Wednesday, January 09, 2013


The African man had had good luck on this day.  Not just one but TWO elands had fallen to his spear.  Now it is nightfall and the cooking fires have died down, but a sentinel fire is burning in the middle of the village.  The little children with full bellies are sleeping like puppies in the huts.  There has been enough meat for many families and they are happy.  The man puts on his ceremonial headdress and takes his spear to stand by the fire.  His weight shifts from one foot to the other.  Slowly he raps the butt of his long spear on the ground in a steady rhythm.  The other men get their spears and come to stand alongside him, synchronizing their spears with his, their rocking with his.  The women come to make a second circle, clapping and rocking, adding a counterpoint, and singing.

The Plains Indian woman’s baby has died despite every effort.  No one knows the cause.  The mother wraps it carefully in a spotted fawn hide -- it is a very small baby.  Singing, she walks out alone over the prairie towards the closest river coulee, some miles away.  When she gets there, she climbs into a tree and finds a place that will cradle the wrapped baby.  Then she sits beneath the tree, trying to bear the sorrow.  In her belt bag of instruments is an obsidian hand-blade with an edge sharper than metal.  This she uses to score her skin, cutting that releases serotonin into her system even as she loses blood.  For several days she remains at the base of the tree, singing, hallucinating, dissociated from the world around her.  Finally her brother, leading a horse because he knows she will be weak, comes to take her home.

Consider the survival problem of cultivated people: how to match their children into happy pairs that will responsibly raise the next generation in a way that’s good for them but also good for the whole group.  So the British social template for the upper classes includes “coming out” with a grand ball for girls who have come of marriageable age.  They wear white to indicate they are virginal and dance in a patterned way to show their skills.  The men wear tuxes or tails, signs of high formality and properly worn with medals and sashes to show power.  

Today this practice persists in terms of high school proms, when middle-class Americans use the British idea of how to mark prosperity and blessedness.  Now the importance slips from the power of the family to produce a worthy mother to a kind of declaration of coming of age on the part of the girls.  The senior prom replaces marriage, since young people now go through a period of co-habitation, but the expensive ball gowns  -- once white and attached to marriage ceremonies -- are still expensive.  Now in colors and more influenced by Hollywood than princesses, sequins instead of diamonds.  This becomes such an important ceremony that systems are invented to allow low-income girls to “borrow” the fabulous dresses so they can be proud. 

At the same time, liberated young women may choose this significant moment to make a statement of their own.  They do not appreciate being “marketed” as sexual objects, and so they go as a female pair, wearing tuxes and -- to show even further reversal -- high-top tennis shoes.  Others, equally liberated, mock the event by dancing in explicit imitation of sexual union, defying any attempt to formalize or control sex by adults. 

This primal level where people “speak” in metaphor, both inventing and responding to pre-determined ceremonies, is the kind of liturgy that interests me.  It isn’t created in words from a book (that’s the way of weddings) but in a code of behavior and sensory information.  The ultimate goal is survival of the individual or the community.

Once at the Multnomah County Courthouse I was in the elevator in my Animal Control Officer uniform: sheriff’s badge, shirt and trousers originally chosen for the Sheriff’s horseback posse -- so a wide-brimmed felt Ranger hat to match.  I was going up to courtrooms and so were a dozen women arrested for prostitution the previous night.  Some had fur coats over their skimpy outfits.  Their hair had originally been elaborate, like their earrings and makeup -- all a bit blurred now.  They reeked of Opium perfume, which had only been on the market a few months at the time.   We were really crushed together, maybe too many of us, because the elevator got stuck.  (It did that quite a lot.) Lucky we were a jolly bunch.  We stood together for twenty minutes: me and the escorting officer and them.  It wasn’t quite a liturgy.  If we had begun to sing gospel songs and sway it little, it might have been.

Foundry work, especially on the level of a homemade art bronze foundry in the days before cheap kits for sand-casting, was dangerous and required carefully patterned behavior.  Exhaust fans for the extreme heat roared too loudly to play music.  We wore asbestos protective gear and plastic face shields.  So much was at stake that we had a prayerful beseeching undertone in our minds and then if it went well, we rejoiced.  The connection to the most primitive beginnings of molten bronze was always there in the taste of burnt metal.  It wasn’t about the actual art, but about the process.  It was not a liturgy, but if someone staged a dance and called it “Vulcan’s Work”, using some of the gestures including the stream of molten metal, then it would be close.  

Would it be Sacred?  The potential would surely be there, but what would make it rise to the highest level?  Skill?  Intensity?  Social context?  Maybe all of the above.  But the key has to be sensory awareness, personal experience, and a strong grip on either the structure of the event (Apollonian) or what can explode the structure (Dionysian) -- both can be powerful.  Partly you have to feel it, and partly you have to figure it out.  Partly it can be improvised and partly it can be a grand cultural tradition.  Like the kids in this video:

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