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WRITING IN THE IMAGINATION OF AN ORAL POET

Henry Munn



I am the woman of the great expanse of the water
I am the woman of the expanse of the divine sea
the woman of the flowing water
a woman who examines and searches
a woman with hands and measure
a woman mistress of measure

***

I am a woman of letters, it says
I am a book woman, it says
nobody can close my book, it says
nobody can take my book away from me, it says
my book encountered beneath the water, it says
my book of prayers

***

I am a woman wise in words beneath the water, it says
I am a woman wise in words beneath the sea, it says


"You my Mother who are in the House of Heaven," sings María Sabina in 1956, "You my Father who are in the House of Heaven/ There do I go/ And there do I go arriving/ There do I go showing my book/ There do I go showing my tongue and my mouth/ There do I go signalling the tracks of the palms of my hands."

In this stanza she goes from the idea of writing, embodied in the book (a word she says in Spanish) to that of vocal speech to that of tracks. The image of footprints recurs throughout the shamanistic chants of the Mazatecs like an insistent reference in the course of the verbal flow of words to graphic marks. Frequently throughout the 1958 session she says: "The path of your hands, the path of your fists, the path of your feet." In other words: what one does, where one goes. "I am she who questions and sees," says the shamaness. "I am she who examines the tracks of the feet and of the hands."

Here we find the idea of reading in a more primordial sense than reading words. The hunter on the track of game is a reader of signs as is the shaman who interprets the symptoms of illness. The imprint of feet in the mud is the first writing of intentional existence. It is not by chance that the Minister of Houang-ti got the idea of writing from the tracks of birds in the sand. In the pre-Columbian codices footprints often appear, depicting the path of migration or used to mark intervals, as the tracks of moose and other animals appear in the petroglyphs of the North American Indians.

María Sabina is an oral poet; her society is one without writing, but curiously enough one of the principal themes of her chants is the book.1 "I examine," she says in 1958, "because I have seen my clean book/ my ready book/ my clean pen/ my ready pen." And in 1970: "This is your book/ unique book/ book of the dew/ fresh book/ book of clarity/ I am a woman of the breeze."

She told Alvaro Estrada (1981) that once when she had eaten mushrooms to cure her sister she saw the following vision: "Some persons appeared who inspired me with respect. I knew they were the Principal Ones of whom my ancestors spoke. They were seated behind a table on which there were important papers. The Principal Ones were various, seven or eight. Some looked at me, others read the papers on the table, others seemed to be looking for something among the same papers. On the table of the Principal Ones, there appeared a book, an open book that went on growing until it was the size of a person. In its pages there were letters. It was a white book, so white it was resplendent. One of the Principal Ones spoke to me and said, This is the Book of Wisdom. It is the Book of Language. Everything written in it is for you. The Book is yours, take it so you can work."

The vision of these men sitting around a table moving papers like a group of lawyers or functionaries is worthy of Kafka. Here we see the influence of the modern state, which exists at the periphery of her indigenous world, with its offices and paperwork, on the imagination of a woman who can neither read nor write. For her, the heavenly lords are a kind of celestial bureaucracy, which corresponds with her concept of herself as a lawyer who goes up to heaven to argue the case of her patients with the powers that govern life. "I am a lawyer woman, a woman of transactions/ I go up to heaven/ there is my paper/ there is my book/ Before your gaze/ before your mouth/ even unto your glory." In 1956 she sings: "Paper/ Book of the Law/ Book of Government/ I know how to speak with the judge/ the judge knows me/ the government knows me/ the law knows me/ God knows me/ So it is in reality, I am a woman of justice/ A law woman." The connection in her mind between writing and the law is founded in fact, for the law is primordially written and writing is in essence legislative. But even though her conception of the Principal Ones reflects the actual modern world of government with which she is familiar, it also has a precedent in the past: in the hierarchy of power of ancient Mexican society, the priests at the top of the pyramid were the ones who held the sacred books of oracle and wisdom. The wise men were described as those "loudly moving the leaves of the codices." The German scholar, Ernst Robert Curtius, in an essay (1956) about the metaphor of the book of nature in European literature, says that only in civilizations where writing was the prerogative of a religious ruling class does the image of the sacred book of wisdom appear. Such was the case, not only in Egypt and Mesopotamia, but in pre-Columbian Mexico as well.

They said of their wise men: "His is the ink red and black. His are the codices, the colored books of pictures. He himself is writing and wisdom." [Fray Bernardino de Sahagún] And María Sabina says: "It is your clean book/ It is your clean pen/ that I have Father/ Before your gaze, before your mouth, even unto your glory/ Look, I feel as if I were going up to heaven." This woman of words, who is completely illiterate, is fascinated, haunted, obsessed by the idea of writing. "I am a woman of letters," she says. "I am a book woman."

The ancient Mexicans were the only Indians of all the Americas to invent a highly developed system of writing: a pictographic one. Theirs were the only Amerindian civilizations in which books played an important role. One of the reasons may be because they were a people who used psilocybin, a medicine for the mind given them by their earth with the unique power of activating the configurative activity of human signification. On the mushrooms, one sees walls covered with a fine tracery of lines projected before the eyes. It is as if the night were imprinted with signs like glyphs. In these conditions, if one takes up a brush, dips it into paint, and begins to draw, it is as if the hand were animated by an extraordinary ideoplastic ability. Instead of saying that God speaks through the wise man, the ancient Mexicans said that life paints through him, in other words writes, since for them to write was to paint: the imagination in act constitutive of images. "In you he lives/ in you he is painting/ invents/ the Giver of Life/ Chichimeca Prince, Nezahualcoyotl."2 Where we would expect them to refer to the voice, they say write. "On the mat of flowers/ you paint your song, your word/ Prince Nezahualcoyotl/ In painting is your heart/ with flowers of all colors/ you paint your song, your word/ Prince Nezahualcoyotl."

The psychedelics bring into play the same mechanisms that are at work in the production of dreams. One of the principal aspects of such awakenings are visions. Freud called dreams a hieroglyphic text. He said their language was closer to a pictographic form of writing than to verbal speech. The metaphor of the book of life is as central to the mystical poetry of Nezahualcoyotl as it is to the thought of Plotinus, who said the art of the seer is "a reading of the written characters of Nature, which reveal its order and its law." "With flowers you write, Giver of Life," sings Nezahualcoyotl, "with songs you give color,/ with songs you shadow forth/ those who are to live in the earth/ Afterwards you will destroy eagles and tigers/ only in your book of paintings do we live/ here on the earth."

"The book," says Curtius, "received its supreme consecration from Christianity, religion of the sacred book. Christ is the only god whom antiquity represents with a volume in his hand." María Sabina stands at the convergence of the traditions of Mesoamerica and Christianity. When she sings in 1970, "I bring with me my sacred eagle/ Lord Saint John/ Father scribe in the House of Heaven," she refers to the statue of the patron of Huautla, the author of the Epistle according to Saint John, who stands in the Huautla church with a golden goblet of communion wine raised in one hand and a quill in the other, a lectern in the form of an eagle before him with a scroll over its shoulder on which is written in Latin: In the beginning was the Word.

In an interview with reporters from L'Europeo of Milan, she described in somewhat different terms the same capital, inaugural vision she later described to Estrada. She said that an elf appeared before her and asked her what she wanted to become. She replied that she would like to become a saint. "Then the spirit smiled and immediately he had in his hands something that was not there before, a big Book with many written pages. 'Here,' he said, 'I am giving you this book so that you can work better and help the people who need help and know the secrets of the world where everything is known.' I thumbed through the leaves of the book many and many written pages, and alas I thought I did not know how to read. And suddenly I realized I was reading and understanding all that was written on the Book and it was as though I had become richer, wiser, and in a moment I learned millions of things."

The pages are covered with written characters. The designs one sees on the psychedelics, which many people have described as the motifs of oriental carpets, at least this once took the form of script in her imagination. She says the pages were covered with letters. One can hardly imagine a more eloquent, poignant description of an oral poet's desire for the knowledge contained in books. She cannot read, but in her transcendental condition she can. The book is thus a perfect image of the divine wisdom which is beyond ordinary understanding but which the mushrooms enable one to comprehend.

One is reminded of the metaphor of the book of nature which occurs frequently in European literature, that "universal and publick manuscript which lies expansed unto the eyes of all," as Sir Thomas Browne said, adding that its hieroglyphics were more familiar to heathens than to Christians. Paracelsus, "doctor and alchemist, who established the role of chemistry in medicine," stated: "It is from the light of nature that this illumination should come, so that the text of the books of nature may be comprehended and without this illumination, there would be no philosopher or naturalist." María Sabina is indeed enlightened with the light of nature and enabled thereby to read the text of nature which we know today is written in genetic script.

She told Estrada: "The Principal Ones disappeared and left me alone in front of the immense book. I knew that it was the book of wisdom. The book was before me, I could see it but not touch it. I tried to caress it but my hands touched nothing. I limited myself to contemplating it and at that moment, I began to speak. Then I realized that I was reading the sacred book of Language." In the background as she sings, crickets chirp, near and far, throughout the mountain night. The chirps of crickets, say neurobiologists, are "read-outs" of impulse signals coded in the nucleic acid sequences of their genes. María Sabina, surprisingly enough, says that when she began to speak, she realized she was reading. One would think that for such an oral poet her inventions were wholly verbal, vocal ones, but for herself she is chanting what is written. She is reading at the same time as speaking as they must have done when they chanted their myths with the codices open before them like musicological scores. She is saying what she sees, which is, in a sense, to read. Where could such an idea come from, for her whose own language is an unwritten one, but from some sense of giving utterance to what has been coded in advance, what is inscribed in her brain, which is maybe what she means by saying that she has her knowledge from birth, that it is innate.

Of course it is not, but cultural in origin like the traditional form of her chant itself, yet the rhythms that vehicle her words are neurophysiological ones and her visions themselves are generated by the deep-lying mechanisms of the human cerebral cortex and nervous system.

"That is your book, my Father/ That is your clock," she sings. For her everything is written, predestined, foreordained. God has wound up the clock of existence and set it going, allotting to each his or her number of days. As Derrida has said, the metaphor of the book of the world is a theological one.3 A universe in expansion, where events are the outcome of chance as much as necessity, can't be contained between the covers of a book; a reality which is not created once and for all but in course of realization is not written in advance but being written, it demands a text, an open-ended, unlimited play of signifiers in accord with the combinatory play of life itself.

It is as if, however, she goes back to the origins of writing. In her oral autobiography, she relates: "And as well I see that language falls, comes from up above, as if they were little luminous objects that fall from heaven. Language falls on the sacred table, falls on my body. So I catch word after word with my hands. That happens when I don't see the book." Words are invisible. If she sees them falling from heaven they must be changed into images, ideograms. Her words recall in a remarkable way the Chinese myth about the origin of writing recounted by Chang Yen-Yuan in the Li Tai Ming Hua Chi: "The K'uei star with pointed rays is the Lord of Literature on earth and as Tsang Chieh, who had four eyes, looked up (into heaven) he saw images dropping down (from the star) and these he combined with footprints of birds and tortoises."


NOTES


1. To R. Gordon Wasson belongs the credit for being the first person to discern the importance of this theme. Referring to the conjurations of the ancient Mexican sorcerers collected by Ruiz de Alarcón in the seventeenth century and recently retranslated and interpreted by López Austin, he writes: "'The Book' is, I am sure, a permanent feature throughout much of Mesoamerican religious practice, and it goes back far into the past.... Ruiz de Alarcón quotes his Nahuatl informants as speaking of a Book, using the Nahuatl word, amoxtli. This word meant in pre-Conquest times the pictographic writings of the Nahuas and Mixtecs.... When Ruiz de Alarcón's informants spoke about the amoxtli what did they mean? They would not have had access to the Codices, which were closely held by the powerful. Alfredo López Austin thinks this word was used by them metaphorically, by which I take it he means precisely what María Sabina means: the 'Book' in the Mesoamerican Indian mentality is a fount of mystical lore." (See Wasson. María Sabina and Her Mazatec Mushroom Velada. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974. This book contains the text of the 1958 session I refer to, translated by the linguist George Cowan. The 1956 session, also recorded by Wasson, is on a Folkways record.)

2. Nezahualcoyotl, the King of Tezcoco, was a mystic, architect, and poet. (See Miguel León-Portilla, Trece Poetas del Mundo Azteca, 1967, [and the translation of "The Painted Book," above, p. 249-Eds.].)

3. Jacques Derrida, De La Grammatologie (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1967). In connection with the image of the path as it occurs throughout the chants of the Mazatecs it is worth pondering his statement that "it would be necessary to mediate together...the history of writing and the history of the route." "It is difficult to imagine," he goes on, "that the access to the possibility of trails should not be at the same time access to writing" (p. 158).






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