Thursday, June 30, 2011

Searching images

Here's something really cool. I found this utterly haunting photo on a youtube videoe to some piano music of Janacek (who is with me still). The picture looks to me like archetypal childhood - and (also?) the childhood of my parents' generation. In part this must be because it's in black and white... I wonder if there have been many other generations whose image of the time before their birth was visually different (b&w instead of color) than their own... though the millennials will probably be like that, their parents' worlds in still photographs while theirs are all in motion. Perhaps 2D and 3D will be similar.

But here's something even cooler, in its way. You can now can do a Google search with an image! (This is something I've been waiting for; it might in fact have been around for a while, but I only just discovered it.) So I just dragged my screencap of the image into the search box, and learned that the picture is by American photographer Henry Callahan (1912-1999). It's called "Eleanor and Barbara" and was shot in Chicago in 1953. Seems a kindred spirit.

Actually it can get surreal pretty quick. (Not a criticism, necessarily!) I put in a picture of a cactus you know, and look what came up!


A resplendently beautiful summer morning, the air clear and a cool breeze from the harbor. The view out the apartment's back and front:

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Summer in the City...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Hard to believe, but I'm still humming and whistling melodies from the "Cunning Little Vixen," five very eventful days on! I have, I admit, supplemented the NYPhil with much listening to the recording I love.
By this time tomorrow, Janacek may have had to cede place to Verdi: I'm going to the summer encore screening of the Metropolitan Opera in HD's "Simon Boccanegra," with Placido Domingo's debut as a baritone.

Monday, June 27, 2011

BBG summer

My graduate school friend B came to visit Friday and Saturday, with her now 24-year-old daughter M. We had a grand time exploring Brooklyn, including the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a delight in every season.

All the news that's fit to print

Caught at the end of the march, we didn't get to see wondrous scenes like this one, on A1 of today's Times. The caption: Alissa Hernandez, a police officer, proposed to her girlfriend, Jenny, along the route. The online edition omits what the print includes: The answer was yes.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Here we go!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Marriage = equality

A banner headline, well deserved. It's been a long time coming, but it's still hard to believe it's come so quickly. Sometimes the pace of change is frustrating; sometimes it's breathtaking. History indeed. What an unbelievable thing to be alive at this point in history, to be part of it. What a privilege. A responsibility, too.

By historic I don't just mean the acceptance and integration of LGBT people, though that is epochal (and far from complete). I'm thinking about marriage, which is changed by this. Politically it's made sense to argue otherwise - that it in no way changes heterosexual marriage to add another category - but that's not really true. The relationship of marriage to procreation is changed, obviously, though that change has been happening for a while without us, and it's certainly likely that marriage will continue to be the institution charged with that end of marriage Aquinas called the education of children. What's historic here is closer to what we learned from Martin Luther King, that nobody's free until everyone is. True freedom is not allied to or dependent on exclusion. Nor is full humanity.

But there's still more. It's not just making a social good - "civil rights" - available to all people, important though that is. The good is changed - clarified, deepened - by this.

I learned to see this just over ten years ago, in April 2001, when a woman priest - an Episcopalian (wish I'd written down her name!) - came to preach at Dignity, the gay Catholic group, in New York. The Netherlands had just legalized gay unions, and she told us how happy this made her, as a married straight woman. There was something gay marriages could show the world that nobody else could: that marriage could be a bond of equals. Because men and women had different social roles and power in every known society, she argued, heterosexual marriage has seemed to require an implicitly hierarchical difference to function (even when couched as sexual complementarity). If lesbian and gay folk could show that marriages could last - even be stronger! - without such a division of roles, it opened the door for everyone to imagine and celebrate marriage - all marriage - as true companionship and love.

That's the true importance of "marriage equality" to the human story. It'll be exciting to see what else it reveals.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Thursday, June 23, 2011


You might wonder why I came back so soon from California. Would you believe me if told you one of the reasons was Leos Janacek? It's true! The New York Philharmonic, hoping to repeat the succès fou of last year's "Grand Macabre," are offering a semi-staged performance of one of my favorite operas, Janacek's rarely performed "Cunning Little Vixen" - and just this week. The above image (from here) isn't quite what we saw tonight. Or rather, my friend J (who invited me to "Company" in the same house with the same orchestra) and I saw it from above - second box at the extreme top left! Still remembering the lovely City Opera production designed by Maurice Sendak, I was a little underwhelmed by the kids-playing-dressup aesthetics. (The Sendak apparently hasn't been performed since 1991.) And English just isn't a pretty singing language. But the music ... ! What is it about Janacek? ("The Makropoulos Case" is returning to the Met in the coming season, by the way!)

I would not even know who Janacek was, let alone have attended the Sendak production, were it not for my graduate school professor and close friend, the late VP. This opera was very dear to him, too. When he passed away now over ten years ago, we had a memorial gathering for which I put together a selection of music I knew he loved. (I am the custodian of his magnificent music collection to this day, ever making new discoveries.) It ended with the final scene of this opera.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

New littles

WNYC's Brian Lehrer has a delightful new series exploring the "new littles" - through demographic shifts, the historic ethnic enclaves of Little Italy, etc., have dispersed, moved, multiplied. The series was inspired by the news from the latest census that Little Italy has very few Italians left: it's been engulfed by Chinatown. Or rather, one of the city's Chinatowns - the map above is of Chinese enclaves. But Manhattan's Chinatown is under pressure too. Some friends invited me to dinner there tonight - the highlight was a Mao-approved menu at Grand Sichuan on Canal Street, just north of the Manhattan Bridge. (The Diced Lotus Root with Hunan Black Bean was fantastic! Rest of menu at right.) That neighborhood's still very Chinese but just a few blocks towards Delancey from there we found sporadic bistros, a cupcake-and-coffee shop and wine bars full of white hipsters.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


New York is a pedestrian city (at least for me), which means I spend a lot of time walking behind people - on sidewalks, crosswalks, park paths, subway stairs and platforms. In what will soon be nine years in the city, I have gotten little better at judging who's in front of me. Is it a woman or a man, old or young, black or white? In a surprising number of cases, I'm wrong. You may be surprised I even care - I am, each time. It may of course be that I'm getting better, and only notice (or notice noticing) when my expectations are upset. I do know that each time it happens, I wonder that I had bothered to form an opinion in the first place. Not just that there's no need to know, but what's my mind doing profiling race, gender, age like that? I'm not proud of it.

Buddhists sometimes say that every experience can be a teacher, making you aware of the judgmentalism and busywork of your mind.

On Sunday, New York had a beauty for me. I was walking to meet a friend at her house on 21st Street. I'd been at the Manhattan Fruit Exchange in the Chelsea Market, and noticed a few very pregnant women uncomfortable in the very narrow aisles. (I didn't notice their discomfort, of course, but mine at having to maneuver around them.) Then there was this young woman in front of my on 21st St, waddling slowly in such a way as to fill the whole sidewalk. When I found a way to walk around her I saw she was just carrying a very large round watermelon.

Thank you, great teacher.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Toward more perfect union

Today was the day we were told the New York State Legislature might vote to legalize gay marriage in the state - or not. (In fact the vote might not come until Thursday.) It'll be a big deal either way but I get the sense that if it's not this year, it'll be soon. Apoplectic Archbishop Dolan's right: this isn't China or North Korea. Our historical experience is one of widening the franchise and deepening our respect for all people and their right to lead a good life. It's taking us places few societies have ever been. History isn't over. What an adventure.

At church today we had a party. Officially it was to launch our own "It gets better" video, but of course it would have been su-weet to be together to celebrate history in the making. Turns out the sanctuary of Holy Apostles has been part of that history for longer than any of us realized. A historian of the contribution of religious congregations to the gay rights movement whom I know recently discovered my connection to Holy Apostles and sent me a talk she gave about it a few years ago. It covers the period 1967-76, when no less than eight formative groups - secular as well as religious - were meeting here!

Blessings of unions were happening, too. It wasn't our Episcopal congregation (though she tells me the rector put together a "Blessing of friendship" with the support of Bishop Moore), but the newly formed Church of the Beloved Disciple, which met - 600-strong! - on Sunday afternoons. (Above is a clipping from a New York Post article on one such union, in April, 1971!) And it was the liaison between the two congregations, Ellen Barrett, who was in 1977 ordained to the Episcopal priesthood by Bishop Moore, the first lesbian priest - at Holy Apostles.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


The basil plants, which I left out on the fire escape, are alive and well!

Unsettled: Possession

[This is the final installment of an essay which began here.]

The student told us about a Kimberley artist named Eddie Burrup, whose work started appearing in Aboriginal art galleries in the 1990s. In a darker palette than much Aboriginal art, Burrup's work favored cosmic or Christian topics rather than specific Dreamings; his was an exciting new voice. He won prizes and was invited to contribute to several shows, including the 1996 exhibition at the Tandanya National Aboriginal Culture Institute in Adelaide called "Native Title Now."

Then an article appeared in a small art magazine, in which it was revealed that Eddie Burrup did not exist. Or rather, a white Australian woman painter revealed that "I am Eddie Burrup," though she continues to talk about him in the third person. Elizabeth Durack, a child of the Kimberley squattocracy who had lived on the land and known Aboriginal people all her life, had been working on a biography of Burrup and decided to come clean. He was her daemon. Response from Aboriginal people was quick and furious, if more muted among her friends. Durack has a place on the Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation's "Wall of Shame" for theft of Aboriginal property and profiting from the imposture. She nevertheless continued to paint as both Burrup and Durack until her death a few years later.

Some in our class were furious as well, but not all. Several shared the pleasure of the student who introduced us to the case; the real scandal was not Durack's supposed fraud but the hypocrisy exposed by its success. If Durack's paintings were judged worthy of prizes when presented under the name Burrup but rejected when known to be her own, what did that say about the judges? Shouldn't they admit that they weren't motivated by artistic beauty but only by ethnicity? If so, shouldn't Durack be commended for calling their bluff? On the other hand, if their artistic judgments was fair, didn't the success of the paintings of "Eddie Burrup" confirm that Durack actually was a gifted Aboriginal artist, that ethnicity was irrelevant in art?

It was an ugly case, and I was not happy that it had been brought to my classroom. But the discussion it generated was the most lively we'd had all semester. Everyone was engaged, thinking, arguing. I realized that pursuing it might take us where the Hindmarsh/Kumarangk case had failed to - to tough choices about the weight and significance of Aboriginal matters in a modern society like our own. I didn't right away realize that the Burrup/Durack case also brought to a head my angstful questions about ownership and teaching.

I told the class to read up on Durack. (Her daughter Perpetua maintains an extensive website.) I wasn't about to let the work of a fake Aboriginal be the last word in my class, however, so we read also about contemporary Aboriginal artists whose work is at a remove from Dreamings, thematizing historical and political issues with words, found objects, collage, photographic realism, etc. I also showed two short films about the Aboriginal Memorial, a forest of hollow log coffins made for the bicentenary of European settlement of Australia in 1988 - one for the untended dead of each year of colonial occupation - now displayed in the National Gallery of Art in Canberra. A bonus: it's the work of an earlier generation of elders from Ramingining, the Yolngu community we'd encountered in "Ten Canoes."

Our discussion kept slipping back to Durack, however. Her case is even stranger than it first appears. Her daughter describes Burrup as an inspired invention which brought her mother's work the attention it deserved, but Elizabeth Durack herself described the arrival of Burrup the way mediums discuss being possessed. She spoke of him always in the third person, and felt a responsibility to help him express his art. She now realized that Burrup had been "nascent" in her artistic consciousness for decades before he identified himself to her.

Durack fascinated not just for her weirdness. She was the first and only settler Australian we had gotten to know in the class. In incorporating Aboriginal traditions in her art, she seemed the mirror and complement of Aboriginal artists we had encountered whose work in western media I defended from the class's authenticity police: Albert Namatjira, who made watercolor landscapes his own, and Darlene Johnson, whose film "Crocodile Dreaming" uses the conventions of horror films to convey an Aboriginal story.

Besides, Durack was an artist. Could not and should not an artist take inspiration wherever it presented itself to her? Some of us said "not an Aboriginal artist...," recalling issues of ownership and protocol. Others responded "but she's not Aboriginal." Why should a non-Aboriginal observe Aboriginal protocol and recognize Aboriginal ownership? One student - not a Durack defender - observed that maybe Durack developed a split personality precisely because her understanding of Aboriginal culture was so deep she realized she could never paint Aboriginal art.

At the heart of this was a question to me, and the way I'd been conducting the class. None of us is Aboriginal, and we're not in Australia. Why should we honor Aboriginal understandings of property and protocol? This was the question I'd intended to force with the Hindmarsh/Kumarangk Island Bridge controversy. Durack brought it home to our classroom in the basement of The New School, a few meters from the space where Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham created modern dance.

We were not being artists in room B002, but the project of the liberal arts is closer to the arts than to law. It's about liberty - the liberty and perhaps obligation of the individual to make and remake herself in conversation with the best fruits of human culture. It resists restrictions on thought and questions authority claims, not in the service of narcissism but of a deeper and broader humanism. It celebrates the work of study and dispels prejudice. It empowers agency and respect, identifying injustices and the ways to fight them. These are my values, too, and presumably the reasons students had signed up for my class. But I had created a space in which such liberty was permitted only to Aboriginals, whose acts of reinvention and appropriation were celebrated. Aboriginal people could do no wrong, while settlers, it seemed, could do no right.

Though they weren't entirely clear to me, I had my reasons. The structure of ownership, distribution and protocol was the main "takeaway" from traditions I felt could not be translated or transported from their land. I was especially intrigued with the way the particular interlocking cycles of nature are in Aboriginal life integrated and lived socially, and the dynamic and ununified understandings of land and person it involves. It confirmed my sense that reality is so rich that no tradition can ultimately do it justice - even as it resonated with my sense that western understandings of ecology are in need of drastic revision. It suggested a model for a pluralism (though I was pulling an Eliade here: would any Aboriginal put it that way?).

In my other classes, as several of the students knew, I have been moving steadily away from the benevolent authoritarianism of phronimos and the Zen teacher - in theory if not in practice. My democratizing mantra is "who decides?" All of us, ignorant though we are, make worlds for ourselves out of what's available to us, often more creatively than the specialists of our traditions. The specialists condemn this as "syncretism." I think syncretism is probably the norm in human history; the antisyncretic impulses are what need to be explained. (I'm not praising one and condemning the other; both have their place.) This view of the creativity in syncretism is obviously part and parcel of my understanding of how traditions work. It's why I had no patience for questions about the "authenticity" of an Aboriginal person's invoking Jesus or painting in acrylics on canvas.

While the Aboriginal in my class could do no wrong, however, it seemed the settler could do no right - except, perhaps, helping Aboriginal people do right. Postcolonial historian of anthropology Patrick Wolfe insists that there can be no innocent view of Aboriginal culture. Like Gill (their books both came out within a year of each other, though I can find no evidence anyone has brought them together), he thinks the best and only thing the settler can do is deconstruct the settler's ideologies. Aboriginals have no use for a theory of the Aboriginal. Any pretended attempt to understand the Aboriginal is already another act of occupation.

I conducted my class as if one might occupy oneself with Aboriginal traditions without occupying them. This is how I approach every other tradition I teach about. I pose tough questions about the agendas of supposedly value-neutral scholarship, and seek out insider voices. Indeed, I often channel them and encourage students to do the same ("what would Hume/a devotee of Saint Jude/a Jewish reader of Eliade/Santideva say?"), increasingly in writing or improv exercises. Until this class, I had no sense of trespassing, let alone of taking something which is not mine. As I shared the fruit of my research with students and encouraged them to make it their own, I had no sense of passing on something to which I may have had no right. Have I been pulling a Durack all along?

Near the end of the semester I chaired a discussion about the liberal arts with alumni of our college. One is an indigenous Alaskan, who offered some thoughts about the liberal arts from an indigenous perspective. In some deep ways, she suggested, traditional conceptions of the liberal arts have elective affinities with settler colonialism. Suppose we understood land as knowledge rather than property, and recognized knowledge instead as property - respecting human traditions as sovereign rather than insisting on a project of "inclusion"? This hit me with the force of revelation. In my stumbling way this was what I had been trying to do, without quite knowing it. She proposed a new mission for the liberal arts: "teaching the settler to be indigenous." I don't know if I can teach about Aboriginal Australia again. But this is where we begin.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Farewell, California!

Final dip in the ocean at the Del Mar beach (hardly noticed it was 64˚F) and a quick walk up to Crest Canyon before heading for the redeye to New York. In my three weeks here, the pattern of flowers has changed quite a bit, greens giving way steadily to familiar tans and browns. I'm not usually in California this early in a summer - glad I had a chance to see everything abloom! I hadn't realized, for instance, just how full of glorious jacarandas San Diego is! (Above, a riot of scarlet larkspur half-hidden at the rapidly browning top of the canyon.)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Skyscraper, Torrey Pines State Reserve style. I'll miss you in steamy NYC!

Orange juice for three

One more golden California day with my parents, then it's back east on the JetBlue red-eye tomorrow.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Fair enough?

It's been decades since I've been to the San Diego County Fair, the nation's fifth largest. The concept's the same but everything's bigger.

Unsettled: Pushing the envelope

[This is the fifth installment of an essay which began here.]

I may be giving the impression I knew what I was doing, and that the students in the class didn't. Some of the time it was perhaps the opposite. I've described what became clear to me about the experience in retrospect, but at the time I was starting and stopping. Apologies at the start about not being able to offer anything first-hand - no objects, people, land or even personal experience - morphed into anxieties when things seemed to fall into place. Warnings about the likelihood of our getting things wrong because at biased second hand passed into worries that we might be getting things right to which we had no right.

Students had heard me disavow authority before, but not so seriously. When my class on religious ethics comes to Zen, for instance, I bluntly assert: "I haven't achieved satori. You can't trust what makes sense to me." But I can't resist adding that that's just the sort of mind-game an enlightened Zen master would play, too! I allowed myself no such playfulness in this class. Students who had taken other classes with me also noticed - long before I did - that I was muzzling one of the questions I raised about almost anything: "who decides?" In the religious ethics class I follow a reading explaining Zen as a kind of humanism with some chapters from a book on Zen and war. The implication, always, is that we are in a position to question authority claims - indeed, that we owe it to those who are oppressed by religious traditions to ask such questions - but not here.

While not aware how far it would go, I had designed the class for frustration. Our trajectory had roadblocks built in. After the Yolngu reinventions around "Ten Canoes" and the deconstruction of the Arrernte's Numbakulla, we turned to Yorro Yorro, Jutta Malnic's fascinating travelogue about searching with Ngarinyin elder David Mowaljarlai for Lejmorro, a fabled rock painting site in the Kimberley. They never found it - perhaps, it was suggested, because it didn't want to be found. Sites had been known to vanish in a fog when the wrong people came to look for them in helicopters.

I hoped we would learn to be content with Malnic's gorgeous photographs of the Kimberley's amazing variety of terrains and the extraordinary wandjina paintings they did find, together with the stories which demanded to be told around them. Instead of Lejmorro we got Mowaljarlai's remarkable life story, and a remarkable series of Ngarinyin cosmogonic stories they called "Creation in the Kimberley." Even without Lejmorro there was plenty in what was offered. We got a sense of the land, and of how it was inhabited by ancestral movements, songs, and those entitled to sing them. The holiest of holies was closed to us, but what was available was enough for Malnic.* Shouldn't it be enough for us?

* We did wonder later, though, how Malnic felt when it became clear that there was a whole world of other Kimberley rock paintings - known to the Ngarinyin as gwion but celebrated by somewhat dubious settler enthusiasts as the work of a pre-Aboriginal "Bradshaw" people - Mowaljarlai told and showed her nothing about. (Myths of pre-indigenous settlement - often by people like the most recent settlers - haunts settler societies. A century earlier, other settlers had thought the wandjina paintings were too sophisticated to have been Aboriginal work.) Gwion paintings are secret, and Mowaljarlai and others only spoke publicly about them when a land rights case required it a few years after his journey with Malnic. One of my students got it before I did: "Mowaljarlai didn't mislead her. He didn't show her what he wasn't entitled to show her, that's all."

The students welcomed the wandjina stories but were nonplussed by explicitly Christian components in Mowaljarlai's creation narrative. Christianity is the disease for which they were seeking a cure in nonwestern traditions, but here was an Aboriginal man who had been raised to find both traditions true, and even informed in a dream that he should reach out to white as well as Aboriginal people. I was fascinated by his indigenized Christianity. Like many Aboriginal Christians he believed not in heaven and hell but in traditional views of spirits returning to their conception sites on death and eventually being reborn. Like Jesus, all human beings were immaculately conceived. Heaven wasn't overhead but to the west where the sun set, and creation depended on a great serpent coiled within the earth.

I knew, however, that to most of the class, Mowaljarlai's syncretism would be heresy. An authentic Aboriginal would have rejected Christianity and all its trappings! I spent the semester pushing back at student desires for "authenticity" and the quick dismissal of anything and anyone suspected of being "inauthentic." Could they explain why they thought it mattered - without using the word "authentic"? There is no innocent way of using the word authentic, I argued. Some of the smartest students pushed back though. Wasn't I embracing an idea like authenticity in saying, in essence, that no Aboriginal could do anything wrong, and no settler anything right? (I had not yet processed Patrick Wolfe's arguments that racial politics in the Australian case make anyone less than 100% Aboriginal a non-Aboriginal, or that there can be no innocent view of Aboriginal Australia by a balanda.)I knew Aboriginal Christianities would get under their skin for all sorts of reasons and, though we changed some other parts of the syllabus, insisted on reading more about it.

It is in the nature of any tradition to grow and change. Any conception of "authenticity" which permits no change is in fact a death sentence, especially for a colonized people who had no option but to come to some sort of accommodation with the culture which displaced them from their ancient sites and ways. Could not theologies like Mowaljarlai's be seen as acts of counter-appropriation, even resistance? We read about the theology of the Rainbow Spirit elders of north Queensland. They reject the Christianity of European missionaries (likening it to a kind of fig vine which chokes the life out of its hosts) in the name of Jesus - who had been one with the Dreaming ancestors in Australia tens of thousands of years before anything happened in Palestine. (I must confess to a thrill at these appropriations, a kind of payback for European usurpation of their religious heartland - but it also speaks to me religiously.)

Authenticity questions dogged us throughout the semester, in the apparently more benign context of Aboriginal acrylic painting (non-indigenous medium, no-traditional colors), and in the question of changes in Dreaming traditions over time. From Françoise Dussart, whose book on Warlpiri women ceremonial leaders at Yuendumu (in Central Australia) we read, we learned of an Aboriginal appropriation of the English word "new" for amplifications and innovations of traditional stories. This didn't mean they constituted anything unprecedented. "New" meant merely "new to us" or "newly rediscovered." (There's no room in Aboriginal cosmology for anything really new; everything's already here and accounted for.) The knowledge was guaranteed by the unchanging Dreaming ancestors. Whatever else it was, this retrofitting of the English word "new" seemed to me a clever riposte to western obsessions with the fixed and the novel, when a true tradition goes deeper than either of these options.

For the end of our trajectory of roadblocks and diversions - a sort of crash course in pluralist protocol - I planned a bump in the road so big that we’d be catapulted from our seats: the Hindmarsh Island Bridge Controversy. Hindmarsh (or Kumarangk) brought together all the thorniest of issues we'd encountered over the course of the semester - land and knowledge as property, the diversity among Aboriginal traditions, including those long incorporated into settler Australian life, gender, secret knowledge, the authority of anthropology, the transmission and recovery of traditions disrupted by colonization and the heartbreak of the "stolen generations," Aboriginal Christianities, and the invention of tradition. I'm all about complexity: my course began in the messiness of Ramingining people collaborating with a settler Australian director; it was to end with the vertigo of a controversy in which there were settled Aboriginals on both sides.

Hindmarsh (Kumarangk) Island sits at the mouth of the Murray River, just southeast of Adelaide in South Australia. Developers had proposed a bridge linking it to the mainland. There were no Aboriginal objections until the last moment, when some women from the largely assimilated Ngarrindjeri people came forward and said that such a bridge would bring disaster. They could say no more, since the knowledge in question was sacred-secret women's knowledge. What could one do with such claims? Could secret knowledge have standing in modern Australian law? On the other hand, could a court ask Aboriginal people to break protocols on secret knowledge, even in defense of their own interests? The stakes were raised even higher by the emergence of a second group of old Ngarrindjeri women who claimed never to have heard of any "secret women's business." At one stage, some of the secret knowledge was written down and sealed in white envelopes which were never to be opened by men.

In a series of hearings to which not only Ngarrindjeri people but anthropologists were called, the "secret women's knowledge" was first accepted, then declared a "fabrication," and finally - well after the bridge was built - vindicated. The case was a sensation (and gave rise to much sensationalist journalism in John Howard's and Rupert Murdoch's Australia). And it offered, I thought, a perfect consummation for our course - or crisis. Questions of authenticity and economies of knowledge weren't just academic here. Decisions had to be made. Were they made right?

The Ngarrindjeri are among the most and longest-studied Aboriginal peoples; there was no reference to women's secret knowledge - nor, indeed, to any secret sacred traditions - in the literature. Might the "proponent" women, reconstructing an Aboriginal identity in the aftermath of the disruption in cultural transmission, have lifted it from accounts of Central Desert peoples they had learned about? The thing about secret knowledge is precisely that it is not circulated carelessly. One would hardly expect Ngarrindjeri to have told anthropologists about secret sacred things. Women's traditions were systematically excluded from the analyses of male anthropologists across Australia for generations. One would also not expect those Ngarrindjeri women whose more evangelical Christianity involved a demotion of Dreaming stories to harmless "folklore" to learn of it - especially if, as emerged, it involved the abortion of mixed-race fetuses.

I gave the class texts from both camps of Ngarrindjeri women, and anthropologist Robert Tonkinson's assessment of the evidence presented to the Royal Commission which delivered the "fabrication" verdict. Tonkinson acknowledged that traditions grow but thought it unlikely a tradition of secret knowledge could have escaped detection for so long. On the other hand, he observed, neither party had any clear motive to lie. And yet it seemed at least one party was lying. I wanted to dare students to accept or reject the proponent women's view without a God's eye view of the "facts of the case."

I wanted to force a choice. Pluralism's fine until there are contested claims to the same space. I wanted students to say "don't open the envelopes" or "open them," each choice carrying complicated consequences. In the end the issue was too remote to rile anyone but me up in the desired way. Besides, didn't we know the bridge was built? Were one a settler Australian making a home on land on knew had been sung by Aboriginals for millennia, the ramifications of the case might be agonizing. For us the stakes weren't real enough even to be interesting. A different matter entirely - one brought in by a student - provided crisis and dénouement for the class, and also for me.

[The final installment of this essay is here.]

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Not sure how I managed to get this, but it's sweet, huh...

Weather or not

As ever, Tom Toles scores. Don't overlook the second punch line at lower right, "and more empty bags from conservative think tanks"!

Unsettled: Justification comes to an end

[This is the fourth installment of an essay which began here.]

To tell the truth I was surprised to be able to teach sympathetically about Aboriginal traditions. In Australia I had been blown away by recent Aboriginal art, and entranced by the land and the idea that it had been shaped over tens of thousands of years by Aboriginal care. A spontaneous sand-painting by an Arrernte guide at the Desert Museum in Alice Spring suddenly shone with cosmic significance. But I was repelled by the initiation rituals which seem to be what most fascinates western observers of indigenous cultures, bothered by gender binarism and uninterested in kinship. I'm cool to people's enthusiasms for animals, dreams and secret knowledge and suspicious of gerontocracy. Aboriginal stories don't sing for me. Clapsticks are tedious. Hunting is a bore.

By the time it came to teaching my class, however, I felt I had come to a deeper understanding of a profoundly interesting and valuable way of being human. Amazing what a little reading can do! What I tried to get across to the class had little to do with secrets or totems, and initiations were barely mentioned. Instead I challenged students to imagine a life of participation in a radically different economy of living knowledge. It is embedded in complex and complementary kinship structures of custodianship, performance and transmission which are themselves anchored in specific sites and linked to the world of flora and fauna, ancestors and ancestral beings. Participation in this economy of knowledge - whether the knowledge in question happens to be "secret sacred" or not - interweaves people and the world.

At the end I summed it up for myself in these terms:
ownership: Certain people own certain knowledge; their identity is defined by their responsibility for it. All knowledge is someone's responsibility, and if all are able to carry out their responsibilities, the whole world is taken care of.
distribution: Knowledge is distributed among groups, genders and generations; even ownership is distributed, as owners of something require the permission of "managers" to use it. All is kept in balance by their a constantly recalibrating social balance; when needed, gaps are filled by dreams.
protocol: People's relationships to knowledge are to be honored; others' knowledge cannot be used without permission. More generally, all accept that there are things they do not, cannot and need not know.

Pretty nice, eh? But pretty abstract. This was in part a response to the variety of Aboriginal traditions we explored, and to the irreducibly local character of most of their knowledges. The abstraction was also the expression of a growing uneasiness about handling the knowledges in question. If Aboriginal people are careful not to use knowledge that's not theirs, how much more should I be? These were the concepts of property and protocol which ended up complicating my relationship to my business as a teacher of religious studies more generally.

I'd not thought about these issues deeply before. Had I managed (with the help of W. E. C. Stanner, David Mowaljarlai, Howard Morphy, Deborah Bird Rose, Marcia Langton, Fred Myers, Françoise Dussart and many others) truly to open myself to other ways of being in the world - so much so that I was actually changed by them? Or had I just found my Numbakulla - cherry-picked elements which resonated with what I already believed to be important?

Reflecting on the aspects of the Aboriginal traditions which became paradigmatic in my account, I do wonder if I was merely projecting. Take Birrinbirrin's words, "this is where we stop." They became for me the key to explaining how a culture lives out ideals in messy reality. The many discussions and reviews of the film I read don't even remark on them. But I found it made sense of everything, even the awkward discovery of ethnographers who follow an Aboriginal community over time: Dreaming stories demonstrably change, but their tellers insist the Dreaming never changes. Isn't that what a living tradition looks like? Reconstructing my thinking now, I think Birrinbirrin's words resonated for me with formative intellectual experiences of my undergraduate and graduate education: virtue ethics, the later Wittgenstein and even Buddhism.

When the elder said "this is where we stop," I heard Aristotle's practical wisdom, the hard-won virtue without which none of the other virtues can be lived. Phroneisis is a virtue acquired - like every virtue - through doing, not just thinking. Discerning the morally salient qualities of a situation and moving directly to appropriate action, it cannot be fully understood except from the inside. It can't be explained to the less experienced, but they (we!) can recognize and emulate it. It can take a lifetime to acquire, and not everyone gets there.

As a student I drank deeply of the revival of "virtue ethics" rooted in a rereading of Aristotle (but also of Hegel). Human moral life is more complicated and rich (and perhaps tragic) than the simplified moral systems of modern philosophy can recognize, I learned. But in the language of the virtues - everyday language as well as philosophical - we have resources for navigating this rich and complicated world. Moral vocabularies should be studied in all their breadth and depth and even contradiction. They record a culture's efforts to do right by a reality more profound than any theoretical account of it. This is why I bring the gnomic anti-enlightenment ideas of J. G. Hamann into most of my classes. It is why I recommend that students study abroad. It is why the loss of indigenous languages - richer and finer-grained than the lean mean colonial languages - is such a tragedy for all of humanity. Reality demands all the wisdom we can muster, in all the languages which have proved themselves valuable.

If Birrinbirrin was a phronimos demonstrating the way of wisdom out of a knotty particular situation, I also heard in his words Ludwig Wittgenstein's famous claim that "justification comes to an end." Sometimes misconstrued as a refusal to do philosophy, Wittgenstein's claim is really a descriptive one. Concerns about why things are a certain way eventually end. Not because we have reached certifiable "bedrock," or have hit the wall of an authority or an obscurity. Those aren't the situations Wittgenstein is talking about. At a certain point (probably not knowable in advance) the need for further justification simply falls away. Things just make sense. Further questions seem frivolous, silly or dogmatic. Inquiry ends (for now, at least) in what I would want to call an attunement with reality. Now I see. Now I get it.

I imagine those with practical wisdom are better at getting us to this point, or to realize when we're at it. That's what I heard in Birrinbirrin's words and their effect in the story of "Ten Canoes." But there is still a gap between what the phronimos understands in the particular case, and the rest of us. We don't understand the particular case, but are swayed (sometimes, not always) by his words because they come from him. His practical wisdom probably also extends to knowing what to say to us, and when.

Aboriginal youths aren't supposed to ask questions, but to trust that their elders are telling them as much as they need to know at any given point. If you think the old no likelier to be wise than the young, this sounds like what Peter Sutton has called gerontocratic totalitarianism, but I was prepared to see it differently. The wisdom of a truly wise person (at least some of them) is recognizable to the young, the way a phronimos is. You can't yet see what she sees, but you trust that she sees farther than you do. And you trust that she knows the way to guide you eventually to see that far too. The progressive disclosure of knowledge is not designed to maintain a restrictive monopoly but, to the contrary, to ensure that all will arrive at full understanding of it.

In thinking about Aboriginal elders as teachers, I was importing ideas not just from Aristotle and Wittgenstein but from Mahayana Buddhism, whose concept of upaya has fascinated me since graduate school. Often translated as "skillful means" upaya designates the way an enlightened being breaks through the ignorance of a deluded, suffering being by saying just the right thing or taking just the right form to effect change. To borrow another famous Wittgensteinian phrase, the bodhisattva knows how to let the fly out of the fly bottle.

The bodhisattvas know our ignorance so well they know how to free us from it – something we can, being mired in ignorance, never do on our own. Ignorant efforts at self-liberation are ever self-defeating. The most interesting thing about upaya, as it is discussed in the Lotus and the Vimalakirti Sutras, is that the saving intervention of the bodhisattva is not bound by what is true. That’s not the point. The point is to save suffering beings. Wisdom isn't just knowing what's true but being able to communicate this understanding to another - always a particular someone with a particular profile of knowledge and ignorance. It's practical wisdom again. And it's not just bodhisattvas whose practical wisdom includes a pedagogical commitment, but any and all of us as we share knowledge. If we really care about conveying it, we have to know who our interlocutors are.

As a growing teacher learning his chops, upaya is an intoxicating idea. Not that you would lie exactly. You might strategically simplify, or present only one side of an issue for a time. But you’d be willing and able to lie, if that were the only way to get someone to understand something - so great is your commitment to getting the student to grasp the saving truth. (Once they understood, the ruse could be be revealed. The ladder is kicked away, the raft left behind. Bodhisattvas often fall in the line of duty: if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.)

Birrinbirrin not just a phronimos but a bodhisattva? For what the film presents as an often foolish old man, I certainly have him carrying a lot of my baggage! (Among the many virtues of "Ten Canoes" is its refusal to present Mingyululu and Birrinbirrin as sages. They make mistakes, as people always do.) I didn't bring any of this up in class. Indeed it's only in retrospect that I see that I was giving him an Aristotelian-Wittgensteinian-Mahayana nimbus! But I persist in feeling that this wasn't just projection. Even as I didn't understand the knowledge in question, I recognize in Aboriginal economies of knowledge the virtues and practices of wise traditions. But there's also something here I didn't learn from Aristotle or Wittgenstein or Vimalakirti. To see it you have to look beyond the sage.

Although clearly entranced by the romantic images of old sages common in our representation of other cultures, I was more interested in the stance demanded of the young. It's something like the patience the story of "Ten Canoes" taught Dayindi, and its narrator offered us viewers. And it's something like trust: the young trust older people to tell them what they need to know when they need it. But I sensed that is was a quality demanded all the time in the Aboriginal economy of knowledge. The old, too, recognize that others possess knowledge which will never be theirs. This is different and in its way deeper than waiting your turn to be full possessor of knowledge. It's accepting that you neither can possess all knowledge nor need to.

This is a point where I feel I may have learned something new from Aboriginal traditions - it's not like anything I knew before. But it also doesn't appear in this form in anything I read about Aboriginal religion. It's more like, well, the pluralism - I sometimes think of it as a polytheism - which is my own experience of cultural and religious difference. My schema of ownership-distribution-protocol could be an ethos for interreligious coexistence. There is no consensus on the real because it's too rich for any one way of responding to it, even as these responses are each a precious inheritance. The way of the wise might be recognizing how much they can't know and don't need to - especially as there are other human communities holding up other ends of our engagement with it. The phronimos attends to what he knows and is responsible for. But does it make any sense to think of Aboriginal people as pluralist? Or have I just pulled an Eliade of my own?

[The next installment of this essay is here.]

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Origin of religion?

The cover story of this month's National Geographic is called "The Birth of Religion," all about an archeological dig in Turkey which could not only overshadow Stonehenge (it's about twice as old!), but upend the received view that agriculture and settlements came before religion. The site of the world's earliest known temple - 11,500 years old! - has so far yielded no evidence of settlement. What could this mean? It's not that the retreat of the ice age made agriculture possible, which led to communities requiring a level of cooperation which needed religious motivators. Rather, "wonderment at changes in the natural world leads to religion" which gets enough people together that they need to settle and find ways of sustaining themselves without nomadism, so: agriculture. Fascinating!

Unsettled: Pulling an Eliade

[This is the third installment of an essay which began here.]

The students were keen to leave the complexities and compromises of old/new, documentary/fictional, art/ceremony, Yolngu/balanda "Ten Canoes" behind. I can't blame them. Complexity and compromise are irritating before you even know what you're in for. Courses usually start with the simplified and abstracted, and work from there. When I later gave them ethnographer Howard Morphy's schematic account of the social and religious structures of Yolngu society, some wondered why we hadn't started there. Shouldn't one begin a journey with a map?

It was a good question, but one I was prepared for - indeed, one I had set up. I wanted to start with something concrete and dynamic and particular, not an abstract overview. I wanted to convey a sense of a culture as a tree, not a flowchart. I wanted a sense of cultural transmission through storytelling and image situated in the present, not the timelessness of text. I wanted an Aboriginal source, not a balanda like Morphy. ("Ten Canoes" wasn't perfect - the timelessness of cinema seems a greater problem than the role of de Heer - but close enough.)

Actually I'd hoped that by the time we came to Morphy they would have been weaned of the desire for an overview, or at least suspicious of overviews and our desires for them. Between "Ten Canoes" and Morphy I had inserted a swatch of the original idea for the course, a close reading of an influential western theorist's interpretation of Aboriginal religion juxtaposed with his sources and later critiques. It was supposed to have called in question the very idea of a God's eye view-like map or overview.

Our case study was Mircea Eliade. Eliade is a formative figure in the study of religion. Many students were familiar with his Sacred and Profane, and with the central role an Aboriginal example plays in its theory of sacred space. Further - like us - Eliade's sources were not fieldwork but texts. By familiarizing ourselves with his sources we could watch him in the act of reading - and perhaps become more reflexive readers ourselves. So we read two versions of Eliade's claims about a sacred pole among the ancestors of the Arrernte (a Central Desert people), the section from Spencer and Gillen's The Arunta Eliade cited as his source, and a rant about his claims by a contemporary scholar named Sam Gill, who traversed this material in his book Storytracking.

Eliade thought his work in the comparative study of religion equipped him to see religious meanings to which social scientists were blind. Specifically, he had his eye out for anything like an axis mundi, the paradigmatic "hierophany" which forges a link with a transcendent realm above the mundane, providing "orientation" to people lost in the existentially wearing "chaos of homogeneity and relativity." The apparent lack of a transcendent dimension in Aboriginal traditions suggested Eliade's claims could not be, as he insisted, phenomenological discoveries - true of all human beings - but merely historically contingent features of some human cultures.

To find an axis mundi among the "archaic" Australian Aborigines would validate the universality of his theory of religion, and in Spencer and Gillen's The Arunta Eliade thought he found one. When he had finished his work the creator ancestor Numbakulla departed to heaven by means of a pole, which his human followers - unable to follow him, although he invited them - carried with them as a navigational device in their restless and aimless wanderings. When, one day, the pole broke, the humans lay down awaiting death. Eliade found:

Seldom do we find a more pathetic avowal that man cannot live without a "sacred center" which permits him both to "cosmicize" space and to communicate with the transhuman world of heaven. So long as they had their [pole] the Achilpa Ancestors were never lost in the surrounding "chaos." Moreover, the sacred pole was for them the proof par excellence of Numbakulla's existence and activity. (Australian Religions, 53)

Unfortunately, the story of Numbakulla and his pole is almost entirely concocted. Numbakulla is not mentioned in the story of the breaking pole, which in any case describes only one of many different groups of wandering ancestors, the others of whom get by without a pole. Likewise there's no indication that he is a celestial being (as opposed to merely leaving the scene) and, we learned, the idea of Numbakulla as the creator was a concoction of Spencer, a consequence of mistranslation and Lutheran missionary meddling.

Arrernte traditions are resolutely horizontal and plural. The centering verticality of Eliade's interpretation speaks to his sense of the chaos of the horizontal, not any Arrernte view. We talked a fair amount about the western religious myth of the desert as empty chaos and its connection to more recent views of the meaninglessness of mere existence. It is of course entirely inapplicable to a hunter-gatherer society which did not wander aimlessly in but moved knowingly through and even cultivated the desert.

I wasn't after a mere gotcha point. Yes, Eliade cherry-picked in Spencer and Gillen, who were sidelined by prejudices of their own. But we had no right to assume we could avoid Eliade's fate, being, like him, reliant entirely on the reports of others. I found myself defending Eliade's presumption that his work as a comparativist let him see what was of universal value in an Aboriginal tradition, something even the most finely grained account just of that tradition could not distinguish. I am not a comparativist in Eliade's sense myself, but from personal experience affirm the comparativist creed that you can't know what language, culture or religion are - even your own! - until you've encountered more than one. Outsiders can have genuine insights.

Besides, there's nothing wrong with trying to understand something new in terms of what you already know. That's how understanding works - though obviously the point of discussing this was to make it work better. Claiming confirmation of your views from other traditions, without allowing them to challenge your received views, gets you nowhere. But true engagement with the other can lead to a broadening, even a fusion of horizons. Eliade had devoted an entire course to Aboriginal traditions in 1961 (?), in which he corrected some - if not all - of his earlier concoctions.

I think one is more likely to develop a salutary humility by seeing a case like Eliade's as one where someone is genuinely trying to learn and falls short, rather than as simple imperialism. The tougher imperialisms don't think they are. Eliade also in 1961 inaugurated what was to become a key journal in religious studies with an essay on a "new humanism": the renaissance in human experience which would result as the dried-up west was confronted - by the ministrations of the discipline of religious studies - with the still vital experiences of the sacred of "archaic and oriental" religions. Of course, the existential urgency of Eliade's project was one of the reasons he could plant his pole in Central Australia and then discover it there.

The absence of an axis mundi, of a creator, of centers, constitute deep challenges to Eliade's project. There are broader implications, too. Just as Numbakulla goes nowhere but just vanishes, there is no privileged view from above. Gill's discussion of "territory" let us see the God's eye view which is the hidden heart of so many of our conceptions of knowledge, from the map to the overview, and, behind that, the sense that things only have meaning because of the intention of their creator. Recognizing the connections between these and the ideas of "religion" we inevitably bring, we could get a frisson of another way of experiencing the world and organizing that experience. How might one map a world defined not by territories seen from above but by trajectories traversed - sung, danced - by embodied individuals in many different intermittently interconnected groups? Dance as map?

It all offered a change of aspect analogous to that in the "Ten Canoes" narrator's insistence that a good story is not linear but "like a tree." How and why did I think students would get it? I suppose I'm a phenomenologist in my own way, and share Eliade's sense that the discipline of religious studies has an important function restoring a fully human way of being of which the disenchanted modern West has lost sight. In non-modern traditions we don't just encounter something foreign and new but re-encounter something we've always dimly known but not known how to know.

My view isn't Eliade's, of course. He argues for the indispensability of the "sacred" as we confront the heartbreak that is historical time, and offers the study of religion as a means to partial reenchantment. On my more spacial, plural and social view, religious studies is the discipline which reminds us there is no consensus on the real.

Letting Eliade's imperialistic universalism founder on the shoals of concrete but uncentered Arrernte Dreaming tracks served my purposes nicely: Aboriginal traditions scuttled the expectation that all religions have a vertical dimension, compensate for the insufficiencies of this world with links to another, or even hang together as one world. But was I not pulling an Eliade of my own: claiming, on the basis of experience of non-Aboriginal traditions, to be able to see deeper into such traditions than my sources, and in this way, perhaps seeing even less than they did?

[The next installment of the essay is here.]

Monday, June 13, 2011


Sunday, June 12, 2011

Unsettled: Birrinbirrin

[This is the second installment of an essay which began here.]

The idea of teaching a course on Aboriginal Australia was not originally mine. I'd spent a year in Australia for family reasons - my sister makes her home there - and developed an interest in Aboriginal traditions there, as Americans apparently regularly do. Returned to my little college in New York, students asked for a course on Aboriginal Australia. I declared myself unqualified to teach it, but I could perhaps teach a course on the great theorists of religion who claimed Aboriginal confirmation of their most cherished views.

Emile Durkheim's Elementary Forms of the Religious Life and Sigmund Freud's Totem and Taboo: Resemblances between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics are the most famous of the great theorists' book-length engagements with the indigenous peoples of Australia. Godfather of academic religious studies in the US Mircea Eliade taught a course on Australian religions just as he defined the world-historical role the new discipline could play in the new world defined by the dangerous "descralization" of western life and the "emergence into history" of colonized peoples. One might look at these theories, tracing their sources and confronting them with newer, better accounts of Aboriginal traditions. One's mind might be opened not just about Aboriginal traditions but about the study and nature of "religion" more generally.

By the time it came to teaching the course, however, I had lost interest in the dead white men. Students would have plenty of other opportunities to engage with them. Besides, the pleasures of poking holes in dated ideas don't last long. Others in my field have made careers of exposing the founders' complicity in problematic political ideologies, including those of of colonialism and empire. Theirs is invaluable work, and my own approach to the subject is indebted to it. But this occasion seemed to demand something else. Why teach a course using Aboriginal traditions to shine new light on western theory when you could teach a course on these traditions themselves? A course on Aboriginal religion is a great rarity. Why turn it into yet another course on us? The students who enrolled in the class were of the same mind, though this brought its own problems.

The film "Ten Canoes," made by in 2006 by the Yolngu people of Ramingining (in northern Arnhem Land) with director Rolf de Heer, was to launch us into the Aboriginal present as well as its traditions. Its nearly documentary feel initially gives the sense of a timeless Aboriginal world, unchanged - at least until the arrival of Europeans - for tens of thousands of years. Some of the students thought the world it depicted was still intact, and were dismayed to learn from the making-of documentary "The Balanda and the Bark Canoes" that it was a work of historical reconstruction. ("Balanda" is a Yolngu word for white people.) It wasn't enough for them that this reconstruction was the project of the people of Ramingining, cannily making use of western film-making technology and a cooperative settler Australian film director and crew to tell their story. Their very choice of subject betokened a felt "inauthenticity" in their current, more westernized, way of living.

These students weren't ready to consider that the Ramingining might have good reasons of their own to present an image of a world impervious to change. They certainly didn't know what to make of the fact that many of the images in the film were based on photographs taken during what Ramingining people call "Thomson time," the period of first contact in the 1930s, when ethnographer Donald Thomson photographed their forbears. And it was too early to expect the students to understand that the people appearing in the movie were not just not professional actors; they were not acting. The ancient elder Birrinbirrin was played by a current elder named Birirnbirrin, like most of the "cast" taking the place of a kinsman in photographs from Thomson time.

I wanted students to see "Ten Canoes" as only contingently a film, more fundamentally a ceremonial act of cultural transmission. Old message, new medium. It was my hope that letting our first encounter with Aboriginal peoples be contemporary and in a non-textual medium would set the stage for a dynamic understanding of a non-literate but meticulously structured and artfully performed culture. The presence of Thompson and de Heer and their media would suggest there might be constructive ways "balanda" scholars and artists could be part of the picture of Aboriginal survival and thriving. Perhaps I was a bit naive here about how much complexity students could understand so early in a course, and about the complexity of what I was doing.

The story in which Birrinbirrin appears is actually embedded in another. It's a story told by a relatively recent ancestor Mingyululu to his younger brother Dayindi, who's been wondering why Mingyululu should have three wives and he none. That Mingyululu's third wife is Dayindi's age and making eyes at him doesn't help. The embedded story about ancient ancestors seems to replicate their situation - older brother with three wives, younger brother chafing at having none - but the complications which lead to misfortune have little to do with it. They nevertheless make a gripping story. The telling takes the brothers through an entire magpie goose egg hunt (and a movie), during which Dayindi grows a bit toward manhood and respect for elders.

The narrator of the film - the famous actor David Gulpilil (who's from Ramingining), speaking the film's only English - chides viewers for wanting to find out what happened to Dayindi. A good story is like a tree, he said, with many branches. "Ten Canoes" presents a thicket of stories of which Dayindi's seems the least important. Superficially, the message - for Dayindi and for the viewers Gulpilil addresses - is patience. The social disruption which would result from Dayindi's eloping with his sister in law has been forestalled. But he and the viewer don't get a clear ending. Gulpilil won't say if Dayindi ever gets a wife. The clincher is the sense of the continuance of the community's life made possible by Birrinbirrin's "this is where we stop." For life to go on, the stories may have to stop.

"Ten Canoes" works by naming and defying the expectations of a modern film-going audience. Is it an origins story? Is it a story of young love? Is it even a story? It's about stories and storytelling, but it describes a world too messy to be corralled in one story - and how one lives in such a world. "Patience" doesn't really describe all that is being taught. It's not that everything will eventually be revealed and explained and reconciled. What we learn through stories is the messiness of life, and the importance of moving on when the demands of love stories and vengeance stories compound that messiness. To understand a tradition it is not enough to know its stories; one needs to know how they tell stories and when, and when they stop.

I pinned a lot of hopes on our discussion of this film. Circling around it with the making-of documentary, some articles about it and the website "12 Canoes" which it subsidized, I hoped the class would start with a sense of an Aboriginal world as a dynamic and complicated whole, engaged with past and present. Not the artificial and brittle coherence of an ethnographer's account of how Yolngu society works, but a demonstration that it works, is working. And that work is required. Cultures don't automatically reproduce themselves (as we too readily assume about other people's cultures). They are ever having to navigate the messiness of the world through judgment calls like Birrinbirrin's. The challenges to Yolngu survival posed by colonialism are great but responding to challenges isn't new to these traditions. Modern western challenges, I said somewhat wishfully, are different only in degree, not in kind. "This is where we stop" isn't the exception which proves the rule of cultural continuity, but the rule itself.

[The next installment of the essay is here.]

Job movies

Two years ago, there was a Job-inspired movie called "A Serious Man." I'm not sure why I didn't blog about it - I watched it several times, including with my class; it was a more serious engagement with the difficulties of the Job material than you might have expected from the Coen brothers. While a comedy of sorts, it thematizes the temptation to seek a message in misfortune, especially in relation to a God who's supposed to protect good people from evil. Now there's a new Job-inspired movie in town, Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life." I don't want to spoil it for you - you really should see it - but the film's epigraph spells it right out for you, starting with Job 38: 4, 7: Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth ... when the morning stars sang together? And then, in one of the first of (too) many voiceovers, this thesis statement: There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one to follow. The universe is vast, but human joys and sorrows, one as surd as the other, have their place in it. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, an older woman glosses Job 1:21, that's the way he is. Like the Job author Malick uses bombast-risking visual poetry to make his case, though there's also a divine feminine at work here the Job author would not recognize. Does it work? Let me know what you think. (Pics here)

Saturday, June 11, 2011


It might seem that my mind has been completely taken over by seasonal blooms of Southern California, but that's not entirely true. Besides the larger project of the summer - finish the Job book manuscript at last! - I am trying to pull together an essay about my experience with the Aboriginal Australia course last semester. This last was the suggestion of a friend and colleague, who noted the particular intensity with which I was going on about the class. Maybe you should try writing a personal narrative about it, he said. I'm trying! And now, with help of this blog, I'm going to finish it, or at least a draft of it.

I'll take this in five parts for which I'll find zingier titles:
Pulling an Eliade
Justification comes to an end
Pushing the envelope

In this post, a sort of introduction.

* * *

Near the end of the story of "Ten Canoes," the elders of a Yolngu Aboriginal clan confer on how to respond to the latest in a series of misfortunes, misunderstandings and retaliations. The group's leader had been mortally wounded in a payback ceremony after he killed someone he thought - erroneously - the abductor of one of his wives. (In fact it wasn't even the one mistakenly suspected but his brother.) But then the wife had returned, and told she had being abducted by people from a different band entirely. Should they punish this new group? Go to war? Abduct their women? Various possibilities were bruited, until the most senior elder, Birrinbirrin, spoke. "This is where we stop," he said (in translation).

"Ten Canoes," the first feature film entirely in Aboriginal language, was where my seminar on "Aboriginal Australia and the Idea of Religion" started. An oral and visual work of nested stories, a meeting of old and new media, it seemed the perfect way to kick off a course engaging with the theory of religion's favorite indigenous tradition: Freud, Durkheim and Eliade are only the most famous early theorists to have anchored a global theory of religion in the "primitive," "elementary" or "archaic" forms they discerned in Aboriginal traditions. I also counted on "Ten Canoes" to ensure that we did not fall into our predecessors' trap of understanding Aboriginal traditions as timeless and unchangeable. Birrinbirrin's words were to become one of the course's mantras. The vitality and resiliency of a tradition lies in its ability to decide when to stop looking back. Understood as alive and engaged with our world, Aboriginal traditions would help us see beyond our forbears.

But Birrinbirrin's words resonated with me in other ways, too. They connected to unexamined assumptions which inform my understanding of culture and history and religion - and of the craft and vocation of teaching. The effort to engage with Aboriginal Australian traditions in my little seminar classroom in New York City raised questions about why I do what I do - powerful and disturbing questions: the best word is probably unsettling. In this essay I will try to articulate why I came to wonder if I had any business teaching any of this, although my business is teaching.

(Continue here.)

Green Madonna

You've probably heard about the image of the Virgin of Guadelupe which appeared in Encinitas this last Good Friday - on a surfboard! Because everybody loves a good story about surfers or apparitions, it went viral. But the Encinitas city council was not amused. Unwilling to establish a precedent and concerned about the public display of a religious symbol (Mount Soledad's just a few towns south), they declared it graffiti and announced it had to come down. In response to uproar from friends of the "Surfing Madonna," they agreed to have it taken it down and displayed in a nearby restaurant, but a panel of artists found the glass mosaic too well affixed to be removed without major damage.

In the last days, the artist - a man named Mark Patterson - has come forward, and offered his help in removing it. He's also explained that it was intended as a gift to a town he's lived in for most of three decades, and a call to protect the oceans. He's neither an artist nor Catholic. It seemed a way appropriate to this locality to call attention to the need to save the seas, he said, and just an interesting conjunction that Good Friday coincided this year with Earth Day. But still: it is the Virgen de Guadelupe (except for the green cape), isn't it? His explanation is a bit puzzling. He told the San Diego Union-Tribune that it came to me as a very powerful image in 2005.

“I ignored it,” he said. “Then it pops up again very strongly in 2009, and I drew a fairly complete rendition of the Surfing Madonna, with the save the ocean. And the save the ocean was always the base of the concept that was being visualized in my head.”

Self-effacing even now, Patterson insists there's really nothing going on here. "I'm just a random guy ... that had a vision and hoped it would be a blessing to the community." Yet whatever the vision was, it led a software guy to quit a well-paying job, study mosaic-making in Italy for a month, spend much of a year working on it, then it display it anonymously with no intention of revealing his relationship to it. It took Patterson nine months to build the mosaic. Some days he would work 15 minutes, and others into the wee hours of the morning. He said he would only work when he was inspired. It would come out poorly otherwise.

What strikes me (half-seriously) is a certain strangeness in the way Patterson describes it, which seems somehow not simply the usual language for artistic inspiration. It's not his idea but came to me as a powerful image, a vision, something visualized in my head complete from the start. It came from out of the blue and pestered him until he gave in to it. It led him to change his life completely, giving himself selflessly to this blessing. Maybe it's a midlife crisis - he's 58 - but with Nuestra Señora del Mar and the Virgen an interesting conjunction indeed.

When the Virgen called to him, Juan Diego was 57.

[Update: It was taken down June 21st.]

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Crest Canyon

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Break of day

Drove my dad down to the airport this morning at what would have been the crack of dawn had it not been overcast. Instead, the sky of dark grey showed patches of palest blue, then the whole sky turned slowly bluish grey, then slowly moved toward a pearly grey. Whizzing down an empty freeway at daybreak is an amazing thing, even without the sun or any colors. The surrounding development seems not quite really to be there.It was interesting especially because we'd just read about a San Diego Museum of Natural History excavation in San Clemente Canyon of the site of a Kumeyaay (perhaps Sycuan?) village settled for nearly 9000 years. The village tip has been confirming big changes in climate and fauna over these years. At the start of settlement, the oceans were lower: the shore was 30 m farther west and rocky. The mouth of the San Clemente river made for an estuarine environment which eventually yielded the sandy beach at La Jolla. I don't know if the village was there when the Spanish took over in 1798, but it's inside the presidio precinct (map at right from here). A freeway runs up San Clemente canyon now.

[15/6: Went for a walk in San Clemente Canyon - now known as the Marian Bear Memorial Park - between Genesee and I-805. It's a very pretty place, full of plants familiar and unfamiliar (like the 7-foot Hooker's evening primrose and the winecup, below). If you tune out the freeway and ignore the cisterns, it feels like nobody's ever been here.]