic task of comparing rites with bikes, some context: I have spent much time and energy working to demonstrate that ritual activities can be both creative and critical, and therefore, that theorizing about them should be as well. Creativity and criticism are two sides of the same coin. If ritual creativity is weak, ritual criticism will be too. If ritual criticism is muted, ritual creativity will suffer. I’ve also argued that rites are practical; they do important cultural, physical, moral, and intellectual work. Rituals should be as shapely as a good Dutch bike and as useful as a monkey wrench in the hands of a plumber.
When I first began studying ritual, I asked how ritual practices shape, or fail to shape, people’s attitudes, values, and decisions. I wanted to know how ritually enhanced images and practices shaped their views of the world. Currently, however, I have taken one step back and am asking theoretical and methodological questions: How do scholarly practices—applying for grants, conducting research, applying theories, and writing books—generate the scholarly world we call “ritual studies?” Where do theories of ritual come from? What do they really accomplish, or fail to accomplish?
Barry Stephenson and I built Ritual Studies Dot Com, a Web site for international, interdisciplinary discussion. We had to choose an image for the home page and could have taken the easy way by merely putting up a picture of a ritual, but we decided to be suggestive rather than literal. We used two images—both a bit of a tease. One suggested that ritual is processual, flowing. However, this image was of Laurel Creek in winter, so the water was frozen. It leaves viewers with a question: Is ritual flowing or fixed?
The second one playfully and critically asks viewers: If you think ritual is a structure, how about this kind? The photo showes the rear end of a Chinese restaurant, one that has, over the years, been patched in mismatched ways. Each image says something about how scholars might conceive ritual. There are other, contending models. The images are invitations to a friendly argument, a debate.
When I first began work on The Craft of Ritual Studies, I thought of ritual-using and theory-using as two distinctly different activities. Later, I changed my mind, having found that scholars, like ritualists, inescapably wield metaphors, analogies, and images. I began to see that figures of speech and visual images are as essential to theory-making as they are to ritual-making. The theorist’s question isn’t only, “What convincing words can we use to describe ritual?” but also, “How should we imagine ritual?”
Theory-construction isn’t only about crafting words into credible statements, but also about images, visual as well as verbal. Even in the sciences, not to mention the social sciences and humanities, images and diagrams buttress verbal theory-construction. Theorizing, then, is an audio-visual production; we not only speak and write theories, we also visualize them. So I began hunting for the images that now litter this article.
I began plowing through theoretical writings, trying to understand not only the terms and concepts but the images that lie beneath them.
For instance, if we are going to speak of a ritual as a structure, what kind? What does it look like?
If a ritual is a system, is it like
a nervous system?
a solar system?
If a ritual is a dynamic process, how does it work? What does it look like?
and what are their names?
How does one know which layers are superficial and which ones, deep?
If a ritual exercises power,
how is it transferred, through what kinds of lines?
If ritual is embodied power,
how is it embodied?
in muscles? in minds? in hearts?
If a ritual has dimensions, what are they?
Which ratios between dimensions are the most determinative of ritual efficacy?
If ritual is a language constructed of symbols,
what “language” does ritual speak?
Who can “speak ritual” and who cannot?
If riiuals have a backstage area and a front of house, how do we know when we’ve entered the one zone and exited the other? Where’s the curtain?
how shall we envision such betwixt and between zones.
To what extent are they actually spatial?
You could object that no one takes such terms literally, that in scholarly discourse these are abstractions not figures of speech. However, all analogies are meant to “hold,” that is, be literal in some ways but not in others. My attempt to visualize or literalize a metaphor, is a way of learning more about how it works in a theory. Images do matter, because they shape and reflect attitudes, so the more explicit we become about them, the more effective we can be in both constructing and criticizing theories of ritual. It is fair to ask of any theoretically deployed image, analogy, or metaphor: In what respects does it hold, and in what respects does it not?
I began digging metaphors, images, and analogies out of abstract theoretical prose, because, in reading scholarly works on ritual, I was too often uncertain when, or even whether, I was reading theory. In ritual studies rarely does anyone say, “I am now writing a theory, and here it is.” So readers are left to ferret out the theory, and, worse, to guess at the methods implied by that theory. How does one distinguish between an ethnographic description of a single ritual performance and a generalized description of a ritual, or between a formal definition and a generalizing statement? I discovered that others, graduate students and professors alike, were often having the same difficulty knowing which parts of a book are theoretical. Eventually, I drafted a guide for reading articles theoretically and methodologically. Even though it is only a question set, it implies a tight connection between theorizing, imagining, and writing.
Before I return to evangelizing in favor of Dutch bikes, we should make an elementary distinction between analogy and metaphor. For a dad to boast about his son, “Paul is like a lion,” is an analogy, a mere comparison, but when Paul’s classmate Heather screams, “Paul, you are a stupid skunk,” that is a metaphor, although not a very strong one, because we know Paul is not really a skunk but a mere boy who has been teasing Heather. She probably means either, “I don’t like you, Paul” or more maybe, “You smell bad, like a skunk.” Weak metaphors are easily reducible to analogies, and analogies are easily explained as comparisons that hinge on one or two similarities.
A metaphor is a stronger kind of symbol, because it equates the “vehicle” (the symbol that points) with its “tenor” (that to which it points). A metaphor is also more complex, not merely x = y, but also x ≠ y. A metaphor simultaneously and paradoxically posits both identity and dis-identity.
The most rooted, or radical, metaphors are those that resist translation or reduction. If a ceremonially authorized person dresses up in robes and hands you a piece of bread while saying, “This is my body,” that is radically metaphoric, especially if you’re a Catholic, because the priest is declaring both: “This is bread; this is not bread.”
We can lose sight of metaphors, and they can become weak. “Head of the table” and “foot of the table” are rarely recognized as metaphors until someone comments on them or shows us an image that reactivates them. Where is the “head of a table?” Where is the “foot” of a table. Not usually on the “leg” of a table.
However, if your society expects you sit at the foot of the table, and lower body parts are associated with the sinister left hand, you are in a metaphorically reinforced position of subservience. The metaphor has force.
In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, two American philosophers, show how entire worldviews and value systems are encoded in the adjectives “right” and “left” or innocent prepositions such as “up” or “down.” Determinative metaphors are not mere cute turns of phrase or single images. Rather, they form clusters, systems, or webs, and they do so not only in ordinary social life but also in the rarified atmosphere of ritual theory. Because invisible metaphors embedded in theories can be even more determinative than visible ones, it is important to locate and reflect on them.
One of the most pernicious and widespread metaphors in ritual theory is that of “structure.” Jan Snoek says, “most ritual behavior is more formally stylized, structured, and standardized than most common behavior.” Eugene d’Aquili defines ritual behavior as “a subset of formalized behavior that involves two or more individuals in active and reciprocal communication and that is structured….” Catherine Bell treats ritualization less as a noun than as a verb. Even so, for her, ritual is “the strategic production of expedient schemes that structure an environment….”
“Structure,” whether used as a verb or noun, may not sound to your ear like a metaphor, but it is. Even though none of these theorists would actually claim that ritual is unchanging, the architectural metaphor, “structure,” connotes something solid, reinforcing the widespread assumption that rituals are comparatively stable, that they don’t change, or change very little.
Since the mid-1960s, to counteract static theories rooted in static metaphors like “structure,” we have learned to speak of ritual as “dynamic.” Now rituals compete with racy sports cars and motivational public speakers. Ritual is no longer stodgy and unchanging but dynamic (it changes) and transformative (it changes things). But this idea too rides the back of a metaphor, since, literally speaking, the term “dynamics” refers to that branch of mechanics which studies motion and equilibrium. In speaking of ritual as “dynamic,” we are transposing the notion of driving forces from physics and hydraulics to psychology and politics, where the sources of action are really motivations rather than physical causes. In other words, if the notion of “ritual dynamics” leads us to imagine rites as causes or effects rather than as motivated actions, we have been seduced by the hidden metaphor.
A variant of dynamics is hydraulics, the branch of science that studies liquids in motion. Sigmund Freud made extensive use of hydraulic metaphors. Libido was liquid-like energy welling up from the unconscious, exerting upward “pressure,” like water heated in a boiler system. For Freud, catharsis was a kind of “emptying,” and cathexis, a kind of “filling.” Sublimation amounted to “channeling.”
Hydraulic metaphors helped 19th century thinkers get beyond the notion of information as discreet units. These metaphors enabled people to embrace the idea of continuous flow. But the metaphors carried other implications, and they were often unrecognized. For instance, communication came to be imagined as flowing through “lines,” and those “pipelines” could get “clogged.” Consequently, neurotics required therapists for the same reason that toilets require plumbers, to help clean out the grunge.
To nuance and complicate the hydraulic model by imagining “multi-channels,” does not get beyond the root hydraulic metaphor of a liquid flowing through a pipe or through several discreet channels. We bump up against the limits of the metaphor when try to imagine multiple voices “flowing” through a single telephone wire.
There are plenty of other concepts that are used like abstractions but which hide analogies or metaphors that can lead their users into absorbing attitudes conditioned by the images that lie beneath. Think, for instance, about Emile Durkheim’s notion of ritual “solidarity.” Don’t just think it, try to feel it, sense it. What does the idea or feeling of solidarity do for your understanding of ritual? In my imagination ritual solidarity is hardwood, oak, safe and supportive. Or consider Durkheim’s claim that rituals are characterized by “collective effervescence.” The images makes you want to rise up, like bubbles in a drink. I can’t contemplate the image-idea of collective effervescence for long without feeling Jamaican ginger beer bubbling up in my throat.
I am not trying to convince you that you should buy into my preferred metaphors instead of someone else’s, just to recognize that theorizing is not only about cobbling together verbal abstractions.Theorizing is also a way of imagining, consequently different from, but similar to, imagining in the arts.
Theorizing is not only imaginative, it is also strategic, thus similar to advertising. To theorize is to make a pitch, mount an argument for choosing this over that. The choice of key metaphors is not merely arbitrary, nor is it innocently aesthetic, a matter of turning phrases or deploying attractive images. It is culturally and historically conditioned, and it expresses strongly, if not sacredly, held values. Theorizing, however much it appears to mask or play down passion, is passionate to the point of being evangelical. Most of the theorists I know, regardless of how they write, will fight to defend their theories. So do not be fooled by the desiccated prose that too many theorists proffer.
By now, you are probably wondering what happened to that promised Dutch bike (the “fine,” idealized one, or the “true” one owned by a doctoral student’s boyfriend). I have latched onto the analogy, “A rite is like a bike” partly because no one is fooled by it. It is a mere analogy, not an invisible, determinative metaphor. It has no pretentions to power. Thinking of a rite as bike-like is modest—not very sexy—because everyone knows a rite is not a bike. You immediately understand that you could select other analogous objects: airplanes, computers, dresses, saxophones, or Chinese bikes. No one thinks a bike is a rite in the same way people do when they talk about rites as structures or rites as dynamic.
A rite as bike-like seems far-fetched, but I could make the connection more obvious by selecting certain kinds of bikes, this one, for instance, which tows a coffin on wheels. A bike used as a ritual tool makes the bike-rite connection clear. Once you see the photo, the link is obvious.
It’s worth playing out some of the possible answers to the question, How is a rite like a Dutch bike? One answer is: For both a rite and bike, you can produce a parts list, and parts lists are handy. Try putting on a wedding or funeral without a list, and you are courting disaster. Try shooting a rite with no idea of its components and you’ll leave something out.
A rite is like a bike insofar as the whole can be factored into parts or the parts cobbled together into a whole. I call these “elements,” because they are primary, but you could call them something else, micro-structures, or more plainly, “the nuts and bolts of ritual.” Thinking this way has a certain plumber-like utility to it, but we shouldn’t let the analogy fool us. Adding elements—ritual objects to ritual spaces to ritual actors—doesn’t produce a ritual any more than a bucket of nuts, bolts, sprockets, and spokes equals a bicycle.
Unless you repair your own bike or you are a bike mechanic, you would not know how to assemble a bike out of a bunch of parts. An exploded diagram would get you one step closer, because it helps you conceive the spatial relations properly. Let’s say that you do, in fact, succeed in assembling a bike out of a bucketful of parts, there are at least two other problems: You must learn how to balance a bike, that is, to ride it, and you must know the rules of the road and understand biking culture. If don’t, getting “doored” is a distinct possibility.
So there is more to a bike (not to mention, a ritual) than just a bunch of static parts. Bikes and rites have a statics, evident in frame ratios, tubing, and joints, but also a dynamics. Riders need to know not only what the components are but also how they go together; how they work; how to use a bike physically; and how to use it socially and legally. In other words, to theorize them properly, we must put action into the picture, and then frame the picture in a cultural context.
So, a rite is bike-like insofar as it has “parts,” but how far can we go with the analogy? Imagine playing a game in which the winning side is the one that comes up with the most ways in which a rite is like a bike:
Mechanical metaphors are useful insofar as they capture the material, tool-like aspects of ritual and because they help us grasp part-whole relations. However, because we are critically minded scholars, we’d should play the opposite game by running out the counterargument:
You get the general point, I hope: Not only that critical thought can be playlike, and that play is a form critical thinking but that metaphors and analogies have consequences and limits; we can only “ride” them so far.
Then what? We get off and proceed without benefit of analogy and metaphor? I think not. I doubt that is even possible. Then, we shift to another metaphor in the way scientists have to shift between particle theory and wave theory. The mechanical analogy of the bike can help us understand part/whole relations, movement through space, and some of the material aspects of ritual, but it does not, for instance, help us much with progression through time.
A rite unfolds through time. Noting this fact, some opt for a narrative metaphor: A ritual is, or is like, a story; it has a beginning, middle, and end. This is a popular idea because it makes ritual seem synchronous with myth or biography, two kinds of narrative. Fine, then we should test it by trying to create a plotline or storyboard for the ritual that we are studying. How well does that work? Does a rite really follow a plot-like course?
Or are the phases of a rite more like the rotating of a kaleidoscope than a turn in a plot? Do the actions of the ritual start at point A and go to point B like a story, or do they just go round and round a center? How far can you ride on the narrative metaphor?
When I have to give up my bike because the mechanistic metaphor has gone as far as it can, I turn to performance. My particular academic tribe venerates dramatistic metaphors. Because actions, including ritual actions, are shaped by human perspectives and intentions, not merely driven by forces and powers, dramatism and the resources of performance studies can do theoretical work that bikes and mechanistic metaphors cannot. Dramatistic theories suggest that movement and change occur through the interactions and decisions of human characters, that things are not “driven” forward in the way bikes and trucks are but in the way a plot is.
Whereas the bike analogy compares ritual to something distant (a mechanical object), the drama metaphor compares ritual with something quite close, namely theater. The strength of dramatistic metaphors (or performance approaches, if you prefer) is that they compare one kind of strongly bounded human activity with another kind of strongly bounded activity. When we compare ritual with theatre, it’s like comparing apples with oranges rather than apples with Volkswagens. The kinship between ritual and drama is so strong that some of my compatriots would argue that ritual is (not merely, is like) dramatic. I don’t, because there are significant differences. One difference is that the roles and actions of plays are typically framed as “not real, make-believe,” whereas in rites, the roles and actions are framed as “believed” or at least “accepted.” Another difference is that, plays have audiences, whereas rituals have congregations or tribes or communities. Audiences are not, or not for very long, communities; rather, they are consumer groups. Having paid admission, they sit side by side for a couple of hours, but they do not feel obligated to look out for each other’s welfare after the performance is over.
I conclude by considering briefly a third metaphor (not a bike, not a performance): a web, a nexus of interconnectedness that rituals are supposed to facilitate. Neither mechanistic models nor dramatistic ones quite capture the networking nature of ritual traditions. Although in plays characters interact and are thus interconnected, dramatistic models are homocentric, human-centered, so we need something more “ecological,” such that a change in one part ripples through another and finally through the whole system. A web is suggestive of systemic interconnection, reminding us that, although we may be talking about a ritual, this ritual may be embedded in a ritual system, which is embedded in a cultural system, which is embedded in a global, or even interplanetary, system.
Systems metaphors keep returning in different guises, not only the 19th century hydraulic variant but mid-twentieth century cybernetics and more recently in cognitive science, computer-modeling, and complex systems theory.
Imagining ritual as a form of web-making, helps us reconceive ritual interconnectivity and boundaries, of the relations between rites and their contexts—social, economic, and environmental. Webs not only can connect, they can also entrap.
A web creates segmented boundaries, but they are permeable. If rituals are weblike, they do not have walls but membranes. If rituals have boundaries, and they are not like stone walls but like membranes, how do rituals select what can, and cannot, pass through? Or maybe you don’t think that things, values, “pass through?” Fine. Then maybe there are “carriers,” like bees. People who “carry” values from inside a ritual to the environment outside the ritual.
In any case, if we begin to reflect on ritual as weblike, we may wish to draw upon images of the WWW with nodes connected by hubs. Computer hubs connected by communication lines resemble the human nervous system, which utilizes a set of nodes connected by axons.
Currently, there is great interest in complex systems modeling that would enable us to connect various kinds of systems: nervous systems, computer systems, economic systems, and ecosystems with ritual systems. Both the Santa Fe Institute and the New England Complex Systems Institute foster complex system modeling. If you examine this example from the New England Complex Systems Institute, you can see that many of the metaphors and analogies that we have discussed are combined in this model: levels, hierarchy, dynamics, plotlike directionality, and recursive circularity.
Few ritual studies scholars have paid attention to complex systems modeling. The most explicit complex system theorizing is carried out by theologian-philosopher Mark Taylor in The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture. Anthropologist Roy Rapport in Religion in the Making and other works approaches an ecological model. Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley, using cognitive psychological modes, in Bringing Ritual to Mind could, but haven’t yet, moved in this direction.
Once we humans model a single system and then do the same with another, we begin trying to imagine a meta-system that contains all the others. Soon we are conceiving a series of nested, interacting systems. A very attractive but undeveloped idea is that of fractals. A fractal is a micro-geometrical structure which, when repeated with slight variation, accounts for a macro-structure.
The Sierpenski Triangle is an example; the big triangle is made of smaller triangles, which are, in turn, made of even smaller triangles. In a fractal, the pattern appears to be the same regardless of the level of magnification. The branches of a tree replicate the pattern of the entire tree. A stalk of broccoli consists of hundreds of repetitions of each floret.
The strength and weakness of all modeling is simplification. You try to explain the most complicated things by identifying the fewest number of simple things out of which they are constructed. The temptation, then is to leap, to stitch together the entire universe, the macrocosm, by imagining it as a repetition, reiteration, or reflection of something much smaller.
Fractals, used as models, sit on a precipice where science meets art and mysticism.
I am not so much recommending fractals as trying to illustrate the range of metaphors and models on which one might draw in trying to theorize ritual.
By now, your head is probably spinning, and you can begin to sense the Faustian temptations of theoretical modeling. I have taken you on an intellectual roller coaster ride. First, we are riding around on hardy Dutch bikes. Then, we are romping across the fronts and backs of stages full of players. And now I am tangling you up in a knot of weblike systems.
Lest we become unnerved by this little tour of the ritual theory universe, let us “return” to biking imagery. Comforting, isn’t it? A theoretical model should be as practical, reliable, and, dare I say it, imaginative as a well made bakfiets, don’t you think? Or do you? If the bakfiets is a little too old fashioned for your tastes, then how about a Conference Bike? Made in Holland, where else? Who else but an American living in the Netherlands, Eric Staller would design a bike that combines the practical mechanism of bikes and the weblikenss of the human brain and the fractal universe? You can even imagine the sociodrama that would set up if members of your work team or family were to spend 8 hours pedaling this to Leiden. You can buy this expensive machine, a model of ritual solidarity, either as “Conference Bike” (to attract Dutch buyers) or as “Love Bike” (the American version). You can bike in any direction, provided the seven peddling, effervescent conference-goers, or lovers, ride it cooperatively.
Maybe you have had enough of this bike and web play, and you just want to know where all this get us regarding ritual theory. Fair enough, I’ll summarize the argument line:
Any theory that fails to account for all three, regardless of the metaphors it uses, cannot produce an adequate model for ritual studies research.
Why would anyone want to model ritual? Probably, if all is going well with a ritual, participants would not want to model it at all, but if things are going badly, then they may be forced to create a model. If your ritual is broken, or if there is an important occasion with no ritual means of marking it, then having a blueprint is helpful. If you are a scholar, you want to model ritual because, among other things, scholars build theories.
I end with a counter-argument and a question. The devil, if given his dues, would put this question to my argument: What do you do about mixed metaphors? Let’s say that you write this sentence in an essay, “Milking the workers for all they were worth, the manager barked orders at them.” When your teacher writes “mixed metaphor,” in the margin, this is a criticism. First the manager is a milker of cows, then he is a dog? Your teacher is saying, “Choose one or the other but not both.” Mixing two metaphors in the same sentence makes it sound ridiculous. So how many metaphors can a theory tolerate? Should there be only one? If more than one, how many?
That’s my killer question. Now, here’s yours: What’s your most frequently deployed theory of ritual, and what images, analogies, or metaphors inform it? If your model for understanding ritual is not a Dutch bike, what is it?
Bell, Catherine M. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
d’Aquili, Eugene G. , Charles D. Laughlin, and John McManus. The Spectrum of Ritual: A Biogenetic Structural Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
Goffman, Erving. Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1967.
Grimes, Ronald L. The Craft of Ritual Studies. Oxford Ritual Studies Series. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
McCauley, Robert N., and E. Thomas Lawson. Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Rappaport, Roy A. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2002.
Snoek, Jan. “Defining ‘Rituals’.” In Theorizing Rituals: Issues, Topics, Approaches, Concepts, edited by Jens Kreinath, Jan Snoek and Michael Stausberg. 3-14. Leiden: Brill, 2006.
Taylor, Mark C. The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Turner, Victor Witter. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Symbol, Myth, and Ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974.
. Bowery Lane Bicycles in New York City manufactures such bikes.
. See, for instance, the online magazine, Por Homme, http://www.porhomme.com/2009/04/dress‑codes‑the‑dutch‑bicycle/#more‑7799
. For more information on the project: http://www.ritualdynamik.de/
. It is no longer live.
. Photo by Robert W. Harwood, https://www.flickr.com/photos/rwharwood/
. Ronald L. Grimes, The craft of ritual studies, Oxford Ritual Studies Series (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). The book borrows some of the argument, but none of the illustrations, from this presentation.
. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors we live by (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).
. Jan Snoek, “Defining ‘rituals,’” in Theorizing rituals: issues, topics, approaches, concepts, ed. Jens Kreinath, Jan Snoek, and Michael Stausberg (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 13.
. Eugene G. d’Aquili, Charles D. Laughlin, and John McManus, The spectrum of ritual: a biogenetic structural analysis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979). 29.
. Catherine M. Bell, Ritual theory, ritual practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). 140.
. Photo courtesy of Meike Heessels.
. See, for example: Victor Witter Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society, Symbol, Myth, and Ritual (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974); Richard Schechner, Performance studies: an introduction (London: Routledge, 2002); Erving Goffman, Interaction ritual: essays on face-to-face behavior (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1967).
. Mark C. Taylor, The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
. Roy A. Rappaport, Ritual and religion in the making of humanity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
. Robert N. McCauley and E. Thomas Lawson, Bringing ritual to mind: psychological foundations of cultural forms (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
These are responses, edited slightly for clarity, to “The Backsides of White Souls:”
If you needed years and 26 drafts to process and eventually produce your piece, I can imagine that Black readers will also have to process the essay for a very long time in order to be at the same time truthful to their deep-down feelings, while taking into consideration the very honest and respectful way you handled the issues, while keeping yourself in the picture. It is a very good piece but impossible to dismiss the horrifying facts it is about. Trying not to be offensive to you and having to face the negative feelings is a real challenge. But you know all that… An Australian Aboriginal reader wrote to me, “A good read about a brave and decent bloke, but a disturbing feeling lingered with me. The KKK, ugghhhh.” It’s interesting to see how much you and Susan had to re-attune yourselves. Now that you have written with her, perhaps a similar dialogue would be possible with Black writers. Might be risky for sure.
I finally had a chance to read your piece. I think it’s excellent; very well written and riveting at points–necessary at this time, as well. It’s an important revelation that the politics in the States are dividing families as well as a nation.
I’ve read your essay and to my mind it’s an impressive work. I think you’ve achieved the literary style you were going for, and framing it with the dreams is highly effective. This is a sweeping, layered story but the reader doesn’t get bogged with complex family trees or extraneous details. In fact, it is the casual telling of these details such as your choice of jeans—Lee vs Levis, for example, that give us a closer look at the family landscape. You have a strong storytelling voice and it comes through here, the tone luring us into a seemingly innocuous family narrative. This essay reveals a lot about beliefs, and made me wonder about acquired beliefs (passed on through families) and those we seek out on our own. This also goes some way towards explaining how entrenched beliefs like those of your grandmother, and of your sister become enmeshed in political discussions. _____ said it has a literary tone and especially liked how you wove the dream sequences into it, and the irony of when you had to apologize to your grandma about writing KKK on her doorstep, your small-boy view realizing that her Christian beliefs would have kept her from such a group, when they in fact they claim their ideology is based in Christian beliefs.
This is a powerful piece of writing, Ron!! I had goosebumps through the final page. You have been as careful and objective as possible, and it would be difficult to imagine family members taking exception. But, then, families are families, and there can be long, convoluted emotional histories that defy reasonable intercourse.
Thanks a lot for sending this. Good to read your own heart-wrenching account of the personal impact of public/political circumstances. Liked the way you weaved the historical and current threads into the family story. Powerful.
In terms of content, I never, ever thought about a woman’s branch of the KKK; didn’t know there was such a thing. In fact, I wondered for a half-a-second if this part of the story was true! As a “family secret,” it goes back so many generations, it seems like a timely reveal for 2017. There were turns of phrases, of course, that made me chuckle, not knowing where they were headed–the kid writing KKK in the dust, staggering under the weight of confederate ancestors, the sign on the gate.
I find myself, once again, really enjoying (maybe that’s not the right word) but getting into “Sleeping with the Author.” I am still amazed and envious in the way you two work through issues. I find myself identifying with both of you, maybe jumping in on both sides of the discussion. I catch myself thinking, “Ah, good point.” Also I have to say that I’m glad I’m not on either side. It would be difficult. Susan makes a number of points that are to my way of thinking. AND Ron I believe in what you are trying to accomplish. No easy task. I think Susan says editing is probably easier when you are not familiar with the writer. Well that was just amazing. I love the dynamic between you two. Also, I now have to go back and re read the essay to see if I think it’s in your voice. I must have thought it was because I sure was caught up in the thing.
Wow, a fascinating exchange with Susan you dish up here! A family story not unlike yours has turned up many times, hasn’t it? … And in some of the damnedest places … Is there something special, unique, something keenly compelling and singularly revealing about your version? There must be for you. What is it? Make it in some gripping way the focus of your attention …. God, forgive me for saying what I have, but I had to say it.
I like your piece a lot and it certainly is timely. It is solidly provocative in all the right ways. Formally, I very much liked the way you evoked and layered different narrative positions and time frames. My hesitation was that it lost a bit too much of its momentum in the later part. Seemed to narrow it’s focus a bit too much? Quite possibly this was due to the constraints of the word count limit. Seemed it either needed to be longer or needed to not cite so many details about the Klan. That said, I am indeed happy that it is being published! And I wholeheartedly support you in doing more of this “kind of writing.”
CNQ is a perfect fit, a publication that supports critical thinking and would ‘get’ your essay. We need more of these thoughtful, probing pieces floating around in the public sphere for there is certainly enough that is nowhere near reflective or thought-provoking. Congratulations on seeing this through from a seed of an idea to a published thing in what would be considered lightening speed in most publishing circles. I think that’s called focus and perseverance.
A real value of your item, Ron, resides … I think … in your depiction of your young self, and your admiration of your grandma. Like a robin teaching a youngster its song, our folk teach us about the “objective,” the “real” world. And later, if we are lucky or persistent or of a certain character, we pull back the veil, just a little bit. Otherwise – this is the world as it is. And I think you illustrate this mightily well.
Congratulations on getting your piece published! Perfect timing, and perfect place for it to come out. (Too many p’s.) I found it on the CNQ website and I’ll share it with my social media friends (and the others who wisely stay away from that stuff). It’s a beautiful essay, a reminder that the roots of prejudice are deep, and often hidden from us as we receive the “wisdom” of our elders. As you describe in your own family, for many it is too dangerous and uncomfortable and too much work to question that wisdom. As if life should be easy or the world unchanging.
So pleased and honoured that you sent this to me. Thank you. You really did get your shit together. And how beautifully. I hear your voice so clearly. That great, raw, powerful honesty and thoughtfulness of yours. And the touch of your beloved editor, I hear that too. I know how talented she is as well.
Thank you for sharing the essay with me … I loved reading it so much. I learnt so much about Ron growing up and having been lucky enough to have met you and knowing what a wonderful person you are. I can’t wait to see you and ask you some questions about the piece and about Rituals you teach at university. I thought it was very brave and important story to share with the world. I love seeing the photos of you as a child. I loved the interview with Susan and you … I imagined both of you sitting at the dinner table drinking tea (coffee) and eating date squares as the interviewed rolled. Anyway, Congratulations on a great essay and I can’t wait to read more of your work. I like the way you tell a story and your writing voice, you kept me engaged all the way through.
Thanks for sharing. I read the essay and the dialog and can certainly empathize with many thoughts expressed in each. I can recall my first knowledge of the KKK that happened in 1964 while our family was on a brief cattle buying/ family vacation to my mother’s home state of Arkansas. Shortly after lunch hour my father took us to a small town diner for our lunch break. The tables were all dirty when we arrived , but we sat down at one while our parents went off to the washrooms. On the table was a meager tip and a small white card that I mistook for a business card. I read it briefly then slipped it into my pocket. I was ten years old and somewhat “well read” for a child from “Forked Island” but extremely sheltered from the racial tensions of the day. I was sharp enough to pick-up on the tone and purpose of the card so I hid it for several days but would secretly study it at any private moment that I had. I contemplated what type of person would intentionally leave a note like this that was designed to “threaten” the recipient and at the same time it was part of what was left as a tip to thank the server. The message on the card was simply. “You have just served a member of the KKK.” There was a USA flag, a confederate flag and an illustration of a burning cross on it. After returning home and some time had passed, I showed it first to Mom who At first told me to get rid of it then she told me that my father could explain it to me better. So I took it over to Dad and he did tell me a bit about racial hatred and that the KKK was a thing of the past and that our country was beyond such organizations and individuals who harbored such hate! Boy did the events of the next few years ever prove him wrong.
I have sat down and re-read the article twice since you sent it. I find it revealing and important and it leads me to question deep, hidden prejudices that I have inherited. Makes me think and leaves me uncomfortable. What will you do with the ritual manual? Will there be a family ritual were it is burned. Perhaps the life you have lived and the integrity and struggle that you have brought to these questions has already burned the book.
A friend of mine, sent me your essay, “The Backsides of White Souls,” and recommended I read it. I live in Australia and have not seen any writing on the subject before. (Nor have I come across any writing by white Australians whose ancestors took part in the massacres and other depravities suffered by the indigenous people here, though some may well exist.) I found your essay most interesting. The dialogue between you and your editor/wife was fascinating, too! Thanks for sharing your musings on what you have been grappling with.
This morning I found the time, at last, to read your “Backsides.” I think there’s a good novel in the family history you sketch here. Have you ever thought of writing it? One passage stirs me to comment. You write, ” Sometimes overt and personal, racism is also institutional and entrenched. In either form it is armed and deadly.” These, I think, are not two different forms of racism but overlapping ones. Racism is the default position in the USA; and your essay suggests it may be about the same in Canada. As I see it, no one in the US is free of the infection of racism, the expression of which is white supremacy. Some people (whom we call overt racists) know this and dig in to maintain white supremacy. Most non-black people since the Civil Rights Movement deny it. A minority know it and work against it. But no one, whatever their color, is free of it. Perhaps I should avoid that last, absolutist statement, but if there are exceptions they are very few. The currents of culture and history run very strong. I guess that’s what your essay is about.
Thanks so much for the article. It’s certainly a great and timely piece for Black History month. It’s also a gracious offering of your own troubling experience to help others ‘shut up and listen’ and ‘get their shit together’.
There’s a great need for poop in a group behaviour, with the White House providing leadership sound bites like, “a nice guy like Rob Porter wouldn’t do that”, comments about mud huts in non-white countries, immigrant are what’s wrong with America, yada. And don’t we all love a great military parade! Especially when there’s little aid for Puerto Rico…
I just heard a podcast where they called the inevitable and future process of disinfecting America from the virus of the alt right as “detrumpification.” Yeah, we will need a great deal of this – miles to go before we sleep…. Let your article strike the first blow for detrumpification with your strong dose of penicillin! I guess the other problem is building a better immune system for the future.
I also appreciated the opportunity to understand the process you went through in writing it. Oh, and I liked the title and the related quote.
Something else I liked was that you didn’t assume a position of superiority or moral authority when you differentiated your views from those of your right wing family members. I would have found that challenging if I was writing the article, because I tend to equate the left with moral authority. However, I realized that your neutrality added to the quality of the article.
Can’t think of anything that I didn’t like or that even made me go hmmm…
On a personal note, I have wondered about your experience of writing the article. I assume that there was a pain factor in writing the article and in releasing to the world. Not that you need to share with the group, unless you are so inclined. I recognize that some of that is included in the article, but I figured there was a lot emotional work that went into decisions about what to include and what to omit.
I also had a thought that somebody like Sam Harris might interview you on his podcast if you sent the article to him. I know you have much better gigs than this but I would love to see your article and thinking get out to the common folk. I think this is such an important article.
Having come this evening from seeing a live performance of Antigone here in Montreal, which, though not as much about racism as it is about gods, ghosts and grief, I might just have been in the perfect frame of mind to read you “Backsides of White Souls” piece, which I have just done. I hope you’ll take the following criticism as constructive, and maybe healthily un-Canadian in its risking not being nice. I take your word for it when you say it is a seminal, even dangerous testament for you, a vital interrogation/unveiling of your family’s dead. But how deeply, really, has it scoured your own soul? Examined or exposed thoughts or actions of your own that might not have been as noble as you’d like? Troubling dreams of visitations, and a knife on the bedpost, don’t tell me very much at all about the darker sides of you. You stay pretty safe, hidden like what was inside the Life magazine envelope. A less weighty thing: the single paragraph on white nationalism in Canada, though that phenomenon is unarguably terrible, true, and growing, feels gratuitous, (an add-on for your TNQ editors ?), who, if so, should have told you that your own American family’s story was enough of a bitter tonic in itself. It is a real shame, and I suppose telling about this time, that you weren’t able to find an American publisher. Don’t give up on that one. All that said, I do feel I know you a tad better, after having read your piece. And that’s to the good.
I find the essay inspiring, comforting and sad. Sad because of the chasm it opens to the readers’ face and the melancholic longing to transcend it, knowing transcending is impossible. Comforting, because your essay does not conclude to chasm but keeps alive the longing. Someday the chasm might be transcendable, although probably not by us. The longing is a thread, a runway, a beckoning for a generation to come. I find the essay inspiring, I felt it makes sense to word your emotions and carry your thoughts. They have become digital paper planes across the divide. You ask questions, your sister prays. You might not get back your planes in plain paper, they arrive transmuted in a different shape, out of a strangely similar longing. You have transcended the gulf that divides you and your family by taking up your pen. The wide gulf is still there, but you have painted a picture that holds everyone together.That is the magic of writing. Thank you for that.
Thanks for your brilliant essay. From my understanding, it showed the knit relationship and events that have taken place in your family. To me, it was a good narrative and an intermarriage between oral tradition, historical events and sound memory. I enjoyed every bit of it. As they say, history is the study of the past in relation to the present and which serves as basis for understanding the future. I am beginning to think about how to weave and craft the many things my deceased grandmother and other loved ones told me before they passed on. I think that I will share it first with my children and see their reactions.
RadioLab is an exciting, quick-cut, question-asking podcast. Supposedly, it’s about science, but over the years, the questions keep growing. Little questions evolve into big questions if you are dogged in pursuing them as Jad and Robert, the two hosts, are. In “Bigger Little Questions” a kid asks why Earth is called “Earth.” Another question is whether space junk could accumulateuntil it kills, or strands, us. Big Questions indeed.
One of the most interesting dialogues in “Bigger Little Questions” is about fat. The discussion starts with a report about fatbergs, huge globules of fat that clog the London sewer system.A fatberg can weigh as much as 130 tons, 11 double-decker English buses, says The Guardian. Gross, for sure, but what’s the big question? How to dissolve it? How to prevent it? For Londoners maybe, but there is a persistent Dutch guy who is obsessed with fatbergs, wants to build one, but more than that, he wants to know where fat comes from. How did it enter the universe, and what good is it? To pursue the question he and colleagues build a purer fatberg than the British one. Partly it is a science experiment, and partly, an art installation. By the end of the “Bigger Little” discussion, it dawns on you that fat is the essential container for human life. Without it, we wouldn’t be.
February 1 is the beginning of Black History month in Canada and the U.S.
As a student in the 1960s I asked a black professor what he thought white people should do during what was then called “Negro History Week.”
His reply: “Keep your mouth shut and listen. Get your own shit together.”
“The Backsides of White Souls” is my attempt, having tried to listen, to get my shit together.
>> To read the essay click: “The Backsides of White Souls,” CNQ.
>> To read a dialogue about the essay’s writing and editing click: “Sleeping with the Author,” TNQ (The New Quarterly).
I know many souls that toss and whirl and pass, but none there are that intrigue me more than the Souls of White Folk . . . I see these souls undressed and from the back and side. I see the working of their entrails. I know their thoughts and they know that I know. This knowledge makes them now embarrassed, now furious. —W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Souls of White Folk,” 1920
“When it comes to fighting against white supremacy, it’s not just what you stand for, it’s who you sit with.” –Jamaya Khan, Maclean’s, August 16, 2017
“Now, mind, I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest.” –Ralph Ellison, Paris Review, Spring, 1957
For further reading on the contribution of white women to racism read “The Women Behind White Power.” Better still, read the book on which it is based: Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae.
Remembrance is supposed to be good for a community, but much depends how those who remember actually remember.
The Daily Beast reports on Mike Pence’s way of remembering the Holocaust:
“Many Jews have pointed out that Pence, who is an evangelical Christian, imposes a Christian narrative on the Holocaust, comparing victims of the Holocaust to Jesus. His tweet also paints Jewish victims of the Holocaust as martyrs for Israel, as if every Jew who died was an ardent Zionist, deliberately laying his or her life down for a future Jewish state. Pence treats the Holocaust as a holy validation of evangelical support for Israel. Many American evangelicals believe that Israel has a role to play in the apocalyptic end times. The Holocaust, then, for Pence becomes a kind of providential working out of God’s divine plan for the Jews. Israel makes the Holocaust worth it, at least from an evangelical perspective. Hallelujah.
“Pence is unusually blunt in framing the Holocaust as Christian resurrection narrative, but he’s not the only one to try to turn Auschwitz into inspiration porn. The majority of high-profile films and fictional narratives about the Holocaust focus on upbeat endings and salvation. Films like Defiance (2008), The Zookeeper’s Wife ( 2017) and, most famously Schindler’s List (1993) all tell stories about people who saved Jews during the Holocaust. They all end, ritually, with text informing the viewer how many people the protagonists rescued from death in the camps.”
If we want to reflect on the ways that rituals mobilize human memory, we need to take into account some basic distinctions, for instance, short- and long-term memory; muscle, or sensory, memory; emotional and intellectual memory.
When we say that someone has a good memory, we usually mean that he or she is quick at retrieving stored information such as names and faces, directions to work, or the contents of grocery lists. But when we memorialize, is that what we’re doing: recalling information?
In ritualized memorials, who or what is doing the remembering? Each individual? The group? The ritual itself?
And what about forgetting—is it always bad and remembering always good? Alzheimer’s patients can’t remember, and that is bad. But PTSD patients can’t stop remembering, and that too is bad. So we might want to distinguish functional from dysfunctional forgetting, functional from dysfunctional remembering.
That communities and individuals utilize their memories during and after ritual events is obvious enough. After all, memory is required for almost every human activity. But rituals are not exclusively about remembering. They are also about envisioning. (This is the less than perfect word I use to signal ritual’s capacity to look toward the future.) We humans often treat as memories things that we never knew in the first place. I cannot, literally speaking, remember the sacrifices made in the Great War. (In case you’ve “forgotten,” that was WWI.) Why? Because I wasn’t there. I experienced both world wars vicariously—by hearing stories, seeing films, and reading books.
What I actually remember (or forget) are old photos, war stories, newsreels, and memorial ceremonies. Even though commemorations may be indirectly about ancestors or heroes, they are directly about representations. Even if names remain engraved on tombstones forever (and many don’t), the dead will, eventually and inevitably, be forgotten as individuals. Someday, in the future, no one will be alive who remembers the actual people who died in the Holocaust, Norway on the 22nd of July 2011, or in the United States on the 11th of September 2001. Even if people, declaring that they will never forget, continue to memorialize these historic events, they will eventually forget.
We have memorials not only because we remember, but also because we forget. Most memorials, most of the time, are actually acts of imagining, not remembering, the dead. Eventually, all that remains are the collective dead, the ancestors, whom we know only by deploying our ritualistic and artistic imaginations retrospectively, toward the past.
I’m not saying that we invent the dead, but we do imagine and then utilize them for purposes they could not possibly have anticipated. However surely the dead once were, they are now made up. The dead become fictive personages whom we deploy in the present to help us wade into the deep waters of the future.
Assuming we remember, the next question, the bigger one, is what we will do in the future? In The Night Trilogy Elie Wiesel writes, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
After my last post about the pope’s view of truth, fake news and lies, my son Bryn, born and bred on Big Questions, played the devil and wrote:
BSG: Are you suggesting that no mortal human can ever speak or know ‘the truth’? That we’re all just guessing? What if one of our guesses is ‘the truth’, and God has a little checklist with all the Big Questions & answers, and whoever guesses one right gets rewarded in (or punished) in some manner?
Or what about scientific facts: water boils at 100 degrees. Isn’t that ‘a truth’ that was discovered and is now professed by humans?
RLG: You are raising two questions, one about God, the other about truth. If God, in fact, has a list of questions and answers, none of us can see it. I wouldn’t believe anyone who claims to have taken a peek at it.
Pascal argued that humans should wager in favor of God. If He exists and we don’t join up, we’re in trouble. So, for ass/soul-covering purposes, it’s best to bet on God. But what kind of a god does that imply? A heavenly father who rewards guessing, betting, and ass-covering? My dad wasn’t perfect, but he was fairer and more compassionate than that.
I’m not really saying there is no truth, only that no one, including clergy, politicians, or scientists, has a monopoly on it. I’m also saying that every uttered truth comes from a perspective. In quantum theory, this is called the observer effect. The observer changes–at least somewhat–the observed. I’m certain this effect is true about social interactions, social truths, but quantum theory holds that it is also true of physical interactions.
Water only boils at 100 degrees if you participate in the social convention called the metric system. If you live in a Fahrenheit country, water boils at 180 degrees. Right?
As I await Bryn’s reply, The Daily Beast reports on an art show containing a 3000-pound ice sculpture by Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese for an international Art Action Day. The sculpture, “TRUTH BE TOLD,” has, unfortunately, melted already, along with other ice sculptures: “DEMOCRACY,” “THE FUTURE,” “MIDDLE CLASS,” and “THE AMERICAN DREAM.”
On January 24, 2018, Pope Francis released a statement about fake news. It’s worth reading even if you are not a Francis fan.
As you would expect, it’s a homily (for Protestants, a sermon). His use of the story of Eden’s serpent is engaging. Francis equates the serpent with the Devil. (I would not.) Anyway, Mr. Serpent-Devil tempts Eve (never Adam) by giving her fake news, telling her a lie. The lie’s effectiveness consists in it’s sounding like a Big Truth, the one God is hiding from Eve and Adam, for their own good, of course. If you are in the know, the Big Truth is: You can live forever. And the Devil can put you in the know. Here, he says, have a bite.
Tradition says the instrument of truth was an apple. More likely it was a fig. Today it’s a tweet.
Francis pleads for honest and true dialogue coupled with honest, dig-deep journalism written by reporters who care about people:
“I would like, then, to invite everyone to promote a journalism of peace. By that, I do not mean the saccharine kind of journalism that refuses to acknowledge the existence of serious problems or smacks of sentimentalism. On the contrary, I mean a journalism that is truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines. A journalism created by people for people, one that is at the service of all, especially those – and they are the majority in our world – who have no voice. A journalism less concentrated on breaking news than on exploring the underlying causes of conflicts, in order to promote deeper understanding and contribute to their resolution by setting in place virtuous processes. A journalism committed to pointing out alternatives to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence.”
Who could argue with this? Journalism, the pope declares, is a mission. I’m sure for him “mission” is a term of elevation, like “calling,” not like the missions of missionaries, whom some journalists would regard as agents of religious imperialism.
The truth, the pope says, is not only true facts but also the life that proceeds from them. And the guarantor of truth is God. You expected that, right? Fair enough; the pope is a Christian.
But here’s the problem: Men and women of God, from the pope down through the hierarchy, are not gods. In theory, they know they are human spokespersons. In theory, they know they get things wrong. Like us, like the snake, they too lie, are misinformed, or are self-deceived. The problem is that there is no way to get the pure, simple truth straight from God, the guarantor of truth. Always there is an evangelist or pope or priest or pastor or rabbi or imam speaking for God. And their speaking for often becomes speaking as: Listen to what I am saying as if God were talking through me.
I love the talking through metaphor. Jeff Dunham is a ventriloquist. His puppets are funny and controversial. Watch Dunham on YouTube and meet his friends, Walter, a crabby old white racist, or Ahmed, a skeleton who wants to blow everything up. Jeff literally talks through, or talks as, each character. We viewers don’t know how much Walter or Ahmed speaks for Jeff, the performer-animator on stage. Jeff can always sidestep by declaring to his manikin: I didn’t say that; you said that. A viewer can never know “the truth,” so the truth cannot make us free. Rather the multiple truths issuing from the mouths of puppets make us laugh. We in the audience are always spinning among perspectives–never quite getting at THE truth–and laughing at ourselves when we can’t.
The problem is not only that the Devil is a ventriloquist, presumably speaking God’s truth, it is that clergy too are ventriloquists. What they say may be truthful or not, biased or not. They may convey true news but they also may convey fake news.
Recently, the pope formally apologized to Chileans for sexual abuse in the church. A good first step. But, as Francis was leaving, he snarled back at a journalist, “There is not one shred of proof against him [a bishop accused of molesting children]. It’s all calumny. Is that clear?”
Chilean courts have found otherwise. So pick your devil: the journalist and courts versus the pope defending his own. In Chile confidence in the church has dropped from 80% in 1997 to less than 40% in 2017. The papal visit might have helped stem the tide of distrust, but the pope’s accusation of calumny undermined his credibility, leaving us in the audience spinning, trying to figure out who is the serpent and who is the spokesperson for God.
Unfortunately, the joke isn’t remotely funny.
Want to be reminded fives times a day that you’re gonna croak?
We Croak will do that for you.
Presumably based on an old Bhutanese saying about the secret of happiness, the app sends you wise sayings or poetry or a line to remind you that you should contemplate death at least five times daily.
A spiritual protein diet.
If the app promised to kill at least five pieces of email in my inbox, I’d sign up.
If five times a day isn’t enough, there are t-shirts. That way you can forget your own death (unless you read your own t-shirts upside down or backwards in the mirror). This way your friends and colleagues can contemplate their becroakment in the mirror of your t-shirt.
In “The App That Reminds You You’re Going to Die” (Atlantic) Bianca Bosker writes:
I’m eating lunch with my husband one afternoon when WeCroak presents a line from the Zen poet Gary Snyder: “The other side of the ‘sacred’ is the sight of your beloved in the underworld, dripping with maggots.”
I welcomed these grisly reminders into my life in the hope that WeCroak, along with half a dozen other mindfulness apps, could help transform my iPhone from a stressful distraction into a source of clarity and peace. According to a study by a research firm called Dscout, Americans check their phone an average of 76 times a day for a cumulative two and a half hours—and while many would like to cut back, simple willpower isn’t always enough. Amid growing concerns over our phone fixation, Silicon Valley has, in typical fashion, proposed technology as the solution; there are now more than 1,000 mindfulness apps designed to help us disconnect.
A thousand mindfulness apps? How mindful is that?
Probably more mindful than 76 times a day.
During holidays, you could call the labor “just cooking” or “just cleaning” or even “just fretting.” But if the family gathers, laughs, argues, reconnects, and remembers what it often forgets, maybe you should call the work something else.
Whoever engineers, or designs, the event is a celebrant, a ritual-maker. Describe the job this way, to remind yourself of its importance.
But then, what if the ritual-maker dies?
You do what?
Listen to the whole story:
For even more of the story and pictures, click here.
It’s easy, I suppose, to get romantic or religious as you age. It’s harder to get honest about yourself, your failures, and your aspirations. Leonard Cohen is about as straight-forward as you can get.
I beg Leonard’s pardon for putting him to work in the service of democracy:
Big questions aren’t anyone’s area of specialization. Some might claim they are experts in the Big, but they aren’t. Religious leaders sometimes make such claims, but ask a question or two, and you’ll soon hit a qualifier, something like “according to my tradition.”
A few weeks ago night I was lost on the UCLA campus and asked a group of guys how to find the faculty guest house. The students live and work here, but they didn’t know. But the guys were quick. Two whipped out their cell phones. “What’s the name again?” Soon they had the answer, “Down that street, then on the left.” They didn’t know, and didn’t need to know, but they knew how to know.
The next morning I had a discussion with a broadminded acoustical engineer who studies sonic resonances and collaborates with an art historian trying to understand how sacred sounds bounce around the insides of some church buildings, creating something participants are likely to interpret as the voices of angels. (It helps if you are contemplating holy images on the walls or altar screens). I asked the engineer whether his university (not UCLA) had a program in visual anthropology. He didn’t know. Then he joked, “You know how engineers are, we just hole up in Engineering and ignore the rest.” In response to another ignoramus question from me, he said, “That’s not really my area specialization.” He was being modest. Another time he gave the same answer, and I thought, ah, this time he’s dodging.
I had to ask myself: When am I being humble, and when am I dodging?
Doctors, lawyers, scholars, not to mention cab drivers, cleaning staff, and cooks specialize: I’m a urologist, I’m a dessert chef. We all specialize. Sometimes our job descriptions say so. Parts of the brain and body also specialize. Humans need specialization for survival. We can’t attend to everything, so the brain selects sensory data on the basis of its physiology and what it’s learned before.
But what about the glue—the stuff that connects brain parts or cities or departments of medicine? Big questions are about the connective tissue, the whatever that holds the whole kit and caboodle together. Maybe there is no “whatever,” no “kit,” no “caboodle.” Fine, how do the parts cohere? Gravity? Electronic attraction? God? What’s the glue? If “glue” makes the universe sound stuck, but we know that the universe is moving, fine, what’s the “dynamic force?”
You’re asking me? I don’t know. That’s not my area of specialization.
“Three Places I Never Went” by Paul Antick, who is a founding member of the Terror and the Tour research group and co-editor of Liminalities’ Terror and the Tour special issue. His recent contributions include, “Bhopal to Bridgehampton: schema for a disaster tourism event,” in the Journal of Visual Culture. Antick is Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Roehampton, London.You can find some notes about the video here.
Think of Antick’s videography as slow food. It’s the work of a photographer. You will need to practice meditation to watch this remarkable video.
Robert Fullerton, an ex-shipyard welder in Glasgow, says, “Imagine going down into the dirt to find a word that you’re going to elevate up into poetry. That’s mining for me.” Drawing inspiration from the sparks, he imagines them as “wee possibilities or wee ideas,” Fullerton began crafting poems while working at the shipyard. He discovered that his dark, solitary days provided the “perfect thinking laboratory” for mining words.
Directed by Callum Rice for the Scottish Documentary Institute.
In the parable of the wise and foolish builders, Jesus says, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27, New International Version of the Bible).
The rock is an important biblical metaphor. St. Peter’s name means “the rock,” and Jesus plays off the name by saying, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.” Regarded as the successor of Peter, the Pope continues this rocklike tradition.” As result, neither doctrine nor liturgy is supposed to change. They are rocks.
The Dutch, however, are learning to build on sand using a Sand Motor, (the NPR story).
Unlike rock and its descendant, concrete, water passes through sand. You have to ask, What would Jesus do? Well, he’d want you to treat his planet well, and he was a creative storyteller, so what else, adapt the story: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise person who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because the rain passed through the sand. Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like those foolish persons who build their houses on concrete foundations. The rain came down, the cracks widened, the streams rose, the winds blew and beat against that house. It fell with a great crash, its basement full of water.”
Follow this link for an article I wrote while discussing Native American religions with Vine at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
When the kids were little, we began tossing them big questions.Where are your dead grandparents? Where do babies come from? What is a good person? What’s bad? If the house were on fire and you had to grab one thing, what would it be? These videoed interviews took various forms: storytelling, metaphysical speculation, flights of fantasy, competition, bullshit and blather–exactly like adult conversations.
Actually, their conversations upstage adult conversations.
Nearing 30 can the “kids” do better now?
We all get smarter as we grow up, right?
Everybody dies, and lots of people immigrate. But few Muslims marry Jews, and Mohawks rarely cross the river to conduct Condolence ceremonies among non-natives. Why? “A Daughter’s Song” doesn’t quite answer the question, but it captures what happens when such events coincide.
Three months after the death of Myriam Azoulay, Mohawks, invited by artists affiliated with Native-Immigrant (a Montreal arts project directed by Carolina Echeverria), offered a Condolence Ceremony for family and friends. This film braids together the ritual and a walk with Stephane, Myriam’s husband, who is accompanied by his daughter and mother-in-law.
For an interview with Francis Boots and Philip Deering see Mohawk Ritual and Education.
For an article about the event go to Bridging Rituals.
Norwegians sometimes refer to July 22, 2011, as their “9/11,” the day their perceptions were changed forever by an act of violence. An assassin exploded a car bomb beneath a government building in Oslo, then ferried to Utoya island, where he hunted down and shot Labour Party youth attending a summer camp. In the end, seventy-seven people were killed, and over three hundred injured. Norwegians sometimes say about the assassin that he was “one of us.”
This is a video about how the event was being commemorated in 2015.
Many viewers comment on the music. People have trouble identifying the instrument. One person wrote that the performance made his hair stand on end. Another commented on how perfectly appropriate to the subject matter it was. Another noted how different it is from the current Norwegian response: silence. The harmonica solo is an improvisation by Bryn Scott-Grimes at York University in 2011, a few months before the July 22 attacks.You can watch the original performance here.
Another experimental video that combines text and image: I Have Feathers Enough, and Toys Too.
by Susan Scott
News of the vision came on the eve of my high school graduation. All along there had been visions—it was enthralling, the boy’s likeness to young Joseph Smith—but this vision was different. The prophet Elijah had appeared, told the boy that he and I should marry. We were “meant to be” is what was said.
We related best, the boy and I, through long hand-written letters which I burned so my mother wouldn’t find them, but this one I jammed beneath the pillow. Thus saith Elijah … so this was a proposal? The message read more like a script for a Book of Mormon pageant, and I dared not question the pronouncement. Questioning would be a lack of faith. Yet if this were meant to be, why did I feel numb? What I felt was numb. This was not the fairy tale ending I’d envisioned.
I mean, running off together I could picture.
Hitchhiking-for-Jesus I could picture.
What I could not picture was being someone’s wife.
I had fallen for the boy at church camp the summer that I turned 16, all lonely and hormonal, and he, in Mom’s words, on the prowl.
“Forget about that boy,” she said, rifling through no-name jeans at K-Mart. I had wanted Levi’s, but that was not to be. This was August, on the heels of camp. Here we go, I thought. There was always some informant, some nosy cook or counsellor who reported back to Mom.
“What boy?” I feigned indifference.
“Don’t play dumb with me. You know I mean that long-haired kook. I don’t like the look of him, he looks like he does drugs.”
“He does not do drugs,” I muttered, but not so as she’d hear it. You could not talk back and expect to be left standing.
“You are not to see him, that’s my point. He’s an instigator, that one.” Instigator was the former store detective’s word for the longhaired-slash-suspicious.
“His dad’s an elder,” I murmured. Descended from the missionary who’d baptized Dad’s people in the 1890s—another thrilling detail I kept to myself. Mom disliked mention of her in-laws’ spiritual advancement.
“I don’t care if he’s the Queen of Sheba. I wouldn’t trust that boy as far as I could throw him.” She went on to tell him so herself, at the Labour Day potluck at church, where he’d hitchhiked some forty miles to see me—hauled him off to the nursery, where a fist in his face drove home the message: Leave us alone, and don’t look back.
That sealed the attraction. I needed rescuing, and he was game to play the prince.
And a fair prince he was. Wispy blond hair brushed his collarbone. Wire-rim glasses and flannel shirts gave him the air of a working intellectual, someone who knew his way around a toolbox. A cross whittled out of some soft wood swung from a leather thong looped about his neck. He was restless, the kind of youth who masters the guitar—our very own Stephen Stills was the buzz at youth camp—and with a hint of arrogance that made him seem precocious. “Principled” he’d say, not put off by the establishment or overbearing mothers.
“Unjust rules were meant to be broken,” he wrote after being roughed up in the nursery. I fell for that, too, and for two years we met in secret, in the bush behind my dull suburban high school, where he’d woo me with yogurt or granola (I had never tasted either) along with news about the great wide world. “I just felt you needed this,” he’d say, and out of his backpack would tumble some cassette (Dylan, mostly) and high-minded reads to set me on the path to liberation. Thoreau and Emerson, Rilke, Castenada, Rolling Stone. Whatever rules Mom laid down for my “own good” could not compete with the high romance of cutting class to walk and talk and kiss in the little woodlot, exchanging ardent letters. I sighed a lot, and he consoled. “You’re not meant to live this way,” he’d say. He was right on that score. The more Mom called the principal or read my diary, the greater my righteous indignation. At the end of my senior year and the height of bad behaviour, she finally called in Dad, who weighed in with a solemn “Listen to your mother.” I tossed my long dark horsetail hair and smirked.
“That’s it,” Mom snapped. “I’ve had it, girl. I’m sending you to a psychologist.”
“Good,” I piped. Finally, an adult who might listen.
Sadly, the offer was rescinded. So there I was, about to graduate and face the heartbreaking choice of to marry or to burn and yes, the call to wed depressed me, but it just felt wrong to doubt the vision. Visions were a first class nod from the Holy Ghost, a sign of spiritual elevation. I was lucky just to have a boyfriend, let alone someone so evolved. To my discerning teenage brain, a wet dream misremembered eclipsed the still, small voice of common sense.
And there was fear—fear so rank I could smell it. Fear of making my way in the world, alone. A sullen, bookish girl was fit for what exactly? I had touched a boy, the sap was flowing. Dear God, I prayed, please send a sign.
My sign came sans Jesus or the prophets when the long-faced Rapunzel made her presence felt. Night after night, I lay tossing on my narrow bed while the spectre hovered by the window, toying with her ropey hair.
The sky in these reveries was starless. This starless state, I realized, was mine.
Deception had bought a little breathing space, but at a cost. I had lost the moral high ground. I had lost all clarity of thought.
The horizon that had lit up briefly with the hope of counterculture freedom had gone dark.
“Sister,” the sad Rapunzel shook her ghostly locks. Hers was a voice I recognized, the voice I took to heart.
Think: When have you betrayed yourself, denied what your gut said was crazy foolish? Think: What did you tell yourself to make it all okay?
I told myself that what I felt had no bearing on what was meant to be.
I had turned 18 right out of high school and by September the boy and I had fled, backpack and guitar in tow, to see our camp directors, Mike and Dar, in the religious commune they were founding in the Carolinas. The winsome Dar, mother of three, doubled as a nurse; her husband, Mike, a social worker, also served as an elder in the church. Our plan, such as it was, was for Mike to marry the boy and me. Come winter we’d be home again, awaiting another revelation.
Was the plan god-given? I assumed it was. We left Niagara Falls without explaining why the journey south—that is, without a word about eloping.
The owly lights of the old VW van bobbed on the wheezy climb up Piney Mountain. Dar reached back and squeezed my hand. “What a blessing you could join us,” she smiled. After lurching up the steep farm road that emptied into fields, Mike killed the engine and all at once, we tumbled out into the fragrant southern night, into moonlight pooling on three small sheds ringed by a stand of whistling softwoods. I spied a chicken coop and outhouse on either side of what looked like an overgrown shed. “Welcome to our humble cabin,” Dar undid the latch, and the stiff pine door slid open. We stepped into a small dark room with table, stove and dry sink. “Make yourself at home,” she nudged us up the stairs, towards cold wood stove, pullout couch and rocker. A ladder led to the little loft where the family slept. This room too was dark, save for moonlight stealing through a small square pane.
This was homesteading in tobacco country. No neighbours within shouting distance. No water, power or insulation. Just coons and fox and possum, which spooked the family dog, a big old yellow mutt that whined a lot. Cry Baby scuttled underfoot while we unpacked the van, and Mike carried dozing children off to bed.
“You know,” Dar shushed the dog, “we’re building our cabin using wood from an abandoned factory.” Cry Baby settled once her mistress lit the oil lamp, and light bloomed in the musty kitchen. Dar cocked her head. “We sure could use your help.”
“Of course,” I enthused, “that’s why we’re here.” Could the false note be detected?
“You’re not afraid of vultures, are you? They skulk about the place, but they’re curious is all.”
“So this is not your land?”
“No,” she said. “It’s a ways from here, you’ll see.”
What I saw that autumn was grit coupled with imagination. There were homey touches, yes—Dar’s merry cross-stitch brightening the barn board; waking up to fresh baked bread—but these were exceptions, up there with bacon and Velveeta sandwiches, or cornmeal griddle cakes lathered with peach jam. Weekly showers at the high school were the real treat, thanks to a laconic shop teacher by the name of Wes who smuggled us into the locker rooms on Friday nights. The kids—ages three, five and seven—bathed old-school back on the hill, in a washtub in the kitchen.
“It’s like camping,” their lanky dad would say. How long could they live in an old tobacco barn? Again, the boyish grin. “No more than a few years we hope.”
Hope was the watchword for this back-to-the-land living that charmed, inspired—unless you were put off by poverty and dirt, or bloody fox raids that enraged the hens, wings flapping in a mad show of indignation at the loss of another of their sisters.
I wish I could look back at that time on Piney Mountain and see myself wrangling chicken wire or kneading dough at daybreak, anything that would ease the many burdens of our hosts. What I see is a spectre ambling the slopes, contemplating turns of phrase—how Thoreau might have eulogized the brazen kudzu, the pokeweed’s bloody juices purpling the fingers—a pastime that distracted me from dreary chores like writing home to say Dear Mom and Dad, Just so you know, I’m getting married. For the life of me I could not speak up, I could not bring myself to say the simple truth, that I was shutting down. The depression that had dogged my sorry youth had not lifted, as I’d hoped. If anything, it had only deepened.
Once I turned 18, I caught a bus (in defiance) to Niagara Falls, and in a curious twist the boy’s family took me in, which turned out to be a godsend—news soon came that Mom had sold my bed. And that was that: I was launched, a dark Rapunzel, free to seize her independence, or to follow the fair prince. And since the latter had been foretold by an erstwhile prophet, I fell into the age-old habit of simply following a man. Following had led me here, to fields I wandered in a pre-nuptial haze, girl from the North country, long hair “all down her breast,” clueless what to do with my so-called life.
Dar, to her credit, tried to reach me. In return, I was maddeningly evasive. “What will you do when you go back to Canada?” (Sorry, I have no idea.) “What’s your heart telling you to do?” (Ditto.) “Did you want to buy a veil?” (Hmm, would it go with the granny gown scrunched up in my backpack?) In truth, I couldn’t breathe when I thought about the wedding. But that was normal, right? Eloping casts a kind of spell. Travel casts another. I explained this was my first trip south, first sighting of hickory and hornbeam, first encounter with rhododendron-covered rocks and spillways. Magnolias were new to me. Sassafras was new. So was the sweet, sweet smell of dried tobacco. I’m lost, I laughed. That much was true. Smitten and confounded by the fog-wiped, painterly, impoverished and enchanted.
I came to at the wedding the first week of November, deep in R. J. Reynolds’s tobacco country, on a 30-acre parcel of spindly pine and oak brush that went by the name of Zion’s Depot.
You will not find that name on any map. Mike and Dar and the others who had bought the land in common had coined a name that did not suggest fanatics or an armoured compound, at least not to the like-minded souls flocking to the Tar Heel State, hoping for cheap land to buy and settle. And in that sense, other than Cry Baby in festive red bandanna, all eight wedding guests were older, seasoned versions of ourselves—dreamers, seekers, ersatz saints in the latter days of a hopeful era.
I’d first heard about Mike’s vision at that fateful church camp the summer that I turned 16, before news of it seeped north across the border and alarmed members of our sleepy congregation—people like my mother, who saw youth camp as a training ground for braless hippies.
“All this talk about a commune…” Mom clucked, hand on ample hip, presiding over a mess of sizzling onions. “That Mike’s an instigator.”
“Mom, read the Bible. Followers of Jesus held their goods in common.” I was preachy and obnoxious and I didn’t care. What I cared about was fleeing death-by-suburb.
“Don’t get smart with me. Communes are for you-know-what.”
I rolled my eyes, but not so as she’d notice. “Look, Mike’s an elder who’s doing what he thinks is right. Besides, you’ve never even met him.” I had just met Mike and the moon-faced Dar myself at the most amazing youth camp ever. Their van alone was proof that Jesus freaks could be real cool.
“I don’t go in for kooks,” Mom smirked. Cold potatoes hit the fry pan. “All this vision talk is nonsense.” The onions coiled and hissed.
Her attitude, as always, was unspeakably depressing. I thought of Emerson. To be great is to be misunderstood.
“Girl,” Mom shook her head. “If you go in for all that vision talk, you really are deluded.”
Deluded? Wow, I thought, who’s talking.
Living on the land, as I’d understood from all my reading—as I’d pictured it before setting foot in hard-scrabble Appalachia—would be hard, yes, a test of character that would purify the heart. Who could fail at this ennobling life if it were meant to be? Clearly Mike and Dar had been led to this death-wed mythic landscape for a reason.
And me? Why was I standing toe-to-toe with a groom I hardly spoke to under a twisty leafless oak on such a damn cold day?
You will not find the name Rapunzel in the scriptures, but she’s there just the same— anytime there is push-pull over woman. Eve was one such woman, and what was said to Eve? “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow.”
God didn’t speak to me directly, but shame drove the message home. I was a failure. Girl, you are such a disappointment.
My family never spoke of the elopement. One aunt didn’t speak to me for 20 years, she was so put off by my counterculture nonsense.
The in-laws took another tack. “What about a ring?” My mother-in-law would offer up a plain gold band—a family heirloom, which I moodily declined. (Wedding rings are so conventional.) “Any pictures?” (Oh no, we’d never pose for pictures.) Our sole memento, the Stokes County marriage certificate with its quaint cameo of two clasped hands, aroused plenty of suspicion, as did the fact that I soon took back my maiden name. That was a real head shaker. Even so, most people made an effort to adapt to our playing man and wife. My home church would even throw a shower, which I swore up and down I didn’t want, but the women I had known since childhood insisted on the age-old rite of passage. When I walked into the old church hall, I was met by every piece of Tupperware known to humankind.
“Well, what did you expect?” Mom sounded battle-weary. “They asked me what you needed and I told them.”
Mom and I made up in other ways as well, most times without a fight. All fights now were inside the marriage.
He grew sullen, I grew loud. It was an adjustment.
There were moments, though. On the bitter cold December morning we arrived back in Niagara Falls, when my father-in-law met our Greyhound bus with “Welcome home, children, how about some breakfast?” (our first hot meal in days) and we used the diner’s pay phone to call about an ad for an apartment in a storied nineteenth-century mansion up on Lundy’s Lane—a place we took sight unseen, because it was a sign—I was flooded with a fleeting sense of promise. A big old funky place filled with drug-dealing misfits could inspire just the pluck we’d need, to emulate our heroes in the Carolina outback.
Sure enough, hardship worked its magic, distracted us from the fact that two kids fresh out of high school could not find work. Finally, when winter fell full force inside and out, when the unheated apartment grew so cold that the clothes laid out stiffened like cadavers, we finally got inventive—tossed our jeans and socks and mitts into the oven, long enough to toast them and get us up and out the door: he, to the unemployment office every morning, and me to the in-laws before plodding to the library to look up universities, or plunder cookbooks, scouting recipes for Mormon bread.
Time passed and winter deepened. Niagara Falls is an icy haze in winter, and with the bitter damp comes an eerie pall that tricks the senses. Friends who stayed over complained of a presence in the living room where they’d camped out on the floor. A big old house like this has ghosts, they murmured over breakfast. No, no ghosts, I countered.
Haunted, though, is how I felt when evenings fell, and my spouse lay down his fair guitar to lace up his hiking boots. “Don’t wait up,” he’d say. “I’m headed to the Falls.” Some nights it was the Rapids, or the Whirlpool, wild places that had been ours not so long ago.
Hour after hour, stiffening on the mattress on the hard cold floor, I’d listen for the door to open, staring at the frosted window, worrying my hair, wondering Where the hell was this Elijah? If the Almighty had something grand in store, now would be the time to show it.
Sad to say, no figures made their presence felt.
What was felt was a towering sense of loss.
Loss filled the awkward silence in an awkward marriage, a union in which neither party could speak up or bring ourselves to say the truth—that we were neither favoured nor appointed. We were not pioneering. We were simply keeping time. This pre-ordained joining of a boy and girl—this was conforming.
We’d conformed to someone else’s vision of how to live our lives. We had fallen for the powerful, alluring—what was not yet love.
Then suddenly it’s morning, and once again we’re hopping about a frigid kitchen, pulling on our roasted socks and jeans, and, well, there’s a kind of joy in that—joy in pushing back against the odds of failing, for the odds are overwhelming that you will. For now, all you can do is bundle up and go your separate ways: he to look for work, and you, to the holy precincts of the book stacks by way of the in-laws, where maybe, just maybe, you will set aside your sorrow long enough to lend a hand, or do the unexpected. Admit to your affection for the great wide world.
Susan Scott is nonfiction editor for The New Quarterly.
When Cailleah was a kid, she complained, “Creativity, creativity, creativity…that’s all I hear in this family. I’m sick of all that C stuff.” Twenty-five or so year later she’s released her first documentary film, She Got Game, and Bryn, his first music album, Room on Ossington.
We must have seduced them into creativity and imagination. We can die happy now.
Before her 13th birthday Cailleah said there was no way we were going to do any of that R stuff like they do to African girls. I’m not sure what she imagined or where she picked up the images stuck in her brain, and she wasn’t about to say the word “menstruate” or “period.” When I asked if we could do C stuff, she asked, What? I said, Celebration. That made her happy. So we C instead of R.
There are two troubling R’s, ritual and religion. We didn’t succeed in making our kids religious, but we didn’t succeed in making ourselves religious either, at least not in the way “being religious” is usually understood. We’re not members of a religious group or institution. We don’t identify as SBNRs (spiritual but not religious) or Nones (no-religion people). Even so, I say I’m a religious animal. And Susan says, “If I’m anything at heart, I’m religious; that’s all there is to it.”
I’d define the words this way:
Creativity: practicing one’s gifts for the sake of the planet
Ritual: embodied, condensed, and prescribed enactment
Spirituality: life as lived in resonance with fundamental principles and powers, usually symbolized as deepest, first, last, highest, or most central
Religion: 1. how people tie things together (the etymology of the word); 2. spirituality organized into a tradition, system, or institution and typically consisting of interlacing processes: experiential-mystical, mythic-historical, ritualistic-performative, doctrinal-cosmological, ethical-legal, social-personal, physical-spatial
In 2012, Cailleah imagined I might die while she was in Japan. She worried that I would never know what she could become, so we improvised a ritual with her in Toronto and I in Waterloo. Then, she made this film. I didn’t croak (although I almost did in 2013). We’re both still going, making it up as we go. Soon we will make a follow-up film to this one.
I’ve been riding the Iron Horse Trail for years. In 1997 Kitchener-Waterloo drizzled a ribbon of asphalt over an old rail bed connecting the twin cities. Since then, we fine, upstanding citizens have been practicing–ambling, walking, riding, jogging. I say “practicing” because for some of us this is lifelong learning, and because some of us aren’t especially adept at it. So practice it is.
Some mornings I grumble at the thought that the trail calls. Should a trail “call?” It has friends enough. The neighbors are out there walking, biking, jogging, slicked out in sweats or pooping their pets. Others of us, early or late in life, trot out our iron horses: bikes, wheelchairs, strollers.
I bike. When people ask why, I say “to stay alive, why else?” I mean it. Secretly, I’m lazy. One of my Dutch students initiated the Walk of Wisdom, a circular pilgrimage around Nijmegen. It’s 136 km. I’d never make it. That’s why you have enterprising students students: so they will walk the walk you could only talk.
Unlike the trail up Boulder Creek Canyon, the K-W Iron Horse Trail is flat, reminding me of the terrain around Nijmegen. (Ah, for one of those fine Dutch bikes, which I still can’t afford!) The flatness of the Iron Horse is, I suppose, easy on aging hearts and muscles, but flatness also provokes anxiety. I grew up in the high dry, dusty plains of eastern New Mexico, and I’m not fan of flatitude. In western Canada, they call these level expanses prairies. As a kid, I imagined prairies were places for prayer. Places where people asked God to help them escape to the mountains. Mountains and coasts are holy. The great continental mid-section is safe.
An iron horse is a train. If you’re not too young, you know this already.
“Horsing around.” Did you use that phrase as a synonym for “play?”
“Ironing:” what we used to do to our clothes before stay-pressed and no-iron were invented.
“Ironing your horse:” nailing shoes on it. By pounding them through an iron shoe and then through the horse’s “nails,” you render the poor beast roadworthy. In the process, of course, you damage the hooves. Take your pick: asphalt damage or nail damage.
I imagine animating the Spirit of the Iron Horse Trail. Raising it from the flatlands of the urban imagination.
I revel, conjuring an evening of processing and parading, of candle lanterns and steampunk horses, of kids inventing new kinds of horses.
I went to an Iron Horse Trail town meeting and could find no compatriots. I wanted to reimagine the trail, conjure its spirits, fill it with masked processions, have funeral processions down it, dance down up, have a yearly contest to build an Iron Horse Trail horse. But most participants wanted to enhance safety, make the trail wider, and post courtesy instructions.
Within a few months the trail was widened to accommodate Catalyst137, “The World’s Largest Internet of Things Manufacturing Space. I love technology, even the technology of machine horses. But, damn, I wish we would stock the trail with imaginary creatures. This ain’t Silicone Valley, although the city mothers and fathers wish it were.
In the parable of the wise and foolish builders, Jesus says, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27, New International Version of the Bible (NIV).
The rock is a key biblical metaphor. St. Peter’s name means “the rock,” and Jesus plays off it by saying, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Regarded as the successor of Peter, the Pope continues this rocklike tradition. As result, neither doctrine nor liturgy is supposed to change; they too are rocks.
In a project called Building with Nature the Dutch, however, are learning to build houses on sand using a Sand Motor:
Unlike rock and its synthetic descendant, concrete, water passes through sand. What would Jesus do? He was a creative storyteller, so what else? Adapt the story: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise person who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because the rain passed through the sand. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like those foolish persons who build their houses on concrete foundations. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash, its basement full of water.”
The problem with theologies and theories of religion that use rocks as models is that they are based on a false premise, that invariant institutions and rituals can orient you in a flowing, changing universe. As surely as the hour hand on a clock moves, religions evolve; they are “edited.” There is no such thing as stasis, not for clock hands, not for rocks, and not for liturgies (even “divine” ones). There is no unchanging ground either inside religion or outside it. All is flow, all is flux; there are only differing rates of change. The tectonic plates of the earth move by subduction; they shift and float. Not only is the universe variant and imperfect, so are the religions and rituals by which people negotiate it and orient to it.
When you have the time and freedom to circle the deep, that’s glorious. When you don’t have either the time or the freedom–when you’re draped over the edge by another hand–that’s dreadful. When someone else cuts your life short by lynching, angry questions burn the air. The Equal Justice Initiative is building the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, near the site of a slave auction block. (Montgomery has 59 sites commemorating the Confederacy.) The memorial will include a lynching museum to commemorate the 4000 racial lynchings that happened in the U.S. between the Civil War and World War II (1877-1950).
The Community Remembrance Project of the EJI is collecting soil samples from lynching sites and will incorporate them into the museum.
An historical view of the origins of lynching culture:
This bit of musing is an experiment in querying your big question.
Ron is me. Don is Ron playing the Devil.
Ron: Am I going to die?
Don: Of course. Silly question. Get serious.
Ron: Okay, when will I die?
Don: You really want to know that? Don’t you get anxious just waiting for the bus or train to arrive? Just think how paralyzed you’d be if you knew when you were going to croak.
Ron: Knowing when would help me prepare.
Don: Would it? If you knew you’d go tomorrow, would that help? You’d panic, wouldn’t you? Or if you knew your day was coming in 25 years, you’d do what? Get lazy?
Ron: True, panicking or loafing. What’s the use in either?
Don: Maybe you have a better question.
Ron: Like, How will I die?
Don: If I said, By auto accident, you’d…?
Ron: I don’t know. Quit driving?
Don: Right. So then you’d get hit from behind, that’s all. Well, suppose I said, You’ll die of Alzheimer’s, starting next year and running for 10 years, just to grind down your family. What then?
Ron: Dread. I’d have great dread for them and for me, but at least I could prepare.
Don: You don’t have to know how you’d die in order to prepare. Since you’ll never know the answers to future questions, why bother with the future? You could prepare now without knowing.
Ron: I’m wondering what I would do. I mean, day to day, what would I do to prepare for the Big Day? Probably the same thing I’m doing now.
Don: Better, but you sneaked the future back in. I’m going to press this buzzer every time you do that (a loud wrong-answer squawk). And what’s this “die right” stuff? What is it? And you get to pick that do you?
Ron: Well, I hope to have a good death.
Don: Hope (wrong-answer buzzer)?
Ron: Hoping for a good death then, how shall I live now? How’s that?
Don: Better, but you could just drop the front part, the hoping bit, eh?
Ron: So, you’d be happy with, How will I live now?
Don: There’s more resolve in that. But what kind of an answer does that question require? A description? A scene? An account of daily events? Or just a set of abstract virtues, you know, a good, true, and beautiful life following Plato or a trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly life following the Boy Scouts? Let me ask you a question, Is there a big difference between the life you’re living now and the one you’d live if you were acutely aware of your impeding death? How big is the gap?
Ron: Not too big. I’m living the life I want to live.
Don: Is that really true?
Ron: Pretty close.
Don: Such bullshit. What are you really saying is that you don’t have a big question at all?
Ron: Wouldn’t that be ironic since I’m hawking Big Questions, but I don’t have a BQ!
Don: Why bother even asking about death? Get a life.
Ron: I’m approaching 75. I am trying to ask an age-appropriate question.
Ron: Okay, let’s start again. These are real questions: Will my wife ever finish her book? Will my kids ever earn a living doing something they love, something meaningful?
Don: Those are their questions. Let them ask them. Ask your own damned questions.
Ron: Well, their questions are mine, sorta.
Don: Sorta? Are you sure your hidden question isn’t something like, How can they possibly get along without me?
Ron: (laughs) Maybe, but they are already doing that. They’ll be fine without me, sadder for a while, but fine. I want to come back to “age-appropriate.”
Don: I thought you were joking.
Ron: I was, but, look, I’ve lived a pretty full life, not perfect, but full. It feels like I’ve lived a couple of lives actually. If I died today, I’d die happy.
Don: You’re a pain in the ass. So why bother questioning then? You are a man-without-a-question. What a lonely soul!
Ron: I have lots of questions. Querying is my life’s motor. No more questions, no more life. I’m curiosity-driven. I want to know what’s over the next hill.
Ron: Find. I don’t know whether the Big Drop-Off is over the next rise, but I’ll risk scouting it out.
Don: While you’re still alive, right?
Ron: Right. I’m a 1-3-2 person.
Don: A what?
Ron: I jump from the beginning to the end, then I have to back to do, or re-do, the middle.
Don: Trouble is you can’t go back and re-do your 30s or 40s.
Ron: Yes, that’s my life’s problem. But I’m, what shall I say, in mid-late life?
Don: That would be funny if it weren’t such absolute crap. Let me make sure I get this straight. You want to creep up the edge of the canyon, peer over it, see the bottom, and live to tell about it, right?
Don: How do you propose to do that?
Ron: Imagine. How else?
Don: What do you imagine? Heaven? Hell?
Ron: No, nothing like that. In heaven, Which wife would I be married to? Singing all day, you gotta be kidding. Eating fried catfish all day, no thanks. Wing feathers everywhere. Gold streets hurting my feet. I can’t even imagine, much believe such poor imagined scenes. And your place, well hell, if God lets you get away with that, he/she is not God. So I imagine I am sand, dirt, sucked up by plants and trees. No thought. No heart. No breath.
Don: Isn’t that scary? Sad?
Ron: No, none of that.
Don: At peace?
Ron: No peace. No war.
Don: That’s not much. Are you running out of imaginative juice?
Ron: (begins to sing) “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play peanuckle on your snout.”
Don: I see, saved by your childhood antics. You probably chased girls with that song.
Ron: True, but it reminds me that I’d become compost, plant food, fish food, universe food.
Don: Universe food? That’s good. I like it.
Ron: Great, so my big question must be, How to imagine my post-life as universe food? What’s my taste? My smell? My smell after being eaten?
Ron: Did what?
Don: Fell off the edge. You’re cheering yourself up with scatological humor? Food-become-shit, come on.
Ron: It’s a Grimes thing.
Don: Get over it. That crap won’t help you on this side or the other.
Ron: Okay, okay. What’s my post-death life? How to imagine it? Hmm, I biodegrade into beautiful red and gold and white desert sand. I’m in my version of heaven now.
Don: Just to remind you, it’s hot there. No water. Sounds like you in that other place—with me.
Ron: No, in hell you’d have consciousness, feelings, regret, pain. As desert sand, I’d just be.
Don: Sure, until a dunebuggy ran over you or until you landed in the bottom of an aquarium with goldfish pooping on you from above. No, even the deserts get messed with.
Ron: Don’t bother me. I am being sand. Windblown.
Don: Until someone runs an atomic test over top of you.
Ron: But would I care?
Don: You should, but even if you wouldn’t, you do now. You want to be pure sand, no radiation, no dunebuggies, but whatever you are, it won’t last. It’s all temporary. This life is temporary. The next life is just as temporary.
Ron: I’m ignoring you. My body is burned, and my ashes are scattered off the rim of Canyonlands, and I am one with…
Don: You are not one with anything. You are daydreaming. You’d might be alone for a bit, until some noisy kid shouted over you to hear the echo.
Ron: Now that’s a good question. As canyon sand, can I listen? I am listening sand. How can I keep listening?
Don: You’re lost. You don’t know which end is up. You’re distracting yourself by being sand in a silly canyon sandbox. See you later, or never, which is the same thing.
Here the dialogue ends, but the night I wrote it, I fell to dreaming. In one dream Susan brings home relatives to live with us; we have such a big fight that it ends the marriage. In the dream that followed, all I see are heroin needles and tiny bottles; I am alone, a heroin addict.
Just to be clear, our marriage is not on the rocks, and I’m not an addict. Still, what’s up here? Imagining myself as listening canyon sand, even though Don the Devil tells me that can’t happen, is for a few minutes comforting. But circling the question has thrown up some hard stuff from deep sleep. I would actually be afraid if the relatives were to move in, but that’s not an ultimate fear. I have no fear of becoming a heroin addict, so that dream is not about the dope but about the final state: being alone. What if I were conscious and alone in the universe? That’s scary, but the presence of a god is just as scary. I like the idea of being part of a dead family, but as soon as I ask, Who is in the family? that idea is scary too.
So, what’s the lesson here? Circumambulate your question a few times and see what you dream.
by Susan Scott & Ron Grimes
first published in The New Quarterly, https://tnq.ca/sleeping-with-the-author/
“When it comes to fighting against white supremacy, it’s not just what you stand for, it’s who you sit with.” –Jamaya Khan, Maclean’s, August 16, 2017
“Now, mind, I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest.” –Ralph Ellison, Paris Review Spring, 1957
Editing the work of friends and family is a common goodwill gesture, often done as a favour, or, as is the case with certain literary couples, by design. John Gregory Dunne once told the New York Times that he and Joan Didion serve as one another’s “first reader, absolutely.” Glen David Gold described his and Alice Sebold’s harmonious writing-and-editing rhythms as expressions of the couple’s “complementary neuroses.”
My spouse and I are three decades into editing one another’s work, a lively partnership we safeguard by confining ourselves to separate sandboxes—his, in academia; mine, in arts and culture. The rise of Trump disrupted this peaceable arrangement. Suddenly, my husband was exploring explosive family history in a personal essay I’d encouraged him to write.
What I discovered in the process was unsettling. As an editor, I want the truth exposed. As a spouse, I sometimes dread it.
The following exchange with Ron Grimes took place in August and September, 2017, while he was submitting “The Backsides of White Souls” to literary magazines in the U.S. and Canada. If the essay is published, we will link to it, here.
–Susan Scott, TNQ nonfiction editor
Susan Scott: Canadian editor, American scholar. I wonder, have I done justice when it comes to your incendiary essay?
Ron Grimes: Sure you have. You’re doubting?
SS: The aftermath of Charlottesville, Virginia, got me thinking about the marriage of editing and culture. Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic about Trump’s addiction to flouting norms—even when he’s handed a statement that’s been vetted, he will not stay on script.
His behaviour reinforces this dismissal of the rational, cooling space that editing affords. Left and right, we’re seeing that cultural cooling space collapsing.
But cooling off can also mean constraint. Editing can just as easily undercut what the cultural moment calls for. “House of the Dead” exposes racism in an old American family. Looking back, I wonder, have I simply reined you in?
RG: Sometimes, but I knew you would do that, and I invited it. This essay is personal and dangerous. I kept losing perspective on it and needed your editorial eye. We both know the value of trying to imagine “the reader’s” eyes. We both believe that blindly accepting an editor’s suggestions is a mindless exercise. But we’ve done this before. The ultimate decision is the author’s, so I had to figure out when to let you rein me in and when not to.
SS: Fair enough. I wanted to think with you as you wrote, and I wanted you to think with me—not just resist, or capitulate to my suggestions. Not that you’d ever capitulate, really, but the creative tension between us colours how you write, and how I edit.
So, what about the spousal edit? When is it effective?
RG: Well, for instance, you helped me rethink the knife on the bedpost. I had that image in early drafts, and you wanted me to take it out.
SS: Right, the early draft you sent to friends confessed …
RG: Sorry, it wasn’t confession, it was fact. That knife had hung on the bedpost since my teens. You never complained about it until you read the essay, when you said …
SS: I said, “Okay, even if the knife does hang there, is that how you want to introduce yourself to readers? Unless you want to shock them, think about cutting the reference to the knife.” You still had ghosts and guns. Page one, no less. The knife’s important to the story; how it was handled was the question.
RG: Right, I don’t mind if people dismiss me in the last paragraph, I just don’t want them to dismiss me in the first paragraph.
SS: So, was it a loss, excising the knife?
RG: No, I didn’t excise it. The literary knife is back in now—reframed. I put the actual knife away one day when you were gone (and pulled it back out momentarily to stage this photo). I thought, “I don’t need this ritual object hanging here anymore.” Did you notice?
SS: Ah, so that’s what happened. Editorial prompt as ritual prompt; that’s novel. Anything else come to mind?
RG: You and I both love economy and compression in writing, so I asked you to steal some of my words. I also love hyperbole, sparkle, and spew, so I sometimes dump economy. You suggested cutting:
Having moved north of the border to Canada in 1974, one might wish the load of baggage had been left behind, stuffed in a carpet bag and stashed in some remote, deep-south alley. But, as kids used to say in New Mexico, you can’t pee in only one corner of a swimming pool. Canadians put it more discreetly: When America sneezes, Canada catches cold.
SS: Yep, that had to go. Shall we talk about why, or is it obvious?
RG: I still like the passage, but I followed your suggestion. The context was too serious for horseplay. Those lines are now composting in my fragments file, waiting to jump into the next essay.
SS: Right, you know that I’m uneasy, still, about “House of the Dead” going public.
RG: Sorry to hear that. You urged me to write the essay. Why dread it now?
SS: I asked what you wanted to accomplish, and you said you wanted to make a racket, dragging skeletons out of the closet.
RG: I want white people to talk about being white. So, yes, open the closets and let the skeletons out, let them rattle their bones.
SS: Absolutely, but then what? Scott Gilmore called out Canadian racism in Maclean’s after the violence in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015, and that was well before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report. As a country, we’re just now admitting we have skeletons, let alone rattling them. Editing your essay made me realize I need to own up to that reluctance.
RG: Meaning what?
SS: You were starting brush fires using religion and politics as kindling. My response was to tamp down the flames. I argued that the longer the thematic checklist, the greater the danger that your characters would be flattened to little more than props. And on the one hand, that’s true. The more themes piled on, the more the clutter, and the less oxygen for power and precision.
On the other hand, your instinct as a writer is to fan the flames. I edited in favour of a smoulder.
RG: Compared with what’s happening in Charlottesville, I’ve built a tiny Boy Scout campfire surrounded by rocks to keep it from spreading. “House of the Dead” is a complex essay, but I had a hard time figuring out what the argument was. In academic writing I’d start with the thesis and argument. But in this essay I had characters, dialogue and a plot. My problem was less with characters than with plot and setting. They were too elaborate You had to keep straightening out my chronology. Anyway, we agree that an essay needs both a story and an argument, and there’s only so much you can do in 5,000 words.
SS: True enough, but I suggested that you try creative nonfiction (CNF) because it would expose you to techniques for exploring disturbing insights. Of course, like any art form, CNF is demanding. “The essay must be artistically rendered,” as Phillip Lopate says.
Sure enough, there you were, struggling with the form.
Let’s just say, I’m culpable on two fronts. I suggested CNF as a kind of discipline, then pulled back once I saw exactly where it took you.
RG: I asked you to give me homework, and I’ve done it. Sure, “House of the Dead” needs to be artistically rendered, but it also needs to be ethical and critical. The essay takes up unfinished family, ethnic, and national business that implicates living members of my family. I can’t think only about characters. I also have to think about people. Across five generations mine has been a “good” family, respected in the community. Among us siblings one is an atheist, one “believes pretty much what he believed as a kid,” one is far to the religious and political right, and I am, what shall I say, ludically religious. All these categories are inaccurate, but they will do for now. Two of us voted for Trump, two didn’t. If you asked my siblings, probably we’d say we’re not racist; some of us have non-white friends. In the 1970s we had a shouting match, not typical in our family, followed by an agreement never to talk again about race, religion, or politics. We may love each other, but in the current political climate we’re dysfunctional. America is failing, and the family so far is unable to deal the rifts. We haven’t faced our heritage, so we are unable to negotiate America’s loss of moral credibility.
SS: I see that. I also see ethical tripwires in your writing: whether to use people’s names; how fair it is to expose the voting choices and religious beliefs of family members; how to depict polarizing figures like your grandma. Then there’s the question, do you want your readers to empathize with all these figures?
RG: I do fieldwork on ritual, so empathizing is a part of my academic research. I have to consider the ethics of privacy as a part of my profession. I’ve rewritten the voices and depictions of my brothers and sister dozens of times. I care about their feelings, but I also want to tell the truth—as I see it, of course.
SS: I like that you’ve explored the use of dialogue. Now we hear real voices.
RG: Well, my reconstruction of real voices. My sister’s voice was the most difficult to represent, since our conversations kept breaking down. Trump supporters and Christian fundamentalists will likely read her character as courageous, standing up for her beliefs. Liberal readers will read her religious and political views differently.
SS: Either way, what readers want, I think, are compelling characters who make us think and feel. I want to understand your family, and I want your essay to help me do that. Is that an undue burden for the author? Maybe it is.
Are you showing the essay to your siblings?
RG: Maybe it’s a fair expectation of novels or great short story writers, but for me it’s an undue burden. This is a brief essay, and I’ve presented selected bits—characters, not actual personalities—and that’s as true of me as narrator as it is of the other characters. Even though I don’t use my siblings’ names, I decided against springing the published essay on them, so I am showing it to them before publication. I’ll listen to them, but I may not always take their advice. The essay reveals a big family secret. Some relatives may not like that I’ve told it publicly, but the current political crisis in the U.S. makes hiding irresponsible. Anyway, I first sent the essay to readers whose opinions I respect, people who could help me improve it.
SS: That surprised me, your circulating such an early draft.
RG: That’s part of my writing process, to send an essay out early to colleagues, while I’m still open to criticism and suggestions. Later, I’ll dig in, becoming more resistant to changes.
SS: Another classic difference between us: we have a radically different sense of timing. I suggest that authors hone their work before they show it, on the assumption that, the greater their confidence in the piece, the greater their resilience, weathering critique.
But it’s your essay and your process. And, let’s be frank: no matter how well the work is crafted, it isn’t going to heal the family.
RG: You’re guessing. Sure, it could be a bombshell, but it could also lead to some good, difficult conversations. I read Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington. Both tell about writing controversial family stories and getting surprisingly receptive reads by relatives. It’s a risk I’ve decided to take. Are you worried?
SS: I am. We seldom see your family. It’s hard enough, resolving minor conflicts at a distance, let alone your airing family secrets. You also take a stand on how the family functions. People will feel hurt. How that’s going to help, I wonder.
RG: People “may” feel hurt. You’re now playing therapist rather than editor, right?
SS: What can I say? It’s a hazard, sleeping with the author.
We both want good, hard conversations about equity and justice, but we both know that those are often easier to have with strangers.
Part of what I love about the small magazine world is that we’re exercising whatever modest power we have to open doors for writers. Releasing work that’s vital and authentic is what attracts me to publishing. Editing, for me, is deeply moral work. So here’s the irony: editing your essay made me aware of fears and inhibitions I wasn’t owning up to.
RG: Okay, I have a question for you. Is this the hardest editing you’ve ever done?
SS: In one way, yes. Academic-creative crossover pieces are hard to edit. Knotty. Resistant. But the truth is, it’s been a hard project because I am invested. We’re a small cross-border family that’s ill-equipped to deal with a lot of fallout.
Unintended consequences—I stew about those, too.
RG: Between us?
SS: No, we’re fine. We have a long history of bumper-car editing. You value hyperbole, I value understatement. We clash a lot.
RG: I’m from New Mexico, you’re from Ontario. Bang, bump!
SS: (laughs) Yes. You’re expansive, vocal. Your last book was over 400 pages. I’m a minimalist who works towards peaceful resolution.
Alice Quinn of the Poetry Society of America has spoken to the New York Times about the sense of urgency she’s seeing, what she calls the “reckoning and responsibility” that’s supplanting the introspective, personal tone of yesteryear’s poetry. We’re seeing the same shift in creative nonfiction. As an editor, I’m a fierce advocate for transgressive stories, but inhabiting “House of the Dead” with you has made me see that I’m also caught between private and public.
Now’s the time for reckoning on several fronts.
That’s where I’m at. And you?
RG: For sure, it’s a time of reckoning. As a Canadian, I too long for peaceful resolution, but as an American I’m not sure that’s always possible. Anyway, I’m still nosing around in literary journals where I hope to publish. I found “The Old Grey Mare,” an exquisite personal essay in the Yale Review by Colin Dayan, who also wrote The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons. We write about some of the same things—ritual, racism, mothers, the South. Reading her essay, then the book, made me realize how similar and yet how different the South is from the Southwest. I sent her an appreciative note. Now we are trading essays.
SS: Say more.
RG: When I read her essay, I thought, wow, that is literary. I wish I could write like that. I vented to you in frustration, “Please, make me sound more like me.” And you retorted that you were trying to get rid of my academic formalisms, make me sound more literary.
SS: Right, storyteller and scholar—you veer between the two.
RG: I don’t care much whether I sound either academic or literary. I would like my writing voice to “sound” like me.
SS: Fair enough. I love your cowboy storytelling voice, but there’s a time and place for it. “House of the Dead” isn’t it.
Umpteen drafts later, did you find the right voice for the essay?
RG: I’d be the last to know. I’m sure the editors and readers will let me know.
SS: Submitting to this world is new for you. After doing your research, you ended up with fifty-plus pages of notes on literary magazines in the States and Canada. Now you know more than I do. I’m curious, what’s the take-away?
RG: Having taken a grand tour on both sides of the border, I’d say that while magazines might be muses, they’re also Scylla and Charybdis—a rock shoal and whirlpool separated by a narrow pass through which your rowboat essay must pass. Several times I saw submissions rates in the thousands and acceptance rates of two percent. The literary rite of passage is just as daunting as the academic one. I’ve submitted to seven literary magazines and to the radio show, This American Life. I have ten more magazines lined up for September. I expect success, but many failures first.
SS: Okay, but you’re still reading, too. What’s the draw? Why burrow into lit mags?
RG: Same as you, I care about writing. I want to write better. I just read Terence Byrnes…
SS: Montreal writer-photographer, featured in TNQ 106 (Spring 2008).
RG: “South of Buck Creek” in Geist is a fabulous photo essay, so I wrote him. I’m busy trading stories and essays with him too. I rarely communicate with authors, but I am thoroughly enjoying it. But you ask why. This essay could die on the vine, or, if published, the shit could hit the fan. Either way, I want company. I love being a student. I’m hungry to learn from writers who struggle with the same issues. I want to learn how to honour but also to question the ancestors—well, my ancestors. By dragging the skeletons out of the closet, then talking publicly, I want to learn how live more justly—on stolen land, and benefitting from slave labour.
SS: On that we are united. So, you’re not about to quit my sandbox, are you?
RG: Why quit? I’m just getting started.
Bios: Ron Grimes is co-editor of the Oxford Ritual Studies Series and the author of several books, including Fictive Ritual: Reading, Writing, & Ritualizing. Susan Scott is TNQ’s lead nonfiction editor and the editor of Body & Soul: Creative Nonfiction for Skeptics and Seekers.
Susan, Bryn, and I attended the Women’s March, 2016, in Toronto. Cailleah had to work.
There were 60,000 of us who said an across-the-border no to Donald Trump.
Is democracy lost? We hope not.
If so, Leonard Cohen says it’s coming soon.
Is it coming?
or coming back?
or, having left, returning?
A colleague in New York City used to teach a course called “Hinduism Here.” A brilliant idea! Students walk out the door of Barnard College, Columbia. They look up and down Broadway and ask, “Where are the Hindus.” They start where they are, not in India.
Northrop Frye, famous literary theorist from that “other” university down the highway, wrote, “It seems to me that Canadian sensibility has been profoundly disturbed, not so much by our famous problem of identity, important as that is, as by a series of paradoxes in what confronts that identity. It is less perplexed by the question ‘Who am I?’ than by some such riddle as ‘Where is here?'” Now that I am here, I too wonder. The trouble is I have been here over 40 years and I still don’t know. Is “here” Canada? Ontario? Waterloo, my home address? And here, where I live, is it the bedroom, where…. or the study, where I work? Or the dining room, where the family gathers when the nest refills? Or is my “true” home where I’ll live when I “go.” And where on earth is that?
Recently, I’ve been trying inhabit this place, but how do you do that? Some do it by joining CORE, the local neighborhood activist group. Some join City Council. None of those is my way. I tend to be apolitical until Big Causes arise, but what’s a big cause? What isn’t? Always there are people knocking on your door announcing that theirs is the real big cause. I say no to all door-knocking and phone-ringing causes. Later, I may give or join, but I don’t want to reinforce the habit of disrupting suppertime, so I say NO in big print.
A big spiritual problem: how to say yes to here.
My kids are too old to give assignments, but I hired Bryn as an assistant to carry out two assignments. In the first I asked him to read Irving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and make a short film about everyday ritualization.
How he convinced his mom to be the star of O Mother, Where Art Thou I will never know. She still talks about the video and says how much she enjoyed the process of making it. Since she’s camera-shy (maybe even camera-hostile), that’s quite a feat. Even as I write this, she is ensconced in her writing ritual with a coffee to her left and scone crumbs to the right.
For the second assignment I hired Bryn as a research assistant to help me do video work on Prague’s Velvet Carnival. Since he’s a musician, I asked him to do something with the music of the festival. Instead of writing about it, he composed a song:
I have retired five times. Now I’m blogging about the little things to which life and death appear to be tethered. Some call Big Questions “religious;” others, “spiritual.” Both terms are troublesome, so I try to avoid them. I don’t believe in blogs any more than I believe in what most people call religion. Too many blogs are off the top of the head. Here I hope to ruminate rather than spew. I have nothing to lose or gain, not tenure (I was once a professor of religious studies), not a salary, not entries on my CV. I am now a Professor of Nothing. Entries in your resume won’t get you to heaven (even if you believe in such a place). As a professor, I wrote lots of questions, often in green ink, in the margins of student papers. “Oh, you got the Grimes-green-ink treatment.” My kids used to say that I like the word “query.” I do. A query is a big question persistently circumambulated. You circle the question because it bird-dogs you, inspires you, or drives you around the bend. So you walk it down, into the ground.
As a kid sitting in a sandbox on the high plains of New Mexico, I talked to a craggy, stunted Mr. Peartree, and it (or the sandbox) endowed me with thorny questions and a quirky imagination. Now, as an old guy riding a bike with a well oiled chain, I’m still rolling down the Iron Horse Trail in Kitchener-Waterloo. It connects with the Trans-Canada Trail, supposedly the longest in the world when it’s finished.
In 1974 I crossed the border from the Homeland, the God-blessed United States of America. I was not a draft dodger, although I would have been if my lottery number had been called. Now I carry two passports.
I became a religious studies professor because I’ve long enjoyed stalking the the big questions and the metaphors that make up the universe. I study ritual because I am attracted to it, repulsed by it, and don’t understand it. This is the home page of a blog about little things that link to big things. It’s about home, the place where I live, even though I’m not very good at living here.
Where is here? Ideally, home is always right here: this page, the place where you are sitting or standing right now. That’s straight Zen (which I practiced for 20 years). That’s how I’d like to live. But I don’t. Really, home is too often back there or over there. You left it, or you’re not quite there yet. Where is home? That is a big question, often one with no single or easy answer. I hesitate to label this my “home” page, because, as a matter of fact, I have another. But that is just a glorified CV, nothing more. I don’t live there. I hope that’s not all of me.
Many of us have other homes or homelands. Some of us have nothing we’d call home. Too many of us have no homes except streets and parks or bus stations–if you’re willing to call those places home. For 40 years I’ve lived here in Waterloo, Ontario, which is joined at the hip with Kitchener. But K-W still doesn’t feel like home even though the kids were born on the living room floor, and dead or handmade things inhabit the depths of the yard. Not feeling at home isn’t the fault of neighbors or city councils. It’s my own problem, although I’m not the only one who has it. Kitchener used to be called Berlin, but it changed its name since, during World War II, it couldn’t sell shoes stamped “Made in Berlin.” And Waterloo, well, Napoleon met his in Belgium. I seem to be meeting mine here.
In the basement there are still old cardboard boxes from previous moves, as if one day my wife and I are going to pack up and pedal toward the Rocky Mountains. Surely, you too are about to leave for somewhere. If not, what’s wrong with you?
Do I want to be buried here in K-W? I sometimes ask Susan, my wife, knows the question is rhetorical. We both know the answer: Not on your life! O bury me not in Mount Hope Cemetery (although we enjoy biking through it). First there’s the question of burial (death is not a question), then there’s the question of how the postmortem deed will be accomplished, by fire or dirt-and-worm. I don’t want my ashes scattered in the Region of Waterloo, where I’m most likely to die, any more than I want them scattered outside Clovis, New Mexico, where I grew up. So where is home? Where should they put me when it’s time?
Maybe scatter me at Grimes Corner, which is near Madrid, half a hour from Santa Fe on the back road to Albuquerque.
I have to ask myself, in the interests of economy if nothing else: Why not along the Iron Horse Trail, which is just a few blocks away. I ride or walk it almost daily. When someone inquires why I do it, I reply, “Why else, to stay alive.” At first, my quip was ironic. Now it’s not.
If this community would wake up the Spirit of the Iron Horse Trail, fine, I’d be willing to exit from here. Assure me that my remains (and yours too, if you like) can be biked in procession down the Iron Horse Trail in a Dutch bakfeits, with big masks dancing around, and I’ll consent to cross over from this very place.
Tim Lilburn teaches at the University of Victoria and has published ten books of poetry. The Names, his most recent poetry collection, was published in 2017. The Larger Conversation: Contemplation and Place, a collection of essays, was published in 2017. This is an interview by Tim Wilson. To read “Listening with Courtesy,” another interview with Tim, go here.
In my imagination here’s where the trail ends (or, maybe, begins).
Don’t click “play” unless you have a full 2 minutes and 40 seconds (which isn’t a lot of time in view of eternity).
A sacred place hallowed by solemn ritual?
A place of doodling?
How paltry, our imaginations…
Susan talks about downsizing. I’m not ready for such a move even though people our age are doing it. For one thing, it would cost us more, not less, to move into a condo. For another, I am still capable of maintaining the house, so enjoy it. In a condo I’d have fewer reasons to get up out of this fabulous writing chair. Even if you have only lived in a bachelor apartment, after a year or two you realize how much crap you accumulate. When I’m tired of moving it around or dusting it, it’s crap. When I’m enjoying it, or even when I think I might use it in the future, it’s a resource, a comfort, a prized possession. We’d have to dispense with several truckloads of stuff. Even if we’re still physically capable of packing, lifting, and dumping it all, why go to all that trouble until you have to? Susan says that means it’ll all fall to her.
This morning, with Susan out of town, I started going through slides. Most are pre-Susan, so she doesn’t have any interest in them. If I were sorting family photos, pictures you can hold in your hand, she would care mightily.
It’s easy to feel sad, then get angry at Kodak (let “Kodak” stand for all electronics manufacturers that build obsolescence into their products).
Kodak spawned the slide-tray technology that lured us into shooting slides instead of pictures. Since slides were shown on a screen and were bigger than 4″ x 6″, they were more dramatic than photos. The lights went down, and the family gathered. We dads bought into the notion that photos and slides were “memories.” But gone are the days of slide projectors.
Most of the time, in the cosmic scheme of things, it hardly matters that you are always falling behind the technological curve. Some categories of slides were easier to dispense with than others. Buildings, gone. Colorful flowers, gone. Sunsets, into the bucket. What a lot of landscapes, into the trash. How easy it is now to let go of them. Their beauty is of little consequence as you circle the edge. Even vacation slides were not all that difficult to toss. Vacations were just vacations unless something significant happened to the family during one of them.
But when technological change costs your family memories, that’s immoral. Having to toss slides (last year it was CDs), I began to realize that they were semblances of memories, not memories. They were memory-triggers, mnemonic devices, not actual memories. Still, as I put slide after slide to death, it felt like, “Ah, there goes my old life, my pre-Susan, pre-Cailleah, pre-Bryn life.” It felt good to trash some of those slides, but others hurt. So I projected a few of the slides onto a rusted only screen, then shot them into digital eternity. But what suffering my kids will have when the technicians trash jpgs, not eternal after all.
An interview with Tim Lilburn by Darryl Whetter, Studies in Canadian Literature / Études en littérature canadienne, [S.l.], Jan. 1997, accessed 02 Oct. 2017. ISSN 1718-7850.
TL: First of all, I don’t think of myself as chiefly a writer. That strikes me as an empty category, it’s an unfilled room — “writer.” I think of myself as someone who looks, or someone who engages in various contemplative acts. That’s my work. The writing is the sort of wake thrown by that ocular and contemplative momentum. … How does seeing what I do that way affect my work? The work has no shape before the look. The work is shaped by the contemplative exercise.
DW: What about your attitude toward metaphor then? Let’s consider that through the issue of rewriting: what happens there? You’ve had the contemplative response, it’s announced a shape to you; in rewriting, are you perfecting that shape?
TL: Lately I’ve been thinking of writing as truth-telling. So what is this thing that I’m trying to talk about in truth, what is the truest thing I can say about it? I find myself trying to think of the inferiority of the thing. In January in Saskatchewan, for instance, in creek areas and swamp areas, the red of the red willow changes, takes on a kind of shyness or faintness. Well what is that like? I suggested to myself that the willow “goes in to the small room of its redness where there is no book.”
DW: You already started with a description of the redness as shyness and then moved to this image of the room. Is that movement part of the seeing gesture for you?
TL: Well, maybe. I was also thinking of this redness as dropping its eyes when you look at it. It is an anthropomorphizing of the tree, though it’s not an acquisition, or a wrenching, but a touching, or grasping, and a release. There’s also something comical to me in that metaphor, there’s a kind of hilarity. And somehow this hilarity feels like walking beside the thing.
DW: Is “seeing with courtesy” a way to truth?
TL: It is truth. The thing is more than your name for it and more than your ability to know it. It’s more magnificent to you than your imagination of your advantage. It’s just broader in so many ways so that approaching it — the river, the hills, the deer, anything — you are tempted to simply give up in front of it. But if you don’t give up, can’t do this, say, the thing has about it a kind of distance. Its sheer distance is a kind of violence; it thwarts what you pride most in yourself, your ability to comprehend, your ability to draw things toward you through language. All of these powers are humiliated as you approach the differentiated thing. And out of this humiliation comes courtesy. You are forced to give the thing back to itself and your ability to encase, hold, draw toward you, domesticate, is shaped; it is bent back on itself. So whether you put the thing down, letting go along with it a sense of yourself as central, or you have it torn out of your hand, you lose it. Eros is wooed by the thing and it hurtles forward; and wrapped around eros is language, comprehension, sense of order. Desire seems to be shaped by its own momentum and velocity, and as it moves along it just loses these very things, language and so on, by which you thought it was constituted. Language, order, are stripped and impoverished by the wonderful distance of a thing in the world, as I say in one of the poems in Moosewood Sandhills, ”Desire will be broken and will continue with a bright limp” [from “Restoration”]. I think that a sort of way-station for desire fairly well along into the erotic enterprise is humiliation, the sense of being impoverished. You may even welcome this sense, and this is the root of courtesy, a response to the oddness and distance of things.
DW: Is eros towards a thing an eros towards peace?
TL: What’s the telos? Paradise. Another way of thinking of eros is as a nostalgia for paradise. In The Symposium, Plato says that eros is simply a lack, it’s the awareness of a lack. It is the product, he has someone say, of this illicit relation between contrivance and poverty. Eros is always aware of not having all that it needs; it’s always hungry, and it’s cunning. There is a sense that he says everyone has (because everyone is erotic) that one is incomplete. This is terrible science — this story he has Aristophanes tell of our being ceaseless — but wonderful psychology because it explains this ache that accompanies everything that human beings do. Now what is this larger body that we lack? I suspect that it’s not simply another person but is the rest of the world. There’s been a severing and it hasn’t been a god that’s done it; it has been philosophers of the new science, people like Descartes, Bacon, and Kant, who have segmented human consciousness from the world. We have this nostalgia for a homecoming, a yearning for a sense of being in the world as if it were home.
DW: Yet you personally encounter this through isolation.
TL: I don’t think you ever encounter it. I don’t think the shining world of union is achievable. A couple of the features of desire are that it’s protean and never satisfied. This is the whole point — desire is never satisfied. To somehow note the shape of the desire is to come as close to the object of the desire as you will ever come. Gregory of Nyssa, a church-father writing in the fourth century, speaks of epektatis, which is the unsatisfiability of elemental desire. He says, and I quote this at the back of Moosewood Sandhills, ”the desire to see God is the vision of God.” Nyssa also says that even in eternity the desire to see God will not be satisfied. This desire that we’re talking about, whatever its term is (and it even seems presumptuous to name it, but let’s propose some names: Paradise, God, Wholeness, Living In The World As If It Were Home) the satisfaction of this desire, its shape, is somehow the failure to ever satisfy this desire. That is what the satisfaction of the desire is. One of the products of this desire’s inability to satisfy itself in the way it anticipates satisfaction is this business of humiliation, of being altered, brought to virtue. This thing that starts out as a desire to know and a desire to have transmogrifies in its development simply into courtesy or decorum. The project to know resolves itself into a stance that is always craning, always epektatic, reaching, reaching, reaching, but decorous and courteous because it is aware it has so little.
DW: Where does the poem enter that reach?
TL: It’s the wake. It’s also a way to be courteous. Often I see poems as the tip of delight. What we’re talking about here is ravishment. The excitement of delight sometimes goes immediately into language; it’s a cheering, or a praising, just happiness. Or else it’s a kind of touching of the thing.
DW: Is that touching facilitated better by the poem than, say, prose?
TL: No I don’t think so. There are sorts of prose that are fine vehicles for eros. There are other types of prose that are anti-erotic.
DW: Such as?
TL: Academic prose!
DW: You write contemplative essays as well as poetry. Do the poems feel closer to desire than the essays?
TL: The poems and the essays feel similar. The only difference would be that the essays feel a bit like taking time off from writing the poems, having some rest from doing that. Sometimes I use the essays to figure out things, to draw lines from one point to another, something the poem can’t do, or would do quite awkwardly. Some ideas need plenty of room to declare themselves in certain ways and an essay gives you that room.
DW: You refer to feeling shapes when you speak of metaphor. Do you have a stable metaphor or idea of the shape of a poem?
TL: I’ve made big changes in form over the different books. There was a big change in form from the book which preceded this one, Tourist To Ecstasy, and Moosewood Sandhills, and there’s been another formal change involved in the project I’m working on now. Twice it’s happened as a sort of formal premonition, just a trace. Before Moosewood Sandhills I had an idea, “Wouldn’t it be something to write more simply?” That wasn’t a plan, it was more like a dream. Then I discovered my work, against my will (because I wasn’t really interested in simplification), turning toward fulfilling the shape that this premonition suggested. I was fighting it all along because I thought writing this way was the failure of writing or was what writing no longer felt like for me. A couple of years ago I thought of writing a truly long-breath poem, a poem that would take days to recite, that had an endlessness to it, and then I’ve felt my work bending lately towards this. You might want to write one way but the work bends another and you think, “Well if I don’t go with it I won’t write at all.” With Moosewood Sandhills it first felt like, “This is what not being able to write feels like.” My original thought for this book was to make a box for the typescript and bury it in the land. I thought it was a failure, an embarrassing failure. It was only after showing it to some people and their really liking it that I thought of it as a book.
DW: In your essay “How To Be Here,” you use the idea of haecceity. Does haecceitas announce a specific form or image? In the “creation” of a metaphor, are you recovering or achieving or finding something of that haecceitas?
TL: John Duns Scotus, from whom this phrase and notion comes, says that the thisness of a thing is unknowable (given the mind as it is now), but there. It’s the highest expression of the thing, but it can’t be known with precision or named.
DW: I’d like to employ two crude poles: You and The Thing. When you have found a courteous metaphor, what do you feel that metaphor is closer to, You or The Thing?
TL: I once had the idea that haecceitas was the thing as it existed when it was loved. If that’s so then the answer to your question is neither, the polarity that question proposes is false, there is this third possibility and there is a kind of Thing/Us. I like that idea because it makes a third possibility for consciousness. There’s consciousness as thief, going in to this thing that’s not it and taking stuff out; there’s consciousness as stranger, never on the inside. But if this possibility is true there is consciousness as integral or necessary to the thing, participatory. Eros becomes part of cosmology: the tree in order to be this tree and no other tree needs me or you or somebody else to need it, love it, celebrate it. Then it becomes itself in the excitement of human consciousness. Somehow the term of the thing is in us, as delighted, ravished, etc., etc. But now, that idea strikes me as too attractive to be utterly true. But maybe the answer is roughly in that direction.
DW: Moosezuood Sandhills is full of imperatives and references to “necessity.” Is poetry necessary?
TL: There have been some awfully attractive people who wrote poetry, or people who became attractive as they wrote it. It would be terrible to think of living without poetry. I think of people like Osip Mandelstam, John Berryman, Louise Gluck, Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva, Wallace Stevens — one is so happy that they wrote. I feel bulked as a person when I read what they wrote, somehow they did this beautiful thing that was difficult. Now, is this necessary? When you read Akhmatova, and Mandelstam, you get a sense that poetry is a kind of bread. Without this type of attention going on in the culture then things do become harder. And one way that you can tell that things are becoming harder, or more violent, is that things become clearer. Without poetic attention the world could become too clear — it’s dangerous.
DW: Do you think we live with a sense of necessity?
TL: That’s eros or what it can feel like. Eros is multi-form, sexual, intellectual, emotional — this is our beauty, our undermining, our oomph. Eros allows itself, or finds itself, being bent into form, then it becomes benign and lovely, as are the people that are shaped by it. But I think a lot of the things that our culture regards as erotic are anti-erotic. I think our culture is interested in the denigration of eros.
DW: You make persistent references to the sorrow of desire. What is the sorrow in desire?
TL: It’s that you never get what you want! Desire is epek-tatic, it is perpetually reaching and there’s sorrow in that. The sorrow is, in part, being stripped of these images that desire fosters, these images of appropriation, “This is what satisfaction will be like.” Gradually having to give up those images of desire or satisfaction is an experience full of sorrow, but even as you give up these things the momentum of desire remains. This is just one other language that desire casts off as it cranes towards what it would have, which is unhaveable.
DW: Do you think then that naming can be a creation of artificial or provisional destinations in the journey of eros?
TL: Yes. Maybe integrity is just feeling the ache of desire, not subduing it, you feel pulled on and you feel the inadequacy of names. Desire undermines itself — because it is the power that sets up the names as well as the power that erases them— and you go further. It’s always possible though to step out of the flow of the dialectic and say this is too much, to become a statesman or a pornographer and to settle on a term of desire and struggle like hell to make this feel like the term of desire. But truly erotic beings, the real fools, those who can’t be anything other than literal about desire, will go further, past the way-stations.
DW: In “From an Anchorage,” you use the phrase “the necessary apology,” and throughout the book there are frequent invocations of the concept of sacrifice. Is an apology necessary to the world? And if so how can it be made?
TL: Yes. If you listen to a piece of music several times, part of your hearing is a sense of what will come next; so the shape, you are sure, to fulfill itself, will move in this direction. I think a lot of people feel that the shape, or spirit of the age we’re living in, will next move to here: to compunction, to apology, tears, sorrow. This is what we’re bending towards.
DW: For what are we apologizing?
TL: All of these imperialisms that we’ve engaged in. This foolish sense that we were and are entitled in an unlimited way.
DW: Is the prolonged writing of poetry a naming and renaming of yourself for yourself? Is naming your desires a way to you?
TL: I sometimes think it’s as if there’s a singing in things that I am so far from being able to know that I’m only guessing that I can call it “singing.” What I would very much like to do (why? I have no idea) is to come alongside that and sing with it. In a sense that’s what I think I’m doing, singing alongside this un-singable, perhaps-not-even-song. One seems to know this in different ways at different points in one’s life. My singing doesn’t have to make any sense, or be beautiful, or publishable. When you think of writing as a business, going to stores and buying it, this image of singing alongside something seems ludicrous.The whole issue of audience is not as important to me as it is to other poets. The important relationship is between the singing you are able to do and this sub-terranean singing, or flux, that eros keeps wanting to know like a setter that keeps pointing. That’s where you have to be immaculate; that’s where integrity is demanded. If you screw around there, forget it, you’re disqualified. That’s what’s important, what ever happens after that, publication, awards, reviews, is completely incidental. Who cares what happens. This thing, that’s important. People who start writing by thinking about publication are, I think, grabbing the stick by the wrong end; the task, it seems to me, is just to move up close to whatever it is that you will speak. Everything else will solve itself, even if it solves itself in ways that don’t look like solutions.
DW: In “Contemplation is Mourning,” there is a suggestion that “You will be shaved and narrowed by the barren strangeness of the/ deer, the wastes of her oddness.” Is it important for us to be so shaved?
TL: No. That’s coming at it the wrong way; you just are shaved if you look long and deeply without presumption. That’s a large part of what looking is, the refusal of presumption or caricature. Otherwise what you’re seeing is simply yourself; you’re looking in the mirror everywhere. Being shaved is just the realization that all of your notions of power and centrality are stolen or made-up, it’s stolen fire. Hard looking can relieve you of this.
DW: That bespeaks a confidence that everyone will react that way. Is that confidence part of getting close to the singing of the thing?
TL: I think this is the way human beings are made and this is what looking is and does. It could be I’ll learn or have to admit later on that humans aren’t made this way but like Charles Wright says, “You have to sign your name to something.” And provisionally I’m saying this: humans have an emotional spine, this eros for the world that prompts us to try to live in it as if they were home.
DW: Do you feel connected to others through that?
TL: Yes, I think that’s what we all want.
DW: In Moosewood Sandhills there are references to the “bones of the land” and the boniness of things. Is there a distinction to you between the otherness of a thing and an animal?
TL: No there isn’t, all things strike me as distant and unlike. Augustine speaks of that world one enters when one prays as “the land or region of unlikeness.” I think everything is the region of unlikeness. Everything is distant, far, discrete, itself, non-representative, ultimately non-colonizable, wild. In its wildness it also feels like infinity, it has the unspeakability of infinity. When you encounter that you’re left with courtesy; you can’t name it so you bow to it, give it regard. Regard replaces language.
DW: Is to not treat the world with courtesy a moral wrong?
TL: Yes, it’s immoral, it’s unwise and it’s unattractive.
DW: Do you think of evil as a shunning of beauty?
TL: Yes, a lack of beauty, or grace, or simplicity.
DW: Is sorrow necessary for knowing?
TL: I think the project to know comes to sorrow. It has these different shapes that it takes as it moves toward what it senses will relieve it of its restlessness and a later shape it takes is sorrow. The desire to know and one’s moral life are not discrete understandings. They are shapes of the same thing, shapes that one thing — desire — takes.
DW: If sorrow is part of eros, part of living, is there an abatement or beauty in knowing?
TL: The beauty takes other forms; some of these, initially, are terrifying. Eros is epikatatic, it is unsatisfiable, it doesn’t come to term. The satisfaction of eros doesn’t feel like satisfaction and so there’s always momentum.
Tim Lilburn was born in Regina, Saskatchewan. He has published ten books of poetry, including Moosewood Sandhills (1994), To the River (1999), Kill-site (2003), and Orphic Politics (2008). His work has received Canada’s Governor General’s Award (for Kill-site), the Saskatchewan Book of the Year Award (To the River), the Saskatchewan Non-fiction Book of the Year (Living in the World As If It Were Home) and the Canadian Authors Association Award (Moosewood Sandhills). His essay collection Going Home was nominated for the Hurbert Evans Award (British Columbia Book Prize). A selection of his poetry is collected in Desire Never Leaves: the Poetry of Tim Lilburn (Wilfird Laurier University Press, 2007). Lilburn has produced two books of essays, both concerned with poetics, eros, philosophy and politics, especially environmentalism: Living in the World as if It Were Home (1999, 2015) and Going Home (2008). A third collection, The Larger Conversation: Contemplation and Place, a book completing the trilogy, was published by the University of Alberta Press in 2017. His poetry has been translated into Chinese (where it appeared in the prestigious journal World Literature, among other places), Spanish, Polish, French, German and Serbian. Sections of his book-length poem Assiniboia (2012), an opera for chant in three parts, has been choreographed and performed by contemporary dance companies in Canada, notably Regina’s New Dance Horizons. He recently collaborated again with New Dance Horizons to produce the opera/dance “House of Charlemagne” on the life of the prairie radical Honoré Jaxon. A new poetry collection, The Names, appeared from McClelland and Stewart in spring, 2016. He teaches at the University of Victoria. He was elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 2014. In 2017, he was awarded The European Medal of Poetry and Art. His long poem The House of Charlemagne, will be published by The University of Regina Press in spring, 2018.
Will you finish what you start?
Books you can finish, articles too. But blogs?
Either they die young or go on interminably.
My aspiration for this one is that it will die a timely death.
That’s my aspiration for me too: die on time.
When is that?
Not now, not now.
But what is your business?
You have to figure that out first.
What’s your business here?