I read Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters for the first time this summer. It is a wonder that I’ve only just recently arrived to her work. “The mail has been slow,” as Ishmael Reed would say (the latter being a running gag in his book Mumbo Jumbo). The mail and the male. Revolutionary Letters has become part of my education. Students and I read it together earlier this month. I’ve been reading and responding to several students who wrote about the book for the midterm paper in my course “Literatures of Rebellion.” Friends and I have been mourning her passing since learning the other day of her death. We’ve been sharing works of hers that move us. Along comes “Rant” where she proclaims, “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All other wars are subsumed in it.”
Di Prima refers to life as a game of “multidimensional chess played with divination and strategy.” She says that what we find out is what we select “out of an infinite sea of possibility.” Let us respond imaginatively in word and act. Perform a close reading. She begins by noting that with every line of writing we project a cosmology and cosmogony. We’re the ones keeping ourselves out of paradise. Joy is ours if we imagine it. Why are so many of the texts that we’re reading this semester about travel north? That’s the trajectory of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography and Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. But Silko also traveled north to write Ceremony.
Note how Leslie Marmon Silko situates the writing of her novel Ceremony in a particular place. The book conjures the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, though it was written, as Silko states in the book’s preface, “750 miles north of Seattle” in Ketchikan, Alaska. Silko moved to Ketchikan “from Chinle, Arizona in late spring of 1973” (xi). Silko describes for us the room where she wrote the book so that, when we read the poem “Ceremony” that opens the novel, it is her that we recognize as the creation-figure “Ts’its’tsi’nako, Thought-Woman” (1). It is she who, with her sisters “Nau’ts’ity’i and I’tcts’ity’i,” “created the Universe / this world / and the four worlds below” (1). So begins the ceremony of Ceremony. Silko is a writer of mixed ancestry — a borderlands figure stuck between cultures, as the Chicano cultural theorist Gloria Anzaldúa would say. See Anzaldúa’s famous book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza — a work that, like Ceremony, mixes poetry and prose. Ceremony‘s protagonist Tayo is another such figure. Raised on the reservation but of mixed ancestry.
Books can present themselves as sacred works: “received word.” They can also serve as ceremonial objects containing the teachings of ancestors. Authors share mythoi and logoi. Exchanges occur cross-culturally. Histories are understood to unfold within and share the form of religious myths. History is the latter’s translation and dissemination across space-time. These myths and histories can be mixed and sampled, played with a difference by the storyteller, as they are by Ishmael Reed in Mumbo Jumbo. Stories can be intercut with myths as the two rhyme across time. Stories become circles within circles, as in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.
I sit on a chair and think about karmic cycles as seasons for healing. Days have rhythms, bracketed blocks of time given to care, work, and play. By the latter I mean hermetic time of inner listening, when days allow. Books about “space” turn up on shelves across from me. Books on art and architecture: Topologies, Delirious New York, The Situationist City. Further off, a book called Spaced Out. What am I seeking, up there on those shelves? Am I seeking a teacher — one who I hope will appear in my life when I’m ready? Gary Snyder studied the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism with a teacher in Japan. Of course Snyder himself is a teacher as well. I find myself reading about American Zen pioneer Ruth Fuller Sasaki. Snyder worked for Sasaki during his time in Kyoto in the late 1950s. She’s the one who sponsored his first trip to Japan.
I listened to an hour-long podcast on Welsh author Arthur Machen this afternoon, and not once was there mention of Machen’s membership in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. “An odd and unfortunate omission,” I think — though I concede that the podcast was otherwise quite informative. Why should it matter? Omissions of this sort are perhaps how the occult stays occult. I wonder, too, about Ishmael Reed, who includes Golden Dawn member Aleister Crowley’s The Book of Thoth in the multi-page “Partial Bibliography” at the end of his 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo. Crowley’s book is a study of the Tarot. Reed mentions neither Crowley nor the Tarot elsewhere in Mumbo Jumbo. Yet The Book of Thoth — the mythic one, the one alleged to have been written by Thoth himself — is the “Text” sought by the warring secret societies in Reed’s novel. This is but one of many aspects of Mumbo Jumbo deserving further study. I wonder, too, for instance, about the novel’s critique of Sigmund Freud and the references to Freud’s protégé and rival, Carl Jung. Freud is said to have fainted on two occasions — and Jung was present both times. On the first occasion, Jung “spoke about being fascinated by some recent discoveries of ‘peat-bog corpses.'” Jung’s interest in the subject of mummies and corpses “got on Freud’s nerves,” causing the latter to faint in the midst of dinner. On the second occasion, Freud fainted during a discussion of a Karl Abraham paper, an Oedipal reading of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. (See Nausicaa Renner’s essay, “Freud Fainting.”) Reed focuses, though, not on the fainting but on Freud and Jung’s reactions to America. For Freud, the place was “a big mistake” — part of some monstrous “Black Tide of Mud.” Reed suggests that Freud was an Atonist. Jung, meanwhile, was more ambivalent about America. Like Freud, however, he viewed America as a place where Europeans would have to undergo a transformation to survive — a process Jung called “going Black” (Reed 209). Reed takes the additional step of celebrating this process, granting it agency and giving it the name “Jes Grew.”
Hierophant is the card that arrives next. What do I know of it? A student explores the term for the rest of us, noting, “Hierophant was the title given to the chief priest of the Temple at Eleusis, one of ancient Greece’s most celebrated mystery cults.” Another student bears news of the New England Watch and Ward Society, an early 20th century book-banning group in Boston.
There’s a story here to be told. Let there be magic. Note the power that Ishmael Reed grants to “Rev. Jefferson,” father of “Woodrow Wilson Jefferson” in Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo. Can I find my Text and become articulate? When asked to justify his power, Rev. Jefferson cites John 2:14. Christ booted the businessmen from the Temple. Let’s give Trump the boot. Fredric Jameson observed a use of pastiche in art and fiction produced under “postmodernity.” Postmodernism is a “cultural logic,” a “condition” felt and lived in our current historical period, the era of “late capitalism.” Pastiche is a style or mode adopted by artists in this period — a kind of “blank parody.” Reed’s novel, however, is satire of a critical bent. The book is a pointed, powerful criticism of Western civilization. Jameson included in his essay on “Postmodernism” a famous phenomenological description of his experience of a hotel in Los Angeles. Reed lived in Oakland, taught at Berkeley — lived the historical moment differently, constructs a rich elaborate allegory of the Nixon years. Reed decolonizes consciousness across millennia. Western ways of thinking are shown to be products of a racial policing of consciousness. It is a product of a certain kind of schooling, a cultural, religious, elite-controlled linguistic system. Reed turns economic events, depressions and the like (period markers for Marxists like Jameson) into signs of Voodoo Warfare, spells cast upon the Atonist imperium. Colonized people continue to wage war because the opponent, the white-supremacist adversary, poses a threat to survival, making it difficult to breathe. The latter group’s rituals of capitalist development and production are destroying the planet. Money is the Atonist order’s currency — the god to be worshiped above all others. The thing that money’s chasing, however, the thing it’s trying to “bop” or “co-opt” is an “anti-plague,” a source of cultural vitality and invention imagined to be “carried” by people of color (but capable of spread to others). The “contagion” metaphor that fuels Atonist thought, the white racist fear of a spreading blackness, the fear of becoming a “white minority”: this entire style of thought is absorbed into Reed’s novel. The result, though, is not “pastiche” or “blank parody.” Reed “signifies with a difference,” as Henry Louis Gates Jr. argues. Contagion is blanked of its negative connotations, as what spreads is what saves. “Jes Grew” is the spirit of Osiris seeking to reassemble the pre-Atonist ancient Egyptian past. People “catch the spirit”; they’re moved by it. They’re lifted up, buoyed by the likes of Bobby McFerrin. “Don’t Worry Be Happy” is the letter sent, the message received. So I think as I ponder the day.
One can approach the other lovingly, or one becomes paranoid. But what of the Trump signs? Let us vote them out. Light a fire, fill the air with smoke. Dance and sing. Replace fear with collective joy. Let us be seen and heard. Let Trump’s spell be broken.
Is it Faustian to wish joy and happiness? Are Utopians Faustian? What about those of us who wish alleviation of suffering through escape from capitalism? Or through religion, education, spirituality, cultivation of land and consciousness — all of which are at least Promethean, if not Faustian, in their defiant aims and ambitions. Projects waged against fate. The Faust character is distinct from the others, though, as he practices magic. Faust visits a crossroads. He makes a deal, sells his soul. The Devil features as a character in the Faust narrative, as does a demon named Mephistopheles. The latter name appears in the late-16th-century Faust chapbooks, stories concerning the life of the historical figure on which the Faust character is based, an ambitious scholar named Johann Georg Faust. The author of these chapbooks remains anonymous. The proper response to Faust, I suppose, is the one offered by Fatima Bhutto: “nothing on earth can be gifted to compensate for injustice.”
The semester demands a lot of us — time, care, attention — particularly now as we grade midterms. I wake up most days depressed, sleep-deprived, angry at the state of the world. But Frankie lifts my spirits. Before morning is done, we’re laughing, singing. She reaches out and explores an ever-expanding universe. Each day we follow schedules, hours blocked out for meals, sleep, work, baby care — though we also leave time for reading, writing, meditation, “self-care.” Part of me wants to blow off school for a bit and read Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology. Then again, maybe I should be studying the moon. Do moon cycles affect moods? Each day, Frankie and I read a board book called Kitten’s First Full Moon. Kitten thinks the moon is a bowl of milk and chases after it. Her chase is thwarted and dashed until she returns home to find “a great big / bowl of milk / on the porch, / just waiting for her. / Lucky Kitten!” All’s well that ends well. The moon also figures in recent thinking about werewolves. The werewolf tales that appeal to me are happy tales — comedies like Teen Wolf. I was a werewolf the Halloween after that film’s release. 1985: I was seven years old. There’s a photo of me climbing up the wall, wedging my arms and legs within the frame of a doorway. I was proud and wishing to show off this newly-discovered capacity of mine to brace myself in this way, suspended several feet off the floor. My mom made the costume by hand. What was the film’s appeal? For starters, it begins with the roar of a lion. Already, then, the presence of an animal within the machine — this being the conceit of all werewolf films. Oftentimes that conceit is a tragic one, as in one of the earliest horror films that I remember encountering as a kid: the 1981 film An American Werewolf in London. But in Teen Wolf, it’s a happy conceit: the werewolf both assimilated into and victorious over his surroundings. The soundtrack at the beginning is also quite moving: an echo-effected streak of thud resolves after several echoes into the sound of a basketball. These are liminal sounds, the protagonist way into his own head, heart racing as he prepares to take a foul shot and misses, ball bouncing off the rim. Disappointment returns the protagonist to a humbled awareness of his surroundings, shame coloring his face. Before we’re separate from him, though, what we see at the center of the movie screen is a circular ball of light — a spotlight hanging from the ceiling of the high school gymnasium. The film will later replace this substitute light — an artificial, man-made thing — with the light of the moon. Before the moon shot, though, it maintains an “off” sensation through expressionistic use of sound. The sound effects suture listeners to the anxious spacetime of the protagonist. A sexual humiliation occurs, too, when we discover that the protagonist’s team is named the “Beavers.” Clearly this is a film about adolescence — the boy undergoing a fearful rite of passage in order to become a man. As Michael J. Fox interacts with the oddballs and mediocrities around him, I begin to note resemblances. Characters perform as dream-doubles for figures I knew as a kid. I re-watch the film through to the initial transformation sequence. It ends with the shot of the moon — the one we knew was coming ever since the opening shot of the film. And the movie itself ends with a moon song: Amy Holland’s “Shootin’ for the Moon.” The hero is human again, voluntarily free of enhancement — but his time as the wolf changed him for the better. It imbued him with the will to win.