“Support for a Pro-Redneck Presidency”

by Sam Buntz

First of all, discussing a presidential election two years ahead of time is pretty distasteful. But, it’s happening, so you might as well go with it… Personally, I’ve been wrestling with my own political orientation: I understand what my ideals are, but I have trouble fitting them into concrete political realities or determining where they fit into party narratives. But, to my troubled mind, there is one particular, potential candidate in the tentative 2016 field who stands out: former Democratic Senator from Virginia, Jim Webb. I like Webb not only because he’s written more books than many of his colleagues have read, but because he understands the working class; and by “the working class” I don’t just mean black people or white people or Hispanic people—I mean the whole working class. This is really important.

Liberals and conservatives have both been playing on racial and gender divisions at the expense of the actual economic fault lines: it’s easier to motivate people by playing off fears related to personal markers of identity, than by appealing to the real issues. This is mainly because it’s difficult to deliver on economic promises—especially when you don’t intend on keeping them. For instance, for supposedly liberal candidates, it’s easier to motivate young people by getting them stirred up about contraception coverage than by promising to stop imprisoning them in student debt—preying on the young in order fund cheap meds for the affluent elderly. The Obama Administration and Republican House have both totally failed to reduce student debt in an even slightly impactful manner, demonstrating that they’re completely concerned with padding special interests in the present moment, and not with protecting the future of America. I’ve seen too many liberal friends and acquaintances mock rednecks and Appalachian hill-billies for being gun-toting right-wing loons, when, in reality—and I say this as someone who’s spent a good amount of my life hanging out with working class people from the Rust Belt, where I’m from—rednecks and hill-billies frequently understand these basic, populist economic ideas far better than the Cambridge and Berkeley crowd ever will or can. The mockers and  snark-meisters can sniff at “white trash” in disdain before returning to their Pinot Noir.

But a Vietnam War Vet from Missouri, like Webb, isn’t ashamed of where he comes from. He understands the “cultural journey” of people from places like Appalachia, Northeastern Pennsylvania (my birthplace), the Deep South, and urban Chicago and Detroit, in a way no other Democratic or Republican prospective presidential candidates really can. He gets that the working class, regardless of race, really wants one thing: work that matters (and pays fairly).

A decent amount of liberals—including, I think, President Obama—don’t really understand that meaningful work is the lever: you’ve got to press it. I recall Obama saying that it would be great if everyone in America could get a college education—indicating the bias of the San Franciscan-style mentality. We’re never going to have that sort of upper-middle-class pipe dream, nor should we. Liberals who imagine that we can ditch our manufacturing base, and completely abandon professions like coal mining (without damaging the working class in a starkly regressive way), while gradually transitioning the American economy into being focused on information technology and services, are kidding themselves. Fuel and force are still at the basis of everything—the power that moves. People like Hilary Clinton and Obama just don’t get this. Neither do fantasist op-ed writers and intellectuals like Thomas Friedman. But Webb clearly does (his well-received official response to Bush’s State of the Union in 2007 proves it.)

One other thing: I’m fairly sick of candidates who feel entitled to be President. I think that’s pretty obviously the way George W. felt, and it seems to be the way Hillary Clinton feels: It’s her turn… It’s time… Isn’t it? But it’s not up to a bunch of PACs to tell us that—and wouldn’t it be nice to throw a wrench in the whole complacent business? We have yet to see if Webb will actually run, of course, but I, for one, would welcome it as a refreshing change of pace: also it would help prove that America is a democracy and not a pseudo-hereditary province, meant to be passed on or inherited.  The dude just gets it.

“Through the 100th Window”

by Sam Buntz

This is the 100th post on The Muted Trumpet—and, in the spirit of the occasion, I’m going to write about the blog itself. This has the “pro” of allowing me to indulge myself, and the “con” of turning off everybody else: “We were expecting this to be about how the Kardashians are shallow or something! Why aren’t you excoriating the American Sheeple, anymore?” So howl the online masses, as they turn aside to look at a sub-reddit featuring people who’ve cut off their fingers while attempting to chop parsnips.

So, what, exactly, is The Muted Trumpet? What is its mission, its M.O., its “groove”, its “vibe”, its niche? Originally, in another self-referential post, dating back a few years to the infancy of this site, I credited Miles Davis with inspiring the blog’s title. He said that he preferred using a trumpet with a mute because it “sounds more human.” That’s still part of the title’s genuine inspiration—I wasn’t making that up. But I did leave out another half of the inspiration—Thomas Pynchon’s famous short novel, The Crying of Lot 49. I failed to mention it because I didn’t really enjoy reading it all that much—although I appreciated (what I took to be) it’s message. If you’ve read it (or if, as is probably more accurate and likely, you’ve been assigned to read it), you’ll notice a certain, definite, glaring similarity between the title “The Muted Trumpet” and the muted post-horn insignia used by the underground mail-carrier association, The Trystero, featured in Pynchon’s book. This was, of course, intentional.

The Trystero is a secret postal service—implicitly, it seems to be responsible for delivering the mail and the news we really need, the information capable of sustaining life, as opposed to all the spam dick-enlargement emails and sweepstakes junk letters out there. Through his frustratingly bizarre and intricate web of symbolism, Pynchon draws a parallel between this secret, saving current of information and the experience of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended and allowed the apostles to speak evangelically in any language they wished. In a non-religiously-specific way, the hidden information provided by the Trystero—and the knowledge and wisdom it supposedly contains—is supposed to be just as effective at saving and sustaining us as the polyglot whisperings of the Holy Dove (or is supposed to be the same thing).

So—with pretense suddenly oozing from every pore—that was part of the Idea. Like the Trystero’s various periodicals (or whatever it was transmitting), this blog was meant to be an “underground” publication, insofar as: A). No one would know that it existed, or ever read it. B). It would differ from the mainstream (Newsweek, Slate, Time, and all that crap) in terms of its perspective and dominating interests. C). It would arrogantly assume to elevate your consciousness. Now, in an insufferable way, I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate myself on fulfilling those first two aims. Obviously, it is up to you, the Universal Invisible Reader, to affirm that I have met the third.

Continuing at random: now that we’ve further elaborated on the literary allusions, which ground the very concept of this blog (or does “blog” sound too cheesy and old-fashioned, these days? Is it really more of a “content portal”? I don’t really know what that even is: but The Trumpet certainly has content, at any rate. Debatably, it is also a metaphorical portal—though I know not whether it’s a portal to crap or to gold.), I want to explain a few significant things related to Post #100—particularly, a book tangentially related to it, in that it has the number “100” in its title. The book is The 100th Window—and I have never actually read it. I only needed to get its basic metaphor, which I discovered in an interview with Robert Del Naja, from British Trip-Hop group Massive Attack. He was explaining the title of Massive Attack’s 2003 album, 100th Window, stating that it was a reference to a cult book on computer hacking, entitled The 100th Window. Apparently, the basic gist of The 100th Window, is that there’s always a way in—any security system comes prepared with its own holes. That flaw is called “the 100th window”: the shield already has its method of defeat coded into it. Massive Attack intended to use that idea as a metaphor: there’s always a way into the soul, the heart, the mind, the collective unconscious, etc.

And so we intend to use the same metaphor here today—for that’s always been The Muted Trumpet’s goal. We (by which I mean “I”) want to find the 100th Window—the flaw built into the very system of the world… the inlet and outlet, the escape hatch. This Ahab-ian quest has its perils—and it definitely has its dense cloak of obscurity. But, in a small act of peaceful Cosmic Rebellion, here in a quiet corner of West Hartford, CT, we are re-dedicating ourselves to that original mission statement. There is a way in. And a way out.

 

Babylon will fall.

Bees of the Invisible: Review of ‘The Artist as Mystic’

Reviewed by Sam Buntz

[Yahia Lababidi and Alex Stein, The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi, Onesuch Press: 2012].

The Artist as Mystic is a form of modern-day “table-talk”, really—since it takes the form of a conversation between poet-aphorist-essayist, Yahia Lababidi, and his friend Alex Stein. There is no reason why interesting people talking about interesting things with one another shouldn’t be a common mode of non-fiction, and Lababidi and Stein need to be admired for breathing life into this previously moribund literary form—for making it new, and for broadening our conception of what’s possible in contemporary literature and literary criticism.

Lababidi finds—or, rather, is found by—writers from the Continental European tradition. Kafka, Baudelaire, Rilke, Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Kierkegaard, Vilhelm Ekelund: these are the spirits to whom he turns. (This list happens to include most of the writers whom Harold Bloom, in Genius, deemed “ascetics of the spirit.” Also, although the book focuses on this Continental tradition, British and American writers like C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot are mentioned, as well.) He doesn’t approach literature purely as a source of amusement—whether as a popular diversion or as a high-class game for intellectual dilettantes. Literature, in his eyes, is primarily a form of communion: a way of exploring how consciousness relates to its world, and of breaking down the duality between consciousness and its environment. Emerson once wrote that there are only “two absorbing facts—The Self and the Abyss.” Lababidi’s favorite artists are pioneers who seek to cross the divide between these two facts, and—what is more—bridge it. They shine a light into that Divine Abyss, exposing wonders as opposed to terrors.

The book’s observations are cast in a personal light. Lababidi draws a connection between his own immersion in literature, as a reader, and the experiences of Kafka, Nietzsche, and Co. He’s not claiming their status for himself, but he is stating his aspirations as a passionate student of literature: he’s looking for the heights, for the same exalted vantage point that permits one to gaze into the invisible. He wants to discover what these artists have revealed—their higher intimations. This turns out to be a strenuous quest in itself. He writes: “I have sought such artists out, combed their thoughts for these instances, because, from very early on, they helped me to make sense of my own sometimes reluctant yearnings. Through them, I received confirmation and solace. In their lives and words I heard the echoes of my own submission to ideals that seemed at times almost too dauntingly resistant.” Again, this is reminiscent of Emerson: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” If I had to summarize what “The Artist as Mystic” is about, I would cite that quote and say that Lababidi’s book quests after the sources of the same alienated majesty.

Lababidi demonstrates that what the artist and mystic have in common is the manner in which they apply their attention. Both figures are attempting to yoke their minds to some starry chariot: but the mystic works in an entirely internalized medium, re-forming the core of the self, while the poet projects his or her transformation onto paper. The conversation swerves amiably, and (paraphrasing Thoreau) never attempts to turn what ought to be a meandering brook into a straight-cut ditch. The wandering nature of the book is part of its charm: it explores numerous avenues of conversation, all intersecting the wider boulevard of art-mysticism, the central thoroughfare of prayerful attention. For instance, Lababidi and Stein discuss how Kafka’s physical and mental ailments somewhat paradoxically allowed him access to a spiritual wholeness as a writer. Temporal weaknesses permitted an eternal strength to manifest itself. Their observations on this point reminded me of Leonard Cohen’s lyric from the song, “Anthem”: “There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

Lababidi and Stein use the great 19th Century French poéte maudit, Baudelaire, as an example and a counter-example. Baudeliare has this strange urge to be a mystic—apparent in his poetry—but tended to spend a lot of time dandifying in front of the mirror and paying for prostitutes. He seems to be a failed case of the artist-as-mystic, though not of the artist-as-artist: he cultivated his worldly personality at the expense of the fully awakened attention (which, nonetheless, fascinated him). Instead, he fractured his attention, allowed the pieces to be swept away by the wind. Baudelaire tried to salvage it at the end—a process Lababidi discusses in intriguing detail, quoting passages from Baudelaire’s journals—but there wasn’t enough time for a complete transformation, for a full integration of the scattered self.

After some discussion of Nietzsche, the book turns to a more-genuinely mystical poet: Rilke. Although, like Baudelaire, Rilke had physical ailments and mental distresses, when sitting down to write, he left his bodily fragmentation behind. He reached towards the fullness of attention—this presumed contact with another plane—which Baudelaire wanted to realize, but simply couldn’t. Lababidi observes of this school of literary practice: “It is not so much writing, sometimes, as it is the recovering of the territories lost in what Christianity calls ‘the fall.’” The artist somehow manages to re-integrate the shattered image-of-God, broken during this cosmic catastrophe, which occurred outside of history. Rilke’s mystical art allowed him to speak with authority, and make the kind of spiritual statement quoted by Lababidi: “We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, and store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.”

But whether it ends with the supreme satisfactions of art-mysticism or something less exalted (as in Baudelaire’s case), the path is not an easy one—as most of the book’s examples testify. One quote from Lababidi, in particular, sums up his characterization of the artist-mystic’s work: “The solitude seems to be the key to everything. For Nietzsche, for Rilke, for Ekelund. Solitude enough that they can hear the echo of their longing returning as a concentrated drop, direct from heaven. They want to catch it before it lands, before anything human mixes with it.”

Snippets from an Open Mic

by Sam Buntz

Dreadlocked white boys narrate Rastafarian basics, while a single, tinny chord continually issues from a guitar. It whines an arrhythmic protest against the proceedings as a whole.

The bar is full of ethnically ambiguous dudes wearing hip-hop-style, flat-brimmed baseball caps with the stickers still on, nursing Malibu Rum and cokes, draped in extra, extra large black t-shirts, some bearing illegible yet menacing graffiti-stylized slogans. It’s a kind of Tiki Bar of the Damned.

This one kid could play the piano O.K. but his lyrics were terrible: “Romance is ephemeral! Romance is eph-eph-ephemeral!” (not a stutter, just the way the song went). If he had been bad at both playing piano and writing lyrics, it wouldn’t have mattered much—in pitch dark, you can’t really get too disturbed by what’s in front of you. But a little light brings it home.

Monday drunks examine little, pink umbrellas, half-conscious of baseball on the TV (the Sox aren’t doing too hot). Monday drunks cackle and guffaw, alternately, hanging with their boys. You gotta hang with your boys.

This next guy can’t play the guitar and he can’t sing—and now it’s really 3 A.M. in the soul. Pitch black! He’s howling, “Maaaaaaadison! I loved you, Maaaaaaaadison!” Of course that’s the girl’s name! He plays but one chord, the same high-pitched, non-chord as the white Rastas. Somehow he’s managed to put a capo on the guitar for this song—it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the single chord he’s playing, a misaligned barre chord of sorts.

Dreams pulse behind the broad, flat curtain of nothingness. Some tender shoot sticks up through all the corniness, the soil of thick oblivion. We see the failure to align, the wish which is just a wish and not a discipline—there is only will and desire in these quarters, but no contemplation, none of the stillness from which an actual piece of art can emerge. You know—like Keats’ Greek vase or whatever.

The emcee fiddles with dials on the amp as the performers strum—you hear only bass notes, now only treble.

The emcee is a small-time operator who never really quite managed to profit from his operation (whatever it may have been). His eyes have that perpetually wet look, a weird indication of despair, like there are always tears hanging inside them. They’re not going to fall and probably wouldn’t be able to. A chorus of elves peer out from under the floorboards and cackle at him. He will eventually get the DTs.

As I take the stage, someone points to his own girlfriend and yells, “See if you can get her panties wet, bro!” I maintain a decorous silence, and look at him the way Confucius might have in the same situation.

Almost everyone leaves the room, and I play to about four people.

Time’s Slaves

by Sam Buntz

The major problem with ISIS—which includes its great host of smaller abnormalities—is that it represents a “time-bound philosophy” (as Aldous Huxley would’ve put it). It does not wish to create a separate peace in the present world: it wishes to torture the world until it conforms to an idealized future vision. Unlike some religious and political movements, but like many others, ISIS seeks goals that can only be realized in some blessed epoch that is yet-to-come. A yogi on retreat in the Himalayas can search for enlightenment in the moment, or whenever he or she has the opportunity: the specific historical time period attending this attempt is almost irrelevant. But, like The Inquisition, Nazism, and Bolshevism, ISIS’s goals are attached to time. As Huxley wrote, “From the records of history it seems to be abundantly clear that most of the religions and philosophies which take time too seriously are correlated with political theories that inculcate and justify the use of large-scale violence. The only exceptions are those simple Epicurean faiths, in which the reaction to an all too real time is ‘Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’ This is not a very noble, nor even a very realistic kind of morality. But it seems to make a good deal more sense than the revolutionary ethic: ‘Die (and kill), for tomorrow someone else will eat, drink, and be merry.”

Huxley is undoubtedly correct: this ethic is not very inspiring. The promise of a glorious future without carved statues, alcohol, or publicly visible women does not strike many of us as being particularly attractive. (You have to be tuned to a certain wavelength, one would suppose.) But I don’t think that what really motivates ISIS’s fighters—and particularly, the foreign fighters, the Waffen-ISIS—is the promise of a glorious Islamic utopia. Consciously, that’s what most of them apparently think and say they’re fighting for, and it is a subject over which they’re willing to shed copious tears (even on camera). But, dealing with the difficult realities of human psychology and brain chemistry, I would imagine that they’re actually fighting and killing for the great pleasures of… fighting and killing. The same pathology was at work with Bolshevism: the Bolsheviks said they were making war against their own population so that other people in the (possibly quite distant) future could have an ideal existence, but in reality, the passion for destruction so obviously outweighed the passion for creation. Paraphrasing 1984, the real goal of Bolshevik Communism was to experience the joy of stomping eternally on a human face, over and over and over again. The same thing is so obviously true for ISIS.

Perhaps the higher-ups in ISIS really do have rather more Utopian schemes and dreams in mind, beyond their own version of Prohibition and the murder of idolaters and infidels—though I doubt it.  Having read, for college courses, certain central texts of political Islamism—like Sayyid Qutb’s Social Justice in Islam—I can say that they’re simply none too brilliant, let alone inspiring. Qutb, the intellectual figurehead of modern Islamism, lived in the United States for an extended period of time, and didn’t seem to understand anything that was happening around him: his written reflections on the U.S.A. of the late 1940s are wholly bizarre, and include a rant about the seductive evils of the song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and the unbalanced claim that there was joyful confusion on the streets of Washington D.C. in 1949, as the American people celebrated the death of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Hasan al-Banna (not that it needs to be noted, but this didn’t actually happen; Qutb was in a D.C. hospital getting his tonsils removed at the time, and just assumed that Americans were rejoicing, not suspecting that the average American was not particularly engaged with internal Egyptian politics at that time). Clearly, Qutb was preaching to a very specific choir… At any rate, my point is that these guys and their leaders don’t have the same intellectual conception of reality as revolutionaries like Karl Marx or Leon Trotsky (adherents of a different time-based philosophy). They might be skilled tacticians in the field of fight, but their philosophy is painfully simple-minded and brutal (obviously). While their goals are technically historical, time-based-goals, like those of the Marxists or the Nazis, they’re also kind of a joke: the real point is the pleasure of destruction, as though one were to become so attached to time as to perform its annihilating work for it.

Our world overflows with time-bound philosophies—ISIS is just the most vicious example. But in the Islamic world, no less than in the Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu worlds, we see the continued existence of people—like the Sufis—who nobly refuse to give a damn about such ferociously temporal concerns. People who turn their attention to eternal realities suddenly find more reasons to create than to destroy: it would be fair to say that all art (including great Islamic art) grows out of this spiritual orientation, and that all the social improvements we’ve made as human beings were due to a direct engagement with current realities, a passion for the Now, rather than to zealous striving for heaven-on-earth.

“Boston Common”

 

by Sam Buntz

 

everybody’s pants are wrinkled

a toddler puts his hand against a tree for support

meanwhile, a juggler unleashes a geyser of primary colors

a man with thin ankles, grey socks, and four blonde children
between the ages of 5 and 13

the well-dressed immigrant couples

a black teenager with a cast on his right arm, socks and sandals

the sun-and-snow-pinched faces of siberians

female keyboard player in an abbey road t-shirt—the athleticism of her arms—

the drummer in a jamaican rastafari hat—all asian (except for the flautist)

runic tattoos garland neck-lines

white lanky sugar daddy with young blonde girlfriend
her pert buttocks somehow nearly independent of one another as they move

the pathways are disheveled with miracle

handbags awkwardly caressed

the bass player arrives in a big bootsy collins hat

pale soles held loosely to flip-flop foam

little kids flap around enthusiastically to the ascent of bass and drum

just one green leaf comes my way

the directionless gazes lost in a million pairs of sunglasses

tired cyclists and skateboarders stop on the too weedy hillside

someone with a back cramp slows her step

a double-decker stroller with babies sleeping—
content, small loaves of ham

a little boy screams at an eager, fountain-drenched terrier

the ease with which women wear jeans that tight—their deft, even modes of conversation

not too many big American guts—but there’s one

she fakes a drink and interrogates the taste with raised eyebrows

girth that concentrates above the waist and on the mons pubis
split by a belt’s protest

the juggler teaches a kid who sends red and yellow flashes scattering

the music thunders up – jugular questions

asian girls in floral-print dresses – smooth ideals, invincible plaster-casts

a mother’s tightly approving smile

the long socks, the flowing nehru jackets and trousers,

tubular trunks, salmon colored shorts, pink and grey

the terrier’s tail still wagging, his amiable ratty-ness, energy unabated

black pony tails, extravagant black sideburns, black shirts scrawled in sumerian code, black laptop bag, black shoes, black glasses, blue eyes

a thin east indian in a cowboy hat

people walk over boston common in flip-flops, shower shoes

middle-aged man with his family—wife puts a pink flower in his ear—

he grins, feeling stupid, and embraces it, leaves it in

a flimsy neon-pink see-thru that could, on its own, on a rack,
stop and direct traffic

intervals in the crowd

slick black hair, greek letters, and a rosary

a foot cast and a small birthmark

isolated in an ipod, a smartphone, and a tall iced green tea

the disparities between women and the men they’re with—
better looking women by far

eating an ice cream sandwich, she regards me

Notes from the Whale’s Belly

by Sam Buntz

On July 24, 2014 in Mosul, Iraq, militants from ISIS destroyed the tomb of the Prophet Jonah (or, Yunus in Arabic). Of course, it may not have literally been the resting place of so mythical a figure as Jonah… But in a broader cultural sense, sure—it was Jonah’s tomb. In a world constantly convulsed, it is uniquely appropriate that the destroyers and corrupters of Islamic Civilization—and of Near Eastern Culture, more generally—should’ve demolished a memorial to this specific prophet. It’s a symbolic point for those who advocate Wrath over Mercy.

Like his spiritual descendant, Pinocchio, a whale (or, technically, a “large fish”) swallows Jonah. This is the sum of what most people know about him. In the Bible, his book is short, yet it still manages to contain a few more incidents besides the great fish’s lunch. Here’s the plot: God orders Jonah to preach against the Assyrians—in the eyes of the Israelites, a people who represent lawless degeneracy at its most extreme. Naturally, reluctant to journey to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh and criticize people with such a reputation for casual overreaction, Jonah attempts to flee from God by boarding a ship headed into the Mediterranean. This provokes God to send a storm against the ship. The sailors cast lots, discovering that Jonah is the cause of the ship’s misfortune—so they chuck him overboard and the fish swallows him. After sojourning in the giant fish’s belly and praying to God in repentance, the fish pukes Jonah safely back onto shore. Somewhat chastened, Jonah journeys to Nineveh (also in present day Iraq) to preach against the Assyrians, predicting their imminent destruction and the visitation of God’s Wrath.

Far from freaking out, stuffing an apple in his mouth, and impaling Jonah on the nearest spit, the Assyrians wise up. They cease persecuting the innocent or having crazy S&M parties or whatever unspeakable Biblical barbarities they were celebrating. They change their ways, pull a complete one-eighty, and the disaster Jonah predicted never occurs. Rather than being pleased at this outcome, Jonah is outraged. He predicted a disaster—which didn’t happen. God has undercut Jonah’s prophetic authority by forgiving the Assyrians. Jonah can’t bear this insult to his reputation for accuracy and retreats to the desert to sulk.

Despite the mythological prestige of the whale’s belly episode, the conclusion to the book is, in my opinion, the most interesting part. While Jonah is sulking, he complains to God in prayer. God responds with a majestic query, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (4:4). Despite earlier enduring the discomfort of living inside a fish for three days, Jonah’s lesson-time isn’t quite over yet. God causes a bush to grow and stretch above Jonah as he sits out in the wasteland, and Jonah is quite pleased with the shade. But the next day, God appoints a worm to kill the bush and makes the weather grow hot and windy, which sends Jonah into histrionics. “It is better for me to die than to live,” he says. (4:8)

God responds to Jonah with a final burst of divine eloquence: “But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’” (4:9-11). And that’s where the book ends. God poses a rhetorical question: clearly the fate of these people is more important than Jonah’s shade or his reputation for prophetic accuracy. But we don’t learn how Jonah responds—if he continues his self-centered sulking, or if he widens the scope of his vision and submits to a higher, merciful purpose. It’s as though God poses his question to the reader and the real conclusion must be found in the reader’s response.

Jonah is a brilliant little book, subtly but surely subverting the Biblical Prophetic tradition. Jonah’s typically Prophetic call for wrath is answered with forgiveness, and God, rather than appearing in the form of a hyper-violent bully (as in the books of Ezekiel and Jeremiah), manifests as a benevolent prankster, teaching the arrogant and stubborn Jonah a lesson by leading him through a series of comic tribulations.

William Blake would later allude to God’s description of the bush as something that “came into being in a night and perished in a night,” by writing in “Auguries of Innocence,” “We are led to Believe a Lie / When we see not Thro the Eye / Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night / When the Soul Slept in beams of light.” Blake means that the human eye, which gazes on the natural world, is impermanent, as is the world on which it gazes (one needs to see “through” the natural eye, to witness the eternal world lying beyond, rather than merely looking “with” it, as he notes in his essay on “The Vision of the Last Judgment). Like Jonah’s shade, the material world is an impermanent illusion, a temporary shelter and not the native climate of the soul. The soul exists in the physical world as though in a dream—a universe of fluctuating desires.

All of this indicates that the rather Buddhist notion of “impermanence” isn’t foreign to the Western and Islamic traditions. Jonah is clear evidence of this as is Plato’s statement that ours is a “world of fleeting shadows.” And the idea that this realm is one of ceaseless mutability is common to Medieval and Renaissance speculation, as well. The Koran records the words “All except God doth perish,” and states that Abraham discovered the worship of One God by observing natural phenomena like the sun and the moon, before noting that they all had their rising and setting, leaving only a single Deity worthy of worship, existing beyond change. Bearing all this in mind, God’s great question to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” means that Jonah has no right to be angry over concerns about the impermanent aspects of reality, like his reputation as a prophet or his desire for shade. He’s failed to place the primary concerns of humanity—in this case, human life itself, as represented by the lives of the people from Nineveh—above his own egocentric, secondary concerns.

In contrast to the news about ISIS destroying Jonah’s tomb—along with the unending and numbing parade of news from the Ukraine, from Gaza and Israel, from Nigeria, from Syria, and elsewhere—I read an article detailing a quite different set of circumstances in The New York Times. (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/26/world/asia/in-scarred-chinese-tibetan-city-of-yushu-devotion-to-sanctity-of-life-even-a-tiny-river-shrimp.html?_r=0)

Since the city of Yushu was devastated by an earthquake that killed three thousand people four years ago, local Tibetan Buddhists have been making a large-scale effort to buy animals from area markets and set them free. In one of the strangest and most striking cases, they’ve been attempting to save trapped river-shrimp—barely perceptible creatures—from the mud. Much of this has been due to the teachings of Chatral Rinpoche, a 101-year-old Tibetan lama who the Catholic-Trappist monk and writer, Thomas Merton, described (in 1968) as “the greatest man I ever met.”

Some Americans and Europeans might find this absurd, or complain that the Tibetans should be helping humans instead of river shrimp—but the basic sense of this compassionate activity, especially given that it arose in reaction to something so traumatic as an earthquake, is so manifestly pure that it seems, to my mind, beyond criticism. It’s certainly different from ISIS’s standard mode of operation, for one thing. However, as Jonah amply demonstrates, the tools to fashion such a compassionate response to trauma are wholly present in the Abrahamic religions, as well—yet, despite the efforts of many great and sincere souls, this authentic spirit never seems overwhelmingly present on the world stage. It is simply too easy to join the side of an ideology that sets its own peculiar goals and principles above the fundamental concerns of life—you relish the feeling in your bleeding gums as you gnaw on the bit presented by one set of dogmas or another. A supposedly “idolatrous” religious and historical site explodes—and this is labeled a “victory.” But aren’t the real holy warriors the people siding with life itself, as the essential, the unshakeable value? Like Pinocchio and Jonah, such people get to exit the whale.