member of:Observers of the Interdependence of Domestic Objects and Their Influence on Everyday Life

This group has been active for a long time and has already made some remarkable assertions which render life simpler from the practical point of view. For example, I move a pot of green color five centimeters to the right, I push in the thumbtack beside the comb and if Mr. A (another adherent like me) at this moment puts his volume about bee-keeping beside a pattern for cutting out vests, I am sure to meet on the sidewalk of the avenida Madero a woman who intrigues me and whose origin and address I never could have known...
--Remedios Varo

(Artwork by Remedios Varo)
By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.
--Franz Kafka

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Earth Day Saint: The Spell of the Sensuous

St. Theodora by Zoe Blue

Happy (late) Birthday, Vesna!
“The most sophisticated definition of “magic” that now circulates through the American counterculture is “the ability or power to alter one’s consciousness at will.” No mention is made of any reason for altering one’s consciousness. Yet in tribal cultures that which we call “magic” takes its meaning from the fact that humans, in an indigenous and oral context, experience their own consciousness as simply one form of awareness among many others. The traditional magician cultivates an ability to shift out of his or her common state of consciousness precisely in order to make contact with the other organic forms of sensitivity and awareness with which human existence is entwined. Only by temporarily shedding the accepted perceptual logic of his culture can the sorcerer hope to enter into relation with other species on their own terms; only by altering the common organization of his senses will he be able to enter into a rapport with the multiple nonhuman sensibilities that animate the local landscape. It is this, we might say, that defines a shaman: the ability to readily slip out of the perceptual boundaries that demarcate his or her particular culture—boundaries reinforced by social customs, taboos, and most importantly, the common speech or language—in order to make contact with, and learn from, the other powers in the land. His magic is precisely this heightened receptivity to the meaningful solicitations—songs, cries, gestures—of the larger, more-than-human field.
Magic, then, in its perhaps most primordial sense, is the experience of existing in a world made up of multiple intelligences, the intuition that every form one perceives—from the swallow swooping overhead to the fly on a blade of grass, and indeed the blade of grass itself—is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are very different from our own.”
(Abram, David (2012-10-17). The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World)

What if the ancient story of the Garden of Eden is the loss, in monotheistic culture, of this magic? What if our expulsion, our great sin is that we stopped listening to, stopped attuning ourselves with, all the other consciousnesses around us, and began to see only human intelligence as any intelligence at all? The word, Paradise, comes from the Persian term for an enclosed garden. Our loss of Paradise may have been our loss of the ability to immerse ourselves in that feel the pulse of its life, to share perception with its creatures and plants, to comprehend their communications.

St. Theodora by Zoe Blue: horns are mother-of-pearl

The author of The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram, paid his way through school by working as a magician, and later studied the plays on perception that magic used and how they might aid a psychologist, using sleight-of-hand techniques to help people who were difficult to treat via regular psychotherapy. He then went to study with Shamans in various regions of the world, to better understand the malleability of perception. What he learned there re-focused his attentions on the rest of the world--that is, the non-human parts of it--in a fascinating manner that he describes and explores in this book.

“In Koyukon belief, the other animals and the plants once shared a common language with human beings. This was in the Distant Time (Kk’adonts’idnee), a time during which all living beings 'shared one society and went through dreamlike transmutations from animals or plants to humans, and sometimes back again.' We will postpone until the next chapter the question of whether the stories told of the Distant Time by the Koyukon people depict an originary time 'long ago' in the past—as they are often interpreted according to the linear-historical view of time first imported into the Koyukon territory by Catholic missionaries—or whether the Distant Time is more coherently understood as a unique dimension or modality of time, one that is more integral to the living present than it is to the historical past. In any case, and despite the apparent differentiation of animal and human languages since, or outside of, the Distant Time, the various discourses of humans and animals still overlap and interpenetrate in the everyday experience of Koyukon persons.”

He gives wonderful examples of that overlap of languages:

“The interpenetration of human and nonhuman utterances is particularly vivid in the case of numerous bird songs that seem to enunciate whole phrases or statements in Koyukon. Many bird calls are interpreted as Koyukon words.… What is striking about these words is how perfectly they mirror the call’s pattern, so that someone [outside the tribe] who knows birdsongs can readily identify the species when the words are spoken in Koyukon. Not only the rhythm comes through, but also some of the tone, the “feel” that goes with it.
Hence the whirring, flutelike phrases of the hermit thrush, which sound in the forest thickets at twilight, speak the Koyukon words sook’eeyis deeyo—“it is a fine evening.” The thrushes also sometimes speak the phrase nahutl-eeyh—literally, “a sign of the spirit is perceived.” The thrush first uttered these words in the Distant Time, when it sensed a ghost nearby, and even today the call may be heard as a warning.”

If our loss of Eden was much like the story of Babel--an inability to comprehend the communications of other creatures, life-forms, or even other humans via a loss of ability or perhaps just willingness to take the time and effort necessary to immerse ourselves in the perceptual experience of those other forms or beings, then a return to Eden would be the opposite: Paradise would be the ability to shift our entire being to feel the world’s communications to us, thus being able to respond appropriately. Everything would fall into place: Magic.

St. Theodora's Companion, Zoe Blue

One of the suggestions the author makes towards this end comes from his study of the storytelling techniques of different tribes such as the Aborigines in Australia and their song cycles, and where a person is “conceived.”

“What, then, is the Dreamtime—the Jukurrpa, or Alcheringa—that plays such a prominent part in the mythology of Aboriginal Australia? It is a kind of time out of time, a time hidden beyond or even within the evident, manifest presence of the land, a magical temporality wherein the powers of the surrounding world first took up their current orientation with regard to one another, and hence acquired the evident shapes and forms by which we now know them. It is that time before the world itself was entirely awake...”

The above reminds me of the idea of a latent image, of the belief landscape that lies underneath every occurrence and interaction in your life. Abram then goes on to talk about how the world “got” (or gets, continuously) its form, which is a tale told by song, a song which travels the whole landscape of the country via the path of the Ancestor which first walked, creating the landscape as he did so:

"The distance between two significant sites along the Ancestor’s track can be measured, or spoken of, as a stretch of song, for the song unfolds in an unbroken chain of couplets across the land, one couplet 'for each pair of the Ancestor’s footfalls.' The song is thus a kind of auditory route map through the country; in order to make her way through the land, an Aboriginal person has only to chant the local stanzas of the appropriate Dreaming, the appropriate Ancestor’s song.”

Then comes the immersion, the sort of hypnosis, that the song provides:

“Knowledge of distant parts of one’s song cycle—albeit in one’s own language—apparently enables a person to vividly experience certain stretches of the land even before he or she has actually visited those places. Rehearsing a long part of a song cycle together while sitting around a campfire at night, Aboriginal persons apparently feel themselves journeying across the land in their collective imagination...”

In this culture, as in the others he studied, a sense of place is fundamental to being. A person feels his environment as a part of himself. Abrams gives fascinating examples from the Apache culture and the Aboriginal culture which describe a great power in storytelling, singing, and words themselves which all describe an immersion in the landscape that is very different from what most modern life experiences. But back to Eden:

“The Dreamtime is not, like the Western, biblical notion of Genesis, a finished event; it is not, like the common scientific interpretation of the “Big Bang,” an event that happened once and for all in the distant past. Rather, it is an ongoing process—the perpetual emerging of the world from an incipient, indeterminate state into full, waking reality, from invisibility to visibility, from the secret depths of silence into articulate song and speech. That Native Australians chose the English term “Dreaming” to translate this cosmological notion indicated their sense that the ordinary act of dreaming participates directly in the time of the clan Ancestors, and hence that that time is not entirely elsewhere, not entirely sealed off from the perceivable present.”

Shiny horns (and companion)
Zoe Blue

Here, Dreamtime is the “time” of the creation of the world--not the distant past, but an underlying, symbolic, living layer--something to interact with, to pay attention to, something to know. If we look for a way to see that time in space, Abrams suggests thinking of the “future” as the horizon, or the other side of the trees in front of you; the “past,” then, is the detail in the rings of those trees, the archeological finds in the soil underneath, including the type of sediment or rock that gives a precise accounting of the conditions in the area for the previous thousands of years; the present is the very air you are breathing, all the scents and textures and thoughts and songs and tiny bits of the insides of every other being breathing that same air right now. All those things are “invisible” to you, yet they are right here, right now--present, past, future, making up one landscape that you are a part of--and that you can alter.

Learning to pay such an immersed attention to all aspects of our entire environment right now is a step towards rediscovering Eden. And, just like modern psychology suggests that we would be well-served to step back, especially in tense situations, and re-view our surroundings from the perspective of a fly on the wall, “propelling [our] awareness laterally” is also a tool of the shaman:

“The traditional or tribal shaman, I came to discern, acts as an intermediary between the human community and the larger ecological field, ensuring that there is an appropriate flow of nourishment, not just from the landscape to the human inhabitants, but from the human community back to the local earth. By his constant rituals, trances, ecstasies, and “journeys,” he ensures that the relation between human society and the larger society of beings is balanced and reciprocal, and that the village never takes more from the living land than it returns to it—not just materially but with prayers, propitiations, and praise.
Any healer who was not simultaneously attending to the intertwined relation between the human community and the larger, more-than-human field, would likely dispel an illness from one person only to have the same problem arise (perhaps in a new guise) somewhere else in the community. Hence, the traditional magician or medicine person functions primarily as an intermediary between human and nonhuman worlds, and only secondarily as a healer. Without a continually adjusted awareness of the relative balance or imbalance between the human group and its nonhuman environ, along with the skills necessary to modulate that primary relation, any “healer” is worthless—indeed, not a healer at all. The medicine person’s primary allegiance, then, is not to the human community, but to the earthly web of relations in which that community is embedded—it is from this that his or her power to alleviate human illness derives—and this sets the local magician apart from other persons.”

So, again, that immersion in the landscape, that attention to the placement of objects and the interactions of the living beings around you, and the practiced ability to tune into those other perspectives--to be those other beings, at different times--, brings one to paradise: balance, and health, and magic. It is the garden, the Earth itself that is Paradise.

Throughout the book, Abrams explores the way that developing and using a phonetic alphabet has changed the human relationship with the landscape and turned our attention inward, detaching us from our environment and our surroundings in a way that has had rather extreme consequences, both for human health and for environmental health. But he is careful to point out that his point is not to blame our current situation on writing; rather it is to encourage us to pay attention to our way of thinking, and to work on it, to make “an attempt to think in accordance with our senses, to ponder and reflect without severing our sensorial bond with the owls and the wind [...] a style of thinking, then that associates truth not with static fact, but with a quality of relationship.”

In The Little Locksmith, Katharine Butler Hathaway describes the night terrors that she suffered, the times of overwhelming panic, while she lay strapped to her board, immobile and of uncertain future, for ten long years as a child. Later, when she was able to get up and move around, she still suffered these crippling panics, as she faced her extreme difference and the things that she believed it would keep her from experiencing in this world--things like social inclusion and romantic love (she was, however, incorrect about both). She talks through her memoir of the process of writing being her savior, but also says that often when she needs it most desperately, when she feels those terrors, she is unable to function as a writer, she can’t find that place. But then she discovers this method-- a method of immersion much like what Abrams suggests, though she is not particular about the type of environment:

“After I had discovered my eyes I taught myself to remember them whenever the horrors struck me. No matter what might be happening to me, no matter how crazy and frightened I might feel, there was always the great visible world before me, and I could look at it. When a moment of terror came I could look at a chair, or at a table or at a door, and by deliberately and faithfully looking at it and really seeing it with my whole attention, with the intense and humble selfless concentration of an artist, of a child, of a van Gogh, I could realize and see the chair, or the table, or whatever the object happened to be that was in front of me [thus drawing her out of herself], as I had never realized and seen it before; and it became for me in that moment an object of love, full of mystery and meaning, because the entire visible world became, when I really looked at it, lovable, mysterious, and significant. An ecstasy filled my hand and I began to work. And so I found out where I was to go. For by setting myself to work with the aim of translating my wonderful delight and realization of things into words and sentences I could deliberately cultivate the delight and prolong its visitations until it became the element within which I lived, safe at last, happy and invulnerable.”

She uses writing to extend those moments of immersion in the real world, to further their relations to her life, to imagine them outwards. Writing, then, becomes her savior, enables her to detach herself from her own perspective and immerse herself in another:

“Even in the midst of my sickness, when I had believed I never would write again, the healthy instinct began to work when one day I had reached over from my bed to get a pencil and paper out of the drawer of the night table beside me and I wrote down on a little block of pink paper an idea for a novel that had fallen like a seed into my mind from listening to my nurse tell the story of her life.[...] It filled me with excitement and anticipation. It happened that for me and my purpose it was a living seed. Out of it a story grew and kept on growing year after year, curving like a vine first in one direction and then in another, yet creating and maintaining by means of its own mysterious will its own equilibrium and design. It grew as knowingly as a beautiful and intricate shell forms itself, or is formed by its soft, amorphous, yet accurately guided inhabitant. It was mysterious and beautiful to me, not necessarily to anybody else. But that was enough. I was in love with it, spellbound. It was a story about two sisters who lived in an old yellow farmhouse on the edge of Danvers. I watched every fly that crawled over the kitchen table in that imagined farmhouse, and I smelled every cake and loaf of bread the sisters made, and I heard the stamping footsteps of their father coming in from the snow. [...] I was able to build up for myself what appeared to be an invulnerable calmness and joy, and a complete indifference to my own personal life except that it should remain empty and leave me free to live wholly in this new element which was not the real world but a kind of mirror element in which the essence and movement of the real world was reflected, as in a fortune-teller’s crystal.”

A living seed, which curves like a vine, which grows into new relations between new people, each of whom offer her other perspectives, unique from her own. And she spends time with them, develops them, heals with them--and part of her process is going out, alone (which was a startling concept in itself at the time, for any woman), and purchasing and renovating a home in Castine. That purchase was chosen because of the place itself--a certain magic she felt it had. It was a place with legends of its own which were attached to the very land, and even behaviors that were associated with weather patterns. From her time there, she went out into the world, traveling --again alone-- to Europe to become part of the Surrealist circle, an artist in her own right, and falling in love, falling out of love, recovering, and then falling in love again, this time to marry.

It is an intriguing suggestion, that immersion in place and “propelling [our] awareness laterally,” might be just the technique to practicing true, transformational magic. That, like the shaman, we might ourselves become, for the moment, a bird or a monkey or a horned beast, and then “come back” to ourselves with new, impossible information. One step closer to Paradise.

As I studied fire and firing neurons and their rhythms and the heat of dance, I also delved into the tales of St. Caterina of Bologna; as I explored the realm on the other side of the mirror or at the bottom of the lake, and the idea of having a fish-tail, I discovered the tales of St. Fevronia. I often like to have a Saint or figure that has a religious or mythological (intensely emotional and heavily symbolic) significance; the figures help to solidify ‘theory’ and emblemize ideas...they also thus serve as meditation aids. For the garden/earth ideas I am exploring, I’ve had no such figure to draw upon, not until the day I finished this painting, when I stumbled upon the story of Saint Theodora of Vasta. She was a woman in 11th-Century Greece who disguised herself as a man in order to join the militaristic defense of her city against raiding bandits. In an event that seems to me to precisely reflect the ideas above, she was, while disguised as a man and fighting with weapons, killed, and as she died, she made a request to God to turn her body into a Church, her hair into trees, and her blood into the water for those trees. A church was indeed built upon her grave, and as you can see from the below photos, trees did in fact begin to grow out of its roof. According to legend, a river re-directed itself to flow under the church; it wasn’t until 2003 that geologists were able to use high-frequency georadar to see that the trees were actually growing up through the walls--until then, there appeared to be no root system at all for the trees. It is not easily explainable how the church has survived for hundreds of years with the weight of 17 holly and maple trees growing on its roof (some of them over 98 feet high). The existence of the building at this point really begs for such a transformational mythology to explain it.

Photo of St. Theodora's Chapel from

Photo from

Interior of chapel, to show that you cannot see the trees from the inside..
Photo from

The Passionflower the monkey holds is based upon the one drawn by Maria Sybilla Merian, which was used for the cover of Amazing Rare Things. The lizard-to-bird transition comes from here. The pomegranates were at the request of the birthday recipient of this painting, Vesna.