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After the Snowbird, Comes the Whale, Pt 3 Sec 3.

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XVII

NivaranaHindrances

A PSYCHOLOGICALLY HELPFUL term in Buddhist writing is nivarana. Breaking the word into a primitive etymology, the ni– suggests the idea of ‘without’, while varana presumably derives from the Sanskrit verb, vr– ‘to move or flow’. The sum of the two parts suggesting blockage. Orthodox theory teaches that hindrances to spiritual development derive from human weakness. Whether or not that’s true, nivarana is a description of the relationship to time as the individual moves through the unknowable spaces of the future.

We inhabit a featureless emptiness onto which phenomena imprint themselves: things, people…

The path ahead is never clearly open. We all produce our idiosyncratic interferences, whether or not these are projections like the delusional obstacles in the uncertain trajectory of an eighteenth-century picaro. And in a real sense, we are all picaros shambling through perfectly ordinary landscapes loaded internally with psychological libraries of out-dated ‘how to do it’ equipment.

Essentially, we inhabit a featureless and flat landscape with no contour, a space without limit, a colourless expanse which has neither margin nor definition, a featureless emptiness onto which phenomena imprint themselves: things, people, structures and natural objects whose forms and colours are characterized by phantasmagoric projection.

The most normal of days presents itself in the morning as a transparent, perhaps simplified aether as evoked in the first line of a folk song — ‘As I walked out one morning…’ for example. Anything then could happen. The landscape, though invisible, is open.

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Which is to say that we wake into a psychological environment of nothing and that into this space move our plans for the next accessible period plus accretions of previous activity. All this suggests that much as we love our plans and that these keep us busy and interconnected, they get in the way of the only perfection we know, which is the phenomenon of nothing: an unbroken and featureless simulacrum of death which consists of things that we normally engage with.

It is of course a monkish preoccupation to exist doing nothing, with accretions of nothing in the past and with the prospect of nothing happening in the future except release into the greater nothing. The latter occurring ideally ‘with no residue’ (a complete nirvana) of previous experiental accumulation or the psychic deposits of ordinary life.

My own mundane interest in all this has to do with the onerous bother of things filling what otherwise might be the unlimited space of a day. For as suggested earlier, time does not really move, it’s rather that we move along and notch up eventualities which are defined by identifiable concretions.

This reminds me of a poem by the eleventh century Hebrew poet Shmuel Hanagid:

A woman said: ‘Be happy that God has helped you reach
The age of fifty.’ What the woman didn’t know was
That there is, to me, no difference between my own past
And that of Noah or any of the ancients.
There is only the hour in which I am present.
This stays briefly. Then like a cloud it moves on.

The actuality of this is hard to acknowledge, perhaps because we experience the consequence of things, establishing everything thereby in an indelible historicity. Both in Tikigaq and Fairbanks, I’m painfully aware of the impositions with which I’ve loaded myself. But I collude with the experience as the described by the poet. Still, this represents an abstract rather than a life supporting logistic. I need, afterall, to assemble some warm clothing. And to avoid getting lost, I shall number the pages of my notebook. To leave them blank would be self-defeating. All these little things constitute the nivarana, obstacles that take place in time, a time that has its transient existence in the featureless and eternal nothing.

XVIII

Letter to Joanne, November 22 1975

MEANWHILE, I’M LEARNING Inupiaq and beginning to get some idea of how almost impenetrable a language can be. I look forward nonetheless to being able to communicate better when I get back to the village before Xmas.

What I can say is still limited, since it’s not the case, as in a European language, where you throw nouns and verbs together and can talk French or Spanish from scratch in a matter of days.

There is, in fact, little in the way of single words that you can functionally use in Inupiaq, but rather verb and noun stems, infixes and endings which you have to learn to combine in strings of meaning which in mutual collaboration may be up to fifteen or twenty syllables long.  Within the interior and at the ending of these blocks of meaning, noun and verb stems and suffixes change according to the nature of the sounds with which they are combined.

A simple example: atiq-, ‘name, namesake’, is used in Inupiaq/English dialect:

‘She’s my atiq.’ But in a simple Inupiaq polymorpheme, the noun atiq must be assimilated grammatically and phonologically into its accompanying surround:

atiq + [g]u + suq ‘namesake + existence + is > ati[g]usuq.

Substitute a noun other than atiq which ends in a different consonant or a vowel, then the median ‘existence’ infix might be —u or —su. The —suq ending might similarly vary and be —ruq or—tuq. The third person singular endings I’ve adduced might otherwise be dual, or as in many languages plural. Viz.—suk (dual) or —sut (plural).

These represent the shallows. I have, this past week, been confronted by another feature of the grammar. This involves the convergence of subject and object in one verbal ending. Last month I learned

I eat frozen meat: ni—[g]iru[n]a qua[g]mik. This is built from ni[g]i— ‘eat’ + quaq ‘frozen raw meat.’ —mik is a singular direct object suffix.

Similarly simple: Uva[n]a ni[g]iru[n]a niqipa[g]mik, ‘I eat real meat’.

Or, for example:

Nalu[g]miutaqquqtu[n]a, ‘I eat white people’s food’. Which breaks down as:

Naluaq = bleached seal skin, nalua[g]miu, ‘people of bleached seal skin = white person’
taq, ‘stuff, food’
tuq, ‘eat, have’
tu[n]a, 1st person singular indicative ending

More lately I’ve met: ‘I eat it’. In this construction ‘I’ and ‘it’ are combined into a single ending: ni[g]i[g]aa.

Imagine, given possible singular, dual and plural numbers for both subject and object (‘We two eat three of them’ or ‘They three eat two of them’) the dizzying multiplication of possible endings.

Given these complications, you might think that people would hesitate to open their mouths unless they had something important to say. But the effort involved in learning forms like this from birth is presumably no greater than it might be assimilating any other linguistic formula. Imagine ingesting sub-atomic physics at the breast! And how remarkable that people can chat casually in Inupiaq without having to search complicated tables of elision and assimilation! Oi!

My project here is to learn enough Inupiaq to communicate at a superficial level and show a willingness to integrate into a complexity that I could never do more than function in — like a European sailor disembarking after a rough crossing on the coast of Coramandel and learning unsteadily to walk again in order to communicate in passable Hobson Jobson.1

I must accept the fact that I stand outside. Perhaps we’re liminal in most things.

More to the point, I must accept the fact that I stand outside. Perhaps we’re liminal in most things. Just as I hesitated on the threshold of Asatchaq’s bedroom, so we avoid leaning too far into the field of other people’s realities. Nor can we properly lean backwards, but live instead uncertainly in an attempt at balance.

Still, working in the Inupiaq language feels like happy summer swimming in French rivers, about which I composed this very slight but heavily nostalgic poem:

The River Yonne in 1960.
Rushes green and intermittent
dragonfly reflections.
Black water on the surface lacquered.

XIX

Letter to G, 9 November 1975

DEAR G,

YOU won’t have the card I mailed on Guy Fawkes day. And if Guys there are here, I’m not one of them. Of Dolls I can’t speak, except in theory.

Meanwhile, I feel daily more like Turgenev’s superfluous man. Fairbanks does business. And while the world’s in action, I do little. Still, I’m due in Tikigaq late December and next week fly to Anchorage to sign a contract with the Historical Commission in acknowledgement of project dollars. But I’m sincerely grateful. Funds, albeit limited, shame my laziness.

Anchorage will be welcome. Work to talk about with friends, a comfortable house for a two nights stay. And warmer weather.

Now hustling has realized four thousand, other terrors rear on the horizon. As Pope wrote, ‘Alps on endless alps arise…’ My happy vision from a London vantage is hard to sustain. But as Wilson proclaimed in assumed working men’s dialect after his 1964 victory, ‘We’ve got a job of work to do. And we’re going to do it.’

Still, Tikigaq may be easier than Fairbanks: the solitude more physically challenging and thus perhaps simpler to grapple with. In London last November I met Dhiravamsa, a Thai Buddhist teacher and when I confessed my fears, he replied:

‘When you’re afraid, you will scream. And when people hear you, they will understand.’

This, at the time, I thought wise and helpful. But my teacher was wrong. In Tikigaq it is essential to maintain control. People don’t act out. Narcissistic self-expression’s risible. And so for now I’ll have to sublimate my terrors — not by screaming.

Life here is lonely. My solitude is co-ordinated with a succubus that sits on my chest and all but chokes me. ‘The mother’, as Lear called it, rises in the thorax:

O, how this mother swells up toward my heart!
Hysterica passio, down, thou climbing sorrow…

But there’s no mileage in a panic on the floor of JCPenney where, yesterday, as evening fell, I wandered, Virgil in the pocket of the parka Leah sold me.

I entered JCs without any purpose. Stamm in Hebrew — Leah’s locution. I’ve joined Leah, whom I know just slightly, as a sibling of the miscellaneous. Like many that converge on Pipeline City, we’re deracinated wanderers. Human stuff like things in their millions at JCPenney. Or props in a Hollywood film like Sunset Boulevard.

But this wasn’t a movie, although somewhere, in the men’s department, I thought I might find Jimmie Stewart rambling.

‘What’s this darned thing?’ I hear him mutter, as restlessly he excavates the thing he’d come for.

‘I’ll take,’ he growls, ‘a couple of these… doohickies.’ He pats a jacket pocket, settles his fedora and we follow a back view of his tweed receding.

JCPenney is a Fairbanks icon. I’ll not impugn it. Nor am I deluded by imagined European superiority. If I have a critique, it has to do with things unnatural, artificiality.

First, JCs is a temple of the artificial and here in Alaska an emporium of importation. Nothing at JC’s has been manufactured in Alaska. Throughout the States, and in Alaska most dramatically, the flow of factory goods provides low income families with life-support and cheap materials: hardware, furnishings, doors and windows, bedding, bathroom and electrical appliances, chains for your car wheels, electrical leads to plug into the engine, Visqueen for an inexpensive window insulation, hand tools and machines for digging, chopping, clearing round the yard and garage, work clothes, parkas, boots and down-filled waistcoats, wool shirts, thermal underwear, hats, gloves, mittens. A downhome Aladdin’s.

XX

Nature and Manufacture

AND JUST AS manufacture predicates non-natural products, so the market generates unlovely life essentials. One visits Penney’s not to purchase pretty but to take home useful and hard-wearing artefacts against the weather.

Just to get outside the oil-fired heating is a sweaty business. And while polyester house clothes creak and nylon sparkles, good, lasting, outdoor wear’s constructed in the pioneer tradition: blue jeans with their hard, tight stitching, goose down, woolens, classic denims that old timers wore out mining, panning, poling rivers, sawing down the forests, herding cattle.

Therefore while I mourn the hand-made and the natural fibre (buy at Nordstroms), I acknowledge commerce and the inexpensive with its built-in obsolescence.

This has its contradiction in a Fairbanks hippy fringe existence which practises self-help and wilderness subsistence and whose folk patch clothes, pick blueberries, cranberries, mushrooms and raise chard, beets, beans and carrots which they can and bottle, breed hens and rabbits, stack logs for the stoves from Maine and Norway that they’ve bought with pipline savings, have get-togethers in log cabins to holler Country Western and howl bluegrass on banjos, dobros, fiddles and mush dogs they feed with moose they’ve shot illegally and get stoned on dope they cultivated in the summer.

The dominant demography at JCPenney lies with white folks, decent Christian people, albeit the miscellaneous collectivity is far more complicated.

On the one hand there are sourdoughs, long-term residents, exercising extreme edge capability and sustaining mainstream, often libertarian, survival, as though Alaska were the heart of what America has always been in essence: God’s Wilderness with which to struggle and express enterprise and bold aloneness, in opposition to DC: unloved object of derision that THE far west pronounces scornfully as Warshington.

There are many others: black folks, Filipinos, Jews, Mexicans, Koreans, Japanese and South Americans who likewise have a stake in northernness as an inflection of America, virgin land in which to improvise a chance and get less lost in than in the roaring cities that consume your effort.

Reverting to Penney’s, you’ll find Jimmie Stewart sooner than you’ll catch a hippy in the car park even — a department in itself of JCPenney without which shopping below zero is difficult, if not impossible.

Another demographic split is metaphysical. Penney’s represents the dollar side of Christianity. Alternative Fairbanks is yogic, Buddhist, eco-animist or simply into massage. That said, I’ve met communards who groove on agape with commitment to ecstatic self-extension.

‘You can knock me down,’ one love-stoned antinomial shoved in my face one night on Second Avenue, ‘you can knock me down and wipe the floor with me. But I’ll still lerve you.’ This was profound and certainly sincere and ethical. It was funny. But it also made me love him.

XXI

The Department Store

THRIFT, HARD WORK and modest living. These, especially for the poorer folk among the evangelicals, are Christian virtues. One difference in Fairbanks is that poor folk in Alaska earn inflated salaries, though everything here is also expensive.

JCPenney is a ‘downscale’ company which caters for the ‘lower classes’ and was founded in 1902 and grew up alongside other great department stores. An article in Wikipedia gives a succinct history:

Chain department stores grew rapidly after 1920, and provided competition for the downtown upscale department stores, as well as local department stores in small cities. J. C. Penney had four stores in 1908, 312 in 1920, and 1452 in 1930. Sears, Roebuck opened its first retail stores in 1925.

The chains reached a middle-class audience… more interested in value than in upscale fashions…

[JCs] de-emphasized the latest fashions in favor of practicality and durability, and allowed customers to select goods without the aid of a clerk. Its stores were oriented to motorists… [and] had ample, off-street parking…[note]A buried symbol in Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise, 1883), records the creation in 1852 of the first department store in Paris. In this fiction, Octave Mouret marries Caroline, the rich widow of a draper. Caroline, who subsidised the enterprise, falls accidentally into the foundations of the new building which then rises over her interment.[/note]

Purpose-built parking areas and department store architecture belong, in the service of commerce, to the same sphere of practicality. Penneys in Fairbanks is a single storey concrete building whose interior is divided into departments whose dimensions are regulated according to customer pressure.

Less than a decade later, in the early 1980s, larger, rambling, more inclusive supermarkets, further from downtown and reachable now by enhanced road construction, have been sited to attract both the value-dependent lower income customer and a middle class on the outskirts of the university, and these new market places combine value for money, choice-balanced upscale grocery options alongside household, hardware and clothing departments.

These new operations are larger, more opulent and luxurious than the more puritanical mid-century Penneys. They are lighter, roomier and more fun to visit. Children lark round the aisles and people have the space for conversation. Whereas in Penneys you tend to emerge with the pinched and driven pallor that you entered with, here you can fill your cart with tomato seedlings and European wine and cheeses in addition to work boots, drills and denims.

The department store and the supermarket have converged here. You feel less that you are hunting for wherewithal simply to survive forty below in the land-locked sub-Arctic, than that you are participating in a saturnalia of well-being in the company of a jovial fraternity of like-minded fellow humans.

While the newer precincts are more inclusive and humanistic in both feeling and environment (wood and glass components), they are perhaps, even more than the traditional JCs, warehouses from which the fortunate, rather than those largely driven by need, visit to extract what they want as well as need and where spontaneously they have come to celebrate positive life ways.

The multiply provisioned store, islanded within spacious customer parking, is in this way, like a barn at the centre of a field system, no less a functional warehouse, than the staunchest downtown JCPenneys. In both cases, old Fairbanks and even older stretches of the arboreal sub-Arctic have been swept away by pre-fabricated modular convenience architecture devoted to importation and product distribution.

XXII

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony

REVERTING TO DECEMBER 1975, I’m both trapped in and enchanted by orchestra rehearsals. We’re doing Mahler’s Fourth: shortest and most Mozartian of Mahler’s symphonies. The Adagio and Finale are the movements that haunt me.2

The Adagio is a quiet, almost passive composition, perhaps anticipating the Fifth Symphony’s Adagietto, famous as the score that Visconti used for Death in Venice.3

Though the movement’s introduced by the violas, these quickly sink below the second violins. And there’s a third, inaudible part that lies within the viola harmonies, themselves muffled in the middle register. I wonder why I bother to try playing this as I sit at the back, till the two front desk girls — they’re Jehovah’s Witnesses — turn to hiss at me that I am spoiling it.

‘It’s like the rest of life,’ I want to answer. ‘Nothing ever makes much difference.’ Still, I take my part home, a 1947 Breitkopf edition. It’s nice to realise there were people in Leipzig back in 1946 preoccupied with music.

It’s half-inert, this slow processional: the tiny Mahler dreaming he’s a gentile, tall in long robes, with candles, crosses, chasubles and censers swaying down the nave of St. Steven’s. It was already dangerous to be Jewish in Vienna.

The orchestra, zehr zart und innig, holds back, Leidenschaftlich, zuruckhaltend, until, ersterbend,4 dying, a clarinet translates the vision and we’re in fourteenth century Friesland, virgins in white shifts (flutes) announcing the angelic promise… ‘Just concentrate on being nice,’ I try telling myself. ‘You’ll be rewarded.’

A woodland bird with slack-winged lift off slips out to proclaim the final movement. It’s a languid triplet. And then harp and cellos play together muted under woodwind. The bar that opens the finale initiates a quicker rhythm, artless as the text that follows.5

All this is prelude to my hour in JCPenney. A meeting of two worlds foreign to each other. But this music’s entered, decorated my depression. The luke-warm halo of the singer’s dotted rhythm sinks through my hair and flaps round my worries. I recruit the backbone I tried cultivating in the 1950s.

Without further digression, I imagine that I might encounter here in JC’s the beautiful soprano who’s singing the Finale. She’s a high school teacher. Undemonstrative and modest. She resembles Trudi, of Frith’s Fossels, who clouted the home run in September. Her pale, narrow voice adopts a light vibrato at the end of phrases, guileless as the text is primitively Christian.

I’ve tracked down the song words in the library. It’s Das Himmlische Leben, ‘The Heavenly Life’, and imagines pleasures that the pious will enjoy in heaven:

We enjoy the heavenly pleasures and avoid the earthly things. No worldly tumult does one hear in Heaven! Everything lives in the gentlest peace! We lead an angelic life! Nevertheless we are very merry: we dance and leap, hop and sing! Meanwhile, Saint Peter in the sky looks on. Saint John has let his little lamb go to the butcher Herod. We lead a patient, innocent, dear little lamb to death! Saint Luke slaughters oxen without giving it thought or attention. Wine costs not a penny in Heaven’s cellar; and angels bake the bread.

Good vegetables of all sorts grow in Heaven’s garden! Good asparagus, beans and whatever we wish! Full bowls are ready for us! Good apples, good pears and good grapes! The gardener permits us everything! Would you like roebuck, would you like hare? In the very streets they run by! Should a fast-day arrive, all the fish swim up to us with joy! Over there, Saint Peter is running already with his net and bait to the heavenly pond. Saint Martha must be the cook! No music on earth can be compared to ours. Eleven thousand maidens dare to dance! Even Saint Ursula herself is laughing! Cecilia and all her relatives are splendid court musicians! The angelic voices rouse the senses so that everything awakens with joy.

And this, appropriately at JCs, sketches what the churches preach to poor folk and to natives in America. With piety and prayer and church attendance, while you save and scrape to get what you need to keep you going, you’re promised an afterlife, not now, of plenty.

Mahler, of course, in private life and as conductor, was a tyrant. And while his conversation and his letters expressed compulsive ambition, each movement’s heading in this symphony, as though borrowed from the Tao te Ching, is spiritually helpful:

1. Bedaechtig, nicht eilen — Thoughtfully, don’t hurry.
2. In gemaechlicher Bewegung, ohne Hast — At a leisurely pace, without rushing
3. Ruhevoll (Poco Adagio) — Peaceful
4. Sehr behaglich — Comfortable, contented

I vowed, having read these musical directions, to use them as instruction and calm down a little. How mad I’d been to rush round in Tikigaq last year, as though anyone cared about the timing of my visits. ‘Taam Fast Walker,’ one kid called me. Remedies lay in Mahler’s directions, not least to the inaudible violas.

XXIII

Trudi

REHEARSING TO MYSELF some second movement notes in my viola part as I wander between different strengths of Visqueen rolls and grades of tyre chain down an aisle of JCPenney hardware, I thought I sighted the soprano balancing an axe in one hand and a bag of curtain fabric.

Trembling, I approached, and had begun to introduce myself when suddenly, too late, I recognized that it was someone different. This was Trudi, who had smacked the home run for Frith’s Fossels in September.

‘I’m frightfully sorry, I thought you were the Das Himmlische Leben soprano. I’m in the violas.’

Trudi skipped the small talk.

‘Scram, buster. Or I’ll call the store detective.’

She produced a whistle.

No point in bleating that I’d witnessed her September softball moment.


Tom Lowenstein was born near London in 1941 and educated at Cambridge. He has worked since the mid-1960s as a teacher. Between 1973 and 1989 he recorded materials deriving from intermittent residence in an Inupiaq (north Alaskan Eskimo) village. Previous publications include three books of poetry: Filibustering in Samsara (The Many Press), Ancestors and Species: New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry (Shearsman Books), and Conversation with Murasaki (Shearsman Books). His three studies of Point Hope are The Things that Were Said of Them (University of California Press 1990), Ancient Land: Sacred Whale (Bloomsbury, Farrar Strauss and Harvill, 1993-2001) and Ultimate Americans: Point Hope, Alaska 1826-1909 (University of Alaska Press, 2009).

NOTES.

  1. Hobson Jobson: Anglo—Indian jargon used mostly by British soldiers in nineteenth century India. ‘It is in fact an Anglo—Saxon version of the wailings of the Mahommedans…’, chanting ‘Ya Hasan! Ya Hosain!’ Henry Yule, Hobson Jobson,1886.
  2. ‘The fourth and fifth symphonies have already been heard in this country [in 1904] without creating a marked impression.’ The New York World, December 13 1908. ‘A distinguishing feature of the symphony is the vocal solo written to the text of a quaint old German folk—song…’ NYW, December 22, 1911. ‘The trouble is that these idyllic moods are continually interrupted by the rude invasion of acrid modern harmonies…’ The New York Sun, January 8, 1911. Quoted in Gustav Mahler’s American Years, 1907—1911, Zoltan Roman, 1989.
  3. Mahler regarded this as the best movement, his ‘first real and fully developed variations… A divinely joyful and profoundly sad melody pervades it throughout, so that you’ll at once laugh and cry.’ It was the smile of St Ursula for ‘it bore her features’. La Grande 1983:275
  4. zehr zart und innig, very tender and inward; Leidenschaftlich, passionately; zuruckhaltend, holding back ersterbend, dying.
  5. The anthology is Des Knaben Wunderhorn, German folk poems gathered by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim in 1805. These are earthy, sometimes violent, magically inspired or surreal texts that Mahler set in several compositions. Das Himmlische Leben, with its primitive religiosity, is unrepresentative in its spiritual materialism. Mahler’s song is joyfully pallid, pre-communion. Of all the songs in the Wunderhorn anthology, this is the most naïve and bloodless.

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