Monthly Archives: February 2015

Negation, Divination, Creation

A correspondent member of the Order of the Third Bird, Crake (Crex crex) has passed to us, via an unnamed Informant and the Secretary Locotenant of the Order, “the story of a most unusual Negation,” which we reproduce here with its accompanying images.

“In the Old City of Jerusalem there are a number of historical buildings and monuments belonging to a waqf associated with a distinguished Arab family that figures in Jerusalem history dating back to the Crusades. Some of the buildings are located in areas accessible only to Muslims, but a special invitation from the archivist of the waqf‘s distinguished manuscript collection secured for my informant the right to march right past the Israeli police, down an alleyway, and up a flight of stairs, where along with some fellow Birds he carried out an Action among the shelves of a small but bountiful library of books, as the ululations of a call to prayer from the nearby Omar Mosque echoed outside.”

The informant cannot be certain which item in the room is the object of the Action, and during the Negation has recourse, in somewhat unorthodox fashion, to “the divinatory art”:

“… the action took place in a library, one that was focused on, but not limited to, the history of the city that hosts it. Of course one of the most basic forms of divination consists in opening a book at random and seeing what the book has to say there in that spot. My informant tells me that he determined to take down two books, chosen from opposite ends of the library, and that the choice would be made simply by looking at the shelves and seeing which books ‘called him to them’. The books he ended up with by this technique were, first of all, Al-Ghazali’s 11th-century treatise, Tahāfut al-Falāsifa  (The Incoherence of the Philosophers), and, second of all, Leroy J. Pinn’s 1948 wood-carving manual, Let’s Whittle.
My informant found it fitting to look first into the book on whittling. He opened it to a page that explains how to carve a mother kangaroo with a baby in her pouch. “You will not have any trouble with this carving,” Pynn explains, “if you begin whittling around the pouch and the baby kangaroo.” The whittler is instructed to make the back legs big and strong, and the front legs, which he is not willing to call ‘arms’, small and weak.”

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“He next turned to The Incoherence, whose author had been a Persian Sufi and mystic dissatisfied with the attempts made by predecessors such as ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Al-Farabi at exhaustive knowledge of the divine by means of philosophical argumentation. Within a few decades of its publication in 1095, Al-Ghazali’s treatise would be mocked by ibn Rushd (Averroës) in what is perhaps the most cleverly titled work in the history of philosophy: The Incoherence of the Incoherence.

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“As in any mystical work, there is a certain apophatic element in Al-Ghazali’s approach, though The Incoherence is far from being a simple defense of the via negativa. On the page to which my informant opened, in the middle of Section 56, we find Al-Ghazali arguing against the Aristotelian view that the Divine has no awareness of the world. Since God is the creator of the world, and we have knowledge of God, the author argues, if God had no knowledge of us then we would be nobler than God in respect of knowledge. But this is absurd. Therefore, &c.”

This leads to further reflections. A creator, for example:

“…must necessarily know the thing created. But within this broad constraint there are many ways of knowing and creating. There is, first of all, the knowledge of the Whittler, which has served for many as the model of artistic creation in general, as when it is said that the sculptor does not make a statue, so much as he frees it from the surrounding stone in view of some idea that he has of what the statue is to look like: in view, in other words, of some object of knowledge. There is, next, the Progenitor, as for example the mama kangaroo, who holds her baby within her pouch, is responsible for its helpless marsupial being and knows it as intimately as any creature ever knew another, even to the extent that one could hardly call it another, but who never sculpted or constructed it as an artificer with a blueprint. No, instead it just came out of her.”

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“Where then do things stand with the third sort of creation, that of God in relation to the world? How does God create the world, such that he at once knows it to be his creation? Does he whittle it? Or does it just come out of him? Or is there some other mode of creation, some hypostasis or overflowing or parthenogenesis, or some other process still, unthinkable by the human mind?
And why, finally, my informant thought as the phase of Negation approached its end in the library of the waqf in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, should these exercises of Attention of ours be limited to the objects of Art: the objects, he said to me, that always come forth through some form or other of Whittling, a via negativa if there ever was one, and never any of the more exalted forms of Creation?”

Bird Village, Bird Language

For centuries, in the Turkish Black Sea coastal village of Kusköy – a name that translates literally to “Bird Village” – villagers have communicated by whistling, basing their pattern and pitch on Turkish words, with a tone for each syllable. They call it “kus dili,” or “Bird Language.” Like other known whistling systems – for example, the well-studied Silbo used on La Gomera in the Canaries – kus dili arose as an adaptation to the rough and mountainous terrain in this tea-and hazelnut-growing area, where whistling carried further and more clearly than shouting. And it was much easier to whistle at someone than to walk the mountain trails to find them.

Since the whistling is based on the elements of an existing language, it is a simple matter to add words to its vocabulary. One curious effect is the possibility of back-translating actual birds’ whistling into kus dili, since many pitch patterns have been assigned or are assignable to meanings. In other words, the villagers have created a form for which the world rises eagerly to provide content. Or, as the Oulipian Noël Arnaud once said, “Because you are listening, you are spoken to.” One villager claims that a blackbird’s song translates a well-known verse from the Quran…

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 5.52.11 PMScreenshot from Deutsche Welle series “Village Scenes: Tales of Rural Life in Europe.” Episode on Kusköy.

It would not be surprising if one or another volée of the Order of the Third Bird had, in some close or distant time and place, prompted by necessity or fancy, developed a means of maintaining secrecy or privacy via a special code or language. It would be more surprising, and also more delightful, if a volée had developed some variation on a “bird language.” We would welcome any information our readers might have on the matter, and we submit that, if no such practice has existed, one might at any moment be adopted.

Beak Doctor

The Corresponding Secretary recently received a laconic message – a note scrawled on the back of a band flyer, but more oddly still, neatly folded and stamped in an envelope. The note states that it would behoove the editors of Communiqués to have read a short story titled “The Beak Doctor,” written by Eric Basso in 1977. Beyond a polite intro and outro, this is all it contains.
We have read the story, and have a few comments to make.

The early modern entities known as beak doctors were plague doctors. As the black plague ravaged the cities of Europe, those hired by municipalities as plague doctors – often at great trouble, and with elaborate contracts – often wore a kind of hazmat suit to make his rounds. Here is one description of the costume:

“Attributing the disease to corrupt vapours, the physicians protected themselves by means of suits of leather, with large crystal glasses and a long snout containing aromatic spices, employing also a wand with which to issue instructions” (“The Plague Doctor,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 20 Issue 3).


 [Cover art for Marc Estrin, The Annotated Nose. Unbridled Books, 2011.]

The foul vapors or “miasma” believed to be responsible for spreading the plague filled the role later held by germs in the medical and hypochondriacal imagination. The beak in the beak doctor’s costume acted as an air filter, being stuffed with substances and materials understood to prevent the plague-particle-bearing miasma from reaching the nostrils, by overpowering it with stronger aromas: lavender, sage, rosemary, mint, camphor, dried flowers, garlic.
The beak doctor was avoided like the plague, as it were, by the healthy, and was expected to live cut off from ordinary society. Those commissioned as beak doctors were also frequently empirics – which is to say, lay practitioners who believed in the virtues of observation and experience in medical practices, rather than in studium. Now, aside from the fact that members of the Order of the Third Bird, by a short stretch of the imagination, could themselves be called empirics, lay-midwives of experience; and aside from the fact that they frequently engage in the self-isolations of ritual; or to take it further, that the protocols of the Order could be considered prophylactic in one or more ways – what exactly did our correspondent have in mind with his literary recommendation?

[Cover art for Stephen Massimilla, The Plague Doctor in his Hull-shaped Hat. Stephen F. Austin UP, 2013.]

Here is the opening paragraph of Basso’s text:

Now I will try to keep awake. The fog. They must have come for me before morning. Empty streets. Across a dimly lit room. She lay in the shadows. The steps. One at a time. Not that I’m old. It was the mask. Plaster chipped off the walls. She lay asleep on a couch. A network of cracks and branching veins like the surface of an antique painting. Chiaroscuro. Figures half formed…. .”

There are several things to point out here. First, the plague in this story is not the bubonic plague but a kind of sleeping sickness: one falls asleep and never wakes up. The cities of the sick are blanketed and blinded, as well, by a thick fog. There are no longer landmarks or destinations, only things stumbled upon by chance. In the fragmented articulation seen in the passage above, it is almost as if this fog had infiltrated the narrative itself, transforming it into mere gasps and glimpses of meaning, just as the fog reveals only what is closest. The world is reduced, both by the fog and the diction, into a series of “macroscopic vignettes.”

The beak doctor, in Basso’s story, carries a penlight, prescription pad and vials of penicillin instead of a staff, but the accoutrements of modern medicine are as useless to him as bloodletting would be. Moreover, his mask doubles the effects of the fog and the disarticulated language. Through the small eyeholes, everything he sees is isolated and framed; everything becomes an image without ground or context.

[Paul Fürst, engraving, 1656. From Wikipedia Entry, “Plague Doctor.”]

It is possible that our correspondent wished to indicate to us what Bird-like acts of attention might look like in a Gothic mode, which is to say as a series of acts of adaptation and survival in a world rendered labyrinthine, fragmentary, uncanny and miasmatic – or perhaps a series of acts that render the world labyrinthine and mysterious, vignettes pearled out along a tenuous thread, each an enframing that makes what is seen and sees what is made.