Sunday, March 07, 2010


When I went off to seminary (combined enrollment at Meadville/Lombard and the U of Chicago Div School which gave me access to all “cluster” seminaries), I only knew this was a rigorous, high prestige way to go. Soon it was apparent that I was going to have to learn to think in a particularly disciplined, European, professional, white-man’s way. It took a while. I bought books and so on, and finally managed sort of an imitation. My real joy was principles of “narrativity” with Richard Stern though he disapproved of me. I never really figured out what “modernity” was -- something to do with inner psychological life, I think.

Then there was the monk/priest named Schreiter who tried to get us to understand comparative religion by entering the inner meaning of the Other’s terms -- as well as our own -- to find a far more gripping recognition than whatever-to-eat and whatever-to-drink. This threw me back to Fifties acting class on the other side of Chicago where Alvina Krause bedeviled us to find the key, the spine, the inner life as shaped by culture.

Just about the time I could think in that restricted technical way of “reason,” along came structuralism (which I thought made sense) and then deconstruction (Derrida, Foucault, et al) which I never did really get a grip on, though I did understand that most people’s interest was fueled by anger and challenge. It was grounds for revolution. I took refuge in comparative religion as done by Mircea Eliade. The Marxist critique of literature according to the principles of the caterpillar out of Alice in Wonderland was so difficult and so unrewarding (unless you were trying to defend a point of view you already had) that it has rather withered. Anyway, I’d wandered off to object relations psychology, the “teddy bear” shrinks like Winnicott and Kohut. They were mostly English and I haunted the original Powells in Hyde Park to find them.

Now comes along a new system of thought, international, espoused just to the north of me in Alberta universities, that makes me utterly happy. It’s Deleuse’s and Guattari’s notion of “geophilosophy,” a real assumption buster. It’s “horizontal” which I was taught in architecture class is a sign of the humanist as opposed to the transcendent dimension of the upright part of the Cross and the cathedral steeple. The humanist reaches out to the thieves on either side. God is “deus absconditus”. Here’s the new symbol. Sweetgrass. Rooted. Immanent. IMMANENT.

Rhizome thinking is a whole new way of looking at the world, a meta-philosophy that seeks to evade the hierarchical notions of one sovereign tree trunk from which arise branches. Sweetgrass is rhizomous: it grows in a tuft, then extends a tendril under the ground and grows a new tuft and goes on webbing the land that way. It benefits from being burned over.

We think of life as a path, a river, a continuous plane of growth, a succession of ascending steps, biological or institutional. But rhizomes are points connected by growth in any direction. The difference is the same one between traditional note-taking for which computers are programmed to set up Procrustean bullet points or hierarchies of indentation and the newer system of idea webbing in which points are identified around a central notion or source. It helps when progressivism fails, the goals confused.

I’ve been a contentious woman, intent on preserving my autonomy and identity. These forces, in various contexts determined to stifle, crush and assimilate me, have meant that I’ve moved from one locus of development to another, thus become nomadic. And changed, since each new locus brought up new sides of me.

Each change was harrowing, and each locus had it’s own weather, economy, focus, population, and language -- more a matter of jargon than of national languages but still different enough to press me towards meta-concepts. Each locus had little or no consciousness of the others, so I had to explain them to each other, explanations they often didn’t want, didn’t need. To survive I became a trickster or a perruques, a sceptical insider.

I’ve often been an isolate who values “nature,” meaning that these meta-concepts privileged the haptic, the sensory life in each place. I came to believe in the haeccities of each locus (individuality, character) in terms of sensory life, concepts captured in art. Desire for wholeness was at war with desire for status, esp. that connected to scholarship or writing. But I was never without desire, which was a force for inclusion and often led to a synergy as I went from one “clump” of growth to another: theatre, reservation, bronze-casting, teaching, animals, psychology, seminary, Rockford, Hartford, circuit-riding, Kirkland, Saskatoon, wandering, bureaucracy, village and always reading and writing. Then the Internet, so rhizomous that it has kept me connected to almost every tuft on my list as well as locating “ecophilosophy” which for me is a philophilia, the love of loving, a kind of yearning.

I’m preparing a paper about Cinematheque for an academic journal called “Rhizomes”. Finally I’ve found a system that can explain and justify not only the existence of the group, but also my strange connection to it. (I think of Louisa May Alcott’s book, “Jo’s Boys.”) Not just my reaching out to them but Tim’s acceptance of me in spite of boy scepticism and resistance. This is not a Wendy complex, wanting to be a little mother. This is admiration for their survival in lives I can imagine but not be part of.

It is not the same as misery-lit -- more like travel lit where people go out looking for the Other. Not just men who don’t fit their own cultures, but also Victorian Alexandra David-Neal on her pony in her long skirts, looking for a Tibetan cave to live in while she pursues Buddhism and who, when a holy man came up the path to visit her, trailing behind him a huge purple monster with fangs, went down to meet him and put out her hand, curious to feel the monster. It dissolved, fantastic, dreamlike, and yet real. Wonderful, most literally.

Much of this writing depends upon “adjective lists” -- that is, they use a sequence of near synonyms to define the territory, words that overlap but also overextend, so that the edges of the words are resilient and moving to form a kind of amoeba of concept rather than a neat Platonic, compass-drawn edge. I love the ambiguity, the mystery, the surprise, the Otherness, the unpredicted, unassimiliated, ineffable. See what I mean?

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

I was just making a comment elsewhere on the difference between surface-level exoticism and the quest for the truly alien, the Other, which is much harder to find.

I value immanence. My experience of the divine has always been immanent at least as often as transcendent, and your analogy from humanist architecture (one thinks of Wright and the Prairie School) is apt. Matthew Fox uses the term panentheism, which I think is right on target, and works well for describing my own attitudes and experiences.

I love sweetgrass. I picked up a new braid a month ago, and have ben letting it dry on the dashboard of my truck as I drove around the West this past month on vacation.