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.

Eating is Weird

by Sam Buntz

Eating is weird: you have a hole in your face, a kind of trash can (to paraphrase this pseudo-Buddhist manual I read once) into which you can place various objects. If you smoke, you pour smoke into your bizarre-o face-hole; if you chew gum, the face hole can mash around some sweet-tasting puddy for awhile, before spitting it out.

On the most basic level, all you really need to do is eat—if the climate is right, and there aren’t too many savage beasts around, you can probably deal with just folding a giant leaf over yourself. That’s shelter. After satisfying this essential, you can freely cram whatever non-poisonous articles you can find into your face-hole with abandon. Love and togetherness and sexual reproduction and Transcending the Mundane Sphere through Culture and all that stuff are fine, but as Orwell once noted, we are first “bags for putting food in” (not that I necessarily agree with the total primacy of eating—though it’s certainly funny).

[DIGRESSION: Lord Byron, ever the womanizing misogynist (a classic combo), once said, “A woman should never be seen eating unless it be lobster salad and Champagne, the only true feminine and becoming viands.”  Contra Byron and most chivalrously, I’ll watch a woman eat anything, and will enjoy the experience to boot (not in a sick way, though).  But if I had to pick something to watch this hypothetical chick eat, in particular, it sure as hell wouldn’t be lobster salad.  On a related note, I’d like to see someone figure out how to eat a burrito elegantly and without appearing to be a total slob — only a woman would be capable of fulfilling this challenge, in my humble neo-feminist opinion.]

I’ve never done and have no desire to do psychedelic drugs, but a couple friends of mine took acid (or some weird synthetic peyote powder stuff—I forget) and claimed that they realized that their faces were actually a certain kind of pet.  You needed to constantly care for your face-pet—feed it, comb its hair, tweeze its eyebrows, whatever. Despite my skepticism about the ability of chemicals to expand consciousness in a genuine way, I had to admit that this was sort of an insight. Your face really is like a pet. For some reason, I feel that this is directly related to what I just said about eating.

In any case, I was babbling on about this very subject to a Wise Sage I know. (Something as basic as eating starts to seem like divine Nonsense when you think about it too much—kind of like repeating a word over and over again until it sounds ridiculous.) The sagely man had this to say: “You have to eat the world to stay in the world.” My mind was totally blown—I thought this was great.

In the science-fiction novel, The Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay, the hero travels to another planet by drinking a bottle of light from that planet’s solar system. It’s a specific kind of light called “back rays”—the tendency of back rays is to return to their source, so when you imbibe them, they transport you to that same source. In tandem with the aphorism from the contemporary Ecclesiastes just cited, this provoked me to wondering: if we were able to eat food from another world—a better one—maybe we could go live there… If a stranger gave you some Celestial Vittles, wrapped up in wax paper, on a drizzly November evening, maybe you could take off for Arcturus or Narnia or The Western Paradise of the Buddha Amitabha. And maybe the food that can do that is… Compassion. Soul Food. (Yeah—I know you didn’t think this was going to get all lame at the end.)

Self-Involvement: A Short Primer

by Sam Buntz

[NOTE: Was this post written with help from a bit of caustic self-analysis? Feel free to speculate… I would say, though, that it isn’t just a piece of nearly morbid self-deprecation. I suppose I noticed aspects of these tendencies in myself, at times, but I based the rest on observations of other people my own age… -Sam]

It’s easy to become self-involved when your survival—or, what you’ve become convinced amounts to your survival—is at stake. The contemporary, self-involved Millennial has convinced himself or herself that his or her position in the world—the correct placement and wiring of the individual human circuit within the greater technological network—is something that can be solved through an intense meditative absorption in the current of self-interest. Sink or become self-involved: those are the apparent options. If you’ve moved back in with your parents after graduation and continually contemplate your future while applying for jobs, failing to get those jobs, and generally occupy yourself with hashing and re-hashing your plans for the future, you’re inevitably going to get stuck in yourself.

However, this is different from being a narcissist (I’ve noticed people abusing the word “narcissist” quite a bit over the past decade or so). If you’re a narcissist, you’re in love with yourself—usually in a nearly physical manner. But if you’re self-involved, you’re something relatively less irritating but more common: just an ordinary egotist, sealed inside yourself, attempting to pick the locks, while discovering that this only leads you into passages that plunge deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of self.

Countless people throughout the United States are suffering this fate. It might be hard to feel bad for them when there are innocent civilians being slaughtered in Syria; at any rate, they’re there. They can’t just tell the world to piss off and then go chop wood alone or find solace living with the bears. They’ve got college loans to deal with, and Mom and Dad’s house is a pretty comfortable way station on the road to finally paying those off. So, one contemplates the design of one’s life within that greater techno-industrial network, attempting to guess what twist or turn it’ll take next—which is a futile task. Your life isn’t something that you’re supposed to find intellectually comprehensible, so much as it’s something that just happens (in or out of tune with the Tao).

This is the predicament of the Self-Involved Young Person of Today. As he or she tries to un-tie the tangle of the self, the knots grow tighter, the mess grows in complexity. One deals with the terror of a labyrinth with no entrances, no exits— not even a Minotaur—just an increasingly perplexing series of passages. This is, no doubt, a false way of seeing things: in reality there isn’t an entrance or an exit, since the labyrinth itself, the specter of the ego, is an illusion: one that would disappear if we could tear our attention away from it. Yet it’s a specter with the capacity to terrify.

Blue Devils

by Sam Buntz

“The Blues” is short for “Blue Devils” – you might already know this, but it’s important. It indicates that we’re not talking about devils associated with devious passions, with energy in action. Those would be red. We’re talking about devils of inertia, devils that put you down in a hole.

Of course, “The Blues” as a style of music deals with lust, anger, attachment—and all the other canonical sins—but it doesn’t (typically) come from a place of commission, but from the place you’re in before or after engaging in such violations of the Karmic Law, or after someone else has done you wrong. You’ve been abandoned by your girl—you’re going to kill your girl: that’s the kind of thing American bluesmen are always singing about (if not blues-women). (Obviously, this isn’t very P.C., and it would be a caricature to suggest that meditating on shooting your woman is central to the Blues—though it’s definitely a part of the tradition.) The Blues resides in the space between these plot beats: it’s not in the moment of the deed, but in the fever before or the fever after. It comes from that spiral of self-gnawing-on-self—a mood of depression, interior darkness. Like that American bluesman, T.S. Eliot, once wrote, “Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow.”

But, here’s the thing: The Blues is itself a struggle with these feelings, not their glorification. It’s not about wallowing in pain—it’s about an active engagement with it, an attempt to appropriate the energy it’s wasting and plug it into something creative. It calls energy out of inertia, wrestles with that painful and unproductive stasis—that Dark Spirit of the Earth, with its gnarled fibers swirling in the bloodstream. If you take something that’s been moving in a circle, running down the cosmic drain, and suddenly get it to move straight, up and out of its circle—or to, at least, make the attempt—that’s the kind of feeling authentic blues delivers. It gets your soul out of the whirlpool fit.

In Spain, the same notion exists, except, rather than identifying it with “blue devils”, the Spanish poetic tradition identifies it with “duende”, another folkloric creature. The great Spanish Bluesman, Federico Garcia Lorca, wrote a classic essay on the role of duende in his country’s literature—and in the literature of the world, as a whole. Lorca explains: “Years ago, an eighty year old woman came first in a dance contest in Jerez de la Frontera, against lovely women and girls with liquid waists, merely by raising her arms, throwing back her head, and stamping with her foot on the floor: but in that crowd of muses and angels with lovely forms and smiles, who could earn the prize but her moribund duende sweeping the earth with its wings made of rusty knives?”

The old Spanish lady’s duende-filled foot-stamping was probably pretty close, in feeling, to the a cappella blues songs of Son House. With only his voice and handclapping, Son House manages to take his auditors more deeply into the meaning of the blues than many artists who use a full band. And the blue devils and duende are still around. For example, you can easily detect their presence in Frank Ocean’s R&B tracks, and in the straight-up rock of Jack White.

The blue devils and the duende don’t exist merely to possess and prod their victims—they exist to provoke a struggle, like Jacob wrestling with the Angel of Death at the riverside to win the name “Israel”. There is no progression without the opposition of some dark double, no flower that hasn’t first marshaled its form through the earth’s inner obscurities. Keeping this in mind, it’s interesting that so many bluesmen and blues-women have swung back and forth between singing the Blues and singing Gospel (like Son House or Reverend Gary Davis). Rather than seeming to be contradictory, the two styles become complementary, part of one discipline, one process. The bluesman brings the darkness of the self’s longings into direct contact with the light of a higher revelation—and he continually forces them together until they comprehend one another. Lorca himself claimed that the duende guarded the deepest secret of spirituality: “the subtle link that joins the five senses to what is core to the living flesh, the living cloud, the living ocean of love liberated from time.”