Daring to Eat the Peach: The Nature of Being Possessed

  • February 17, 2022

Sitting at a table crowded with red and green and blue glazed tajine pots filled with mutton and saffron couscous that smelled of cinnamon, turmeric, and fenugreek alongside bowls of pickled plums and hardboiled eggs, while shakily holding a small cup of astringent anise mahia, William S. Burroughs first heard the ecstatic music of Boujelod—the Father of Skins; the Father of Fear—the goat god. Burroughs was obsessed with the mysterious place where words, and music, and images seem to come into a mind as if from without, the cursing and blessing of inspiration. He travelled to Morocco in 1954, three years after he shot his wife, Jean Volmer, to death in their Mexico City apartment; she was drunk and Burroughs was on benzos, they were performing a trick they called “their William Tell act.” The murder “brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out,” Burroughs recalled in his autobiographical novel Queer. The author lived in the Tangiers International Zone, administered by a lackadaisical alliance of Portugal, Italy, Belgium, Holland, and the United States, enjoying the cheap dope and willing young men, but at the 1001 Nights restaurant and club he would hear the possessor, the font of all inspiration. The Dark One Himself.

Burroughs was always square in appearance, in keeping with his wealthy St. Louis upbringing and his Harvard education. At the 1001 Nights he’d have been conspicuous wearing a characteristic grey flannel suit and skinny black tie, a wool fedora and leather wingtips. Gaunt, hollow-cheeked and dead-eyed. Six musicians sat in a circle, wearing long, loose, green djellabas, rough woolen burnouses, and Berber caps. They played the double-reed ghaita, the goat-skinned tebel, the ceramic djarbouga, the picked gimbri, the bowed kamanja, and the bamboo lira. A single droning note pulsated, and then a squeal of other instruments would begin to play, the staccato vibration of a reed, the discordant strumming of the lute, the wafting of tones back and forth, a piercing ululation. Vocalists sang in multiphonics, what’s known as “throat singing,” wherein a single person produced two or three notes at once. Instrumentalists used circular breathing, inhaling through their nose and exhaling into their horns and flutes in a continuous stream, so that there are no pauses, no rests. No melody was discernible, but the rhythm was a complicated cacophony; the silence between notes was as deafening as the notes themselves. A flickering. To fall into their trance was like being hypnotized by a fire. Hallucinatory, incessant, relentless, incantatory, apocalyptic. A barefoot boy, clad entirely in goat-skins, brandishes two olive branches and begins to dance, an incarnation of Boujelod himself. A being better known as Pan.  

The musicians were from Jajouka, deep in the inhospitable Ahl-Srif mountains of the western Sahara. Seven nights a week, six of them would perform at 1001 Nights before a motley audience of diplomats and expatriates, prostitutes and bohemians. The restaurant would be packed with curious foreigners, shoes scuffing the zellij and leaning against walls decorated with woven tapestries featuring intricate ogee designs, lattice-worked brass lanterns illuminating Arabesque stencils on the ceiling. Sisters and mothers of the men worked as servers and in the kitchen, where the head chef was a Jajouka local, Mohamed Hamri. Only 21, Hamri would go on to become a folklorist who recorded the legends of the musicians; he had introduced a friend of the owner to their music three years before. Hamri first met the American composer and writer Paul Bowles in a Tangiers train station; the latter in turn introduced the young Moroccan to the Anglo-American avant-garde writer Brion Gysin, who owned and managed the 1001 Nights. At a beachfront festival in 1950, the two Westerners would first listen to the droning trance music, with Gysin recalling that he had thought “I just want to hear that music for the rest of my life. I want to hear it every day.” Of the three men who would first introduce the Master Musicians of Jajouka (as they’d come to be marketed) to a Western audience—Bowles, Gysin, and Burroughs—the least interesting person is the last, and William S. Burroughs was fascinating.


Bowles had come for the same sorts of reasons many libertines had—Morocco afforded him more freedom than was countenanced by his conservative family. Half a century was spent in Tangiers, which Bowles first visited in 1931 with his lover, the composer of Appalachian Spring, Aaron Copland. Cosmopolitan, elegant, charming, and handsome, Bowles had an impressive roster of friends, including Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Koestler, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso. Christopher Isherwood was supposedly so taken with Bowles that he borrowed the name for the female protagonist of The Berlin Stories, immortalized by Liza Minelli in the musical adaptation Cabaret. During his time in Morocco, Bowles equally mastered musical composition and writing. Authoring dozens of scores for his own plays, he also wrote novels such as his dark Tangiers nocturne Let It Come Down, with its axiom that “We’re all monsters… It’s the age of monsters.” Critics have noted that Bowles’s music was light and his writing was dark, perhaps detecting the union of the Apollonian and the Dionysian borrowed from Jajouka.


The English-born Gysin’s mind vibrated at the same frequency as his American friend, and he was even more promiscuous, a brilliant dilettante, an experimental poet and novelist, performance artist, calligrapher, psychedelic theorist, and inventor, who wanted to push literature to the same extremes as modern art. His biographer John Geiger describes him in Nothing Is True–Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brian Gysin as the “most influential cultural figure of the Twentieth Century that most people have never heard of.” Many influential people knew of Gysin, however, as he befriended Jean Genet, Francis Bacon, Max Ernst, Patti Smith, Timothy Leary, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie. More than anyone, he’s associated with Burroughs, who first dismissed Gysin as a mere restauranteur catering to “uppity queens” (himself included), but after the Englishmen’s death in 1986, Burroughs admitted that his frequent collaborator was the only other writer whom he respected. The two expanded on the “cut-up” method of composition, a means of using selective randomization to pull inspired words from the ether. First practiced by Dadaist poets like Tristan Tzara, the original cut-up method involved taking an original composition, and cutting words and phrases out with scissors, and then rearranging them into new texts, letting unseen correspondences, similarities, congruencies guide your hand as if an oracle. Gysin and Burroughs developed a variation they called “fold-in,” where two separate pages of writing are folded in half, and then combined, so that the new composition is read across. Their collaborative 1977 novel The Third Mind was written this way, wherein the “first step in re-creation is to cut the old lines that hold you right where you are sitting now,” something also on display in Burroughs’s most famous book Naked Lunch, a work of “magic and taboos, curses and amulets.”

What drew Gysin and Burroughs together was the incantatory aspect of literature, whereby the manipulation of words can generate divinations and conjurations. “The poets are supposed to liberate the words,” wrote Gysin in Let the Mice In, “not chain them in phrases… Writers don’t own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody?” The two explored how language could be combined and recombined, cut up and rearranged, how words can be as if a virus, where thinking happens on the page rather than in the head. Enthusiasts of tarot, astrology, and I Ching, Gysin and Burroughs understood inspiration as a form of possession, as an intersection between astral realms and the typewriter. This was magic as literary criticism. Heightened consciousness—meditation, drugs, sex—has often been used to pull the brain from its doldrums, to elevate it, to capture Icarian fire that’s then transcribed into mere books. “Magic calls itself the Other Method for controlling matter and knowing space,” Gysin is quoted as saying in Matthew Levi Stevens’s essay for Beatdom. They heard in the flickering drone of Jajouka the alchemical discordance of tone and note, that spirit kingdom where inspiration resides. “In Morocco, magic is practiced…assiduously,” Gysin claimed, “ecstatic dancing is the music of the brotherhoods [that] may be called a form of psychic hygiene. You know your music when you hear it one day. You fall into line and dance until you pay the piper.” Long after 1001 Nights closed, Gysin invited an English recording artist to Jajouka to record their rites. The musician stayed only for a day in 1969, but gathered enough material that an album of their heretofore unheard music would be released. He played the saxophone brilliantly, among other instruments, for a group named the Rolling Stones, and the album he produced was entitled Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka, finally released two years after he returned to his East Sussex estate where he drowned to death in his swimming pool at the prescribed age of 27.

“Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name,” Mick Jagger croons on “Sympathy for the Devil,” the most electric of tracks on the Stones’ 1968 album Beggars Banquet. In the Jean-Luc Godard documentary of the same name, Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts plays a Jajouka drum in one scene, a full year before his bandmate would decamp to Morocco. If there is a mystery about its provenance it’s unconsciously clarified in the primal syncopation that thrums through the track, with an answer in the chorus. The Master Musicians of Jajouka sound far more ominous than the Rolling Stones, and “Sympathy for the Devil” is already ominous, but the distinctive, bestial, Luciferian rhythm in both the rock song and the religious rites are paeans to giving the devil his due. Not to worshiping the devil, you must understand, but acknowledging these things of darkness that permeate creation. Music, poetry, writing, they are all inspired by the muse and inhabited by it, they allow us to be possessed by such forces, but they also exorcise them. Hamri wrote in Tales from Jajouka that “Such a powerful contact, with a sound and pitch so high, could be used with the blessing of Allah like a surgical tool to heal sick minds.”

Such music had first been brought to Jajouka by Boujelod, when a shepherd named Attar had dared to sleep in a forbidden cave near the village. Awakened by the goat god playing his pipes, Attar came to an agreement, whereby Boujelod would teach the shepherd his music, as long as the man kept such rhythms secret. Attar broke his promise, and in retaliation Boujelod demanded a bride from Jajouka as a sacrifice. The canny villagers sent out a young woman known to be insane, and her frenetic dancing exhausted Boujelod, who departed. Subsequently, the descendants of Attar have performed a pantomime of that incident every year, the ritual linked to both fertility and inspiration (for what is the latter but a variety of the former?). Ostensibly derived from the Islamic Sufi mysticism that’s prevalent throughout Ahl-Srif, a realm of saint’s shrines and dervish lodges, this music recalled far earlier traditions. Anthropologist Edvard Westermarck provides a hypothesis as to the origin of such rites in his anachronistically titled 1933 study Pagan Survivals in Mohammedan Civilization. Morocco is where Moorish-Spanish Al-Andalus kisses Northern Africa, a land whose dreams had been spoken in Arabic, Latin, Sephardic Ladino, Carthaginian, Phoenician, the Silha, Kabyle, and Tamazight languages of the Berbers, and the lost language of Silbo Gomero, spoken by the Guanche, who until the 15th century communicated in whistle, though ultimately murdered by the Spanish during their invasion of the Canary Islands. Deserts buffeted between the pagan and Jewish, the Christian and Islamic. Into this fragrant tagine, Westermarck detects a flavor of Roman origin, noting the similarity between the rituals of Jajouka and the festivals of Saturnalia, Lupercalia, and Kalends, as all of those festivals featured a penitent “dressed up in skins of some sacrificed goats … to benefit [the participants] and especially to expel illness… a scapegoat as well as a positive expeller of evil,” Westermarck wrote.

Gysin was blunter in his assessment of the practices, writing in The Third Mind that “Their secret, guarded even from them, was that they were still performing the Rites of Pan under the ragged cloak of Islam.” Timothy Leary was even more anachronistic, claiming that the musicians were a “4,000-year-old rock band.” Certain correspondences can be drawn between Jajouka and the scapegoat as described in the biblical book of Leviticus, or the various Dionysian rites of the Maenads practiced in the classical world. But there are, to be sure, problems with Gysin’s enthusiasms, not least of which is the barely concealed colonialist condescension that deigns to tell a group of men who are otherwise pious Muslims that he understands their own culture better than them, the orientalist assumption that a white Englishmen would be the best interpreter of Jajouka. They were, after all, a guild blessed by the Sufi saint Sidi Ahmed Schiech, whose shrine was still in the village. Still, it’s fair to note that the ritual of Boujelod has nothing obvious to do with Islam, and that if Westermarck and Gysin claim a Dionysian origin, it’s not necessarily ridiculous, as the Romans had ruled in North Africa for 500 years, and its possible some traditions may have endured, even if their origin was occluded.


Pagan rites had survived Christianity in sublimated European folk rituals, after all; in the Abruzzi village of Cocullo, not far from where my grandfather was born, the Festa dei Serpari honors St. Domenico on his feast day by parading his statue through the streets, decorated with a garland of writhing serpents, a practice derived directly from the Umbrian snake goddess Angitia. Perhaps there is something archetypal in these animalistic flourishes, all of those snakes and goats appearing across cultures but often connotating the same thing. From bacchanals and the Maenads to the witches’ sabbath and Black Mass, the goat has been endowed with ambivalent symbolism. Dionysus’s reveries and the orgies of Satan are not exactly parallel, but they’re not perpendicular either. Possession was strongly associated with the Dionysiac rites when the god was imported from the Thracians and he was quickly conflated with madness, irrationality, intoxication, and poetry. As E.R. Dodds writes in The Greeks and the Irrational, Dionysius was “a god of ecstatic prophecy,” “the patron of a new art, the art of the theater,” who was a “Master of Illusions,” and both the “cause of madness and the liberator from madness.” Dionysius wasn’t evil—but he was dangerous. This is true no matter what name he took—Pan, Orpheus, Bacchus, Ogoun, Sucellus, Loki, Tezcatzontecati, Osiris, Lucifer. Boujelod. Pleased to meet you. As Bachier Attar, a musician in the guild, told a New York Times reporter in 1995, “We say that jajouka music can wake the devils from the ground.”  

Part of giving the devil his due is performing such rituals as an honor, but also as a means of corralling that dangerous spark from whence poetry and song originate. The penitent in the skins of Boujelod is both possessed by the creature and exorcizing him—this has much to do with control as it does with abandon. Friedrich Nietzsche writes that those who “turn away with pity or contempt from phenomena,” who dismiss them as mere “folk diseases,” are “poor creatures [who] have no idea how blighted and ghostly this ‘sanity’ of theirs sounds when the glowing life of Dionysiac revelers thunders past them.” Nietzsche has no time for prigs who are “bolstered by a sense of their own sanity,” and when it came to Jajouka that was definitely not the case with Bowles, Gysin, and Burroughs, of whom many adjectives could be applied, but sanity would be one used sparingly. The latter two in particular were drawn to the archaic and ecstatic undercurrent of this music. Both were obsessed with the supernatural, the divine, the occult— the buried question sung by Orpheus but long dismissed by the rationally inclined as rank superstition—from whence is the origin of poems? Burroughs made clear his stake, writing in Queer that “My concept of possession is closer to the medieval model than to modern psychological explanation,” for he is speaking of a “definite possessing entity,” while Gysin, as quoted by Stevens, declared “I talk a new language… I talk about the springs and traps of inspiration.”    

When Bowles was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia—he dropped out and moved to Paris, then Tangiers—he was partial to certain subjects. Gregorian Chants. Duke Ellington. The Blues. And T.S. Eliot. That Anglophilic monarchist—an upper-class Missourian just like Burroughs—was steadfastly Apollonian, and yet he is not short on Dionysian evocations. The Waste Land was Bowles’s favorite poem, but in the “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” the titular fool asks himself “Do I dare. Disturb the universe?” Though this is not what Eliot himself meant, the line is an apt summation of what inspiration is—it’s both to be disturbed by the universe and to disturb the universe. For after all, you are a small sentient portion of that far larger medium of reality—we are all microcosms of that immeasurable thing—we are small parts of the universe that has gained consciousness. Prufrock asks himself “Do I dare eat a peach?” and in the context of the poem it’s an indictment of the aging narrator’s self-seriousness, but it relates well to disturbing the universe, for fruit has always facilitated the fall (and there’s no inspiration if you’re stuck in perfect Eden). Augustine stole some pears in the marketplace of Hippo, not far from Morocco, and then threw them away, the point of the filching to revel in wickedness. “I loved my fall,” Augustine writes in his fourth-century Confessions, “not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself.” Augustine identified such transgressions as a manifestation of that ur-lapse, when Adam and Eve ate another piece of forbidden fruit. In the West it has traditionally been depicted as an apple. Some have hypothesized it was a pomegranate. Perhaps it was a pear or peach.


Regardless, we’re to understand that fatal act as the moment when everything went wrong, when humanity’s rebelliousness condemned us to exile. And yet it’s just as easy to see this decision as the first fruit of inspiration, a fortunate fall that imbued them with the audacious ability to create, which had previously only been the eternal purview of the Lord. Every inspired act was thus a faint echo of both God’s creation and the self-creation of the fall that propelled Adam and Eve to points east. Idiosyncratic as such an interpretation might be, it has ample heretical precedent, with the orthodox Hippolytus recording that the Gnostic Monoimus had preached that all must “Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as the starting point. Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own… If you carefully investigate these matters you will find Him in yourself.” God was a mere demiurge, but the higher creator—often associated with the serpent—was the liberator. As with Dionysus and his snakes, or Angitia and hers, this liberation is the teaching of how to create, it is the imparting of inspiration. Both freedom and madness can result. A dangerous present. Hans Jonas writes in The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginning of Christianity that “it is understand that, though thrown into temporality, we had an origin in eternity, and so we have an aim in eternity.” A flash of inspiration is both evidence that we come from Eden and that we no longer live there; a brief reflection of what it feels like to create as God. A divinely imparted gift. A dangerous present.      


“Let me pass through the arch,” wrote Federico Garcia Lorca in “Double Poem of Lake Eden” from Poet in New York, translated by Greg Simon (no relation) and Stephen F. White, composed while the Spanish poet and playwright was staying in rural Vermont. With a Maenad’s intensity, Lorca intoned “Here you are drinking my blood… while my eyes are shattered by aluminum/and drunken voices in the wind.” This is a mystic who knows the secret rites, who sees in creation “my liberty, my human love/in the darkest corner of the breeze no one wants.” Bowles was intensely moved by Lorca, this demon-haunted poet who had made his stand in fascist Spain across the Straits of Gibraltar, a republican, anarchist, socialist, and most of all Spaniard who agitated for liberation against the Francoists, and who in some Andalusian field in 1936, five years after the American first arrived in Tangiers, suffered a bullet in the brain because of it. “Then I realized I had been murdered/They looked for me in cafes, cemeteries and churches/… but they did not find me. /They never found me? /No. They never found me,” reads an entire lyric from Poet in New York, presciently written seven years before his assassination. Appropriate, because just as Lorca was murdered on some road to Granada in the dead of night, a blood-sacrifice for the Spanish people, so was Dionysus torn apart and resurrected on the road to Thebes. In 1943, Bowles adapted some of Lorca’s lyrics for a zarzuela entitled The Wind Remains, with Bernstein conducting the opening night. Long fascinated with Spanish culture, and Lorca’s presentation of the nation as a death-haunted realm of pathos, where the bull fight was a Dionysian sacrament and stern Catholicism was the operative mood, Bowles also translated dialogue from Lorca’s play Yerma, which he incorporated into an opera of that same name.


Lorca’s original was a pagan tragedy worthy of the ancient Greeks in its horrific tale of a childless young woman driven to madness and murder by her inability to conceive, a play about the perils of inspiration deferred. After she has strangled her husband to death, and thus forever precluded the ability of having a baby with him, Yerma screams “Don’t come near me, because I’ve killed my child. I’ve killed my child with my own hands!” A modern ritualization of that murder from Euripides’s The Bacchae, when Pentheus is murdered by his own mother after she has been entranced by Dionysus. No modern aesthetician of darkness was as proficient as Lorca, for none was quite as blunt about the chimerical nature of inspiration. He was the theorist of duende, his term for the irrational, ineffable, inscrutable nature of the creative spark, independent from positivist and rationalist justification for where ideas originate, borrowing the name for his term from the malevolent spirit that populates Spanish folklore, a wicked gnome who can both give and take away. “Play and Theory of the Duende” was Lorca’s 1933 treatise on the ways in which certain works of art reflect this dark spirit, and in the process embodies qualities that are intangible, authentic, earthy, deathly.


“The duende, then, is a power, not a work,” writes Lorca, differentiating between inspiration and that which results. “It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.” For Lorca, the duende is explicitly Dionysian. Any type of art is capable of both being inspired by and producing duende, but Lorca thought that music, dance, and poetry had an energy that made them more amenable. Certain artists are obvious possessors of duende—Robert Johnson and his Satanic blues, most of Bob Dylan, all of Leonard Cohen, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and of course Sketches of Spain, everything in William Blake, Joan Didion’s sentences in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Tom Waits’s voice on Frank’s Wild Years, Toni Morrison’s narratives, The Velvet Underground and Nico, particularly “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” young Marlon Brando, Jackson Pollock’s splatters, the verse of Sylvia Plath, John Coltrane’s saxophone, and of course the musicians of Jajouka. “The duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms,” writes Lorca. “It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm.”       


Inspiration arrives mysteriously; it is not necessarily freely chosen, but comes as if a grace. No artist or writer can quite say why or how inspiration comes, but they can often say where or when, which means that there are ways of summoning her. “The duende is an enabling figure,” writes poet Edward Hirsch in The Angel and the Demon: Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration, “like Freud’s idea of the uncanny or Proust’s perception of involuntary memory, because it makes something visible that might be otherwise be invisible… It surfaces wherever and whenever a demonic anguish suddenly charges and electrifies a work of art in the looming presence of death.” Dreams have always been a conduit for inspiration. Keith Richards awoke from a bender one night, grabbed his guitar and recorded a riff, in the morning he played back the hook for “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Around the same time, the entire melody to “Yesterday” was imparted into the slumbering mind of Paul McCartney, so mathematically perfect that he feared it was something that he’d heard before and forgotten. The impetus to Frankenstein came to Mary Shelley after an evening of horror stories told amongst friends in a Swiss villa; that night in a fretful dream she “saw the hideous phantasm of a man sketched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.” John Milton similarly drew from night visions, claiming that the blank verse of Paradise Lost was directly transmitted into his skull by his muse Urania, and that in the morning the blind poet’s mind had to be “milked” by his amanuensis (a troubling metaphor). Drugs and alcohol have always been a treatment for summoning the muse, albeit often with diminishing returns. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his lush “Kubla Kahn” stoned on opium, with visions of “gardens bright with sinuous rills, /Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree,” until his reveries were interrupted by that infamous person from Porlock banging on his door. The Tang dynasty poet Li Bai wrote his lyrics “Looking up, I find the moon bright/Then bowing my head, I drown in homesickness” while drunk, and the Persian poet Omar Khayyam’s rubaiyat with his celebration of “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou/singing beside me in the wilderness” was written with a cup of shiraz in hand. For a genius, an intoxicated mind can sometimes be the royal road to wisdom; for myself it was more often the muddy ditch to a hangover. Since getting sober I’ve found that walking and a shower just as often bring inspiration.   


Life is an ever-obvious source, experience mixed within the smithy of the unconscious mind in the creation of something new. Adventure, exploration, journeying have all been used to discover the intangible. There’s a reason why the perceived exoticism of Tangiers drew Bowles, Gysin, and Burroughs. Edward Gibbon resolved to write The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while on a gentleman’s grand tour of Europe, where “as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter… the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.” Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage drew no inspiration from the author’s own experience, his having been born six years after Appomattox. Without Manassas or Gettysburg, Antietam or the Wilderness to draw on, Crane rather explained that it was “sense of the rage of conflict on the football field” from whence he appropriated verisimilitude. To be inspired by an earlier work of art is common enough, to understand those that came before you as your muses. As a student of mine pointed out, both Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost are biblical fan fiction. There is no Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote without those “vain and empty books of chivalry,” no Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary without Don Quixote, no Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot without Madame Bovary. A divinely ordered chain of influence radiating out through all of that which we write and read, inspiration touching everything like light from the Big Bang. There are the iconic means of inspiration as well—ecstasy, madness, visions. Blake was gifted with “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars,” which initiated him into his prophetic vocation; almost two centuries later, while Ginsberg masturbated to some lines of Blake in his Greenwich Village apartment, he heard the dead poet whisper in his ear “For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life.”     


Plutarch writes in The Obsolescence of Oracles that there was a chthonic message relayed throughout the Peloponnese two millennia ago, but rather than whispered it was shouted. During the reign of Tiberius and when the fishermen Thamus heard an echoing voice declare, “Are you there? When you reach Palodes, take care to proclaim that the great god Pan is dead.” Goat-legged spirit of the woods, the satyr so often conflated with Dionysus (at least by many of the mystery cults), the god of fertility, sexuality, and inspiration, had expired. The Church Fathers naturally saw in Plutarch an allegorical account of the birth of their own God who would die, and certainly paganism itself is replete with stories of perishing deities who descend only to be resurrected. Pan is, like Dionysus, another dangerous god, a wild and intoxicated being who imparts wisdom, or a version of it, to the drunk, the foolish, the ecstatic. Foolish to think that any such god can ever die, at least not really. Look at the first-century marble pulled from the Vesuvian ash of Herculaneum, goat-hooved, bearded, caprine Pan with his flute, arm around Daphnis, staring with Arcadian lust at the shepherd. Then look at Peter Paul Rubens’s orange sfumato-hazed print of the demigod from 16 centuries later, the stolid Catholic presenting the creature in odalisque repose, staring into the eyes of the viewer with the same intensity as that shepherd more than a millennium before. Pan has a way of possessing still. Dionysius, too.

Plutarch was wrong—no oracle can ever be silenced. William Butler Yeats claimed that his poems composed through automatic writing were compelled by a force beyond him, a djinn whom he named Leo Africanus. The Swedish artistic visionary Hilma af Klimt attributed her abstract masterpieces to a spirit which had possessed her, and by consulting a Ouija board, Sylvia Plath communed with a being who identified himself as Pan, writing in her poem “The Colossus” that she’d said to him “Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle,/Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.” Even Bob Dylan told an interviewer in 2004 that his music had its origin from a bargain struck with the “Chief Commander… [of] this earth and in a world we can’t see.” Burroughs and Gysin, both being Americans, the former by birth and the latter naturalized, and perhaps in keeping with the national spirit, tried to summon Pan through technologized ecstasy with their infamous “Dreamachine.” Not so dissimilar from Plath’s Ouija board, and the two built a contraption that involved placing a cardboard cylinder with evenly cut slits onto a record player with a light-bulb descended within. A person watching the Dreamachine with closed eyes would experience 13 flickers per second—the goal was to hack the viewer’s alpha waves and trigger ecstatic hallucinations, a psychedelic television for the unconscious. Whatever works.

“Awe bears traces of the holy,” writes Hirsch. “It is both rapturous and terrifying, because it puts one in the space of the transcendental, the world beyond.” Both the musicians at Jajouka and those fortunate enough to hear them experience rapture, an overcoming, a transcendence, an ecstasy. It’s similar as to when a singer gets lost within their own notes and the voice seems to come from some place other than within; what a painter experiences when certain colors and shapes announce themselves as if from without; how a writer can become immersed within the flow of composition in a way that’s not totally themselves, that’s not totally rational. To be possessed is to be in danger and to be dangerous; to be possessed is to be holy. Not long after Pan’s death was announced across the Mediterranean, when the oracles were supposed to be dumb, the prophecies mute, and those penitents at Cocullo still handled their snakes and the initiates of Jajouka still played their flutes, and a different group of the possessed danced in ecstasy. In the eastern most corner of the empire, by those waters of Zion, and the assembled apostles felt “tongues of fire” come upon them as they gloriously chanted, each in their own spirit intoxicated language, this redemptive Babel that was Pentecost. They danced as if Maenads. Luke writes in the Book of Acts that the disciples were “filled with the Holy Spirit, and [they] began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” How it must have sounded like a squealing of reeds, a blowing of pipes. Each person speaking in their own words, their own language, singular acts of inspired creation, of unique rendering. The only unpardonable sin we are told is to deny the Holy Spirit, to ignore the enchantments of this creation and the meaning that permeates everything, to not play the pipes when Pan calls. We are told in that same book of scripture that when Saul was on the road to Damascus, Christ appeared in a blinding light and told him that it was “hard to kick against the goads.” The Spirit cannot be denied. Yet Luke’s words had been said before, the gospel writer was quoting the playwright Euripides. They had first been uttered some five centuries before by Dionysus in The Bacchae. Old gods have a way of always being born again.    

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