Friday, December 21, 2012

Awakening Shiva

Butter lamps she lights, gilding altar with linga wicks in yoni-ponds of ghee, then she and Shiva and Kartik and Ganesh sing aarti, and then they take a lamp each to their pallets and read themselves to sleep, most sweetly on nights moist with thunder. Now, hours later, the twin stars of Mithuna gaze down at the trees and Shiva's passed out, palm-leaf sutras fallen to the floor, face cloud-blue in butter's fragrant, failing flames. The boys, too, she sees, as she tip-toes to the hut's far end, asprawl on their mats in soft gold halos--riding rafts on Vishnu's dark sea, heads dearly akimbo, as if at rest in crooks of the arms of night. 

Night's quiet, the world breathes slow; she wonders, turning on heel with lamp in hand, where she's laid her book, she thirsts for a bare hour of story before the black rustles down and she, too, floats past the horizon. Thunder--low, strong as Shiva's arms-- purrs as she pulls over the boys a blanket of old saris; she'll nestle in his arms soon enough but this rumbling calm comes so seldom she wants to sip it like cooling chai. Flames spangle edges of her sight-- not hearth-flaring but lightning -- closer than before, or maybe she's dazed from the dim, as altar lamps blink and fizzle, as she scans a shelf for her book but spies only the big Das Gupta firecrackers, Diwali leftovers, that she told Shiva not to leave where the boys could see.

She grabs them to hide in her hotchpotch gourd with the cuttlebone and cucumber seeds, pressing them between arm and breast while keeping hold of her lamp, then cuts a glance at Shiva in what sparks as reproach but in this dampening light warms into desire: she must read a while, but her hips and back relax as she thinks of an hour or so from now warming herself in their bed's drowsy flames. And there's her book, on the wicker stool near the fire-- she walks softly, minding the boys and Shiva; she hates to wake him he works so hard and sleeps so little-- and none of them, given fetching of water, gathering of cow dung, teaching of the village boys, boiling of rice, sweeping of house, spinning of cloth--ever seem to have enough night.

Her body loose, head fuzzed, heart abloom in anticipation of love-- she casts down her arm to the book but knocks the stool, and in pain yet in grace recoils; off-kilter yet sinuous she wriggles to grip the lamp but loses hold of the firecrackers, twisting upright as they carom off her foot and into the fire, watching fuse flash to life like Indra's bolt shouts logos of thunder.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Meaning of Life

You heard it here first! Or maybe from Andrew Harvey:

I was fortunate enough to interview the Dalai Lama on the day he won the Nobel Prize in Oslo. At the end of the interview, I had the guts to ask him, eyeball to eyeball, "What is the meaning of life?" He roared with laughter, flung his head back, and then became extremely focused, as he said "The meaning of life is to embody the Transcendent."

From Harvey's new book, Radical Passion

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

I'm Two Years Late With This, But It's So Cool

Here's a fascinating write-up on the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Ralph Vaughn Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, one of my all-time favorite pieces of music. It's by Rob Young, who wrote the essential study Electric Eden, about the imaginative, symbolic, and literal roles of the folk tradition and the countryside in British pop music, including a shout out to Coil, about whom I'm writing these days.

Man, can this guy write about music. I envy his observational skills and his facility.  Too bad I never learned to read music and so my comments on here and about Coil are limited to "it's really organic and dark and wet-sounding, like a Weimar cabaret starring Nick Cave and held in the Vienna sewers."

If you haven't heard the Vaughn Williams piece, this CD is what you want. It's got some of the iconic compositions by him, and is beautifully recorded. If you can't wait that long, here's a very nice performance of the Tallis Fantasia from the Proms earlier this year.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

"I Praise My Destroyer"

Wrathful deities, 70s style
The doctor was talking about lupus and all I knew was, I was shivering all the time (when I wasn't burning up), and my hands and pretty much the whole rest of me ached grievously. I'm said to be stubborn and--well, how else explain that it took me two weeks to be sitting there at the doctor's office hearing this ominous stuff?

It turned out to be some mystery bug, easily slain by a Thor's hammer of Rocephin, but I didn't meet with open arms this opportunity to do the yoga of disease and discomfort. It's true, I do remember one day feeling miserable and saying Kali's mantra and entering into a dreamworld of love for Her in which every note of the song on the radio became a hymn, a scripture, a caress, a grateful embrace... but mostly for two weeks I felt like shit and thought a lot about feeling like shit and acted, to recall Sojourner Truth's famous line, like God was dead. 

No, I wasn't reading Camus or shaking my fist at the heavens, but I wasn't trying very hard to live in Her lap, either, or to offer my pain to Her or find Her in it. Perhaps, being the stubborn and dense person I am, had I enjoyed four or eight or twenty more weeks of that aching, fevered malaise I'd have come to my senses and at last sprung into spiritual action like the Shakta commando I tell myself I should be--choking out bhajans during 103-degree seismic chill bouts, reading The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna with trembling, piercèd hands, until dropping it and praising Her gravity... aflame, shot through with pain,  all the while reminding myself "hot, cold, pleasure, pain--it's all just consciousness, just maya." That's the ideal version, which, now that my temperature's 98.6 degrees again, seems as absurd as the self-centered, "Ouch this hurts oh goddammit I don't feel like praying" version.

I'm not seriously suggesting that those two weeks of discomfort took me out of the orbit of God or bound me that much more tightly to the wheel of karma, but alas, I can't say that I let them bring me closer to Her, either. Hey, the pain kept me in the Now, man! Except it was the egocentric, illusory "now" of division and desire: what if this is Lyme disease? and this isn't such a great vacation with me hurting like hell the whole time.

Now is now: now was being hunched over in the passenger seat saying Her mantra, merging into Her as the notes of the song on the radio merged into time. Now is not I can do this, I can do this... if I just keep thinking of the whiskey sour and pain pill waiting for me when we get back from miniature golf. All "what ifs" and "this shoulds" and "how longs" and "if onlys" function as bungee cords for the ego, ensuring that, however close we come to the borders of infinity, our bondage to the material yanks us back into me, me, me. This is why God's grace, in the mystical literature and the stories of Flannery O'Connor, anyway, so often appears as a train wreck: we won't let it in any other way.

We're so cocooned in Me that we can't imagine not being (Me), and so our higher selves, our poets and prophets, shout terrible visions of the Cross, of blood-drenched Kali and cobra-wreathed Shiva, of Herukas and Hekate and Yahweh Sabaoth. Seers show us stigmata and the blasted tower; in Diane Ackerman's words, they

...praise life's bright catastrophes,
and all the ceremonies of grief.
I praise our real estate -- a shadow and a grave.
I praise my destroyer,
and will continue praising
until hours run like mercury
through my fingers, hope flares a final time
in the last throes of innocence,
and all the coins of sense are spent.

I found this poem in a book Sophia's reading, in which Ackerman describes her and her word-besotted husband's struggles after he has a stroke and loses his ability to speak and write. And now, as I write, Sophia's telling me about the Buddhist concept of shenpa: aggressive egotism that arises like a viper and strikes--not some outside enemy, but ourselves--with fangs of Not Enough, venom of wanting: wanting to be righteously angry or wanting to feel superior or wanting possessions or prestige. Shenpa whispers the neurotoxic lie that we must attain something outside ourselves in order to merit happiness, to deserve a pain-free existence.

I'm pretty sure, too, that shenpa is what makes me think I have to meet every challenge, every up and down, like a spiritual superhero. This post was brought to you by shenpa, shenpa whispering all the could-bes and should-have-dones, hindsight almighty, mocking God by pretending to bring me closer to Her. I wasn't ill in the right way, you see; I messed up. "You're doing it're not spiritual enough" reads the sign on the door we need to smash down, the door we ourselves put in place by our desire for more, for higher. In now there's no enough, no not enough, no right, no wrong... life is the storm, now is the lightning, gone by the time we think to be astonished. Soften your gaze if you will see it; stop wanting it if you are to have it. 

So I'm trying to think about the ways I can let more of Kali into more of my life, give more of me to Her--but not fall over into a shenpa-fest of self-laceration. She whirled me together like sea and warm air whirl up a cyclone, but one day my winds and lightning will be spent, my clouds adrift in an opening blue sky. If I greet that sky with complaint, feel my dissipation as judgment, as pain--what kind of way is that to go? What right do I have, to inhabit a body and complain that my body goes the way of all bodies and, in time, of time itself? "In the fiddler's house, everyone dances," and in Her hurricane universe we must whirl, and be whirled.

Monday, July 16, 2012

This Made Me Smile

From a New York Times story about Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall:

After finishing second at the 2011 United States half-marathon championships, Hall went to drug testing, a standard procedure. Asked on a form to list his coach, he wrote: God.

You have to list the name of a real person, a doping official said.

“He is a real person,” Hall responded.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Fascinating Quote on Lila and Why We're Here

Found this on Wikipedia:

Brahman is full of all perfections. And to say that Brahman has some purpose in creating the world will mean that it wants to attain through the process of creation something which it has not. And that is impossible. Hence, there can be no purpose of Brahman in creating the world. The world is a mere spontaneous creation of Brahman. It is a Lila, or sport, of Brahman. It is created out of Bliss, by Bliss and for Bliss. Lila indicates a spontaneous sportive activity of Brahman as distinguished from a self-conscious volitional effort. The concept of Lila signifies freedom as distinguished from necessity.

—Ram Shanker Misra, The Integral Advaitism of Sri Aurobindo

Monday, May 28, 2012

Blogger Found Alive, Dazed

Well, good god. The Coil article's long since handed in (probably twice as long as it's supposed to be)... this past semester was the craziest on record and now I'm facing either a massively expanded workload in my department chair job or poverty and relative freedom if I return to the ranks... our dear daughter is home for the summer from The Fancy School (hallelujah!), and I'm having the unexpected joy, as they say, of teaching a class on Hinduism at the Unitarian church Sophia and I attend because she's a lapsed Baptist and I'm a Kali worshiper and this is East Podunk and we don't remotely fit in anywhere.

For the first time I've been taking a tour through Hinduism from the perspective of the curious outsider rather than the believer, and it's been like a banquet in a dream resort. There was the austere appetizer course of Advaita-- sutras like raw fish, Nisargadatta's and Ramana Maharshi's bracing discourses like vodka from the freezer. Now, it's plates piled high with gooey Vaishnavism and a side of firm, flavorful Bhagavad Gita; sweet bhajans, champagne buzz from a bio of Chaitanya, and all the lush, eye-candy psychedelic religious art you can eat: Radha and Krishna covered in lotus blossoms; nearly-nude gopis bathing, serenaded by their Lord; Arjuna staggered by the Cosmic Form of Krishna who chants, "I am become death, destroyer of worlds."

Then we'll move on to some tasty Shaiva cosmology and gamey folk-tales of the priapic, stoned Lord of Meeting Rivers, accompanied by the great vacanas of Akka Mahadevi, and for dessert we'll have Kali, of course, since, like Ramprasad, we "want to eat sugar, not become sugar."

And the people at church are thanking me for doing it!

This is always the hardest part: finishing the blog post, thinking of something clever or appropriately summative. So I think I'll just bow, in my heart, to my dear Guru whose presence is stronger than ever, though I think it's been nearly ten years since we were even in the same area code, and bow to my Sophia, whom my Guru says should be my Goddess, and bow to my kids--my associate gurus-- and bow to my beautiful Kali whose wild lila has swirled us all together. Namastasye, namastasye, namastasye... I bow, and bow, and bow again, my Loves.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Working on My Coil Article

...and therefore not doing any blogging...

but this is beautiful and I had to share (maybe it's partly because I'm listening to Gorecki's Third Symphony now and sang bhajans this morning.... She is Here! in the sunlight! in the violins! in Dawn Upshaw's voice! in my breathing that sounds all 2001 through my headphones!)

(I keep thinking I should just post some cool inspirational quote every couple of days but that's so contrived and plus it's so much damn work...)

(but anyway--)

"Unspeakable is the variety of form and immeasurable the diversity of beauty, but in all is the seal of unity, inasmuch as all cometh from the womb of Nuit--to it returneth all....Knowing this, all is liberty; ignorant of this, all is bondage." --Aleister Crowley, The Law Is For All

(wish he hadn't been so enamored of 17th-century diction, but-- read it again!)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Reading Ulysses

A teen Joyce phase got me a fraction into it; I think back then I read more of finnegans wake (but not much of that, either). I wasn't going near a class in college or grad school where it was read: those people were annoying. I knew enough about it and was familiar enough with it to think it was one of the great novels in English, maybe the greatest, but now, having finally sailed the odd oceans of Ulysses, I'm thinking: This isn't just a great book. Reading this book might be one of the great experiences you can have as a human being.

Did Robert Anton Wilson proclaim Ulysses "the first psychedelic novel" or did I make that up? Or was it Tim Leary? Wilson's attachment to Joyce's masterpiece always seemed a little precious to me, possibly a micron too "Kiss Me, I'm Irish," but now I feel like a bonehead and see, of course, why Wilson, why Leary, why Jefferson Airplane, why Carl Jung, why even T.S. Eliot grooved on this book. They were psychonauts, people adept in their various ways at navigating mind space, diving below familiar waves and journeying to hidden caves, sunken cities, unheard-of treasures-- like Wilson's renegade submariner in the Illuminatus! trilogy. Wilson, I'm sure, was attracted to Joyce's language, which no matter what you think of Dublin trivia c. 1904 is to most other English writers, even the really good ones, what a space plane is to a Toyota Tundra. I think, though, what really sent Wilson over the moon for Ulysses was its VALIS-like superimposition of mind and matter, its chest-thumping assertion that the world is made of consciousness.

Consciousness creates reality in Ulysses, creates and shapes it via language, and Joyce couches the novel as a series of stylistic games revealing the thin film of "normal," consensus reality-bound thought (often represented by hilariously trite public prose styles) floating atop seas of chaotic, daydreamy mind-stuff. In the narrative, chaos and order struggle for primacy as layers of various characters' and social groups' consciousnesses are superimposed on space-time (sorry, but there's no other way to put it, given Joyce's play with mind, style, reality) and, in turn, shaped by it. Finally, in the climactic, surreal and, yes, psychedelic "Circe" episode, various characters' consciousnesses are layered atop one another in a bewildering, baroque display of such virtuosity that one starts to feel we should date all subsequent English literature from 2/2/22, the date the novel appeared, after seven years of composition.

Ulysses is, then, through its focus on the interplay between matter, mind, and personality, a spiritual novel. Yes, it raps religion: Catholicism, missionary Protestantism, colonial C of E-ism, and, most humorously, Theosophy and occultism come in for an Ali vs. Liston beat-down. Religions are like spoons we use to try to catch the sea, Joyce seems to say (if he's "saying" anything), and the "sea" here isn't God or a higher power or ultimate being; the sea is consciousness, the golden sun of pure awareness that descends to earth as love, as compassion, as caring-- or sinks into mud of attachment, as grabbiness, swinishness, patriotism, Christ-ism, us-ism, violence and stupidity of all kinds. Joyce's sense of outrage towards religion and his tenderness and compassion come out in earlier works, it's true, like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, "Counterparts," and "The Dead," but in Ulysses he gives us Arjuna's vision of ultimate godhead, gives us microcosm and macrocosm all at once in every moment, from Bloom's morning dump to his rescue of Stephen in a David-Lynch hellish brothel to scattered starling thoughts as day and night and mind and self slip into sleep.

It's not for everyone. I can easily see someone being turned off by the wordplay, the allusions, the idea that to enjoy this work of art one should have at one's elbow two or three reference books. I mean, even The Tempest and Moby-damn-Dick don't need a dozen footnotes a page! You'll know if Ulysses is for you the same way you do any book: read a little and see what you think. If you like it, read more and get some crib notes. Only someone who actually lived in Dublin in 1904 could read the novel without them, and even that person would have to be one helluva well-read Dubliner, familiar with world history, religious history, the history of the English language and literature, and of course the history of the Irish struggle for independence.

The good news is, you don't have to know that much about any of these topics to enjoy Ulysses. It's not difficult for the sake of being difficult; Joyce wants you to break into the story, like Bloom and Stephen breaking into the house at two in the morning. By casing the joint and gauging access points and hoisting yourself over the railing, you create a new room in your brain that, TARDIS fashion, takes the fractal shape of Ulysses' meandering ways. Ulysses is one of those engaging (or irritating) works of modernist art that asks us to co-create it. Remember that a) Joyce is a musician and this work needs to be read aloud or listened to, and b) most fiction you've read has presented a cartoon version of the mind, a "stream of consciousness," if any, about as complex and true to life as a dream sequence in an old Hitchcock film.

Joyce, on the other hand, delves into Mind as we really experience it: chaotic, disjointed yet associative, fantasy-prone yet rooted in our hungering bodies; Mind as swirl of sensations, memories, fear, prejudices, quotes, half-formed thoughts and images, shadows, clouds, shimmers. Importantly, though, he takes the narrative beyond individual consciousness to the vast spaces where individual minds meet like rain-rings on a pond, to spaces of collective mind and culture and those of myth. Joyce didn't like Jung's reading of his novel, but at times the novel sounds like Jung wrote it (with help from Mark Twain).  

Ulysses is a novel not just about consciousness but about how we become who we are, how centrifugal and centripetal forces mold our mind-stuff into personalities, identities, nationalities, and other -ities of which Joyce was an arch-skeptic. As big a prick as Stephen Dedalus can be, for example, and he rivals Nelson's Pillar, we know why he's that way--and not because Joyce "explains" it to us via flashbacks or exposition, and certainly not because Stephen knows, but because, in a sense more intimate than any novelistic experience I can think of, we have felt Stephen's guilt, his frustration, his anger, his loss, and his subliminal pre-dawn sense that despite it all he's going to win his place in the world or destroy himself in the attempt. That Stephen's quest is simultaneously noble, absurd, self-involved, Christ-like, arrogant, and pitiable gives you a sense of how deeply Joyce is able to portray a character, while at the same time giving his characters full freedom to surprise and disappoint us.

Joyce manages to limn the social, economic, historical, religious, and cultural forces shaping his characters as if he were an anthropologist, but this isn't one of those guilt-trip novels hectoring you about the wrongness of your bourgeois existence. If you were nerdy or felt under-appreciated in your youth, you'll see yourself in Stephen, even as he aggravates you. If you've been a worried, working spouse or parent, you'll see yourself in Leopold Bloom. Joyce judges neither, nor anyone else in the novel. Ulysses is not a book you can put a populist spin on, but every page speaks the gritty marvel of the present moment or the utter preciousness of every human soul (even those belonging to aspiring hangmen, self-righteous priests, and deadbeat dads).

It sure ain't an easy read, but it might be easier than you think. One thing is, a lot of art is done this way now (and we partly have Joyce to thank for the Tarantinos and the Larry Davids and the Lil Waynes). Philip K. Dick is now, at least according to the Spectator, "the most successful writer in Hollywood." As I write this I'm listening to Mos Dub, an album of Mos Def songs that have been remixed on top of old 1970s reggae classics; footnotes, if they existed, would have to catalog the songs originally sampled by Mos Def, the reggae songs that replaced them and the significance of all of the above, plus the slang of the lyrics, their hip hop allusions, and the social, cultural, and political references in them as well, which range from the Vietnam War to--yep, old-school reggae. Multi-layered stuff like this-- non-linear stories, raps based as much on wordplay as on narrative, allusions wrapped in shibboleths wrapped in puns-- is the mainstream now. New York magazine calls Mos Dub "Perfect summer BBQ music."

That's not a comparison I can take too far-- Ulysses is not beach reading. It demands your attention and reading it takes work. The farther you get into the novel, the more of a hobby or obsession it will become. Stay with it and you will find it's one of the funniest books you have ever read, and hands-down the most dazzling. In the movie-review meta-cliché, you will laugh and you will cry, sometimes on the same page. When you're a fifth of the way in, you'll find yourself "hearing" your own thoughts as if Joyce were writing them. When you're about halfway through, you'll finally get the hang of Joyce's style and probably not need the crib notes so much.When you're done, you'll likely feel a sense of relief and a desire to repeat the experience. Like all the greatest art--Beethoven's music, the cave paintings, Chartres-- Ulysses will charge your soul with awe and an ardent gratitude for being alive. Every day is Bloomsday.

What You'll Need
  1. A copy of Ulysses. The Gabler edition is best. 
  2. Some background reading in classic English lit: dip into Beowulf, some other medieval stuff, Chaucer, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Bunyan, Samuel Johnson, Addison and Steele, Burke, Gibbon, and some nineteenth-century newspapers and sentimental fiction (Ulysses contains a riff on The Lamplighter). You don't have to be anything like an expert on this stuff but it will help if you can tell various historical prose styles apart.
  3. Read the Wikipedia entry "Irish Home Rule Movement."
Strongly Recommended
  1. The audio book of Ulysses read by Donal Donnelly. Donnelly's reading is almost as much a tour de force as Joyce's writing, and listening to this after you've read a chapter is both enlightening and extremely enjoyable. 
  2. The New Bloomsday Book by Harry Blamires. Read these chapter summaries (after you're done with a chapter) and you'll have the pleasure of saying "Hah! That's what I thought was going on!" and, not infrequently, "Oh. That's what happened??"
  3. Ulysses Annotated by Don Gifford and Robert J. Seidman. These guys tracked down all the easy stuff (biblical allusions, translations of Latin quips) and also trainloads of arcana, like "23 Wicklow Street, on the corner of William Street, where the pork butcher was located" and "Arabic and Mediterranean slang for copulation."
  4. Sheila O'Malley has blogged her way through Ulysses with much wit and insight. Reading her posts will inspire "civilian" readers (non-scholar, non-English major) that they can read and enjoy this novel.
  5. Ulysses: A marked up version color-codes the text according to parameters like "External narrative," "External dialog," "Internal narrative," and the all-important "Fantasy and hallucinations."
  6. Searching for #ulysses on Twitter will lead you to an active community of Joyce readers.
Not Necessary But Really Awesome
  1. James Joyce by Richard Ellman. Word is, this is one of the best biographies ever written, and I'm not arguing. This exemplary work of scholarship humanizes its subject without sensationalizing, and makes a case for Joyce's significance without descending into hagiography. It's beautifully written, offers a staggering level of detail, and provides brief but valuable introductions to Joyce's works.