The named is the mother of ten thousand things.

Last night I started to read Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching courtesy of a good friend of mine and, after reading part ONE of the book, I was immediately reminded of a poem I had read over a year ago by a modern Iranian poet Yadollah Roya’i: Mother’s Becoming.

ONE by Lao Tsu

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
This appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery

Mother’s Becoming by Yadollah Roya’i

She had a thousand-paged bosom
She gave the thousand-paged bosom
To the shadow
And the shadow that drew her

In hand

Had a thousand mirrors

A thousand-paged bosom in a thousand mirrors
She became a finite being
She became infinite beings

Yadollah Roya’i was born in 1932 in Damqan, Iran. The beauty of his poems rests in the form, image, and movement of the images within the reality of the poem. By creating imaginative leaps, he alludes to an alternate reality. Similarly, ONE alludes to an alternate or objective Reality that can barely be understood given the great mystery that surrounds it. ONE also nicely illustrates the founding principle of Taoism, which is the basic eternal principle that transcends our subjective empirical notion of reality and is the source of being, non-being and change.

Some of the parallels that I find interesting between the ecstatic poem ONE and Mother’s Becoming by Yadollah is the Mother: The named is the mother of ten thousand things.

What and Who is the Mother?

There is also the reference to numbers in both poems:

“The named is the mother of ten thousand things.” (Lao Tsu)

“A thousand-paged bosom in a thousand mirrors.” (Yadollah Roya’i)

The number 10 000 is interesting in Lao Tsu’s work because it’s a large arbitrary number yet a finite number and reminds me of the temporary nature of our surroundings. We are also reminded of the finite and infinite in Yadollah Roya’i’s poem in the verse A thousand-paged bosom in a thousand mirrors, depending on how the mirrors are aligned, one could display an infinite number of thousand-paged bosoms.

Furthermore, I found the darkness and mystery that thrives in both poems to be quite interesting.

Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.”
(Lao Tsu)

“She gave the thousand-paged bosom
To the shadow”
(Yadollah Roya’i)

The darkness and shadow in both verses point out our inability to fully comprehend the nature of Reality and the mystery that surrounds it. Needless to say, I find both poems evoke an alternate Reality that can scarcely be defined or imagined by words.

“The named is the mother of ten thousand things

Going back to the question: What and Who is the Mother in both poems? I believe the Mother refers to the metaphysical foundation of everything that makes up the world we live in. You have a better idea of this interpretation when you put this verse in the context of Lao Tsu’s other work, such as in part TWO.

TWO by Lao Tsu

Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good only because there is evil.

Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy compliment each other.
Long and short contrast each other;
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonize each other;
Front and back follow one another.

Therefore the sage goes about doing nothing, teaching no-talking.

The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease,
Creating, yet not possessing,
Working yet not taking credit.
Work is done, then forgotten.
Therefore it lasts forever.

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The ACTIVE struggle for change … A lesson from the Dalai Lama’s Visit

I was happy to be able to see the 14th Dalai Lama speak on “Human Approaches to World Peace” yesterday (October 22nd, 2010) and thought I would relay some of his message in the context of other work I recently have been reading. His fundamental message was one of love and compassion and struggle for peace through an unrelenting commitment to change. He emphasized the need to be pro-active to produce change. It is not sufficient to say “Oh well, that is just the way things have always been” …  It is exactly that passive attitude that hinders change and progress. It is too easy to play the victim or rely solely on aspirations and wishful thinking.

“The world today is torn between two currents of ideas, one fixed in its past and the other aspiring to the future. And because they are both lacking in strength and will, the ideas of yesterday will be vanquished forever.” Khalil Gibran excerpt from The New Age.

The Dalai Lama emphasized that one of the world’s main problems is that “we are raising a generation of passive bystanders.”

I was reminded of Khalil Gibran’s saying from Youth and Hope “I saw man conceal his cowardice beneath the mantle of patience, call laziness tolerance, and fear, courtesy.”

He also emphasized the need for awareness and education to promote change. It is the Youth of today that will become the Leaders of tomorrow!! Sometimes we need reminding that we do, even as Youth, have that strength capable of producing change. We just sometimes need reminding like in the excerpt below who describes the “man of the future” as a “colossus with muscular arms”.

“At present time two masters inhabit this world: one commands and makes himself obeyed, even if he is a decrepit old man who is dying by the day. And the other remains silent, conforms to law and order and awaits quietly the arrival of justice, even though he is a colossus with muscular arms who, confident in his existence, knows his own strength and believes in his own values.” Khalil Gibran excerpt from The New Age.

Another poem that nicely exemplifies the need to be proactive in producing change is Khalil Gibran’s poem I am Not a Moderate.

I Am Not Moderate

The extremist can equally well descend into the depths of life as he can rise up towards its heights.

The man who is moderate in his faith is the same as the man who is torn by his fear of being punished and his desire to be rewarded.  And when he follows the procession of believers, he limps as he walks; and as soon as he kneels down in order to pray, his thought rises up to deride him.

The moderate suitor cannot drink from the cup of love while delighting in the freshness of its honey, not the fire of its gall.  He is content to moisten his lips on a tepid and adulterated beverage drained by stupidity from the marshes of cowardice.

The man who enjoys neither hostility to evil nor support of what is good, will not know how to destroy what evil in him nor safeguard what is good.  He limits himself to watching his life go by at the edge of the sea, like a shell, hard in appearance but soft in its inner substance, not knowing when the tide is coming in and going out.

The man who is moderate in his search for liberty will see nothing of it beyond his footprints in the hills and valleys.  For liberty is like life, it does not linger along its way to allow the disabled to catch up with it.

Moderates never stop saying: Temperance, a cardinal virtue.

And my soul asks: How could the monkey have become a man or the pygmy a giant by remaining moderate!

And I have heard these monkeys and pygmies say: Virtue stands in the middle.

So my soul moved away from them, replying: Feeble creatures, how could grasp the truth of all things while you keep your eyes fixed on the navel of their happy medium?  Would all things then have neither tail nor head?

And I heard those with cracked skulls repeat morning and evening:  A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

And my soul, livid with anger, cried out: Those stupid people do not deserve to receive even a wing, if they do not use their feet as they run after ten birds.

Trying to catch a flock of birds: is this not our daily task, the purpose of life, much more than life itself?

I love him who was crucified by the moderates.  When he bent his head and closed his eyes, certain among them said, as though comforted: At last this dangerous extremist is no more.  Ah, if they knew that at that moment his victorious spirit was soaring over the nations and spreading out from generations to generations.

And I love those who have been sacrificed by fire, executed by the guillotine for a thought that invaded their heads and inflamed their hearts.

I love you.  O extremists, you who are nourished by unfathomable ardors.  Each time I raise my glass, it is your blood and your tears that I am drinking.

And each time I look through my window at the sky, it is your face that I see.

And when a storm rises, it is your singing and your praises that I hear.

Unlike what some may think Khalil Gibran is not giving cause to radical extremist views or support. Instead, I believe he is emphasizing the need to be proactive, not just sit around and hope things will change but to be a part of that change. I don’t believe in using excessive force/wars to create change. In fact, the Dalai Lama emphasized the need for Reason/Dialogue to address world conflicts. He showed that human beings are more docile/gentle by nature. We do not have fangs like tigers was one of his sayings. He believes that human beings are good/or at least have the ability of showing compassion by nature.  So we should be able to express our discontent and produce change by communicating with one another. Its not by blowing up villages that problems will be solved but by being in tune with others need. We must take others interests in consideration as well. When trying to find solutions to conflicts through Dialogue, we must remember/consider the other as a brothers/sisters and keep in mind their fundamental rights to happiness and well being as well without being greedy. He pointed out the gap between the rich and the poor living in the same city, who theoretically should have access to the same resources, as being morally wrong. Emphasizing the wrongness of greed. He stressed the importance of being open-minded and sincere in our actions. Self-centered attitudes will only lead to more fear, anxiety and result in alienation (less social interaction), which ultimately leads to the individual’s destruction and I believe these findings may even be extrapolated to a country/nation who only acts out of self-interest imposing their views/demands on other countries.

The Dalai Lama stressed the importance of remembering the fundamentals:

  1. We are all human beings aspiring to find happiness
  2. We should sustain or help sustain ours and others happiness
  3. The Oneness of humanity, the invisible bond that links us to one others

By acknowledging these truths we should show “warm-heartedness”, compassion to others and through that compassion forgiveness, tolerance and support for the well-being of others. He also expressed his concern for individuals who detach themselves from others… only to fall into depression and unhappiness. The importance of sustaining a link with others was also emphasized but his message was not limited to communities or nations but to humanity.

CITIZENSHIP

What is it to be a good citizen?

It is to acknowledge the other person’s right before asserting your own, but always to be conscious of your own.

It is to create the useful and the beautiful with your own hands, and to admire what others have created in love and with faith.

Excerpt from The Treasured Writings of Khalil Gibran

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Khalil Gibran’s Lebanon

Dedicated to my dearest Lebanese friends!

You Have Your Lebanon, I Have Mine by  Khalil Gibran

You have your Lebanon and its dilemma. I have my Lebanon and its beauty. Your Lebanon is an arena for men from the West and men from the East.

My Lebanon is a flock of birds fluttering in the early morning as shepherds lead their sheep into the meadow and rising in the evening as farmers return from their fields and vineyards.

You have your Lebanon and its people. I have my Lebanon and its people.

Yours are those whose souls were born in the hospitals of the West; they are as ship without rudder or sail upon a raging sea…. They are strong and eloquent among themselves but weak and dumb among Europeans.

They are brave, the liberators and the reformers, but only in their own area. But they are cowards, always led backwards by the Europeans. They are those who croak like frogs boasting that they have rid themselves of their ancient, tyrannical enemy, but the truth of the matter is that this tyrannical enemy still hides within their own souls. They are the slaves for whom time had exchanged rusty chains for shiny ones so that they thought themselves free. These are the children of your Lebanon. Is there anyone among them who represents the strength of the towering rocks of Lebanon, the purity of its water or the fragrance of its air? Who among them vouchsafes to say, “When I die I leave my country little better than when I was born”?

Who among them dare to say, “My life was a drop of blood in the veins of Lebanon, a tear in her eyes or a smile upon her lips”?

Those are the children of your Lebanon. They are, in your estimation, great; but insignificant in my estimation.

Let me tell you who are the children of my Lebanon.

They are farmers who would turn the fallow field into garden and grove.

They are the shepherds who lead their flocks through the valleys to be fattened for your table meat and your woolens.

They are the vine-pressers who press the grape to wine and boil it to syrup.

They are the parents who tend the nurseries, the mothers who spin the silken yarn.

They are the husbands who harvest the wheat and the wives who gather the sheaves.

They are the builders, the potters, the weavers and the bell-casters.

They are the poets who pour their souls in new cups.

They are those who migrate with nothing but courage in their hearts and strength in their arms but who return with wealth in their hands and a wreath of glory upon their heads.

They are the victorious wherever they go and loved and respected wherever they settle.

They are the ones born in huts but who died in palaces of learning.

These are the children of Lebanon; they are the lamps that cannot be snuffed by the wind and the salt which remains unspoiled through the ages.

They are the ones who are steadily moving toward perfection, beauty, and truth.

What will remain of your Lebanon after a century? Tell me! Except bragging, lying and stupidity? Do you expect the ages to keep in its memory the traces of deceit and cheating and hypocrisy? Do you think the atmosphere will preserve in its pockets the shadows of death and the stench of graves?

Do you believe life will accept a patched garment for a dress? Verily, I say to you that an olive plant in the hills of Lebanon will outlast all of your deeds and your works; that the wooden plow pulled by the oxen in the crannies of Lebanon is nobler than your dreams and aspirations.

I say to you, while the conscience of time listened to me, that the songs of a maiden collecting herbs in the valleys of Lebanon will outlast all the uttering of the most exalted prattler among you. I say to you that you are achieving nothing. If you knew that you are accomplishing nothing, I would feel sorry for you, but you know it not.

You have your Lebanon and I have my Lebanon.

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Sun in my mouth… Fate and Faith

I was inspired to write about Fate after listening to the song “Sun in My Mouth” by Bjork, which is largely taken from the poem “I Will Wade Out” by e.e. cummings.

I Will Wade Out by E. E. Cummings

i will wade out
                       till my thighs are steeped in burning flowers
I will take the sun in my mouth
and leap into the ripe air
                                       Alive
                                                 with closed eyes
to dash against darkness
                                   in the sleeping curves of my body
Shall enter fingers of smooth mastery
with chasteness of sea-girls
                                         Will i complete the mystery
                                         of my flesh
I will rise
               After a thousand years
lipping
flowers
             And set my teeth in the silver of the moon

My favorite part of the poem is the following verses.

I will take the sun in my mouth
and leap into the ripe air
                                       Alive
                                                 with closed eyes
to dash against darkness

I love this part of the poem because it alludes to the notion of Fate and Faith. Taking “the sun in my mouth” suggests taking a positive outlook when facing the unknown of what awaits us in life. In other words, taking a leap of faith in the darkness of the unknown.

In the second part,

 in the sleeping curves of my body
Shall enter fingers of smooth mastery
with chasteness of sea-girls
                                         Will i complete the mystery
                                         of my flesh

I believe he is refering to the way life experiences mold our life. The latter part of the poem may refer to his decision to walk in virtue.

The poem also eloquently suggests that we are masters over some aspects of our life and subservient to other aspects. The use of capital “I” and lower case “i” in the following verses “I will take the sun in my mouth” and “I will rise” shows his control over the choice to think positively and his ability to overcome.  Conversely, in verses like “i will wade out” and “Will i complete the mystery of my flesh”, “i” emphasizes his submission to the life that has been given him and his eventual death.

Elizabeth Gilbert comes to a similar conclusion in her book Eat Pray Love when she defines Destiny and Faith as follows:

Destiny is “a play between divine grace and willful self-effort. Half of it you have no control over; half of it is absolutely in your hands, and your actions will show measurable consequence.   (p.177, Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert)

Faith is walking face-first and full-speed into the dark. […] If we truly knew all the answers in advance as to the meaning of life and the nature of God and the destiny of our souls, our belief would not be a leap of faith and it would not be a courageous act of humanity; it would just be … a prudent insurance policy.  (p. 175, Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert)

I will close with the song that inspired it all Sun in My Mouth by Bjork. The song is part of the Vespertine album. Sadly, I could only find one link to the original song that is of poor quality but hopefully you’ll still appreciate its innocence and beauty.

Hope you enjoy!

Posted in Bjork, e.e. cummings, Poetry, Uncategorized | Tagged | 2 Comments

Walt Whitman… Americana Poetry

I have started to read American poetry and thought I would share some of my favorite poems by classic American poets starting with Walt Whitman. Although, he was under-appreciated in his time what I find beautiful in his poetry is his attempt at breaking down the walls of segregation between the Whites, Blacks and Reds (Natives). In no way does his poetry come off as pretentious or “preachy”. He just relays his stories in simplicity without judgment as an observer. It is up to the reader to see … the injustice and crime against the very fabric of what makes us human and unites us.

From Sing the Body Electric part 7

A man’s body at auction,
(For before the war I often go to the slave-mart and watch the sale,)
I help the auctioneer, the sloven does not half know his business.

Gentlemen look on this wonder,
Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it,
For it the globe lay preparing quintillions of years without one
animal or plant,
For it the revolving cycles truly and steadily roll’d.

In this head the all-baffling brain,
In it and below it the makings of heroes.

Examine these limbs, red, black, or white, they are cunning in
tendon and nerve,
They shall be stript that you may see them.

Exquisite senses, life-lit eyes, pluck, volition,
Flakes of breast-muscle, pliant backbone and neck, flesh not flabby,
good-sized arms and legs,
And wonders within there yet.

Within there runs blood,
The same old blood! the same red-running blood!
There swells and jets a heart, there all passions, desires,
reachings, aspirations,
(Do you think they are not there because they are not express’d in parlors and lecture-rooms?)

This is not only one man, this the father of those who shall be
fathers in their turns,
In him the start of populous states and rich republics,
Of him countless immortal lives with countless embodiments and enjoyments.

How do you know who shall come from the offspring of his offspring
through the centuries?
(Who might you find you have come from yourself, if you could trace back through the centuries?)

From Song of Myself part 10

Alone far in the wilds and mountains I hunt,
Wandering amazed at my own lightness and glee,
In the late afternoon choosing a safe spot to pass the night,
Kindling a fire and broiling the fresh-kill’d game,
Falling asleep on the gather’d leaves with my dog and gun
by my side.

The Yankee clipper is under her sky-sails, she cuts the
sparkle and scud,
My eyes settle the land, I bend at her prow or shout
joyously from the deck.

The boatmen and clam-diggers arose early and stopt for me,
I tuck’d my trowser-ends in my boots and went and had a
good time;
You should have been with us that day round the chowder-
kettle.

I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far
west, the bride was a red girl,
Her father and his friends sat near cross-legged and dumbly
smoking, they had moccasins to their feet and large
thick blankets hanging from their shoulders,
On a bank lounged the trapper, he was drest mostly in skins,
his luxuriant beard and curls protected his neck, he held
his bride by the hand,
She had long eyelashes, her head was bare, her coarse straight
locks descended upon her voluptuous limbs and reach’d
to her feet.

The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him
limpsy and weak,
And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured
him,
And brought water and fill’d a tub for his sweated body and
bruis’d feet,
And gave him a room that enter’d from my own, and gave
him some coarse clean clothes,
And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his
awkwardness,
And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and
ankles;
He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and
pass’d north,
I had him sit next me at table, my fire-lock lean’d in the
corner.

Walt Whitman

From Song of Myself part 33

Space and Time! now I see it is true, what I guess’d at,
What I guess’d when I loaf’d on the grass,
What I guess’d while I lay alone in my bed,
And again as I walk’d the beach under the paling stars of the morning.

My ties and ballasts leave me, my elbows rest in sea-gaps,
I skirt sierras, my palms cover continents,
I am afoot with my vision.

By the city’s quadrangular houses–in log huts, camping with lumber-men,
Along the ruts of the turnpike, along the dry gulch and rivulet bed,
Weeding my onion-patch or hosing rows of carrots and parsnips,
crossing savannas, trailing in forests,
Prospecting, gold-digging, girdling the trees of a new purchase,
Scorch’d ankle-deep by the hot sand, hauling my boat down the
shallow river,
Where the panther walks to and fro on a limb overhead, where the
buck turns furiously at the hunter,
Where the rattlesnake suns his flabby length on a rock, where the
otter is feeding on fish,
Where the alligator in his tough pimples sleeps by the bayou,
Where the black bear is searching for roots or honey, where the
beaver pats the mud with his paddle-shaped tall;
Over the growing sugar, over the yellow-flower’d cotton plant, over
the rice in its low moist field,
Over the sharp-peak’d farm house, with its scallop’d scum and
slender shoots from the gutters,
Over the western persimmon, over the long-leav’d corn, over the
delicate blue-flower flax,
Over the white and brown buckwheat, a hummer and buzzer there with
the rest,
Over the dusky green of the rye as it ripples and shades in the breeze;
Scaling mountains, pulling myself cautiously up, holding on by low
scragged limbs,
Walking the path worn in the grass and beat through the leaves of the brush,
Where the quail is whistling betwixt the woods and the wheat-lot,
Where the bat flies in the Seventh-month eve, where the great
goldbug drops through the dark,
Where the brook puts out of the roots of the old tree and flows to
the meadow,
Where cattle stand and shake away flies with the tremulous
shuddering of their hides,
Where the cheese-cloth hangs in the kitchen, where andirons straddle
the hearth-slab, where cobwebs fall in festoons from the rafters;
Where trip-hammers crash, where the press is whirling its cylinders,
Wherever the human heart beats with terrible throes under its ribs,
Where the pear-shaped balloon is floating aloft, (floating in it
myself and looking composedly down,)
Where the life-car is drawn on the slip-noose, where the heat
hatches pale-green eggs in the dented sand,
Where the she-whale swims with her calf and never forsakes it,
Where the steam-ship trails hind-ways its long pennant of smoke,
Where the fin of the shark cuts like a black chip out of the water,
Where the half-burn’d brig is riding on unknown currents,
Where shells grow to her slimy deck, where the dead are corrupting below;
Where the dense-starr’d flag is borne at the head of the regiments,
Approaching Manhattan up by the long-stretching island,
Under Niagara, the cataract falling like a veil over my countenance,
Upon a door-step, upon the horse-block of hard wood outside,
Upon the race-course, or enjoying picnics or jigs or a good game of
base-ball,
At he-festivals, with blackguard gibes, ironical license,
bull-dances, drinking, laughter,
At the cider-mill tasting the sweets of the brown mash, sucking the
juice through a straw,
At apple-peelings wanting kisses for all the red fruit I find,
At musters, beach-parties, friendly bees, huskings, house-raisings;
Where the mocking-bird sounds his delicious gurgles, cackles,
screams, weeps,
Where the hay-rick stands in the barn-yard, where the dry-stalks are
scatter’d, where the brood-cow waits in the hovel,
Where the bull advances to do his masculine work, where the stud to
the mare, where the cock is treading the hen,
Where the heifers browse, where geese nip their food with short jerks,
Where sun-down shadows lengthen over the limitless and lonesome prairie,
Where herds of buffalo make a crawling spread of the square miles
far and near,
Where the humming-bird shimmers, where the neck of the long-lived
swan is curving and winding,
Where the laughing-gull scoots by the shore, where she laughs her
near-human laugh,
Where bee-hives range on a gray bench in the garden half hid by the
high weeds,
Where band-neck’d partridges roost in a ring on the ground with
their heads out,
Where burial coaches enter the arch’d gates of a cemetery,
Where winter wolves bark amid wastes of snow and icicled trees,
Where the yellow-crown’d heron comes to the edge of the marsh at
night and feeds upon small crabs,
Where the splash of swimmers and divers cools the warm noon,
Where the katy-did works her chromatic reed on the walnut-tree over
the well,
Through patches of citrons and cucumbers with silver-wired leaves,
Through the salt-lick or orange glade, or under conical firs,
Through the gymnasium, through the curtain’d saloon, through the
office or public hall;
Pleas’d with the native and pleas’d with the foreign, pleas’d with
the new and old,
Pleas’d with the homely woman as well as the handsome,
Pleas’d with the quakeress as she puts off her bonnet and talks melodiously,
Pleas’d with the tune of the choir of the whitewash’d church,
Pleas’d with the earnest words of the sweating Methodist preacher,
impress’d seriously at the camp-meeting;
Looking in at the shop-windows of Broadway the whole forenoon,
flatting the flesh of my nose on the thick plate glass,
Wandering the same afternoon with my face turn’d up to the clouds,
or down a lane or along the beach,
My right and left arms round the sides of two friends, and I in the middle;
Coming home with the silent and dark-cheek’d bush-boy, (behind me
he rides at the drape of the day,)
Far from the settlements studying the print of animals’ feet, or the
moccasin print,
By the cot in the hospital reaching lemonade to a feverish patient,
Nigh the coffin’d corpse when all is still, examining with a candle;
Voyaging to every port to dicker and adventure,
Hurrying with the modern crowd as eager and fickle as any,
Hot toward one I hate, ready in my madness to knife him,
Solitary at midnight in my back yard, my thoughts gone from me a long while,
Walking the old hills of Judaea with the beautiful gentle God by my side,
Speeding through space, speeding through heaven and the stars,
Speeding amid the seven satellites and the broad ring, and the
diameter of eighty thousand miles,
Speeding with tail’d meteors, throwing fire-balls like the rest,
Carrying the crescent child that carries its own full mother in its belly,
Storming, enjoying, planning, loving, cautioning,
Backing and filling, appearing and disappearing,
I tread day and night such roads.

I visit the orchards of spheres and look at the product,
And look at quintillions ripen’d and look at quintillions green.

I fly those flights of a fluid and swallowing soul,
My course runs below the soundings of plummets.

I help myself to material and immaterial,
No guard can shut me off, no law prevent me.

I anchor my ship for a little while only,
My messengers continually cruise away or bring their returns to me.

I go hunting polar furs and the seal, leaping chasms with a
pike-pointed staff, clinging to topples of brittle and blue.

I ascend to the foretruck,
I take my place late at night in the crow’s-nest,
We sail the arctic sea, it is plenty light enough,
Through the clear atmosphere I stretch around on the wonderful beauty,
The enormous masses of ice pass me and I pass them, the scenery is
plain in all directions,
The white-topt mountains show in the distance, I fling out my
fancies toward them,
We are approaching some great battle-field in which we are soon to
be engaged,
We pass the colossal outposts of the encampment, we pass with still
feet and caution,
Or we are entering by the suburbs some vast and ruin’d city,
The blocks and fallen architecture more than all the living cities
of the globe.

I am a free companion, I bivouac by invading watchfires,
I turn the bridgroom out of bed and stay with the bride myself,
I tighten her all night to my thighs and lips.

My voice is the wife’s voice, the screech by the rail of the stairs,
They fetch my man’s body up dripping and drown’d.

I understand the large hearts of heroes,
The courage of present times and all times,
How the skipper saw the crowded and rudderless wreck of the
steamship, and Death chasing it up and down the storm,
How he knuckled tight and gave not back an inch, and was faithful of
days and faithful of nights,
And chalk’d in large letters on a board, Be of good cheer, we will
not desert you;
How he follow’d with them and tack’d with them three days and
would not give it up,
How he saved the drifting company at last,
How the lank loose-gown’d women look’d when boated from the
side of their prepared graves,
How the silent old-faced infants and the lifted sick, and the
sharp-lipp’d unshaved men;
All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well, it becomes mine,
I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there.

The disdain and calmness of martyrs,
The mother of old, condemn’d for a witch, burnt with dry wood, her
children gazing on,
The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence,
blowing, cover’d with sweat,
The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck, the murderous
buckshot and the bullets,
All these I feel or am.

I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen,
I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn’d with the
ooze of my skin,
I fall on the weeds and stones,
The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close,
Taunt my dizzy ears and beat me violently over the head with whip-stocks.

Agonies are one of my changes of garments,
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the
wounded person,
My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.

I am the mash’d fireman with breast-bone broken,
Tumbling walls buried me in their debris,
Heat and smoke I inspired, I heard the yelling shouts of my comrades,
I heard the distant click of their picks and shovels,
They have clear’d the beams away, they tenderly lift me forth.

I lie in the night air in my red shirt, the pervading hush is for my sake,
Painless after all I lie exhausted but not so unhappy,
White and beautiful are the faces around me, the heads are bared
of their fire-caps,
The kneeling crowd fades with the light of the torches.

Distant and dead resuscitate,
They show as the dial or move as the hands of me, I am the clock myself.

I am an old artillerist, I tell of my fort’s bombardment,
I am there again.

Again the long roll of the drummers,
Again the attacking cannon, mortars,
Again to my listening ears the cannon responsive.

I take part, I see and hear the whole,
The cries, curses, roar, the plaudits for well-aim’d shots,
The ambulanza slowly passing trailing its red drip,
Workmen searching after damages, making indispensable repairs,
The fall of grenades through the rent roof, the fan-shaped explosion,
The whizz of limbs, heads, stone, wood, iron, high in the air.

Again gurgles the mouth of my dying general, he furiously waves
with his hand,
He gasps through the clot Mind not me–mind–the entrenchments.

Walt Whitman

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The Ghosts of France’s Colonial Past

Sans Négrier by Laurent Gaudé tells the story of a man who was recently promoted captain of a slave trade ship in light of the recent passing of his commanding officer Bressac.  His task was to bring slaves from Senegal to the Americas. But before, he wanted to bring back the body of Captain Bressac to France.

Tout avait commence à Gorée, au large du Sénégal, lorsque le capitaine Bressac eut la mauvaise idée de mourir.  … Nous nous apprêtions  à partir pour l’Amérique comme nous l’avions fait tant de fois auparavant mais Bressac tomba malade. … Pendant trois  jours il ne quitta plus sa cabine. … le soir du troisième jour, ce fut pour nous annoncer la mort du capitaine : la fièvre l’avait bouffé la tête au pieds.

After burying Captain Bressac, the men light up their pipes and converse with one another, when a bunch of youngsters bellow:  “They are trying to escape! They are trying to escape!” At this point, the captain yells with rage that he will find them and pay deeply for their escape.

Ultimately, a search is started and one by one the slaves who successfully escaped are found and killed for their crime of desertion with the exception of one slave, who evades capture.

After two nights of uneventful searching for the last slave, a scream comes from one of the French men. Near Saint-Peter’s door, there is a bleeding Black finger, nailed to the door like an ill-omened charm.

Sur la porte, il y avait un doigt, cloué au bois, un doigt noir, encore saignant, accroché là, comme un porte-malheur.

They wondered why he had cut his finger, where did he find the nail and what did the run-away slave want?

As a result the search for the escapee resumed to no avail, and that same night a second finger was found nailed to hotel door of the ship-owner. Shortly after his eight year old daughter was run-over. Needless, to say the finger forebode ominous events. Regularly, they would find a new bleeding finger and the person concerned found himself a victim of disaster.

Les semaines qui suivirent furent rythmées par les patrouilles de nuit qui ne trouvaient aucune autre âme vivante – dans les rues – que celle de marins ivres ou de chat tentant de se protéger de la pluie. Régulièrement, nous découvrions un nouveau doigt. Des portes étaient maculées de sang. (…) Chaque fois, ces doigts furent accompagnés d’un malheur

After they found the tenth finger the people experienced some relief believing that no more evil would come to them and just presumed the slave died. During this time the new captain was on his way to the Americas. Three months later upon his return, he finds an eleventh finger at his doorstep. How could that be? He is left disconcerted.

Lorsque je parvins devant chez moi, je mis du temps a trouver ma clef et ce n’est que lorsque j’essayai de la rentrer dans la serrure que je la vis, là, sur le bois de ma porte: un doigt, à nouveau. Un onzième doigt.

After some time, the captain can no longer think straight and questions his and his peoples’ cruelty to the African slaves. As a result, he is ostracized by his community and is no longer able to live a “normal” life.

What I found striking about this tale was the evil presence lurking in the background. In the end of the story, he states (paraphrased): “the escaped slave will continue to live among us for hundreds of years laughing on our tombs and tormenting our ancestors.” A sense of fear and pathos preside over the captain and his people despite the death of the slaves and the passing of time. The author reminds us that the crimes of the past are still a part of the collective subconscious of the French people. The shame of their acts will remain lodged in the memories of their descendants.

Il les couperait éternellement pour se rappeler à notre bon souvenir, puis a celui des enfants et de nos petits-enfants et de nos petits enfants. Le nègre échappé allait vieillir avec la ville. Dans dix ans, dans cents ans, il serait encore là, riant sur nos tombes et harcelant encore nos lointains descendants.

When I read this short story, I was immediately reminded of Andrew Hussey’s article The Paris Intifada (Granta issue 101).

Here are some excerpts from that article:

France may be in Europe but many of its fears and nightmares began during the brutal Algerian War of Independence. It was during this conflict that many horrors of our new century – asymmetric war against Muslim terror groups, the systematic use of torture in the name of democracy – were first deployed. France may be unique among Western European nations in refusing to recognize its colonial crimes: deeply embedded in the psyche of political parties of the Left and Right is the idea that the French colonial empire performed a mission civilatrice, a ‘civilising mission’, imposing universal republican values on the ‘uncivilized’ world. This ‘mission’ was less about capital and commodity than an explicitly political task of exporting ‘Frenchness’. The loss of Algeria was, following this logic, less like losing a dependent colony than the sudden death of a family member. The bereavement continues to affect both colonizer and colonized.
France is far from coming to terms with the repressed memories of its colonial past. Like the dead Algerians who were thrown into the Seine in 1961, and whose bloated corpses shocked ordinary Parisians when they were found in the days after the massacre on the Pont de Neuilly, these memories are once more resurfacing to provoke new and fresh anxieties.

[…]

In the nineteenth century, Charles Baudelaire wrote of Paris being haunted by its past, by ‘ghosts in daylight’. In the early twenty-first century, the ghosts of colonial and anti-colonial assassins, from Algeria to Beirut, from Congo to Rwanda, continue to be visible in the daylight of the banlieue. It may be that what France needs is not hard-headed political solutions or even psychiatry, but an exorcist.

Sans Négrier was taken from the collection of short stories “Dans la Nuit Mozambique” by Laurent Gaudé.

Posted in Andrew Hussey, Literature, Politics, Post-colonialism, Short Stories | 2 Comments

Amours Sorcières by Tahar Ben Jelloun

Les Amours Sorcières by Tahar Ben Jelloun is a collection of 20 short stories on the theme of love, passion, betrayal and friendship. What I found interesting about these tales was the embedded richness of Morrocan traditions and rituals. He intertwines his love stories with the use of sorcery, superstitions, and old wive tales. As the characters evaluate their relationships and the possibility of old superstitions controlling their situation or partner’s behavior, the author continually evokes the question: Can truly rational beings believe in outside forces controlling their destiny/fate?

In the short story L’Amour Sorcier, Hamza, a confirmed bachelor, falls for an independent woman: Najat. After being in a relationship with her for a while, he realizes that he has lost his edge and “freedom”. Not before long, he yearns for his independence and confides in a friend who tells him— she must have seen a charlatan to cast a spell on him why he can’t get rid of her like the other girls. After hearing this, he begins to question whether that is indeed possible. How could modern, rational women have recourse to such practices from the Middle Ages? He concludes that Moroccan society can’t escape its old demons and that they approach modern life keeping one foot deeply rooted in in the Middle Ages. He even goes on to suggest that these beliefs and practices is precisely why Morocco is “behind” compared to the West.

“Comment était-ce possible? Des femmes apparemment modernes, cultivées, séduisantes, faisant appel à l’irrationnel le plus aberrant pour résoudre des problèmes affectifs? Il en déduisit que la société marocaine ne pouvait échapper à ses vieux démons et qu’elle affronte la modernité en gardant un pied bien enraciné dans le Moyen Âge.” Excerpt from L’Amour Sorcier by Tahar Ben Jelloun

However, given his desperation he goes to see a fqih to fix his situation. The fqih writes something on a paper which he folds in 4 and gives it to him to keep on his person. The fqih takes two other pieces of paper and writes something on them and folds them in two and tells him to put the second paper in a basin of water to dissolve the ink and bathe in it. He tells him to tie the third piece of paper to a tree, out of the reach of children, so that the wind will work on the words to make them effective. Hamza performs these rituals and is relieved. He is also able to break free from Najat without rue. On her part, Najat is unable to understand his sudden change of heart and confides in her mother, who suspects the use of sorcery. Najat too is surprised and replies how can a modern man, who loves jazz and classic cinema resort to such irrationality.

Along the same lines the short story Homme Sous Influence tells the story of an accomplished professor of Applied Mathematics and Physics named Anwar who sees his whole world fall apart in a matter of days. He is told that his recent misfortunes are the result of the Evil Eye cast upon him by his enemies (people jealous of his success and his ex-wife) and so he must see a fqih to get rid of the curses. Of course at first Anwar, a man of science and logic, is a huge skeptic and refuses to accept these old Moroccan superstitions but as a result of his desperate situation has recourse to the fqih’s help.

More broadly speaking these short stories adduce the following questions:

1) Must an ideal modern society be based solely on what is Rational? Scientific reasoning?
2) Are cultures/nations that value or abide by superstitions indicative of backwardness?
3) Does progress mean denying ancestral traditions to be more like the West (or our perception of Western societies)?

Posted in Literature, Short Stories, Tahar Ben Jelloun | 1 Comment