Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


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Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Buddha in Europe: the Apologue of the Man and the Unicorn in Barlaam and Ioasaph

I.

A narration of the story of the life of Gautama Buddha passed through Arabic, Persian, Georgian and Greek versions to become immensely popular in the European Middle Ages. Versions exist in Latin, Old Slavonic, Armenian, Hebrew, Icelandic, English, Ethiopic, French, and other languages. The tale found its way into the Legenda aurea and the Gestum Romanorum and from there influenced Shakespeare and Calderon. The title Bodhisattva passed through several linguistic twists to become Ioasaph (or Josaphat), and the story of this conspicuously pious individual and his guru Barlaam became so celebrated that both were recognized as Christian saints in the Eastern Orthodox as well as the Roman Churches. They were honored with feast-days, church dedications, and artistic representations for centuries. Only in recent times have scholars noted the unquestionable origins of the story and traced its westward movement.
L
I discuss here primarily a single image. For the reader’s convenience, I reproduce the relevant passage from Barlaam and Ioasaph and a closely analogous image from the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata. [1]

“These men that have foolishly alienated themselves from a good and kind master, to seek the service of so harsh and savage a lord, that are all agog for present joys and are glued thereto, that take never a thought for the future, that always grasp after bodily enjoyments, but suffer their souls to waste with hunger, and to be worn with myriad ills, these I consider to be like a man flying before the face of a rampant unicorn, who, unable to endure the sound of the beast's cry, and its terrible bellowing, to avoid being devoured, ran away at full speed. But while he ran hastily, he fell into a great pit; and as he fell, he stretched forth his hands, and laid hold on a tree, to which he held tightly. There he established some sort of foot-hold and thought himself from that moment in peace and safety. But he looked and descried two mice, the one white, the other black, that never ceased to gnaw the root of the tree whereon he hung, and were all but on the point of severing it. Then he looked down to the bottom of the pit and espied below a dragon, breathing fire, fearful for eye to see, exceeding fierce and grim, with terrible wide jaws, all agape to swallow him. Again looking closely at the ledge whereon his feet rested, he discerned four heads of asps projecting from the wall whereon he was perched. Then he lift up his eyes and saw that from the branches of the tree there dropped a little honey. And thereat he ceased to think of the troubles whereby he was surrounded; how, outside, the unicorn was madly raging to devour him: how, below, the fierce dragon was yawning to swallow him: how the tree, which he had clutched, was all but severed; and how his feet rested on slippery, treacherous ground. Yea, he forgat, without care, all those sights of awe and terror, and his whole mind hung on the sweetness of that tiny drop of honey. This is the likeness of those who cleave to the deceitfulness of this present life, -- the interpretation whereof I will declare to thee anon. The unicorn is the type of death, ever in eager pursuit to overtake the race of Adam. The pit is the world, full of all manner of ills and deadly snares. The tree, which was being continually fretted by the two mice, to which the man clung, is the course of every man's life, that spendeth and consuming itself hour by hour, day and night, and gradually draweth nigh its severance. The fourfold asps signify the structure of man's body upon four treacherous and unstable elements which, being disordered and disturbed, bring that body to destruction. Furthermore, the fiery cruel dragon betokeneth the maw of hell that is hungry to receive those who choose present pleasures rather than future blessings. The dropping of honey denoteth the sweetness of the delights of the world, whereby it deceiveth its own friends, nor suffereth them to take timely thought for their salvation.” (Barlaam and Ioasaph, XII, 112)


A certain brahmana, living in the great world, found himself on one occasion in a large inaccessible forest teeming with beasts of prey. It abounded on every side with lions and other animals looking like elephants, all of which were engaged in roaring aloud. Such was the aspect of that forest that Yama himself would take fright at it. Beholding the forest, the heart of the brahmana became exceedingly agitated. His hair stood on end, and other signs of fear manifested themselves, O scorcher of foes! Entering it, he began to run hither and thither, casting his eyes on every point of the compass for finding out somebody whose shelter he might seek. Wishing to avoid those terrible creatures, he ran in fright. He could not succeed, however, in distancing them or freeing himself from their presence. He then saw that that terrible forest was surrounded with a net, and that a frightful woman stood there, stretching her arms. That large forest was also encompassed by many five-headed snakes of dreadful forms, tall as cliffs and touching the very heavens. Within it was a pit whose mouth was covered with many hard and unyielding creepers and herbs. The brahmana, in course of his wanderings, fell into that invisible pit. He became entangled in those clusters of creepers that were interwoven with one another, like the large fruit of a jack tree hanging by its stalk. He continued to hang there, feet upwards and head downwards. While he was in that posture, diverse other calamities overtook him. He beheld a large and mighty snake within the pit. He also saw a gigantic elephant near its mouth. That elephant, dark in complexion, had six faces and twelve feet. And the animal gradually approached that pit covered with creepers and trees. About the twigs of the tree (that stood at the mouth of the pit), roved many bees of frightful forms, employed from before in drinking the honey gathered in their comb about which they swarmed in large numbers. Repeatedly they desired, O bull of Bharata’s race, to taste that honey which though sweet to all creatures could, however, attract children only. The honey (collected in the comb) fell in many jets below. The person who was hanging in the pit continually drank those jets. Employed, in such a distressful situation, in drinking that honey, his thirst, however, could not be appeased. Unsatiated with repeated draughts, the person desired for more. Even then, O king, he did not become indifferent to life. Even there, the man continued to hope for existence. A number of black and white rats were eating away the roots of that tree. There was fear from the beasts of prey, from that fierce woman on the outskirts of that forest, from that snake at the bottom of the well, from that elephant near its top, from the fall of the tree through the action of the rats, and lastly from those bees flying about for tasting the honey. In that plight he continued to dwell, deprived of his senses, in that wilderness, never losing at any time the hope of prolonging his life.’” (Mahabharata, Book XI, sec. v)


II.
The Greek Barlaam and Ioasaph is, more obviously than most literary works, poised in a series between predecessors from which it derives and succeeding works it influences. At the core of the tale, persistent in the transmission, are two dissimilar types of information: first, the central dramatic reversal, the great renunciation itself, the rejection of the world as the only means of corning to terms with it; and, secondly, the apologues which do not so much illustrate the argument as periodically “seal” it with epiphanic analogies. Of the apologues perhaps the most striking and relevant to the text as a whole is that called by Woodward and Mattingly “The Man and the Unicorn.” The image of human existence presented in the apologue is utterly radical in suggestion but extremely widespread in essence. [2] Its roots are clearly and unmistakably entwined with a passage of the Mahabharata. Though its explicit Biblical references are all but entirely Christian, the elements of the story have much stronger affinities to the Septuagint, the Hebrew scripture in Greek robes. In fact, the mythic material used by the Christian hagiographer palpably strains against the orthodox interpretation.
The image describes suspension between dualities, the reflex of self-consciousness, the two prongs of the dialectical pitchfork. A summary of the basic elements in the two versions under consideration demonstrates a similarity so close it can only be the result of the Greek text’s derivation from the Sanskrit.

Barlaam and Ioasaph the Mahabharata
1. a unicorn bees, lions, “elephants,” net, terrible woman
2. a pit a pit
3. black and white mice black and white rats
4. tree creepers and herbs
5. a dragon and asps snake
6. honey honey

The multiplication of monsters in the Mahabharata reminds one of the polytheistic plenitude of Hindu mythology itself. Their occupation of an entire forest within which they are the norm is an intimation of the realms upon realms of Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. The multiple heads of the snake [3] and elephant point in the same direction. The frightful devouring woman invokes the power of the sexual dichotomy as a source for meditation on duality and thus mortality. The presence of the bees similarly indicates the analytical habit of the Indian version. The honey itself, “sweet to all creatures,” is attractive, but it has also its complement: the negative, menacing bees. In addition, the bees provide an image for the unfocused consciousness as they swarm in slavish confusion about their honey. Buzzing about the man they underline his dilemma in a more symmetrically meticulous way than the Greek version’s asps appearing from the wall of the pit. By contrast the lone unicorn of the Christian telling strikes the reader as a creature who, far from being one among many details of a sinister forest, stands out from his environment. His single horn suggests the exclusive singularity, the historically unique character of the Christ with whom the unicorn came to be linked. [4]

In general the honey represents pleasure rather than pain, the contrary of the threats, and the man’s response to the honey provides the point of the image. [5] In spite of the fact that the man drinks the honey in both versions, the manner and meaning of his consumption is markedly different. In Barlaam and Ioasaph the honey is effectively described as a lens through which one revalues the creation: “The dropping of honey denoteth the sweetness of the delights of the world, whereby it deceiveth its own friends, nor suffereth them to take timely thought for their salvation.” While highly impressive rhetorically — a breathtaking conclusion! — this is philosophically cloudy. It is a negative model, after all, of what one should not do; Barlaam is characterizing those who care only for bodily pleasures. Yet the man lost in the drop of honey strikes the reader as altogether unworldly and, in fact, possessing no mean contemplative powers. He is everyman, not merely the soul lost to sensuality. There is no escape in the predicament of the terms of his existence. Thus the very admirable potency of the image undermines itself. Though the author’s intention is wholly orthodox, the unicorn and the honey are radically ambiguous. The concluding moralization assigning meanings to each detail only weakens the figure.

In contrast the Mahabharata text describing the honey-drinking suggests wild energy rather than single-minded concentration. “The honey (collected in the comb) fell in many jets below. The person who was hanging in the pit continually drank those jets. Employed, in such a distressful situation, in drinking the honey, his thirst, however, could not be appeased. Unsatiated with repeated draughts, the person desired for more.” The “jets,” while difficult to conceive, convey well the virulence of the pleasure principle here, and the drinker, who persists despite his lack of satisfaction, is a type of neurotic intensity.

In Barlaam and Ioasaph the subject only contemplates the honey’s drip, focusing his mind’s eye and shutting out the turmoil of the world, while the moralizing implies the very opposite. In the Mahabharata the man is a slave to appetite, devouring the world while finding no satisfaction. Though presented in a more cluttered and fantastic setting, the Indian version is more accessible and immediately applicable to the reader. Even those who would not identify with the man’s addictive frenzy can see themselves in his “hope of prolonging his life.” The Indian version concludes entirely within the folds of maya (literally “not-that”) with time continuing to unfold as the man “continued to dwell” in the wilderness of the ephemeral illusion. More ornate, frantic, and disorderly in its elements, it concludes with a radical philosophic position: existence itself is the foe; hedonism only the grossest symptom.

The Greek version is a mosaic to the mandala of the Indian. In Barlaam the situation is poised, well-defined, static, with the emblematic elements gesturing significantly toward each other as the eye follows the rhetorical path from pursuit to description to conclusion and the absurdity of the image questions itself. Frozen in the final moment, the apologue offers a cautionary emblem. Yet could a person attached to this world forget, for even a moment, the threats of pain, suffering, and death while suspended in the void? (The point in application, of course, is that in mundane life we do forget these things. The Sri Lankan Buddhist monks avoid the peril by meditating in graveyards.) If one could, might that not be an admirable act of meditation? Apart from the ambiguity of the sweet and swelling honey, the fearful bellow of the single-horned beast, a beast that later in the Middle Ages was often identified with Christ, remains troubling.

In spite of the story’s South Asian origins, Biblical influence is pervasive in Barlaam and Ioasaph. The terms were not naturalized merely by, for instance, exchanging the elephant for a lion or some other beast familiar to the Christians of the Mediterranean and Near East; rather, the unicorn was chosen, a beast peculiarly associated with the Septuagint. Before considering the particular associations the unicorn (monokeros) brought with it, it is useful to review the general patterns of reference in Barlaam as a whole and in the unicorn apologue.

A search of the figure’s Biblical associations, however, does not resolve the thematics, but proves only to thicken the plot. The writer alludes to scriptural passages 810 times in the course of the narration, but these references are weighted toward the Greek testament. [6] Only an approximate third of the citations are to the Hebrew and, of those, not far short of half are to passages in the unique rhetoric of the Psalms. Yet the pattern is quite different when one searches the basic terms of the story. The unicorn (monokeros), mouse (mus), plant or tree (photon), dragon or serpent (drakon), asp (aspis), and honey (meli) are decidedly associated with the Greek Septuagint translation of Hebrew originals. The significant terms of the Barlaam story pervade the Jewish text while hardly appearing in the Christian testament. There are 152 references to these terms in the “Old Testament” and a scant 3 in the “New.” [7] Surely the author’s own intention was at variance with the mythological bent of his materials.

The ideological orientation of the writer is toward a Christian view with Jesus at the center yet the final passage assigning allegorical values to the terms of the story never mentions divinity at all. The apologue seeks to seize the reader’s attention (rather like the man in the Lotus Sutra [8] who calls to his children to save them from the burning house. Rather than individual salvation (or enlightenment), these stories aim to redirect attention from the trivial to the sublime. In Christian tradition a similar impulse is suggested by the image of Christ as a rooster whose crowing awakens humanity.
The specific associations of the terms of the apologue seem ambiguous, ambivalent, unwilling to assume a static value. The unicorn we see in the apologue was at the time of the story’s composition on the cusp of a transformation between two significations (neither of which has much in common with his epigones in modern fantasy art where one might see rainbows and wings and which often appears in a palette featuring pink and pale blue). The fierce beast of Barlaam closely resembles his ancestor, the unicorn or monokeros of the Septuagint translators. They used the word for the Hebrew re’em whose primary characteristic is his ferocity. This word has its own later life in Jewish lore, but it is generally thought to refer directly to the aurochs, the giant wild bovine from which domesticated cattle are descended. The Hebrew passages mentioning this beast, sixty-one in all, emphasize his strength and uncontrollable wildness, as in Job [9] where he precedes the behemoth and leviathan. In Psalm XXI the unicorn is paired with the lion (as he is in the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom). The “strength of a unicorn” appears to have been proverbial. [10] This attitude may be traced back to the bulls’ heads mounted on the walls of the Neolithic settlement at Çatalhöyük. The same tribute to the beast’s unconquerable strength lingers in the use of unicorns in heraldry as well as to my neighbor in Iowa who kept a bull corralled in what amounted to the front yard of his farmhouse.

The unicorn, though only a makeshift translation for the re’em unknown to the Alexandrian Greeks, came with altogether different associations from Greek pagan authors. The earliest specific reference in Ctesias’ Indica (late 5th century BCE) says that in India live “certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger” whose single horn is efficacious against poisons. To Pliny the unicorn is “very ferocious” with a “deep, bellowing voice,” a composite beast though in general similar to a horse. According to the Physiologus circa 150 C.E. he is small as a kid but escapes all hunters, except those who lure him with a virgin. The unicorn will lay his head in the virgin’s lap and fall asleep, allowing his capture.

The analogy between this image and those of Christ and Mary generated the identification of the mythical beast with the Savior. This association remained popular in art and writing until the 16th century Council of Trent, the same meeting at which all readings of the Bible that deviated from the Church’s teaching were heretical and that Church tradition had authority equal to Scripture. While seizing power firmly against the threat of the Reformation, the Church conceded a few obsolete points, among them admitting that unicorns do not in fact exist and thus should not be used to figure divinity.

Just as many medieval poems mingle the rhetorics of divine and human love, the unicorn as Jesus appeared in some texts as a sensual lover. In the Provençal and Syriac versions of Physiologus the unicorn is an erotic temptress, inconsistent, indeed, antithetical to the Christological reading. [11] In a more courtly manner the thirteenth century writers Thibaut of Champagne and Richard of Fournival liken the lover to the unicorn in their devotion to the lady (though the latter is sensual in its stress upon odor). In both texts love is characterized as a ruse leading to betrayal: for Thibaut “Treason” slays the unicorn while asleep on the lady’s breast; for Richard, too, the hunters kill the unicorn whose head rests on her lap.

At the time of Barlaam’s composition, the unicorn was poised between fearsome, religious, and romantic associations, some past and some latent. In this text the terrible unicorn nonetheless precipitates the subject’s (and thus the reader’s) illumination.
Honey as well can hardly escape ambiguity. Though the apologue decodes the honey as an unqualified evil causing deception and diversion, honey carries positive connotations in all its sixty-one Biblical occurrences, one third of which are in the phrase “land of milk and honey.” “Honey in the rock” is the very sign of divinity, and honey is used metaphorically again and again to convey positive values: love, prosperity, generosity, and wisdom. Only in the enigmatic formulation of Samson’s riddle is any hint of a complementary negative association latent. “Out of the eater came forth meat and out of the strong came forth sweetness.”

Out of such tensions emerge the unique multivalent terms of the aesthetic text. The story is and is not Christian; the unicorn is and is not hostile; the honey is and is not real; the subject is and is not focused on ultimate reality; the cosmos is and is not beneficent. On and on the paradoxes multiply. Yet in the end the figure with a face like one’s own remains hanging in the air.
The contradiction and symbolic ambiguity is a factor in the semiotic richness of the Greek apologue and of Barlaam and Ioasaph in general. The meaning develops over the centuries in a kind of conceptual fermentation. Medieval Christians had not the slightest notion of Hinduism and Buddhism; indeed Europeans had little access the Asian texts before the mid-nineteenth century. Yet the story spawned new ideas, new images, new symbols in a creative creolization that parallels the shuffling of genetic material in every new birth. Just as each author, taken with the gripping power of the image of the man over a precipice, could do no otherwise than to twist and refract and distort by individual illumination and darkness until producing a new-told-tale, echoing forward and backward through millennia of common human experience. This paper, too, must take a place in the transmission, and for the same reasons that had driven my predecessors – the wish to gain through words some purchase on experience. My assumptions, my style, my conclusions, may present no improvement over theirs; what strength this essay may have derives from the commonality of the gesture equally toward the alarming circumstances of life, Marvell’s “iron gates,” and toward the unknown.


I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
T. S. Eliot “Preludes” (1917), IV




1. Page 186 of Barlaam and loasaph with a translation by Woodward and Mattingly (Loeb Library, London: Heinemann and New York: Macmillan, 1914). For the Mahabharata I use The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa translated by Pratap Chandra Roy C.I.E. (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1974). The passage in question is found in volume VII in Book XI of the epic, called Stree Parva.

2. It appears in Buddhist sutras, in folklore, and in many other contexts. Only a few years ago in Cannibals and Christians Norman Mailer said of William Burroughs that the revelations of the novels were possible only after be had “hung his nervous system in the void.”

3. The “tessaras kephalas aspidon” reads rather like a reminiscence of the many-headed snakes of the Indian version though in the Greek they are apparently four in number, each with a single head.

4. The horn also suggests the gesture of a single finger pointing upward invented for contemporary Christians and marketed in jewelry and tee shirts, etc.

5. In a Japanese telling of this apologue (parallel even to the black and white mice) the honey is transformed to a berry and the man’s eating it triggers his illumination. This telling is easily available in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones compiled by Paul Reps (New York: Doubleday and Co., l96l), page 22.

6. For the Biblical references in the text as a whole, I rely on the marginal notations in the Loeb edition.

7. See the appended table for details.

8. Chapter 3.

9. Job xxxix. 9-12

10. Numbers xxiii. 22, xxiv. 8

11. Translated into Latin, by J.P.N. Land in his Anecdota Syriaca, Lugd. Batav., 1870, vol. IV. P. 146.

III.


Statistical Appendix

I have not succeeded in transferring my table, but the information is included below in somewhat less convenient form. The first figure following the name of each book indicates the numbers of uses of the key words of the apologue found there; the second indicates the number of specific references to that book.

Genesis 2 21
Exodus 7 12
Leviticus 3 1
Numbers 5 5
Deuteronomy 9 5
Joshua 2 0
Judges 4 0
Ruth 0 0
I Samuel 0 1
II Samuel 0 0
I Kings 11 0
II Kings 6 3
I Chronicles 0 0
II Chronicles 1 0
Ezra 0 0
Nehemiah 0 0
Esther 2 5
Job 10 0
Psalms 19 124
Proverbs 7 13
Ecclesiastes 1 5
Song of Solomon 2 6
Isaiah 10 44
Jeremiah 6 2
Lamentations 1 0
Ezekiel 19 8
Daniel 2 13
Hosea 0 0
Joel 0 0
Amos 2 0
Obadiah 0 0
Jonah 0 0
Micah 1 1
Nahum 0 0
Habbakuk 0 2
Zepheria 0 1
Haggai 0 0
Zachariah 1 3
Malachi 0 1

I Esdras 0 0
II Esdras 0 1
Tobit0 0 0
Judith 0 0
Addition to Esther 0 0
Wisdom of Solomon 4 10
Sirach 10 4
Baruch 1 3
Letter of Jeremiah 0 0
Prayer of Az 0 0


Here the first figure represents again the occurrence of the significant terms and the second direct references.

Greek translation of Hebrew Testament” 152 296
Greek Testament 3 514

Festival in Ogwa

A Nigerian friend had invited us to a festival in his home town. As it happened, he had never himself actually lived in this bush village. His parents had sent him away to the city for the sake of his education, and he could not in fact speak the local language at all. Still, he had been educated in the U.K. where he had lived for some years, and there could be no doubt that he was considered a local celebrity, a “big man” with considerable social obligations. The far-reaching African version of extended family was part of what had driven him to live abroad.


Ogwa is a group of rusty-roofed mud huts blending into the sandy clay earth and dense jungle. No cultivated farms are immediately visible, just wild vegetation encroaching on all sides. Paths link the houses. We and our friend were hustled inside a place like many others, settled in the softest seats and given kola nut while crowds of the curious collected at every window and door. When we were offered drinks, we produced the bottle of “schnapps” (actually jenever) we had brought as a gift for our host. He bowed low in pleased surprise and thereafter mentioned the gift using freshly excited gestures with each new visitor.

Receiving took the entire afternoon with greetings, gifts, and toasts, each exchange exquisitely calibrated to the participants’ relations in age, prestige, and income. One aged and rather dissolute-looking caller greeted John with rhythmic poetic praises to which his entire body offered reinforcement. He danced about the room suggestively giving us no apparent attention. The same man, I later noticed, was prominent in the dance ring, shuffling to and fro, waving his hips, and soliciting contributions.

Eventually, several women brought trays of food, and we retired to the back room where we dined splendidly on rice and goat. By the time we reached the dancing, festivities had been in progress for some time. Indeed, during most of the afternoon we had heard drumbeats and snatches of song. A large area of cleared ground was surrounded by a dense crowd. The music was wholly percussive and vocal: two large drums kept a steady cadence while cries and handclaps punctuated its unending, constantly transforming, beat. Other drummers beat on hollowed logs. Small boys used toy versions more quietly on the sidelines.

We were ushered inside the ring to a sort of thatched reviewing stand with seats for the local high chief and other dignitaries. These individuals were doubtless of sufficiently lofty standing that they would not have joined the queue to meet us earlier. Some came over now to shake hands, including a couple introduced as “master and mistress of the dance,” but some remained aloof, including an especially distinguished-looking gentleman with a metal walking stick or scepter.

We had hoped to record the music on a small cassette machine, but John said that it would be better to skip that to stay well distant from issues of taboo. Slyly we concealed the tape recorder in a bag and unobtrusively (we hoped) switched it on when the music really got going. Furtively checking it after a time, Patricia saw that it was running properly.

Masqueraders cavorted about in the ring and on the margins – there were perhaps eight in all. They were clothed in motley with clashing patterns and shreds of fabric festooning their limbs. Their hands and feet were obscured by the cloth ties, some with bells attached, and their faces were wholly covered with fabric through which they could see adequately but could not be seen. (In traditional belief, of course, the masquerader becomes another being. I once saw a newspaper story about a masquerader pleading innocent to an assault committed while costumed, claiming that the masked figure had been in fact the god, though temporarily using the man’s body.) Some had labels pinned to them – I made out one that said “taxi.” These were the principals in the famous Ishan (or Esan) acrobatic dance. One at a time, but in no particular pattern, they would display their skills, most commonly by holding their torsos parallel to the earth while revolving their legs in sweeping kick movements again and again. They would take off into a series of backflips and somersaults. At intervals they would lie prostrate on the ground attended by aides until they leapt up, having recovered full energy. Some action looked like apotropaic magic or scapegoating: masqueraders were at times pursued across the ring and flew into flip as though barely escaping a flogging. Sometimes they submitted to the mimed abuse or else they would menace the young children in front who would shrink back cowering.

Onlookers, particularly young men, now and then entered the dance circle to do a quick amateur turn. At one point some children began dancing, then the crowd dissolved into the center, blurring the boundary between performer and viewer. But perhaps this had gone too far, because the space was cleared before the action recommenced. I noticed the dissolute man and the mistress of the dance wandered about the arena, jiving and stepping. All the dancers did sexual gesturing and thrusting, but only occasionally.
As we had been told nothing of the ritual, we abandoned hope of contextual understanding. Our experience, however, of the afternoon as a pure event was lucid. Clearly the focus of a festive weekend, whatever the magical intention, whatever the myth; it was centered in exuberance in the flesh, mysteries of change and identity, hypnagogic rhythmic repetitions, and the energy of collective excitement.

Back at the house we were occupying, we were offered a second dinner, only two hours after the last: pounded yam and stockfish this time. Then the large ever-changing company settled in for palm wine, beer, and conversation, almost all of it unintelligible to us. We drifted to another home where the host brought out drinks, spilling a libation first on the floor and invoking a blessing on home and drinkers. Others crowded around, playing Yoruba and Bini music on tape recorders and I was called on to bless and split the kola which I trust I accomplished adequately. Then to the local headmaster’s house where the same rituals were repeated.

Asked to translate the lyrics of a poignant and powerful tune to which certain guests were moving in solitary concentration, John said the sense of it was “even to your enemies do good, for you must account to god.” Just as Christian themes dominated the European Middle Ages, Africans (and also Muslims) are fond of sententious and moralistic themes even if the sound be passionate. Of course, on the topic of male/female relations, John’s English wife Catherine says, after years of marriage, “Oh, they have no notion of romantic love here.”

Returning to where we had spent the night, we prepared to sleep as John declared, “We’re going to dance all night.” As we strolled through the village, we passed many huts where entertaining was in progress, though the one with the largest crowd of enthusiastic dancers was, we were told, “a sort of church.” I believe many people did celebrate until dawn as people came and went, sometimes dropping off to doze and later waking to party further. As we lay, feeling fatigued, we heard loud singing from several directions, and sleep was slow to come.

In the morning we bathed in unwarmed water in a small tub in a room with an earthen floor and breakfasted on eggs and fried yam, immediately after which a new calabash of palm wine was brought and I was asked to bless it and people set to drinking and the festival continued. We made a few more visits, including one to John’s grandfather, a dignified old man in an ancient derby who sat in a very dark room. John said he his grandfather would have been chief “but for an accident of birth.”

By the time we got back to our base, John’s brother was so wasted he passed out in the fine new latrine our hosts had thoughtfully hacked for us from the flora – a very deep pit walled in by fresh fronds that attracted nibbling goats. In front children were dancing and accompanying themselves on drums fashioned of big bamboo sections, hollow and opened on one groove just like the larger versions made from tree trunks. Music all about.

As we sat outside that Sunday, surveying the scene, an old woman came up grinning and singing and dancing and sang salutes to us and indicated in turn her white hair, toothless mouth, and now-barren loins with strangely joyful reflections on old mortality. A delightful lady.

We had to depart before the communal dancing got really underway, carrying kola and four yams as gifts. John’s brother said they had meant to send us off with fresh palm wine as well, but the supply was temporarily exhausted and it would be another hour before the delivery-man bicycled back from his latest visit to his trees and his vats.

Upon our return to Agbarho we discovered that our tape was blank. The microphone, which had been working before the trip and which worked without a problem afterwards, had unaccountably failed.

Kerouac’s Redemptive Fault

Here I seek to show why Kerouac is great, in spite of yawning faults. This was written during the 70s, and I have left the colloquial tone and the topical references in place.


Everybody knows how Jack Kerouac shambled down hell road and recently it seems as though most of the world has chosen the same route. Not only is his poison popular; his books are, too. People still read him who read little else; at the same time, he's become inevitable in lit. courses, and the de Young and downtown museum are treading on each other’s heels to display his blown-up snapshots. Soon they'll erect his statue in Golden Gate Park, and a good thing that would be, too. But he's too important to hand over to Alioto and the Arts Commission, or to export to Russia as this generation's Jack London, not to mention the danger of his falling hostage to academics dreaming of tenure and an invincible army of footnotes. Too important despite the fact that he's a writer who tends to embarass his readers with his perpetual adolescence, his silliness about sex, and his outright fifties corn. Surprising qualities in an inventor of hipness? Or is it a tight yinyang situation? It's significant to note his earliest writing doesn't reveal those qualities (though he himself may well have, see Ann Charters' good and friendly biography). The Town and the City has those great drifting paragraph language dirigibles but oh so detached. For him at any rate. Like the writing of a literature sophomore who's got his shit together. Very much like the only people who read it. But On the Road, Dharma Bums, the books people lend around, the ones that you recognize on every living room bookshelf, these books grew from a different self-image and a different ambition: "spontaneous get-with-it" he said once, no revisions, total honesty. In spite of the fact that this spontaneous composition was largely a myth, he did let the cat out of the omniscient author bag and paraded his weakness, his vulnerability, in fact he made that weakness the principle theme of his novels. He renewed the confession but brought a certain amount of baggage: I think of Augustine's fog of piety and Rousseau's baroque elaboration of paranoia. But those defenses couldn't support him — he caved in, and for that reason the very qualities that make Kerouac's books poignant and strong also invite contempt. It's clear he found his inevitable style. Just look at the old pictures of him, hair flopping down and rumply undershirt. Compare with, say, Snyder, poised and posed in tidy robes with trim hair and ordered notebooks of Chinese vocables. But we think of Kerouac as so typically American for the simple reason that he painted his own portrait so authentically that the reader's reminded of his own adolescent awkwardness: horror at the body, horror at the abyss. His Buddhism like his plots dwelled insistently on mortality and all that it implies and the tune rang out devotional and elegiac as any Catholic saint's cult. Jack the earnest bumbler, the tragic real life Dagwood, the Buddha known as the quitter (and his coach at Columbia would have put it the same way and been as right), Jack so sentimental even over the flag, he ended up defending the war and calling that patriotism, this novelist maudit was the only writer of his time (to encounter little opposition since) to understand the fascism of the new critics and to hammer his own voice into a solution. He blew that personal confessional riff of stricken humanity with a rarely genuine humility but also at times with the confidence that grows from knowing the reader must recognize his or her own country, own maya, own image . He talked about himself as the quitter Buddha when it would take a brash guru on the tour today to speak with grace on the strange divine perfection that resides in the ability to digest weakness. Especially with Jack's example like a death's-head on the door. Chinese Buddhism has embraced a thousand drunks but the American variety like the Baptists prefer to conceal and twist their own. Kerouac’s bop prosody could have only one theme, but he worked it so thoroughly it shadows forth everything else. Painful as an old letter or notations in the margins of books. Vulnerability. Coming to terms with one's worst moments, the secrets each person carries about, beads of guilt sweat. So whenever Jack writes about women and ends up sounding like high school, you know his callowness is itself the theme. To emphasize the point he gives himself normative companions: Gary Snyder or Neal Cassady (whose letters he claimed taught him to write!) and then yearns to be like them. The final ethereal projection of the same desire is his dead brother Gerard. Gerard's sainthood like that of the canonical saints exists to underline the worshipper's inadequacies. Definitively, like a miniature Fall of Man. And Jack's version is an alternative to the Fall for people who can't seem to identify with Adam or Eve but who know they want to get back to the garden. The Fall is a tricky point for metaphysicians of any system to explain (even Alan Watts used to be forced to do some fancy dancing) but its obsessive ubiquity is proof of the depth of its meaning. The gap between the angel within and the husks from Levi-Strauss without, or the hair-shirt, if you prefer, has always been obvious in experience. So that's what Jack tried to work out: self-consciousness, dissatisfaction, the wrenching of desire that overleaps reality. You can set out to snare enlightenment with a Dharma-sword to split doubt but remember that the first truth of the Buddha is that life is suffering. It was this wall of fact against which Kerouac struggled and beat his head and spiraled his agony. And in the end his suffering turned out so intense and burning it can purge the rest of us.

In the twenty-first century, I visit a relative of my wife’s, an entertainment CEO, in a gated suburb of Los Angeles. His teen-age son avoids conversation, listens to Kurt Cobain with his door closed, mumbles when addressed, once begging off going out for dinner with the excuse, “I have to write a paper for English.” “Do you?” I respond, “On what?” “Just some dumb book my teacher made us read.” “And what was the book,” I ask, seeking to make contact. “Oh, just a stupid novel, it’s called On the Road.” I try to tell him that that book would never have been allowed in my high school, but he has already lurched off. As Pound says, “’Thus things proceed in their circle’;/ And thus the empire is maintained.”

Thematic and Structural Function of the Hypermetric Lines in Beowulf

The hypermetric passages of Beowulf must have stood out as dramatically for the poem’s original listeners as they do on the page for readers of modern editions. Oddly, though, a review of past Beowulf criticism reveals that virtually no attention has been given their function in the poem. Considering that the poet's command of the subtleties of his language and his technical skill as a versifier have been amply demonstrated, it seems likely that this strikingly anomalous metrical variation must have been consciously employed toward specific ends. Indeed, examination of the three loci in Beowulf where hypermetric lines occur indicates that they serve to reinforce important thematic concerns in each instance, and, further, that they play a significant role in the design of the poem as a whole.
Past analysis of the hypermetric lines has, for the most past, been descriptive, merely noting their existence and attempting in various ways to assimilate them as variations of some ordinary line. The discussion in Pope's The Rhythm of Beowulf [1] is perhaps the most prominent example. Several critics have, however, broached the subject of the aesthetics of hypermetrism. B.J. Timmer expands upon the sketchy and impressionistic comments by Sievers, [2] but his treatment, too, is vague and incomplete. He regards the first Beowulf passage as a “slowed” section and all but dismisses the other two. Viewing the phenomenon in general, however, throughout Old English poetry, he lists three functions for hypermetric lines: 1) slowing (and this for Timmer is generally associated with expressing solemnity, portent, or simple emphasis), 2) opening and closing speeches and other divisions of poetic material, and 3) a specialized “gnomic” use hypothesized since gnomic texts have a disproportionately large number of hypermetric lines. Apart from this rather suggestive contribution, other commentators have been exclusively concerned with technical prosodic classifications, with historical origins, or they have weakly assented to the received idea of “slowing.” [3]

The first hypermetric passage (11. 1163-1168) is part of the description of the victory celebration at Heorot following Beowulf's struggle with Grendel. Beginning in the middle of a sentence, it tells of Wealhtheow's entry into the hall, of Hrothulf and Hrethric sitting together in friendship, and of Unferth, obedient at the feet of Hrothgar. The overall scene is one of triumphal festivity, and the specific details stress the present peace between members of the royal family and between loyal retainers and their lord. The queen passes before this tableau of harmony almost like a divinity of order, but with her address to Hrothgar the spell is broken and the normal line length returns.

The Beowulf does not, though, paint this picture of national beatitude without including very clear suggestions of its contrary. The reference to future discord within the household over succession to the throne gives to the adjective “godan” the ominous, characteristically dark coloration that tinges even the most joyful scenes of the poem. The image of Unferth's faithful role, emphasized by his physical position, is complicated by the disclosure of his fratricide, thus problematizing his own nature and implying even more strongly that the harmony of the royal family is only temporary.

Still, this passage does appear at a time of high rejoicing, one of the most “optimistic” moments of the poem. Sievers original comment that the extension of the line would slow reading and induce a tone of solemnity is probably just, but — even ignoring this effect — simply due to the indisputable fact that their greater length causes these lines to stand out in the text, they seem to constitute something of a vignette, a miniature of “the happy kingdom,” in spite of the fact that the seeds of destruction are explicitly present as well.

The second hypermetric passage (11. 1705-1707) occurs after Beowulf's defeat of Grendel's mother, again during a victory feast in Heorot. Hrothgar praises Beowulf in extravagant terms, saying that his glory is spread among every people, that he rules with power and wisdom, and reaffirming his own debt to Beowulf and his intention of rewarding him. Though the hypermetric passage again begins in midsentence and gives the appearance of being casual and unmotivated, it is placed in precisely the same sort of celebration as the first. Again, it stresses feudal ties, the power of a just ruler and the stability derived from strong social bonds among allies. All the major areas of heroic excellence are included in the grand encomium: fame, power, and wisdom. The moment is one of total success, optimism, and order. The only cloud that might be imagined on this bright horizon is the fact of Beowulf's eventual doom, presumably familiar to the poem's audience.

The third passage (11. 2995-2996) is a part of Wiglaf's speech during Beowulf's obsequies after his death in combat with the dragon. While the location of the passage following the third of the three major battles of the text exactly parallels the other two, the occasion can no longer be a joyful one. The speaker's very name, Wiglaf, suggests the woeful destructive potential of war. Indeed, after the death of the hero, the entire society is in the position of a vulnerable remnant of survivors, rather like Finn's decimated troop mentioned earlier. Wiglaf is attempting to place the danger of a Swedish attack upon the leaderless state in a historical context by recounting incidents of old battles. Specifically, the hypermetric lines tell how Hygelac rewarded Wulf and Eofer for bringing him the arms of Ongentheow. He is said to have given them generous gifts of land and rings and the presentation is said to have been altogether fitting in view of their extraordinary and valiant deeds. Thus, for the third time, the hypermetric lines evoke a victory celebration, a time of reaffirmation of the bonds that hold society together, but in this instance the prosperous and united kingdom is available only to retrospective contemplation. Its strength is mentioned only while alerting the company to the grave perils that await them. The identical placement (after an engagement with a monster) and semantic content (the strong and well-ordered monarchy) only heighten the contrast of this moment with the first two. Something essential is gone with the passing of Beowulf; never again will such stable and glorious rule occur.

In formal terms, the hypermetric lines serve to delineate the major narrative divisions of the text. Like ornaments or flourishes following each battle, they reinforce the poem's tripartite structure. However, they also preserve the two-part division implied by Beowulf's age, location, and species of enemy being the same for adventures one and two, yet different for the third. The pattern, then, is a statement which is then repeated (sometimes with variation), and completed by an answering third term that contradicts, complicates, or extends the initial proposition. This design is both known as a rhetorical formula and familiar from such other forms as the standard American AAB blues lyric.

It is noteworthy, too, that each of these passages is shorter than the one before, dwindling from six to three to two lines. This pattern coincides with the thematic movement of the story as a whole as it moves from the early victories to the hero's inevitable death as the possibility of “the happy kingdom” becomes more and more elusive. The first passage only hints at the potential for fighting and discord, though quite explicitly, while by the last the anxious national mood provides the context, though the information in the hypermetric lines themselves is full of nostalgic well-being. These two scenes are absolutely symmetrical mirror-images in that the first is a situation of unreserved joy that contains the seeds of its own degeneration into chaos, while the last is a scene of immediately threatening chaos in which joy is present only in traces of memory. These surround a calm second passage in which the problematic status of heroic values and polity is momentarily concealed. In this way the group of three passages repeats the structure evident within each individually, privileging in the end neither side of the antinomies order/ disorder, peace/ war, virtue/ vice, and so on.

It is significant, too, that each of the passages begins in midsentence. This technique smooths over the otherwise abrupt transition between line lengths and maintains the tension-filled ambivalence of the contrast between a condition of secure felicity (flourishing briefly or recollected from the past) and the harsh realities of life among the Danes and the Geats. The sudden change in metrical convention is then masked in the same way that the contradiction-laden seams of society are masked in ordinary social interaction as illustrated in this series of passages.

The fact that hypermetric lines are particularly prominent in gnomic verse is also suggestive. Gnomic associations may highlight the teaching function of these scenes, their paradoxical content (related to the popularity of riddles in early Germanic literatures), and the resulting sense of poetic didacticism as the revelation of mysteries. In these passages, the listener or reader sees encoded the governing ideology of the time: in terms of personal values such as courage and wisdom, and social values such as peace, loyalty, and hierarchy, but these are no sooner defined than they are radically interrogated and finally revealed, not as hollow, but as inexorably, tragically self-contradictory. The existential anxiety of Beowulf's vague subjective sense that he must have done something wrong is not a contemporary misreading. It constitutes the great and poignant strength of Old English verse that it expresses the love for pleasures of this world in terms the more moving for the realization that those pleasures are only temporary.

In the hypermetric passages of Beowulf the same attitude is applied to the subclass of social pleasures and the result defines the poet’s characteristic tone, one common throughout Old English poetry. He always sees through his material, but he does not for that reason dismiss or replace it. His inscription of defeat within victory and victory within defeat defines a heroism beyond bravado, a heroism born of the struggle with the mercilessly frustrating terms of existence.

The tendency to undercut the heroic simultaneously with its presentation is inherent in the distinctively Germanic poetic usage of litotes, so pervasive in Beowulf as well as, for instance, in the Nibelungenlied. While this device was relatively little used among the classical rhetoricians, it is favored not only by the writers of Germanic epic, but also by the Minnesinger who recount the similarly problematic wars of the heart where pleasure and pain are closely linked. The fact that even the Germanic gods were limited by mortality seems emblematic of the fact that this culture resisted the comfort of imaginative absolutes on heaven as well as earth.

As much as the moral imperatives of heroism were in fact mandatory, they were simultaneously seen as hollow. The function of the hypermetric passages in Beowulf seems clear. They serve formally to define the major sections of the text and to epitomize its theme. They isolate moments depicting the happiness of a peaceful and strong court in which people joined securely by deep loyalties are exultant with success. This wish-fulfillment dream court forms a contrast to those one encounters in the poem where cowardice, subversion, dissension, and the appearance of mighty foes are ever-present dangers. The passages follow each of the hero's encounters with prodigious enemies almost as a series of sighs of relief that for the time being people possess ephemeral peace, but they end as suddenly as they began, providing foreboding in the first two instances and realization in the third of the fact that stability is an illusion and fate is inscrutable. The hypermetric passages insist upon what much of the text implies: that the heroic ideology is at once imperative and inadequate. It is this double-bind that gives Beowulf its grandeur and its tragedy.




1. Pope, J.C. The Rhythm of Beowulf, rev. ed. New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1966.

2. Timmer, B.J. “Expanded Lines in Old English Poetry,” Neophilologus 35
(1952), pp. 226-230.

3. Bliss, Alan J. "The Appreciation of Old English Metre," in English and Medieval Studies Presented to J.R.R. Tolkien on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday. ed. Norman Davis and C.L. Wrenn, London: Allen and Unwin, 1962, pp. 27-40.
Here Bliss argues that the regular OE line is close to speech rhythms while the longer line is more artificial and poetic. Repeating the notion that hypermetric lines slow the movement of the verse, he suggests that they increase its continuity and fluidity as he thinks there to have been no pause after the recitation of a longer line.
In “The Origin and Structure of the Old English Hypermetric Line.” Notes and Queries, n. s. 19 (1972), pp. 242-248 Bliss is primarily concerned with setting forth a historical theory deriving the OE hypermetric line from a primitive Germanic model. Here he says that the rationale for the use of such lines “remains mysterious” and “no convincing explanation for their function” has been adduced.
Hieatt, Constance B. “A New Theory of Triple Rhythm in the Hypermetric Lines of Old English Verse,” Modern Philology, 67 (1969), pp. 1-8 claims that the hypermetric lines would best be scanned with three measures to a verse rather than four.

Hip Poets of Seventies San Francisco

I recently read Just Kids, Patti Smith’s memoir. While relishing her tales of bohemian life, I found the ambition for fame that she shared with Mapplethorpe utterly foreign to my own experience of the era. I was led to set down these few vignettes of people dedicated to art with little regard for reward. These are random pictures, snapped in passing. Some of these poets are or were good friends, several I barely knew at all. Our celebrity mentality extends even to the arts, but thousands pursue their own visions while also fostering community.


I se that makaris amang the laif
Playis heir ther pageant, syne gois to graif
William Dunbar “Lament for the Makers”

Five hundred years now Dunbar’s gone who sang for noble Chaucer and all the crew, and fifty years since Rexroth’s young men flamed and cooled in “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Though premature to lament, I wish to set down a few characters, already too much forgotten in the frantic passage of our time.

The images well up: amiable Randy Fingland, who chattered poetry with absolute conviction and holy indirection, who walked the streets of Berkeley with poetry on sandwich boards and spun out lyric lines with a Dymo labelmaker to set high in Market Street corporate elevators hoping to propel some secretary’s mind to leaps of sudden joy. He conducted what some paper called the “toughest” reading series in the area at the Starry Plough. The reporter may have been influenced by the IRA posters on the wall or the ex-cons from the half-way house around the corner, finding their way with words. “Pay attention, motherfucker, I’ve got something to say.” He published in the smallest editions important work including translations from

Jack Hirschman whom one often encountered manic in North Beach Vesuvio’s tossing off page after page of polylingual multicolored pages each of which roared like an excited motorcycle.

Peter Pussydog (Stevens) wrapped his thin body in a suit lit by Christmas tree lights that flashed wisdom to all nearby and, though he trailed cords awkward behind, never slowed. He scandalized KPOO south of market poor people’s radio when he appeared on Poetry for the People and his name inspired weird obscenity fears among the third world managers who ever since their coup were never sure if poets were bourgeois individualists or real people’s artists. (Had they actually listened to his work, they might have had slightly more valid reservations about him.)

David Moe who plugged in the electric dictionary making everybody’s hair stand on end) outmarketed all other poetry rags by dealing Love Lights in midnight newspaper vending machines with naked people dancing on the cover but only dancing words within. Though this sold well in North Beach after the topless bars closed, the floor of Moe’s room at Project Artaud was littered with broken machines kicked by customers frustrated long before they dropped sad quarters in. If I am not mistaken, he founded the San Francisco Poetry Festival, yet, when he took the stage at midnight, after the big names had performed earlier, offering single words like glittering gems, for all to wonder at, heard catcalls rising from the dark hall. He later wrote the very practical volume How to be God Now.

Kirby Doyle went from juvenile delinquent to dandy to the street, wrote the eloquent Sapphobones and swigged all the way to Snyder’s Elymakee in the Sierras where we read under full moon midnight. He sought young love and never knew he was missing half his teeth till he found himself lost in Laguna Honda in the end.

Who was that nameless long-lost greybeard hipster from a SRO hotel who had no teeth at all and mumbled strange poems unintelligible to all and so he had to go on the air and let everybody know?

Artful Goodtimes who cultivated a lyric gentle waist-length beard and Ecstasy Clare and he taught each other preschool delight. He left in the end for Colorado’s talking gourds and magic mushrooms and, of all unlikely things, elective office, too;

and Kush (Steven Kushner), that saint for art, who now sits on the myriad visionary exhibits of the Poetry Museum for which San Francisco which will one day be grateful, whose Cloud House storefront had exhibits and readings and tapes, who hoped by to pull down peace with incantations and smoldered sage while Bob Kaufman lay up silent in the back loft, and we took to the streets and we were chased from the opera opening night and challenged by the downtown library (“You can’t read poetry in from of the Public Library!”) so we made do with spray-paint poetry stencils and once I burst my tambourine for very exuberance making a pitch to Mission street mothers in the early morning, preaching the word of poetry under grey San Francisco skies.