The Secret Garden, musical adaptation by Marsha Norman & Lucy Simon

The following entry may contain triggering material, and spoilers for the Broadway musical version of The Secret Garden, extending spoilers to the book of the same name by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

I was so happy to find this musical on Spotify. It’s one of my very all-time favorites simply for the music, especially the Broadway recording that polished everything up. The songs don’t always lend themselves to egoistic solos, or toe-tappingly earwyrm-hummingly catchy show tunes. The book is hardly the quotable tragicomedies of Sondheim. What makes this my favorite show is the choral arrangements, counterpoint melodies in duets or quartets, and orchestration. I listen to the strings more than the voices. It’s almost ambient in how diffusively the music carries the story. The styles range from jigs to Gregorian chants to operatic arias, yet always remain distinctly story-telling songs.

The Secret Garden, written by Frances Hodgson Burnett and published in 1911, begins with a young English girl living in India. Mary Lennox is rich and spoiled and her parents are always too busy partying with other rich English people to do any actual parenting, so they leave her to be raised by Indian servants, and they all die of plague. The End.

Oh, no, wait—Mary Lennox is the sole survivor of the plague. Now orphaned at ten years of age, the soldiers who discover her then whisk the child off to her nearest relation in Yorkshire, Not In India. Her hunchbacked uncle Archibald Craven is too busy grieving as a widow to be a parent, whether that’s to Mary or to…well, there are other children in the enormous manor and on the moors that really nobody wants to pay attention to, except to keep them apart. Mary Lennox—being far more temperamental and belligerent than a life of privilege can usually explain—is having none of it.

The musical takes some liberties with the story. The deceased Lily Craven’s soprano has far more presence onstage than in prose where her ghostly influence (of memory, of serendipitous coincidence) can afford to be more subtle. Doctor Neville Craven, Archibald’s undeformed brother, is the most passive antagonist I have ever read. In both versions, rumors about how mercenary Dr. Craven is do come up, and Neville doesn’t do anything or even scheme to do anything to pick up that plot point. He just does his job as the family doctor, as competently as an Edwardian-age physician can. This isn’t very competently at all because, in the world Burnett has constructed, people need magic, whether that’s the magic of a relationship with the land, or the magic of ghosts guiding us from the afterlife even through our grief, or the magic of friendships between upperclass children and the half-wild siblings of the sassy-but-not-too-sassy servants, or…the magic of an individual thinking so positive that they’re not disabled anymore…Anyway, versions that aren’t the book seem to really like putting Neville in a love triangle with Lily and Archibald so he’s misunderstood about being mercenary.

The music—

Hold on. One day maybe, I’ll write about Burnett’s magic as a proto-new-age sort of Law of Attraction or New Thought type belief system, or the Glamour dynamic of Mary Lennox’s and Sara Crewe’s relationship with Indian-ness and the exoticization of their ancestral home, or friendships across class/age/gender gaps (more like chasms) in The Secret Garden, but for now this video has this transcript and I recommend them for purposes of becoming wiser than fictional Edwardians when it comes to disability.

The-Secret-Garden_Marsha-Norman_Lucy-Simon

My fancasting would be Priti Ghandi as Lily Craven (warning: autoplay of music samples on every page). And, I don’t even know if Naveen Andrews sings, but he can rock a top hat so that’s my fancast/headcanon Neville.

Naveen Andrews

Naveen Andrews can rock a top hat!

“A Girl in the Valley” served as the background music while I was writing The Red Room and now that I hear it again, “It’s a Maze” must have been what inspired a red-brick labyrinthine Scape that I call the 2nd Chamber (and in Western Faery, the Sienna Sierra. Sierra Sienna? One of those.) I never blog about the 2nd Chamber because it’s usually just there to slow down Point A to Point B and a Guiser named Rose may or may not sometimes be there. Rose has been too obstinately enigmatic to blog about.

My favorite song remains “Winter’s On the Wing”, which I’m beginning to associate with a personification—I call guiser—of time—I call phase, and put in a subcategory under guiser. Dickon Sowerby whistles in spring time that I, having been a tropical creature all my life, haven’t the foggiest idea what the big deal around equinoxes is in almost all pagan or occult literature. Or even a foggy idea about fog. But here he is, and next up is my personification of the summer lady: Ilse Neumann from another Broadway musical, Spring Awakening.

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Discernment, Defense, and Dickweed Indigenous Fae

The following entry may contain triggering material.

After an entry about santol fruit, I wanted to write up a local myth about the taro plant. Taro is best-known as a root crop that may or may not be purple, although I know a recipe that stews the very green leaves into mulch. (Dioscoria alata is definitely purple and a root crop, but called something else.) My research, which in this case means Wikipedia, suggests that taro is one of the earliest cultivated plants, its origins being Malaysian although cultivation has spread as far as the New World since then, whether by trade routes in Oceania long Before the Common Era, or because colonial masters said so.

It could be interesting to consider, because the story I know has an Engkanto in it, and I’m not entirely certain that’s an indigenous folkloric being. Neither do I know how strong the connection ought to be between the story about the plant and the corporeal plant itself. If this is a Philippine myth about a Malaysian plant, and Malaysia is like right there, why is this story so Spanish?

In the version of the story that I picked up by osmosis, the taro plant is known as gabi because of a girl named Gabriella whose nickname was Gabi. The stress is on the wrong syllable to suggest any association with the evening (gabi) which has more Austronesian vowels than Indo-European etymology anyway. An Engkanto tried to flirt and seduce Gabi into the otherworld to be his wife, and she said something like, “no thanks”. So, the Engkanto cursed her into a plant. Her toes became underground tubers so that she could never move from where she’d been cursed, and also they’re maybe sometimes purple? The plant’s leaves would be heart-shaped so that the whole world would know what her heart was like. The rain would fall upon the leaves and roll off, like his rain of love and attention upon this shrewish soul-eating harpy who couldn’t appreciate it. When her heart softens to him, Gabi can become human again. Obviously, it hasn’t happened yet. But how can this curse not have already been broken? Hasn’t this otherworldly suitor been so charming???

Seriously though, there is no story I know about Engkantos that tells of them being anything other than total dickweeds.

Gabi_Plant_th

I think this is a gabi plant but they’re not usually so large.

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An Ethnomusicology of the Baylan

The following content felt very important to me personally and it also made me so very sad.

I sat in on one of Cecilia’s classes in linguistic anthropology. The professor made it clear that such an intangible thing as language was still no mere point of philosophical debate. People agree to words for that which we embody and enact. Platonic philosophers can get bent.

Of course, in that class, the word would lead. A cursory glance through Life Hacks tells me that on the contrary, embodiments and enactments should lead, because the word or name for a thing limits our thinking.

Then I read Deepak Chopra’s The Way of the Wizard, and what I neglected to address in my review of it was when Chopra casually stated that Alchemy came from India. My first book about Alchemy was MacCoun’s who tried to combine Vajrayana and maybe chakras, and I didn’t get the feeling that these traditions combined well, at least not on the page. Maybe some embodied enactments in Hermeticist Alchemy came off to Chopra as very similar to some Indian mystical traditions? At this point I’d go by the word history as an indicator for who consolidated the ideas described by the words, and where.

The word “Alchemy” contains the Arabic article al- combined with the name for Egypt, the land of black soil, Khemia (or possibly the Greek khymatos, “to pour, especially to pour juice or sap”.) The discipline might be slightly less chemic now, for the most part, let alone chemical.

I also sat in a couple of Cecilia’s Religious Systems classes, and flinched several times at Durkheim’s use of totemism and too many other important writers’ respectably academic use of shamanism. When I asked one of Cecilia’s classmates about Mudang because she came from Korea, and Cecilia didn’t know what a Mudang was, and I didn’t know either which was why I asked, but I forgot how to pronounce Babaylan which I guessed was sorta maybe close to something kinda like—

I resorted to the S-word already.

There’s a lot more of that sort of thing coming up, though I really felt that that the following lecture by Grace Nono to the Harvard School of Divinity’s Women’s Studies in Religion Programme about Philippine shamanism is…important.

The general term for practitioner in this indigenous Philippine practice is babaylan, a word that’s probably from the Hiligaynon language (but I’m not certain: you can’t skip a pebble here without annoying representatives of like 5 different ethnolinguistic groups that occupy that distance, but of course I’m exaggerating) which is the mother tongue of my corporeal roommate Cecilia. My language would have been Tagalog, which is completely different—not a dialect, a completely different language—and I grew up in Jakarta anyway and instead learned Bahasa (which is the word for “language” in Bahasa Indonesia) in addition to my mother’s language, which was Bahasa Inggris.

Grace Nono talks about baylan, a possible linguistic cognate of babaylan. After taking to the podium, her initial introduction is in a spoken Philippine language. I understood every noun of it, but either the conjugation or the accent is unfamiliar to me. Or maybe I didn’t understand every noun, I only think I do because the syllables sound familiar by complete coincidence. Maybe the introductory speech actually was in Tagalog, but too technical and/or spoken too fluently for me to understand. In any case, this speaker having a mother from Mindanao and a father from Luzon is a significant regional distinction.

Filipino was supposed to be the national language, kind of like how Bahasa Indonesia is different from Javanese or Balinese, but last I checked, Filipino was mostly Tagalog anyway. Cecilia’s better at complaining about that than I am. To protest this imperialism of the capital, I refused to learn this domineering language. Also because Tagalog is slightly less agglutinative than Entish and difficult to learn. I speak English instead, which isn’t at all imperialistic or privileged. (The English language is totally imperialistic, everyone. And so is Esperanto, kind of.) Seriously, though, Cecilia and I speak to each other in English, except for the words that English doesn’t have for some things. My family took a trip to the northernmost island of Batanes once, and the people there didn’t even speak the language of the capital, they spoke the language of Batanes and they spoke English. I’ve heard people from the region of Cebu speak Cebuano and English. We’ve got to start somewhere.

The lecture above contextualizes the baylan on the border of Visayas and Mindanao. The baylan that is Nono’s specific case study, and more broadly babaylan, practice a way of life and spirituality in decline. This decline is evidently due to the introduction of both Christianity and Islam, Western medical science, environmental devastation, the political tensions between modern capitalist development and the pushback movement of militant communism, and that some baylan are even captured and fed to crocodiles. Wait, what? What. WHAT. Apparently all the aforementioned circumstances didn’t make life difficult enough. Still hung up on the Burning Times? The Crocodile Times are still happening! (I watched National Geographic documentaries. Death by crocodile is messy and painful.)

Baylan continue to exist and practice, at least fitting in the communities that don’t feed them to crocodiles. Nono asserted that the “disruption” caused by a baylan‘s continued existence, to commercial development, to recognized world religions, to violently antitheist communism, is not necessarily active resistance. I can guess that there would be some digging in of the heels when getting dragged towards the crocodile is involved, but seriously, some people just be how they be.

I’m just going to put dots on the rest of the lecture’s parts.

  • (7 mins) Nono addresses the universalization of the term shaman, a consequence of globalizing European modernity, according to Thomas Carl Oliberts(?) The term babaylan similarly gained prominence not by the choice of the babaylan themselves, but because of nationalists, feminists, decolonization scholars, and social movements since the 1980s. The term refers to the ritualist, oralist healers in the Visayas. The same function or role is performed across the Philippine islands.
  • Nono describes the main informant, whose name I think is spelled Ondine Potensiano. The event described takes place in/near Surigao del Norte, among the people known as Agusan Manobo.
  • Important concepts include the entities known as abiyan (I hope it’s spelled that way) and the practice of yagung, or the embodied voice. The embodied voice becomes enacted in the gudgud ritual songs, or the tudlum (possibly tud’um) songs.
  • (11 minutes) Ondine suffered a long bout of an undiagnosed illness. As a granddaughter of a baylan, this deceased relative descended upon her as an abiyan at which point Ontine began to heal herself, and conduct healing ceremonies, childbirthing, and so on.
  • Of interest to an ethnomusicologist, is how this yagung is generated, how it is listened to by ritual participants, what the yagung tells us about baylan and abiyan, and how this relates to dominant understandings of voice.
  • Dominant understandings of the voice (in the West, the voice has an individual material source, Roman rhetoritician Quintilla says that every being has a voice of their own, Mladen Dolar wrote that we can “unfailingly identify a person by the voice…the voice is like a fingerprint, instantly recognizable and identifiable”)
  • (15 mins) Connors notes: Late classical and medieval concept of the body was not an object so much as a dynamism, vulnerable to invasion by other forces and agencies; “insides” and “outsides” produced each other reciprocally, and this was steadily eroded in the 17th and 18th centuries by the notion of the body as an object in a coherent and fixed field, an individual unity by itself.
  • Such a concept of the body, and by extension the voice, was introduced via colonialism to indigenous people in different parts of the world, which modern society now compelled to rid their own bodies and voices of coming and goings of ancestors, deities, and spirits.
  • “…the relational voice that arises from plural and overlapping materialities continues to be heard as we speak in ways that does not annul the individual agent, but maintain a critical participation in composite acts of voicing.”
  • It would be easy enough to locate the baylan‘s spirit helpers, the abiyan, in a pantheon not their own, and in so doing, distort baylan experience. Vicente Rafael writes: “…in reorganizing the structure of native beliefs…(standard missionary practices situate/document) spirits in a type of spiritual order that positions this hierarchy as part of a set of reflections of a distant pre-Christian past.” Other misunderstandings include how missionaries equated offerings as a sign of respect to these spirits with idolatry, conflating the nature of these offerings with that of Christian offerings.
  • In comparison with Haitian spirits, by McCarthy Brown: “The Vodou spirits are not always models of the well-lived life; rather, they mirror the full range of possibilities inherent in the particular slice of life over which they preside. Failure to understand this leads observers to portray these spirits as demonic (…) Virtue is less an inherent character trait than a dynamic state of being that demands ongoing attention and care. Virtue is achieved by maintaining responsible relationships, characterized by appropriate gifts tangible and intangible.” When such relationships are disrespected or disrupted, illness can result that can be healed with the intervention of the baylan.
  • (20 mins) Description of the Panumanan ritual, involving prayers to the Creator for protection, and a string of beads and bells dedicated to the spirits, and a transfer of human song to spirit song from the same voice. The spirit was an established one in the myth of the people, followed by Ondine’s deceased grandmother’s spirit. The first message to come through: “For us to sing in a house not our home makes us feel ashamed.” When asked after the future of humans, considering hardships and uncertainties, the spirit replied in song that, “No one accepts the law of Ginoo/Magbabaya anymore, that’s why you shouldn’t be surprised at the difficulties people are experiencing.” A spirit of midwifery and healing added, “Even our medium commits many mistakes!” The informant later clarified that these included drinking too much, skipping ritual offerings, not owning a gong that was necessary to the ritual, and having children who misunderstood or despised tradition. Returning to the topic of human concerns: “We have become weak, lowly and diminished in our ability to help and to keep assurances regarding the future.” Finally, a specific patient was brought to the baylan, and the recommended remedy was for the patient to apologize to the patient’s own father (whose own abiyan convinced a storm spirit to curse the patient) and offer a chicken as sacrifice so that the patient’s leg would no longer feel pain.
  • (32 mins) Nono’s disclaimer: “I knew I wasn’t necessarily sharing in my fellow ritual participants’ habitus—” (Becker’s term for overlapping structures of understanding) “—of listening…for though I was born and raised in the same province, and I had ritual healers also among my maternal relations in Mindanao, I was not socialized in baylan rituals and their sounds, having grown up in a heavily colonized lowland area where rituals hardly took place. I was outside this community of listeners.
  • Description of the mechanics of the trance among those who conduct the rituals, and the “summoning songs” that act like a telephone—those go both ways between baylan and abiyan. During possession, a baylan can both give voice to an abiyan and hear the abiyan in conversation with those beyond the body who those in the corporeal realm could not hear. This implies multiple levels of listening.
  • (43 mins) Description of the bodies of the abiyan: invisible and intangible except to those who also have a meditator or special hearing, light enough to travel with the wind and penetrate walls and human body parts, an abiyan‘s original form takes a gender and an age that help determine the quality of voice but these forms and voices can change, location in the cosmology (such as a deceased elder would inhabit Maybuyan, the city of the dead, and travel to the world of the living, or a nature spirit would dwell in the mountains and also travel to take possession of a baylan), categorized as ancestors, land spirits, and those with wider jurisdictions such as storms, all employed under a Creator.
  • (47 mins) Obstacles to abiyan activity, rivals of people’s devotion, and Western medicine, have chased away the abiyan. The continued applicability of shamanistic healing, and the culturally acceptable medicines.
  • (52 mins) “At this point, I would like to ask a question. Is yagung-s or voices’ permeability and plurality applicable only to baylan? What about people like ourselves, who may not even believe in spirits, let alone think of ourselves as entered by these spirits?” Martin Dowdry: The voice is constructed in part through our memetic, dialectic, dialogic, and polyphonic relationships with the voices that surround us from birth, voice is not the essence of a unitary self, but an instrument through which our personalities and our many overlapping selves are projected out into the world.
  • (53 mins) Nono sings a tudlum, a ritual song without possession, distinguished from the gudgud, which is a song guided by the abiyan.
  • (55 mins) Closing statement on reclaiming ancestral voices.
  • (56 mins) Q & A portion, from a scholar in Chinese shamanism. What is the social or legal status of baylan? What could be the psychological or social factors that make someone want to be a shaman, or shamanic healer, in spite of those obstacles? Answer. The Philippine government gives legal status to albularyo and hilot practitioners, but ritualists—Babaylan, broadly—not so well-consiered. (Baylan continue to be fined for practicing midwifery and the one giving birth also penalized with a fine, noted later.) As for the traits of a potential baylan, nobody wants to be one, not only because of the stigma, but because the life of a baylan is a commitment to instability and poverty. It takes a kind, gentle, and generous soul. It takes a conscientiousness to the spirit world and adherence to the rituals, and a talent for speech and singing.
  • Inaudible question by Ann Braude, who introduced Nono at the beginning of the video.
  • (62 mins) Q & A portion, from a scholar in Peruvian shamanism, noting the commonalities in colonial history between Philippine shamanism, Chinese shamanism, and Peruvian shamanism. A minister of health tried to outlaw Ayuhuasca, and did so successfully for two weeks until people revolted. Urbanites in Latin America and further north increased the commercial demand for Ayuhuasca, and the consequent subculture of charlatanism. A friend of this scholar, a French doctor apprenticed among local shamans, had these spiritual guides direct him to treat drug addiction, and augmented this shamanic practice with a medical degree and transpersonal/Jungian psychotherapy. Sometimes, a spirit is involved in the havoc, and states that “Modernity willfully closes its eyes to this reality (of spirits.)” A colleague of this questioner, the Dean of Mt. Julio College or Smith College, has a book of channelled messages from a Tibetan Bodhisattva, Teachings from Manjushri, authorship encouraged by the Bodhisattva. Answer. There is a growing fascination among the intellectual elite who want to know more about the babaylan, previously inaccessible as history textbooks claim the babaylan have completely disappeared. Nono’s work involves uniting well-meaning intellectuals with those who can more patiently teach an unfamiliar embodied practice beyond intellectual discourse. (Mention of the legal persecution of midwives come up at this point.)
  • (70 mins) Q & A portion. How does someone receive recognition, or otherwise qualify? Is a teacher-student relationship required? To what extent is this formalized or is it informal? Answer The first way is through lineage, as in an apprenticeship. When Ondine’s grandmother passed away, the spirit of this grandmother continued this informant’s training. Otherwise, a potential babaylan have strange dreams and fall ill as a way of spirit initiation. Ritual acceptance of this initiation can involve animal sacrifice, that’s the extent of the formality. If the practice is effective, then more people begin to refer others to a babaylan. The practice is not generally to be advertised.
  • (71 mins) Q & A portion. About the fossilized or idealized notion of the babaylan, and the competition between the traditional spirits with other religious spirits and forms of modernity. Have there been any changes in the conception of the spirit world that reflect changes in the contemporary world? For example, voice recording, do those also get reflected in the spirit world or concepts thereof? Answer. The different spirits of different babaylan would have different reactions to recordings. Some allow only still photography. Others would be eager for the recording of these practices with cutting-edge technology. Sometimes there are disagreements between the babaylan and the abiyan. (However, no mention of the concept of the spirit world changing to reflect or as this adapts to the presence of technology.)
  • (74 mins) Q & A. What is the journey of these multiple voices at work? If the spirit voice is not just the reproduction of existing language, then what is the implication of the spirit voice, in terms of a reconstitution of the language and maybe the creation of a different language? These babaylan, what is the relational field? What is the nature of community between them? Answer. The second question’s answer comes first, because the first question is complicated. There is no centralized governing power amog babaylan. Each community will have a family that has the lineage. Babaylan don’t necessarily know each other, they call different ancestors, they call different spirits, and adhere to different histories. There can be common threads between practices, but also differences of course. Only with recent intervention are some of these babaylan beginning to meet, and for the most part, these babaylan were happy to meet with each other, introducing spirits to each other. As for reconstitution of language? Clarification is needed. Q & A (78 mins) Any language is understood theoretically in terms of social practice. The babaylan believe in a world of language, but when you hear the voice of the spirit, then it is not just the reproduction of an existing social language. What can be the implications of that with rethinking language? Would new forms of poetry and literary work come from this? Answer. It’s the other way around. The language of the Manobo come from spirits. The spirits do not reproduce the language of humans, the humans reproduce the language of spirits. The human language does change due to history and upon encountering another ethnolinguistic group, but then it seems the language of spirits keep an archaic quality. That’s why interpreters who are elders are needed, because younger people don’t understand what the spirits are saying. It’s not just the languages’ referential meanings that are important in this practice, however, but the sound itself. It’s important, if you become a babaylan, you have to learn how to not just speak the words, but to sing them in a way the spirits can recognize. To the spirits, talking is sung, in the same way that walking is dance.
  • The Way of the Wizard, by Deepak Chopra

    The following blog entry may contain triggering material.

    It didn’t seem unusual to me that I knew all about mild, green Camelot even though I lived under a fierce tropical sun…or that Merlin’s crystal cave really existed, despite every author assuring me that wizards were mythical. I knew differently, because I was an Indian boy, and I had met them.

    I’d consider bardic mysticism a method (the things that happen, the things to do, to produce a thing) that I incorporate or is the way I incorporate, whereas alchemy is a process or mode (that is, the mechanics behind why a method works) and have been trying to combine the two. Texts of bardic mysticism at least give the reader some credit: the cauldron of poesy is stirred with joy and sorrow. Once upon a time, I would have taken that as possible telekinesis instructions, but now I’m more inclined to take that as a clue that the cauldron itself is also metaphorical. Then I read up on modern resources on alchemy that keep reminding the reader that older texts were always coded metaphors that didn’t need to literally involve precious metals. Why wouldn’t they writers of older texts have just said so, in the first place?

    Chopra’s The Way of the Wizard combines these well. In it, Chopra explains an Alchemical life philosophy through a series of short stories and accompanying meditations or writing exercises. The stories describe the mysterious apprenticeship that a young King Arthur served under Merlin in the crystal caves, and how Merlin’s lessons continued to follow Arthur into adulthood.

    I very much liked the format. Even fairy tales with the notes at the end about what the moral of the story was could get annoying, so accompanying meditation and journaling exercises would (should) be difficult to foist on a reader who wouldn’t already agree with what’s taught every chapter-step of the way. The “sayings” in each chapter came off to me as trite enough to ignore, but the exercises felt open enough structurally that it wasn’t necessarily patronizing.

    The thought behind each lesson or chapter could be interesting, but…mostly incompatible with where I am now.

    My corporeal roommate Cecilia recognized the author’s name from a signal boost (or several) by an influential talk show host named Oprah Winfrey. My mother subscribed to O magazine, and I would read those, and I caught the occasional event (an offhand remark by the great Winfrey about going vegetarian correlated with an undeclared grassroots boycott that moved cattle farmers to sue, A Million Little Pieces was a fake memoir promoted by the great Winfrey who was eventually very angry that it had been fake, and “Look under your seats…Everyone gets a car! You get a car, and you get a car, and you…”) but Deepak Chopra was a new name to me.

    I can understand why this expression of spirituality fit alongside the little I’ve heard of the Law of Attraction and the Secret. Chopra’s Merlin and Arthur speak in terms of ego and energy, which came off to me as anachronistic and specific to new age spirituality (rather that psychology or physics). In chapter eighteen, King Arthur gives terrible counsel—my opinion, not the book’s opinion—to an angel in the guise of a grieving father, and in that thought I found some echo of the Middle Way of Buddhist philosophy between the illusions of the material cosmos and the asceticism that would reject that suffering. Not itself a bad idea, but I felt the way that story in that chapter set it up kind of minimized human suffering and blamed the victim for not being enlightened enough. Apart from that aspect, I might have considered a introduction of an Eastern philosophy into a Western aesthetic, even in defiance of the Heaven/Hell dichotomy of a most Christian King Arthur, as…interesting, as well as the modernizations. (Two chapters after that, Chopra ends the book with how it’s a wizard’s or alchemist’s duty to alleviate suffering. I feel ambivalent about that.)

    The book generally reads with a lot of bait-and-switch philosophical progression. It’s after the chapter that framed enmity as a kind of love, (because enmity was attention, and love as an enlightened wizard understands it is the very makeup of the cosmos that becomes evident with any and all flow of attention,) that comes the chapter on how to break down the objectification of another person in the first place. Most of all, I noticed a call to replace blame, dislike, and other negative value judgments with a cosmic trust, that is, to cultivate complacency as a spiritual tenet. Justice is portrayed as an illusion that’s far less useful than suffering, for pain can be recognized as an untruth that at least serves as a way to truth.

    So, I want to say that a handful of the chapters at least delve a little further that the sort of victim-blaming, cosmos-trusting sort of spirituality that I can only take as a reflection of the spirituality of the privileged (despite the claims that a privileged life is a reflection of or developed from this spirituality). Maybe it does a bit?

    I was at least entertained at some parts that portrayed Merlin being a dickweed.

    Arthur pitched into his task, digging with all his might, but after an hour he was exhausted, and still Merlin had not told him to stop. “Is this long enough?” he asked. Merlin regarded the ditch, which was perhaps ten feet long and two feet deep.

    “Yes, quite sufficient,” he said. “Now fill it up again.”

    Accustomed as he was to obeying, Arthur did not like the order very much. Sweating and grim faced, the toiled under the blazing sun until the ditch was entirely filled again.

    “Now sit beside me,” said Merlin. “What did you think of that work you did?”

    “It was pointless,” Arthur blurted out.

    “Exactly, and so is most human effort. But the pointlessness isn’t discovered until too late, after the work has been done. If you lived backward in time, you would have seen ditch digging as pointless and not begun in the first place.”

    Merlin, you dickweed!

    I did like the chapter that described Arthur introducing Guinevere to some of what he’d learned from Merlin. I thought it was sweet. For brevity, unfortunately, I don’t include the lead-in in the quote below, which had Guinevere and Arthur conversing as anachronistic equals and Guinevere’s medieval sass:

    He asked the queen to leave their chamber and promise not to return until the stroke of midnight. Guinevere did as she was told, and when she returned she found that the room was pitch black, all the tapers extinguished and the velvet curtains drawn. “Don’t worry,” and voice said. “I’m here.”

    “My lord, what do you want me to do?” Guinevere asked.

    Arthur replied, “I want to find out how well you know this room. Walk toward me and describe what objects are around you, but don’t touch anything.” His wife thought this a very strange test, but she did as she was bidden.

    “This is our bed, and over there the oak dowry chest I brought across the water. A tall candelabra of wrought Spanish iron stands there in the corner, and two tapestries hang on either side.” Walking cautiously so as not to bump into things, Guinevere was able to describe every detail of the room, which in truth had been furnished down to the last pillow by herself.

    “Now look,” Arthur said. He lit a candle, then a second and a third. Gazing around, Guinevere was astonished to see that the room was entirely empty. “I don’t understand,” she murmured.

    “Everything you described was an expectation of what this room contains, not what was really there. But expectation is powerful. Even without a light, you saw what you anticipated and reacted accordingly. Didn’t the room feel the same to you? Didn’t you tread cautiously where you feared you might stumble into things?” Guinevere nodded. “Even in the light of day,” Arthur said, “we walk around according to what we expect to see, hear, and touch. Every experience is based on continuity, which we nurture by remembering everything as it was the day before, the hour before, or the second before. Merlin told me that if I could see entirely without expectations, nothing I took for granted would be real. The world the wizard sees is the real world, after the light comes on. Ours is a shadow world we grope through in the dark.”

    I enjoyed some aspects of a few other chapters: the ones that demonstrate that labels are meaningless, and the ones that demonstrate that words (and labels) mean things.

    But when I read the one above to Cecilia, her reaction was basically:

    “Arthur, you dickweed!”

    The second part of the book has Merlin encounter Percival and Galahad in the woods and talking at them about the development of a spiritual self from the immature stage to the mature. I thought that was a bore, but maybe it was better-organized.

    *

    Here’s a checklist of the exercises from this book that I paraphrased.

    1.) Meditate without like or dislike on existence alone.
    2.) Notice, without anticipating, one’s responses to the list of words provided. (Lesson: words for things are bad because labels are awful.)
    3.) Seek the light (levity) and love in all things. (In my notebook, this item has an arrow going to item 7.)
    4.) Immersive meditation that voids thoughts and names.
    5.) Complete the sentence “I am afraid of…” several times with a different ending each time.
    6.) Remember someone you know well, and deconstruct the appearance of their memory.
    7.) Allow moments of absent-mindedness to become gates to divine impulse.
    8.) Develop a god complex by stargazing. (I did not like this chapter and exercise, must be why I phrased it this way.)
    9.) Clear a path from intention to reality by developing cognitive bias. (This note is the same as item 8.)
    10.) Access subpersonalities by revisiting traumatic memories and breathing through them.
    11.) Imagine a scroll of your life to more to and fro in time; transcend this awareness of mortality.
    12.) Imagine the scroll in exercise 11 is a film of Nemo Nobody. (Alternatively, The Butterfly Effect, starring Ashton Kutcher. These weren’t in the bok, I was just watching something that reminded me of the exercise for this chapter and thought, close enough to something like that yeah.)

    13.) Taste tests w/ blindfolds are the power of uncertainty.
    14.) Accept loss, admire devastation, replace blame and dislike with cosmic trust. (Ditto 8 and 9 for notes.)
    15.) Age your beloved’s image with imagination, remember a time that ego turned love to hate.
    16.) Ask what happened before a given point in time and after, up to an eternal infinity. Rewrite nowhere as now here.
    17.) Seek signs, turn self-pitying Why Me into a question out of genuine curiosity.
    18.) Supplementary: void meditations for spiritual pursuit.
    19.) Recall past desires, live the desires now.

    Some of these were helpful, some interesting, some I’m put off by, and some maybe I’ll get around to another time. This is a book I’d like to keep as a product of post-colonial relative personhood, as well as an example of dated bodies of mythology and how these become filtered through a contemporary perspective.

    The Middle Kingdom

    The following entry may contain triggering material.

    Chinese influence might, by example or conquest, extend to Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia, but its culture lacked a transcendental set of values that non-Chinese could adopt. An individual could become a Muslim; it was not so easy to become truly Chinese, even if one occupied the throne of the Middle Kingdom.

    — Joel Kotkin, The City: A Global History

    I haven’t been able to read the whole book that I quoted above. This one other title by the same author goes from riveting to snoozeworthy in the span of, well, a title—Tribes: How Race, Religion, and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economzzzzz…zzz… The scope of Kotkin’s City is broad, tackling civilizations from the beginning of recorded history and worldwide, but scant in contextual positioning and sort of slapdash when it comes to details that are supposed to characterize city life.

    That said, I agree with the quote above. Well, maybe not that an Emperor would have any cultural purity contested, maybe not even when the Empire was shared with the Mongols. (It’s just an intuitive ambivalence I have, for Kotkin began the first section mainly dedicated to Chinese cities with…the Polos from Venice. Tsk, tsk!) Some transcendental values could easily be named Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism; a braid of these philosophical lineages could be adopted…and turn out as Chinese maybe as a mushroom stew recipe from Minecraft turns out to be mushroom stew.

    In Southeast Asia, where I was born and bred, Chinese-ness has been at once ubiquitous and unattainable. I felt it more evident in Metro Manila than any part of Indonesia that I lived, although awareness of Singapore was always somewhere there being its First World Island City State self and reputedly more Chinese than Malay, although I don’t have the demographic statistics and don’t know of any objective measure of cultural power.

    Here I feel it’s safe to generalize that every other random person probably knows their Chinese zodiac, to wear red on New Year’s (whether Gregorian or Lunar), that eight is a very auspicious number, that there’s a difference between hopia and mooncake…a cousin of mine even attended a prestigious private school where Mandarin was a mandatory subject whereas French was probably an elective. I have also read of slurs used by families with a peculiar complex about being of Chinese descent (because most people where I live could casually claim a fraction of Chinese ancestry) for their youth’s paramours who are not themselves Chinese enough. It might be an Old Money thing. An erstwhile roommate (of Miasma’s, Cecilia’s, Anjie’s and mine) is Taiwanese, and while we lived together she used to voice some angst about relatives from back home giving her flack for having gone native and lost her Chinese-ness, and at the same time she would often make all-embracing jokes about not being one of those dodgy mainlanders.

    Oddly, I was never forced to read Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Journey to the West at school. Instead, I picked up on a handful of folktales: Why There is a Rabbit on the Moon (which doesn’t even really explain why there is a rabbit on the moon; most of the versions I’ve read focus on the quarrel between the lovers who become the sun and moon spirits and renders the rabbit completely incidental), Why the Jellyfish Has No Bones (it failed to steal the liver from a monkey to cure the illness of a deep-sea dragon princess, so the king dragon had the guards beat the jellyfish into a pulp and the jellyfish did not die from this), how twelve animals raced to the Buddha for a place in the zodiac, and how P’an Ku hatched the universe and went around with a chisel and a turtle and some sort of bird…I forget what happened next.

    While browsing one of the library cafes in Universityville, I came across China: Land of Dragons and Emperors by Adeline Yen Mah, which I found richly informative. I got a lot more context for the linguistic-numerical associations that decide which numbers would be considered auspicious. It provided a concise history of the dynasties of Imperial China, from the arrogant, ostentatious, inventive and phenomenally effective First Emperor of the Qin dynasty (one event of his reign which made a very pretty movie)…

    …to the Qing Dynasty’s reign over an empire in tragic decline (Yen Mah unfortunately describes this Eastern Imperial contemporary of Victorian England as a “crippled” nation) and who passed the law for Chinese men to shave their heads and grow rat tail braids for essentially the same motive as a fraternity hazing…but on a nationwide scale. And all the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot historical drama in between. Well, not all. Red Cliff was fairly Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

    Religio-politics gets better coverage in this book than I’d ever been taught, such as how General Yang Jian established the Sui Dynasty in 581 CE via holy war in the name of Buddhist enlightenment. Chinese historians considered the defeat on the Talas River during the Tang dynasty (731 CE) as a border skirmish, a minor loss, whereas world historians attribute the spread of Islam through Central and South Asia to the result of this battle.

    Eunuchs of the Imperial court became a history-changing demographic in their own right, from a single prominent figure such as Eunuch Zhao (who brought in a deer and called it a horse, which the Second Emperor of the Qin dynasty considered so funny that he put to death any advisors who insisted that Eunuch Zhao’s “horse” was a deer, which is of course a disastrous abuse of honest advisors by their Emperor, but Zhao and Qin II still thought it was funny,) to the stigmatization of eunuchs in later dynasties that led to the limitation of all sea travel, as the eunuchs had traditionally advised overseas trade. Imperial courtiers implemented that policy just as the rest of the world was going through what would be considered the Age of Sail. The courtiers celebrating this spiteful victory over the eunuchs had, arguably, doomed the Empire. (The following photograph of a Chinese barque isn’t from the book, my roommate and a classmate of theirs from the university had to visit a museum for one of the papers and they let me tag along.)

    This concise and detailed history doesn’t only capture the decisions of major players through time, it also includes information on artifacts for nerds that like to know the difference between the porcelain from the Tang dynasty and Song dynasty and Ming dynasty. Or, that the first movable type was made of pottery, that people wrote on silk cloth or bamboo slat scrolls before an artisan figured out how to make paper thinner (before then, wood pulp was used to make…armor? That one artisan must have had a very peculiar mind.) Or how the third Song Emperor took a tribute of drought-resistant and fast-growing rice seeds from Vietnam and distributed the bushels to the peasants in the Yangzi basin, and why that established rice as a staple in the south whereas wheat bread and noodles remain more popular in the north.

    I appreciate that I got to read all this. It explained a lot, and informed a lot more. At the same time, it gave me a sense of awkwardness about learning culture from research rather than growing up in it that I don’t get from, say…living a sort of faelatry that includes Japanese yokai just because that is what happened or this is what I’ve found that I think makes too much sense not to be it, probably because so far no one’s been arsed to tell me that I’m culturing all wrong on that front. (Religioning all wrong, well yeah, that’s happened often offline and I guess that’s part of culturing, but eventually my reaction just usually became “no u”.) But I have grown up on the periphery of the Middle.