Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Questions of Maat


"In Ancient Egypt, it was said that in the Underworld Maat waits before the door all souls must enter. She holds a scale and a feather. Maat weighs hearts, and none may pass until they have answered her questions, and their hearts are as light as the feather of truth. Can each answer "yes" ? How heavy is each heart? Because to dream a new life, to be born again, you must know the life you have lived, forgive and be forgiven." **


I want to say how touched I am by those who so kindly sent me their good wishes in comments for the last entry.

It's been said that we don't live our lives - life lives us.

Arriving at 60 is a tremendous passage for me. I remember meeting Dana Dakin, founder of Women's Trust in Ghana, who said that there were three life passages: first you learn, then you earn, and finally, you return the gifts you've gained to the future.

Certainly, I feel the "lightening" that comes with transit into my 6th decade. I have the urge to get rid of things that weigh me down, aren't relevant, demand my attention in some way. Old love letters that just make me sad, pretty dresses that no longer fit and probably never will, dusty boxes of mementoes, weary assumptions, heavy handed beliefs, habits of mind that once were useful, but now are boringly repetitious. I see that most of my assumptions are erroneous, block my vision, and are probably unfair to somebody, somewhere, including myself. Unused possessions require care, require storage, require energy, require memory. Time to light-en up.

A reporter once asked Pablo Picasso, at 90 or so, what he thought, after such a long and distinguished career, his greatest work was. He immediately replied "The next one."

I've been reading a wonderful book by Natalie Goldberg on writing and Zen, called "Writing Down the Bones". She tells of meeting the writer Meridel le Sueur. In her eighties, Meridel told her that she lived nowhere. She visited people and places, writing wherever she was. The elderly writer asked Natalie if she knew a place to purchase a used typewriter. When she is ready to leave, she said, she will give it away so she doesn't have to take it to her next destination.

Now that I understand. Why should one wish to lug a typewriter around, or a bulky suitcase, or for that matter, an old grudge, a worn out storyline, or an exhausted persona?

This is the lightening of the heart and mind called for when we reach the "Return" phase of our lives, whether that occurs at 30, or 80. The balance that the Goddess Maat demands when she weighs hearts at the passageway. Maat's name, literally, meant "truth" in ancient Egyptian. Her questions do not "damn" those who wait before the door....but without answering them, without finding the truth of one's life, no passage to other realms is possible. Maat's questions are the questions each soul must answer sooner or later. "Who have I not forgiven?" "What have I done that I cannot forgive myself for?" "What part of my life story have I not been able to forgive?" "What am I unable to let go of?"

I am always stunned by the wisdom found in language we so unconsciously take for granted every time we open our mouths. (and each language has its singular depths of meaning). In our English usage, to "fore-give" is to do just that - to give the energy forward. To the future, to the unknown, to new possibilities of good relationship and shining creativity, high adventure. As well as the evolution of wisdom and full circle compassion. When we don't fore-give, we're left dragging around psychic baggage, grey thought forms, stories told so many times they have lost any semblance to the truth.

I am not saying that fore-giveness is not a complex process. Sometimes it involves working through unconscious layers of experience, telling our story over and over until it can be seen, and sometimes we need help to do these things from wise or impartial listeners. But ultimately I believe fore-giveness comes from being able to gain a wider perspective, the Soul's perspective. Being able to see the broad weave of our lives, the ways we were challenged and deepened by our experiences, our betrayals, our failures, our losses, our ignorance.

I remember years ago there was a man I was attracted to. The eros of my experience fueled enormous creativity in me. His considerable talent inspired me as well. And because I had a lot of half-baked, naive ideas, and did not know how to confront him, he also had a lot of fun manipulating and humiliating me, probably, just because he could. I still cringe when I think about it. But until I was able to fore-give him and myself, I was unable to see the gifts in that experience. Had I not met him, I would not have created what I did. And I also probably would not have moved through naivete I had outgrown, and more importantly, a "victim" template I was deeply entrenched in. Ultimately, he empowered me. That's the paradox of Maat's Truth.

Raukkadessa is a Finnish term Kathy Huhtaluata uses in her Saami inspired music. It means, she told me, "beyond love". I find it profound - because even love, as we experience it, can be a veil, impenetrable in the present moment, and beyond is something beyond the pairs of opposites, beyond time itself. Beyond love is the the soul's love, the greater pattern.

A Buddhist once told me that we should cherish all sentient beings, because, from the perspective of reincarnation, any sentient being you meet has at one time or another been your mother, brother, lover, enemy, has been your food, or has devoured you.

One thing is certain. When we don't fore-give, we are unable to move fore-ward, because we are stuck in the past. And from my perspective, one of the wonderful things about having had the privilege of achieving the maturity of 60 years, is that one has the means and experience to finally know just that.

The rest is just practice. Carrying water, and chopping wood.


** This was from a 2002 performance I did with Dorit Bat Shalom, Mana Youngbear and Valerie James in Oakland. The actual questions of Maat are in various translations - we recited some of them in the background, in English and in Hebrew (since we lacked a native speaker of ancient Egyptian) while a dancer performed in the mask of Maat.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Farewell, at last, to the Faire


On a more prosaic note, the California Renaissance Faire just finished, and for the first time in 30 years, I actually lost money on the show. When this happens, it's time to hang it up.

So, I guess I'm now unemployed.
Well, it is about time I do something else anyway........

I remember a lot of incarnations on the "circuit". From being a dancer in the early 70's, to a Tarot card reader at the N.Y. REnfair, to the mask empire I had for a while with three permanent booths in the 90's. I remember............so much.

My friend Joyce Weiss at the Arizona Renfair

I may very well be the first mask artist on the "circuit" to create pagan mythological masks. I'll say it here, and be done with it, but just about everyone who has ever worked for me or even with me now has a mask business, and usually it includes some design and certainly techniques gained from me. I've put "fairies', "butterfly masks", and "greenmen masks" on the map. I won't say that it hasn't pissed me off sometimes..........still, it's how it is in our world. And in the big picture, I'm glad that I not only shared the art, but helped people out.

One of many, many Green Men.


This was with my ex husband, Duncan Eagleson, a talented artist.

This is the "rock and roll" Green Man.


Hey, now that I think about it, I've helped to re-populate the world with GREEN MEN.

As professions go, one could do worse.

Me when I was younger and in love with Kerry McNeil, the Bagpiper from Glencoe. I wonder where he is now? Handsome and ornery as ever, no doubt.

One of the many mask makers I've taught is Peggy Linich and her Satori Masks...........and she recently not only thanked me, but called me a "master". Well, hey! I guess I am! A Master! What do you know!

Rob Fletcher in Maryland

Time has come for me to say thank you, forgive everyone including myself, and wish I could have all the many, many people I've loved and met and danced with on the road........together in a large room with lots of good food and wine for one last Huzzah!

Except for Internet sales, or if I have the chance again to make special masks for theatre and ritual, I think I won't make masks anymore. I did my best work with the MASKS OF THE GODDESS collection. My intention was to create a group of Temple Masks, and I did, and they served that function. To be honest, I just don't want to make commercial masks as primary income any more, not when I've had the experience of making masks that served so much more.

So, although there is no 0ne around to give me a gold watch, I herein declare myself:

RETIRED!

And ready for something new.................Huzzah! It was a wonderful adventure, and there were many, many good times. My love and gratitude to all my fellow gypsy travellers. And it's true what they say.....old Rennies never die, they just keep on rolling.


"Are you going to Scarborough Faire?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Remember me to one who lives there,
she once was a true love of mine."


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Paleologic - Rafael Montanez Ortiz

"We are the great work of art in progress. WE, ourselves."

Rafael Montanez Ortiz

I decided to post this interview and article I wrote about Rafael Ortiz (from an unpublished manuscript) because it is harmonious with the writings of David Abram in the previous Blog Entry. Rafael, although I am sure he does not know it, was an enormous catalyst and mentor to me as I floundered about trying to find a sense of purpose as an artist.



ART AND ALCHEMY

Rafael Montanez Ortiz has been a controversial artist since the early 1960's. His sculptural and video works, and documentations of his performances, are included in many collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and the Musee d'Art Moderni in Brussels.

He was t
he founder of the Museo del Barrio in New York City, and is also a writer and an educator. Dr. Ortiz has been a Professor of art at Rutgers University for over 30 years.

In the early '60's, Ortiz was known for his Deconstructed works. When he demolished a sofa in 1963 for his Archeological Finds series, the Art World became excited about "restructuring the ready-made" into something else. That was interesting stuff....but what was actually significant to Ortiz was the act of de-construction itself. The sculptures were artifacts, residue, archeological finds left behind by the release of force.

Ortiz came to believe that destructive energies could be released within the "appropriate arena" of art - it could be addressed as both an aesthetic and psychic process, an emotionally transformative means of revealing and exorcising the personal/collective shadow. In 1966, Ortiz attended the DESTRUCTION IN ART SYMPOSIUM (DIAS) in London. His first Piano Concert was at the request of the BBC. In "concert" with Anna Lockwood, a classical pianist, and film maker Harvey Matusow, they systematically "deconstructed" a piano. "Destruction has no place in society", Rafael Ortiz wrote, "It belongs to our dreams - it belongs to art."

When I read this, I thought of the Iroquois, who held a five-day midwinter festival called the "Feast of Dreams". Here members of the tribe brought their significant dreams to the Circle, to be shared and interpreted. If a dream expressed a "soul wish", the tribe endeavored to help the dreamer to work it through, by symbolically dramatizing it for them. In the 1960's, Ortiz became interested in the human potential movement, and studied Tantra, Sufism, and Bio-energetics. In 1978 he took a leave of absence to attend the Rocky Mountain Healing Arts Institute in Colorado. There he studied body-centered healing techniques, including re-birthing. He found that his studies of healing technology corresponded to a long interest in tribal shamanism and native spiritual traditions, wherein fasting, duration running, sleeplessness and physical ordeals were often used to seek vision, to enter what Ortiz calls the Dream. "And what is the Dream?" I asked. "The Dream" he responded, "is the original Art Process."

After returning from Colorado, Ortiz developed Physio-Psycho-Alchemy, his Inner Visioning performances. Each Performance begins with the participant lying on the floor, squeezing a large plastic ball between one's calves. The participant/performer is instructed by Ortiz to concentrate on breathing deeply, and applying continual muscular pressure on the ball. The body begins to arch involuntarily - it is as if one is pulled up from the center of the chest. This spontaneous flexing is a release of energy - what he calls physical and emotional "armoring". By maintaining pressure on the ball, a muscular tension develops which, in combination with concentration upon the breath, creates an altered state of consciousness, a trance state that is visionary, dreamlike, and often emotionally revealing as well.

I myself participated in only one performance. My body increasingly shook, and it was difficult to maintain the breath work. I experienced a gradual intensification of subtle movements of energy - at one point, I literally had the sensation of a "spinning wheel" concentrated in the region of my heart. It was as if a wheel revolved there, made of blue light, pulling me up from the chest without any effort on my part. Within the vortex were many incipient images. It is at this point that Ortiz invites the participant-artist to begin the Inner Visioning process, to pay attention to the images and sensations, memories and emotions that arise.

Participation in Physio-Psycho-Alchemy is an ongoing "work in progress". Some performers, in a kind of conscious,
lucid dream, relive primal memories from childhood, or what they view as memories from past lives. Others, as visionary travelers, contact an inner landscape, a country where they encounter beings that converse with them, archetypal forms that illuminate and surprise. This is not something one has an interesting intellectual encounter with, like viewing an exhibit at a museum. Something to "get" and aesthetically move on. It is experienced on levels beyond and below intellect, and the artist/dreamer/performer is both Director and Actor, shaping his or her own performance.

Rafael Ortiz has also created a series of sculptures he calls Waxworks. He collected objects from acquaintances, which he then imbedded in wax, along with the stories about those objects which are written on clear acetate. The objects imbedded in the semi-transparent wax derive from events that had profound affect upon the lives of those they belonged to. The wax, thus, holds their actual experience, as well as their stories. "Wax is, for me, a Transformative medium. We talk about the moon waxing and waning, we talk about a wax museum...in other words, time and the history of time is held in this medium. It's transparent, but not as ephemeral as ice, which can turn to water and evaporate. Wax is a medium that is fluid, that can solidify and melt in the heat of life."

"The idea of putting objects into wax embodies the waxing and waning of time, and the embedded object is the Icon of experience. These are rituals that change us in some way, and my concern, again, is that art become a transformativ
e process that is life-affirming, that moves one into an enhanced self-understanding." "The existential exchange between you and the object is the Context. So, here I have objects in the wax, and a story that goes with them, the Text, that also has gone into the wax, and also becomes part of the Object. And so there is a Text within the Object, and there is an Object within the Text. That's the transmutation, the invisible reality made visible." In his early work, Rafael Ortiz as performer released the Shadow, the unclaimed, in the arena of art. In later work, he invites us to experience themselves as visionaries within a conscious dreaming process, multi-dimensional creators beyond the "surfaces" of an imagined "objective" world. Waxworks is existential Alchemy, sculptures that are rites of passage, moving through both metaphor and time. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- INTERVIEW WITH DR. RAFAEL MONTANEZ ORTIZ
August 15, 1988

Lauren: You have spent years studying native cultures and shamanism. Do you believe there is a relationship between what we call schizophrenia and shamanism? Joseph Campbell, among others, thought so.

Rafael: Psychogists often view early religions, shamanism, as related to insanity, and that's incorrect. It is a logic process that is "paleological", meaning it is a predicative and sub-predicative association, allowing one to find the relationship between things which ordinarily you wouldn't find. Within the very powerful context of metaphor. You run fast, a deer runs fast, you're a deer. This is an issue of belief. That belief exists, in and out of trance. The trance is only the vehicle for further revelation.

Lauren: The shaman/visionary is not cast into what we might call the unconscious, but chooses to go there?

Rafael: He or she places themselves there for vision, but he or she is already there. In other words, Paleologic is operative as a culture process. Very much like the Senoi, who work with the dream and all of its contradictions on a daily basis, which psychoanalysis would call very neurotic, psychologically distorted, pathological. And that is ridiculous!

A culture that shares its dream daily moves Paleologic into a culture process, information that is exchange
d between members of the community, and is valid and rational. It's not "we're all being crazy now". That's how we see it. Paleologic is a holistic kind of reasoning, the sense of oneself being part of the universe, and everything being a part of everything else. It's their sanity. When we feel that, and are then overwhelmed because of our own contradictions, submerged anger, and so on....then all these associations overwhelm us and we are "insane".

Lauren: And scared...

Rafael: Absolutely. These early cultures manage what our later "civilized” cultures cannot, which is being comfortable with a sense of one's place in the universe.

Lauren: Are you saying that much of what we now must examine concerns a return to the past?

Rafael: Yes. A return to something already accomplished thousands of years ago by native cultures of the world, something we buried in our most recent his
tory.

Lauren: What exactly do you mean by "Paleologic"?

Rafael: You can break logic down into Platonic logic, which is ideal, Aristotelian logic, which is more practical, the logic of subject, and then Paleologic, the logic of predicate and sub-predicate association. Once you become ideal, you find things are not related, but are separated, ideally separated. At the Aristotelian level, the world is seen in an even more complicated way, everything breaks down.

In Paleologic there is the concept of holistically defined relationships between everything on all levels.
The culture that is holistic is holistic because its reasoning structure is holistic. The problem we have with holism is that our reasoning is fragmentary, it removes us from relating things, it structures things in separate compartments in order for us to "have control".

Lauren: And thu
s blinding us to the essential connections?

Rafael: Paleologic asserts that Spirit resides in all things. And thus we have a responsibility to all things because we're intertwined with them, and they to us. Paleologic cultures least objectify, we most objectify.

Lauren: In the book about your work, published by El Muse Del Barrio, there is a quote by you that struck me: "Destruction has no place in society - it belongs to our dreams, it belongs to art." How can destruction take place in our dreams and art, and not in our lives?

Rafael: Destruction, viewed from our cultural perspective, is the result of a sense of injustice, deprivations, a sense of disenfranchisement, whether coming from the real experience of being disenfranchised, or simply having a tantrum at not getting what you want, that is accumulated. Not everybody wants to become a boxer or a hockey player, which are outlets for that aggression to be released within an acceptable game structure.

Generally, there is no arena within which
these forces can be released. Art, being available to everyone, is the perfect arena within which these rituals can occur to bridge gaps between one's conflicts, and one's having to be in the world in some humane way.

Lauren: How did you move from the De-construction Work you did in your youth, to the work you are now doing?


Rafael: For me, before one can appreciate a higher purpose, one has to integrate and resolve one's lower purposes.

Lauren: Which is what the De-construction work was about, ritualizing the tantrum or that collective force that is the root of destructive behavior?

Rafael: Yes, but it becomes re-integrated, evolving to where you are finally sacrificing subtle things, like your ego, your loyalty to an environment or worldview that keeps you from a holistic consciousness. Sacrificing objectification. Not to be entranced forever, to be "blissed out" in some self-indulgent ecstatic state, but to be appropriately connected with the life force in everything.

That's where my work Physio-Psycho-Alchemy begins: the work is then on a level wherein higher purposes can be
addressed and accomplished. It's like a trip into Hell, moving in a spiral up to Heaven. But through the experience of your Hell, so you can be integrated and released. Thus, it doesn't become a service for holy wars.

There are many who want to move
into their higher purpose, but deny, haven't resolved their lower purposes, their shadows. They assume they can simply discard it. These are the people who start a jihad.

Lauren: If we deny the shadow, we'll somehow project it outside of ourselves?

Rafael: Remember the movie, "Forbidden Planet"?

Lauren: Yes, their "id creature" destroyed their civilization. So, in order to integrate these internal forces, one must see it and be it?


Rafael: Or find a safe haven for it, and art is a haven, a solution.

Lauren: When did you first begin to explore some of these issues?

Rafael: Years ago, when I was an undergraduate, I had a concern for the visionary, asking how I could move that into art process. I read the DOORS OF PERCEPTION, I read about the Native American peyote ritual, and a number of other related books. That was when I began to seriously think about and explore what information was available about shamanic cultures. To see how I could reconnect from those cultures into my own contemporary art.

As it relates to my Inner Vision work, certainly then I recognized the importance of the vision quest. I saw it as an important part of the art process. I began to study the Sufis, Yoga, all those techniques in which one's own physiological potential can produce altered and heightened states of consciousness. That became, for me, part of my higher purpose; the idea of our having these abilities intrinsically within our own bodies - within the power of the breath, the nervous system, and the imagination.

Physio-Psycho-Alchemy is about releasing a muscular and skeletal hold that consciousness has on the body as it concerns itself with gravity. You can then begin to feel the power of the life force. It's like floating on the surface of a body of water that is in wave action; and as we give ourselves up to it, we gradually become conscious of the life force, we're letting it flow. That's one level. The breath moves us from an acid state. We release carbon dioxide, which is acid, and taking in more oxygen, we move to an alkaline state, which excites the central nervous system.

The central nervous system then begins to release information, imagery. So, as the body releases, the central nervous system sends energy and information. It's as if every cell in your body makes a phone call to you at the same time. At that point, you can feel a pull from the heart center, up to the center of the universe, and you go through that dance, feeling it pull you up without any effort. Then you're ready for the Inner Vision work.


At that point, the Inner Vision work becomes profound, and is in service of releasing the body to the innate life force, rather than distracting the participant from release, which can happen. That distraction is like being on a journey, and you stop at some curious, fascinating pebble along the way and stay there, instead of continuing on the road. The idea is to continue.

Often, I keep suggesting that the participant goes back to the release, the breath, the next level, in order to not become entranced by suddenly becoming aware of something he or she has never been conscious of before. It's important to combine releasing with the breath work, and experience a complete release before going on to the Inner Vision work. At the beginning of the work, you have to pay attention to where you conserve energy,
where your "armor" is.

At the first level of the work, you're becoming conscious of how you hold your body. With breathing and muscular techniques, we learn how to "let go" of the body, and we don't see it as "losing control". With Physio-Psycho-Alchemy, you re-acquire the assurance that you are in complete control, you can give up the body to the nervous system: and as you give up the body, you begin to be conscious of it. There is an interdependency not unlike quantum mechanics. The more attention you pay to the particle, the less able you are to locate its position.

When you consciously "let go" of the body, you consciously "let go" of space and time.


Lauren: When I did my session with you, I experienced an intense shaking. What was that?

Rafael: The shaking is the release. What's shaking is your own armor, and that takes time to release in preparation for the deeper levels of the performance, the Inner Vision work. The average number of performances for a participant is about 12.

Lauren: I have to ask the question you so often receive. How is this art?

Rafael: How is this not art is really the question. Art is not something that is "in the eye of the beholder". That's like saying "life is in the eye of the beholder". Art is an inherent part of being itself.
We can say that art is the imagination of form, and that within some greater metaphysic, it is the soul's imagination, encapsulating a history of being, that then seeks the flesh of matter to be. It's called incarnation.

In terms of art process, if you can understand that, see where it begins, you can certainly then envision the imagining itself, in your day to day life, as being works of art. Dreams, awake and asleep imagining.
We are the art material, the great work of art in progress: we, ourselves.

Lauren: You have said that there is no separation between the dream and art. What is the dream?

Rafael: The dream is where the important formulations, solutions and relegations occur. It's the state within which the mythic potential that is ours unfolds, and teaches us. We've lost touch with that. Native cultures give integrity to that process.

Again, when I say native cultures, I mean the original cultures of the world, whether we talk about Sumerian, Celtic, Native American, the Mayan, the Hopi, the African shaman.....those cultures within which the dream was central to their evolutionary development.


Our civilization sees the dream as irrational. I remembe
r actually reading once about some scientist trying to invent a pill that would eliminate the toxin secreted by some gland in the brain that would then eliminate dreaming! We want to eliminate it, because we are a culture that is still suffering from nightmares, in contrast to the Senoi in Malaysia, where there is no nightmare, it's all been integrated by the time one gets through adolescence.

Then, your dreams serve your highest creative potential. The dream is for counsel, whether it's finding solutions for an illness, or ways to engineer a bridge that has to be built.
So, the dream becomes the original art process, the art process that is inherent to our being, our imagining, our creativity. We daydream, we sleep dream. That imagining is the original art within which we make this bridge.

Lauren: So our denial of the dream is one of the reasons you once referred to the modern world as "psychotic"?

Rafael: Yes. Unfortunately, a psychotic is the last to know his own psychosis. Until, as with us, it can unfold in some unbelievable catastrophe, such as a nuclear war or ecological disaster.

I was reading a newsletter recently that espoused the most insane notions o
f what our economy should be like. It was something that is published and distributed to people who are interested in investing in stocks, buying gold and that whole business. What it advocated, without any self-consciousness whatsoever, was the idea of an economy absolutely free of any control. Wherein there was no concern for the support of any persons in society, or for the planet for that matter.

Being your brother's keeper, humanism in such light is seen as witchcraft, subversive, un-American. That to me is psychosis.

Lauren: How do you work with a group in your performances?

Rafael: It is participatory within this idea that art is "actual". It's important for the audience to not be passive. To avoid an abstract/cognitive notion of involvement. The abstract/cognitive allows one to violate physical realities.

We can find all sorts of amazing rationalizations through abstracting that remove us from feeling, from empathy. For me, art that utilizes only cognitive ability is teaching us, at the mythic level, to shift away from the body as a complex sensory experience that can tell us when we've shifted away fro
m higher purpose, from compassion.

Lauren: That shifts us away from realizing that the body is also an aspect of our spirit?


Rafael: The brain isn't just in our heads. The brain is the entire body, which includes the aura, all of the etheric networks that exist between us and all life. Whether we're talking about a forest, or another person, the abstract/cognitive removes us entirely from that experience of communion, the ability to sense what is going on. These abstractions become what is going on.

We can objectify at the drop of a hat. We have no problem making an object of anyone or anything. If the logic of a culture permits you to abstract to that extent, it then permits you to live without conscience. Whereas if you feel interrelated, you have the freedom of genuine conscience.

Lauren: Experiential conscience?

Rafael: Exactly. You feel what you do. This is the paleologic of native cultures. And the artist can reconnect with native cultures in forms, contents, materials, strategies, and metaphysics in a way that includes the present experience.


Lauren: Would you say that you, as an artist, are creating a new shamanic tradition?

Rafael: No, I don't want to presume so much about what is traditionally so brilliant and powerful. I would be happy if I could meet it halfway.

We're talking about a tradition that has grown over thousands and thousands of years. How old is contemporary art? It's a babe in the woods by
comparison, in terms of understanding creative process, and how that process serves our relationship to each other, the planet, and the universe.

Within the participatory traditions in art, there is no passive audience. That's a recent idea, which is part of the compromise, the tears and breaks from arts original intentions. The ancient art process was a transformative process; it wasn't a show, it wasn't entertainment.
Art becomes entertainment within a culture that objectifies. If one can enjoy that transformative experience, and certainly in early cultures it was enjoyed, you could perhaps say it was "entertaining". When you say entertainment now, what is meant is that it doesn't change you in any way, what it does is to help you to forget.

We need to see ourselves again as part of a brilliant, shimmering web of life. An artist at some point has to face that issue. Is the art connecting us and others in some way, or is the art disconnec
ting ourselves and others? I think it's not enough to just realign ourselves personally either - our art should also do that for others, and further, it must happen outside of the abstract.

It must be a process that in its form and content joins us with the life force in ourselves, and in others
. And that's not going to be easy. But I do believe that secrets and solutions exist in native cultures of the world. They spent thousands of years uncovering those possibilities, and enough has survived through different traditions for artists to find more than enough inspiration.



copyright
Raphael Montanez Ortiz, Ph.d., and Lauren Raine (1988)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Story, Songlines, and Wild Ethics


I have taken the liberty of copying a wonderful article from
Wild Ethics. It was so encouraging to discover these writings about Gaianism and a Conversant World
.

David Abram – cultural ecologist, philosopher, and performance artist – is the founder and creative director of the Alliance for Wild Ethics. He is the author of The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World (Pantheon/Vintage), for which he received the international Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction. An accomplished storyteller and sleight-of-hand magician who has lived and traded magic with indigenous sorcerers in Indonesia, Nepal, and the Americas, David lectures and teaches widely on several continents.

An early version of this essay was published in Resurgence, issue 222, and another in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, Taylor and Kaplan, ed., published by Continuum, 2005

Storytelling and Wonder: on the rejuvenation of oral culture

by David Abram, Ph.D.

In the prosperous land where I live, a mysterious task is underway to invigorate the minds of the populace, and to vitalize the spirits of our children. For a decade, now, parents, politicians, and educators of all forms have been raising funds to bring computers into every household in the realm, and into every classroom from kindergarten on up through college. With the new technology, it is hoped, children will learn to read much more efficiently, and will exercise their intelligence in rich new ways. Interacting with the wealth of information available on-line, children's minds will be able to develop and explore much more vigorously than was possible in earlier eras -- and so, it is hoped, they will be well prepared for the technological future.

How can any child resist such a glad initiative? Indeed, few adults can resist the dazzle of the digital screen, with its instantaneous access to everywhere, its treasure-trove of virtual amusements, and its swift capacity to locate any piece of knowledge we desire. And why should we resist? Digital technology is transforming every field of human endeavor, and it promises to broaden the capabilities of the human intellect far beyond its current reach. Small wonder that we wish to open and extend this powerful dream to all our children!

It is possible, however, that we are making a grave mistake in our rush to wire every classroom, and to bring our children online as soon as possible. Our excitement about the internet should not blind us to the fact that the astonishing linguistic and intellectual capacity of the human brain did not evolve in relation to the computer! Nor, of course, did it evolve in relation to the written word. Rather it evolved in relation to orally told stories. Indeed, we humans were telling each other stories for many, many millennia before we ever began writing our words down -- whether on the page or on the screen.

Spoken stories were the living encyclopedias of our oral ancestors, dynamic and lyrical compendiums of practical knowledge. Oral tales told on special occasions carried the secrets of how to orient in the local cosmos. Hidden in the magic adventures of their characters were precise instructions for the hunting of various animals, and for enacting the appropriate rituals of respect and gratitude if the hunt was successful, as well as specific insights regarding which plants were good to eat and which were poisonous, and how to prepare certain herbs to heal cramps, or sleeplessness, or a fever. The stories carried instructions about how to construct a winter shelter, and what to do during a drought, and -- more generally -- how to live well in this land without destroying the land's wild vitality.

Such practical intelligence, intimately related to a particular place, is the hallmark of any oral culture. Continually tested in interaction with the living land, altering in tandem with subtle changes in the local earth, even today such living knowledge resists the fixity and permanence of the printed page. Because it is specific to the way things happen here, in this high desert -- or coastal estuary, or mountain valley -- this kind of intimate intelligence loses its meaning when abstracted from its terrain, and from the particular persons and practices that are a part of its terrain. Such place-specific savvy, which deepens its value when honed and tempered over the course of several generations, forfeits much of its power when uprooted from the soil of its home and carried -- via the printed page or the glowing screen – to other places. Such intelligence, properly speaking, is an attribute of the living land itself; it thrives only in the direct, face-to-face exchange between those who dwell and work in this place.

So much earthly savvy was carried in the old tales! And since, for our indigenous ancestors, there was no written medium in which to record and preserve the stories -- since there were no written books -- the surrounding landscape, itself, functioned as the primary mnemonic, or memory trigger, for preserving the oral tales. To this end, diverse animals common to the local earth figured as prominent characters within the oral stories -- whether as teachers or tricksters, as buffoons or as bearers of wisdom. Hence, a chance encounter with a particular creature as a tribesperson went about his daily business (an encounter with a coyote, perhaps, or a magpie) would likely stir the memory of one or another story in which that animal played a decisive role. Moreover, crucial events in the stories were commonly associated with particular sites in the local terrain where those events were assumed to have happened, and whenever one noticed that place in the course of one’s daily wanderings -- when one came upon that particular cluster of boulders, or that sharp bend in the river -- the encounter would spark the memory of the storied events that had unfolded there.

Thus, while the accumulated knowledge of our oral ancestors was carried in stories, the stories themselves were carried by the surrounding earth. The local landscape was alive with stories! Traveling through the terrain, one felt teachings and secrets sprouting from every nook and knoll, lurking under the rocks and waiting to swoop down from the trees. The wooden planks of one's old house would laugh and whine, now and then, when the wind leaned hard against them, and whispered wishes would pour from the windswept grasses. To the members of a traditionally oral culture, all things had the power of speech. . .

Indeed, when we consult indigenous, oral peoples from around the world, we commonly discover that for them there is no phenomenon -- no stone, no mountain, no human artifact -- that is definitively inert or inanimate. Each thing has its own spontaneity, its own interior animation, its own life! Rivers feel the presence of the fish that swim within them. A large boulder, its surface spreading with crinkly red and gray lichens, is able to influence the events around it, and even to influence the thoughts of those persons who lean against it -- lending their reflections a certain gravity, and a kind of stony wisdom. Particular fish, as well, are bearers of wisdom, gifting their insights to those who catch them. Everything is alive -- even the stories themselves are animate beings! Among the Cree of Manitoba, for instance, it is said that the stories, when they are not being told, live off in their own villages, where they go about their own lives. Every now and then, however, a story will leave its village and go hunting for a person to inhabit. That person will abruptly be possessed by the story, and soon will find herself telling the tale out into the world, singing it back into active circulation...

There is something about this storied way of speaking -- this acknowledgement of a world all alive, awake, and aware -- that brings us close to our senses, and to the palpable, sensuous world that materially surrounds us. Our animal senses know nothing of the objective, mechanical, quantifiable world to which most of our civilized discourse refers. Wild and gregarious organs, our senses spontaneously experience the world not as a conglomeration of inert objects but as a field of animate presences that actively call our attention, that grab our focus or capture our gaze. Whenever we slip beneath the abstract assumptions of the modern world, we find ourselves drawn into relationship with a diversity of beings as inscrutable and unfathomable as ourselves. Direct, sensory perception is inherently animistic, disclosing a world wherein every phenomenon has its own active agency and power.

When we speak of the earthly things around us as quantifiable objects or passive "natural resources," we contradict our spontaneous sensory experience of the world, and hence our senses begin to wither and grow dim. We find ourselves living more and more in our heads, adrift in a sea of abstractions, unable to feel at home in an objectified landscape that seems alien to our own dreams and emotions. But when we begin to tell stories, our imagination begins to flow out through our eyes and our ears to inhabit the breathing earth once again. Suddenly, the trees along the street are looking at us, and the clouds crouch low over the city as though they are trying to hatch something wondrous. We find ourselves back inside the same world that the squirrels and the spiders inhabit, along with the deer stealthily munching the last plants in our garden, and the wild geese honking overhead as they flap south for the winter. Linear time falls away, and we find ourselves held, once again, in the vast cycles of the cosmos -- the round dance of the seasons, the sun climbing out of the ground each morning and slipping down into the earth every evening, the opening and closing of the lunar eye whose full gaze attracts the tidal waters within and all around us.

For we are born of this animate earth, and our sensitive flesh is simply our part of the dreaming body of the world. However much we may obscure this ancestral affinity, we cannot erase it, and the persistance of the old stories is the continuance of a way of speaking that blesses the sentience of things, binding our thoughts back into the depths of an imagination much vaster than our own. To live in a storied world is to know that intelligence is not an exclusively human faculty located somewhere inside our skulls, but is rather a power of the animate earth itself, in which we humans, along with the hawks and the thrumming frogs, all participate. It is to know, further, that each land, each watershed, each community of plants and animals and soils, has its particular style of intelligence, its unique mind or imagination evident in the particular patterns that play out there, in the living stories that unfold in that valley, and that are told and retold by the people of that place. Each ecology has its own psyche, and the local people bind their imaginations to the psyche of the place by letting the land dream its tales through them.

Today, economic globalization is rapidly undermining rural economies and tearing apart rural communities. The spreading monoculture degrades both cultural diversity and biotic diversity, forcing the depletion of soils and the wreckage of innumerable ecosystems. As the civilization of total commerce muscles its way into every corner of the planet, countless species tumble helter skelter over the brink of extinction, while the biosphere itself shivers into a bone-rattling fever.

For like any living being, earth’s metabolism depends upon the integrated functioning of many different organs, or ecosystems. Just as the human body could not possibly maintain its health if the lungs were forced to behave like the stomach, or if the kidneys were forced to act like the ears or the soles of the feet, so the planetary metabolism is thrown into disarray when each region is compelled to behave like every other region – when diverse places and cultures are forced to operate according to a single, mechanical logic, as interchangeable parts of an undifferentiated, homogenous sphere.

In the face of the expanding monoculture and its technological imperatives, more and more people are coming each day to recognize the critical importance of revitalizing local, face-to-face community. They recognize their common embedment within the life of this breathing planet, yet they know that such unity arises only from a vital and thriving multiplicity. A reciprocal respect and interdependence between richly different cultures -- each a dynamic expression of the unique earthly place, or bioregion, that supports it – is far more sustainable than a homogenous, planetary civilization.

Many of us have already worked for several decades on ecological and bioregional initiatives aimed at renewing local economies and the conviviality of place-based communities. Yet far too little progress was made by the movements for local self-sufficiency and sustainability. To be sure, our efforts were hindered by the steady growth of an industrial economy powered by the profligate burning of fossil fuel. Yet our efficacy was also weakened by our inability to recognize the immense influence of everyday language. Our work was weakened, that is, by our inability to discern that the spreading technologization of everyday life in the modern world (including the growing ubiquity of automobiles and telephones, of televisions and, most recently, personal computers) had been accompanied by a steady transformation in language -- by an increasing abstractness and generality in daily discourse. Local vernaculars had fallen into disuse; local stories had been forgotten; the oral forms and traditions by which place-specific knowledge had once been preserved and disseminated were no longer operative.

We in the Alliance for Wild Ethics (AWE) now recognize that a rejuvenation of real, face-to-face community – and the sensorial attunement to the local earth that ensures the vitality and sustenance of such community – simply cannot happen without a rejuvenation of the layer of language that goes hand in hand with such attunement. It cannot happen without renewing that primary layer of language, and culture, that underlies all our more abstract and technological forms of discourse. A renewal of place-based community cannot happen without a renewal of oral culture.

But does such a revitalization of oral, storytelling culture entail that we must renounce reading and writing? Not at all! It entails only that we leave space in our days for an interchange with one another and with the earth that is not mediated by technology – neither by the television, nor the computer, nor even the printed page.

Among writers, for instance, it entails that we allow that there are certain stories that one might come upon that should not be written down -- stories that we instead begin to tell, with our own tongue, in the particular places where those stories live.

It entails that as parents we set aside, now and then, the storybooks that we read to our children in order to actually tell our children a story with the whole of our gesturing body – or better yet, that we draw our kids out of doors in order to improvise a tale about the wild wind that’s now blustering its way through these city streets, plucking the hats off people’s heads…

And among educators, it entails that we begin to rejuvenate the arts of telling, and of listening, in the context of the living landscape where our lessons happen. For too long we have incarcerated the potent magic of linguistic meaning within an exclusively human space of signs. Hence the land itself has fallen mute; it now seems little more than a passive backdrop for human affairs, or a storehouse of resources waiting to be mined for purely human purposes. Can we return to the local land an implicit sense of its own inherent meaningfulness, its own many-voiced eloquence? Not without renewing the sensory craft of listening, and the sensuous art of storytelling. Can we help our students to translate the quantified abstractions of science into the language of direct experience, so that those abstract insights begin to come alive in our felt encounters with the animate earth around us? Can we begin to affirm our own co-evolved, carnal embedment within this blooming, buzzing proliferation of life, stirring within us a new humility in the face of a world that we did not create – in the face of a world that created us? Most importantly, can we begin with our students to restore the health and integrity of the local earth? Not without restorying the local earth. For our senses have become exceedingly estranged from the earthly sensuous. The age-old reciprocity between the human animal and the animate earth has long been short-circuited by our increasing involvement with our own creations, our own human-made technologies. And yet a simple tale, well-told, can shatter the spell – whether for an hour, or a day, or even a lifetime. We cannot restore the land without restorying the land.

There is no need to give up reading, nor to discard our computers, as long as we recall that such mediated and technological forms of interchange inevitably remain rooted in the more primary world of direct experience. As long as we remember, that is, that our involvement with the printed page and the digital screen draws its basic sustenance from our more immediate, face-to-face encounter with the flesh of the real.

Each medium of communication organizes our awareness in a particular way, each engaging us in a particular form of community. Without here analyzing all the diverse media that exert their claims upon our attention, we can acknowledge some very general traits:

~ Literacy and literate discourse (the ways of speaking and thinking implicitly informed by books, newspapers, magazines, and other printed media) is inherently cosmopolitan, mingling insights drawn from diverse traditions and places. Reading is a wonderful form of experience, but it is necessarily abstract relative to our direct sensory encounters in the immediacy of our locale.

~ Computer literacy, and our engagement with the internet, brings us almost instantaneous information from around the world, empowering virtual interactions with people from vastly different cultures. Yet such digital engagements are even more disembodied and placeless than our involvement with printed books and magazines. Indeed cyberspace seems to have no location at all, unless the “place” that we encounter through the internet is, well, the planet itself, transmuted into a weightless field of information. In truth, our increasing participation with email, e-commerce, and electronic information involves us in a discourse that is inherently global and globalizing. (It is this computerized form of communication, of course, that has enabled the rapid globalization of the free-market economy).

~ Oral culture (the culture of face to face storytelling) is inherently local. Far more concrete than those other modes of discourse, genuinely oral culture binds us not only to our immediate human community, but to the more-than-human community – the particular ecology of animals, plants and earthly elements in which we materially participate. In contrast to more abstract forms of media, the primary medium of oral communication is the atmosphere itself. In other words the unseen air, which is subtly different in each terrain, and which binds our own breathing bodies to the metabolism of oak trees and hawks and the storm clouds gathering above the city, is the implicit intermediary in all oral communication. As the most ancient and longstanding form of human discourse, oral culture provides the necessary soil and support for those more abstract styles of communication and reflection.

The Alliance for Wild Ethics holds that the globalizing culture of the internet, and the cosmopolitan culture of books, are both dependent, for their integrity, upon the place-based, vernacular culture of face-to-face storytelling.

When oral culture degrades, then the literate mind loses its bearings, forgetting its ongoing debt to the body and the breathing earth. When stories are no longer being told in the woods or along the banks of rivers -- when the land is no longer being honored, ALOUD!, as an animate, expressive power – then the human senses lose their attunement to the surrounding terrain. We no longer feel the particular pulse of our place – we no longer hear, or respond to, the many-voiced eloquence of the land. Increasingly blind and deaf, increasingly impervious to the sensuous world, the technological mind begins to lay waste to the earth.

We can be ardent readers (and even writers) of books, and enthusiastic participants in the world wide web and the internet, while recognizing that these abstract and almost exclusively human layers of culture will never be sufficient unto themselves. Without rejecting these rich forms of communication, we can nonetheless discern, today, that the rejuvenation of oral culture is an ecological imperative.


A few personal notes as I enthusiastically read this article:

1 I am reminded here of the Australian Aboriginal ideas of the "Songlines", tracks in the land that bear the "stories of the land" and the ancestral beings.

2 Like Spider Woman (Keresan, "Tse Che Nako") as the Earth Mother/Creatrix, stories are spun into the world, and become the conversant world, from a kind of universal, ensouled, non-local imagination, a participatory kind of creative consciousness that includes, but is not exclusive to, us.

3 I am inspired to copy, in my next blog entry, an interview I did with Dr. Rafael Montanez Ortiz, philosopher and artist I was privileged to meet. He had much to say along these lines 20 years ago when the interview took place.

4 "Story" includes the Numina, the participation of the intelligences of Place, and in this respect, the author is saying that an oral tradition is a much richer tapestry of direct experience that includes body movement, sound, the environment, and the various psychic energy exchanges that go on in the prescence of such.

5 IMMANANCE - as opposed to the theological concept of "Transcendance"

6 Mitakuye Oyasin. "All my Relations", the traditional Lakota blessing.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

New Work


Returning 2009

I needed to do these pieces as "prayers" for my brother. They speak much better to me than words. I had all of these wonderful casts of hands, and also tiles I made that i imprinted words and letters into..........words, syllables, sentences are what we create the stories of our lives with......but before the words, are the feelings, the belonging, the response, the one who sees and experiences. Perhaps dying is shattering all those "vessels" of words and ideas and constructs (and terra cotta pottery shards imprinted with words seems like a good medium for that concept) that we have allowed to define who we are are. Perhaps, leaving all the words and vessels behind, at last, we fly.


"Form is empty, emptiness is form.
Likewise, sensation, discrimination,
conditioning, and awareness are empty.
In this way, Shariputra, all things are emptiness;
they are without defining characteristics;
they are not born, they do not cease"
THE HEART SUTRA


The Heart Sutra

Somewhere within the "hoop" of who we are, within the space between the child and the old man or woman, the beginning place and the ending place.........in the middle is the heart. I think that above all is where our "soul making" has gone on.


Holy Mother Take My Hand (2009)

I think this is my favorite. The Mother's Hand takes ours, and regardless of what artifice and awards and self-hate we have accumulated, as it dissolves in the greater being of Her compassion, we see that we are all just children. From that perspective, the place of the "rio grande", it is hard to conceive of not forgiving, and cherishing, everyone.



Prayers for the Dying: Reliquary

This Reliquary has two potent symbols of transformation and rebirth to me - a feather left behind from the flight of a Phoenix, and the skin of a snake, eternal symbol of natures death/birth cycle. In the end, I think that's what we leave behind........artifacts, cast off skins, and stories that are containers for the imaginations of those left behind. But like these symbols, the end is also illusive.


Dream Weaver 2009


Somehow this image is very important to me. We ourselves are the great work of art in progress, and we ourselves are all connected to the Web of being. These are Spider Woman's hands, the Dream Weaver, weaving a new dream in the silence, the dark, the depths of our innermost being.

Here are some verses from the Weaver Song performed every year at the Spiral Dance Ritual.

No one knows why we are born

A web is made, a web is torn

But love is the home that we come from

and at the core we all are one


Of life's Spring may we drink deep

and awake to dream and die to sleep

and dreaming weave another form

a shining thread of life reborn


Weaver, Weaver, weave our thread

whole and strong into your Web

Healer, Healer, heal our pain

in love may we return again


~~~Starhawk




Thursday, May 7, 2009

Doris Lessing Revisited

Writers are often asked "How do you write?" But the essential question is: "Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write?" Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas - inspiration. If a writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn. When writers talk to each other, what they discuss is always to do with this imaginative space, this other time. "Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?"

Doris Lessing,
Nobel Prize Speech, 2007

I felt like re-reading an excerpt I wrote about a year and a half ago, on the occasion of finding a signed copy of "The Habit of Loving" by one of my favorite authors, Doris Lessing, lying at my feet, on the street, in downtown Tucson. I've been reflecting that the habit of loving is ultimately the only truly necessary habit to cultivate, in order to lead a creative life. And for sheer pleasure, I'm going to copy below her entire acceptance speech, which she gave after receiving the Prize at the age of 88.
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My friend Rose says that I should write a book about syncronicity - I think if I did, I would call it the "Book of Common Miracles", or perhaps, just "Grace". Because I've often felt there is a Conversation going on that, in a quantum sense, once we notice, becomes continually more animated. In other words, we're often "tapped on the shoulder" by angels, and pre-occupied with daily concerns, we fail to notice miracles fluttering like their translucent wings under our very noses. I'm glad the angelic realms seem to include a good sense of humor.

Ecologist, magician, and philosopher David Abram (http://www.wildethics.org) has commented that perception is "a reciprocal phenomenon organized as much by the surrounding world as by oneself".* He suggests that a two-way dynamic of intention, or energy exchange, may be going on. In contrast to our idea of a non-living world we simply observe or act upon, Abram further comments that "the psyche is a property of the ecosystem as a whole", suggesting that we move beyond the notion that "one's mind is nothing other than the body itself".* Another way of putting it might be that we are "ensouled" in the whole world, a Conversant World. As writer Alice Walker has often said, "the Universe responds."


So the story I would like to tell concerns one of my favorite writers, a woman whose visionary books, most significantly SHIKASTA, have informed and inspired me for 35 years, Doris Lessing. The excerpt above is from her 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature speech, which she received at the age of 88. The visual is her personal note and autograph, found on the back cover of a paperback I found lying on the sidewalk at my feet, a pile of discarded books just a few blocks from where I live in downtown Tucson, Arizona. To me, it's a talisman - infused with energy from the living hand of this prolific and visionary writer, whose long and enduring gift she has never failed.

I've been very depressed this winter, which led me to go into therapy to tell and reveal to myself, some of the stories of my personal life, and hopefully untangle them so I can move through the bardo of transition I've been mired in. I do not like the cynicism and bitterness that post-menopausally "haunts" me.......the Habit of Loving is the discipline from which creativity arises, and without it's hopeful window, the river dries up. I've been blessed to find a wise counselor to listen to me. And in the "unmasking process" (as she puts it) I've often felt like a ghost within the "legend" of my former self.......therapy is rather a painful process! And I've had plenty of doubts as to whether being an artist matters anymore.

So when I found"The Habit of Loving" at my feet while strolling down a residential street near where I live I picked it up with pleasure. To find a personal autograph on the inside (dated 1982) by the author........is pure magic. Personal magic - because if it was by Stephen King, or any of the thousands of authors I don't know or don't care about, it wouldn't mean a thing to me. But this is a talisman, as if, in some wonderful way, a creative spark was passed on to me from someone I who has spoken to me with her words for many long years, informing me within her worlds. And a reminder to not only respect, but CHERISH the gifts of creativity and expression we're given. It's too easy to forget - they are high privilege.

In her speech, Lessing remembers her life early life in Africa, in Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia. She urges us to remember how precious the gifts of literacy really are. Here is something she has to say about Story I love:

"We have a bequest of stories, tales from the old storytellers, some of whose names we know, but some not. The storytellers go back and back, to a clearing in the forest where a great fire burns, and the old shamans dance and sing, for our heritage of stories began in fire, magic, the spirit world. And that is where it is held, today.

Ask any modern storyteller and they will say there is always a moment when they are touched with fire, with what we like to call inspiration, and this goes back and back to the beginning of our race, to fire and ice and the great winds that shaped us and our world.
The storyteller is deep inside everyone of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is attacked by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise . . . but the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us - for good and for ill.

It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative."**


*"The Perceptual Implications of Gaia", David Abram, THE ECOLOGIST (1985)

**© The Nobel Foundation 2007
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I am standing in a doorway looking through clouds of blowing dust to where I am told there is still uncut forest. Yesterday I drove through miles of stumps, and charred remains of fires where, in 1956, there was the most wonderful forest I have ever seen, all now destroyed. People have to eat. They have to get fuel for fires.

This is north-west Zimbabwe early in the 80s, and I am visiting a friend who was a teacher in a school in London. He is here "to help Africa", as we put it. He is a gently idealistic soul and what he found in this school shocked him into a depression, from which it was hard to recover. This school is like every other built after Independence. It consists of four large brick rooms side by side, put straight into the dust, one two three four, with a half room at one end, which is the library. In these classrooms are blackboards, but my friend keeps the chalks in his pocket, as otherwise they would be stolen. There is no atlas or globe in the school, no textbooks, no exercise books or Biros. In the library there are no books of the kind the pupils would like to read, but only tomes from American universities, hard even to lift, rejects from white libraries, detective stories, or titles like Weekend in Paris and Felicity Finds Love.

There is a goat trying to find sustenance in some aged grass. The headmaster has embezzled the school funds and is suspended. My friend doesn't have any money because everyone, pupils and teachers, borrow from him when he is paid and will probably never pay it back. The pupils range from six to 26, because some who did not get schooling as children are here to make it up. Some pupils walk many miles every morning, rain or shine and across rivers. They cannot do homework because there is no electricity in the villages, and you can't study easily by the light of a burning log. The girls have to fetch water and cook before they set off for school and when they get back.

As I sit with my friend in his room, people shyly drop in, and everyone begs for books. "Please send us books when you get back to London," one man says. "They taught us to read but we have no books." Everybody I met, everyone, begged for books. I was there some days. The dust blew. The pumps had broken and the women were having to fetch water from the river. Another idealistic teacher from England was rather ill after seeing what this "school" was like.

The next day I am to give a talk at a school in North London, a very good school. It is a school for boys, with beautiful buildings and gardens. The children here have a visit from some well-known person every week: these may be fathers, relatives, even mothers of the pupils; a visit from a celebrity is not unusual for them.

As I talk to them, the school in the blowing dust of north-west Zimbabwe is in my mind, and I look at the mildly expectant English faces in front of me and try to tell them about what I have seen in the last week. Classrooms without books, without textbooks, or an atlas, or even a map pinned to a wall. A school where the teachers beg to be sent books to tell them how to teach, they being only 18 or 19 themselves. I tell these English boys how everybody begs for books: "Please send us books." But there are no images in their minds to match what I am telling them: of a school standing in dust clouds, where water is short, and where the end-of-term treat is a just-killed goat cooked in a great pot.

Is it really so impossible for these privileged students to imagine such bare poverty? I do my best. They are polite.

I'm sure that some of them will one day win prizes. Then the talk is over. Afterwards I ask the teachers how the library is, and if the pupils read. In this privileged school, I hear what I always hear when I go to such schools and even universities. "You know how it is," one of the teachers says. "A lot of the boys have never read at all, and the library is only half used." Yes, indeed we do know how it is. All of us.

We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers.

What has happened to us is an amazing invention - computers and the internet and TV. It is a revolution. This is not the first revolution the human race has dealt with. The printing revolution, which did not take place in a matter of a few decades, but took much longer, transformed our minds and ways of thinking. A foolhardy lot, we accepted it all, as we always do, never asked: "What is going to happen to us now, with this invention of print?" In the same way, we never thought to ask, "How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc?"

Very recently, anyone even mildly educated would respect learning, education and our great store of literature. Of course we all know that when this happy state was with us, people would pretend to read, would pretend respect for learning. But it is on record that working men and women longed for books, evidenced by the founding of working-men's libraries, institutes, and the colleges of the 18th and 19th centuries. Reading, books, used to be part of a general education. Older people, talking to young ones, must understand just how much of an education reading was, because the young ones know so much less.

We all know this sad story. But we do not know the end of it. We think of the old adage, "Reading maketh a full man" - reading makes a woman and a man full of information, of history, of all kinds of knowledge.

Not long ago, a friend in Zimbabwe told me about a village where the people had not eaten for three days, but they were still talking about books and how to get them, about education.

I belong to an organisation which started out with the intention of getting books into the villages. There was a group of people who in another connection had travelled Zimbabwe at its grassroots. They told me that the villages, unlike what is reported, are full of intelligent people, teachers retired, teachers on leave, children on holidays, old people. I myself paid for a little survey to discover what people in Zimbabwe wanted to read, and found the results were the same as those of a Swedish survey I had not known about. People want to read the same kind of books that people in Europe want to read - novels of all kinds, science fiction, poetry, detective stories, plays, and do-it-yourself books, like how to open a bank account. All of Shakespeare too. A problem with finding books for villagers is that they don't know what is available, so a set book, like The Mayor of Casterbridge, becomes popular simply because it just happens to be there. Animal Farm, for obvious reasons, is the most popular of all novels.

Our organisation was helped from the very start by Norway, and then by Sweden. Without this kind of support our supplies of books would have dried up. We got books from wherever we could. Remember, a good paperback from England costs a month's wages in Zimbabwe: that was before Mugabe's reign of terror. Now, with inflation, it would cost several years' wages. But having taken a box of books out to a village - and remember there is a terrible shortage of petrol - I can tell you that the box was greeted with tears. The library may be a plank on bricks under a tree. And within a week there will be literacy classes - people who can read teaching those who can't, citizenship classes - and in one remote village, since there were no novels written in the Tonga language, a couple of lads sat down to write novels in Tonga. There are six or so main languages in Zimbabwe and there are novels in all of them: violent, incestuous, full of crime and murder.

It is said that a people gets the government it deserves, but I do not think it is true of Zimbabwe. And we must remember that this respect and hunger for books comes, not from Mugabe's regime, but from the one before it, the whites. It is an astonishing phenomenon, this hunger for books, and it can be seen everywhere from Kenya down to the Cape of Good Hope.

This links up improbably with a fact: I was brought up in what was virtually a mud hut, thatched. This kind of house has been built always, everywhere where there are reeds or grass, suitable mud, poles for walls - Saxon England, for example. The one I was brought up in had four rooms, one beside another, and it was full of books. Not only did my parents take books from England to Africa, but my mother ordered books by post from England for her children. Books arrived in great brown paper parcels, and they were the joy of my young life. A mud hut, but full of books.

Even today I get letters from people living in a village that might not have electricity or running water, just like our family in our elongated mud hut. "I shall be a writer too," they say, "because I've the same kind of house you were in."

But here is the difficulty. Writing, writers, do not come out of houses without books.

I have been looking at the speeches by some of the recent Nobel prizewinners. Take last year's winner, the magnificent Orhan Pamuk. He said his father had 500 books. His talent did not come out of the air, he was connected with the great tradition. Take VS Naipaul. He mentions that the Indian Vedas were close behind the memory of his family. His father encouraged him to write, and when he got to England he would visit the British Library. So he was close to the great tradition. Let us take John Coetzee. He was not only close to the great tradition, he was the tradition: he taught literature in Cape Town. And how sorry I am that I was never in one of his classes; taught by that wonderfully brave, bold mind. In order to write, in order to make literature, there must be a close connection with libraries, books, the tradition.

I have a friend from Zimbabwe, a black writer. He taught himself to read from the labels on jam jars, the labels on preserved fruit cans. He was brought up in an area I have driven through, an area for rural blacks. The earth is grit and gravel, there are low sparse bushes. The huts are poor, nothing like the well-cared-for huts of the better off. There was a school, but like the one I have described. He found a discarded children's encyclopaedia on a rubbish heap and taught himself from that.

On Independence in 1980 there was a group of good writers in Zimbabwe, truly a nest of singing birds. They were bred in old Southern Rhodesia, under the whites - the mission schools, the better schools. Writers are not made in Zimbabwe, not easily, not under Mugabe.

All the writers travelled a difficult road to literacy, let alone to becoming writers. I would say learning to read from the printed labels on jam jars and discarded encyclopaedias was not uncommon. And we are talking about people hungering for standards of education beyond them, living in huts with many children - an overworked mother, a fight for food and clothing.

Yet despite these difficulties, writers came into being. And we should also remember that this was Zimbabwe, conquered less than 100 years before. The grandparents of these people might have been storytellers working in the oral tradition. In one or two generations, the transition was made from these stories remembered and passed on, to print, to books.

Books were literally wrested from rubbish heaps and the detritus of the white man's world. But a sheaf of paper is one thing, a published book quite another. I have had several accounts sent to me of the publishing scene in Africa. Even in more privileged places like North Africa, to talk of a publishing scene is a dream of possibilities.

Here I am talking about books never written, writers who could not make it because the publishers are not there. Voices unheard. It is not possible to estimate this great waste of talent, of potential. But even before that stage of a book's creation which demands a publisher, an advance, encouragement, there is something else lacking.

Writers are often asked: "How do you write? With a word processor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand?" But the essential question is: "Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write? Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas - inspiration." If a writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn. When writers talk to each other, what they discuss is always to do with this imaginative space, this other time. "Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?"

Let us now jump to an apparently very different scene. We are in London, one of the big cities. There is a new writer. We cynically enquire: "Is she good-looking?" If this is a man: "Charismatic? Handsome?" We joke, but it is not a joke.

This new find is acclaimed, possibly given a lot of money. The buzzing of hype begins in their poor ears. They are feted, lauded, whisked about the world. Us old ones, who have seen it all, are sorry for this neophyte, who has no idea of what is really happening. He, she, is flattered, pleased. But ask in a year's time what he or she is thinking: "This is the worst thing that could have happened to me."

Some much-publicised new writers haven't written again, or haven't written what they wanted to, meant to. And we, the old ones, want to whisper into those innocent ears: "Have you still got your space? Your soul, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold on to it, don't let it go."

My mind is full of splendid memories of Africa that I can revive and look at whenever I want. How about those sunsets, gold and purple and orange, spreading across the sky at evening? How about butterflies and moths and bees on the aromatic bushes of the Kalahari? Or, sitting on the pale grassy banks of the Zambesi, the water dark and glossy, with all the birds of Africa darting about? Yes, elephants, giraffes, lions and the rest, there were plenty of those, but how about the sky at night, still unpolluted, black and wonderful, full of restless stars?

There are other memories too. A young African man, 18 perhaps, in tears, standing in what he hopes will be his "library". A visiting American, seeing that his library had no books, had sent a crate of them. The young man had taken each one out, reverently, and wrapped them in plastic. "But," we say, "these books were sent to be read, surely?" "No," he replies, "they will get dirty, and where will I get any more?"

I have seen a teacher in a school where there were no textbooks, not even a chalk for the blackboard. He taught his class of six- to 18-year-olds by moving stones in the dust, chanting: "Two times two is ... " and so on. I have seen a girl - perhaps not more than 20, also lacking textbooks, exercise books, biros - teach the ABC by scratching the letters in the dirt with a stick, while the sun beat down and the dust swirled.

I would like you to imagine yourselves somewhere in Southern Africa, standing in an Indian store, in a poor area, in a time of bad drought. There is a line of people, mostly women, with every kind of container for water. This store gets a bowser of precious water every afternoon from the town, and here the people wait.

The Indian is standing with the heels of his hands pressed down on the counter, and he is watching a black woman, who is bending over a wadge of paper that looks as if it has been torn out of a book. She is reading Anna Karenina. She is reading slowly, mouthing the words. It looks a difficult book. This is a young woman with two little children clutching at her legs. She is pregnant. The Indian is distressed, because the young woman's headscarf, which should be white, is yellow with dust. Dust lies between her breasts and on her arms. This man is distressed because of the lines of people, all thirsty, but he doesn't have enough water for them. He is angry because he knows there are people dying out there, beyond the dust clouds.

This man is curious. He says to the young woman: "What are you reading?"

"It is about Russia," says the girl.

"Do you know where Russia is?" He hardly knows himself.

The young woman looks straight at him, full of dignity, though her eyes are red from dust. "I was best in the class. My teacher said I was best."

The young woman resumes her reading: she wants to get to the end of the paragraph.

The Indian looks at the two little children and reaches for some Fanta, but the mother says: "Fanta makes them thirsty."

The Indian knows he shouldn't do this, but he reaches down to a great plastic container beside him, behind the counter, and pours out two plastic mugs of water, which he hands to the children. He watches while the girl looks at her children drinking, her mouth moving. He gives her a mug of water. It hurts him to see her drinking it, so painfully thirsty is she.

Now she hands over to him a plastic water container, which he fills. The young woman and the children watch him closely so that he doesn't spill any.

She is bending again over the book. She reads slowly but the paragraph fascinates her and she reads it again.

"Varenka, with her white kerchief over her black hair, surrounded by the children and gaily and good-humouredly busy with them, and at the same time visibly excited at the possibility of an offer of marriage from a man she cared for, Varenka looked very attractive. Koznyshev walked by her side and kept casting admiring glances at her. Looking at her, he recalled all the delightful things he had heard from her lips, all the good he knew about her, and became more and more conscious that the feeling he had for her was something rare, something he had felt but once before, long, long ago, in his early youth. The joy of being near her increased step by step, and at last reached such a point that, as he put a huge birch mushroom with a slender stalk and up-curling top into her basket, he looked into her eyes and, noting the flush of glad and frightened agitation that suffused her face, he was confused himself, and in silence gave her a smile that said too much."

This lump of print is lying on the counter, together with some old copies of magazines, some pages of newspapers, girls in bikinis.

It is time for her to leave the haven of the Indian store, and set off back along the four miles to her village. Outside, the lines of waiting women clamour and complain. But still the Indian lingers. He knows what it will cost this girl, going back home with the two clinging children. He would give her the piece of prose that so fascinates her, but he cannot really believe this splinter of a girl with her great belly can really understand it.

Why is perhaps a third of Anna Karenina stuck here on this counter in a remote Indian store? It is like this.

A certain high official, United Nations, as it happens, bought a copy of this novel in the bookshop when he set out on his journeys to cross several oceans and seas. On the plane, settled in his business-class seat, he tore the book into three parts. When he was settled, his seatbelt tight, he said aloud to whomever could hear: "I always do this when I've a long trip. You don't want to have to hold up some heavy great book." The novel was a paperback, but, true, it is a long book. When he reached the end of a section of the book, he called the airhostess, and sent it back to his secretary, who was travelling in the cheaper seats.

Meanwhile, down in the Indian store, the young woman is holding on to the counter, her little children clinging to her skirts. She wears jeans, since she is a modern woman, but over them she has put on the heavy woollen skirt, part of traditional garb of her people: her children can easily cling on to it, the thick folds. She sends a thankful look at the Indian, who she knows likes her and is sorry for her, and she steps out into the blowing clouds. The children have gone past crying, and their throats are full of dust anyway.

This is hard, oh yes, it is hard, this stepping, one foot after another, through the dust that lays in soft deceiving mounds under her feet. Hard, hard - but she is used to hardship, is she not? Her mind is on the story she has been reading. She is thinking: "She is just like me, in her white headscarf, and she is looking after children, too. I could be her, that Russian girl. And the man there, he loves her and will ask her to marry him. (She has not finished more than that one paragraph). Yes, and a man will come for me, and take me away from all this, take me and the children, yes, he will love me and look after me."

She thinks. My teacher said there was a library there, bigger than the supermarket, a big building, and it is full of books. The young woman is smiling as she moves on, the dust blowing in her face. I am clever, she thinks. Teacher said I am clever. The cleverest in the school. My children will be clever, like me. I will take them to the library, the place full of books, and they will go to school, and they will be teachers - my teacher told me I could be a teacher. They will live far from here, earning money. They will live near the big library and enjoy a good life.

You may ask how that piece of the Russian novel ever ended up on that counter in the Indian store? It would make a pretty story. Perhaps someone will tell it. On goes that poor girl, held upright by thoughts of the water she would give her children once home, and drink a little herself. On she goes, through the dreaded dusts of an African drought.

We are a jaded lot, we in our world - our threatened world. We are good for irony and even cynicism. Some words and ideas we hardly use, so worn out have they become. But we may want to restore some words that have lost their potency.

We have a treasure-house of literature, going back to the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans. It is all there, this wealth of literature, to be discovered again and again by whoever is lucky enough to come up on it. Suppose it did not exist. How impoverished, how empty we would be.

We have a bequest of stories, tales from the old storytellers, some of whose names we know, but some not. The storytellers go back and back, to a clearing in the forest where a great fire burns, and the old shamans dance and sing, for our heritage of stories began in fire, magic, the spirit world. And that is where it is held, today.

Ask any modern storyteller and they will say there is always a moment when they are touched with fire, with what we like to call inspiration, and this goes back and back to the beginning of our race, to fire and ice and the great winds that shaped us and our world.

The storyteller is deep inside everyone of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is attacked by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise . . . but the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us - for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

That poor girl trudging through the dust, dreaming of an education for her children, do we think that we are better than she is - we, stuffed full of food, our cupboards full of clothes, stifling in our superfluities?

I think it is that girl and the women who were talking about books and an education when they had not eaten for three days, that may yet define us.

**© The Nobel Foundation 2007