Thursday, October 18, 2012

years from their source

The sky in Las Vegas this summer was white and clear; the walls kicked the heat back at you, the road kicked the light back at you, everything in the sunlight kicked the sunlight back at you, especially first thing in the morning, when the sun was at the right angle, whatever that was, to change your ideas about the star, now rough against your eyes, this radiant mugger that boiled the atmosphere into two large storms, of which, the first one dragged away a high school student, and the second storm washed a groundskeeper off his golf course. Twelve feet of water on parts of that golf course, said a source whose name I forget. Twelve feet looks like such a high number (due to ideas about twelves and due to the amount of water I usually see lying around on the ground in this city, which is none but rather a hard baked matte surface on everything) that I want to point it might have been inches, which would be more reasonable but memory insists on the unreasonable one, and the reasonable conclusion is not always true; for example, on the gravel verge by the intersection on that same day I saw a broken plastic flipper lying alone and unexplained, and a million other things that could have been there would have been more normal in this desert and yet undoubtedly it was a flipper.

(If you turned me into a different person then that flipper would become right now the start of an essay, the mind of the writer opening from flipper into universe, and I would start a chapter now and title it, Of The Natural Causes and Original of Flippers, following which I would record my acceptance of the seal flipper, the dugong flipper, the flipper of the majestic whale with its little eyes like a soulful pig, the bone of the whale flipper as translated into the human arm, into the dog's leg, and into the wing of the bat, then what is it to be a bat, what is it to be a whale, what is it to want to write Moby Dick, Melville moody in an attic, then I would move on to the subject of famous historical or literary moodiness, Christina Stead writing The Man Who Loved Children in a New York apartment with a bad view, her sourness during A Little Tea, A Little Chat, then I would go back to flippers again, and the webbed toes of ducks or gulls, then mention the grey bird we saw under a cliff-face in the mountains while within sight roamed two feral horses eating the grass, one black horse, one amber with a black tail, and the name of that bird we did not know, "Those ancient men of genius who rifled nature by the torch-light of reason even to her very nudities, have been run a-ground in this unknown channel; the wind has blown out the candle of reason, and left them all in the dark," I'd write, borrowing from Daniel Defoe's book The Storm, where I found my chapter title, only in him it is Of The Natural Causes and Original of Winds -- and etc, etc.)

Towards the end of the season, after months when leaving the house made me sweat piggishly, each pore a piddle, I read travel books because it was the only way to go anywhere, Freya Stark's The Valleys of the Assassins for one and Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard for another, Stark British and Matthiessen American, Stark going through the dangerous countryside between Iraq and Iran ("I spent a fortnight in that part of the country where one is less frequently murdered"), Matthiessen hiking through the Himalayan mountains with a biologist named George Schaller who wanted to watch Pseudois nayaur go through its mating rituals in order to find out whether they behaved like sheep or like goats; also perhaps Matthiessen would see a snow leopard though the leopard was not a guarantee.

They hired porters for their baggage. Matthiessen admires one of these porters more than the rest because this porter has a kind of intelligent expression that suits the American's idea of an instinctive wise man. Zen Buddhism is the prime category through which Matthiessen understands the world; he measures his surroundings by integrating them into this category or determining that they do not fit. This porter fits into his category; now he can find more to say about him; the man appears to demonstrate this or that point that the author wants to make, so he is mentioned and the point is made, he is a gate and sign for an idea, for several ideas, and the author, at the end of the trek, recommends him to a porter company for an elevated position in the local porter hierarchy but the man behind the desk responds, Are you high, that man is a drunk.

Matthiessen concludes that these Tibetans have a lot in common with Native Americans. "I am struck by the resemblance between our native Americans and these Mongol peoples." There are physical similarities, there are also their "ornaments of turquoise and silver," and their beliefs: "The native American traditions are Eastern cultures, thousands of miles and perhaps thousands of years from their source." There is "the Aztec concept of existence as a dream state," for example, and "the Algonquin medicine man" would recognise the Tibetan yogi; but there are resemblances to other cultures as well, in fact resemblances to everybody everywhere, to the mysticisms of those religions born in the Middle East, and "the Australian aborigines -- considered to be the most ancient race on earth," have a dreamtime, which is a very Eastern thing, he says. Things are matched all over the earth and no fact goes unfriended. Ancient ideas have survived since primitive eras. "Knowledge" writes Jeremy Taylor in Holy Dying, "is nothing but remembrance."

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