Cistern of Atavism

June 22, 2010

The other morning I went out to hand water the garden. It’s a quieting ritual I share with a few birds before the sun comes over the mountain to my east. I noticed the hose didn’t seem to work to draw water from the catchment cistern. After various Laurel and Hardy-like routines of switching hoses, looking in working facets and so on, I climbed a ladder and peered in. The 500 gallon cistern was nearly empty. My body reacted the same way it did years ago when I sat on the curb and saw the car I wrecked, or watched police break through my door, or shook my grandfather’s hand the hot afternoon I got married. A physical sinking flush of realization that I was powerless to change what was happening, and that event was staring into me. Looking in that dark water I felt a deeper unmediated part of me silently shrieking. I felt as if I’d fallen off the ladder and was struggling to run away, but couldn’t…that dream. Be clear, as close as I come to farming is shaking hands with people at the farmer’s markets where I buy vegetables when the weather’s nice. My garden is herbs and ornamentals. I was raised in an industrial city in northern Ohio, not a drought plagued geography. My experiences with cisterns and drought have been limited to tourism, art and literature. So I was more surprised at my reaction than, the actual low cistern. Where did such a deep wild reaction originate from within me, some lost memory, the collective unconscious…was I channeling a maintenance message from the dead owners of this house?

Sometime in my more academically ambitious past I was researching possible relationships between the contemporaneous Rilke and Jung. I was interested not just in their theories of memory, art and the collective unconscious, but “Blood Memory”. Blood Memory, now primarily restricted to detective novel titles, old Star Trek episodes and confused fringe groups, was a fashionable theory at the turn of the 20th Century. It was a way of knowing without learning or experience. It extrapolated genetics into a primitive cultural feeling of déjà vu by inventing a corpuscular memory bank; it was popular with both artists and racists.  It gave credence to unarticulated feelings that seemed too real to be merely transient or random. My Grandparents would have learned about Blood Memory in the same passing way we understand Alzheimer’s disease or deep water drilling. It was Social Darwinism for those who didn’t want to accept or bother to read Darwin.

Eventually my project disintegrated into a pile of manila files, a shelf of pretentious books and unreviewed notes. For me the parts became more valuable than the whole. I traveled to Austria and had a deep, satisfying reading of Rilke in a small cottage with the wind whispering under the door, and spent a couple years in Jungian analysis, and seemed to have moved on. But the value of knowledge doesn’t reside in institutions and mere information, its nature is direct contact and experience. It is the tedious, hand to hand relationship with the world that forms (or deforms) every culture and art piece by piece. Failing to maintain that person by person integration leaves civilizations broken and in ruin. To integrate genuine knowledge of the world requires a marriage, a mutual possession. For the most part that possession is what a university lecture or a museum can only demonstrate in fragments…which in part brings me back to Rilke and Jung and a famous fragment of a statue. In “Archaic Torso of Apollo” Rilke explores a relationship of interiorities between the viewer and the viewed:

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

[Archaic Torso of Apollo, RMR, translated Stephen Mitchell]

He prescribed a kind of reflexive struggle of perception where the viewer encounters an object and is entered by that object. The jarring admonishment Rilke gives at the end of the poem comes neither from the viewer or the object, but from a voice created by possession.

Jung had a similar, if somewhat less lyrical description of possession”… In the state of possession both figures [animus & anima] lose their charm and their values; they retain them only when they are turned away from the world, in the introverted state, when they serve as bridges to the unconscious. “ [Concerning Rebirth C.W.]

The idea that a person can be spiritually or psychically held, enthused, ridden, inspired, taken over by a being or sense other than their conscious mind has been in human parlance since there has been human parlance. And in nearly every form of language possession has been used as a form of preternatural communication.

Possession isn’t at all a foreign notion to our age, not in a world where people strap explosive vests to themselves to fight Holy Wars, the Wall Street Journal publishes articles detailing whether or not members of Sarah Palin’s former congregations spoke in tongues, and people have images of dead loved ones tattooed on themselves. For a great many of us, we are our possessions. Excluding the explosive vests and war, I’m not too critical any of this. I suspect nearly all human beings need to be “possessed” at some times, and some quite frequently. Many of us go deeply out of our way to have that experience. We pray in varieties of ways to varieties of deities, dutifully dance to our favorite songs, do yoga (religious and secular), search for hours to buy rare trash on Ebay, fall in love with strangers, gasp at horror movies, write poems, meditate, keep our dreams in journals, sing in our cars, train for ultra marathons,  cry over tele-novellas, obsessively practice musical instruments, dress in period costumes to reenact Civil War battles, and ingest all manner of psychoactive concoctions…all for that perception of both being more than real and genuinely there at the same time. To varying extents we assess the value of our efforts based on the same criteria Rilke and Jung outlined…of being more fully present than we are in the tedium of most of our lives and an other-worldly awareness of simultaneous connection with the past and present and that this connection has resonance in our bodies. Being there.

But there is so seldom an authentic there. It’s a weird adverb; it’s always a relation, and always just there away from us. Both Rilke and Jung seem to agree that  to be possessed, to get there to recieve the message requires some courtship, a pilgrimage, a ritual..a great silence. For twenty or thiry years I pursued the mysterious people who built mounds and pyramids all over North America. Since my youth I’ve read and engaged in intuitive preparation, from visiting Mound Builder sites, to sleeping on earthwork serpents, building earthwork sculpture and crawling through terrifying humid tunnels in pyramids constructed to inter much smaller men than me. I didn’t want mere knowledge; I wanted contact.

Not too many summers ago I was standing in the noontime sun estimating how many billion cochineal it would have taken to dye the Placio de los Juguares red, just as my grad student tour guide at Tenochtitlan began presenting her theory of Las Vegas. “It is a simulacrum…designed to look like a Venice, Egypt, or New York, that doesn’t exist except by façade and in the imagination of tourists. It’s a pronoun without a physical antecedent.” Her implication was that tourists were too ignorant to know better, or wanted to co-opt another culture on the cheap. Somehow vacationers and gamblers had no right to experience even a faux physical knowledge of places they hadn’t actually visited. Her thesis was that American architecture had abandoned self possession in favor of the artificial security of commercializing things past.

Apart from the air conditioning, I asked, how that was different from our wandering Mexican ruins imagining the culture that had been there 1,000 years ago?

Unconsciously I had paid an erudite woman to distract my anticipated communion by generating a post PoMo critique of the Las Vegas strip while we were strolling the thousand year old ‘The Avenue of the Dead’. She chattered passionately covering the barely audible trickle of the baths that once fed and cleansed a city of 200,000 sophisticated human beings. She waited in a shaded café while I climbed the legendary Pyramid of the Sun,  a structure consecrated over and over in the blood of human sacrifice. The Aztecs visited these ruins, when they visited ruins.  It was the home of Quetzacoatl. We could only talk about a fake Vegas.

Neither she nor I could be were where we were, or who we were. She was distracted by a conceptual Las Vegas she found attractive, but not beautiful. I was ignoring the physical fragments of a city I had traveled an exhuasting distance by bus to visit. I wasn’t making a personal connection on any level in the presence of some of the most important monumental art on the continent. I had possession of nothing but a sunburn and a lecture.

And then suddenly one morning I’m looking down the hole of a water tank and I’m stunned. I’ve been siezed in the fangs of Tlaloc, the god of rain. I’m connected like lightning to a dark terrifying world of loss that both Rilke and Jung tell me I should live in and care for like my garden. I’m possessed.

It doesn’t take Rilke, Jung or even a second rate psychic to understand what a 58 year old man sees in the bottom of that well. I was possessed by my own death and it was looking back at me. The dry reality of my limited days and  the diminishing resources of my own life were my “borders” and “bursting star”. The message of the warm black water was the same as followed the polished white torso.

 Over the next few days when I thought or wrote about  the cistern, or Rilke’s broken statue, Jung’s unconscious realm of battling shadows, walking through Tenochitlan or even Venetian canals in Las Vegas. I became nervous and ennerated. I couldn’t read.  Mere knowledge was just so much stuff next to seeing my own death. Thinking made me want to brew more tea, drive in to town, check World Cup scores…watch “King Kong” again. Part of me had fallen into that cistern and  I couldn’t repossess it.

On a whim I stole a piece of my wife’s water color stock and mindlessly began painting circles with her water colors. First pale painted spheres the size of cherries, surrounded by yellow gold rings, then periwinkle and purple saucer sized loops nestled in the colors of shaded mountain grass, and this encircled by cloudy blotches of blue. It meant something to me, but I had only an inarticulate sense of what it might be. But it brought me  a deep physical relief and a faint whispering under my skin.

I believe there is  enough water in the cistern for the garden to survive. I believe it will rain soon; I can feel it in my blood.

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