We see the sorcerer being called upon to cure an ailing tribesman of his sleeplessness, or perhaps simply to locate some missing goods; we witness him entering into trance and sending his awareness into other dimensions in search of insight and aid. yet we should not be so ready to interpret these dimensions as “supernatural,” nor to view them as realms entirely “internal” to the personal psyche of the practitioner. For it is likely that the “inner world” of our Western psychological experience, like the supernatural heaven of Christian belief, originates in the loss of our ancestral reciprocity with the animate earth. When the animate powers that surround us are suddenly construed as having less significance than ourselves, when the generative earth is abruptly defined as a determinate object devoid of its own sensations and feelings, then the sense of a wild and multiplicitous otherness (in relation to which human existence has always oriented itself) must migrate, either into a supersensory heaven beyond the natural world, or else into the human skull itself—the only allowable refuge, in this world, for what is ineffable and unfathomable.
The sensing body is not a programmed machine but an active and open form, continually improvising its relation to things and to the world.
From the magician’s, or the phenomenologist’s, perspective, that which we call imagination is from the first an attribute of the senses themselves; imagination is not a separate mental faculty (as we so often assume) but is rather the way the senses themselves have of throwing themselves beyond what is immediately given, in order to make tentative contact with the other sides of things that we do not sense directly, with the hidden or invisible aspects of the sensible.
The Flesh [in Merleau-Ponty‘s final work, The Visible and the Invisible] is the mysterious tissue or matrix that underlies and gives rise to both the perceiver and the perceived as interdependent aspects of its own spontaneous activity.
That final quote hit home because it aligned with V. F. Cordova’s discussion of the Jicarilla Apache term Usen in her book How It Is, which I finished reading during our latest sojourn in Mexico. “The term signifies a concept that may be ‘pan-Indian,’; that is, it may be widespread throughout Native America,” she writes:
The term Usen [involves] the notion of something that simply is, that remains unidentifiable, mysterious, supernatural in the sense that it is beyond pointing to. Nevertheless, this mysterious something precedes everything else; it serves at the same time as the ground of things and the manifestion of itself.
She goes on to observe that “Usen is a term of such abstraction that it has, thus far, proven too comoplex for Europeans to understand. The idea of Usen, or its other manifestations, was mistaken by early Christian missionaries for the Western concept of God. ‘Great Spirit’ is the name the missionaries gave it.”
I have to believe that Cordova wasn’t familiar with Merleau-Ponty’s book, or she might have enjoyed some comfort in knowing that a European did, in fact, understand Usen, and in fact came to it on his own. I’m not a philosopher, of course, and don’t read much of the stuff; but I plan to read Merleau-Ponty, even though I understand his work was dismissed by Marxists and Structuralists. He, and Cordova, and Abram seem to me to be on the right track.
And are Merleau-Ponty’s Flesh and Cordova’s Usen not exactly what I mean by Imaginal Space? I think so….
I finally got around to reading the great Polish poet Adam Zagajewski‘s latest collection, Unseen Hand. He is one of those inexhaustible poets, in my estimation, and as far as I can tell is being served beautifully by his translator Clare Cavanagh. A couple of poems from it found their way into my notebook this week:
Self-Portrait in an Airplane
In Economy Class
Crouched like an embryo,
crushed into the narrow seat,
I try to remember
the scent of fresh-cut hay
when wooden carts descend
in August form the mountain meadows,
lurching down dirt roads
and the drive cries out
as men always do when they panic
they screamed that way in the Iliad
and have never fallen silent since,
not during the Crusades,
or later, much later, near us,
when no one listens.
I’m tired, I think about what
can’t be thought—about the silence that reigns
in forests when the birds sleep,
about the coming end of summer.
I hold my head in my hands
as if shielding it from annihilation.
Seen from outside I doubtless
seem immobile, almost dead,
resigned, deserving sympathy.
But it’s not so—I’m free,
maybe even happy.
Yes, I hold my heavy head
in my hands,
but inside it a poem is being born.
Evening on the market square I saw shining faces
of people I didn’t know. I looked greedily
at people’s faces: each was different,
each said something, persuaded,
I thought that the city is built not of houses,
squares, boulevards, parks, wide streets,
but of faces gleaming like lamps,
like the torches of welders, who mend
steel in clouds of sparks at night.