Friday, April 1, 2011

Sex & Stones

May break my bones? This blog's reviewed earnest accounts by Western Buddhists, Irish republicans and their discontents, scholarly punks, musical marginals, and/or overeducated malcontents moaning across six hundred pages of footnoted density. But I do harbor a broader (no pun intended?), if arcane and misfit, sensibility beyond pet preferences. Today, "foolishly," I'll skim some newly excavated shards about sexuality.

In the New York Times glossy Travel magazine, amid articles touting a Laguna Beach yoga-camp where you could eat 1200 calories a day while yanking your dog up scenic vistas, for a mere $3900 a week (a bargain next to a $5k ashram up/down this coddled, mansed, and condofied fiefdom of the once open access Pacific coast), Sean Penn glowering from noble Haitian relief work, and ways to spend money in London, I stumbled upon Joumana Haddad, by a journalist puffed (if more svelte from her elegantly swathed stance than her tagline's inspiration suggests) as "the Oprah of Lebanon."

Sex and the Souk doesn't delve very deep, but Haddad raises a cogent point among the posing and preening. She does strike me as a bit disingenuous, for as a Christian, why'd she make a big stand about never having worn an hijab, which is a Muslim practice? But given her affluence, her two kids by two different men, and her ambiguously affluent status now due to what seems hinted as a sugar daddy out of her current boudoir, a high life in Beirut's high rises appears to afford her a windowed vista above the city, a corner office, a laptop, and sniper's
perch. A scenic vista along another urban coast, from where she can target the chauvinist hordes.

One wonders where sexual politics fits into this volatile setting. “People tell me, ‘There are so many things wrong with the Arab world, why do you just talk about sex?’ And I say, ‘This is the main link.’ Who decides what’s haram — what’s allowed and not allowed? The religious figures. They are linked with the political powers, and together they work to control the society through this medium, the sex drive. If you break the power over sex, you can start undermining and questioning the religious and political powers. You cannot do it the other way around.”

Nina Burleigh gives her subject more attention for her hand-rolled cigs, her "J" tattoo for her own "racy" magazine "Jasad" ("body" in Arabic), and her gushing over Steven Colbert. She'll land five minutes near his televised lap on the inevitable promo tour for her forthcoming tell-all book, I predict.

If Jasad's "articles by intellectuals and poets about masturbation, homosexuality, fetishism and polygamy alongside antique photos of nude Arab boys luxuriating in voluptuous Ottoman settings and close-ups of female genitalia" comprise "tame fare by Western standards," I guess I need to watch less TV, or change the channels more. She claims at twelve that finding de Sade's "Justine" proved her "baptism by subversion." (I'd recommend Joachim Neugroschel's witty Penguin translation of the Marquis' cheerier "Philosophy in the Bedroom," or even "Juliette," over the depressing, decidedly morbid "Justine," but as Haddad mastered it in French, I'll give her the benefit of my doubts, being one language distant from her magazine and another from the decidedly un-erotic, to my tastes, de Sade. His point's not to titillate, but to flagellate, the body politique.)

But at least her comment reminds us of the current, and perpetual, if often undercover, subversion that powers impose to suppress. I've just reviewed Islamic scholar Olivier Roy's "Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways" featured at PopMatters. This French professor might agree with Haddad: the globalization of religious identities as they drift from their cultural moorings may lead to the Net, books, and magazines as media by which change will occur, which no imam, prelate, or eruv can shut out. If people want to believe and behave a certain way, they may find that they can do this from anywhere in the world, with a freedom never afforded their ancestors. The struggle to freely wield the lash, in de Sade vs. Saudi Arabia, certainly invites its own clash of provocations and imprecations.

Any whip my Connacht progenitors raised must have been against only a cow or horse. So I reckon, even though my maternal line appears to have been feisty enough to provoke paternal lack of paternalistic pacifism. My ancestors never likely met up with Jewish traders let alone Buddhist adherents. Although I possess a great-great grandmother with a bonafide Traveller (don't call them Tinkers or "Irish Gypsies") surname and provenance.

With the exception of a few Scouts in one place I partly (!) grew up, where college town sophisticates mingled with us barely non-gypsy rubes (my best friend had a pet goat, my family couldn't stop breeding pups, and two neighbors smelled up the still then semi-rural acreage with two horses), I'd remained ignorant long, never seeing a bagel until college. I met non-Catholic friends only in grad school. As Diarmaid Ferriter documents in Occasion of Sin: Sex and society in modern Ireland, reviewed by me at The New York Journal of Books, within my diasporic "living memory," the impositions of the Church weighed upon many of us who were raised in supposedly post-Vatican II guitar-Mass disco-ball Sodom.

I wonder what my pre-Christian forebears from the isle might have venerated. Even as a kid, I rooted for Druids over Patrick, and felt bad about the copses felled where crosses rose. Evidence for sexual mores, naturally, remains notoriously difficult to interpret, given the lack of testimonies, the clerical censors, the surviving palimpsests of even medieval depositions and ancient lyrics confounding scholars. Compare with primordial scraps we rummage among, wondering what troglodytes did when they did what they did.

One archeologist compares what we know about pre-literate sexual activity to a few thousand bits of a billion-piece jigsaw puzzle. Timothy Taylor has mused, as I've addressed less imaginatively and more stolidly in my research (link may be down to pdf) on "the invention of 'Celtic Buddhism' as a concept," that the enigmatic find in Jutland of the Transylvanian-made Gundestrup Cauldron displays in its androgynous and shamanic figures an ambiguous glimpse at "tantric sex in Iron Age Denmark." (215) While as I have argued Taylor overstates his case, this giant decorated silver bowl represents for him a possibility that might have been. (Qualifications weigh down any sentence I can compose about this topic.) If Tantric yogic traditions could have spread from India to the West, by way of intersexed, torqued figures as the wisdom carriers of knowledge and dream, what a world might have evolved.

Taylor briefly entertains an alternative history: "the courts of medieval Europe might have thrilled to the erotic dances of Indian-style courtesans, surrounded by voluptuous sexual imagery, as on the Hindu temples of the Deccan." (218) This passage appears in his "The Prehistory of Sex" (1996). It  attempts to make sense out of such fragmented evidence from "four million years of human sexual culture." I found it (inevitably?) patchy and erratic, as the curious glimpses into shadowed contexts shifted so often and the focus, given the scattered fragments of evidence, endures as it always will, mysteriously suggestive, but his section on Neolithic megaliths captured my attention.

I once glimpsed Marija Gimbutas, the late Lithuanian-born archeologist, as I passed her open office door, deep in a green-painted, subterranean passage in a UCLA science building. This setting, cold and austere, may have suited her, for her studies during the decade I walked by her lab, praised by feminists, inspired notions of a goddess culture, a matriarchical hegemony that once stretched across pre-Iron Age Eurasia. Inevitably, her claims have been contested, and Taylor stands on firmer ground in suspecting her "Great Mother" vision reconstructed from figurines and postholes as too ameliorative, given the endemic legacy of war and greed that makes us forget that "hand tools" were most likely weapons first. Violence within our genes, for him, turns idylls suspect. I think of the scene opening "2001" in reverse. Yet, I also think of the travel narrative I re-started last night, after finishing it twenty years ago, Andrew Harvey's "A Journey in Ladakh." He entered in the 1970s that enclave, nearly free then of strife in a contentedly Buddhist fastness, a last redoubt already eroding by Kashmiri and Hindi frontier battles.

Taylor admits that hunter-gatherers cooperated, and that farming communities competed. Land ownership demanded paternity must be established, inheritance sorted out, and women, ground down by a sedentary existence, had to give up some relative freedom once they settled down. Down meant into a posture bent over, grinding grain, where babies had to be weaned earlier, so as to allow mothers a stance to keep toiling. Slings for babies out of sinews or fiber may have been the first tool invented, millions of years ago. Gathering women can walk with a baby (not with babies) and live among nomadic hunters.

But, when they farm, men and women must stay, and their babies that used to be spaced out in succession by longer breastfeeding and contraceptive knowledge gleaned from wild plants therefore get taken off the teat quicker. Mom's got to get back to work. Her infants are fed gruel from grown grain cooked in newfangled pottery. Mothers then get pregnant again more quickly and more often. Their bones wear out quicker, they may die off faster, and polygamy may turn status symbol. Maternal and infant mortality increase with more births: I recall that the odds were, until industrial time in the West,  1:10 that a mother would die in childbirth.

As sharper weapons hastened bloodier battle over newly stored wealth, violence meant that more men died, too, outpacing female mortality. Taylor estimates that even in the settlements praised by Gimbutas in present-day Turkey, males met a sudden end more often. More "surplus" women may have led-- this is me now ruminating-- to the "Solomon's 300 wives and thousand concubines" exaggeration of a cultural disparity that endures in the Arab and Muslim realms Haddad seeks to reform by pulp and photos and poets for promotion today. Starting in her native Middle East, as grain grows and animals breed in captivity, calorically-boosted, well-fed populations increase, land gets devoured, fences loom, plows harden, and spears bristle. Forested frontiers recede as farmers push out hunters and gatherers.

Taylor faces his own challenges to present his grimmer prehistorical perspective. He argues that settling down for the newly agricultural domesticators meant that they shifted their sexual understanding. He posits that "hunter-gatherer sex had been modeled on an idea of sharing and complementarity," while its replacement "was voyeuristic, repressive, homophobic, and focused on reproduction. Afraid of the wild, farmers set out to destroy it." (142-3) One way they did this was, in post-Ice Age expansion, to insist on their dominance over their landscapes. Rather than fitting in and wandering about, settlers set boundaries. The Hebrews obsessed over separation of categories, clean and unclean, meat and milk, chosen and gentile, sinner and saved. Taylor figures that such peoples feared cross-dressers, homosexuals, and any who deviated from reproductive duties.

Those passages about leprosy and casting out the scarred and lame from Leviticus stun many students. A dim recollection that "ivrit" for the first Hebrew tribe meant  "boundary crosser" came to mind just now. Within a land they defended, such a people might be sensitive to defining what became justified as divinely granted patrimony with a vehemence and a vengeance against interlopers, transgressors, and those who resisted their commands. Taylor reasons that Middle Eastern farmers responded to control dangerous sexual impulses by watching the cattle they lived among, modelling their own treatment of women after the rutting bull's rapid function lorded over "relatively passive females."

His next chapter, halfway into his book, begins: "I do not believe a women built Stonehenge." One may have been sacrificed in its ditches, however. "I believe that the making of Stonehenge was ordered by a man and that he was unhappy." (167) Its alignment to invite the midsummer's sun's penetration with a shaft of light stays potent. But for Taylor, it's too boastful, betraying a recumbent earth-goddess resigned to her fate within a society which fears its untamed surroundings. He cites Peter Ellis's 1994 conception of the New Stone Age's psychological profile as a "collectively held obsession" erecting "a landscape of detached sexual objects." (qtd. 189)

Taylor considers how weaning infants earlier, in a warrior culture, may trigger what in Martin Seligman's theory's called "learned helplessness." Cry all you want, you won't get the bottle. In a society where the mother's withdrawn the nipple, energy's costly, the "weans" get ignored, and the wee'uns capitulate, instinctively following the natural rule that yelling out exposes a bird or beast to danger. But before the baby cries itself to sleep, it feels detached from reality, and cannot figure out how to regain power. The only way? Control one's surroundings. Rigid routines help this culture (and perhaps that of we, their genetic inheritors) regain a predictable way to "compensate for their primal distrust of the world." (191)

If the sun can be compelled to slip in just-so same time same place next year, there might be hope for those who try to conquer nature. Only the stones remain, with a few scratches of primal engorgement, primitive erections (one from Bronze Age Finland Taylor captions-- the figure looks like he wears a baseball cap as he pumps his free arm in the air in enthusiasm or frustration, I add-- as "skier attempting intercourse with moose") and primordial lumps carved into bosomy, considerably callipgyian globs which make Oprah not of Lebanon look like Lindsay Lohan.

Taylor examines more monumental configurations, passage-tombs arrayed like vast granite wombs to overcome death's dark tyranny by inviting the release of injected light, or what my demure consort has labeled in relation to the Tibetan yab-yum depiction of male-female energies (euphemism or profundity) "another big-dick thing." Standing pillars as massive maximizers hoisted to the bearded sky gods of the incoming Iron Age, memorialize as physical graffiti what we many boast (males at least, and at least the randier matriarchs of today's females I imagine given the phallic plethora of what scholars of the Upper Paleolithic gingerly label as "spear-straighteners") still: size matters, quantity over quality.

Surplus labor indeed, long before Marx, who with Engels knew far less about early civilization's family, state, and society. Subsequent radical thinkers strive to fit their theories into bold suppositions. Julian Cope, who symbolizes for me the root of the border-crossing heathen, the gnomic, genial, genuine oracle of chant and ritual and wonder and fear from the heath, the outlier, the pagani left behind by the populi who bow to emperor and then Rome, compiled two monumental edifices of his own complex odyssey.

First he went across Britain, to photograph, contemplate, and puzzle over more than 300 prehistoric sites in "The Modern Antiquarian" (1997). Then, in a book I just tracked down (neither has appeared in the U.S., nor have his excellent earlier memoirs of his post-punk personal odyssey through hell and back, "Head On" and "Repossessed"), "The Megalithic European," he expands to Ireland and the Continent. By now, thousands of miles Cope's searched another 300-plus of these oldest of remaining markers left to attest to a newly aware humanity's permanence, "defiant acts against the transitory nature of life."

Cope does not cite Taylor, so I'm left wondering how he'd respond to his Neolithic critique. But, as a self-taught interpreter of megalithic culture, who insists that he will not write about where he has not been, Cope's imaginative powers circle into the venerable echoes of these mysterious traditions. On his gothic-folk, ambient-meets-krautrock, Mellotron-metal recordings, he seeks to recover distant voices. He channels what for the stodgy professor may alienate as much as the typical rock listener, but for me, even if I prefer his books to some of his sounds these past couple decades (I favor his pioneering post-punk propulsion), he represents for me an admirable model of inspired reinvention and daring restoration.

His later book's a bit calmer in its approach, as he shares his acceptance of what some early-Celtic Christians tried to do to keep some pagan customs before Rome and the Synod of Whitby shut down resistance to Celtic practices. For instance, these fringe dwellers, against the Saxon incursion, kept Passover's lunar date for commemorating Easter; pro-Roman clerics dispatched soon cracked down on the restive Celts. The reformers of the papal mission to keep Britain tidy demanded an end to observing the central but now movable Christian feast same as the Jewish spring barley harvest.

(As an aside, Exodus appears to scholars if not congregants or celebrants today as a vastly exaggerated account, a post-dated rationale. Although you'd be hard-pressed to discern Pesach's Canaanite "origins" as I looked up now if the festival originated for barley or wheat-- I get Shavout and Pesach jumbled with which grain commemorates which. Shavuot-turned-Pentecost marks the pilgrimage fifty days later at the end of the wheat gathering. By the way, if you opt as I did experimentally for Bing to fact-check, you get first, which led me to "Ask the Rabbi" about Ur and Terah. Wikipedia's Canaan-rein as Liebensraum for echt ur-Zionists uber alles in its origin myth as "Origins of Pesach" coverage, I note "hoeuretically" in the spirit of Cope v.i. [=vide infra, "see below."])

My linguistic, spring-fed friskiness prefaces Cope's discussion of similarly Easter-bunnied, seder-egg plated, lamb-shanked feasts of fertility. Almost randomly, "Megalithic" in a sample passage reveals Cope's scope. He doesn't deign to guess unless he signals such, but his introduction does remind us of how as nomads drifted into farming, their fixed views turned into compelling reasons for them to stay. He glances at how Jerusalem's Holy Land, the rock of Golgotha, the Temple Mount, the shrines at Mecca literally stand for "inward-looking world centres" that may faith-fully settle a religion into its sturdy roots. This foundation may also be viewed fatally: contrast the Chinese destruction of Tibet's culture by the simple means of obliterating its shrines and overcrowding their land with foreigners bent on atheism.

Home bases mean enclosure of animals, crops, and ourselves. Control brings a heightened sensitivity, and a mythologized response, to one's territory. Terra turns turf, as it were.

Cope reflects how this vantage point might have taken on the weight that (as contemplates Taylor v.s., "vide supra, see above"), our ancestors imposed upon its trees (hewn down as was Queen Maacha's grove), vegetables (as dust no less than Queen Macha's bones under her grave mound), or as stones, all from this period two, three, four or even five thousand years ago that can be somewhat still seen today.

Generations may come and go, but the great oak or yew on the edge of the grove remains the same. Mother's back grows crooked and bent, but the valley where the sun rises at the hottest time of the year shows no sign of change whatsoever. In a physical world awash with new significance, the new settlers will return again and again to marvel at the permanence of landscape features that they may have seen only fleetingly during nomadic times.(24)

The rock, Cope suggests, where children played twenty years on may be pointed out to their children. One may have once fallen asleep, dreamed on that sunny rock, and told friends of what was vividly dreamt. This story may be related to one's own children. They may play on "parent's rock" and what was dream may in time turn ritual. Others may try to fall asleep on the rock, to dream dreams, and some eventually will recount a dream worth recounting to others in the settlement. So the practice begins, of the dreaming-rock, and this may be conjured by the community as "the stone that speaks."

I think of the Kaaba-- a enormous arena surrounding the cube embedding a now-half invisible, ancient, fabled, space-dropped junk-chunk draped in enormous gold black silk-- as a metaphor for what Cope seeks to unveil. Behind the sanctum sanctorum, the holy of holies, the curtain beckons to us as we who are not worthy line up to pay the unseen its due homage. Haddad no more than heathen me will never touch such a protected, venerated yet monitored monolith as that dominating her Levantine world and the wide tropical belt that cinctures more than a billion who, as Roy studies, spread their faith and mores across a globe where people never heard of the Qur'an until perhaps the Net, the news, their new neighbors.

The transmission of old stories and "just-so myths" gravitates for over 1500 years around a meteorite landed in Mecca. The respect paid by those coming from all over the globe on the "haj" to the Black Stone set in a suggestively recessed concavity in the side of the Kaaba's cube--a building attributed by the Qur'an to Abraham and Ishmael's efforts--we are told, does not constitute idolatry. Pilgrims also stone the devil at the pillars of Mina nearby. For once, the site was filled with competition.

Back when this shrine to Allah housed hundreds of gods and goddesses, "al-lat" was a term for a female deity as was "al-lah" for a male god, among hundreds before Islam. Remember how "elohim" created the heaven and the earth in the first lines of Genesis: the concept of many gods predates even in scripture the rule by the One before whom no others dare cut in line. Mecca for Mother-goddess worshipping Muhammed's clan, Koraites, these "Koeur-ites" assembled amid the houris, the "Houer-ees" of the doe-dark eyes who survive, perpetuated as 72 recurring maidens promised a Muslim male in the firmament.

This babble will become slighter clearer now. Concerning etymology and sexuality, chapter five in Cope's "Modern" compiles "The Book of Ur." Not Abraham's Ur of the Chaldees birthplace-- although the midrash of 1) how honest lil' Abe predicted his patriarchical covenant by despoiling dad Terah's shelf of the idols he sold at this crossroads down the road from the fallen Tower of Babel, and 2) this rabbi's expounding of how the Hebrew Ur=fire via G-d's predictably cranky, infernal payback bolsters Cope's thesis-- but in this "etymosophy," a list of words related to ancient goddess-wisdom. Cope offers three packed pages of miniscule if well-arranged (his books are easy to consult and fun to view) definitions.

Ur leads us to Eriu, Erin, and Erse-- alongside Eros-- as wordy relatives nearest my home-turf. Koeur, Hoeur, Bree, and Ma may be discerned even by the Lindsey Lohans and Oprah-fans of today as nestled into terms such as "core, corpse, corn, kernel, chord", as "her, whore, house, heretic, haughty, hurricane," as "Bridget, pregnant, pretty, pray, braid," and as "matrimony, marry, mate, Amazon, and Macha"--whom he links between the "pre-Keltic" formidable queen of Emain Macha in Ulster with a grove-spirit burnt by the River Kidron by her son King Asa in 1 Kings 15:13. That shows the scope of this elucidation.

While some of this may be suspect, and some lacks sources, this sort of cross-cultural, multi-lingual, ecumenical mindset inspires me. Taylor and other scholars concur that Cernunnos, the Celtic horned-god, may be the figure on the Gundestrup Cauldron that my own articles have examined. Cope reminds me that this god's title too comes down from "Coeur." He also notes how this horned god morphed, under Christians, into their depiction of the devil. Christians at this same time feared their rivals, the Jews, as Passover had to be wrenched apart from Easter, the Celts apart from their constructions of another form of Catholicity. And, the same Church feared the Jews and mocked Moses by a mistranslation of that pesky vowel-parsimonous Hebrew. St. Jerome attributed not "rays of light" post-Sinai, as celebrated at Shavuot fifty days after the Exodus-feast of deliverance as the giving of the Torah to Moses, but the "horns"--which then grew into those, by medieval antisemitic calumny, of the devil.

Salman Rushdie (in)famously wrote of similarly marginalized stories, dangerous tales relegated as heresy, and misattributions by those frantic that a Mother-goddess might endure her overthrow by the monotheist prophets and priests. "The Satanic Verses" considers this alternative history of feminist and devilish influences upon Muhammed's message and its promotion. Unlike Gimbutas, Taylor, or Cope, Rushdie's "what-if" assumptions even disguised as fiction and not possible fact met with those as eager to destroy him as prelate, rabbi, and imam have condemned their pagan, gentile, infidel dissenters.

I started today with a reflection on a forbidden zone. I end up at the same place. That which we bow to, circle as sacred, lift up as hallowed separates us from those who despise, envy, or admire us. This may be natural to our humanity, the side that outside of a redoubt in the Himalayas we all find ourselves clinging to out of fear as the ghosts rally, the famine deepens, the foes march, and the fires flare. Sacred calves at Sinai, neo-pagans at Stonehenge, reviewers as on this blog of "The Satanic Verses": I stepped aside from critical hosannas for a tale I found ramshackle, too flimsy to tower as a literary monument.

The latest in a series of sexual and ideological rebels, as with her fellow border-crosser Rushdie, Joumana Haddad might roam into where words come from, and how they form our ideas. She might, in her forthcoming book, for all I know find feminist fodder in attributions to Muhammed's own tribe, named after a Koeur-goddess, and a Hoeur-temple. Preserved as "haram" the Kaaba lurks under a big black veil ever since the Prophet's inventions, projections, and revampings. Twice today, once by chance I can't recall where, then eerily by Georges Perec as quoted in a cameo in Harvey's Ladakh, the same E.M. Cioran quote:
In every moment there is a prophet asleep...and when that prophet awakes there's a little more evil in the world.
Women still stand apart, at Mecca and throughout temples and sanctuaries the world over. They don scarves, they cover their knees and elbows, they submit as Paul and haredi and the ummah expect. These women may welcome their hijab, their mehitzah, their cloister, their blinders from my male gaze.

Haddad refuses what many men claim that which other women claim they want. As an infidel, a suspect, a lapsed onlooker, I will forever lack full insight. I've been born into a category; its boundaries set me apart. My mind may strive to understand. My maleness keeps me ignorant. Names can never hurt me?

Photo: Taylor (198-99) interprets this Letnitsa 4c BCE silver-gilt bridle from today's Bulgaria imaginatively. I figured it fit today's April (Cope links this word to Bree) Fool's atmosphere of topsy as turvy. Taylor conjectures that this dramatizes not a "'hierogamy' as sacred marriage" but a seduction of a woman who plies a man with drink from the vessel held by her accomplice. The dominant female straddles the man, compliant as he sits and she squats. The attendant holds a leafy branch over the face of the woman on top, so the man cannot see who she is. It may be simply love is blind, but Taylor suspects mischief's Amazonially afoot. Barefoot, or underfoot, Amazons were fabled by Herodotus to lurk up from Danubia along the Don (both keep the name of one of the most ancient of female goddesses) river, east of Scythia in Sauromatia.  ("Mas"= an Indo-European root word for softness and fleshiness as in the Irish word for "thigh"-- a+mazos= without a breast in ancient Greek.)

(Portions of this will appear soon tidied, trimmed, and tamed into censored, if perky book reviews for Taylor and Cope on Amazon US.)

No comments: