Li woke up with that Manu Chao song stuck in our head: me gustas tu. Who knows where the hell that came from? Perhaps because I heard on the radio last week they were coming to Austin…
But me gusta marijuana/ me gustas tu it seems wholly appropriate to today’s post, another in my interminable backasswards crawl towards my current obsession: the divorce between wisdom and happiness. And though I am sure that I have worn out the patience of all but the most hardcore masochists among you, I received a sweet email yesterday about the sage and the fool that made me think: all is not in vain!
So, let’s begin with death:
“Yama said: The good is one thing and the pleasant another. These two, having different ends, bind a man. It is well with him who chooses the good. He who chooses the pleasant misses the true end.
The good and the pleasant approach man; the wise examines both and discriminates between them; the wise prefers the good to the pleasant, but the foolish man chooses the pleasant through love of bodily pleasure.” – Katha Upanishad
The context for Death’s routine – Yama is death – is the following: Nachiketas is the son of Wajashrawas, a man who had reached that point in his life when becoming a sage took priority over all else. So he gave away his property. Nachiketas, like the young man in Lewis Carroll’s Father William ("You are old, Father William," the young man said,/"And your hair has become very white;/And yet you incessantly stand on your head--/Do you think, at your age, it is right?"), decided to bother the old man and asked “Father, have you given me to someone?” After being asked three times, Wajashrawas said yes, I’ve given you to Yama – death. Recall that Father William also became impatient with his young man after three questions ("I have answered three questions, and that is enough,"/ Said his father; "don't give yourself airs! /Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?/ Be off, or I'll kick you down-stairs!"). Nachiketas then proceeded to go to Yama’s house, and spent three days there without eating and drinking. Threes, by the way, haunt this story, as they haunt all stories involving wishes. Sure enough, Yama, impressed by Nachiketas’ ascetic regime, grants him three wishes. Nachiketas’ first wish is to be reconciled with his father. His second wish is for Fire. But Yama balks at his third wish, for Nachiketas wants to know if there is something after death. To know what comes after death puzzles even the gods. But Nachiketas insists. Thus begins the second chapter of the Katha Upanishad, with the verses I quoted above, with death making a primary distinction between the wise, who chose the path of the good, and the foolish, who chose pleasure. In the translation made by Shree Porohit Swami and Englished by Yeats, the verse goes; “Who follows the good, attains sanctity; who follows the pleasant, drops out of the race.” I take this to be teasing us with a sense of paths, tracks, traces – something that lets us follow. But I also like the translation I am quoting: “These two, having different ends, bind a man.” In Calasso’s “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony”, there is a nice passage about Ananke’s net – Ananke being necessity:
“According to Parmenides, being itself is trapped by the “bonds of powerful Ananke’s net.” And in the Platonic vision of things, we find an immense light, “bound in the sky and embracing its whole circumference, the way hempen ropes are gound around the hulls of galleys.” In each case, knots and bonds are essential. Necessity is a bond that curses back on itself, a knotted rope (peirar0 that holds everything within its limits (peras). Dei, a key work, meaning ‘it is necessary’, appears for the first time in the Iliad: “why is it necessary (dei) for the Argives to make war on the Trojans?” That verb form, governed by an impersonal subject, the es of everything that escapes an agent’s will, is traced back by Onians to deo, ‘to bind’, and not to dea, ‘to lack’ as other philologists would have it. It is the same image, observes Onians, “that, without being aware of its meaning in the dark history of the race, we find in a common expression of our own language: ‘it is bound to happen.’
Tracks do form nets. Reading this, I thought surely Callaso would then reference Vernant and Detienne’s wonderfully mysterious book on Cunning among the Greeks, which teases out a variety of binding, rope twisting and corded words to fill in the semantic field of the ruse – of metis. But he doesn’t. Myself, I am reminded of the fact that civilization has long been identified with metalwork – the bronze age, the iron age – rather than work with fabric. When the Spaniards conquered the Incas, they conquered a culture that had inherited another set of assumptions entirely, deriving from knots and nets. Charles Mann makes this point in 1491, going over recent discoveries in Peruvian archaeology that point to the privileged place of netmaking and weaving from the earliest times. And, of course, there are the khipu, the Incan knot language that was assumed, until recently, to be a form of accounting. Gary Urton, a Harvard archaelogist, is the most prominent recent figure to say, not so – there’s words encoded in those knots and filaments. But such a base for civilization, such soft technology, blindsided the Europeans, who couldn’t even see that it was a technology. Even though, of course, knots, strings, fabrics, weaving do have a lively underlife from the Greeks through the Renaissance witches, and of course every marriage is a knot tied. (Although there is a counterknot to prevent marriage – the noueurs d’aiguillettes were persecuted by Parliamentary decree in France).
Everything here is so old that it happened in your dreams last night, from the three wishes to the division between the wise and the foolish, the path of the good and the path of pleasure, and the bewilderment that came over you as you went down the path until a wolf appeared…
que voy a hacer - je suis perdu…
“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears
Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads