The creature, naked, bestial...

November 26, 2014

I often return to this brief poem by Stephen Crane:

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered; 
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

Crane died at 29.

This is from the Red Badge of Courage:

"He occasionally tried to fathom a comrade with seductive sentences. He looked about to find men in the proper mood. All attempts failed to bring forth any statement which looked in any way like a confession to those doubts which he privately acknowledged in himself. He was afraid to make an open declaration of his concern, because he dreaded to place some unscrupulous confidant upon the high plane of the unconfessed from which elevation he could be derided."

I think of William James' "moral equivalent of war". I read all of Crane as dark internal confession. All of his work is "an open declaration of his concern". It seems to surprise readers to learn Crane never fought in a war. But he did. The internal war every human wages within themselves. The Devil rides... perched on the shoulder wearing a coat of angelic wings.

There are two creatures within me: the beast and the man. And I have always nourished the roots that feed the man. The water of life and love and hope. But I sense those darker currents also, secretly feeding the beast.

To remind me of how much of my thinking is cliche, there is this often repeated tale:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. 

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.” 

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” 

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.” [source]

I find it curious that this tale is given provenance to Native Americans when it was actually said by Billy Graham, a sort of reverse cultural appropriation. The thinking seems to be that it has more "authenticity" as a Native American tale than it does coming from the mouth of an evangelical Christian. No guilt over the genocide of the People who we would like to have once spoken such "truths". There is no better truth, no truer truth. Just truth, the most obvious thing in the world. Chop wood, carry water. Have you washed your bowls this morning? The fish asking what water is.

But what is it all in the end? Just a language game? A riddle to live by? Aesopian mystery? It all seems a Lie to me. Hollow figures of speech like skin over bones with no meat underneath. What feeds on these bones, the skin of this language?

My thoughts skitter and burn in the fire of my brain these days. Everything seems a worn out cliche, a tired old hole, a hoary maxim, Ecclesiastes exhausted, all language beat down and chewed over until every bright and shining poem and is reduced to a flavorless ruminated cud in my mouth. Nothing is new under the sun. In the most literal sense. Dry bones baked into dust. And these bones cannot live. There is no divine breath to animate them.

I sweep my bed clean every morning of all the dust of decay accumulated there in the night. My room is full of desert sand that was once the kingdom of Ozymandias. My wet blood, spit, sweat, snot, piss, shit and semen soaked fat flesh hangs like a scarecrow's corpse on my bones. Everything is empty, been hollowed out.

What am I?

James wrote of a period of "spiritual vastation" epitomized by a "black-haired youth with greenish skin":

"I went one evening into a dressing room in the twilight to procure some article that was there, when suddenly there fell upon me without warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence. Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin … who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse gray undershirt, which was his only garment, drawn over them enclosing his entire figure. He sat there like a sort of sculptured Egyptian cat or Peruvian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non-human. This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other. That shape am I, I felt, potentially. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him.” 

"That shape am I, potentially,"

I am aware of it always. Over the last two years, I see variants of this figure every day: men and women, once vital and charismatic, fathers and mothers, teachers and bankers, each sitting there like Peruvian mummies, dead but still manifesting the symptoms of being alive. I watched the slow death of my mother. And now, my stepfather. And I am aware of those deep black waters nourishing the lesser elements of my being. Something down there is nourishing itself on this.

I don't know actual war. But I know the internal war of Stephen Crane's. The Red Badge as allegory. And I realize my own private war and the epic drama that is unfolding within me is all too common. Millions - a number I have difficulty conceiving in any real manner - millions of other humans are going through such a similar drama that they are virtually identical to me.

A colony of ants numbers just over a million. And one ant on the outskirts of the colony, singing a sad song of self-awareness and conflicted duality, means next to nothing.  Enough. But just barely. Again Kafka, the prophet of our times: There is hope, just none for us.

I often wonder about becoming something utterly different than what I am. In these moments, I can taste the freedom and hope of what it was to be on the other side of life - where more was in front than was behind. Before I started wearing down my path, dragging my feet through the rut of the world. I consider that I can still be whomever I want. And I consider becoming an opposite formulation: The Great Hater.

Here is the wound that opens between Crane's "creature, naked, bestial" and his "open declaration".

I think about the world I wished for. I think about the world I have inherited. And I know there is no justice in this world. Justice, it has been said, is for the next world. And there is no next world. However, between the life imagined and the life lived there is an abyss. And in this abyss - this place without depth, no bottom to touch upon - resentment breeds and grows. Nietzsche says,

"the man of ressentiment is neither upright nor naive nor honest and straightforward with himself. His soul squints; his spirit loves hiding places, secret paths and back doors, everything covert entices him as his world, his security, his refreshment; he understands how to keep silent, how not to forget, how to wait, how to be provisionally self-deprecating and humble’."

Resentment ferments into venom. Venom infects the language. Eats away at the future tense. Sickens hope.

Nelson Mandela and the Buddha have reputedly said:  “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

Mandela merely lifted it from some source. And what the Buddha actually said was:

“By doing this you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink.” Visuddhimagga IX, 23. [source]

Nothing is original. And this poison confuses my analogy. I stand by my venom.

Pilate asked, "What is truth?"

The Greek word which was translated as truth is aletheia which means "the state of not being hidden", "un-concealed-ness", "un-forgetting".

Does it matter? Truly matter? Perhaps Pilate was merely being ironic.

The difference between venom of thought and poison of hope is all that matters.

There is an old riddle of why the snake does not die after it eats the creature it killed by its own venom.

The creature, naked, bestial...

I like it because it is bitter.

And because it is my heart.


Anodyne for Stephen Crane

 I saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow and called out, “It tastes sweet, does it not?”

“You’ve caught me,” grief answered, “And you’ve ruined my business. 
How can I sell sorrow, when you know it’s a blessing?”

- Rumi