Lit from behind, she shines darkly.
“You are neither here nor there,
a hurry through which known and strange things pass…
and catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
This second installment of your piece more humanizes the content under consideration. The part where you mention the divorce of your parents and how that left you feeling moves me to sympathy. I can see you there in the past as a youth bursting with potential and possibility, and because of it, when not acting impulsively and crackling with arrogance, overcome with fear and anxiety, and in your troubled disorientation rendered incredibly awkward, at times behaving truly bizarre to the concern of the guardian adults around you.
This I see is where Sue Castigliano, your speech teacher during your senior year at Doherty Memorial High School, proved to be a saving grace to you. I can’t say I was lucky enough to have that kind of encounter at that age. I have a gift for slipping through the cracks and staying under the radar. At any rate, I do remember with warm fondness a teacher I had in elementary school named Mrs. Seahigh, who made learning exciting and fun, but I didn’t experience my encounter with her at the time as if I was in the presence of an incarnation of the Goddess.
Maybe I’m a reminder, one of the many living cautionary tales around you, of what might have become of you if you had never met Sue Castigliano. I know I can be maddeningly oblique. I have this hard underlying skepticism which gets me crawling around in the dark hidden places and taking a saw to the stilts of those who rise up, wobbling around, talking above the heads of others as if they are so exceptional and magnificent. I know my sarcasm and tendency to satire to be a stimulant and corrective always teetering on the edge of backfiring and turning into an irritant.
In my youth and in my own high school years when not argumentative and a smartass I turned terribly shy and introverted. One thing I did in my attempt to overcome those two poles and escape the prison of myself was turn clownish. I think I still retain the tendency. I wonder to what extent, deep down, we really change.
That being said, my encounter and relationship with you has been very important to me. Though sometimes it might not seem like it, I have great respect for you, for your overall serene temper, for your sensitivity and patience, and the highest admiration for you for your work ethic, the work through the years you have stayed with even in the deepest isolation and brought as near to completion as possible. You have not broken in frustration and shattered in rage the containers entrusted to you by the Goddess, but filled them to the brim and now leave them to be raised to the lips of others. The irony now, however, may be that they are placed in a temple on a mountain, and one must trek and climb quite a way to get to them, and even then, if one arrives, one needs help from a team of others or through the use of a crane or other machinery tipping one of them to drink from it. These containers of yours are enormous. If one of them tips over and falls, a river would rage and roar out of the opening.
I think you have moved from being a kind of fatherly figure to me to being more like a brother now. I think this is a testament to the kind of teacher you have turned out to be. I do think for the most part you practice what you preach as described in this installment of your piece. God forbid I become like you - Ha! But as made clear in your piece, you wouldn’t want me to be.
I sincerely love you for this, Brian.
P. S. I came across the following quote a couple months ago and thought of you:
Michel Carrouges, Andre Breton and the Basic Concepts of Surrealism (1974):
“Poems are really disorientation maps. They violently cast a gleam of irrationality, a disintegrating and subversive light over the breadth of this world, a light which bursts upon the poet and is reflected on the reader. The point of a poem is not to gather together a museum of poetic expressions that one has only to admire passively, but to put into circulation mental explosives destined to blow up the walls of habit and inertia.”
P. P. S. This is beautiful, Maia: “Lit from behind, she shines darkly.” It makes me think of the hidden alchemy and slow, often agonizing transformation which takes place between a youth and a student and an elder and a teacher, how Sue Castigliano first appeared to Brian George in his youth and how he might regard her now that he has achieved the age she was when he first encountered her. One thinks of both a lunar and a solar eclipse.
A very generous reply, generous in sharing yourself and toward Brian and his work.
I find myself mostly speechless after reading Goddess as Active Listener, and so I believe as Brian has said, if there is silence in response, respond with silence. In that silence, a few words might surface and so I offered those few. (To be honest, I do still feel inhibitions in speaking about my personal life here on line, still somewhat too public for me.) Another thing is that, in a way, my response to Goddess is the same response I had to Autumnal Fallout, a kind of praise that isn’t so much about the specific sentences or images, because there are too many and they are nearly worlds in themselves, but about the inspirational ramifications and revelations that are aroused as I— reader/writer-- take them in and live with them.
Totally understand your reservations if not inhibition sharing more personal details about your life online. I myself grow uneasy, sometimes frankly disgusted, at some of the self-indulgent displays of intoxicated subjectivity I have witnessed. If one engages with that, one can end up feeling held captive by another’s public working out of unresolved personal business, that projecting and superimposing of what haunts from the past ensnaring those who unwittingly step into the trap, and suddenly one can find oneself being cornered and badgered into playing a role that one didn’t sign up for.
I’m not certain from some familiarity now with Brian’s work that this broader overall effect it has of straining out the few more serious readers from the many and of those few tending to test them to the point of reducing even them to silence, or to the point of arresting or freezing their ability to speak, is ultimately good or a virtue. For all the richness and greatness of his lines set against an epic or cosmic backdrop, something in what he has so impressively accomplished is also perpetually self-undermining. He goes from leading one to bask in the glory of the absolute and all to, in the blink of an eye, reducing all back to null and void. He has admitted to creating trapdoors.
The serpent swallows its own tail, and while it does this with an instinct for infinity, in the giant circle or rather ellipse it has formed as it slithers around and around, which expands and contracts uncannily in synch with Brian’s breathing, is where the chest of wisdom is kept with lid tauntingly and teasingly flung open. We the readers stand back and from a safe distance see the jewels and rare objects subtly and brilliantly gleaming in the shadowed cavity, but instead of leaping over the scales of the serpent slithering around and around with its tail deep in its throat, and going to touch and handle what is there at the center and seeming to be under protection, we rather, frozen to the spot, look on in fascination and dread and with an impending sense of danger. One hesitates and wonders if that particular wisdom is worth dying for. One does wonder if what can be seen there is only an illusion, is Fools’ Gold, or if the whole setup may be a series of incredibly clever and artfully conceived sleights and feigns and deliberate delays and misdirections aimed to wear one down and lead one into a trap, or to extinction. Maybe the ultimate aim of Brian’s work is precisely gradual exhaustion through an increasingly complicated and elaborate series of disillusionments, preparing one finally to awaken and to blossom when the rod of the Master is brought down, striking one hard at the exact moment the fruit is ripe and ready to fall.
In another way it’s like Brian has constructed highly unusual but compellingly unique architecture which one might like to visit, but never actually live in. I don’t personally feel at home in his vast rooms of architecture hammered out and constructed from the biggest and hardest lines imaginable. The atmosphere at least in the outer rooms of that labyrinthine piece of architecture is not warm and inviting but intensely cold and oppressive. That of course may be by design. I stand back in horror thinking that if I get too involved with his work, if I get lost in it, I may end up having the bones of my skeleton decorating the frame of a doorway and my skull mounted on a wall of one of those spacious and echoey outer rooms I’ve taken a wrong turn in before!
I much appreciate you making your presence felt here, Maia. Maybe we could huddle together in this cold and cavernous darkness and with two good dry twigs or by striking two flinty stones together over shreds of newspaper and straw tugged out of an old broom try to start a little fire.
You wrote, “Lit from behind, she shines darkly.” This anticipates a sentence from part five—"When I remember her, I think of a face that encompasses multitudes, whose each component is distinct, the dark face of the goddess, projected against lowering clouds.”
You wrote, “I can see you there in the past as a youth bursting with potential and possibility, and because of it, when not acting impulsively and crackling with arrogance, overcome with fear and anxiety, and in your troubled disorientation rendered incredibly awkward, at times behaving truly bizarre to the concern of the guardian adults around you.” Adults were at times concerned about me, not necessarily for the right reasons. Like you, I tended to "slip between the cracks” of the one-size-fits-all educational system of the time. There was, in general, a much more laissez faire approach to raising children. “Have fun! Don’t get killed! Come back for supper!” We would scamper off to climb a wrought-iron railroad bridge and swing above a train.
In addition, although I did not engage in any criminal activity, I was really very sneaky. For example, there was an 80-year-old man who lived in a large house on our street. My friends and I set up a clubhouse in his basement. It took him six months to discover us and kick us out. (Well, I guess that might be criminal.) If I wanted to hitchhike with my girlfriend to a folk concert or whatever, I would simply tell my mother, “Off to a religious conference for the weekend!” (I was a member of LRY, a countercultural Unitarian church group, made up of 90 percent non-Unitarians.) This always worked.
During my last two years of high school, I probably could have used some psychological help, although finding a Jungian therapist in Worcester at the time would have been a challenge. Such well-meaning interventions as did occur were of the ridiculous sort. During “parents night” at the start of my junior year, my poetry teacher, Mr. George—no relation—informed my mother that he was quite concerned about my unhealthy interest in Edgar Allen Poe. Who knew where such preoccupations might lead? A year later, the head librarian, “Eagle Claw Kiley,” would hover by the library door, waiting for me to pass. Her eagle claw would then latch onto my arm and I would be dragged into her office. There, she would lecture me on the dangerousness of Nietzsche and the evils of French Existentialism. I am sure she meant well, but it was hard to see what was going on behind all of the flying spit. One reason that Sue Castigliano had such an impact on me is that no one had ever really noticed me at all—not, at least, in terms of seeing into me, of calling attention to talents I didn’t know I had, and of catalyzing some dormant aspect of my soul.
Absolutely fantastic quote from “Michel Carrouges, Andre Breton and the Basic Concepts of Surrealism (1974)” I was not familiar with it, and I will have to find out more.
“I never tire of burning, Lord; I wonder if I am a moth. I do not care what happens to me; I wonder if I am mad.”—Nuri
“Come, lovers, come! Our destination is not far off…I take hold of my teacher’s skirt as if it were my mother’s waist.”—Yunus Emre
“Life is brutal, and full of traps.”—a humorous Polish proverb
“Do not sing, nightingale, for my garden is desolate; O Friend, because of your pain I am on fire…”—Pir Sultan Abdal
Hi Maia and John,
Let me address a question posed by your responses: Is my writing full of traps—or trap doors—or is it designed to be of use? The answer, as you might very well expect, is “both/and.” I do not see these options as being mutually exclusive. The traps to which I referred in an earlier comment are traps that are woven into the visionary space itself. In such a space, false certainty is a threat—far more of a threat than the mischievous nature of the poet—in that the intellect is not prepared to confront its underpinnings or to move with the mercurial responsiveness that is needed. In Egyptian cosmology, according to Schwaller de Lubicz, life is a kind of reversal; “styptic fire” prompts the sea of primordial oneness to contract. Death or illumination is then the “reversal of a reversal.” On the level of aesthetics, a trap can also serve as the reversal of a reversal, as a poke—playful or otherwise—to remind the reader that things may not be as they seem. The reader should, perhaps, look past the details to take in the bigger picture, or he should find the significant detail in the otherwise too grand spectacle. Each correct response may come with an equally suspect motive.
In Yoga, there are often said to be four states, which are defined as “Jagrat,” or waking; “Svapna,” or dreaming, “Susupti,” or deep sleep, and a fourth state, called “Turiya,” which perhaps can be defined as “other” or “prior” or “post.” Of Turiya, verse seven of the Mandukua Upanishad says that it is “not cognitive, not non-cognitive, unseen, with which there can be no dealing, ungraspable, having no distinctive mark, non-thinkable, that cannot be designated, the essence of assurance…” If it is the goal of a yogi to reach towards such a state, to then stabilize his energies and seat himself within it, the role of the visionary poet is less linear, less traditionally acceptable, perhaps, and more peculiar. He/she must come and go. He must not defined by an attachment to the heights. She must not be governed by a fear of the abyss. Familiar with all spaces but at home in none, he/she must improvise an asymmetric discipline. With each turn, they must test the intelligence of the wind.
There are those who argue that no actions can take place in Turiya, that its mode of expression is not to speak at all, that it has jettisoned the three other states like the stages of a rocket. I would argue that it permeates and supports the other three; being prior to them, it succeeds them. Since these three states of expression follow from the fourth, Turiya is not bound by a particular location. With its eyes closed, it can see. Without hands, it can reach into the center of an atom. If it has no role that is specific to itself, this does not mean that it has no urge to play. While I am far from this fourth state in my daily interactions, while I should probably make no claim to even guessing what it is, when I write, I do feel pulled towards a mode of awareness that is other than waking or dreaming. Not pausing to explain itself, a call rises from the depths. I have no desire to beat up the reader with demands. These demands—which do exist, and which may lead some to accuse me of pointless complexity or coldness—have more to do with the demands that I put upon myself, or, from a different angle, with the demands that are imposed upon me by some alternate version of the self.
It has been almost 48 years now—with Year One the period in which this essay is set, when I was 16 and a senior at Doherty High—since I first made contact with what I have called here the “alternate version of the self,” although to call this mystery a “self” at all is no doubt to mistake its boundaries. Viewed one way, this self is a “treasure that is waiting to be known,” a potential to be called from hiding through the presence of the Beloved. (We, like the luminous seed of the first beings, have a tendency to wait, to belatedly discover what we had cast down from the stars.) Viewed a different way, this self is a pattern—at least partially present before birth—that must be activated by the intervention of the Daimon, though a series of gifts and lessons that often take the form of ordeals. To begin to intuit the agenda of this self is to see that the trials to which it subjects one are not personal.
There were certainly periods—during the mid-1990s, say—when my work was truly inaccessible, and not in a good way, when it was ecstatic but utterly arcane, when it and the person who produced it had lost touch with most normal day to day experience. During this period of transition, when I was trying to integrate my earlier avant-garde objectives with a new-found spiritual scope, I showed my work to almost no one. This was before I started to write prose. By the end of that decade, happily married and with a child, I found that I could not continue on this path. Since then, I have done my best to make my language as clear as it is challenging. I have no desire to make unreasonable demands, however these might be defined; rather, I would like to invite the reader to come with me on a voyage. Most writers want to be read. I also want to be read, but, more importantly, it is my hope that my work will be of use. Here, a second question could perhaps be posed. Q: “Do you really think that your work is user-friendly?” A: “It is far more user-friendly than before.”
Illustration: Max Ernst, “Surrealism and Painting”
Not the gardener, not the garden, I’m
a hazelnut in the trickster’s pocket, stolen
from my grove—bound now in a clay pot
bare and silent—
until he throws the bones, and loses —
I never see it coming—
birdsong, green lightning! leaps
along the hidden spring
The above is from the last section of Still Life, in which I was attempting to speak of, let’s say, the “marvelous trapdoor”, mirror image of the one John and others find and fear in your writing. There are many trapdoors, not all of them terrifying, none of them mapped or avoidable. Your “demands” as writer are, to me, not demanding, they are not even invitations, but gifts. A real gift is one neither you nor the recipient have any hold on. It can be taken in or discarded. Though not given back. “You” as writer are not the same you as the one before happily marrying and becoming a father. Did you choose to write differently, or did that other you write from himself discovering its difference? Does it matter?
The question of “user friendly” writing is not a simple one, it’s one I wrestle with every day, and there is no resolution because the answer is always changing and is, as you remind us, like reality itself, “not as it seems”.
I empathize with anyone who recoils from a universe that feels malign or even indifferent. But it’s not that simple, the universe I experience if I am whole is always changing and always flowing as Heraclitus insists. It’s a trickster, it’s …the more ancient version of the tale of Medusa in which she is a breath-takingly beautiful being who wants not to be pursued for beauty’s sake, but…for all of herself…and so she wears over her beauty, a fright mask of horror—her snake-hair reveals how much has already been lost from the world when the serpent of wisdom and transformation has become “merely” frightening in the eyes of men who believe they’ve tamed like a horse, the sword that loves to cut head from tail. Seeing her, they see themselves. Which is unbearable. They are turned to stone. And that’s where the story pauses. Until later when the warrior-hero is dragged into the story and with his polished shield looks on her without terror. And what is his first act? To approach and find her mask removed? Is it to speak, to ask the eternal questions? How to “reach into the center” of a drop of water? How to sing the blood into motion again? No. His first act is to repeat himself, to cut off her head and wear its image as a trophy. To miss who she is forever. Or until the Fates take pity on him and… but that’s another story.
What I am trying to say so circuitously (this loop through Medusa was unpremeditated)
can only be said, circuitously.
Which is to say, Brian, I find your reply to John’s comment to be accurate. I say this not because I know, but because the universe you evoke resembles the one I live in.
You wrote: " it’s like Brian has constructed highly unusual but compellingly unique architecture which one might like to visit, but never actually live in. "
As I wrote in response to Brian below, I empathize with anyone who descerns the terror or hellish aspects of the universe/world. And with anyone who discerns her other aspects and takes only one to be the true one. Separated, they are unbearable. On the one hand, because for a human being, an ordinary self, the beautiful comes to an end. On the other, because the terrifying is also true. Where is there any comfort or consolation? Only in the Whole. In whole moments. The two together, As when poisonous gases and caustic metals come to gether to create Water and Salt. But there is never more than a rest, as at the end of a piece of music, there come pauses. When I am lost in the cold windowless hallways, the smallest kindness is the greatest blessing. When I am found with a friend (or not) among the trees listening to mockingbird hidden in the leaves, it’s still all true—the smallest kindness is bliss.
“Maybe the ultimate aim of Brian’s work is precisely gradual exhaustion through an increasingly complicated and elaborate series of disillusionments, preparing one finally to awaken and to blossom when the rod of the Master is brought down, striking one hard at the exact moment the fruit is ripe and ready to fall.”
I don’t think this is the aim of Brian’s writing, don’t think any aim would describe it. It’s a meander through certain veins, translucent ones, which go where they go. Along the way, terrors and wonders. Yes, in life, nothing feels so real as “the Master…striking one hard” ---- except when we see he is no master at all, and that the falling fruit is falling, indeed, and we will never know why or where. Or never for long. Or fully. And that this small blaze in the heart, this ripeness, this kindness, is warmth enough.
Hi Brian and Maia:
I’m glad I could be a productive goad. Such excellent responses from both of you. There is so much good content to contemplate here, and I feel gratitude. I love your spontaneous, intuitive way of responding, Maia. You appear to be more in touch with the spirit world than I am. I absolutely welcome, and as “man the unfruitful animal” need, what you do and offer. I hope you continue to give where you see fit, where you see branches are drooping and where water and sunlight is needed. And Brian, of course I knew all that was in you, and that there is much more where that came from. One must make you into a piñata sometimes and with a blindfold on take a good whack at you with a stick, if one is to get any of the gifts which are hidden inside.
I still think the silence your work generally induces when left to itself is not a good sign. Question the wind all you want, it will only keep doing what it does and blow wave upon wave of sand against your work, until it is not only covered but buried and possibly forgotten forever.
This leads me to ask (with a glint in my eye and a mischievous smile on my face): Who have you hired to be your groundskeepers and your gardeners? Who have you hired to do the housekeeping in that immense labyrinthine architecture you have constructed? It may be that a newly hired housekeeper, part of a whole team of them, wanders off alone, turns down a corridor, and then another and another, twisting and turning down more and more corridors and getting lost, and then in a panic climbs down through a trapdoor, and discovers at the foot of a shattered mirror the mortal remains of a previous housekeeper which needs to be cleaned up!
The cry cannot be heard through all the maze of walls and ceilings and floors:
“Ariadne, help! Where are you? Where is your thread to help guide me back out?”
As you so often insist, silence is sometimes the best response.
There is a very ancient saying that when silence falls, it means that Hermes- (seen or unseen) has come into the room
Thank you for emailing to me this essay “Writing” by W.H. Auden. Thoroughly invigorating! As you wrote: “ I came across this terrific essay by W.H. Auden that I thought you might enjoy. It is something of a masterpiece of incisive wit and observations. I only agree with maybe 60-70 percent of what he says, but this is of no account. Auden’s poems from the 30s and early 40s hold up incredibly well. Not too much afterwards, he began to second-guess himself. His later cuts to these early poems are invariably off the mark, and, in spite of continued technical virtuosity, he seems to have become increasingly timid and more conventional with age. He was a genuinely original and peculiar character, though, and this change in attitude really only affected the adventurousness of the poetry. In essays and interviews, he never ceased to be a hoot.”
For anyone who chances upon this thread and wants to read Auden’s essay here’s the link :
Auden himself has something of an answer to my last comment to you wondering about groundskeepers, gardeners and housekeepers for the upkeep and maintenance around and inside such labyrinthine pieces of architecture you have created which embody and reflect the world:
“To keep his errors down to a minimum, the internal Censor to whom a poet submits his work in progress should be a Censorate. It should include, for instance, a sensitive only child, a practical housewife, a logician, a monk, an irreverent buffoon and even, perhaps, hated by all the others and returning their dislike, a brutal, foul-mouthed drill sergeant who considers all poetry rubbish.”
In a recent email, you had asked if I was familiar with the Latin maxim “Vulnerant omnes; ultima necat.” I was not, but I looked it up. I was just about to send my response when I realized that it tied into certain aspects of “The Goddess as Active Listener,” so I thought that I would post it here in the forum. This response also touches on John’s critique of the “coldness” of my perspective. It is not really up to me to accept or deny the charge of coldness; this is John’s perfectly reasonable response to the spaces that I open up. My own perspective grows from attitudes that perhaps are not too generally shared. From an early age—from the period in which this essay is set—I have been preoccupied with a number of questions, among which are the following:
Is there a hard and fast boundary between life and death?
Is it possible to journey back and forth?
Is what we are able to grasp during life a small fragment of a vastly larger data bank, and is there some way to gain access to this field of interconnections, if only for a few moments at a stretch?
Although some large percentage of our identity perhaps falls away after death, is there some part of who or what we are that persists, in spite of any breaks or interruptions?
Is there some sort of multi-incarnational project in which we have chosen to play a role, and how would this change our attitude towards the trials of the moment?
What, exactly, is a teacher, and what role does the teacher play in the shaping of this drama?
Does this relationship also last for eons, however it might wax and wane?
How and when should the teacher intervene, and when should he/she let the student make mistakes?
This is a small meditation on the Latin maxim in question:
“Vulnerant omnes; ultima necat”—“All hours wound; the last one kills.” If you start with the intuition or perception that the human body/mind is an image of the cosmos, life itself is a kind of wound. The image of the “cleft” is everywhere apparent in Mesoamerican mythology—the idea that any act of creation is simultaneously an act of division, which, on the level of human experience, can also be perceived as an act of destruction. Teotihuacan is built at the base of the cleft mountain Cerro Gordo. The heads of many Olmec sculptures are cleft or in other ways draw attention to a division at the top center of the skull. In the highest reaches of the Aztec sky, you have Ometeotl, a god who is also a pair of gods, Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl, the Lord and Lady of Duality. Between 2002 and 2004, I did a series of heads that also shared this preoccupation with the natal cleft. This sense that creation and destruction are aspects of each other is, of course, present in many other traditions as well. The Kabbalistic concept of Zimzum, or primordial contraction, has had a great impact on my way of thinking—the idea that g-d, being everywhere, had to contract in order to create a somewhere, a space for individual beings to exist and grow. Again, this act of creation was also an act of destruction, or, more specifically, obscuration. On the level of human history, this stage-space was projected away from the origin and into time, which resulted in the experience of exile.
I am not so sure that it is actually the last hour that kills. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood, which changed drastically between the time that I got out of high school, in 1972, and the time that my mother sold the family house, in 1998. From at least the time of the WW2 until the early 1970s, Worcester was regarded as the industrial heart of New England. When my mother was growing up during the war, the city would have black out alerts due to fear of Nazi bombers. Then, starting in the 1960s, bit by bit at first and then faster and faster, the factories started to close. Of the perhaps 120 factories that were there when I was growing up, I think that two are left. The removal of the industrial base brought with it a wrenching but, for the most part, only partially acknowledged sense of nihilism and despair. This went beyond the simple fact that people need jobs to support themselves and their families. As unsatisfying as the majority of jobs tend to be, they also provide structure, some approximation of meaning.
By 1972, Worcester was known less for its industrial production than for serving as the hub of the East Coast heroin trade. Although, in retrospect, Main South Worcester was not a bad place to grow up, I sometimes wonder how much of the growing despair and alienation I could pick up on as a high school student. I remember reading Cesar Vallejo as a senior. “You people are dead, but what a strange manner of being dead; anyone might say that you were not.” “Yes!” I thought. This attitude was, of course, partly just a question of my own adolescent arrogance, but could it also have been a perception of the shape of things to come? I remember visiting my mother and my grandmother in the 1980s, and, everywhere I looked, there were people in their early 30s who looked like they were closer to 60. By their early 30s, these people had already done whatever it was they knew how to do. There were no points on the horizon that might help to organize their energies. They cared for little beyond the fact of their existence. Just in the house next door, there was a mother who would send out her son to play in the street, hoping that he would be hit by a car so that they would be able to collect the insurance. They were able to collect three times. There was another family—seemingly a transplant from the Appalachians although they were born in Worcester—who would sit on their front porch drinking and getting into fights for about 16 hours out of every 24. At one point they bought a megaphone, and they would take turns yelling about the various sex acts they wanted to engage in with each other. Incest as a favorite subject, and it was not theoretical. I remember thinking on these visits home, “Perhaps I was not that far off in high school. There are many ways to die, and many people die before their time; they die while they are still alive.”
This critique of working class—well, I guess not “working class” but perhaps “ex-working-class”—bad habits no doubt sounds more critical than I intend. If you are living in a materialistic culture and the material base is suddenly yanked away, it does not leave any solid ground beneath your feet, any belief system to fall back on, any cosmology to explain the meaning of your exile. If you feel that life does not present you with any choices, if there is no larger context that gives meaning to your wounds, it is certainly possible to become a “hungry ghost” long before your physical death. On the other hand, if you regard your physical death as just another form of transition, an opportunity for growth, if you spend the decades leading up to it in focused preparation, then the moment of death may be a wound that turns into a door. The last hour may have “killed” you, yes, but only in a slightly different way than the ones that came before it. In passing, you take note of the closing of a door.
- Olmec sculpture
- Brian George, Split Head, 2003
Brian, thank you for this wonderful essay-response to my Latin phrase.
Sometime during my meditation training with an ex-monk/science geek, I found myself revisiting an experience called “Dissolution” (Bhanga : Sanskrit, something like knowledge of dissolution) in which you see and experience death everywhere, everyone is a walking skeleton, the birds are singing dead avian arias, and so on. It was also true, he used to say, that we die with every breath. And that every death we choose, teaches us what we need to know, where we need to go. That the two primordial creative forces are: Strewing and Gathering, Expanding and Contracting… the names continue on…two being the original creating/ severing, or as others say, the emptying that fills the world.
When my life=partner died, I experienced his death as an ongoing supernova in which “he” simultaneously flew outward in all directions and contracted to a point. “He” gave away everything and more as the imploding/exploding star gives away its elements coalescing into planets and moons, water and water bears, zebras and zebra finches, every ash a cloud-seed. Not my first experience of death, but the one that most transformed my relationship to it. Is still transforming…
“I put unbearable pain into cold water
which sits on the backs of desolate clouds…”
The wound becomes a door, is left ajar
PS: Your Split Head is an amazing piece of work!
What you hold to be the case is certainly unconventional, Brian. A kiss from death isn’t necessarily conducive to warming the cockles of the heart. Just ask any maiden. In traveling between the worlds of life and death, leaving behind life and spending some time where a ribcage is played like a xylophone, it goes without saying that some of what might be attributable to death, decomposition and stripping away and getting down to rock and bone, if internalized, does rub off on one, and does, touching one, send a chill down the spine and in turn can make one feel by one’s touch that one can instantly wither flowers, or dry up the milk in the breasts of a mother. Moses came down from the mountain with his hair and beard snowy white. Pushing into the marrow of the bone, and pushing beyond into the hubris of imagination, nibbling on food perhaps not meant for humans, it could give one for a time, reaching out from the warm-blooded mammals we actually are, the belief, or I would say delusion, that we ourselves have actually crossed to the other side and in the Otherness become deities with special powers. The shaman may place himself on the threshold between life and death and turn himself into a door, giving us a glimpse of what might be on the other side, but I maintain there is a limit to what such a vision can show us. I don’t think we can literally pass through the door and ever come back.
I suspect deep down our darkest visions of death are still woven into the tapestry of life. I think Maia’s way of wording it is accurate, casting it in terms of an ever-changing relationship to it. But once it is fully embodied, Atropos, one of the three fates, cuts the thread, the flame goes out, the curtain drops, and that is the end.
Though clearly I’m inclined to skepticism, this is definitely an interesting question you pose: “Although some large percentage of our identity perhaps falls away after death, is there some part of who or what we are that persists, in spite of any breaks or interruptions?”
On a personal level, reading that death is a door kind of takes me aback. I understand your meaning envisioning it that way, I understand it symbolically, but having witnessed in loved ones death up close and burrowing into the flesh, taking over the body and one by one snapping the cords connecting it to life, death’s rattle waiting in the end to sound in the throat, I have come to believe that it would be of small comfort to tell that to someone who is actually dying. If you told me death is a door on my deathbed and tried to convince me of it, with full and pregnant irony I’d feel like calling for the nurse to have you escorted out of the door.
But I wouldn’t actually do that, or it would take quite a while to bring me to that point, because I like you too much. The sparks we create together would warm me and bring me back to life! I’d probably reply to you with a wry look on my face, “Tell me more, Brian, and don’t spare me all the details which fall like grains of sand through the hourglass: once I pass away I’ll have all the time in the world.”
“Vulnerant omnes; ultima necat”—“All hours wound; the last one kills.”
Looking back over this I see how this might lead into a semantic exploration of what death is and what it means. There’s a way that you worded your comment, Brian, that I don’t necessarily disagree with. The moment of death may begin long before it actually happens.
I recall in a previous comment Maia mentioned the self as being perhaps an illusion. The “I” is perhaps an illusion. But it’s an illusion I’d say all bound up and entwined with our mortality. I thus have a sense of self. I feel there is a John Dockus as distinct from a Brian George and a Maia and so forth. I feel there are individualities. But we have an excruciatingly hard time untangling and extracting ourselves from this illusion. The stress-and-tension filled points of contact and the collisions between what is finite and will come to an end which we subjectively experience, the “death” of the self, the aging and deterioration and eventual “ending-of-the-functioning” of the body, and what will continue to live can either cause us incredible and unspeakable pain and agony and sorrow, or if reversed and there is some success in untangling and extracting, can lead I suppose to a release into boundless joy and energy in recognition that Thou art That. I can’t say I’m quite there yet. (It’s obvious by my comments and by what a pain in the ass I can be, ha ha.) It could be said, I suppose, in some higher sphere of understanding, that there is no such thing as death, that there are only transitions which take place in what seems to be an infinite continuum.
I just want to add this, because the last thing I want to do is to kill this conversation.
I must admit that I have been taken aback by the harsh and accusatory tone of a number of your recent comments. The majority of your arguments seem designed to put me on the defensive, to force me to defend and justify my style of writing, my way of thinking, my spiritual method, and my vision. This gets old very quickly. The framing of issues in this way does not seem likely to foster an open exchange of experiences or to lead to a productive discussion. I am very glad that you added your most recent comment, which helps to open things up again.
The list of questions that I posed in my comment to Maia were also written with you in mind. I was hoping that they might help to shed some light on the context of my explorations. Much of what I have written in “The Goddess as Active Listener” will not make any sense to a reader wo believes that life begins and ends with a single lifetime, that the personal self does not exist in a state of tension with some larger self, and that consciousness is produced by and limited to the electrochemical activity of the brain. Clearly, these questions are presented as questions, as prompts for active imagination. They are not designed to be answers. And if these questions are not investigated with some degree of psychic freedom, if the reader is not willing to question his own automatic responses, then they will only lead in a circle back to that person’s existing beliefs.
In responding to your last two comments, I want to be mindful of the fact that your father has recently passed away. I have enormous respect for the fact that you took care of him through his illness and that you were with him when he passed away. The emotions stirred up by these experiences were, I am sure, complex and overwhelming. I do not want to say anything that might disturb the way you have chosen to process them. It is not my intention here or elsewhere to tell anyone else what they should feel or think or do. I will only say that I have also lost relatives and friends, and that my attitude towards death is somewhat different. It is not only different from your own attitude, it is also different in different contexts and different from one moment to the next.
I think that your closeness to your father during the long process of his illness has perhaps kept the physical details of illness and death at the forefront of your mind. My earliest memory of death is physical in this way. When I was eight years old, I used to stop by to visit an elderly woman, Mrs. Marble, who lived about ten houses away from me on our street. She had a little dog, a Scottie, that I loved, and we used to talk over milk and cookies. One day, when I knocked, she did not answer the door. I went back off and on for the better part of a week. At times, I could hear the dog barking. Finally, I asked my family what we should do, and they notified the police. I was there when they found Mrs. Marble and took her out of the house. Her body was swollen and almost black, and the sight of it haunted me for months. Much more recently, in 2004, my friend Harlan Welsh passed away. This happened in June, and his body was not in good shape when it was finally discovered by our mutual friend Kosta. Harlan was my age, so I was certainly upset that he had passed before his time. We had been very close for years and then drifted out of touch and/or had a parting of the ways in the mid-90s. I had always assumed that there would be a reconnection, a renewal of our rapport. I still feel a wrenching sense of loss when I think of him, due both to his untimely death and to the impossibility of taking action on our distance. There is a wound that will not be healed, at least in this dimension.
There have been other friends and relatives who have died before their time, or in some way that seems undignified or unjust. Two years back, my cousin John—who was ten years younger than me—died from a staff infection, after what should have been a routine operation. (Without antibiotics, I might have died this way myself, from a scratch on the wrist that spun out of control.) In 1998, my father died unexpectedly, killed by his doctors. He had been given three medications that never should have been taken together. When he went to the emergency room, they assured him that the pain was due to indigestion. I talked to him on New Year’s Eve. His was dead the next day. For a year afterwards, I would go to call him on the phone, shocked each time anew that he was not available. I won’t elaborate any further in this direction. There are certain deaths that have left me outraged or incredulous, others that have left me with a lingering sense of disquiet. In all of these situations, however, I am talking more about my own emotions than about the current state of my relatives or friends.
I can say that there are people whom I loved or cared for who have “passed before their time.” Since I do not possess any supernatural powers of divination, there is no way I can know this. I can only say that I was unprepared, that I was left to pick up broken pieces, that I was not, in the immediate aftermath of their passing, prepared to deal with their absence. I can also say, with an equal degree of certainly—for whatever this is worth—that there were others who passed in a very different way, when they had acted out the whole of the cycle of their life, when they had reached a natural limit, when the fullness of the hour had come. I will offer the two most immediate examples, that of my grandparents. (My mother and father got divorced when I was four, and my grandparents were really closer to being parents.) My grandfather, Jack, passed away in 1980. He was the seventh son and only intellectual in a first-generation family of Irish brawlers. To survive, he had to learn how to box. Up through his mid-70s, he was very physically self-possessed. If he gained two pounds, he would adjust his diet. In his late 60s, he dug out half a hillside to build a walled cove for the family car. He was not pleased when he lost his strength. By his late 70s, increasingly ill, he spent much of the day laying on the couch. Then, several weeks before his death, he began to have long conversations with dead relatives, who seemed to have come to reassure him, to guide him to the other side. Jack was not in any way senile. If he tended to ramble, it was not due to incoherence; it was usually to give long and detailed lectures on US history. According to my grandmother, the house felt electrically charged, and you could almost touch the presences who were hovering in the room. When the time came, Jack informed my grandmother that the time had come, and he thanked her for their wonderful life together. He then went into the bathroom, put his head on his knees, and passed away a few minutes later.
My grandmother, Helen, lived for another 16 years and passed away in 1996. For years before this, she had gone out of her way to prepare me and my mother. “I’m tired, and you’re going to have to learn to do without me.” In her late 70s, she began to drift into the chaotic fog of Alzheimer’s, and her behavior became more and more unpredictable. She would hide hundreds of dollars in obscure parts of the house and wander into the street at 3:00 AM. This came as a shock, and it took us years to fully realize what was happening. Up until she retired at the age of 68, my grandmother would walk several miles each day to the school where she taught. When I was in high school and friends would call the house, they would often assume that they were talking to my sister. She was incredibly sharp and funny and intuitive and full of natural authority and able to cut down bullies with a caustic offhand comment. My father, a tough-minded businessman, could never speak of her—even decades after they last met—without referring to her as “that stern Irish matriarch.” Then he would shiver a bit and act like a guilty kid who had been caught. If a vicious dog came running up to her, she would stare at it and it would yelp and run in the other direction. But by 1996, she was, as she had frequently informed us, very tired.
On the night of my wedding to my second wife, Deni, my grandmother fell and broke her hip. After a hip replacement, she had to be transferred to a nursing home. The timing of this fall seemed odd; it was almost as though she were waiting to make sure that I was happy. Once again, this time starting perhaps six weeks before her passing, long conversations with dead relatives seemed to be taking place. The anxiety and anger and stormy mood shifts brought on by Alzheimer’s seemed to have faded away, like clouds into an empty sky. When my mother and Deni and I visited, we would find my grandmother grinning and looking off towards some distant landscape, whispering to various presences whom she was pleased to see again. I thought that I had heard all of her stories at least a half-dozen times, but she mentioned things to Deni that I had never heard before. There was one particularly strange story about neo-pagan rites in a small town in Northern Massachusetts in the 1920s, during her first year of teaching in a one-room school house. During these visits, a calm and luminous field seemed to spread around us through the room. As my grandmother became weaker, my mother would visit every day. Then, on the one day that she didn’t come, my grandmother choked on a piece of food and passed away. Countless friends have told similar stories of a loved one passing on the day that they didn’t come, at the moment that they stepped out of the room to get a cup of coffee. When someone is preparing to move on, it seems that a bit of breathing space may be needed.
From Plato’s Phaedo :
SOCRATES: Now for you, my jury. I want to explain to you how it seems to me natural that a man who has really devoted his life to philosophy should be cheerful in the face of death, and confident of finding the greatest blessing in the next world when his life is finished. I will try to make clear to you, Simmias and Cebes, how this can be so.
Ordinary people seem not to realize that those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death. If this is true, and they have actually been looking forward to death all their lives, it would of course be absurd to be troubled when the thing comes for which they have so long been preparing and looking forward.
SIMMIAS: Simmias laughed and said, Upon my word, Socrates, you have made me laugh, though I was not at all in the mood for it. I am sure that if they heard what you said, most people would think—and our fellow countrymen would heartily agree—that it was a very good hit at the philosophers to say that they are half dead already, and that they, the normal people, are quite aware that death would serve the philosophers right.
John, you wrote, “A kiss from death isn’t necessarily conducive to warming the cockles of the heart. Just ask any maiden. In traveling between the worlds of life and death, leaving behind life and spending some time where a ribcage is played like a xylophone, it goes without saying that some of what might be attributable to death, decomposition and stripping away and getting down to rock and bone, if internalized, does rub off on one, and does, touching one, send a chill down the spine and in turn can make one feel by one’s touch that one can instantly wither flowers, or dry up the milk in the breasts of a mother.”
The contemplation of transience and of death is central to a great many spiritual disciplines, and I do not in any way accept your characterization of my relationship to it. For example, if I had to pick a Renaissance painting that reflects my attitude towards death, it would not be Baldung-Grien’s “Death and the Maiden.” It would be something more along the lines of Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” or “La Primavera.” In both of these paintings, there is an aching sense of the fragility of life and of the evanescence of beauty. I think that the Renaissance as a whole cannot be understood without remembering that the bubonic plaque swept off 30 to 50 percent of the population of Europe. This peculiar relationship between transience and beauty is at the heart of the annual Japanese cherry blossom festival. If these blossoms were plastic, who would celebrate them? In a letter, Mozart wrote that, from the age of eight—when his mother died—there was not a day that passed when he didn’t contemplate his death. Few classical music listeners would accuse Mozart of morbidity. A number of years back, I went to a “Sema” enacted by the Whirling Dervishes of Konya, a group founded by the poet/seer Rumi. Starting perhaps ten hours before the ritual, I could sense their energetic presence in the city, building like a wave. That night, the wave broke over me, and I have seldom experienced such a clear and generous and ecstatic sense of transport. The cloaks worn by the Dervishes are meant to symbolize a grave, and their conical hats are the tombstones. In Tantric Buddhism, there are human thighbone trumpets, skulls that are used as drinking cups, and many images of dancing skeletons. It is possible that Christians, who worship a tortured figure on a cross, might see these as demonic implements and symbols. Their purpose, however, is not to tempt the practitioner to revel in destruction and decay; rather, they are props to be utilized in the shattering of appearance.
On one level, it is certainly true to say that “self” is different from “other,” just as “life” is separate from “death.” On the level of spiritual practice, however, all terms must be reconsidered if any progress is to be made. You write, “The shaman may place himself on the threshold between life and death and turn himself into a door, giving us a glimpse of what might be on the other side, but I maintain there is a limit to what such a vision can show us. I don’t think we can literally pass through the door and ever come back.” Over the past 30 years, the term “shaman” has been far too casually thrown around, and I am hesitant to even use the word. Who knows if the Urban Shaman is fooling himself or others, if he is just putting on an act? In a traditional society, though, a shaman who had not been dismembered and reconstituted would never be taken seriously. If his vision is inaccurate, if his reporting is garbled or misleading, is this so different from an English poet who writes a travelogue about Rome? He can tell you what he saw; it may or may not be of use.
Here is a poem by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks:
As regards feeling pain, like a hand cut in battle,
consider the body a robe
you wear. When you meet someone you love, do you kiss their clothes? Search out
who’s inside. Union with God is sweeter than body comforts.
We have hands and feet
different from these. Sometimes in dream we see them.
That is not
illusion. It’s seeing truly. You do have a spirit body;
don’t dread leaving the
physical one. Sometimes someone feels this truth so strongly
that he or she can live in
mountain solitude totally refreshed. The worried, heroic
doings of men and women seem weary
and futile to dervishes enjoying the light breeze of spirit.
Much thanks for the elaboration of your response. I totally accept the tone you have taken here with me. I think it is appropriate. I’m glad I could open back up the discussion. I’m quite aware that much of what is testy and disruptive originates in myself.
I think how all this has unfolded also points to or highlights the relationship in reality between a teacher and a novice and student, not merely a theoretical or idealized one. I think that many novices and students who would dare to break their silence would in one way or another come crashing in, or be crude and rough around the edges, embarrassing themselves and others, or would stumble around blindly to some extent, knocking over or at least rattling on the pedestals what is so valuable. It is the very nature of a novice and student to be such. How a teacher handles him or herself however in relation to their students is also very telling and instructive. I suppose there is always a sort of shit testing going on. How much deep and durable truth and wisdom does a teacher really have if he or she is easily rattled and offended and shuts down during critical moments? What kind of a teacher unconsciously expects his or her students to come ready-made, perfected in the understanding of what is being taught or instructed?
(Pardon my irrepressibility, but I feel like breaking into the song, “Wouldn’t it be Loverly?” from My Fair Lady.)
This is the perfect opportunity to ask you more about the inspiration behind your piece, The Goddess as Active Listener, your former teacher Sue Castigliano. How do you imagine she would have dealt with a difficult subject like myself if she was in your shoes and on the receiving end of my words? Would she have sent me to the corner with a dunce cap on my head? How would she have dealt with me? I assume when you first arrived to her you weren’t a smooth and polished aesthete with perfect manners and etiquette, but were unkempt and unruly and unpredictable in your boundless curiosity about what actually makes things and people tick down in their hidden mechanisms and operations.
What really distinguished her from other teachers you had?
Also, this is another question which comes to mind I really want to ask you: Do you think there are teachers more suitable to an individual and his or her development than others? A chemistry that must pre-exist for the relationship ultimately to yield benefits and fruit for both student and teacher? In what way did you give back to Sue Castigliano and help her in her own development for becoming an even better teacher for those who came after you? I wonder what kind of encounters she had with students, what were her own formative experiences, before you arrived and I assume, being somewhat wild and rough around the edges, first gave her a hard time.