The admissions essay I wrote for the Master of Museum Studies program at the University of Toronto – where I begin my studies, remotely, next week! We were asked to discuss an issue the contemporary museum faces.
John Berger writes of the plasticity of the image:
Now appearances are volatile. Technological innovation has made it easy to separate the apparent from the existent. And this is precisely what the present system’s mythology continually needs to exploit. It turns appearances into refractions, like mirages: refractions not of light but of appetite, in fact a single appetite, the appetite for more. (11–12)
Years ago, Plato called the image trouble in the Republic, and things have just got tougher since then. Now we have deepfakes. Now algorithms construct photographs of faces that never were. Meanwhile, other algorithms surveil actual faces in the streets of London, Beijing, and cross-reference them with our browsing histories and GPS location data. Berger called it the New World Economic Order, and frames it here as a crisis of the seen, a crisis in which all of us who live by the image, artists, designers, museums, archives, are implicated.
The U.S. National Archives are right now feeling heat for altering an image of the 2017 Women’s March, “so as not to engage in current political controversy” (Kennicott), an irony that would be hilarious if the stakes weren’t so high. Only in the high flood of images we move through could so crude a change ever have hoped to go unnoticed. Having been found and called out though it’s not neutralized: a manipulation doesn’t have to be effective to have effect. The change made here forgets the disinterestedness that should be an archive’s first principle, and that itself is a blow to the body politic.
Meanwhile, artists are doing, museums showing, work that investigates the image, what it does, and how, and to what end. At the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2015, Xu Bing’s Unscrolled made the thinghood of its picture manifest. You walk up to a luminous Chinese landscape, then around it to see the dreck it was made from, fir branches, cigarette butts, with florescent lightbulbs framing it. What seems a picture of somethingfar off actually is some thingsright there: debris arranged in a fully exposed act of illusion-making. Another piece in the exhibit, Sun Xun’s Cosmos, put you in an oblong room with four animations of diverse styles on walls Sun had also inscribed with calligraphy ink. I was pinned through my head to a fifth wall not there to see. Usually, we take an image to be representation at a distance. Sun’s work made the image a construction you are inside. My verb tenses are liquid here because the image is always present tense.
In my life I’ve gone three places to learn the world—books, universities, museums. Having spent my professional life so far writing books and teaching university classes, I’m hungry now for new ways to tackle the questions always at churn in me. What is an image? What does the physical book mean in a digital age? How does a museum founded on colonial premises decolonize itself? I have lots more. I don’t want to write essays or devise classes on them—I want to do deep, multi-modal, immersive, real-time inquiries, where I’m not the subject or main investigator, but a facilitator, and the gorgeous shapely tangle that results is open to public view and participation.
My writing and teaching have got me this far. As an artist, I see an exhibition as a second-order artwork, an assemblage of artworks, documents, ephemera, framing materials, made real by being together in a place. As a teacher, I see one as a many-tiered, experiential syllabus, with diverse modes and materials at play in an immersive, experiential environment. When I learn more about exhibitions, these notions may fall away as naïve. I won’t lose my sense that a good exhibition gives a moving, collaborative shape to cultural intelligence.
I want to foster culture in this new-to-me way. And I want to learn how in your pro-gram, more than any other I’ve researched or applied to. I’m drawn by the broad training you offer, also by your strengths in my areas of interest, exhibition design, museum education, curation. I’m buoyed by the thought of an internship under your faculty’s guidance; when I visited, I was taken with many things, but most impressed by how conscientiously you guide students toward their professional roles. And I’m drawn, as a writer, translator, and editor, by your relationship to the Book History and Print Culture program. I don’t know if I’ll end up in a small museum, doing a bit of everything, or at a large institution in a specialized role, creating exhibits, say, of ancient papyri or early modern incunabula, but I believe your program offers the best preparation I could hope for.
Berger, John. The Shape of a Pocket. Vintage, 2001.
Kennicott, Phillip. “The National Archives Used to Stand for Independence. That Mission Has Been Compromised.” Washington Post, 18 Jan 2020.
Plato. The Republic. ca. 380 BCE. Translated by G.M.A. Grube. Hackett, 1992.
Sun Xun. Cosmos. Vancouver Art Gallery, Unscrolled: Reframing Tradition in Chinese Contemporary Art, 2014–2015.
Xu Bing. Unscrolled. Vancouver Art Gallery, Unscrolled: Reframing Tradition in Chinese Contemporary Art, 2014–2015.
The image up top, though it bears the weight of Plato’s Cave Allegory, is massless & easily thieved. I took it from this discussion of the allegory as it pertains to screenwriters.
In a couple of weeks I’ll begin a Master’s in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto. Need an outlet for my nervous excitement! So I’m posting a few essays I wrote during the application process.
This is the admissions essay I wrote for the University of Washington’s Museology program. (Everyone I met there was lovely & I wish I could take two programs at once.) We were asked to respond to a museum trend discussed in the 2019 issue of TrendsWatch, & I wrote on decolonization.
When Christopher Columbus landed on the island now called Hispaniola, he wrote home in wonder. The forests of Guanahaní, he told his royal patrons, were “the greatest wonder in the world.” “Divine Majesty,” he wrote, “ha[d] marvellously bestowed all this” on the Spanish Empire. The island inhabitants were “marvellously timorous” (Greenblatt 68–76 passim, all emphases added). Columbus drew his starry-eyed discourse of the marvellous, by which he dispossessed the Taíno of their lands, from medieval European sources: travelogues, encyclopaedias, bestiaries. John Mandeville, for instance, at the court of the Chinese Emperor: “And then come jugglers and enchanters, that do many marvels; for they make to come in the air, by seeming, the sun and the moon to every man’s sight” (155). When Columbus set sail, the West’s take on marvels and monstrosities in foreign lands had already been museological—awestruck, analytical, acquisitive—for centuries.
Finding little gold, fewer spices, Columbus caught several Arawak to take home as exhibits—the first of many persons to be installed in display cases they bore on their own backs. Guido Abbattista:
“While not all of these people were transported for exhibition purposes, the idea of exhibiting them was never very far away, even when the primary role of the non-Europeans was that of informers, apprentice interpreters, future guides and intermediaries, or guinea pigs for Europeanization experiments.” (n.p., emphasis added)
Museums are, as a recent article in TrendsWatch makes clear, a colonial construct. Some own works taken from occupied territory; some use classification schemes indebted to racist pseudo-science; some preserve power structures held over from colonial administration (“Confronting the Past” 25–27). But we should also say, colonialism is a museum construct. If explorers at their difficult, dangerous, and often (early on) profitless work had not stirred fully-formed museological longings at home—longings to marvel at, to label and classify, to collect and preserve, even at the cost of deracinating—the colonial project might not have got off the ground. From the start, a museological frame, built of shining gestalts and occult dreams, gave the colonial project a form, diverse forms.
TrendsWatch describes the vital work of decolonizing the museum: repatriating artifacts, ensuring representation for indigenous parties, telling the truth about past and present injustices (29–30). But in settler colonialism, we all have a museum inside, an invisible structure of labels, taxonomies, acquisition practices, preservation tactics. And if that reckless, sweeping claim is right, then to decolonize the museum must also mean, to use a phrase from Aimé Césaire (31), decolonizing the mind.
When I ask myself how a museum might decolonize its mind, the questions come out like riddles. What’s a museum that doesn’t fret to conserve its holdings? (I think of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.) What’s a museum run by its most disempowered stakeholders? (Recall Guattari’s clinic at La Borde.) A museum managed without internal hierarchy? a museum that makes no acquisitions? a museum that occupies no land anywhere? A museum-without-walls guides its guests from site to site by GPS locator. A museum-of-other-senses commissions sculptures, soundworks, & olfactory landscapes, hire docents hard of sight to guide, & turn out the lights, dethroning the imperious gaze …
In response to a white student, active in local protests & passionate about that work, exhausted by it, & frightened by white supremacists in the street & SWAT teams on the roofs nearby, asking that, in consideration of the enormous strain students are under, and so that they can focus on what’s important right now, I cancel the final exam for the whole class.
I appreciate your sincere and heartfelt words, and I do take them seriously. We need your passion and commitment if crucial changes are going to be made to our unjust, unequal society.
For reasons I’ll try to lay out briefly here, I’m not going to cancel the final. But I can offer you the same accommodation I offered to BIPOC students in our class.
If you feel unable to write the final next week, we’ll have you make it up at another time. That may mean taking an Incomplete (K grade) and getting the work to me after the quarter is done. The make-up would be a short critical essay (1000 words) on ONE of the final essay topics. I’d be reading and grading this essay as finished essay, not as in-class writing, but if you are taking the P/NP option, you wouldn’t need to stress about that.
So why am I not cancelling the final, though it would mean a lot less work for me?
We’re in four simultaneous crises right now: pandemic, economic downturn, systemic racism, and fascist upsurge. You’re out on the street fighting the third. I’m insisting on these standards as resistance to the fourth.
One strategy of fascists, whether they’re on the rise or actually in power, is to attack independent institutions – universities especially. One kind of attack, and this can begin well before a state has become fully authoritarian, is to make it more difficult for us to conduct our business. Instructors, departments, administrations, students too, are put in positions where they have to cut corners, compromise; or just where it would be easier to.
And cancelling the final exam would be a compromise, because it would degrade your education by a little. Studying for an exam, writing an exam, helps students consolidate their learning over the course. Remove the exam, the course is a lesser experience.
If I did what you ask, out of my concern for my students’ anxiety and stress, I’d be giving you a short-term relief, at a long-term cost.
And the cost goes beyond the students themselves to the university as a whole. One instructor would have, because of violent cops and far-right paramilitaries, offered less to, and asked less of, his students. Fascist takeover is the sum of ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million such compromises.
I want to assist your fight against police brutality and systemic racism. I want also to remember what resistance to fascism requires. So instead of cancelling the exam, I offer an equivalent.
There’s a petition going round, asking instructors at my school to cancel finals for our courses, for Black and POC students in particular, or just for everyone, this quarter.
Here’s what I wrote back to the class as a whole.
I’ve received a couple of e-mails asking that, in consideration of the pressures students across the country are under – in particular Black and other POC students – I cancel the final exam for this course.
Having seen the same petition on change.org a few days ago, I’ve had some time to think about the question.
I want to tell you, first, I don’t believe in grades. I hate what they do in us, and to us. Grading is a system we’re inducted in from early childhood, before we can say no to it, that tells us our worth can be measured on a scale.
It’s a terrible thing to tell a person. It serves power, not human beings. Your worth is real, beyond measure. You’re perfect, and there’s nothing wrong, nothing missing.
That’s the place I’m coming from. And so if I had my way, I wouldn’t grade you at all, and our time together would be given to free disinterested inquiry, in a space of mutual respect, compassion, and fiery dispute.
However, I don’t teach at Black Mountain College, or Evergreen State. The structure you and I are in, it calls itself Western Washington University, insists I grade you.
And so, I grade, so that I can teach at all. Hoping that as we go I can invite you to some detachment around grading. Hoping I can grade in a way that spurs learning – of the material, and of appreciation for yourself, your own powers, and your peers, their powers.
Any graded assignment in a course of mine is graded so as to aid learning. Actually, the grade is incidental. If the grade motivates you, do it for the grade. If you don’t care what grade you get – and I hope you don’t – do it for the intrinsic interest of the material, out of your own passion for learning, growing, testing yourself.
Coming back (were you worried I might not?) to the request.
The final exam is not for a grade; the grade is only to focus your mind, your effort. The real point of the final is to consolidate your learning. The studying you do for the exam, the work of writing the exam under some pressure, sinks your learning deeper into you. It helps your free, lively, creative engagement with the material stay with you. It helps the course, everything we took on together, last beyond the end of the quarter.
I’m not going to cancel the final. It’s the culmination of the course, where you draw together everything you’ve learned to a single focused light that illuminates – you, to yourself.
Please, please, do not write the final to please or impress me. Write it to show yourself what you got.
Western created the Pass/No Pass option to invite you to this mindset. That’s why I’ve encouraged students to take it. It acknowledges how extraordinary & difficult the moment we’re in is, and should relieve the pressure you may feel to perform.
If you take the P/NP option, all you have to do to pass the final is show up, and tell me your take on the plays. Don’t stress about it. Be easy on yourself, and when it’s time to do it, just do it.
All that said . . . if you truly feel unable to write the final, e-mail me. Use your own language – not a template, someone else’s eloquence. I’ll take you seriously if you do. I can’t just exempt you from the final (would you respect me, or yourself, if I did?) but I will work with you on alternatives. It would probably mean taking an Incomplete, and finishing the course when you feel able to.
Thanks for reading this far. I wanted to take this request seriously, as a measure of what students are going through right now. Ah, well, we all are.
We are watching a full blown assault on American democracy.
The coronavirus pandemic, which might have seemed to doom Trump to electoral defeat, is providing cover for a renewed attack on democratic norms, practices, institutions, values. Trump has the aid of lackeys in his Cabinet, enablers in Congress, allies he placed in the courts, racist & brutal police forces, and armed paramilitary groups committed to white supremacy & the breakdown of civil society.
Here, because we need it, is Timothy Snyder’s “20 Lessons from the 20th Century on How to Survive in Trump’s America,” as published on November 21, 2016. (It grew into a book which you can get here.) I’ve formatted it to emphasize bits that seem extra salient to me.
If you don’t feel up for marching (no. 10) there are 19 other things here you can do.
Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are 20 lessons from across the fearful 20th century, adapted to the circumstances of today.
1. Do not obey in advance.
Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.
2. Defend an institution.
Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.
3. Recall professional ethics.
When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.
4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words.
Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.
5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.
6. Be kind to our language.
Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the Internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps The Power of the Powerless by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.
7. Stand out.
Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange
to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Andthe moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.
8. Believe in truth.
To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.
Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.
10. Practice corporeal politics.
Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.
11. Make eye contact and small talk.
This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.
12. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.
13. Hinder the one-party state.
The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.
14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can.
Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.
15. Establish a private life.
Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the Internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.
16. Learn from others in other countries.
Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.
17. Watch out for the paramilitaries.
When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.
18. Be reflective if you must be armed.
If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)
19. Be as courageous as you can.
If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.
20. Be a patriot.
The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for
the generations to come. They will need it.
One more voice note on Inanna’s story – for my mythology and literature class.
If you’d like to hear it in my halting voice:
“The Descent of Inanna”
The story of Inanna’s descent has correlates in other mythologies you may be more familiar with. The descent of Persephone to the underworld and her mother Demeter’s search for her. Also the death of Eurydice and her lover Orpheus’s effort to rescue her from the underworld. Both of those Greek myths, of course, that had elaborate cultic practices surrounding them.
Dumuzi has many correlates as well. He is what the Victorian anthropologist Sir James Frazer called “the dying-and-rising god.” Figures to whom Dumuzi bears at least a passing resemblance include the Green Knight, of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Dionysus, the god of wine, associated with the grape stock. If you’ve seen a grapevine, you can cut the vine all the way back down to a stump in the earth, and in spring it will spring forth with new green, and soon grow so luxuriantly that it covers and buries your fence, your other plantings, your car, your driveway. I say this having watched the behavior of my neighbours’.
Dumuzi’s most surprising cousin though is Jesus Christ. We just celebrated, or saw others celebrate, the death and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Consider that Christ comes among us with a proposal of new and renewed spiritual life; is put to death; and, in the early spring, He is, by divine power, brought back to life. One understanding of the figure of Jesus Christ is that He is a descendant of the dying-and-rising gods with which the Ancient Near East was full to overflowing.
If that sounds outlandish to you, like I’m just making too much of a coincidental resemblance, consider as well that Jesus Christ, in the three days between his death and his resurrection, journeys, according to Catholic theology, to Hell – a part of His story known as the Harrowing of Hell. He’s reputed while down there to have saved the souls of those who died righteous but could not journey to Heaven, being unbaptized. So – death, a hell journey, then rebirth in the spring. And the period Christ spends in the underworld, the Harrowing of Hell, is named for an agricultural implement: a harrow is used in the cultivation of a field.
The galla climbed the reed fence.
The first galla struck Dumuzi on the cheek with a piercing nail,
The second galla struck Dumuzi on the other cheek with the shepherd’s crook,
The third galla smashed the bottom of the churn,
The fourth galla threw the drinking cup down from its peg,
The fifth galla shattered the urn,
The sixth galla shattered the cup,
The seventh galla cried:
Husband of Inanna, son of Sirtur, brother of Geshtinanna!
Rise from your false sleep!
Your ewes are seized! Your lambs are seized!
Your goats are seized! Your kids are seized! …
The galla seized Dumuzi.
They surrounded him.
They bound his hands. They bound his neck.
The churn was silent. No milk was poured.
The cup was shattered. Dumuzi was no more.
The sheepfold was given to the winds.
(He’s broken up like wheat getting threshed. Reading it, I feel the way I think Christians are meant to on Good Friday about the Crucifixion. Oh and “Easter” appears to come from “Ishtar” – Inanna’s successor in the Fertile Crescent.)
Turning to the poem itself. One question here is why. Why does Inanna “open her ear” to the Great Below? Why does she decide to leave everything she knows and is queen of behind, to journey to this place that is hostile to her, inimical to her? She gives an explanation to Neti the gatekeeper to be passed on to her sister. Oh, I’m here to observe the funeral rites for your husband, the Bull of Heaven. I don’t think that goes too far as an explanation. It may or may not be true. It could be a feint, a dodge. It could be legit, but even if it’s a reason that she’s headed there, it’s not the reason that she’s headed there.
How might we read into the deeper layers of the myth, to learn what motivates this harrowing journey into the unknown and the unformed? One hint may be in the first three lines
From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below.
From the Great Above the goddess opened her ear to the Great Below.
From the Great Above Inanna open her ear to the Great Below.
“Ear” in Sumerian also means “wisdom.” The ear is the seat of wisdom. How does the poem change if we read “wisdom” where “ear” is printed?
From the Great Above she opened her wisdom to the Great Below.
From the Great Above the goddess opened her wisdom to the Great Below.
From the Great Above Inanna open her wisdom to the Great Below.
I think it’s also important that she adorns herself, or protects herself, or prepares herself, by donning seven of the me, which in this poem are garments; remembering that the me are the powers of civilization. Can we infer more about what her motive is, what her mission is, from these acts of preparation? And I’ll leave it to you, what other moments in this poem can we look to for hints, clues, cues, keys, to what is going on for Inanna, beyond her stated reason for this road trip.
Having just read you the intensely repetitive opening three lines, I’m brought back to the question, What is up with all the repetition? What is it here for? A listener’s just not trusted to get it the first time? or even the second time? or is there some meaning or purpose behind all of these reiterations? Remember, these poems, which we read on the page in a literature classroom, were not originally intended for silent solitary reading and literary appreciation. These were poems that didn’t just say something, but did something. These were liturgies, hymns but in story form, meant to make contact with the divine figures whose stories they were relating.
So there’s a religious purpose to them, a spiritual purpose. Having such a purpose, the work needs and wants to affect, you could say alter, the consciousness, the form of awareness, of the listener, the participant in the rite. As you encounter the repetitions, take them in, read them out loud to yourself, and see how they sound in your ear, see how they resonate in your body as you articulate the sounds. There’s not a lot of new meaning in a repeated line, the words don’t change much. But something may happen on a non-verbal, physiological plane, important to the effect of the poem.
The poem probably wants for us to identify with Inanna, so that we’re not just reading about her journey to the underworld, but participating in her journey to the underworld. We in a sense become Inanna. The whole time I’ve been recording this voice note there has been a doe and her fawn in my backyard, munching away at the flowers on my blackcurrant bush. What that has to do with Inanna, I don’t know, but it seems like it signifies.
All right, so, Inanna’s motivation, and the role of the repetition in inducing states of mind or consciousness in a reader or participants in the poem. The last thing I want to draw your attention to is the minor characters in the poem – the figures of the galatur, and the kurgarra, and the galla demons.
We get certain details about them that set them at a distance or a remove from ordinary human social interaction. The galla have no mothers or fathers, or brothers or sisters or children, they eat no food, they take no drink, they accept no libations. They do not participate in the usual give-and-take between the human realm and the divine realm. And the kurgarra and the galatur, what details do we have about them? They are created from gunk scraped from underneath the fingernails of the god of the sweetwaters, Enki.
What do we make of that? What is the gunk under the fingernails of the god of the sweetwaters? Why would that be good raw material for these mysterious creatures? They are creatures neither male nor female, so they don’t participate in the usual Sumerian gender binary, and that seems to give them unusual powers. They can enter the underworld “like flies,” and they have a capacity for – empathy? deceit? both? – depending on how genuine you think their commiseration with Ereshkigal is. But they get the job done, and they get it done well. They play her: they play the Queen of the Underworld, which is not a safe game to play, or an easy game to win.
Last thing I’ll note then, is that these two are like flies, and they are essential to the rescue of Inanna. An actual fly is crucial to the rescue, or the discovery, the recovery of Dumuzi. So what’s up with the little pesky buglike creatures, showing up at these crucial moments in this sequence? What do you associate a fly with, and what’s a fly got to do with a fertility myth?
Another voice note for my Mythology and Literature class, on the goddess Inanna’s choice of a mate, and the meaning of their meeting. Lightly edited, like the last one. If you’d rather listen than read, here you are:
“The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi”
A thought first more generally about what myth is, what our relationship to myth is.
It’s tempting to think of myth as something other people in other times have done and made, in order to give order and structure to their world. We might think that, given now to a scientific worldview, to empirical procedures for understanding how human beings work, how human societies work, how the cosmos at large works, on the greatest possible scale of stars and galaxies, the minutest possible scale of subatomic particles, that we’re no longer doing mythology – that mythology is something that we can see from the outside, from a remove, and gaze upon with interest, maybe some amusement, maybe a bit of condescension or admiration or nostalgia, depending on our disposition.
I want to suggest to you a different perspective though. That perspective begins from the notion that it’s only other people’s myths that look like myths. Your own myths don’t look like myths to you, they look like axioms. Let me note for you a couple of things that are very much part of our worldview, and that, if we see them from bit of a remove, may look more myth-like than we have been given to think.
The past. The future. Neither the past nor the future has any objective existence. Nowhere will you find the past, not even the instant that just passed. Nowhere will you find and be able to present the future; it does not exist anywhere. The past and the future are constructs of human mind. Our belief in them is so foundational that most of the rest of our beliefs depend upon them to even make sense at all.
I submit to you, the past and future, along a linear timeline as we conceive of them, are mythic, in that they are foundational, and they are collaborative constructs – nobody can make a myth on their own – collaborative constructs of our cultural imagination. And one mark that it’s myth is that we recoil from the suggestion that it’s “just a myth.”
So, if a myth is a world-arranging story, and the figures in the myths we’re looking at are animate, they’re characters, how then do we think about this reading for today, “The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi”? It’s more than just a boy and a girl meeting, flirting, fighting, and then getting it on. That’s just the surface.
We can ask what it is in the world of the Sumerians that this myth has the power to arrange, to put in order. Inanna is the goddess of love, of war, though I don’t think she’s prominent in that function here, of love and fecundity and increase. Also she has at her disposal the me, the gifts or powers of civilization. Dumuzi is the god of the vegetation, of the spring, of rebirth. He’s the classical dying-and-rising god; and in some contexts he was also the god of shepherds, a pastoral god, which explains his epithet, “the shepherd.” So what does it mean that the goddess of increase, herself, and the god of vegetation, himself, are getting it on?
Well, we can look at the terms in which their getting-it-on is expressed. You may have noticed the abundance of nature imagery, of agricultural metaphor. Fortunately this is just audio, so you can’t see me blushing as I read. Inanna is speaking:
My vulva, the horn,
The boat of Heaven,
Is full of eagerness like the young moon.
My untilled land lies fallow.
So there’s the agricultural dimension.
As for me, Inanna,
Who will plow my vulva,
Who will plow my high field?
Who will plow my wet ground?
It’s all thoroughly subsumed to this agricultural metaphor, of the sexual act as an act of well, farming, of planting seed that will then grow. The word “semen” is from the Latin word for “seed,” by the way. A little further on, we’re hearing from the narrator again:
At the king’s lap stood the rising cedar.
Plants grew high by their side.
Grains grew high by their side.
Gardens flourished luxuriantly.
Almost as if their sexual union either causes new abundance and growth in the natural world, or isone in the same as the abundance of spring, new growth, in the natural world – the world of nature that surrounds them, and the agricultural world, the fields that sustain the cities of Mesopotamia, the fields in which the natural world has been domesticated, put to human use. The fruit of their union is the whole of the green earth.
Putting natural increase in terms of sexual union allows human beings to participate in natural and cosmic processes, and not just to participate in them, but in fact to influence them. The world-arranging story that is a myth has a place in it for the human teller of the story. And in fact one thing to watch for as we encounter the myths of a number of different cultures over this course is, what kind of place does the myth give to the human participants? Are human beings made focal and central, or are they one presence co-equal among many? The Haida term for human being, according to Robert Bringhurst, the translator of Ghandl, whom we’ll be reading some weeks from now, is “ordinary surface bird.” Puncturing perhaps human pretensions to a special role in the cosmos.
A passage from a book called The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, on ceremonial observances around Inanna and Dumuzi’s marriage, I think sheds further light on the role this myth played in the cultural life of at least one of the Sumerian city-states. This is about the city of Isin:
[The City] celebrated yearly the marriage of the goddess Inanna to the god Dumuzi or Tammuz…. Since the goddess is an incarnation of the fertility of nature, and her husband, the shepherd-god Dumuzi, incarnates the creative powers of spring, it is understandable that this annual union of god and goddess signifies and is the reawakening of nature in spring.
Notice that dual verb – it signifies the reawakening of nature in spring, it also is the reawakening of nature in spring. The author, Thorkild Jacobsen, continues:
In the marriage of these deities the fertility and the creative powers of nature themselves become manifest. But why, we may ask, should human servants of the gods, the human ruler and – so it seems – a priestess, transcend their human status, take on the identity of the deities Dumuzi and Inanna, and go through their marriage? For this is what took place in the rites.
You got that? Every year, early spring, the king of the city takes on the role of Dumuzi, the high priestess of the temple takes on the role of Inanna, and in a ritual I believe most of whose details are lost to us, they, in those roles as god and goddess, consummated the marriage that ensured the return of natural abundance in spring.
Why does it make sense to them to do this? Jacobsen speculates:
The answer to that question lies back … in a remote prehistoric age when the gods were not yet anthropomorphic rulers of states and cities but were still directly the phenomena of nature. In those days man’s attitude was not merely one of passive obedience; it called for active intervention, as it does among many [quote unquote] primitives today. It is one of the tenets of mythopoetic logic that similarity and identity merge: “to be like” is as good as “to be.” Therefore, by being like, by enacting the role of, a force in nature, a god, man could in the cult enter into and clothe himself with the identity of these powers, with the identity of the gods, and through his own actions … cause the powers involved to act as he would have them act. By identifying himself with Dumuzi, the king is Dumuzi; and similarly the priestess is Inanna – our texts clearly state this. Their marriage is the marriage of the creative powers of spring. Thus through a willed act of man is achieved a divine union wherein is the all-pervading, life-giving re-creative potency upon which depends, as our texts tell us, “the life of all lands.” (198–99)
Okay, that’s a lot. All that is to say, the sexy bits are not just to make readers or listeners hot and bothered. They have a profound cosmological function: they make human beings participants in the generative powers of nature and the cosmos.
The image atop, left to right, like in a news photo, where protestors are:
Inanna, winged, with arrows for shoulders
Utu, sun god, he comes bladed out of the hill
Enki, god of the fresh waters, his shoulders running with fish
Isimud, Enki’s vizier, two-faced
Pound read myth as if it were the morning paper (Don Revell). Remember papers? The colour in it, Inanna’s joy, is from a pot I left on the hot stove & it cooked dry.
In twenty years of teaching I never really learned to lecture. I prefer to learn what I think in the moment in collaboration with my students. Even in large courses, meant to be lecture classes, I work mostly by Socratic discussion. But Zoom and the like are too slow and rigid for that sort of work. So, in this pandemic spring, I’ve had to broaden my game.
Every week or two, I’ve posted for my students a “voice note” – a mini-lecture, basically, that I record off the cuff, or from a few lines of notes, and upload. With the quarter winding down, and these materials vanishing in the rearview mirror, I thought I’d transcribe and post them here.
This is the first voice note for my ENG 339 Mythology and Literature class – on two texts in Diane Wolkstein & Samuel Noah Kramer’s Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth. In transcribing, I’ve edited very lightly, and added in some of the primary text.
You’ll see that my goal is less to provide answers than to stir questions. Here is the note if you would rather listen.
“Inanna and the God of Wisdom”
I should say at the outset I’m not going to try to define myth or mythology for you. I would like rather for us to arrive at definitions gradually as the evidence of our perceptions accumulates. Any definition I give you now is bound to be partial and incomplete and is likely to shortchange you by reducing the scope of your possible readings.
I’ll say just one thing, maybe it’s two things, to characterize myth. A myth is a supercharged story – a story that radiates meaning, radiates meaningfulness. And in part that’s because a myth is a story that has the power of explanation to it. It has the power, for its adherents, to explain how something came to be, or how certain arrangements in the world came to be the way they are. So a myth is not for entertainment, though we may find them entertaining when they become literature, or movies. A myth in its original context is an act of worldmaking.
So, looking at Inanna’s first text, “The Huluppu-Tree.” Inanna is the Sumerian goddess of love, and of war, and in some contexts of increase, of fertility. In this poem, we have her as a young woman, and we see some of the characteristic features of Sumerian myth right from the outset. The opening lines:
In the first days, in the very first days,
In the first nights, in the very first nights,
In the first years, in the very first years,
In the first days when everything needed was brought into being,
In the first days when everything needed was properly nourished,
If you read them aloud yourself, what you cannot help but hear is the intensity of the patterning and repetition. And it might seem hard to move the story forward, when the language is so bent on circling back on itself and saying itself over again with the slightest of modifications. Hold that in mind – the question of what the myth is, the mythology is up to, with these repetitions, these circlings back.
And those repetitions have a graceful resemblance, if you look at the image on the facing page, it looks like a fragment of an image of somebody attending to a sapling, or two saplings, at the base of what’s probably a date palm. And see how the representation of date palm and of the waters under the surface of the Earth are both patterns that gain their force and intensity by taking a motif – crosshatching on the tree trunk, a sort of sinuous curve in the water under the earth’s surface – taking a single simple motif and repeating it ad nauseam. There’s a visual equivalence there to what we’re seeing in the repetition of the language.
That water under the earth, under that thin crust of earth, that’s the god Enki. Enki is the god of the sweetwaters, and in the Mesopotamian worldview, the sweetwaters, the freshwater, lives just below the surface of the earth. If you think about what happens digging a well, you dig a certain way into the earth, and water, when you hit the water table, water starts to flow through the soil into the hole that you’ve made. That’s the power of Enki. Enki is closer than some of the other gods, An, Enlil, to the underworld of Ereshkigal, because he abides under the surface of the earth. That’s not a coincidence. It’s significant to this journey of his that’s being described as he sets sail for the underworld. The underworld is adjacent to his territory, unlike for the other gods.
He set sail; the Father set sail,
Enki, the God of Wisdom, set sail for the underworld.
Small windstones were tossed up against him;
Large hailstones were hurled up against him;
. . .
The waters of the sea devoured the bow of his boat like wolves;
The waters of the sea struck the stern of his boat like lions.
Now it’s a curious thing that his journey to the underworld seems – incidental. The story of his journey ends with the waters of the sea striking the stern of his boat “like lions.” And then – story over. Scene switch. Suddenly we’re being told about a tree planted by the banks of the Euphrates.
At that time, a tree, a single tree, a huluppu-tree
Was planted by the banks of the Euphrates.
The tree was nurtured by the waters of the Euphrates.
The whirling South Wind rose, pulling at its roots . . .
Bad editing? Fragmentary tablet? Missing text? Is “At that time” a thin patch over a gaping hole? It’s more likely that the phrase hints at a cause-and-effect relationship that we need to suss out for ourselves. Two things are put adjacent, Enki’s trip to the underworld, with the near-swamping of his boat, it’s a contentious, agonistic journey, and then, adjacent to that, the growing of a tree by the banks of the Euphrates. The implication is, in one being beside the other, is that the one causes the other. Enki, the God of Wisdom, voyaging into the territory of the Queen of the Underworld, gives birth to something, makes a new being possible. And that new being is this huluppu-tree.
So that’s something to watch for in these myths. They very often won’t explain the most important aspects of their explanations. You need to work that out for yourself. What does it signify that it is the God of Wisdom, and not any other, who makes this journey, for instance?
So, I’m not going to walk you through the whole text, that would take us forever. But I wanted to look at those opening lines to articulate two kinds of thing to look for. One, the repetition. It’s possible to just skip over it as an annoying or tedious feature of another time’s sensibility. I encourage you instead to really sink into it, allow it to be a kind of musical cadence that’s not getting in the way of the storytelling but actually belongs to the storytelling. And then see what the felt experience of those repetitions is for you.
The other point, then, is that often the deepest significance of the story is unstated, is left implied, and it’s for us to make the inference. Sometimes the inference depends upon cultural knowledge that we don’t have, unless any of us are Sumerian, and I doubt anyone here is. Some of that cultural knowledge will be given to us in the notes, so be sure not to skip the notes at the back of the book that annotate the poem. And some of it doesn’t depend on cultural knowledge and we can think and feel through for ourselves.
With those thoughts in mind, I encourage you to spend a little time with the serpent, the Anzu-bird, and the “dark maid” Lilith, who make their home in the tree.
Then a serpent who could not be charmed
Made its nest in the roots of the huluppu-tree.
The Anzu-bird set his young in the branches of the tree.
And the dark maid Lilith built her home in the tree.
Nobody knows what an Anzu-bird is! That’s why it’s left untranslated. Whatever cultural knowledge we need there is lost to us. But the maid Lilith, we get a little cultural context from the note at the back of the book:
In Hebrew legend, she was the first bride of Adam; but insisting on her own equality, she refused to copulate with him, for she did not want to be underneath him. She fled from Adam and remained forever outside human relationship or regulation, possessed by an avid, insatiable sexuality.
Think through, feel through, what it is for Inanna, this young woman, teenager really, coming into her womanhood, to encounter the figure Lilith in this tree that is supposed to be made into Inanna’s bridal bed. And, what might a snake be or stand for? You’ll probably hear an echo from Genesis, and that’s not accidental, this text is a lot older than the story in Genesis, and probably influential on it. What else is a snake? The snake is something that sheds its skin, the snake is commonly a phallic symbol, this in particular is a snake that cannot be charmed – how do the different qualities of these creatures suggest the conflicts, the struggle, the nature of the struggle, that lnanna is in right now?
Turning to “Inanna and the God of Wisdom.” Again, I don’t want to overdetermine your reading. I want just to point to a few things maybe to dwell with, because they may help open up the poem to you.
One in this one is the notion of the me, pronounced “may.” What do you think the me are? I mean, we get long lists of them, we see what they are each individually. What does the word me mean, what is a me, what are the me, such that they can be treated as physical objects, loaded in a boat and taken from the stronghold of one city, Eridu, and brought by a somewhat fraught and dangerous journey, chased by demons of various different shapes, to the docks of another city, Uruk, Inanna’s city?
“My father has given me the me:
He gave me the high priesthood.
He gave me godship.
He gave me the noble, enduring crown.
He gave me the throne of kingship. . . .
He gave me the dagger and sword.
He gave me the black garment.
He gave me the colorful garment.
He gave me the loosening of the hair.
He gave me the binding of the hair. . . .
He gave me the standard.
He gave me the quiver.
He gave me the art of lovemaking.
He gave me the kissing of the phallus.
He gave me the art of prostitution. . . .”
All of the major gods of Sumer are associated with one of the cities of what we now call Mesopotamia. When the me have successfully been brought to the city of Uruk, and given to the people of Uruk, and it seems to give birth to more me, violating laws of conservation of matter and energy. . . . When all of these me are now in the hands of the people of Uruk, what does it mean for Uruk? And does this mean Enki and the people of Eridu are now without the me? Are the me like coins and dollar bills that if you grab them up, and take them from one place to another, the place you took them from no longer has them? Or are the me more like love, of which it is said, the more you give away the more you receive – it’s not a fixed quantity.
And if the me are not a fixed quantity, and Inanna can take them from Enki, bring them to her people, without depriving Enki of them, then two questions. One, why are they represented as physical objects? And two, why does Enki work so hard to get them back from Inanna, when he has nothing to lose from her possession of them?
This quarter I’m teaching, online, two large-format classes, 60 and 75 students apiece. Most of what I do in a classroom depends on beingin a classroom, so the change has been reinvention, as much as translation.
And I’m disheartened, teaching this way. The talents I have, I mostly can’t use, & the talents I need, I mostly don’t have. For instance, it would be great now if I could lecture, but I don’t know how to be the One Voice for long. That’s neurosis not humblebrag. I fill up with self-doubt unless I can see, hear, pick up thru mirror neurons, & pheromones probably, where others in the room are at.
The image above is from Francesco Hayez, Odysseus Overcome by Demodocus’s Song (1813–15). The rhapsode D. was blind & he couldn’t see how his song about Odysseus landed with Odysseus.
I’ve been recording ten-minute “voice notes,” it takes me hours to do one, and they’re dull boring blades. I want the rapid back-and-forth of live thinking, students and me building an ad hoc thought-structure collaboratively, and neither Zoom meetings nor Canvas discussion boards really allow that.
I’m lucky, of course, to have this problem. It means I have a job, a home, my health. If our pandemic has gifts to give, one must be a reminder not to take what you have for granted. A roof and four walls. Good governance. A hug. It’s truly good it’s here when it is. Oh, man, I miss hugs. I haven’t touched or been touched by a person in 6 weeks. Except for a cat or two, I count cats as people.
Well, here’s a thing I’m happy to have done. I took a prompt I use often in class discussion, and converted it for work in our flung remoteness.
The Odyssey and WTF?!
A WTF?! moment happens when, reading a text, you go “what the fuck?!”
You can get through some texts without any WTF?! moments. Others, like the texts we’re reading for this class, are one WTF?! moment after another.
Being a literature student – or a professor of literature for that matter – means leaning into the WTF?! moment. That’s really all there is to it. The rest of literary analysis is some skills you pick up.
However, the WTF?! moment is often uncomfortable: You may feel uncertainty, confusion, ambiguity. You may have a cherished assumption thrown into question. You might be offended or disturbed.
A couple of WTF?! moments I have, reading Inanna, Queen of Heaven [our 1st text]:
Often one thing happens, and then another, with seemingly no connection between them: Enki journeys to the Underworld, and then a tree grows by a river.
I feel alienated from the text – it won’t tell me why what happens happens. I also feel curious . . . are there clues, in event A and event B, that suggest how A and B are connected?
I can’t tell whether a figure is telling the truth or lying: Inanna says she’s going to the Underworld to attend the funeral rites of Ereshkigal’s husband, and that sounds plausible, but then the thought is dropped – was she lying? telling a half-truth? or does she mean it, and then forget about it?
I feel frustrated by the text – I can’t get into the head of the character I want to identify with. I’m also intrigued . . . should I try to figure out Inanna’s motivation? how to do that? or should I accept that her motivation is opaque?
To read the text as a literature student, I set aside my alienation and frustration, after noticing and acknowledging them, and instead go with my curiosity, my wondering.
Your assignment, as a group: Create a WTF?! database for the Odyssey.
Everyone should contribute at least once. There are two ways to contribute:
1. Identify and describe a WTF?! moment about the text.
2. Lean into a WTF?! moment someone else has identified.
If you do no. 1. A WTF?! moment can be of any scale. If it’s on a small scale – a word choice or a line – be sure to identify book and line number, so others can find it. If it’s on a large scale – something that happens across the book – be sure to give one or more specific examples.
If you do no. 2. “Lean in” doesn’t mean answer so much as think it through. If someone brought up this WTF?! moment in class discussion, what would you add? You could give another example; sharpen the description of the problem; identify other problems connected to it; or, possibly, suggest one or more possible answers.
Everyone should make at least one substantive contribution. More is welcome.
The database should be finished by next Tuesday (May 5) at class time.