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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Thursday, October 1, 2015

Fishing Blues

Song texts follow the essay.

Filmmaker, doper, and record collector Harry Smith chose to conclude his seminal Anthology of American Folk Music with Henry Thomas’ “Fishing Blues” [1] a song of surpassing sweetness and coy flirtatious sexual play. The lyrics have delicacy and grace reminiscent in formal elegance and frothy wit of the Cavalier poets; Thomas’ tone is altogether different from the assertive joyful rudeness of hokum songs or the cathartic and profound longing of many classic blues. [2] The singer wryly acknowledges the universality of desire and engages in playful competition with an interlocutor representing the listener. Love is here a pleasant game, allowing the singer to celebrate human sexuality as a quiet and absorbing pastime comparable to fishing.

Thomas was born in 1874 and is thought by some to represent a largely lost “pre-blues” body of African-American music, but the folk process (unlike some of its enthusiasts) cares little for purity, and critics have seen influences of minstrelsy and parlor poetry in the verses of “Fishing Blues.” To Mack McCormick the song is “pure minstrel show material” derived from “Gumbo Chaff,” [3] though I find virtually no common ground with the earlier song apart from the mention of catching catfish. More certain is Thomas’ debt to James Whitcomb Riley, the author of “Shortnin’ Bread” (itself sometimes taken for a folk verse). (See below.) Yet these influences seem accidental, irrelevant to the primary design of the song. On the other hand, the text has significant and pervasive parallels to other blues.

The analogy of fishing with sexual relationships combines the widespread blues imagery systems associating love with appetite and food and with animals. Fishing of course occupied a prominent place in the rural Southern lifestyle and offers many relevant associations with romance, not merely the uncertainty of outcome and the sensual pleasure of success, but a tempting verbal element: the rhyme pair hole and pole. [4] Apart from the broad analogy expressed in expressions like “there are plenty of fish in the sea” and “I think this one’s a keeper,” fish have often carried obscene associations of various sorts. The mere mention of “big fish little fish : playing in the water” follows a reference to the singer’s kissing another man’s wife in Kokomo Arnold’s 1937 version of “Salty Dog.”

The fishing topos appears in a great many lyrics before and after Thomas, and the convention takes numerous forms: the lover may be male or female, fisher or fish, successful or unsuccessful. The angler is a woman in 1926 Ma Rainey’s 1926 “Don’t Fish in My Sea,” complaining about a wandering lover and asking somewhat illogically “If you don't like my ocean, don't fish in my sea.“ The man is an enthusiastic prey in William Harris’ 1929 version of “Kansas City Blues” which is the earliest use of which I am aware of the couplet, later used by dozens of artists: “I wished I was a catfish in the deep blue sea/ I'd have all these women just fishin' after me.” [5] On the other hand, the man is fishing in Tampa Red’s 1934 “Kingfishing Blues” which boats “I’m a kingfishin’ poppa, I know what kind of bait to choose./That’s why so many women cryin’ those ‘Kingfish Blues’” Man and woman seem both to be fishing in Freddie Spruell’s “ Let’s Go Riding” (1925): “Now if you got the line : I got the pole/ Now tell me dear : don't you know/ We can go out for a good time.”

Just as in Greek Anthology lyrics, troubadour songs, and Elizabethan sonnets, a single motif undergoes endless transformation in this dynamic tradition. A subcategory of the form of the figure in which the fisherman is male and the fish the female object of his hunt is built around the idea of poaching. Bo Chatman, though not the source of the convention, presents a simple metaphor in “Old Devil” (1928) with his complaint, “Some lowdown scoundrel/ been fishing in my pond.” While other singers were taking this notion in other directions, Johnnie Temple elaborated and intensified this particular concept, adding an excruciating final phrase in the “Louise Louise Blues” (1936): “somebody baby is fishing in my pond/ They catching all my perches : grinding up the bone.” Then further, more baroque, play appears in Robert Johnson’s “Dead Shrimp Blues” (1936):

Someone's fishing in my pond
Catching my goggle-eyed perches :
and they barbecuing the bones
Now you taken my shrimp baby.

The first verse of Thomas’ “Fishin Blues” simply establishes the topic as the poem’s persona gathers his gear without suggesting any broader implications. The listener will be aware, however of such usages as Blind Lemon Jefferson’s lament “I won't go to fishing : mama I done broke my pole” in his“Southern Woman Blues” (1929) and Tommy McClennan’s faux naif reminder “Now when you go to fishing : now don't forget the pole.” (“Crosscut Saw Blues” 1941)

The refrain line is repeated throughout with such regularity as to sound like a general principle, aided by the sexual associations, of the universality of desire.

Says you've been a-fishin' all the time.
I'm a-goin' fishin' too.

The sudden introduction of the second person may seem enigmatic in this initial occurrence, but its naturalistic explanation would be simply that the singer, having seen another person fishing is inspired with the desire to do the same. The second person usage allows the singer to engage the listener directly, involving the outside world in the scene and allowing the singer to address his pointed banter through the individual audience member to people in general.

The second verse lets the cat out of the bag with its opening lines:

I bet your life, your lovin' wife.
Can catch more fish than you. [6]

There are now three people fishing, and the speaker is teasing “you” that your “lovin’” wife is likely to be more successful. This might seem still to be simple good-natured competitive joshing among friends, but the succeeding verses emphasize that “any fish bite, you've got good bait.” This presumably indicates why the wife will “catch more fish.” Here is an example of the arch and pointed figurative language called “signifying.’”[7] Should the listener be slow to recognize that the phrase demands particular attention, it is introduced with the phrase “here's a little somethin' I would like to relate” indicating that some significant insight will follow. The “bait” in romantic encounters is most obviously good looks. The speaker is ragging on the unidentified man while slyly complimenting the other’s lady.

The song goes on to imply the joyful consummation of dinner or love-making.

Put on your skillet, don't never mind your lead.
Mama gonna cook 'em with the short'nin' bread.
Here the poet clearly alters James Whitcomb Riley’s line.

Fotch dat dough fum the kitchin-shed—
Rake de coals out hot an' red—
Putt on de oven an' putt on de led,—
Mammy's gwineter cook som short'nin' bread. [8]

To Greil Marcus, always eager to be extravagantly enthusiastic, the singer’s accompaniment of himself on the “quills” (panpipes) “goes back to the end of the Palaeolithic.” To him the song’s line about “any fish bite if you got good bait” is delivered “as if it held all the secrets of the universe.” In the critic’s next line the conditional has diminished, and he declares that “there is an almost absolute liberation in ‘Fishing Blues,’ a liberation that is impossible not to feel and easy to understand.” [9]

One need not impute such vague sublimity to the text to relish the song’s charm. Indeed, its casual amiable tone embodies the old formula ars est celare artem. Many of Thomas’ twenty-three recorded songs exhibit similar formal beauty, wit, and dancing vitality. In “Fishing Blues” it is as though a slender stream of pure unapologetic eros is spun like cotton candy into a warm, reassuring, good-natured affirmation of physicality. It may not strike all listeners as a source of absolute liberation, but it will do as well today as it did in 1928 as a celebration of human nature, temporarily free from real conflict, suffering, and fear, very similar to an afternoon that passes like a pleasant dream on the banks of a small Southern stream, a idyll in the life of one whose daily experience may be fraught with anxiety, which is to say any of us. To create a few moments of such serenity is no small artistic achievement. In fact, I suppose it just may be about all that we ever know, or at least all we need to know, of the cosmic mysteries.




1. The song, called “Fishin Blues” on the record, was originally recorded for Vocalion in Chicago in 1928. Smith’s inclusion of Thomas is the source of the modern popular versions such as those by the Loving Spoonful (1965), Taj Mahal (1969), and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (2002). Groups including Canned Heat and the Grateful Dead have performed other songs from Thomas’ repertoire. A few later recordings have some material in common with Thomas’ song, including “Gone to Fishin” (Leroy Williams, Fiddlin’ Joe Martin and Willie Martin, 1941), “I’m Going Fishing Too” (Alice Moore, 1936) and “Everybody’s Fishing’” (Bumble Bee Slim, 1935) which includes the lines:

I woke up this mornin’ an’ I grabbed my pole
Can’t catch the fish to save my soul.”
Everybody’s fishin’ – yes, Everybody’s fishin’;
Everybody’s fishin’, I’m gon’ fish some too.
Every little fish like this bait I got,
My babe home got her skillet hot.

2. Mississippi John Hurt was capable of bringing a similar warmth even to such potentially raunchy songs as “Candy Man Blues” or “Coffee Blues.”

3. See his admirable liner notes to Henry Thomas Texas Worried Blues: Complete Recorded Works 1927-1929 titled “Henry Thomas: Our Deepest Look at the Roots.”


4. In fact Thomas demonstrates his classic restraint and does not use this rhyme. In my opinion it is hovering in the background even though unspoken.

5. Robert Petway’s more popular “Catfish Blues” (1941) is more ambivalent with its reference to “poor” me.

Well, if I were a catfish, mama
I says, swimmin' deep down in the blue sea
Have these girls now, sweet mama
Settin' out, settin' out hooks for po' me

Tommy McClennan’s “Deep Blue Sea Fishing Blues” (1941) is similar: “Lord I would have all these good-looking women now now now : fishing after me”

6. Note how the singer slyly bets the other’s life and not his own!

7. Cf. Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talking“ which says

I'm gonna break up this signifyin'
'cause somebody gotta go.

8. The verse entered the folk process rapidly and was recorded by E. C. Perrow on page 142 of his Songs and Rhymes from the South (1912) as sung by “Tennessee mountain whites.” Another equally unlikely adaptation from Riley’s “Shortnin’ Bread – Pieced Out” is “thought I hearn a chickin sneeze” used by Woody Guthrie in “Talking Blues” and Hank Snow in “Trouble Trouble Trouble.”

9. In what seems more likely carelessness and haste than conscious paradox, Marcus a few lines later says “this liberation or absolute is not easy to comprehend, but, just for that reason, it is here.” See his essay “The Old, Weird America” in Democracy and the Arts, edited by Arthur M. Melzer, Jerry Weinberger, and M. Richard Zinman (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), p. 123.




Fishing Blues by Henry Thomas

Went up on the hill about twelve o'clock.
Reached right back and got me a pole.
Went to the hardware and got me a hook.
Attached that line right on that hook.
Says you've been a-fishin' all the time.
I'm a-goin' fishin' too.

I bet your life, your lovin'wife.
Can catch more fish than you.
Any fish bite if you've got good bait.
Here's a little somethin' I would like to relate.
Any fish bite, you've got good bait.
I'm a-goin' a-fishin', yes, I'm a-goin' a-fishin',
I'm a-goin' a-fishin' too.

Looked down the river about one o'clock.
Spied this catfish swimmin' around.
I've got so hungry, didn't know what to do.
I'm gonna get me a catfish too.

Yes, you've been fishin' all the time.
I'm a-goin' a-fishin' too.
I bet your life your lovin' wife.
Catch more fish than you.
Any fish bite, got good bait.
Here's a little somethin' I would like to relate.
Any fish bite, you've got good bait.
I'm a-goin' a-fishin', yes, I'm goin' a-fishin',
I'm a-goin' a-fishin' too.

Put on your skillet, don't never mind your lead.
Mama gonna cook 'em with the short'nin' bread.
Says you been fishin' all the time.
I'm a-goin a-fishin' too.
I bet your life, your lovin' wife.
Can catch more fish than you.
Any fish bite, if you've got good bait.
Here's a little somethin' I would like to relate.
Any fish bite, you've got good bait.
I'm a-goin' a-fishin', yes, I'm goin' a-fishin',
I'm a-goin' a-fishin' too.




Fishing Blues by Taj Mahal
I betcha' goin' fishin' all o' the time
Baby goin' fishin' too
Bet you life, your sweet wife
Is gonna catch more fish than you
Many fish bites if you got good bait
Here's a little tip that I would like to relate
With my pole and my line
I'm a goin' fishin', yes I'm goin' fishin'
And my baby goin' fishin' too
I went on down my favorite fishin' hole
Baby got myself a pole an' line
Caught a nine poun' catfish
On the bottom, yes I got him
And I brought him home to my mom about supper time
Singin' many fish bites if you got good bait
Here's a little tip that I would like to relate
Many fish bites if you got good bait
I'm a goin' fishin', yes I'm goin' fishin'
And my baby goin' fishin' too
Baby brother 'bout to run me up outta my mind
Sayin', "Can I go fishin' with you?"
So I took him on down to the favorite fishin' hole
Now what do you think that brother of mine did do?
Caught a seven poun' catfish
On the bottom yes he got him
Took him home to mama he was real gone
With his pole and his line
He was goin' fishin', yes he goin' fishin'
And baby goin' fishin' too
Put him in the pot, baby put him in the pan
Mama cook him till he nice an' brown
Get yourself a batch o' buttermilk, whole cakes mama
An' you put that sucker on the table and eat it on down
Singin' many fish bites if you got good bait
Well here's a little tip that I would like to relate
With my pole and my line
I'm a goin' fishin', yes I'm goin' fishin'
My baby gone fishin' too
I betcha' goin' fishin' all o' the time
Mama goin' fishin' too
Bet you life, your sweet life
I gonna catch more fish than you
Many fish bites if you got good bait
Here's a little tip that I would like to relate
With my pole and my line
I'm a goin' fishin', yes I'm goin' fishin'
And my baby goin' fishin' too
I'm a goin' fishin', yes I'm goin' fishin'
And my baby goin' fishin' too
I'm a goin' fishin', yes I'm goin' fishin'
And my baby goin' fishin' too

In Memory of my Generation’s People’s Heroes


In every town are war memorials: statues, parks, shrines, and solemn ceremonies recalling those who donned uniforms and obeyed their officers, and indeed the travails of such people (on all sides and in all wars) can be considerable. Their suffering touches many, and their commemoration is accordingly social and official. Politicians and relatives alike glibly say that their sacrifice maintained American freedom, though what there is of American freedom has not been threatened from without since the War of 1812, most certainly not by Kaiser Bill, Ho Chi Minh, or Saddam Hussein.

Those who died for the people’s cause are fewer, and sparks of their memory (such as this) are obscure and idiosyncratic. Yet it is this group that has, by the purest voluntarism in most cases, sought to advance humanity as a whole in work that has laid the foundation of the comparative comfort enjoyed by many today. The grasping hands of the powerful will make no concession voluntarily; even the mildest of reforms come only when forced. Frederick Douglass was correct in his celebrated analysis and deserves quoting yet one more time.

If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
[1]

In other countries and in the USA in days gone by, the killing of political rebels was wholesale and unashamed. The first verse of the old song “The Red Flag” spoke no more than sober reality.

The People's Flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts' blood dyed its every fold.
[2]

Though every country produced such people’s martyrs, I mean here to commemorate only Americans. I conceive the group broadly otherwise, accepting as those who labored for a brighter future: community and labor organizers, socialists, anarchists, communists of various stripes, supporters of civil rights, feminists, ecologists and gay activists. I include people outrightly assassinated by law enforcement or military as well as some who ended their own lives as a political statement. [3] No scholar of American history, I simply write about the people whom I recall and a few others whose names I only recently learned. This list is unsystematic and certainly incomplete, but I feel that simply naming these few names is justified by simple respect for those who genuinely sacrificed for us all. Perhaps, as well, the young and others unfamiliar with the people mentioned here might learn. I welcome additions.

My own roll call includes only my generation and emphasizes the movements of the sixties, though I am aware of massacres such as those during the Homestead strike in Pennsylvania in 1892 (nine killed), at Lattimer -- another Pennsylvania mine near Hazleton, Pennsylvania -- in 1897 (nineteen dead), at Ludlow, Colorado in 1914 (twenty-six killed,) Everett, Washington in 1916 (twelve victims)and the 1921 Rising of Logan County, West Virginia in which between fifty and a hundred workers fell, the Little Steel Strike of 1937 when ten demonstrators were killed by Chicago police and sixteen more fell in Youngstown, Ohio . I am aware that controversy has muddied the narrative for such victims of the judicial system as Sacco and Vanzetti, the Rosenbergs, and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Whatever the details, like those regularly killed on urban streets by police officers, these people did not receive fair trials or just sentences and thus are victims of political persecution whatever their guilt or innocence.

Doubtless the greatest number of political killings occurred in the Southern Civil Rights Movement. Fortunately in this case, scholars have documented the deaths of activists, and they are remembered in the only such monument of which I am aware, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Archivists have verified the deaths of forty-one people in the Movement from 1954-1968. [4] They include also a list of seventy-four others who had not yet been killed or for whom the historical research had been in process when the memorial was dedicated. Among those honored there are such well-known names as James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, who died in the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi as well as others such as Lamar Smith who had organized voters in his community and was shot on the courthouse lawn in midday in Brookhaven, Mississippi in 1955 and William Lewis Moore, a white postman from Baltimore murdered in Attalla, Alabama during his solitary march against segregation in 1963.

A late spasm of criminal racist violence occurred in 1979 when Klan and Nazi Party members killed five Communist Workers activists during a protest in Greensboro, North Carolina: Sandi Smith, James Waller, Bill Sampson, Cesar Cauce, and Michael Nathan. The dead included three physicians (one of whom served as president of a textile workers local). The police provided no protection; indeed, there were not present on the scene of the demonstration though it had been announced well in advance, and the assailants were acquitted by all white juries in spite of film documenting the murders.

The police regular reacted with fierce disregard for law during demonstrations in those days and were sufficiently reckless that occasionally someone died. Dean Johnson was killed in Chicago in 1968 at the beginning of the historic demonstrations around the Democratic Convention, and in 1969 James Rector died in Berkeley while demonstrating in behalf of People’s Park. Most everyone is at least aware of the 1970 attack at Kent State in Ohio in which National Guardsmen fired sixty-seven rounds at demonstrators, killing Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, William Schroeder, and Allison Krause. One hears considerably less about the deaths of Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green less than two weeks later at Jackson State in Jackson, Mississippi, or about Samuel Ephesians Hammond Jr., Delano Herman Middleton, and Henry Ezekial Smith who were shot and killed by police in 1968 at South Carolina State in Orangeburg while protesting a segregated bowling alley. The victims in Mississippi and South Carolina, needless to say, were black.

Many people remember television news reports of the dramatic suicide of the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức in Saigon in 1963. The evening news on the American networks showed the monk maintaining his meditation posture as his body burned. A few might recall the self-immolation of Quaker Norman Morrison in 1965 below Secretary of Defense McNamara’s Pentagon office. The fact is that a bit before Morrison’s act, Alice Herz, an eighty-two year Holocaust survivor, had similarly emulated Thích Quảng Đức in Detroit in 1965. A little later that year Roger Allen LaPorte burned himself in protest in New York City as did Florence Beaumont in Los Angeles in 1967, Bruce Mayrock in New York City in 1969 (protesting Biafran War policies), George Winne, Jr. burned himself in San Diego in 1970, as did Gregory Levey in Amherst in 1991 (protesting the Gulf War), Kathy Change in Philadelphia in 1996 (protesting “the present government and economic system”), and Malachi Ritscher in Chicago in 2006 in reaction to the Iraq War. [5]

It is difficult to calculate the precise number of wholly unjustified killings of Black Panthers by law enforcement. Their attorney Charles Garry claimed that police had wantonly murdered thirty Panthers between January of 1968 and December of 1969 alone. A hostile journalist challenged the circumstances of many of these killings, conceding only the deaths of Bobby Hutton, Fred Hampton, and Mark Clark as altogether unjustified. [6] Considering the state’s interest in lying or obscuring the facts in many of these cases and the unquestioned program by the government to foment violence among black activists, it may never be clear what happened in many of these cases.

The case of Hampton and Clark is particularly egregious. In one of the clearest examples of political assassination by the state in American history, the Chicago police with the aid of the FBI and an informer in the Black Panther organization drugged Hampton with secobarbitol and then burst into the Panthers’ apartment with guns firing in 1969, killing the two while they lay in bed and wounding four others. No one was ever prosecuted for the violence though the families of the dead and injured won a civil suit years later due to the overwhelming evidence of criminal behavior on the part of the government.

Throughout history the wealthy have held the power. They have never ceded a penny to others unless they had no choice, while the poor are regularly sent off to the front lines of imperialist wars and other military adventures. Through organization, struggle, strikes, and demonstrations the masses have gained a modicum of comfort in the developed world. If today slavery and child labor have ended, women have the vote, labor unions have won some measure of shorter hours, job safety, and a piece of the economic pie, albeit far smaller than workers deserve, it is only because of those who have championed the people’s causes. If you and I appreciate what we have of leisure, a portion of the fruits of our labor, and a bit of space in which to raise the next protest, it is only right that now and then we devote a moment’s thought to those who have been willing to put their bodies on the line in defense of us all.



1. West India Emancipation speech in Canandaigua, New York, August 3, 1857.

2. The Irishman Jim Connell’s song has been an anthem of the British Labour Party and the IWW, among other organizations. It was recently sung by those celebrating the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party Leader.


3. I do not include many righteous activists who were themselves wielding deadly force such as the Weather Underground’s Diana Oughton, Terry Robbins, and Ted Gold who died in the Greenwich Village townhouse in 1970 or Americans such as priest James Carney and former Green Beret David Arturo Baez who had joined insurgents and were killed by the Honduran military in 1983. In the case of Black Panthers the record is often obscure though the government’s desire to eliminate the organization is certain. (See note 6 below.)

4. Their list is available at https://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do/civil-rights-memorial/civil-rights-martyrs.


5. The New York Times story on Levey’s death in 1991 mentions two other self-immolations protesting the Gulf War and eight in protest to the Vietnam War but provides no further details.

6. See Edward Jay Epstein “The Black Panthers and the Police: A Pattern of Genocide?” in The New Yorker for February 13, 1971.

Agnostic Credo and Vita


I
I just returned from three hours of rocking, propulsive gospel music by members of the congregation of the House of Refuge in Newburgh. These musicians live in the largely depressed East End of the city with the highest rate of violent crime in New York State. They face racism and poverty; we noticed members of the congregation with track marks and missing teeth, yet the mood was overwhelmingly joyous. Every performance insisted on thanking a benevolent deity for blessings and insisting on the certainty that the worshipper is heaven-bound. Hellfire, even morality itself, scarcely played a part. Every participant was wholly involved, possessed one might even say by the occasion, dancing and calling out and singing in ecstasy.

I was moved. One might think it scarcely plausible that a thorough skeptic like myself could appreciate the choir. Yet I think the House of Refuge embodies something of the essence of the religious impulse. Their elated acceptance is the opposite of a glum submission to the circumstances of life or indeed to the dictates of organized religion. Untroubled with doubt and little concerned with doctrine, they feel connected to a divine they embrace with the highest of rapturous spirits. Though I rejected my family’s less expressive Protestant church at an early age, I was touched and responded with admiration and envy to the singers from the House of Refuge.

Lacking any faith, I am an unlikely formulator of a credo. Does the position of a skeptic, believing nothing, lead nowhere as well? One might, like some ancients, argue that it is arrogant and unseemly to deny the common opinion of humankind and proceed then with a spirituality of the majority. One might act on Pascal’s wager and practice religion to be on the winning side just in case. Like many less sophisticated church-goers, those who take these paths seem to be able to believe what they wish to believe. My own beliefs have developed quite differently, out of a lifelong exploration of religion and in particular of mysticism that seems to me wholly consistent with a materialist world-view. Several observable facts lie at the foundation of the initial conviction that such a search is likely to be rewarding.

First of all, spiritual inquiry might begin with the established fact that all human cultures have religion. This is true around the world and all through history and as far back before as evidence exists. It appears as though belief in the unseen arose contemporaneously with language and art. [1] Such a universal cultural practice cannot be arbitrary but must be radically meaningful in some sense. Much of what passes for religion in both archaic and contemporary times is admittedly self-interested and shallow. People have always performed do ut des sacrifices and conjured what is simply magic, attempting to persuade themselves they have some control over a frightening environment. Yet surely it is absurd to imagine that the Ultimate Reality is in any way concerned with granting a defense against malice, a recovery from illness, a successful hunt, or a fulfilling and exceedingly long-lasting retirement in paradise.

Yet the universality of the spiritual quest implies an object. It is as unthinkable that everyone desires to reach an altogether nonexistent Ultimate as that human should suffer physical hunger in a world without food. We have as well a rich record, likewise common to all humankind, of the experiences of those convinced they have felt the presence of the holy or have even achieved union with god. In individual cases one might write off the saints of various belief systems as neurotic, psychotic, power-hungry, or sexually frustrated, but the persistence and the similarity of mystical experience around the world implies a deeper explanation.

As a lifelong littérateur I am familiar with the capacity for the symbolic forms in images and narratives to express the subtlest and most profound ideas and affects. Indeed, I have always regarded art as the most effective instrument for interrogating the cosmos and expressing the human consciousness. Religion, with its myths and rituals, is in one sense a subcategory of art. Our species’ greatest skill is symbolic manipulation, and religion records thousands of years of attempts to concretize the ineffable in forms understandable to our fellow humans.

The validity of religion as a nexus out of which aesthetic objects are created cannot be doubted, yet its dogmas can. There are some particular doctrinal elements that I find particularly implausible, yet which have appealed to many. The initial governing principle in many statements of religious belief is the necessity of faith, meaning the acceptance of a proposition as true without evidence. To have faith is considered a great virtue, though the difficulty is in deciding which of the countless varieties of “faith” one should adopt. Bobby Henderson’s Pastafarians with their deity of spaghetti and meatballs (including His Noodly Appendage) are consciously outlandish, but logically correct when they say their “deeply held beliefs” have equal truth value to those of any other supernatural religion. [1] Surely it sounds very like flimflam when someone praises the adoption of a whole philosophical and spiritual position on the questions of the very importance without any reason whatever. Suspicions rise higher yet when the proponent insists on the exclusive value of a single brand of belief while condemning all others, yet this is the habit of virtually all institutionalized religions. They advertise while seeking, like corporations, to out-claim their competitors.

The anthropomorphic personal god described as feeling love, anger, mercy, jealousy, even regret is, if assigned such characteristics, no longer an absolute. When I read that Noah burns a sacrifice and “the Lord smelled a sweet savor” (Genesis 8:21), I cannot avoid imagining the Old Gentleman leaning over the edge of a cloud to take a whiff. This is the stuff of myth – it is what we expect in a two thousand five hundred year old tale, but it is thinnest and least rewarding when taken literally.

Religions tended to be intensely local and tribal in antiquity. Priests in ancient India, Greece, and Israel attributed their army’s victories to divine blessing and defeats to holy chastisement. To this day groups like the Amish, the Hindus, and the Jews do not proselytize. In effect theirs is a family god, passed down the generations but generally unavailable to those outside their community, surely a concept implausible in deity.

It is not only inconceivable to me that god should recognize ethnic distinctions; it is likewise impossible that revelation and theophany could manifest at only particular times and places. For instance, Christianity, insisting on the belief in Christ for salvation, writes off all those born in non-Christian parts of the world, many of whom in the past may never have heard Jesus’ name. Christianity invented a way to imagine that the old patriarchs who lived prior to Christ might have been saved, but the whole notion is ill-patched together. Clearly, whatever humans know of Ultimate Reality must be equally accessible at all times and places.

Morality is a preoccupation of most religions, yet ethics relates only to human society. Good and evil are defined by an act’s effect on oneself and others. In the natural world, and even more emphatically on its cosmic scale, morality cannot exist. Religious tradition prescribes two sorts of rules governing its followers’ actions. Some arise from the thoughtful and considerate practice of social life: prohibitions on killing, stealing, and unrestrained sexuality. These require no divine sanction; purely human considerations are quite sufficient. Other rules are purely ritual. Male Sikhs never cut their hair or beard as a show of piety; Buddhist monks shave hair, beard, and eyebrows for the same reason. The point of taboos is to create community. Hindus do not eat beef; Jews and Muslims avoid pork, the old Pythagoreans proscribed beans. Many groups insist on modest dress covering the body; sky-clad Jains go naked. Some uncover the head to show respect; some cover it. Whether arbitrary or morality-based, human behavior simply cannot be meaningful to the absolute.

Yet, in seeking to control people’s actions, religions have often sought to make their devotees believe that good character will be rewarded and evil punished, either through heaven and hell or karmic rebirth. There is a symbolic propriety to this reduction of ethics to self-interest, because after all, the primary reason we agree not to assault our neighbors, apart from the fact that many of us may not be so inclined, is to avoid being assaulted oneself. Yet is seems demeaning and childish to promise pie in the sky to hoodwink someone into cooperating.

I find myself defending the dignity of deity against those who would portray a grandly awesome, quasi-human as god. Very nearly all my objections arise of my unwillingness to put limitations on the godhead. I realize the value of these lesser visions of deity. People have different natures and different routes to spirituality. Some have a sensibility primarily responsive to devotion which might be symbolized by Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Rome’s Santa Maria della Vittoria. Devotional worshippers such as those in the Hindu bhakti tradition may require an anthropomorphic god as the object of their meditation. Others may practice good works, recalling the words of the apostle James the Just "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only" (James 2:24). Such a path is called karma yoga in Hinduism. Theologians may be regarded as pursuing enlightenment through knowledge, the route of jnana yoga, through ideas and reasoning after the manner of Aquinas or Nagarjuna. For me, the divine cannot have attributes, though to some this would amount to emptying the meaning of the grandest of ideas. Yet even in these lesser conceptions patterns are clear and well-established through the world and through history. Partial and flawed though the congruence may be, it is clear that there is considerable common ground on the highest reaches of spiritual theory and practice.

Not all traditions insist as singlemindedly as Jews, Christians, and Muslim on a personal god. The fact is that a number of belief systems ordinarily considered religious are essentially atheist. At least some varieties of Daoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism (as well as certain of the Skeptics, Epicureans, and Stoics of antiquity) construct religions or quasi-religious philosophical systems that do not depend on a supernatural god. [2] Each of these goes beyond mechanical materialism to promise some divine afflatus, some profound joy at the feeling of cosmic connection, a delight in the phantasmagoria of the phenomenal world while recognizing its dependent and ephemeral nature. I might compile a long series of texts, a sort of unbeliever’s, Bible promulgating a featureless deity, a skeptic’s god.

The first sentence of the Dao De Jing insists that no verbal statement can define the Dao.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad the universe is identified with Brahman and with the soul, and Brahman is described as "neti-neti" or "neither this, nor that." Adi-Shankara and others in the Advaita school of Hinduism write of the Nirguna Brahman, which specifically means the god without attributes. The Katha Upanishad describes even the gods as skeptics entertaining doubt. [3]

Buddhists both Theraveda and Mahayana, acknowledge the fruitlessness of inquiry into the “fourteen unanswerable questions” including issues of epistemology and the afterlife. One could scarcely conceive a skepticism more radical that that expressed in Nagarjuna’s Catuṣkoṭi or Tetralemma : “Any object or proposition cannot be said to exist. It cannot be said not to exist. It cannot be said to both exist and not exist. It cannot be said to neither exist or not exist." His view was the basis for the Madhyamaka school.

Even in the insistently literal-minded Abrahamic religions, the same worldview breaks through. In Christianity the author of the Divine Names, the so-called pseudo-Dionysius, using ideas already elaborated by Proclus and Plotinus, set forth an entirely apophatic vision of deity. For his translator John Scotus Erigena as well God is “nothing,” but rather “the negation of all things.” [4] Contrary to much of his tradition, Moses Maimonides declares god to be wholly without attributes. [5] I know little of Mu`tazila Islam but I understand it approaches a similar sort of negative theology.

Furthermore, each of the theistic traditions has produced mystics whose transports are described in such a variety of mythic languages that they may well be considered to share their essence while differing in rhetoric. To those inclined to accept the notion of a perennial philosophy [6] the insights of the mystics are relatively free of cultural specifics and lack the exclusivity that informs most orthodox ritual and theology. The fourteenth century English Cloud of Unknowing suggests that the worshipper who feels even the “kindness” and “worth” of god must abandon those thoughts and plunge into the “thick cloud of unknowing.” [7] Yet rather than striking the author as a descent into a frightening abyss this realization generates an in him an extraordinary state. The mystic may feel the divine as heat, light, sweetness, music, or as an exalted form of love, transforming the ordinary self into an effortlessly virtuous serenity, marked as well by the sort of joy that is visible today bubbling up from the belly of the Dalai Lama in public events.

The enlightenment of the great tulku for all his esoteric lore seems to me essentially similar to that of the gospel singers from the House of Refuge. Millennia of evidence support the conviction that these people and countless others from all corners of the globe possess something precious, something worth pursuing, something that opens one’s eyes, not only making life livable, but rendering it a delight. For the Pentecostals and the Yellow Hat line of Tibetan Buddhists it may be a simple matter of acquiescence in an inherited tradition, while for others a dense undergrowth of imagery and story must be decoded or bypassed. A total skeptic, I find myself still rooting around in the mudpool of the world to seek the kernel of enlightenment. Neither swine nor divine we pursue the mystery of divinity (and such subsidiary enigmas as death, love, and epistemology) animated somehow from with an impulse virtually universal in our species. [8] One need take nothing on faith; we have records in every generation of those who realized their own relation to the cosmos and thus their own true nature.

We can hardly know the truth about the universe, astonishing as we find the glimpses given us by astronomers, since we can know nothing that is not mediated by our own sensory apparatus and consciousness. Yet there are many examples of those who turned this limitation into an opening by focusing on altering the subjective mind itself, seeking enlightenment and liberation within rather than information or a helping hand from gods without. While no one can alter the galaxies or create gods by wish-fulfillment, people can to some extent direct their own thoughts, sometimes with dramatically satisfying results. If religion and philosophy are conceived as the search for the best way to live a human life, the mystics, for all their apparent focus on the beyond, seem to have devised a highly effective technology of the mind for living in the mundane.



II
My path to the positions outlined here was hardly unique. Many others in my age cohort, the first year of post-war babies, read the same books and responded to the same social influences. I suspect a brief sketch of some details of my own development might reveal significant likenesses (as well as equally important differences) with the experience of others.

A normal middle-class child growing up in the Midwest of the 1950s, I attended church, Sunday school, and vacation Bible school like all my friends. I was encouraged to pray before going to sleep, and I believe that for a few years I did. All the same, I withdrew from this Methodist upbringing in preadolescence. I had come to dread the interminable hymns, slowly winding through six solemn verses of Charles Wesley’s poetry. During the sermons, which tended toward such topics as “Women of the Bible, Part 7,” I invented a system to pass the time by counting the organ pipes and calculating how many seconds longer I would be contained in the purgatory of a pew. I recall during my church’s confirmation classes asking the unimaginative minister incredulously if he thought a pious and humane Hindu man who practiced kindness to his neighbors and followed the rituals of his culture would be condemned to hellfire. The reverend gentleman’s confident response (“Only through Jesus!”) convinced me that, though he had an honorary Doctor of Divinity (and was fond of the title), he could know very little about the divine. Part of the run-up to church membership was to submit a spiritual diary covering the weeks of the course, but I never wrote a word. Until the day I was received into the church I feared that he might fail to include my name from the roll as a result of this omission.

A few years before I had read Joseph Gaer’s 1929 book How the Great Religions of the World Began, [9] a survey that, for all its chatty anecdotal reductiveness, gave me a good deal of information and more than enough reason to doubt my pastor. I think I was in sixth grade when my parents purchased Life’s book of The World’s Great Religions, and I read and reread and studied the photographs. When my sixth-grade teacher assigned the construction of a shoe box diorama depicting a scene in history, I illustrated the legendary meeting of Confucius and Laozi.

The next year I discovered Evelyn Underhill’s Christian-oriented books on mysticism, a rich source of quotations from the European mystics, as well as the Dover reprints of the Sacred Books of the East series. I had a look at R. B. Blakney’s Mentor Dao De Jing (titled The Way of Life) and felt at once at home and entranced with the very first verse. I began to consider myself a Daoist Buddhist. Though I found no point of contact between the spirituality I was earning about and my Methodist church by middle school I had decided the highest possible ambition was to be an ecstatic mystic. [10]

In high school I pursued these interests and began reading D. T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and Joseph Campbell and paying special attention to Buddhist references in the Beat writers. I discovered that the Theosophical Society’s American headquarters were next door to my home town in Col. Olcott’s grand old mansion with its fascinating Victorian library filled with Asian philosophers. [11] Exposed to Vedanta, I read Upanishads and then Huxley and Isherwood upon which I could only conclude that I was a Daoist Buddhist Hindu.

At university I followed Huxley and Watts in the use of psychedelics and found the alteration of consciousness with LSD roughly comparable to other methods such as fasting, chanting, meditating, and the practice of austerities. In the middle sixties we took the drug very seriously indeed, carefully designing the trip and discussing its implications for weeks afterwards. I was learning Greek and trying to digest the immense interconnected fabric of ancient myth. I wrote my senior thesis on Christopher Smart’s visionary madhouse poem Jubilate Agno under the direction of an eighteenth century scholar who could only scratch his head over my excitement about this wild work he viewed only as a curiosity. Later in graduate school I made a particular study of medieval mystic poets and translated Mechthild von Magdeburg while spinning theories connecting mystical texts with literary theory.

Toward the end of my undergraduate years I began attending a Friends meeting, in part to bolster my dossier as a conscientious objector in case push came to shove with my draft board, but also because of a real sympathy for a brand of Christianity without a leader, practicing group meditation without insisting on Christian belief. [12] That they had such a magnificent radical social tradition, not only on war, but on race and virtually all others issues only heightened their appeal. I joined in 1968 and attended meeting for about ten years. During unprogrammed meeting for worship people simply sit silently. Should any one feel moved, that person may speak. After years of sitting quietly in meeting, I was not once moved to speak.

I not only made a poor Quaker, I feel itchy and impatient while sitting zazen (though I once could pull myself into an uncomfortable full lotus) and I have miserably failed as a yogi quite a number of times even after persisting in what I considered good faith efforts for months. Yet, I think I have caught sight of the footprints of the Ox of Ultimate Reality; I may even have seen his tail disappearing into the thickets once or twice, [13] and I can hardly give up the pursuit now whether or not I ever progress, indeed, whether or not there is an ox at all.




1. Lord Bertrand Russell made precisely the same point in a more decorous manner in his 1952 essay “Is There a God?” when he declared that, were he to claim there is a teapot orbiting the sun between earth and Mars, he could hardly expect others to believe him simply because they cannot prove that there is not. For another materialist’s evidence on the origin of the supernatural see J. David Lewis-Williams’ excellent The Mind in the Cave.

2. Or agnostic or “transtheist, “a term used by Paul Tillich and Heinrich Zimmer to describe those who may accept the existence of deities, but for whom these superhuman entities are not the Ultimate Reality. Of course the Jain tirthankaras are venerated as people worship gods and a Daoist or Buddhist temple will include no end of deities, flamboyant and restrained.

3. Katha-Upanishad I.3.15.

4. Periphyseon, “nihilum” I, 447c, “negatio omnium” III.686d.

5. Guide for the Perplexed, I: 57.

6. The concept of a philosophia perennis was first proposed by Agostino Steuco drawing on neo-Platonic ideas of Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. The idea was accepted by the neo-Vedantists. See Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy.

7. The Cloud of Unknowing, tr. Clifton Wolters (Penguin), Ch. 6.

8. Freud in The Future of an Illusion claims never to have felt the “oceanic” sensation about which Romain Rolland had written him, but perhaps his superego was suppressing more archaic sensations arising from beneath.

9. Gaer had taught at Berkeley and was involved in New Deal programs such as the Federal Writers Project, the Farm Security Administration and the Treasury Department and then served as publicity director of the Political Action Committee for the CIO.

10. It is only in part self-satire when I recall that at this time I considered careers as a mystic, revolutionary, and poet, before selecting the last as the most practical choice.

11. Olcott was an American military officer and attorney who became interested in spiritualism when writing an article for the New York Sun about séances. He was a founder with Mme. Blavatsky and others of the Theosophical Society and, like her, an early American Buddhist. He is well-known in Sri Lanka for his work there with Buddhist and educational groups.

12. Since the early nineteenth century many Friends have regarded Christ as divine only in the same sense that all humans are if they act on their inner light.

13. See the Ten Ox-Herding pictures which occur in many Chinese and Japanese versions and are popular in translation. The best-known version is that by Kuòān Shīyuǎn from the 12th century.