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Published January 1998Become a subscriber
No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…
Its brevity illusory:
‘Memory,’ says Plotinus, ‘is for those who have forgotten.’ The gods have no memory because they cannot forget. The gods have no memory because they know no time, have no need to fight against time, have no fragments of what has been lost to recollect, to re-collect. In India, with its vast stretches of time, with its same lives appearing and appearing again, there is no distinction between learning and remembering. You knew it in your past lives, you have always known it, to learn is to re-mind yourself, bring yourself back into the mind of universal knowledge. Says the Jaiminiya Upanishad: ‘It is the unknown that you should remember.’ And more: It is the unknown that makes you remember, and its trigger is smell, the vasana.
Vasana, which literally means ‘scent’, is karmic residue, the stuff – as ineffable as a smell – that remains from a past life. Each life produces vasanas, which remain dormant until one is reincarnated in the same species. That is, the vasanasfrom your life as a cat will only be triggered when a thousand incarnations later, you are a cat again.
At their most evident, the vasanas are responsible for déjà vu. In India, you feel you’ve been here before because you’ve been here before. The intangible vasana is the bridge between those existences. More subtly, you are passionately attracted to another because of the vasanas rising from the other, setting off the memories of your previous love. Every act of love, in India, is a re-enactment.
…I feel something start within me, something that leaves its resting-place and attempts to rise, something that has been embedded like an anchor at great depth; I do not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed.
Great spaces traversed:
Indian erotic poetry is redolent with fragrance. On every page of the great Sanskrit anthology, Vidyakara’s Treasury, compiled a thousand years ago, lovers inhabit an atmosphere of saffron, sandalwood, human sweat, lotus, mango blossoms, and the flowers for which there are no translations: garlands of bakula, pink bandhuka blossoms, ketaka petals bent by bees. The lovers’ mouths are as perfumed as their hair. In Tamil, a language of South India, the same word means ‘to be united, to wed, to embrace’ and ‘to emit fragrance’. Conversely, in the Sanskrit poems, the passion of a lover alone is compared to a flame burning without any smoke, any smell at all.
Western science has shown that certain smells, such as newly mown grass or freshly baked bread, provoke an overwhelming mood of nostalgia – even among those who grew up on city pavements or associate bread with plastic wrappers. As a catalyst, smell is primary and mysterious: its chemistry makes us not only remember, but want to remember. It is no coincidence that the most vivid among recent memoirs of childhood have tended to be written by those who were raised in extreme poverty or in rural villages, often in the Third World – places that are sumptuous with smells. Proust himself thinks his voyage begins with the taste and feel on his tongue of the madeleine crumbs in the spoon of tea. He mentions only in passing, barely notices, their conjunction with the fragrant steam rising from the cup.
We in the American middle-class grew up in a world almost entirely devoid of smells, except for that of household cleaning products, and barely remember our childhoods at all, except for the television programmes. And worse, Protestantism has given us no neutral word, like ‘taste’, for smell. ‘Stench’ or ‘fragrance’ are exact, as they should be, but ‘odour’ or ‘smell’, which should have no value, generally imply a foulness, and ‘to smell’ misleadingly is both a transitive and intransitive verb. They pertain to a world whose Satan has a smell, but whose God does not.
And the scientists now say that ‘the brain has two memory systems, one for ordinary information and one for emotionally-charged information.’ That is, information that occurs under some form of stress, set off by the ancient evolutionary ‘fight or flight’ reaction, is created by adrenergic hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline, and stored in the amygdala, ‘a pair of walnut-shaped structures that regulate emotion.’ The vasanas, say certain commentators, are specifically the memory-traces of powerful desires: among them, the desire for fame or respectability, erotic desire, the desire for knowledge gained from books, spiritual longing. And it is desire, always the need for more, that leads you to be born over and over into this world you crave.
But desire, as it is recognised in India, is also a kind of forgetting. There is a Sanskrit word, durdhara, that means both ‘irresistible’ and ‘difficult to remember’. The word is practically a poem itself, but it is made tangible in a lyric by the eighth century poet Vidya, the earliest surviving woman poet in Sanskrit:
What wealth that you can chatter about a night spent with your lover— the teasings, smiles, whispered words— even his special fragrance. Because O my friends I swear— from the moment my lover’s hand touched my skirt, I remember nothing at all. (Trans. Andrew Schelling)
The lover, irresistible and difficult to remember. Vidya’s friends can remember the fragrance that attracted them to their lovers. But her passion, according to her, was even greater, erasing the traces of the vasana that created it. We read her as earthy; in India she would also be metaphysical: the passion of which there is no memory, that comes from no memory, is an act of Tantrism: a release from, an obliteration of, the illusory world.
But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
The structure of recollection:
I was in a cab going across Tenth Street. Cars were parked on either side, half illegally, leaving only one lane open. In the middle of the block, the car in front of us, a washed and polished red compact, stopped. It didn’t move. Nothing was blocking it; no sign of engine trouble, the ignition turning over; and no way to get around it. We sat. The cabbie, a Bangladeshi, looked at me in the rear-view mirror, raised his eyebrows and shrugged. He didn’t speak; perhaps it was the heat. Cars backed up behind us, but no one honked. It was August in a long summer; no one could take it anymore; I had a train to catch.
I got out of the cab to look. The windows of the red car were rolled up. At the wheel was a nondescript man, the sort one takes to be a computer programmer, maybe thirty, pudgy, short hair, a clean white shirt, glasses. I gestured, in the way they do here, hey buddy what’s the problem? He didn’t look up. I yelled louder, waved my arms. He turned. He smiled, kept smiling, and slowly rubbed his finger across the side of his nose, over and over, I stared; he smiled; he rubbed his nose; I got back in the cab; we sat; no one honked. The block, it seemed, had stopped dead.
You look in the rear-view mirror, you hear yourself breathe, you hear your voice, some voice speaking, it’s hot, you are alive. And alive at this century’s end, a middle-class man in a capital of the West, is to be adrift. You’re late, everyone’s always late, watching the imaginary train recede into the tunnel. They say, I don’t know what happened to the time. They mean, I don’t know what happened to time.
Time had speeded up and danced itself to exhaustion. Speed was the century’s novelty and its glamour: cars, planes, rockets, computer calculations and instantaneous communication. Filmed and written narratives leapt from point to point without transitions, running as memory runs, and in the end forgot there was a story to tell. Past the gate of Apollinaire’s ‘Zone’ every poem written was an exercise in (or deliberate rejection of) simultaneity. Long poems – Eliot’s The Waste Land or Huidobro’s Altazor – kept reminding the reader to hurry up. Every Western language cut back the vines of its rhetorical flourishes. Who had the time? Attention shortened; you were too busy; everything took too long, and was hard to remember later.
Time had slowed down and petrified. Muybridge, with his studies of human and animal locomotion, put the brakes on; the motion picture camera brought motion to a halt. Each fraction of a second in the movement of time was frozen. Or, like Zeno’s arrow, time itself was a series of frame replacing motionless frame. What the camera saw, the bullet entering the apple, was real. What the eye saw, the apple exploding, was not. The nineteenth century photograph of an isolated subject became the twentieth century photograph of the isolated fraction of time, a ‘decisive moment’ in a milieu of general indecision. Frames full of life that saw the life we perpetually had just missed catching.
Time had stretched out to the unimaginable distances of light travelling to the speculated end of the universe, if the universe had an end, if the universe had a beginning. Time, in a black hole, vanished. Time, at the speed of light, went backwards. Time, among the sub-atomic particles, had no forwards. It was said: Consider the fruit fly, that lives and dies in a day. Born on a winter morning, it knows only a frozen world; a hundred generations later only the heat; a hundred more must pass until the world of the ancestors return. Western time became Hindu time: a million human years a blink of an eye of a god who lives a life of a million god-years each in a series of a million births and rebirths.
Time kept jumping off the track. Forgotten acquaintances came to mind and then suddenly appeared on the corner. I saw a friend’s black eye a few hours before the accident occurred; I dreamt obituaries in the morning newspaper the night before they were published. For some years, for no reason, I could unerringly predict the sex of unborn babies; then, for no reason, I lost it. All of us heard the phone ring before it rang; all of us knew, at times, who was calling.
[In An Experiment with Time, a book from the 1920s that Borges loved, the author devises an ingenious method for proving that time is an infinity of perpendicular lines. The main narratives of dreams are irrelevant; one must carefully note the small details. For example, you may dream that you are making love to your sister. It does not matter. But remember the curious bibelot lying on the bedside table next to you in the dream. Tomorrow you will see that same object in the flea market.]
Time seemed to have lost its shape. Bergson, opening the century, had said it was a mistake to confuse time with space. But what mind could not think of time as a river flowing by, a road leading to the end of the road? If time was no longer the circle of the ancients, the revolution of rising and falling eras that would return, then it was at least the straight track of progress, pushing forward in the name of the perfectibility of humankind. Upheaval launched it, dreams set the course, but injustice propelled it, and it crashed in another upheaval. Time was going nowhere. Things were a little better and a lot worse. In the ruins of the city another city was built, and then another, and another, none more golden than any other.
What had happened to time? We were in a hurry, spending our time waiting. As a child, I was required to sit under my desk at school, bent over, hands locked behind my neck, to practice waiting for the atomic bomb. I grew up waiting, always on the verge of what would happen, in the perpetual present of being alive in the penultimate moment of the end of time.
We look at each other, amazed at how we’ve aged.
Time then, or how we inhabit it, has taken on the condition of poetry. A poem belongs to an historical moment, fixed by time and place, most evident in the language the poem speaks, but also in its range of concerns and the form – its clothes of fashion – in which the poem is wrapped. But it simultaneously exists outside of the historical continuum. Ancient poems, the great ones, are as immediate, or more immediate, than those written yesterday. Some indefinable living matter in the poem – perhaps it is its karmic traces – allows it to remain vital as it persists through the ages, even as the language in which it was written dies out, even as it travels by translation from language to language.
At the end of a century that has dismantled all the old models of time, we too, in everyday life, tend more and more to explain the present tense, our ordinary activities and emotions, by some distant timeless factor. How often we hear that I am the way I am because of the arrangement of the stars and planets according to the Babylonian cosmology, because of traits programmed in the genes to ensure the survival of hominids, because of traumas in infancy, or the traumas of one’s ancestors in history. However ludicrous these reversions to an original determining principle sometimes are, they reflect a universal human desire for an origin, and a coherent narrative of what has happened since, a continuity of the ancient and the new.
In all of the world’s origin myths, the universe comes together. Our supposedly scientific, though unverifiable, version may be the first time a culture has created a story of the creation based on a perpetual disjunction: after the primary explosion, the pieces of the universe hurtling forever farther apart from each other. It is a sentiment most of us may well feel in our daily lives, but it has turned out, though some have tried, to be no rock on which to build a church. A religion, or an ideology, presumes to provide the answers, not compound the questions that led to its creation.
As the scientists invent increasingly precise instruments for measuring the universe, the universe itself has become even more mysterious. Never has a culture known more and understood less. Just the other day, some physicists announced that, according to their calculations, ninety per cent of all the matter in the universe is missing. The problem would not have occurred in Dante’s Florence or among the Yekuana of the Orinoco, but we, readers of modernist fragments and ‘field’ compositions from Mallarmé to Olson, have grown accustomed to it. Things float – like the earth first seen from the moon – alone and surrounded by nothing. For us in the West, the models of the ancient and the cosmic are now as various, unconnected and contradictory as the ideas and things we confront in the local present. It is a condition of endless dialectic with no syntheses, no idea of a future, and where – never more than now – the only ardent believers left are those who know nothing.
I sat under my desk, hands locked behind my neck, waiting for doom. I grew up, like a child in a cult, on the cliff’s edge, gazing down, transfixed, and later an expert, even a connoisseur of the apocalypses, the time tombs mankind had set for itself.
The planes of the Strategic Air Command, armed, always airborne, every minute of the year somewhere aloft and waiting. The nuclear submarines, armed, submerged for six months at a stretch, somewhere down there waiting. The missiles in the silos, enough of them that new targets had to be invented, small provincial capitals; enough of them to obliterate the planet seven times in succession. Enough of them. And the indelible movies of the miscellaneous and crazed survivors, even Fred Astaire, undancing, under the banner ‘There’s Still Time Brother’. Sex, in adolescent dreams, was located then not in a place but a time: shipwrecked with the inamorata not on a desert island, but in the last half-hour of the planet.
It never happened, and time stretched out into slow doom. Now there was time for the canisters of plutonium to rot on the ocean floor, the deserts expand, the forests fall, the acidic rain fall, the species diminish one by one, the reactor core melt down, the ozone to scatter in the upper atmosphere, a riddled shield against malevolent rays, and the ozone to grow thick in the lower atmosphere, a counterpane to melt the poles. A population that has doubled since my birth, that will double again at my actuarially predicted death; four of me where once was me; more me’s than all the me’s that ever lived, me’s presumably, with the transmigrated souls of ants.
It was a doom of ants, the doom of the proliferation of malevolent ordinary things. The aerosol spray cans destroying the upper atmosphere. The video terminals, where the new masses sit day after day, causing tumours and miscarriages. The countless gadgets of late capitalism – the toasters, hair dryers, clothes dryers, electric razors, blenders – emitting electro-magnetic pulses that mutate cells. And the story that appeared on the front page and was never seen again: that paper, all paper – the book you hold on your lap – is drenched with dioxin, the most potent of the carcinogens.
Food, above all, is the source of dread: pesticides, fat, hormones, cholesterol, additives. Every snack has become the glass of milk Cary Grant brings up the stairs to Ingrid Bergman in Suspicion, gleaming like an evil star. In the supermarkets the shoppers are stopped in their tracks, reading the ingredients lists on the packages, searching for signs of harm like detectives, Roman priests or the insane.
From Benjamin’s age of mechanical reproduction where art objects lost the aura of their uniqueness: to the television age where electronically reproduced representations of reality caused reality to lose its aura, flattened into a succession of images flashing past the viewer with a remote control button: to an age where the aura, albeit an evil aura, has indeed returned to illuminate the everyday objects of mechanical reproduction. The mundane is saturated with malevolence; ‘the pure products of America have gone crazy’. Surrealism has become inadvertently prophetic: Lorca’s ‘assassinated by the sky’ is now as literal as Man Ray’s spiked clothes iron. There is even now a new theory for the Ice Age. Not the slow southward crawl of the glaciers: One day, they say, it started snowing, and it just never stopped.
In classical China, every act of writing began as an act of reading. Li Chi’s Wen Fu, an extraordinary ars poetica written in the third century, opens with the poet ‘standing at the centre of things, observing in the darkness, nourishing his feelings and his intellect on the great works of the past.’ After meditating on the passage of the seasons, then on time itself, then on all the things of the world, he ‘sings of the blazing splendour of the moral power of his predecessors, wanders in the forest of letters and among the treasure houses of literary works, admiring the perfect balance of their intricate and lovely craft.’ And then ‘moved, he puts aside his books and picks up his writing-brush’, in order, as Li Chi says, ‘to make it manifest in literature.’
Fourteen hundred years later, the seventeenth-century Chinese critic, Yeh Hsieh, in his treatise The Origin of Poetry, comments: ‘When what I write is the same as what a former master wrote, it means that we were one in our reflections. And when I write something different from former masters, I may be filling in something missing from their work. Or it is possible that the former masters are filling in something missing in my work.’
This sense of the past has little to do with the Western idea of ‘tradition’, as it has been used for the last two thousand years, and which has always been based on a reversion to older (often forgotten or obscured) models. (Its latest incarnation, in the United States, is the so-called ‘New Formalist’ insistence on the return to nineteenth-century prosody.) It has even less to do with the current legend of the ‘anxiety of influence’, where the act of writing is reduced to the mating habits of elks, the elder and younger males with their great antlers clashing. For some two thousand five hundred years in Chinese poetry, the tradition meant transmission: continual change in a past that was moving steadily forward. Those who would go back, the slavish imitators of the past, are always derided in Chinese criticism. On the other hand, Chinese poetry, until this century, knew none of the dramatic ruptures of style and content that have been normal in the West. The Chinese poem, written in a language that changed slowly and was centuries behind its spoken equivalent, filled with skilful allusions to other poems, was seen as one more piece in an unending dialogue between the living and the dead. In the West, tradition means that the living modify the dead. In China, one might say that the dead revise their own poems through the living.
Sanskrit poetics applied the theory of karmic traces to the act of reading. One responds to a poem because it speaks directly to one’s experience, but that experience need not have occurred in this life. An inexperienced student is moved by an erotic poem because of the karmic traces of ancient loves. Similarly – and unusually compassionately for pedagogues – it is said that if a student is unmoved by a poem, it is due to insufficiencies and accumulated demerit in his previous lives. (Luckily, little distinction is made between experience and poetry: if, for example, one knows nothing of love from this or previous lives, one can learn of love – and create the karmic traces of love for future lives – through the deep emotional study of poetry, a study that is specifically described as not technical, grammatical, or pedantic.)
Poetry, then, in India, is not only the place where we may hear the dead speak, it is the place where we hear our dead selves speak. There is no wonder that the ancient words still move us, and no recourse, as we have, to the explanation, which is partially untrue, that human experience is universal and ahistorical. But although Sanskrit poetics has much to say about the vasanas of reading, it has nothing that I know of about the vasanas of writing. For clearly, in the Indian cosmos, the act of writing, like any other act, must involve older versions of the one who currently moves the pen.
After the fall of the Aztec empire in 1519, and after the decimating plagues of 1520, 1531, and the worst from 1545 to 1548, in the years approximately from 1550 to 1570, after the long night of the conquest and an hour before the dawn of an institutionalised Spanish empire, the survivors were swept up in the cult of the performance of a spectacle called the Netotilitzi. Artaud would have loved it: a stage, hazy with incense, decorated with flowers and artificial trees; dancers adorned with feathers and paint and flowers; warriors re-enacting battles with fans and crooks; boys dressed as birds and butterflies, sucking the dew from the flowers; singers and musicians playing all night on gourd rattles, rasps, conches, reed flutes, gongs, bells and jingles, clay whistles, log drums, skin drums and turtle shell drums.
The songs they sang in the Netotilitzi were written down through native informants by the priests, who collected these things both in fascination and as evidence of local depravity (much as the religious right now compiles archives of pornography). Sometime after 1585, after the cult had disappeared, the songs were recopied and collected under the title Cantares Mexicanos, Mexican Songs. They form a strange, ultimately inexplicable text: ninety-one songs or chants written in a metaphysical language that was probably incomprehensible to its audience. The first complete translation of the book was published only ten years ago. The translator, John Bierhorst, had succeeded where two previous Nahuatl scholars had died midway through their own versions.
It is Bierhorst’s theory – though disputed by others – that the Netotilitzi spectacle was part of a ghost dance cult, similar to the one that swept the Plains Indians in North America in the 1870s and ended twenty years later with the massacre at Wounded Knee. But whereas the Plains ghost dance songs were meant to summon the warriors back to earth to defeat the white people, the Cantares were something quite different: These songs were not the invention of their singers, directed to the dead. These songs were taken to be the dead warriors themselves; that is, the dead warriors having been coaxed back to earth with offerings of food, flowers, music and sex, now appeared transformed into songs to right the world. Even more, they brought a taste of paradise, for these song-ghosts, on arrival here, simultaneously transported their singers to the other world.
Reading poetry is one place where we get the chance to listen to the dead. Writing it, in the West, we can talk back to them. In China, the dead talk through us. In India our own dead selves can speak. On the North American Plains and in many other cultures, it was a way to summon the dead. In the Aztec spectacle, the poem itself was an avenging ghost.
George Oppen, in a letter, said of a mediocre poet that he was not afraid enough of poetry.
There is a substance in the brain called N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) whose function is unknown. Synthesised in the 1930s and later worked on by Albert Hoffmann, the primogenitor of LSD, DMT was known as one of the ingredients of the psychoactive snuffs and the brew called ayahuasca used by shamans in the Amazon. Yet, in the psychedelic era, DMT had a reputation, largely promoted by William Burroughs, as the most terrifying drug in the pharmacopaeia, and few dared try it. Lately it has been rediscovered, and its clandestine researchers have been writing some strange laboratory notes.
Nearly all describe similar experiences. Smoked or injected, the drug takes almost immediate effect, and the whole ‘trip’ lasts only fifteen minutes. First one hears an intense ripping sound, as though one’s head is being torn apart. Then one sees a series of vivid geometric patterns, followed by a sense of hurtling through a tunnel or wall or membrane, and finally breaking through to a defined place that has nothing to distinguish it, but which seems underground and possibly vaulted. In this place, one encounters beings who are neither anthropomorphic nor zoomorphic, yet are clearly alive. They are performing actions which are incomprehensible, and speaking or singing in a language that can be sensed but not understood – that is, those who think they have understood something have been unable to articulate what it is.
The universality of this experience under DMT of an encounter with beings has set off – this is, after all, the drug world – flurries of odd speculation. That DMT exists in the brain to act as a communications link. That the beings inhabit a parallel reality. That one has somehow travelled into the cells, the atoms, or the subatomic particles. That the beings are extraterrestrials, inhabiting or exploring our world, but otherwise invisible to us. That they represent some sort of programme which, when we are ‘advanced’ enough to understand it, will allow us to contact the extraterrestrials (who, some would add, created us in the first place). Or that, less elaborately, these entities are simply the souls of the dead. The explanations are fanciful, if not ridiculous, but do not necessarily discredit the evidence. Humans, as is well known, have poor powers of sense-perception, compared to most of the animal and insect kingdom. Psychotropic drugs have traditionally been used to broaden the band of what may be perceived. So why not assume for a moment that the reports are accurate, that there really is something, some things, there?
It is nearly a universal belief, among poets, that someone else writes what they write. The Greek and Roman poets, of course, attributed their words to the Muses; the poets of many other societies credited their own local divinities. (An ignorant peasant, Vyasa, became the author of the longest poem in the world, the Mahabarata, only because of his devotion to Krishna.) The Romantics thought of themselves as Aeolian harps, played by the wind. In this century, this metaphor was transformed into that of the radio: the poet is the antenna, receiving the words from out of the air. Similarly, the most documented New World shaman, Mar’a Sabina, a Mazatec from Oaxaca who was illiterate, claimed that, under the influence of hallucinogenic mushrooms, she was given a book from which she read her songs.
[In English, at least, it is only with the rise of Protestantism that the image shifts from divine inspiration to the poet as ‘maker’, a craftsman of words. Rejected by the self-consciously pagan Romantics, it returns with the technology-inspired Modernists: William Carlos Williams’ image of the poem as a ‘machine made of words’, Pound’s famous dictum that ‘poetry must be as well-written as prose’. It is a kind of Calvinist work-ethic of poetry that few cultures have shared, and one which persists these days as the belief that poetry is a ‘craft’ that can be learned in a ‘workshop’.]
Octavio Paz, in a poem, sees an old man on a bench talking to himself, and asks parenthetically, ‘Whom do we talk to/when we talk to ourselves?’ The question is not entirely flip. If poetry, as Paz has written, is the ‘other voice’ of society, the voice that is other to the norms and fashions, the voice that often says what the society does not want to hear, it is also true that, according to the poets, the poem is written or spoken in a voice that is ‘other’ to the poet’s own. But who, then, is speaking?
The reflexive verbs of spiritual and psychological quests, and of utterly ordinary life – I lost myself, I found myself, I saw myself, I told myself, I thought to myself that I was losing touch with myself – assume a dialogue between speakers: The human mind may be the only one, among the animals, that can observe and describe itself. In the scientific age, this has become inexplicable. Most other cultures, however, saw no mystery in it at all.
People have nearly always believed that each of us is inhabited by at least two beings, a self that lives and dies, and a something-else that is timeless: a soul, a spirit, an unconscious that may even be collective. (The more ‘primitive’ the society, the more complex and numerous these essences are. A Khond in the jungles of Orissa in east India – to take one example – has four souls. One soul belongs to the gods, and joins them at death; one belongs to the tribe, and is reborn in another tribal member; one belongs to the individual and dies with its owner; and one belongs to the forest and is reborn as a tiger.) Consciousness is the conjunction of an observer, usually timeless and immaterial, and an observed that is fixed in a body in time. Unlike Rimbaud’s famous ‘I is another’, I are an us. In moments of extreme stress, the two dramatically separate: Those who have almost died report looking down on themselves from the ceiling as they lie in bed, an experience that is routine for shamans and common for anybody under hallucinogens. Even in an ordinary moment, if we bother to think of it, we know exactly what we look like as we do what we are doing, sitting in a chair reading, or sitting in a chair typing. But who is watching whom?
The Buddha taught that the way to achieve enlightenment was to erase all the vasanas, all the memories and traces of old desires. Pythagoras, conversely, taught that the way to escape the cycle of rebirths was to systematically remember everything that had happened in all of one’s previous lives. Either state – knowing all or forgetting all – is divine and not human.
The gods, of course, do not write poetry. The poem is produced by that encounter between the two worlds, or two halves of the world: in time and out of time, in the body and out of the body, in the individual and in the collective of history, the particular culture, and humanity itself. And the poem itself is both a metaphor and an embodiment of the process of its own creation: The poet dies, the biographical facts are lost, and the poem remains. The language changes, meanings drop out, and the poem remains. The language is no longer spoken, the city in which it was written is a buried ruin, and the poem remains. And stranger still: the ultimately indescribable essence, or being, or quality, that endures in the poem is precisely that which engenders, becomes embodied in, the next poem. There is a karma of poetry: The best poems lead thousands of subsequent lives as other poems, what Robert Duncan called the Great Collage. And perhaps the bad poems are reborn as that which they resembled in their lives as bad poems: entries in a diary, embarrassing love letters, self-published memoirs, anecdotal ‘filler’ stories at the bottom of columns in provincial newspapers, descriptive passages in tedious travel accounts, suicide notes that were not followed by suicide, song lyrics for which no-one will ever write the music.
I was stuck in a cab on Tenth Street. The driver, a Bangladeshi, was dozing, or perhaps he, too, had let his mind wander with no purpose. Time wasn’t passing, it had stopped. The sidewalks were empty; the cars behind us sat in silence. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the red compact car began moving down the block. Life started up again. We overtook him at the corner, raising our middle fingers and yelling obscenities. The clean and pudgy driver waved back with a smile. Artaud had said that a writer should be like the victim, tied to the stake, who signals through the flame. But perhaps the writer is an anonymous man making incomprehensible gestures, silent behind plate-glass, who is capable of stopping time. We rushed on to the station where – I can’t explain this – I hadn’t missed my train.
Eliot Weinberger’s essays appear in HEAT Series 1 and 2.Read more