(A passage in one of Schumann’s piano sonatas is marked “As fast as possible,” and is followed a few bars later by another admonition, “Faster,” and then, “Faster still.” Yes!)
A conversation with a friend (feel better, A.!) reminded me of Carmen Blacker’s brilliant The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan (1975). Blacker led an amazing life; born in England and fluent in Japanese at 18 in the middle of World War II, she worked at Bletchley Park compiling Japanese terms for the statistical analysis of encrypted messages. (She hated the work, not least because she was paid less than everyone else, penalized for being a woman and young.) She befriended the great Sinologist Arthur Waley – two infinitely shy, awkward people, almost perfectly intellectually compatible – who brought her into the world of Chinese literature. Her beloved paternal grandfather Carlos Blacker was dubbed by Oscar Wilde “the best dressed man in London” (like Usain Bolt saying you’re pretty damn fast), and Carmen herself often dressed entirely in red. One can picture her, in her twenties as she studied at Somerville in the late 1940s, playing the harpsichord, “well balanced, hard-headed,” popping scarlet out of the grey rain and black umbrellas like a sudden jet of flame. In Japan in the early 1950s, she spent a season living in the teahouse of the novelist Osaragi Jirō (who so loved cats that a portion of his income as a writer went to feeding about 500 feral and stray cats in his neighborhood in Kamakura), reading Japanese intellectual history and sitting zazen. Even then, her life’s work had begun to take shape: to document and describe the shamanistic tradition, both in folklore and in practice, that was vanishing in postwar Japan.
Her papers and articles are marvelous, but her masterpiece is The Catalpa Bow. Writing it took years: she interviewed pilgrims, monks, healers and the healed, and participated in ascetic practices in temples, shrines, lakes, and mountaintops (she was an avid mountain climber). Virtually everything in the book is fascinating, but one of my favorite passages is a brief mention of the practice of tree-eating self-mummification:
“To fill the gap left by the abstention from cereals [by Buddhist monks] there arose the practice known as mokujiki or tree-eating. Give up rice, wheat, millet and barley and you substitute nuts, berries, bark or pine needles. The title Mokujiki Shōnin, Saint Tree-Eater, has been applied to a number of ascetics since medieval times …” The practice of tree-eating was connected to self-mummification, sokushimbutsu, in a particular sect based on Mt. Yudono, wherein the ascetic vows to abide by the tree-eating austerity for a number of thousands of days, with the quantities of food gradually reduced. The goal is to die from starvation, upright in his lotus posture, on the last day of his avowed fast. (Then they bury him for three years, and exhume him to see if he has dried into a mummy’s body.) “These brown and desiccated figures, gruesomely arrayed in the brilliant robes appropriate to a Buddhist abbot, cap on head, rosary in hand, are seated in their temple in the position customarily reserved for the Buddha image.”
(Yokoyama Toshio remembers trying to catch up to Blacker during a climb on Mt. Tsurugi: “I had to try my very best to follow the fluttering lower ends of Carmen’s trousers that were occasionally visible ever further off through gaps in the increasingly dense clouds.”)
Boris with Michio Kurihara, “Fuzzy Reactor,” off Rainbow. The perfect song for a shimmering, sun-saturated day when everything unfolds in slow motion. Music for caustics, my favorite kind of light: it’s the flower of light that blooms every time you set a glass of water down on a sunlit table, the veins of light running through a rain-streaked window, the loose skeins of rippling light on the bottom of a pool. (A rainbow is actually a kind of caustic.)
Did you know there are vaping exhalation tricks? And vape exhalation competitions? And twenty minute how-to videos for getting “big clouds”? If you’ve ever wanted to watch a music video about a guy “cloud chasing” in a parking garage, you’re in luck.
(On a personal note, the new book from me & Helen is in the MIT Press fall catalog, which is pretty exciting. Also my friend Hui-Hui’s wonderful book A Prehistory of the Cloud, on p. 43! Both out in late August. )
(Thanks for reading, as ever.)
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