jackson-pollock-eyes-in-the-heatImpasto layers scraped from knives, smeared by fingers, smashed around in organized chaos. Primary colors – blues, reds, canary yellows – undulate like a boa, constricted across the canvas. A brush lies dormant, unused in a splattered jar in the East Hampton studio of Jackson Pollock. He prefers the squeeze of the hand, directly from the tube.

Embedded behind the colors, trapped beneath their cheery hue is the epic battle of light and dark; stuck, submerged beneath the dried crust. The work is demonic, laughing, a high-pitched cackle emitted from the top of the throat, pounding against the roof of the mouth, metallic.

And in that crust, you see an oblique eye, a reaching hand, bodies anatomized, dissected, desiccated. It is a figure overflowing, bloated in the heat, bursting at the seams, dreaming of absolute zero, of Life immense in passion, pulse and power – jagged, sharp, shredded by nothingness and totality, longing for the moment before the blues, before the reds, before the canary yellows, before the knives, the fingers, the chaos of the battle, before light and dark, when the canvas was blank, the jar unsplattered, and the thought unthought.


On the fourth floor of Rutherford library, between the parallel stacks and the crisp pages of an oversized folio is a fading reproduction of Gericault’s Truncated Limbs. Arms and legs, severed at the shoulders and knees, fold over one another without weight. The fingers curl, gentle against the angular shadows of a harsh unseen light – depth and form.

This is a study, practice for a bigger picture – more bodies, more limbs, bloated corpses elucidated against the bleak background of an unforgiving ocean. The Raft of Medusa – a make-shift vessel carrying shipwrecked settlers in search of Senegal, an image of inhumane humanity forged from thirteen days at sea, fifteen castaways left, the rest brutalized, cannibalized, their flesh hanging from the mast.

I close the thick folio, the musty church-scent of the long-unopened book settling on my pores, a gritty dust caught in the ridges of my fingerprints. I carry the book to a small table near a window for study. It is a quiet floor, tomb-like.

Sometimes it takes only a small cough or a sharply inhaled breath or the cracking of a book spine. Most times, it’s easy to think that the rest of the world has vanished, that the cities are empty, that the skyscrapers are slowly being retaken by the soil while the whole of history unfolds on the page before me.

Outside the window is a wintery Albertan landscape of pine trees bent under the weight of heavy snow. Bare elm arms reach for the seamless azure with branches that are home to hearty magpies for a moment or two. The grass is drab, buried beneath a fondant of frozen ice, untouched, save for the slurred tracks of a hopping rabbit.

Though the scene is innocent enough – with scholars bustling on trodden paths and squirrels racing like brown bullets across the ice – the snow creates anxiety in my mind and heaviness in my heart. Its whiteness is paralleled only by the infamous whale hunted by the Pequod on the high seas.

Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in the marbles, japonicas and pearls, and though whiteness has been even made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power, for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet and honorable and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood. It is not the whiteness of the whale or the ghost or the squall that imbibes me with terror: rather it is that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs me from behind with the thought of annihilation.

It is a particularly bright day and the sunlight explodes across the scene. The snow radiates like gold dust, deceiving, lulls my mind with its refraction, reflects the memories of my hand in a warm spring grass or my feet scattering the leaves of autumn. My mind is made gullible by the artificial fluorescents that illuminate the hundreds of words I read to escape the cold. It is a sharp hue that doesn’t give, it only takes: takes time, takes sleep, takes the night.

In the few moments I spend outside, whether from home to bus, or bus to library, the whiteness asserts itself, is all-consuming, brings images of instant icicles forming in my lungs, brings the slow crush of stagnancy to my limbs.

It is not just the body that is bundled away and hidden from the air. Much worse is the imprisonment of the mind. Locked away in libraries, or coffee shops, my mind can find solace only in the company of other minds, equally trapped in the basic need to stay inside and stay warm. The urge to flee, get in the car, get on a plane, get out of here is always present. I dream of European and American cities with museums and art and sunlight and people – passionate people who care enough to shape cities around paintings and talk about music and create whole schools of thought. I dream of architecture and cobblestone and anything but the cold, ice-covered concrete that threatens against my every timid step.

I crack open the Gericault folio to the large print of The Raft. The reproduction is a fraction of the original’s size, hanging in the French painting section of the Louvre, dominating the hall with its five by seven meter frame. Bodies defined by chiaroscuro crescendo from emaciated ribcages and ruined cadavers to a muscular African back, waving an arm for salvation, the flesh of his acquaintances in his stomach, the cruelty of the fates yet to bring down his shoulders. I saw all of these things: all these things – all the meanness and agony without end I stood in front of, looked out upon, saw, heard, was silent.

It was Paris. Paris in all its splendor and squalor. Paris of La Tour Eiffel, Notre-Dame, the Champs-Elysées. Paris of porn shops, burlesques, and one-Euro peep shows. Paris, where lilacs permeate the city in the spring, only to be mixed in the noses of Metro passengers with the unmistakable stench of piss. Paris of contradictions and complexities: a living, breathing organism that devours personalities whole.

In Paris, I was anonymous, the city indifferent to my existence. But the poor souls, with whom I shared the cobbled streets, saw me. The men leered on street corners, in alleyways, from the unclean windows of cafes. They smiled when they heard my voice, added weight to their ‘R’s, rolled their tongues, always asked if I was in Paris for romance. This was the Paris of tiny dogs yipping in restaurants, the Paris of the perfect cappuccino, the Paris of shoe stores where I bought six pairs just so the clerk would touch my ankle the way he did.

It was also the Paris of the Louvre, standing stoic, saturated in its history of kings, emperors and art, reveling in its shameless cliché of old and new colliding. A collection that spans centuries: the stark juxtaposition of Egyptian antiquities, of Eugene Delacroix, of Perrault facades and the glass pyramidal entrance.

I wandered around the Jardin des Tuileries for a half-hour naively looking for a front door, standing out in my bright yellow sweater like a canary in the coal mine of Parisian rain. I was approached by a man, the type I’d take home in Canada: fifty-five years old, salt and pepper hair, slight frame and thin face. He wore a raincoat and pointed Italian-leather shoes with a heel that clicked against the wet ground. His name was Maurice, and after he discovered that I could barely feign French, he placed a warm arm over my shoulder and led me in the direction of the pyramid.

The landscape of Paris is proudly adorned with Egyptian architecture. Looted obelisks punctuate the Jardin and Place de la Concorde, where heads rolled from the dull blade of a smiling guillotine. Their phallic structure is mimed across the city at the Place Vendome commemorating Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, at the Place de la Bastille in recognition of the once-infamous prison, and at the point where Maurice pressed his swollen crotch against my leg while dragging me to the covered forest of the Tuileries. His hands viced my face in place. His tongue feathered in and out of my gaping mouth. Before I could wrench myself free, he breathed hotly across my forehead, scanned my features, ran his satin hands through my hair, drank my body in for later.

I started walking, fast, turning back to see him waving as I spiraled down the Louvre staircase.

The accented voice of my French tour guide flowed through the rented headphones. I imagined her to be dressed as a flight attendant, chestnut hair pulled tightly in a bun, cadmium scarf casting a rosy glow on her cheeks.

            “Gericault’s Raft was the star of the Salon of 1819. Critics were divided: the horror of the subject exercised fascination, but devotees of classicism expressed their distaste for what they described as a pile of corpses. After its exhibition at the Salon and subsequent showing at the Egyptian Hall of London, the image was forever etched in copper on Gericault’s grave.”

Her voice faded. I lost myself in the orgy of reaching bodies.

The train speeds through the tunnels — the digestive tract below the behemoth of a city. Volontaires, Concorde, Avenue Emile Zola. One station has random arrays of letters in marble tiles from floor to ceiling. While waiting for the train, among men in turtlenecks carrying briefcases, I pick out some words here and there. Another station is plastered over with ads of old men straddled by young models selling bananas and cantaloupes for the local Monoprix. The station Abbesses is a decomposition of improvised, underground jazz. The walls are gray and brown with ripped posters, soiled by an imperceptible wet dust. The concrete platforms hold onto the soles of shoes for a moment too long, echoes of sticky suction reverberating down the tracks. The only way out of that place is to climb 136 steps in a narrow, spiraling staircase, layered with the sweat of the city and underground art stolen in dark moments. The rhythms of Paris’s forgotten populations are sprayed and splattered on the walls like the excrement that decorates the steps.

I emerged from the underground into a quiet neighbourhood of the 20th arrondisment, an 1882 edition of Leaves of Grass in the pocket of my red trench coat. The guidebook said that this was a good place to enter Cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise. It’s at the top of the hill overlooking the graves and near the Epstein-sculpted headstone of Oscar Wilde. The concrete block is dominated by a flying Egyptian nude, almost irrelevant beneath the thousands of oily lip-prints kissed upon it.

More than halfway across the cemetery, through the snaking dirt paths, dwarfed on each side by the cobblestone streets, The Raft on Gericault’s grave is obscured by the overgrown branches of surrounding trees, the green of their leaves shocked against the lime-decay of the image on metal. The rains of Paris leave their mark on the image like an intentional brushstroke, the raft now thrust against a Francis-Bacon-sky, a dripping Pollock-contrast to Gericault’s contrived sunset.

Mere meters away is the grave of Chopin. A stone-white muse laments atop his simple headstone. His profile is carved into the chalky grave marker. In such an obscure location, his final resting place would be overlooked were it not for the hundreds of red roses placed upon it – some fresh and smiling, others crumbling in the breeze.

The piano in my living room is a Steinhauer upright built in New Bedford at the end of the 19th century. It is a deep red walnut, solid and veneered in high gloss. The keys are light to the touch and worn down near middle C.

The weather in Massachusetts is similar to Edmonton, with blustery snow-saturated winters giving way to warm, if short, summers. But its situation on the Eastern Sea-board gives it a damp humidity that the windswept prairies of Alberta will never know. As such, the piano must be tuned each autumn in an effort to fight the stranglehold of dryness over pitch.

The piano has been in our family since I was three years old, but the stool was lost during a move when I was ten. Seated in front of the piano is a pale maple stool, three inches too high, handcrafted by my draughtsman brother.

Atop the piano rests a weathered pile of Polonaises and Preludes, dog-eared, marked by a frustrated pencil. Circled allegrettos and glissandos urge my fingers to play more than the notes, more than the black ink trapped on the white page.

At points like this, whenever I find myself growing grim and monotonous with the droning rhythm of routine; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pondering the purpose of life and coming to no conclusions; and especially whenever I allow absurdity to get such an upper hand of me that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street – then, I account it high time to settle my hands upon the keys as soon as I can. In paths untrodden, the keys are an escape from life that exhibits itself only in pleasures, profits and conformities. The keys take me far away, leave my body behind, transport my mind thousands of miles — to a nighttime café in Paris where the patrons see themselves endlessly reflected in the darkened windows; to an outdoor courtyard in Eastern Europe where the stars are refracted in a musky glass of wine.

Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor begins wide-eyed, gazing in wonderment at its surroundings, amazed at the surprise of existence. It unravels like a fog, whispering off weightless fingertips – the phrases unwinding themselves like the conversation of close friends. Notes move round a central point of gravity. Floating from the top of my piano, they glide across the curved ceiling, twirling around the room in invisible currents, flowing in each others’ wake – each new note heard like the twinkling of a constellation in the haze of the Milky Way – pausing in a final pirouette at the window.

But before the fermata dissipates; before the caesura takes hold; before you can almost taste the burgundy smoke of a pinot noir set against the blackness of the Seine; before the calm fluidity of the Vistula can focus the images of its troubled past in your mind’s eye; before, out of the rolling rivers, come small drops, gently telling of long travels made solely to look on you, to touch you – before all of this, the sound reaches the whiteness beyond my window frame and recoils, recedes into its first lamentation, an ache stronger than before, illuminated by the pleasure of its own contrast.

The cover on the bundle of manuscripts is the only photograph of Chopin, taken in 1848. At first glance, his rigid stature, broad-lapelled coat and black eyes suggest a callous figure, inured by life, hardened perhaps by the thrill of uprising, the sting of defeat and his subsequent emigration from Poland in 1831. But on closer inspection, the furrowed brow becomes a wince, the rigid stature, a grimace. His hands clasped tightly across his chassis, his skin marked by the White Plague.

The bacteria divided slowly and silently, diminishing his vitality, dulling his luster. With the crush of stagnancy threatening his lungs, Chopin dictated his last Mazurka. And, on October 17, 1849, he bid adieu to earth, stepped down to the world unknown, was buried beneath a stone-white muse in Paris.

But standing before the simple headstone, the soft scent of roses in the air, an intuitive part of me felt that something was missing, as souls only understand souls. I didn’t yet know that his heart, soaked in brandy, was sealed in the Holy Cross Church in Poland.

The flag on the pavilion barely stirs, the water quivers gently in the sun like some young promised maiden dreaming, half-waking of the joy that shall be hers.

The Old Town square in Krakow is the largest in Europe. Cobblestoned, it spreads out like a mosaic plain, clip-clopped by the hooves of horses carrying smiling men in top hats. In the evenings, as dusk descends like a watercolor wash, whole swarms of bats appear around the asymmetrical towers of St. Mary’s Basilica, flipping and diving erratically against the fading blue of the day. Every hour, on the hour, a trumpeter hangs from the highest window in the highest tower and plays a lament of scaling semiquavers. He stops abruptly, mid-phrase – homage to another bugler from another time, shot in the throat by a precise arrow from the invading Huns of 1241. Whether at dusk or at dawn, amidst bats or the silence of the square at night, the trumpet can be heard. I have stood in the bustle of the day and repeated the phrases back to him and played the notes again in my mind. The sun was in my eyes, reflected off his horn. The only thing that remains is the sun, for the melody has long dissipated on the wind of memory.

In the center of the square is the Renaissance Sukiennce cloth hall — a covered galleria flanked at each entrance by jolly oompah-pah bands and filled with vendor stations passed down through the generations. Polska flags, shirts and jerseys color the hall in a cadmium red, offset by the endless rows of sculpted amber, shaped into rings, necklaces, and bracelets. Gazing into the polished sap, you can see prehistoric air bubbles trapped like pin-pricks, forming erratic patterns like the ancient constellations, making you feel less like the one watching and more like the one being watched.

Outside the hall, flocks of pigeons with dark plumage, scuffled and scraggly, walk along the terraces of red brick buildings or in the gutters of crumbling sidewalks. Nowhere are they more plentiful than around the base of a tribute to Adam Mickiewicz, the national poet. He towers over the square in bronze, the allegories of Motherland, Science, Courage and Poetry at his feet.

Born on Christmas Eve in 1798, his childhood was peaceful – the protective cloak of nobility punctuated only by the tramping marches of Moscow-bound Napoleon. He studied art, discovered the triumph of a revolutionary pen, was exiled to Russia. Miracle of miracles: a passport. And with it, the opening of Weimar and Goethe and Paris and Rome and an ill-fated Romance, with Life almost ended by the pavement below his window.

Following this, the wispy cloak of mysticism enraptured his heart against the whipping winds of poverty and despair. And he wrote. He wrote of deceased ancestors, of Poland as the Passion of Christ, of martyrdom and virtue. His words were melancholic, dirge-like as they reflected on the hydra of memory, asleep through evil days; in peace, plunging its talons in his quiet heart.

In Istanbul, organizing Polish forces against Mother Russia – cholera, then death.

But before the all-consuming whiteness of death, before the unending light from an unseen source, Mickiewicz – with nerves shot and his wispy cloak dissipating against the gale – was visited by his dear friend, ailing also, lungs full of slowly dividing bacteria in beautiful patterns like snowflakes that would never melt.

Chopin played by his bedside, painted with his fingers on the keys, painted rich landscapes of yellow ochre and burnt umber and flashes of gold. He played at night, comforting the morose Mickiewicz who was pacified in his bed by the outpouring of fraternal love. Each trill of the keys sang to him – lullabies against absurdity, quietly musing, joining them together by the unspoken aphorism: “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

The Vistula River runs through Krakow, separating the center of town from Kazimierz – the Jewish quarter. Just across the bridge is the Galicia Jewish Museum.

The main room of the museum had been sparsely decorated, an open warehouse with concrete floors and exposed ventilation painted black. From the ceiling, in parallel rows, hung frosted glass sheets with the local history of Jews etched in Hebrew, Polish and English. Lean intellectuals in black turtlenecks or beige trench-coats were gathered in small pockets of conversation around a grand piano. I took a seat in one of the black folding chairs near the back and wrote in my journal, ignoring the complimentary Syrah and platters of smelly cheese and stale crackers. After a few moments, a man with a white moustache tapped on the microphone and the crowd filed to their chairs. He introduced the musicians in the flurry of harsh consonants that is Polish and took his seat in the front row.

A woman, with long hair woven into a braid and wearing a ballerina’s unitard and flowing black skirt, took the center stage. A timid man with round spectacles ruffled his papers and shifted his position on the overstuffed piano bench before nodding to his partner and laying his hands on the keys.

The first notes and their chromatic modulations ricocheted around the large room, bouncing off floor and ceiling, off glass panels, off empty wine bottles. My ears were kissed from all angles by rhythm and melody flowing like a warm molasses, burnt in the dark, amber in the light.

The woman took to the microphone and from her voice came a pure sound, like the very pitch at which a heart breaks. A long note, piercing, it shocked my eyes closed, seemed to bypass the floor, the walls, the glass in a concentrated beam aimed at each of us. A wail more than a song, she broke into throat and guttural acrobatics hitherto unheard by my ears. I sat there, dumb, glued to the chair, floored by the earthy language of a Chosen people.

Images flooded the space behind my eyelids. Images of yellow stars sewn on black coats, of shattered windows, of burning synagogues, of unsmiling people waiting in lines – lines for food, for water, for ghettos, for trains, for gas, for the white-hot flame, for smoke.

The song ended after a few minutes – the woman’s voice a slight echo, like the quiet epiphany of a haiku. I got up, grabbed my journal from under the chair and carried my saturated body out of there. Shocked by the light of day outside the museum, I carried myself back down the dusty street and across the bridge to the grassy banks of the river.

The Vistula flows from the Carpathian Mountains as two rivers – Biała Wisełka and Czarna Wisełka, or White and Black Vistula respectively – that join like veins of an artery at a town near the Czech border. It pushes north, winding through major communities before emptying into the Baltic Sea at Gdansk. Along the way, the ancient water gathers momentum, widening against the contested soil of past world wars. Once a central stage for combat, the river was then cloaked behind an Iron Curtain only drawn open again by independence. It calmly passes by, getting wider and murkier as it nears its destination until it is so black that all you can see in it is your reflection on a cloudless night. The water of the Vistula, like all water, is imprinted with memory. From the rain comes the whole of history, cascading violently down the mountain-side, gathering fragments of the past along the way. It passes through Warsaw, mere steps away from the entombed heart of Chopin; it flows through Krakow as the divisionary landmark of a now absent population; and it snakes past the heartless void and immense fields of Auschwitz.

There is a place in Auschwitz where the water is stagnant. It is through the Gate of Death, down the rail tracks that sever the camp like a spine, past the brick barracks that smell of musty rot and the fields of brick chimneys left standing in parallel rows. It is beyond even the gas chambers, dynamited, deconstructed, dilapidated as they were in 1945. It is in the far Northwest corner of the camp, near a small grove of trees, in an overgrown field of grass – a small bog of unnatural green, a perfect rectangle, gouged from the land by reluctant shovels. Where the ashes of the ovens were poured. It was a place to hide the world’s shame, unmoving and silent in its testimony.

The landscape of a death camp succumbs to all sins of memory. You want to believe that the sky is brooding, a storm on the horizon, that the grass is a drab brown, that birds plunge to their demise should they dare fly over such a place. You want to believe that the sun doesn’t shine, that it doesn’t wash over the sky with purples and magentas at dawn, that it doesn’t glisten off the barrack roofs where children carved pictures in the walls. You want to believe it is a vortex, it is an affront to the senses, it is the absence of color.

But it is not like that at all. It is an overgrown field of grass, home to thousands of scurrying ants and ladybugs. Spiders reclaim the barbed wire with their elaborate webs. Birds nest in the watchtowers, chirping their heart-breaking melodies, and the sun pounds your skin with its all-consuming heat. Trees bud and bloom and pollinate, their seeds carried by the soft wind.

In a poem by Mickiewicz, an all-knowing voice implores a girl to listen. But she doesn’t listen, while the roofs glisten, bright in the sun. The voice asks, “Silly girl, what do you do there, As if there were someone to view there, A face to gaze on and greet there, A live form warmly to meet there, When there is no one, none, you hear?” But she doesn’t hear. Like a dead stone, she stands there alone, Staring ahead of her, peering around, For something that simply must be found.

As an afterthought, during my time in Paris, I visited the Centre Georges Pompidou to see a traveling exhibit of modern art. It was there that I encountered a reproduction of Jackson Pollock’s Eyes in the Heat, 1946.

It was part of a video exhibit on the fifth floor, a pitch black room curtained-off from the noisy maze of nude self-portraits rendered in thumbtacks, live goldfish reflected across Miro prints, and entire bedroom sets constructed from matchsticks. Stepping into the small room was like falling into the space behind my eyes. Pupils dilated, I crawled on hands and knees, and skirted to the corner, and stared at the wall-sized video screen. From invisible speakers came a scratchy soundscape like the noise of a cassette played backwards.

It was a love story told in still images – the nape of a neck, crumpled clothes on the floor, the tape deck in a used car, skates on ice, snowflakes. The photographs were superimposed like ghosts over modern paintings, though the work was largely unknown. Held hands, the beauty mark on a soft shoulder, a pair of foggy silhouettes in the shower. The soundscape got louder, crescendoed, or decrescendoed backwards, worked into a fury. A blinking message machine, a scribbled note, a vase thrown at the wall. The noise stops, replaced by the sound of a rewind, or a fast-forward. The final image was a pair of women’s shoes placed neatly beside a closed door. It was black and white, save for a few greasy smudges of the reds and the blues and the canary yellows of Pollock that peeked through from the background.

I didn’t know it was Pollock until I crawled out of the dark space and found a small handbill of the film’s credits. I scribbled it down in the corner of my journal, a small note on its own, almost illegible, almost forgotten.

On a warm evening in winter, I sat in a chair by the window on the fifth floor of Rutherford library. I was studying Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass – the text reprinted from the 1891 edition. The pages were thin and satin-like, smooth and slippery against the fingertips. In the margins were the light scribbles of a mechanical pencil. I paused a few times while reading, let the words sink in, saw the streetlights come on outside the window.

An announcement came over the speakers: the library would be closing in five minutes. I gathered my bag, the book, my journal and padded down the stairs to the exit. A few others shuffled out behind me, made their way, heads down, to the bus stop. I walked in the opposite direction, towards the small space between the Arts buildings, where a fountain, frozen over, was surrounded by tall pines and ice-covered walkways. I stared at my thoughts in the snow, the koans of Whitman echoing softly in my mind. A pair of snowy rabbits hopped by, their muzzles and feet stained a light gray.

It was at that moment – when the proofs, the figures, had been arranged in columns before me; when I had seen the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure; when I soon became tired and sick, till rising and gliding out, I wandered off by myself, left my body behind and gave myself over; when I too faded into the night, looking for the part of me pushed away, tucked under the covers of a deep slumber, a part of me forgotten in measurements and charts; it was at that very moment, in the mystical moist night air, that I looked in perfect silence at the snow, at nothingness and totality; the sublimity of it slowing my struggle, stopping it completely, an emptiness, a pure and whole emptiness taking hold, a gap, a void, a complete trust that at this moment, the earth would take me in its arms, plant my feet firmly on the ground, and breathe Life into me, Life immense in passion, pulse and power, filling me, bursting my seams, destroying the canvas of my constraint, making me whole but for a moment.



This is a meditation on modern urban life, social isolation and the illusion of priorities  when we interact with the natural world.

The only goal of his walk

(the only goal he ever had)

was to fill a basket at the grocery store

and make his way back through the city streets

to unload his bananas on the counter-top.

He’d tried wandering along the avenues and the boulevards

tried to lose his mind

tried to “make like Thoreau” and saunter through absolute freedom and wildness.

But alas, the metropolis forbids this.

At the end of every street there is a destination

some final point to which he comes

and from which he will return:

as if to say that wandering for the sake of wandering

was the ancient religion of his forefathers.

Modernity had taken care of this pagan ritual

and installed concrete pathways

from here to the River Styx.

Now, there was no need to linger among the peonies

no need to contemplate the chrysanthemums

no need to have the end goal of his slogging be anything but bananas.

He often walked without ever hearing the birds.

Eventually they just stopped chirping,

having no one left to sing for.

And soon he would forget.

An acquired amnesiac,

he would begin to think that life

was just in front of his computer

his television

his desk at work

his toilet seat.

He would begin to think that this was all there was

and all there ever would be:

that there was no magic or miracles,

that the faculty of wonder was lost to the traffic of consumption.

He would begin to think that life only began

when the groceries had been bought

but not paid for

with the knowledge of where they’d come from.

“Why, groceries came from the store, didn’t they?”

But one night, when thunder shook his city

and the lightening cast shards of luminosity

through his window,

he came out from under his bedsheets to look at the rain.

It fell from the sky.

Little drops of water

falling from the sky,

pieces of the ageless ocean

recycling itself irrelevant of us.

Little drops of water

like the kisses of angels

that might leave flowers as lip-prints wherever they go.

And as he shuffled to the door in his cotton pajamas,

he found himself wanting to step out into that rain.

His slippers hesitated on the threshold of the landing,

growing soggy as the droplets tried to enter the house

by way of the wind.

And there he wavered,

balancing in the door frame

between what he was

and what he thought he was.

He stood there a long time

staring out into the dark street

whose lights had gone out in the storm.

He glanced at his watch

glanced to his countertop.

Yes, there was still time to go get some bananas.

Challenging Feuerbach, “The Essence of Christianity” and Critics of Both

Humanist ideology that is largely dead now because his methodology is so flawed.
Humanist ideology that is largely dead now because his methodology is so flawed.

In chapter 16 of Guide to the Study of Religion entitled “Projection”, Stewart Elliott Guthrie rightfully criticizes the deep entrenchment of the varying concepts of projection in much psychological, philosophical and religious studies literature, particularly because projection itself is lacking a clear definition. Tracing its historical origins as far back as he can go, he determines that though it appeared as a concept prior to the 19th century, it is in the work of Ludwig Feuerbach, particularly The Essence of Christianity, that the legacy of projection as a concept was firmly established. This legacy does not necessarily follow from the work of Feuerbach directly, as Guthrie points out, but has more to do with the work of others inspired by his writing, including Freud, Marx, Nietzsche and, to a certain degree, Jung. In the end, after dissecting its many variations, Guthrie concludes that “projection as a psychological term appears then, to come in so many varieties as to be theoretically empty.” (236) By extension, this is true for its use in philosophy and religious studies as well. The purpose of this paper is not to refute the relative deadness of projection as a theoretical term but to push Guthrie’s argument a bit further. By outlining several key problems with the concept of projection in its entirety (all varieties), I seek to show that the problems of projection go much deeper than its many varieties or, by extension, its indefinability. While there are a number of crucial concepts that lack a unified definition in the scholarship, this does not prevent their use if someone arrives at a specific definition and is consistent in its use throughout their work. Defining terms is a key in any area of scholarship whether in the sciences or the humanities. What is indefinable can be made definable, if not universally and forever, at least for a specific purpose or goal. [1] In this sense, I am not entirely swayed by Guthrie’s argument that the issue with “projection” as a term is in its multifaceted definitions (as something like religion is equal to this in its variety) nor that this accounts for its emptiness as the point of analysis or understanding for religion, or religious behavior. The problem of projection is, simply, projection itself.

As Guthrie notes towards the end of his article, the first issue with projection as an alleged human practice is that it does not account for phenomenal diversity and our interpretive capacities. Guthrie aptly notes that, contrary to the supposed predictability of what we project into the world, our perceptual world is “chronically ambiguous” and subject to our multiple interpretations which, rather than being projections of our inner world, are what we throw out onto the world – our “bias”, so to speak, which chooses explanations of phenomena based on “Pascal’s Wager: the most important possibility” as part of natural selection or a tool of survival. (237) This configuration rejects the basic “eccentric” projection where we locate qualities of objects externally but it also rejects the opposite extreme where the qualities of objects are entirely internal.

A great example of this is the colour of a flower. Colour wavelengths, while existing phenomenally, are interpreted by our eyes (and brains) to be a specific colour, say red, without altering the wavelengths themselves. They may appear as something other than red to an animal or even another person[2], but the phenomena is not changed: only the sensory interpretation of it. In this sense, what is “projected” is neither the flower itself nor the colour red onto the flower. The flower simply is and we see it as we are able to. In the night, this red will appear different to us, but our interpretation of it is still red, particularly if we remember it as being red during the day – even if the night-red appears brown when juxtaposed against the day-red.

As such, we are not full creators to the world around us, but that is not to say that we are mere passive receptors of it either. We engage in continuous interpretation of the world through our faculties of sensibility but it still exists, even if we can never perceive it outside of those faculties. Interestingly, this is an assertion of Kant, to whom Feuerbach was allegedly responding when he wrote The Essence of Christianity. Though many attempt to conflate the two philosophers in their meditations about religion – particularly because both of them attempted to strip Christianity and, by extension, religion to its human core, and because both are fixated on the perfection of human nature- the fundamental difference between them is this understanding of perception. For Kant, experience offers us nothing beyond individual sensations without any general truths and represents the most basic awareness of a stimulus. Our minds then take stimulus and order the information received by the sensory faculties of the brain and construct an object according to our perception. For Kant, unlike Feuerbach, the flower exists and is also unchanged by our perception or perceived knowledge of it. Only our mind interprets the object in such a way that we cannot imagine that object outside of this interpretation.

Why is this important? In terms of projection, if we carry its most basic definition (that we throw our internal world onto the external world by whatever mechanism or for whatever reason there is) to its endpoint, we are stuck in the continuous feed-forward loop of the “Brain in a Vat” argument, or solipsism. The object is not interpreted by our sensory capabilities; it is created by them. It does not exist. This is obviously problematic for a number of reasons that cannot be delved into here but suffice it to say that few philosophers accept soliptical worldviews willingly.

The second problem with projection has more to do with religion and religious behavior directly. Projection as a process is not equal to social construction and does not translate well from individual constructions of the world to those of the group in which an individual gives the appearance of being situated. We can construct our symbols, our buildings and our relationships around what we perceive to be the sacred but this does not mean that they exist only in our minds or, conversely, that they outwardly have legitimate effects on objects or places in the external world. While the sacred might be intertextual or intersocial, and it may not be recognized as sacred for another group, that other group can recognize it as sacred for the group that makes it so. It is not that there is something imparted onto the object or place that makes it sacred as a constitutive quality but rather the perception of mutual recognition by members of the sacralizing group that makes it sacred for them. The object has not changed, the interpretation has and these interpretations can be recognized (even if not accepted) by others. To come back to our naturalistic examples, there can be a pink rock and a purple rock that a person or group interprets to hold differing metaphysical powers from one another. To an outsider, these rocks are just rocks, regardless of colour, but that does not stop them from recognizing that these rocks are sacred to the one who sacralizes them. In this way, for the sacralizer and the observer, the physical rocks have not changed, it is only, again, the interpretation that changes. While it might seem silly to some to use examples like flowers and rocks, both of these objects have been interpreted as sacred or holding religious value by different groups of people at different times, so the examples are not totally farfetched here.

The third problem with projection in religion is the notion of anthropomorphism that normally accompanies it and is the central point in Feuerbach’s magnum opus: that humanity is conscious of itself as a species and by determining what makes its species unique – reason, will and feeling for Feuerbach – establishes “perfections” against which the individual finds himself imperfect. As a result, man projects God into existence and into the place of the species-perfection as the perfect exemplar for inherently imperfect man. As such, God exists only in man’s consciousness of himself as a species, rather than as an actual externality. There are two challenges to this argument: one is, of course, theological and the other is anthropological. For the purposes of argument, I will focus on the second challenge as the first one holds little relevance for the religious studies student. Simply put, there are a number of so-called religious practices that envision a God that is neither anthropomorphic in physicality (ie. has no bodily characteristics similar to man) nor anthropomorphic in attributes, or not necessarily, completely human in attributes. The most obvious example is the orthodox Sunni Islamic conception of Allah, which, while accepting anthropomorphic verses in the Holy Qur’an, declares their meaning mutashabihat, or ‘unclear’. Most scholars in Islamic jurisprudence in the four schools (with some divergence in some followers of the Hanbali school), argue that this ambiguity is overwritten by the Qur’an’s categorical denial of Allah’s anthropomorphism in physical or personal attributes, stating There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him. (Qur’an 42:11). As such, any literalist interpretation of anthropomorphism in any of Allah’s Verses or 99 Names is purely didactic and meant to invoke understanding for human interpretation and understanding without actually affecting Allah Himself. An example of how this works in the opposite manner is found in Quran 45:34 which notes that Allah forgets, which, if taken literally, is considered kufr or disbelief by the four major schools of Islamic jurisprudence. This is not the place to go into an exhaustive analysis of how various Muslim scholars have dealt with anthropomorphism over time (and there are some who accepted it – including, notably, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the foundational scholar for virtually all known terrorist groups and Saudi Arabia as a country). Rather, the point is to say that the vast majority of believing Muslims, the world over, and according to doctrine, likely conceive of a God that is nothing like anything – human or otherwise, as something beyond anything our faculties of sensibility can dream up. As such, it would appear that this could be a reason that Feuerbach called his work The Essence of Christianity as it betrays a particularly Christian viewpoint and understanding of God that relates little to either of its scriptural counterparts of Islam or even Judaism.

This list of issues with projection as a formative concept or practice in religion is, by no means, exhaustive. However, hopefully it offers a few ways of conceptualizing projection as a dead concept. Beyond the fact that it has multiple definitions, projection fails to account for how humans actually perceive reality – and though this is not yet fully determined, it has at least been determined that projection is not provable as a process of the mind and instead functions more like a metaphor in our colloquial descriptions of reality. Further, projection as the equivalent of social construction or constructivism in general is problematic as to equate the two renders the social realm soliptical and devoid of meaning or the capacity to have knowledge. No scholar or student of religion could argue this and keep their job. Finally, when projection in religion involves anthropomorophism – as it does in Feuerbach’s construction – any claim to universality of this process is a moot point, not only because contrary examples are readily available, but because projection itself is largely dead as a verifiable facet of human cognition. Further issues will have to be discussed elsewhere.


Sources Referenced or Cited

Feuerbach, Ludwig. “Preface to the Second Edition” and “The Essential Nature of Man,” in The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper, 1957 [German original in 1841]),

Guthrie, Stewart E. “Projection,” in Guide to the Study of Religion. Willi Braun and Russell . McCutcheon, eds. Cassell: London. 2000.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. 1781; 2nd edition 1787. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (trans.) 1998. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


[1] This is not true for all terms, such as “religion” which lacks a definition, even working ones, because it is a poor starting point of analysis and is secondary to other, more definable systems which can be analyzed.

[2] For a very recent example of this (February 26, 2015), we have the internet to thank:



Longing is a scar inside the heart and a country’s fingerprint on the body. But no one longs for his wound, no one longs for pain or nightmare, but for what was before. For a time when there was no pain except of primary pleasures that melts time, like a sugar cube in a cup of tea, and for a time of heavenly images.[1]

Erasure illustration example heidegger derrida philosophyThe “exilic gap” refers to a period of time between the fall of Judah and the return from Babylon when the historical texts and materials available to us are silent. Historians and theorists have tried to account for this silence in memory but have failed to come to a consensus on what the gap means and why it may have occurred. Theories include having limited or lost evidence (Momigliano) or that any evidence related to the period is ahistorical and overly creative; however, these have been dismissed as they not only fail to account for the numerous texts available before and after the gap, but also fail to account for why this “creativity” did not extend into the exilic period as well. That being said, other scholars have postulated that the silence itself is a form of creative and intentional inculcation to produce a collective memory for ideological reasons. In a comparative examination of “gaps”, Katherine Stott follows this line of thinking and puts forth a functionalist understanding for the gap among the ancient Israelites. Prior to this, however, Stott, dismisses the possibility of accounting for the gap in terms of trauma by misunderstanding the effect of trauma (particularly spatial trauma) on collective memory. Using spatial and trauma theory, the concept of Derrida’s erasure, and in reference to the work of Ehud Ben Zvi, I will show how the creation of the narrative gap was, indeed, purposeful for ideological reasons, but was also a narrative technique that allowed the trauma from displacement and place-destruction (felt by returnees and remainees alike) to give meaning to the post-exilic period.[2]

In studying the exilic gap, most scholars overlook the primacy of place in impacting the narrative told and accepted by the community after the return(s).[3] In his illuminating essay “Wisdom Sits on Places”, Keith Basso looks at the connection between place and text-building as an integrative process. Just as dwelling in a place stimulates the self-conscious experience of it in the subject, so too does the place become “a product and expression of the self whose experience it is” (Basso 55), and thus, places come to “generate their own fields of meaning” (56). In this reciprocal, mutually-defining process, there is the possibility of it being a private affair; however, as Basso points out, “tangible representations of it are commonly made available for public consumption”(Ibid). In sum, historiographical texts, rituals, myth, and other cultural expressions end up (at their core) as representations of “where and how [we] dwell” (57).

When we apply this understanding of cultural texts to the biblical accounts of exile in the book(s) of Ezra (and Nehemiah), the importance of place in understanding the gap comes to the fore. This can be fully understood by looking at the relationship between displacement, trauma and memory. Katherine Stott’s treatment of the effect of trauma on memory is cursory, at best, and ill-informed at worst.[4] While she notes that “amnesia” is allegedly a common method of coping with trauma and that this can be extended to collective remembering, she ends her refutation of the trauma theory with a poorly formed question, asking why then “memory of this experience [exile] was not completely expunged”(Stott 52). Lacking the adequate space here, I will simply note that there are numerous scientific studies that are published annually on how trauma imprints memory – many with admittedly conflicting conclusions, including the fact that amnesia is not the only response nor the most common, particularly in mass, communal trauma. The only thing known for sure is that everyone deals with trauma differently and it is imprinted in ways that are impossible to predict.[5] Additionally, the definition of trauma itself is something not agreed upon and it does not always take the form of “unspeakable horror”, as some authours hypothesize.[6]

Now, some scholars would go so far as to question the level of trauma that could have possibly been experienced in the exile, citing the few exilic documents that point to good experiences in Babylon and the fact that not everyone returned as evidence. Others claim that because of the common grammar of a hopeful future memory of return and restoration, the Israelites could not have been traumatized but might even have accepted exile enthusiastically. These are gross underestimations of the power that place holds over self-definition and memory formation. Displacement, depopulation and destruction (all visible forms of violent change in the landscape) would have been a significant enough affront to the Israelite self-understanding as to cause a rupture in social memory as wide as the gap itself.[7] For those who remained, bearing witness to this destruction and displacement would constitute its own form of trauma as well.[8]

Am I proposing that the gap is amnesiac in nature due to trauma? Absolutely not. Amnesia implies unconscious forgetting for the purposes of survival and is not a mutually-exclusive term with trauma. Unconscious forgetting is not what happened in post-exilic Judah. Instead, I might call it purposeful non-remembering as a response to the trauma of displacement. In a point that is left unexplored by Stott, she notes that the identity of the Israelites was “based on a connection to the homeland…” (55). While she incorrectly, assumes that this results in a shortening or deemphasis of past events in which the bond between the people and the land was broken, I am going to put forth the idea that the exilic gap actually functions as an erasure (sous rature) in the Derridan form, emphasizing the magnitude of displacement, its effect on the Israelites and the importance of social reconstruction through text-building once the people and land were reunited.[9] For this, I invoke Ben Zvi who argued that the concepts of “total exile” and “empty land” were put forth by the returnees and accepted by the remainees (for whom it was a counterfactual narrative) because they represented a continuation of common metaphors and grammars with which the community identified itself.[10] Presumably, this comforted anxieties about identity that had arisen in the period of exile by offering an identifying link to their collective past. While this functionalist approach is correct on one level and offers us insight into the process of community re-building as the land was repopulated and the temple was rebuilt, it doesn’t give us enough insight to what function an exilic gap might serve. Rather than, like Stott, trying to account for how the gap happened (eg. lost documents or amnesia), we need to continue the functionalist approach and look at it as its own narrative technique. What purpose did it serve and why was it used? The concept of the erasure is apt here, particularly when we consider that the post-exilic period was a literal (re)writing of the community narrative that took place upon return. Erasures function as words crossed out above other words, whose meanings are not exact but are necessary to fully comprehend what is written. In this construction, the gap or absence facilitates an understanding of the return or presence in a manner that would be less meaningful without it. The significance of the return could not be understood without knowledge of the exile, but the exile could not, in itself, be made present; its absence attests to the presence of return.

Much work remains to be done, particularly on a closer textual level, but the theoretical framework is made a lot clearer at this point. Instead of abandoning the inevitable trauma that displacement might have brought forth in those who were exiled and those who remained, it can be used to better understand a functionalist framework of text-(re)writing upon return, particularly when the form of the narrative crafted on return is considered at face value. Future points of contention that must be addressed are the transfer of traumatic story-telling from those exiled to the next generations of those returned (as they were, undoubtedly, not the same people), trauma of the remainees and how this problematized self-identification, and how counter-narratives that have surfaced might fit into this understanding. This will have to be discussed at another time.


Appendix A

Basso, Keith H “Wisdom Sits on Places: Notes on a Western Apache Landscape” in Senses of Place. Steven Feld and Keith H. Basso, eds. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 2001; 53-98.

Brace, Catherine, Adrian R. Bailey, and David C. Harvey. “Religion, Place and Space : A Framework for Investigating Historical Geographies of Religious Identities and Communities” in Progress in Human Geography Vol. 30:1, 2006; 28-43.

Coleman, Simon and John Eade, eds. Reforming Pilgrimage : Cultures in Motion. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.

De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984; 115-130.

Sheldrake, Philip. Spaces for the Sacred: Place, Memory, and Identity. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Smith, Jonathan Z. “In Search of Place.” In To Take Place. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987; 1-23.

Smith, Jonathan Z. “Here, There, and Anywhere.” In Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004; 323-339.

Tweed, Thomas A. “Crossing: The Kinetics of Itinerancy” in Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006; 123-163.

Works Cited and Referenced

Anderson, Nicole. Derrida: Ethics Under Erasure. Bloomsbury Studies in Continental Philosophy. 2012.

Basso, Keith H “Wisdom Sits on Places: Notes on a Western Apache Landscape” in Senses of Place. Steven Feld and Keith H. Basso, eds. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 2001; 53-98.

Ben Zvi, Ehud. “Total Exile, Empty Land and the General Intellectual Discourse in Yehud” in The Concept of Exile in Ancient Israel and its Historical Contexts. E. Ben Zvi and Christoph Levin, eds. Berlin/NY: de Gruyter, 2010, pp 155-168.

Carr, David M. “Reading into the Gap: Refractions of Trauma in Israelite Prophecy” in Interpreting Exile: Displacement and Deportation in Biblical and Modern Contexts, Brad Kelle, Frank Ritchel Ames, Jacob Wright, Eds. Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, p295 -307.

Darwish, Mahmoud. In the Presence of Absence. Poem XIV. Sinan Antoon, trans. Archipelago Books: Brooklyn, NY, 2011.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, trans. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1967.

Garber, David G. “A Vocabulary of Trauma in Exilic Writings” in Interpreting Exile: Displacement and Deportation in Biblical and Modern Contexts, Brad Kelle, Frank Ritchel Ames, Jacob Wright, Eds. Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, pp 309-22.

New International Version Study Bible. Ed. Kenneth L. Barker. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002. Online. http://www.biblegateway.com

Kirmayer, Laurence. “Landscapes of Memory : Trauma, Narrative and Dissociation” in Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory. Paul Antze and Michael Lambek, eds. Routledge: New York, 1996; 173-198.

LaCapra, Dominick. “Trauma, Absence, Loss” in Critical Inquiry. Summer 1999: 25, pp 696-727.

McNally, Richard J. “Debunking Myths About Trauma and Memory” in Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Nov 2005: 13, pp 817-22.

Rumfelt, Janet L. “Reversing Fortune: War, Psychic Trauma and the Promise of Narrative Repair” in Interpreting Exile: Displacement and Deportation in Biblical and Modern Contexts, Brad Kelle, Frank Ritchel Ames, Jacob Wright, Eds. Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, pp 323-42.


Stott, Katherine. “A Comparative Study of the Exilic Gap in Ancient Israelite, Messenian and Zionist Collective Memory” in Community Identity in Judean Historiography: Biblical and Comparative Perspectives. G.N.Knoppers and K.A Ristau, eds. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbraums, 2009, pp 41-58.


Trigg, Dylan. “The Place of Trauma: Memory, Hauntings and the Temporality of Ruins” in Memory Studies. January 2009: 2, pp 87-101.


Van Der Kolk, Bessel, and Onno Van Der Hart, “The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma” in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, Cathy Caruth, ed. John Hopkins U

[1] Darwish, Mahmoud. In the Presence of Absence. Poem XIV. Sinan Antoon, trans. Archipelago Books: Brooklyn, NY, 2011, p 111.

[2] It should be noted that for the purposes of space, I will assume the reader’s familiarity with many of the concepts in this analysis and will make use of citations for clarification where necessary.

[3] For a list of what I consider to be helpful sources regarding the primacy of place/space, please see appendix A.

[4] This is, in part due to her lack of exploration of key questions when the modern concept of trauma is applied theoretically and retrospectively to the ancient Judean community. An excellent negotiation of this anachronistic but provocative critical approach (especially from a linguistic perspective) is found in David G. Garber’s article “A Vocabulary of Trauma in Exilic Writings” in Interpreting Exile: Displacement and Deportation in Biblical and Modern Contexts, Brad Kelle, Frank Ritchel Ames, Jacob Wright, Eds. Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, pp 309-22.

[5] For further information, please see: McNally, Richard J. “Debunking Myths About Trauma and Memory” in Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Nov 2005: 13, pp 817-22. ; Van Der Kolk, Bessel, and Onno Van Der Hart, “The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma” in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, Cathy Caruth, ed. John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1995; 158-82.

[6] See: Carr, David M. “Reading into the Gap: Refractions of Trauma in Israelite Prophecy” in Interpreting Exile: Displacement and Deportation in Biblical and Modern Contexts, Brad Kelle, Frank Ritchel Ames, Jacob Wright, Eds. Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, p295 -307.

[7] For a deeper (but not without controversy) analysis of the multi-layered trauma of displacement in this specific context, please see Rumfelt, Janet L. “Reversing Fortune: War, Psychic Trauma and the Promise of Narrative Repair” in Interpreting Exile: Displacement and Deportation in Biblical and Modern Contexts, Brad Kelle, Frank Ritchel Ames, Jacob Wright, Eds. Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, pp 323-42.

[8] An interesting assessment of the effect of place, particularly ruins, on traumatic memory can be found here: Trigg, Dylan. “The Place of Trauma: Memory, Hauntings and the Temporality of Ruins” in Memory Studies. January 2009: 2, pp 87-101.

[9] Please see Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, trans. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1967.

[10] For the complete argument, please see Ben Zvi, Ehud. “Total Exile, Empty Land and the General Intellectual Discourse in Yehud” in The Concept of Exile in Ancient Israel and its Historical Contexts. E. Ben Zvi and Christoph Levin, eds. Berlin/NY: de Gruyter, 2010, pp 155-168.


world-religionsIn the Guide to the Study of Religion, the fourth chapter entitled “Comparison” by Luther H. Martin emphasizes the theoretical problems that surround the issue of comparison in the study of religions, how these problems have been dealt with by various scholars in multiple disciplinary approaches, and concludes by offering his suggestions for the future of scholarship in the field. While giving the guise of being a mere survey of the evolution of the study of religions in academia through time, the seasoned reader is, by no means, persuaded of his very directed, very rigorous attempt to resuscitate positivism into a methodology of study. In fact, with a few variations based on past mistakes, Martin puts forth a pseudo neo-positivism that claims that a scientific comparison of religion is not only possible, but the only way to study religion(s). The issues with Martin’s reform rests in his misunderstanding of post-modernism which he is quick to dismiss as being apologetic or overprotective of particularism and so descends into a kind of relativism from which no knowledge of value for the scholar can be gleaned (50). In this short analysis, I will show where Martin’s inadequate understanding and generalizations of the postmodern method take hold, particularly illuminating through a meditation on translation from Jonathan Z. Smith. Finally, I will borrow lessons from the study of Social Memory in order to offer the death knell for positivism with an order to not resuscitate (for once and for all) by engaging with the poor assumptions of Martin’s final proposals. What is missing from this text is a clear and concise postmodern-inspired methodology that functions for the scholar of religions as a replacement. While I see this as fundamentally necessary, the space constraints of this paper prevent me from formulating it here and I will have to be satisfied with arguing that point elsewhere. It should also be noted that any passing reference to post-modernity will be offered on a scholar-by-scholar basis as a comprehensive synthesis is not possible in this size of a paper.

Post Modernism Does Not Equal Pandering Relativism

An elementary observation by scholars who have only done cursory readings of postmodernist literature tend to assert that the final outcome of their theoretical understanding is relativism. This is because many postmodernists, especially Foucault, focus on the power of discourses to shape our “realities” (which do not ontologically exist or at least can never be accessed), including our ethical systems, and theoretical and scientific generalizations. However, it might be construed that “such well-meant attempts to preserve the integrity of “others”…has often result[ed] in a reiteration by paraphrase of what others say of themselves…” (50) In other words, Martin claims that by recognizing the differences in how people construct generalizations and categories for comparison, the analysis will be null and descriptive studies will be the result. This could not be further from the truth.

Jonathan Z. Smith is also quoted by Martin and is even cited as being the only scholar of religion to give sustained attention to the issue of comparison (45). Interestingly, Smith himself puts forth a criteria for comparative study that closely resembles what is proposed by postmodernism in general. While I do not claim to apply that label of “postmodernist” to him (something that might horrify), particularly after reading his book Imagining Religion in which he equates the act of comparison to that of conducting “magic” (in the derogatory sense of the term), it should be said, that some of what he argues for fits the methodology employed by some scholars in the postmodernist school of religious studies. A few examples of these scholars will be explored later.

In a lecture entitled “Why Compare Religions?” given at Princeton University in October 2003, Smith states that “the value of comparison [is] as an intrusive activity, one of methodical manipulation” (4). This is not something that can wished away by positivists – it is how things are: scholars manipulate. This is an action consciously built into the so-called scientific method itself. Like the postmodernists, Smith too argues that comparison “requires assuming responsibility for your work and… to make your workings so explicit that they can subsequently be undone”(5)[1]. In this assertion is the assumption that our scholarly analysis is necessarily subjective, personal, and temporal-spatial-culturally contextual which will shift over time among scholars to yield new mental frameworks that offer other methods or scopes of analysis and, subsequently, yield different results and values of results. Smith further goes on to argue that while comparison “entails difference if it is to be at all interesting [ie. of value in the pursuit of knowledge]” (7) and that “comparison requires difference and aims at difference” (9), he is not so quick to destroy the possibility of similarity. The idea is that for there to be difference, there must be some perceived form of similarity, even if on the most general, superficial level. While asserting ontological sameness for postmodernists is inherently problematic, this is not what Smith is doing here. Instead, Smith aptly recognize that there must be some degree of sameness to initiate comparison and that taking responsibility for your work lays in the recognition that “there is nothing ‘given’ or ‘natural’ in those elements selected for comparison, [that] they are the result of the scholar’s mental operations” (11-12). Does this mean that comparisons will be inherently descriptive and devoid of meaning? Absolutely not. As Smith said in this lecture and elsewhere, “religion’ and ‘religions’ [are] conceptual categories created for the scholar’s analytic purposes” (17) and when we compare them, we are necessarily engaging in an act of interpretation from our viewpoint.

Translation: The Only Essentialism is Difference

Smith channels Hans Penner and Donald Davidson in his lecture when he states that “to interpret means to translate,” (14) further noting that “translation recognizes, at the very heart of its enterprise, that nothing is ever quite the same” (Ibid). While this echoes the postmodernist assertions about an inherent incomparability of all things, I want to quote the sentences that followed because they are crucial to understanding how, then, interpretation can still take place. Rather than cower in the prehistoric corner of “the scientific method”, as Martin does, grabbing at his grossly inadequate security blanket of empiricism in the face of what can be overwhelming biological and philosophical plurality, Smith embraces this wholeheartedly and plunges forth into the diverse unknown. He claims, “translation can be congruent, its adequacy can be evaluated, it can be criticized, negotiated, and improved – but it cannot be identical, it cannot be complete, the relative difference cannot (finally) be overcome”(15). This is the centerpiece of postmodernism, which Martin was so quick to dismiss: difference will always be maintained but methodology is what changes and can be studied as elucidating some form of knowledge about either of the units compared, in light of the scholar comparing. Perhaps a quotation from the Preface of Patton and Ray’s anthology A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative Religion in Postmodernism would be most helpful in illustrating this point. The authours “reclaim the term ‘magic’ [from Smith] to endorse and extend his claim that comparison is an indeterminate scholarly procedure that is best undertaken as an intellectually creative enterprise, not as a science but as an art – an imaginative and critical act of mediation and redescription in the service of knowledge” (4). It is in the manipulation of difference, “ a playing across the “gap” of differences, for the purpose of gaining intellectual insight” (Ibid). Most provocative are the attempts in this volume to reimagine comparison as a form of “imaginative and ironical juxtaposition…as a way of stripping away illusions of ‘uniqueness’ for each religious situation” (Ibid). This stripping of uniqueness is not in the sense of removing particularism, which cannot be done, but rather some metaphysical understanding of uniqueness that qualifies one religion valuationally in comparison to another. For a succinct understanding of this idea, I will briefly turn to Theodore Adorno whose method of “constellating” (handed down from Benjamin and Giedion) is particularly provocative here, as defined by Martin Jay in meditations on Adorno’s work: “a juxtaposed, rather than integrated cluster of changing elements that resist reduction to a common denominator, essential core or generative first principle” (14-15). The argument that these are the only ways to derive meaning is absurd and begs the question of why people see the unifying or generalizing narrative as being more meaningful in the first place.

Lessons from Social Memory

Adorno is particularly well-loved in the emerging and evolving field of Social Memory – a field practically founded by postmodernists and engaging in historical, anthropological, sociological, psychological and other forms of analysis quite prominently in the Academy. In fact, many of the basic theoretical foundations in the field of social memory will help us to understand how their application in comparative religious studies might be of benefit in the pursuit of ethical knowledge – the last concept something I will explore briefly in the conclusion but which must be left for future debate elsewhere. For these purposes, I want to look at a text by Mario Liverani, Memorandum on the Approach to Historiographic Texts which echoes some of the sentiments of Smith. After establishing an understanding of a text (which could just as easily be applied to other items of analysis that are non-textual) “not as a ‘source of information’ but as information in itself; not as an opening on a reality laying beyond, but as an element which makes up that reality” (179). In this method, the importance is not placed on understanding events or elements that can be said to comprise a religion, “but on how they are narrated” (Ibid). This is further qualified by showing how the type of research that involves the examination of how peoples’ existential feelings and historical events correspond is all but impossible. It should be noted that ‘historical events’ can easily be replaced with ritual, religious belief or some other piece of ‘observable’ data. As Liverani succinctly puts it:

We are not in possession of the historical event, only of some interpretation of it: the views taken by the different actors and witnesses, and the opinions of the historians [or scholars of religion] who reconstruct [them] through those views… the concept of “historical event”, which in all cases implies a choice in interpretation, a way of understanding and presenting (185).[2]

Smith himself affirms this sentiment in his lecture, stating “we cannot compare ‘religions’ as if they were concrete objects. (After all, there are no existent genera)” (17) and despite violence that might be done as a result of comparison, it is definitively a human enterprise and must be carried out – “reflexively refined and critically deployed as a disciplinary tool, it can reveal as much about our practices as scholars as it may about the activities of other folk” (17-18).

The point about violence or harm is important for understanding, something that may have been misunderstood by Martin as well. In terms of radical postmodernist thought, there can be no discourse without potential violence or harm done to the terms studied as it will always necessitate some form of definition foreign to the object. I would argue that if harm can be done in such an instance, this is also the point where resistance can be found.[3]

Conclusions: The Final Death of Positivism?

If postmodern methodology is neither relativistic nor deluded by the idea that you could study anything in religion except an individual’s or group’s memory of its phenomena, and if postmodernism is not so hubristic as to claim an overcoming of inherent, insoluble difference between things compared, then what of positivism? What of Martin’s final prospects for the future of the act of comparison in religious studies? Near the end of his chapter, Martin claims that” formal, theoretically constructed generalizations about religion can finally be filled in or amplified with the data of particular religious traditions” and that such generalizations would also define the data (53). Though he concedes that this data makes a religion inherently unique for its participants, his framework is backwards. A close analysis of the data and its self-definitions juxtaposed against alternate data can yield the highly contextual generalizations, not the other way around. He claims that naturalistic theories “raise once again the Enlightenment proposal of human universals but without the metaphysical/theological assumptions” (55) – a point inherently problematic for postmodernists who, again, beg the question of what benefit there is in resurrecting universals if they have shown time and time again (whether metaphysical in their assumptions or not) to contain the seeds of oppression and misinformation. Far more interesting, is why we, as scholars, continuously feel the need to do so.


Sources Referenced and Cited

Coleman, Simon and John Eade, eds. Reframing Pilgrimage: Cultures in Motion. Routledge: London. 2004.

Critchley, Simon. The Ethics of Deconstruction. Blackwell Publishers: India. 1992.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish : The Birth of the Prison. Pantheon Books: New York. 1977.

Hirst, Aggie. “Derrida and Political Resistance: The Radical Potential of Deconstruction” in Globalizations, Vol 12:1, 2015, p 6-24

Liverani, Mario. “Memorandum on the Approach to Historiographic Texts” in Orientalia, Vol 42, 1973, p. 178-94.

Martin, Jay. Adorno. Harvard University Press. 1984.

Martin, Luther H. “Comparison” in Guide to the Study of Religion. Willi Braun and Russell . McCutcheon, eds. Cassell: London. 2000.

Patton, Kimberley and Benjamin Ray, Eds. A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative Religion in the Postmodern Age. University of California Press: Berkeley. 2000.

Smith, Jonathan Z. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. University of Chicago Press. 1982.

Smith, Jonathan Z. “Why Compare Religions?” Princeton University, October 2003. Conference in Honor of John F. Wilson.

[1] Note that the notion of ethical responsibility is considered a fundamental point of Derrida’s deconstructive methodology. For more meditations on this, I recommend Simon Critchley’s The Ethics of Deconstruction:Derrida and Levinas.

[2] An excellent example of the application of these ideas onto the actual study of some religious phenomena while still deriving legitimate meaning can be found in the Introduction of Coleman and Eade’s Reframing Pilgrimage: Cultures in Motion. For an analysis that employs some of these ideas, also see “On Social Memory and Identity Formation in Late Persian Yehud” by Ben Zvi.

[3] For an excellent, very recent analysis of this, please see Hirst, Aggie. “Derrida and Political Resistance: The Radical Potential of Deconstruction” in Globalizations, Vol 12:1, 2015, p 6-24. Hirst argues that resistance in the Neo-Gramscian and Foucauldian traditions “suffer from a common problem in that the forms of resistance they conceptualise are highly susceptible to appropriation by, or reinscription within, prevailing forms of global ordering…[however] inasmuch as deconstruction attempts to interrupt forms of thinking and knowing right up to and including processes of conscious and unconscious subjectification, it can provide valuable means by which the micro-gestures of onto-politics can be resisted at the (fundamentally interrelated) levels of political thought and concrete praxis.” While this is aimed at political activism, a similar argument can be made for activism through scholarship.