Thursday, August 23, 2012


Okay. I learned a new word. And I'm not sure what I think about it.  In the past I've been downright incensed at the theft of indigenous spiritual practices by white wannabes.  True, my outrage is for the most part borrowed.  My indigenous friends just about foam at the mouth over this one.  Especially when the appropriated song or ritual or practice is used by the wannabe at the wrong time, at the wrong place, and for the wrong purpose.

How can you, they inquire, take my song and abuse it this way?  You took our land and our language. You stole our children and shipped them off to Christian boarding schools —and now you want our spirituality? Spiritual theft, indeed.  I get it.

Remember the Cherokee elders who heckled Felicitas Goodman one year when we were all in Tempe, "The Creator made you a Presbyterian," they shouted.  "Go back to church!"

My indigenous friends make the case for pure systems.  Or for trying to keep them as pure as possible given that these 'systems' are by now long ago polluted with otherness, or almost completely wiped out anyway.

I understand the indigenous complaint.  I'm sensitive to it.  My own people are practically extinct as well.  And I'd like to say that I don't beg, borrow, or steal from the traditions of others.  Surely I don't  practice anyone else's religion. I mean, I barely practice my own.  No wonder it's dying out.  So there should be nothing to complain about on that front.  And I've learned to be super careful about not inviting guest lecturers to speak in my classes if they're folk who are immersed in someone else's tradition, no matter how knowledgeable or devout or sincere they may appear.

But then there's Zalman.  Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, my mentor. Reb Zalman, whose teachings helped me reconcile my love for Islamic cultures with holding on to my own unshakeable (nearly extinct) Sephardi identity.  I had it all worked out at one point: I mean after all, it's because of the Ottoman Islamic State that my people survived at all.  And before that, we thrived in Islamic Spain.  It all sounds so rational when you put it like that.  I mean, it's not like I wear a hijab (though I think they're pretty elegant), and I certainly don't perform Islamic prayers five times a day. No.  I just appreciate Islam. It makes a lot of sense to me.

I hadn't seen Reb Zalman in many, many years, but here he was, giving a symposium for Star King at the Islamic Cultural Center in Oakland.  Three days of Zalman!

And the service had everything in it.

Just name a religion, and it's tradition was in there somewhere.  No pygmy chants that I recognized, but you get my point.

The word of the day was 'multireligiosity' —and the Star King folk, they practice what they preach.  And it was pretty stunning.  Each sentence was peppered with the weaving together of traditions. And so were the songs that were sung, and the gestures, and the clothing.

I want to call it syncretism, but it isn't.  It's something more personal that that.  For it seemed that every person in the hall had a different combination of religious affinities. And the lectures and sermons encouraged more of the same.

And to tell the truth, it was pretty neat to hear the Jewishisms coming out of the mouths of Muslims, and the Islamicisms falling out of the mouths of Jews.  It wasn't forced, or enforced—it was merely comfort and familiarity with the Other.  Or, no, not that—for Otherness had disappeared from their vocabulary.  It was fairly seamless.

Reb Zalman spoke of the virtues of being in-between the strict adherences of the isms.  He encouraged all to cultivate the larger tapestry.  What kind of religion serves best the healing of the planet? Go and practice that.

It was three days of religious liminality.  But it wasn't just about appreciating the Other, it was about practicing the practices of each.  The symposium wasn't just merged wordings—there was ritual too. Performativity.  And this is something I'm profoundly uncomfortable with.  But Zalman encourages participation (and sure, it's part of anthropological methodology as well) (and so, deciding to be a good sport, and put my bloody notebook down and stop taking notes) I found myself in —


—crying my eyes out, as we chanted and bobbed. The rhythm is exactly the type that moves me, or maybe moves everybody.  Look at films of zikr and you'll see just how entrancing it is.  And it made me feel instead of making me think.  Which is exactly what it's supposed to do. And exactly what Reb Zalman wants me to do.  After all, he's a Jewfi.

Two zikrs in three days can bring on an addiction for sure. It's precisely the practice of religious ritual that is so powerful, not the intellectual appreciation of it.  I'm still going to chalk it up to participant-observation, this time, at least.  But deep down, I'm not so sure.  I believe I'm in grave danger of wanting more.

And maybe of going out and finding it.

Monday, August 13, 2012

writing and seduction

"Have you written anything for me lately?"

Well, no.  Nothing at all.

So. What's the problem?  And actually, I want to solve here a larger problem.  The problem of bad writing altogether, especially that of undergrads.  And maybe a few grad students as well.  Or.  To be honest.  Maybe a lot of grad students.  

And then I'll solve the teaching problem too.  But not till the end of the post. Or next post, if I don't get around to it.  But I think I will.

No.  I haven't written anything for you lately.  I've been too busy sleeping with you. Camping with you.  Doing the being-together thing with you.  I haven't written a goddamned word.  Cooking. Doing the laundry.  Emptying the trash.  Muzzling the barky dog. Unmuzzling the quiet dog. Setting up the new computer to start writing.  Clearing off the desk.  Picking up the dogs shit.  Working out, for god's sake!

Anything, anything at all but writing.  

Which spells for me a stage of life that might be called 'post-seduction.'

It's that easy (still early enough) part of a relationship in which just picking up someone else's dog's shit is still kinda a kick enough to be fun.  And done out of love and reciprocity (I pick up your dog shit, you pick up mine), and has not descended into resentment, or even worse—rage. Horrors. Don't get me wrong: it doesn't ever need to go that way.  I think I like this stage of post-seduction. I like the mutuality of it.  The minutiae of it.  It's pretty easy.  But I'm not sure it's quite enough.

Because writing is a powerful seduction.

I don't mean the kind of writing written explicitly in order to make a million bucks or two.  I don't mean strategic writing. The porn of how he gets laid every X number of pages because you think that sells. That's not seduction. That's ambition. And I'm not talking about ambition.

The Story of O didn't make those big bucks because it was trying to seduce a large well-paying audience. Anne Desclos (Pauline Réage) had only an audience of one in mind.  Everyone else has been just eavesdropping on a very private conversation.

And that's why it works.

The best writing has a sense of urgency as well as a very clear sense of audience.

Desclos knew what she was doing.  As did Genet, when he sat in prison pleasuring himself with words. The stuff just pours out (the words, I mean—though with Genet, that would be both), because there's no way to dam the flow.  Compelling writing is like that.  And it doesn't have to reach everybody.  It just has to reach that one person.  The eavesdroppers come along for the ride. They're a freebie, if you will.

Undergrads primarily write out of obligation.  Coercion.

"How many pages do you want?" they ask in dismay.

They're not all like OMG, can you believe it, I GET to write something... I am so jazzed...  

Think about it, students (if I may address you as such, just for a moment, one last time). When school is finally over, it is very likely that no one will ever give you the opportunity to take the time and just pour out your words ever again.  For some of you, it's very likely you'll never ever write again. At least, that's what you've told me.

And you've forgotten, it seems, that someone has to read this crap you've flung at us as pages filled.  Student papers have to be read (unlike that porn, the NYT, or any other written word).  Someone has to read them.  And that someone used to be me.  But no, no more.  With luck, I will never read another student paper ever again.  

So. I'm gonna say this straight out (and with all due respect)—and I hope it helps.  And maybe I should have said it in class. But no, you'd have taken it all wrong—

The best papers are a seduction.

They're written with words put together with that one specific 'audience' in mind.  Beautiful combinations of words. Just for me, for you, whomever. A topic filled with three parts desire for every part called eloquent.  Seduction trumps eloquence any day.

It doesn't matter what the topic is.  

Write about-the-economy-stupid. Write about Romney. Saddam (curious unconscious transition there). Write about whether to fund (or weaponize) Syrian rebels. Or how to get your name on a crater of Mars. Write about daffodils in the very early springtime.  Drought mid-summer. What you had for breakfast this morning (and why we should care).  Write about the gods. It's never ever about the subject anyway.

But if you're writing for that goddamned grade (or to make you that fortune you think is there)—you've missed the mark.  You've got to be turned on by your own writing.

Seduce yourself, first and foremost, no matter the topic.

There's a flush, a blush in those students who fall in love with their own work.  Their cheeks blossom, their eyes twinkle.  They're not being strategic, they're being excited by the material at hand.

I haven't written for you lately.

I've been too busy doing anything but writing. 

Because my own writings were missives to death, love songs to the dead and dying. Remembrances, lest I forget. Tales to my children, lest they never have the opportunity to remember. Stories that will be forever gone if I don't write them down.  No one else can do it.

In the face of death and dying, I seduce myself with words.  Genet was ever my best teacher.

Ah, but here's the rub.  Let me not put this all upon the student who writes because he feels he's forced. Because the-system's telling him to jump through hoops, crank out those pages. Because he's stuck with an English class (or god-forbid, Anthropology) and he's an Engineering student. And shit, I have to in order to-get-outta-here. Goddamn it, when they resent their being in school, it drives me mad!

This goes for teachers, too, you know.

Teaching is seduction, too.

A prominent psychoanalyst told me that one time when I complained to him of such.

Not a seduction of the person, but of the material at hand.  If you as you lecture are in love with your topic, that is the best seduction of all.  (In truth, that's not quite what he said.  To an analyst, it's all about the person).  

Topic doesn't matter. Ancient Greek or Pleistocene dentition. The fall of the Ottoman Empire. Black holes. Who cares?  It's all seduction-worthy.

Blow on those embers and makes them glow.

I've been doing laundry, not writing. Cooking for you. And eating your own exotic meals.  Camping out, and hiking trails. Studying pig roasts and fishin' holes. Walking dogs and bagging dog shit together. I've been doing chop wood, carry water of late. Pouring out a simple kind of love and not seduction.

In other words, I started just to live again. And started leaving all those stories far behind.

School is starting in a week or two—and for the first time in my sentient life I won't be there to greet it.  For me, school is finally, finally over.

But life is not as much fun without a little seduction now and then.  Time to pick up that quill again, and try my rusty hand.