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From exceeding dark to joyous light

[ by Charles Cameron — via Strange Fruit and Jonestown, deviously wandering, to Merton and thence O Happy Day ]

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Let’s start with the exceeding dark, brilliantly brought to us by Billie Holiday:

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I got there via the phrase “strange fruit” — which cropped up without any overt reference to the song in an account of the aftermath of the Jonestown mass-suicide / murder in Guyana — Gaiutra Bahadur‘s The Jonestown We Don’t Know in the NYRB.

A sapling had lifted a child’s patent leather shoe off the ground like “strange fruit that some rare and exotic plant had produced.”

As I tweeted on reading this, “shades of Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root” — Ms. Bahadur responded, “I also thought of this song when I read those lines” to which I replied, “I’m betting Jan Carew. was conscious of it, too.” — Jim Carew being one of Ms. Bahadur‘s sources and the grandson of the Carib chief who had observed Jonestown from its inception to its post-destruction, albeit invisible to the participants from the fringes of the forest surrounding Jim Jones‘ settlement.. “I agree, he probably was” Ms Bahadur commented in closing out our little Twitter ping-pong.

Ms. Bahadur is a vivid raconteur.

Here’s more on the Carib chief, his grandson Carew, and Jonestown from her marvelous piece and those forest fringes:

Jonestown was built in the Kaituma region, heartland of the Caribs, who had dispersed to various islands from their historical homeland in Guyana over centuries. Named after the river running through it, Kaituma means Land of the Everlasting Dreamers..

With candle flies in bottles to light the way, I walked amongst their dead. They’d died in circles, like worshippers around invisible altars

the old man recounted singing Carib death-songs among the suicide victims. The elder explained that he was calling on the homeless spirits of the Americans to reconcile with the ancestral Carib dead, because they had never asked for permission to share the land

and:

Carew reflected that if anyone understood mass suicides, it was the Caribs, whose mythology marks sites across the Caribbean islands where they jumped from cliffs to their deaths rather than accept slavery at the hands of European colonizers..

I hope you can appreciate with me the poetry to be seen in these quotes.. dark though the Jonestown tragedy indeed was..

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Here’s how I was taking this: it seemed like another glimpse, from another angle, of the rich stew of religions bleeding into everything and blossoming anew where the Americas meet, that I’d mentioned in a tweet the day before — a tweet I was, let me admit, just a wee bit proud of:

For the record, far & away most fascinating, explosive area of religious studies these days is the cross-border Mexico-USian folk-syncretic part-narco-theological terrain, Santa Muerte, Templarios cartel &c, studied by Andrew Chesnut, Kate Kingsbury, Robert Bunker and David Metcalfe, with more doctorates between them than I can count.

and here’s my follow-up:

Life lives at the intersection of cultural anthropology, comparative religion & depth psychology — not studied as three separate fields, but as one breathing whole, since the drivers of human actions found at that hermetic crossroads are among the most radical, powerful for change

These have been a rich couple of days for my stumbling onto materials of this sort.

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Here are some more mythico-anthro-religious quotes of keen interest — two concerning the Northern Lights:

In ancient China and Europe, the auroras were dragons and serpents, flitting around in the night. In Scandinavian folklore, they were the burning archway that allowed gods to move between heaven and Earth.

and:

According to Sami mythology, spirits are present in everything, from rocks and trees, foxes and reindeer, and the northern lights in the sky.

Those quotes are from what’s ostensibly an Atlantic “science” article, An Ancient Tradition Unfolds in New York, subtitled “The recent light show over the city tapped into a deep vein in human culture”. The city, here, is New York. Is it always?

Neil Kent, The Sámi Peoples of the NorthA Social and Cultural History.

Next up, from another source:

their camouflage is so perfectly tuned that they appear ethereal, as though made from storm clouds

Who they? Rangers? SEALs? Storm clouds themselves? the Fay? Angels? –Who knows? I’ll give you a hint — Peter Matthiessen. Beautiful, no? who or whatever they are..

And then there’s Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, priest, hermit, writer, world traveler, on his final journey from Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky to visit his Buddhist monastic equivalents in Thailand…

I dreamed I was, temporarily, back at Gethsemani. I was dressed in a Buddhist monk’s habit

Merton’s, i suppose, was one of my poet transmissions, delivered by letter. I was just two days into 21 at the time., more than a half century ago.

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We’re getting lighter, time to close these files and give you the final video.

Jonestown was gruesome with its strange fruit, lynchings, lynchings and lynchings likewise. It is, I surmise, the depth of our griefs and wounds that allows in us an equal height of joy — as though our griefs hollow us, and thus we can be filled with joy..

Within the profundity of Billie Holiday mourning, then, let us find the possibility Ray Charles embodies in his song, O Happy Day:

One Response to “From exceeding dark to joyous light”

  1. Charles Cameron Says:

    Dr Chesnut, chair of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, commented:

    I think there’s a certain dialectic between grief and joy in which each is experienced to the fullest because of having felt the other

    I couldn’t agree more — that’s the essence of this post in a nutshell.

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