Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Nietzsche and Mohammed

When Nietzsche started hearing voices, his career as philosopher ended. When Mohammed started hearing voices, his career as prophet began.
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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Heathens stake their claim

Summer Solstice has drawn attention once more to the revival of Paganism, or what the media call "nature religion". Some revived Pagans raise an ancient dispute over the right to sacred sites, but only in theory.

This very morning, Heathens, Pagans, Witches, Druids and other assorted nature-worshippers awaited the sunrise in Stonehenge. And no doubt likewise in Wéris, Carnac and other sacred sites in Europe. A Druid who had freshly bathed his aura in the first sunrays of the new summer, was interviewed and said that people who have witnessed and saluted this unique sunrise would feel its glow all through the coming year, giving them strength and inspiration.

At noon, in De Zevende Dag, the political debating show on Flemish television, Michiel Hendryckx, a famous photographer, was interviewed about his best photographs currently on display in an exhibition in Antwerp. On one, a Christian cross on a hill is seen. He explained that this was a pre-Christian Celtic burial mound, which the first Christian missionaries had christianized by imposing a Christian symbol on it. He said he was opposed to the Islamization of Europe, but that Christians should admit they too only become the hegemonic religion of Europe through a process of conquest. Clever conquest in many instances, notably the policy of inculturation (nowadays tried out in Asian countries): incorporating rituals and festivals and indeed sacred sites of pre-Christian religion. If Pagans felt a sacredness about a particular site, they would come and spend time there even after a Christian symbol had been imposed on it. After a few generations the Christian symbol would be part of their experience of the site's sacrality.

One such ancient sacred site I often visited in my youth is Scherpenheuvel, within cycling distance (ca. 25 km) northeast from my hometown, Leuven. Or walking distance, for every year on the eve of the First of May we would walk all the way like proper pilgrims, to arrive there at sunrise. Long ago, it was just a forested hilltop, the natural Pagan sacred site par excellence. (So was the nearby site in Averbode where a famous abbey was built, but the adjoining "Mary Forest" there is a big hint at the original Pagan usage. Both places always stuck me as deeply wholesome.) The Christian claim on the site goes back to the Middle Ages, when an idol of the Virgin Mary was installed in a tree. In ca. 1580, it was removed, not by Pagan diehards but by Protestant iconoclasts. In 1587, after the Habsburg dynasty reasserted control and Protestantism started losing ground in what was to become Belgium, the Virgin was reinstalled in the tree and became a focus of popular devotion promoted by the Catholic Counter-reformation.

The events were woven into a pious story, as follows. The man who had tried to restore the tree to its natural simplicity and removed the idol, had suddenly found himself paralyzed. Only when a good Catholic restored the idol to its rightful place, could the man move again. Miracle!

Within a few years, the site's popularity rose spectacularly, and the Church intervened. In their attempt to outdo one another in Christian fervour, Catholics and Protestants in their respective countries managed to weed out large vestiges of not only each other' presence but also of the Pagan lore that, as they rightly suspected, had survived the nominally Christian Middle Ages. So in Scherpenheuvel in 1603, the tree was chopped down and the idol installed in a church newly built for the purpose at the site. It's a very pleasant building, octogonal and just the right size. In my childhood, the wall around the entrance door used to sport numerous crutches which handicapped people had supposedly left behind there in gratitude for successful cures.

However, the miraculous powers of the Holy Virgin of Scherpenheuvel were not unlimited. The most common pilgrims' souvenir of Scherpenheuvel shows the then-ruling archducal couple Albrecht and Isabella kneeling down in prayer in front of the Holy Virgin on the tree. Isabella was the daughter of the Spanish king Philip II, a determined enemy of the Protestant heresy. Her and her husband's rule (1598-1621) in what is now Belgium marked the Catholic restoration after decades of religious strife, the victory of the Counter-reformation. A story we were never told is that Albrecht and Isabella went there to pray because Isabella failed to get pregnant. Like millions of Pagans and Christians before and after them, they turned to Heaven for succour in their desperate attempt at begetting offspring. But this is a story without a happy ending: the longed-for heir was never born.

This particular Refusal of Miracle was different from all those other hoped-for miracles that never materialize. When the archdukes came to power, the agreement was that their fiefdom would become a sovereign kingdom if they had a heir to rule over it, otherwise sovereignty would return to the Habsburg dynasty. The latter is what happened: until the conquest by Revolutionary France, Belgium was ruled by the Spanish and then by the Austrian branch of the House of Habsburg. The country missed its chance at becoming a nation in its own right. The Blessed Virgin didn't favour the idea of a Kingdom of Belgium.

At any rate, the one couple whose devotions at Scherpenheuvel have remained famous, never received the heavenly blessing they had prayed for. Perhaps the Virgin doesn't appreciate devotions offered at sacred sites usurped from their legitimate users.

Barely a fortnight ago, a somewhat similar instance made headlines in our dear province of Limburg. For some years, a mighty oak at a lonely site in the village of Lummen has been a favourite meeting-place of a group of Wiccan neo-Pagans called Greencraft. They gather there on full-moon nights sky-clad (= naked) for rituals celebrating the Horned God and the Triple Goddess, or so. One day, to their dismay, they found that an idol of Our Lady had been fixed to the trunk. Pagans have nothing against idol-worship, of course. They will generously allow a hundred Virgin idols to flourish, but not in "their" tree.

Greencraft highpriest René Delaere explained the Pagan position in a TV interview: "This way, Catholics express a claim on this tree." Asked by the interviewer Evi to whom the tree belongs, his prompt answer was: "To the tree itself." He said that merely being a tree confers enough sacredness on the tree, no need for an overlay of cultural symbols. Then he reiterated how the Church had always used this procedure to induct Pagans into Christianity: allow them to worship at their traditional sacred sites, but give these a Christian veneer to accustom them to the new religion and make them identify their sacred sites with Christian themes.

He agreed that things would get out of hand if his community were to reclaim all the Pagan sites on which Christians had built churches. In India in 1986-2002, the (perfectly rightful) Hindu claim to a site in Ayodhya on which the Muslims had forcibly replaced a temple with a mosque led to massive riots killing several thousands, bomb attacks killing hundreds, controversial overhauls of the history textbooks, sweeping changes in the party-political landscape, overthrows of provincial governments and a change of government in Delhi. And that was all about a single disputed site among the thousands of Hindu temples destroyed by Islamic iconoclasm. So imagine what we could get in Europe if the Pagan ghosts rose from their graves to reclaim each one of their places of worship on which Christians imposed a Christian building or idol.

The moderate Pagan position, as per Mr. Delaere, seems to be this: to be generous and leave to the Christians all the churches they built, even if on stolen land and in forcible replacement of Pagan objects of worship. The least the Catholics can do in return, is to leave the hitherto untainted Pagan sites alone. But as a matter of principle, or just as a taunt, the Church may be reminded of the legal principle that a house (even a house of worship), no matter who built it, is strictly the lawful property of the owner of the soil it is built on. At least King David paid an honest price to the native Jebusite landlord when he acquired the property in conquered Jerusalem on which he intended to build a temple. The missionaries who Christianized our part of the world rarely showed this courtesy.

So much for the legal niceties. Of course numerous Christians have innocently felt genuine religious enthusiasm at such theoretically disputed sites and in front of such intruder idols. Nobody wants to deny it to them, least of all the Pagans. In their analysis, the name of the gods worshipped changed but the devotion remained more or less the same. A similar process is going on today in the opposite direction. While Christian polemicists are jubilant that their religion is doing just fine in Africa and Korea, what we witness in Europe is the continued trend of churches closing down and being sold off to serve as concert-halls, restaurants, school buildings (the case of the church where little me sang in the choir) or mosques. Pagan revivalism is one way of filling the vacuum left by a shrinking Christianity.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

The Book of Changes in Ruigoord

Last Saturday I attended the Yijing Conference, on the Book of Changes and its defining concepts of yin & yang, in Ruigoord, a hippie colony outside Amsterdam. It was a blast from the past in more than one respect.

Amsterdam used to be an attractor of hippie types from all over Europe and North America. I went there several times aged 16 to 20 to pick up the vibrations. It was already a decade past the mildly historic events of the Provo movement, but people kept on coming there to bring to it the very atmosphere that they hoped to find there. I recall visiting the boat of the Lowlands Weed Company where marihuana was selected and improved to turn it into the strong stuff now known as Nederwiet. The Aquarian activities centre De Kosmos had its own "house dealer", quality guaranteed, but its core business was all manner of "spiritual" stuff that was heady back then but today is on offer in every cultural centre in Europe, from Astrology to Zen. Real groovy. That's where I saw an announcement of a visit by Swami Hariharanada Giri who initiated people into Kriya Yoga, the beginning of the end of my seeker years.

A leftover of hippie Amsterdam is Ruigoord, a tiny village lying in a remaining slice of greenery between a line of windmills (for energy generation, not the old pîcturesque ones) and the industries expanding from the harbour. Nobody really wants to live there anymore ever since it found itself in the flight path to the nearby airport. So the place was cheap and accessible for penniless entrepreneurs in the "alternative" sector. One or two decades ago, the Ruigoord crowd had tried to prevent the industries from coming too close, so they used witchcraft rituals to keep the spirit of modernity, exploitation and pollution at bay, but in vain. Nonetheless, once you're inside the village, you could still imagine being in the middle of the premodern Dutch countryside.

But the decoration is not so Dutch. The old church now sports pictures of the Dalai Lama and paintings of Shiva. In the middle of the meadow is a huge totem pole. Gotta think global before you act local. Next to the gate is an inscription of the Vedic Gayatri Mantra, with a few spelling mistakes. No marihuana conspicuously in sight, not even in the herbal-teahouse, but some old T-shirts demanding its legalization. So, it was a good place to spend a sunny day and dig the old spirit. Moreover, I was in the fine company of an Amsterdam-based lady friend of Chinese-Indonesian origin, a teacher of Neijia gentle martial arts splendidly embodying the whole yin-yang thing.

Most speakers told us about their personal experiences with the Yijing oracle. I learned the word "enantiodromia", "change into its opposite", meaning that when yang becomes extremely yang, it turns into yin, and vice versa. Light allows you to see things, but extreme light blinds; cold water cools but ice causes burns. I don't know if practice proves it true, though: if you hate someone hard enough, do you start loving him as a consequence? Some speakers could't keep themselves from bringing in quasi-Buddhist ideas, e.g. that fear, longing and clinging cause "bad energy". But right on the Yijing mark was the lone Flemish speaker who uttered (quoted?) the maxim that "except that everything changes, everything changes". So what doesn't change? The fact that everything changes. And what's absolute? That there's no absolutes.

Simon Vinkenoog, the octogenarian poet and icon of hippie Amsterdam, had to absent himself because of illness. He was to speak about his own Yijing interpretation. He at least called it an interpretation, not a translation. Several of the speakers claimed to have made their own translations of the Yijing or of Laozi's Daodejing, but from their mispronunciation of Chinese words you could deduce some doubts about that claim. What they meant was probably that they had cobbled together some pleasing bits and pieces from existing translations. So this was the problem that I as a trained Sinologist had with this whole scene: after having studied the Chinese classics in the original and in their historical context, I can't reconcile myself anymore with most Yijing users' naive reliance on the existing interpretation, a Han dynasty (2nd c. BC) version of a then 900-year-old non-fixed "text", which in the process of translation got overlaid with Jungian mytho-psychology and feelgood psychotherapy.

Mind you, I have been there too. At 19, I assisted in founding an Aikido association, Seishindo Aikikai Leuven, and we chose as its logo the Yijing hexagram 51, Zhong Fu, "inner truth" (today I would rather translate it as "core sincerity"). Once when we had to take an important decision, we literally swore with our hands on the Book. Hey, even Chairman Mao had consulted the Yijing, so why not us progressive young men? So I really know how it feels, the trust in the Oracle. In my studies of history, this knowledge has served me very well, as omens and astrology have played a central role in numerous political deliberations and cultural-ideological developments in every known civilization. Yet, once a man is equipped with the modern outlook and takes a critical look at the mantic disciplines, he will end up finding it hard to keep the faith. At least I found it hard, e.g. when I saw how a friend of mine was encouraged by the Oracle to pursue a particular woman who nevertheless kept on rejecting him.

In particular, how can anyone put faith in the Yijing oracle once he knows that the text we now use (and I mean the Chinese standard text, let alone the mutually contradictory translations) probably diverges in every chapter from the original intent of its early Zhou dynasty author(s)? Thus, a much-used expression in the Yijing is "li zhen", "favourable (mantic) determination", "auspicious oracle". Already the Han Confucians understood it differently, not as oracular but as ethical advice. Today, it is mostly translated as "constancy is favourable". So when people get this answer when they ask the question: "Should I move to Australia?", they think it means: "Stay where you are!", when in origin it means: "Pursue the course you're contemplating."

Moreover, apart from the meaning of the text, its whole purpose has also changed. Ancient diviners tried to know the will of the Gods, and how to propitiate them. Hence the frequent references to sacrificial rituals in the Yijing, often with details about what and how to sacrifice. To the modern mind, this is doubly irrational: not only do you try to decide a question with a procedure of pure coincidence (toss of a coin, the pattern of cracks in a heated turtle's plate, direction of birds' flight, shapes in the liver of a sacrificed animal), the question itself often concerns the wishes and actions of ethereal beings whose existence remains to be proven.

Finally, the concerns of the Book's original users were very different from the pretty little worries of its modern users, who want an oracular light to shine upon their floating "relationships" and their "spiritual growth". The Zhou family that wrote or patronized the original Yijing ca. 1100 BC, was more interested in justifying its coup d'état against its suzerain, the Shang emperor. What would have made the old Duke of Zhou and his relatives laugh out loud is the modern assumption that theirs is a "Daoist" text favourable to the feminine principle. In would be more accurate to classify it as proto-Confucian (aristocratic, patriarchal, political, ethical) rather than Daoist (rooted in the artisanal classes, more appreciative of the feminine, averse to politics, mystical), and even to call it the Bible of Sexism. Later interpreters started discovering the weakness at the heart of displays of strength and the strength of the weak, the white dot in the black fish and the black dot in the white fish. But the core Yijing's view of these primeval polar opposites is simple and straightforward: the weak should bend before the strong, the woman should submit to the man. It emphatically prefigures the Confucian view that "if man is truly man and woman truly woman, the world is in order". So, ladies, know your place.

Anyway, most people at the conference had no idea of the complex and as yet still partly unclear text history of the Book of Changes. Except for one, Harmen Mesker, and his explanation of his new translation in progress, taking hexagram 48 ("the Well") as example, was thoroughly scholarly and up-to-date with the latest discoveries of the oldest Yijing manuscripts. He replaced characters with other characters attested in manuscripts, changed the division into sentences, and restored old meanings to characters obscured in the 18th-century reading on which Richard Wilhelm based his classical translation. He opined that the title character jing, "well", may have been a mask for a similar-looking character meaning "law", motivated by a need (either for the original Zhou conpirators or for an Yijing commentator/rewriter in the subsequent Zhou period, 11th-3rd c. BC) to cloak criticism of the regime in innocent-looking language. Yet he had not lost faith in the Oracle.

How he solved the problem of the doubts about the intended text? He simply took the best approximation. If two of the three oldest manuscripts give a particular character where the standard version gives another, he prefers the text of the manuscripts and alters the reading accordingly. But on that text, though still seven centuries younger than the Duke of Zhou and beset with uncertainties due to the then non-uniformity of the Chinese writing system, he does base oracle consultations. After all, he argued, people using any of the present translations, though these diverge from each other and from the original quite widely, seem to be satisfied with the results. Someone volunteered the observation that the Bible too is used as an oracle by some of its believers. Yes, he replied, "even Pietje Puk [a Dutch series of children's books featuring a postman] could serve as an oracle".

That's practical, and also likely to be welcomed by most oracle users, who resent criticism and prefer to wallow in the bubble bath of feelgood spirit beliefs. But to such people, the search for the original Yijing would thereby lose its importance: if it's all only subjective, any text that falls into your hand (probably by a benevolent cosmic coincidence) will be good enough to serve as your private guidebook. Yeah, why not? If it's all only "spiritual", distinctions don't really matter.

So that's why I liked this Harmen's work. Though not believing his research necessary for the oracular use of the Yijing, which was its originally intended purpose, his desire for finding out as much of the truth as possible proved too strong to ignore. That gives him a place in an old tradition. During the entire premodern age, oracle consultation was not a pastime of "seeker" types but a highly official matter with political consequences, and many top-ranking Chinese thinkers devoted their best energies to discovering the logic and inner necessity of the Yijing text.

Today, it's a dangerous topic for Sinologists who want to be taken seriously. In the 19th century already, organizers of academic conferences decreed that the voguish topics of "the origin of language" and "the Book of Changes" be disallowed as unfruitful and attractive of sloppy thinking. So don't tell any of my friends in academe that I went to Ruigoord.

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