Friday, September 23, 2016

Proust in the Jungle








   The shapes on the ground were suggestive, but unrecognizable and constantly shifting, in the dark of the wee hours of the night, the density of the vegetation, my disorientation, and the pulsating of Ayahuasca in my whole being, after the ritual I had just been part of, in that  Indian Village at the Brazilian limit with Peru. I couldn’t know what I was stepping on, what I was exactly seeing, and where I was really going. Everybody else had been well enough to retire for the night into their hammocks, but I was far from done with purging, and had to keep going back to one of those exiled holes the Indians make on the ground to use as latrines, and that are barely encircled by wooden, irregular and flimsy walls. 
   Not having a “normal” bathroom to rely upon, plus the lack of privacy and proper hygiene that may result from it, had been the reasons I never went to the music festivals of another tribe I knew, that is also located in the Amazonia.  But then I met Benki. Ethereal,  with a grace that seemed to exude from a spiritual focus in his every  gesture, position, or words, Benki was totally himself at the same time that he seemed to be carried away with something much beyond his person. He was like a crystal and also a reassuring, strong presence; a crystal whose delicate surface is the most transparent, and yet refracts rainbows from the light it meets with; it was impossible to not believe in all the super natural stories Benki told us about his village, his healing power, his clairvoyance.  Because of a happy coincidence, one of the times I visited family, in Brazil, he could stay at my brother’s house in Rio de Janeiro, and spent some individual time with us and a few of our closest friends. Looking at me, he said I was a medium and had to develop it, otherwise I could be “charged”. I had already participated in many Ayahuasca rituals, conducted by the other Indians I knew, and had the  most amazing revelations, with no previous diet other than abstain, on the day of it, from medicines and alcohol.  But Benki didn’t seem to make much of it, and  said he would put me in the proper Ayahuasca diet and teach me, if I went to spend a week in his village. Thinking I would never be able to go to the jungle,  I still remembered Kierkegaard’s declaration that he would travel to the ends of the Earth to meet someone like “the Knight of Faith” he describes so well, and I considered myself happy for just having met someone in whose presence I found myself instantly lifted by faith and, going or not to his village to learn with him,  I was sure I would do everything I could for my two young adult kids to be once in his presence.  Then, I didn’t know that it is easier for Benki to leave the jungle for one of the capitals of Europe- having become such an important figure in the ecological world scene- than for anywhere in Brazil.  When he finally allowed us to go to his village, we arrived some days later than our proposed date, and Benki was very busy with a television team that was there making some sort of documentary, but still, he received us with warmth and invited us to participate in all the activities that were going to be filmed, beginning with the Ayahuasca ritual, that very night.  
   As inconceivable as it had been for me to go the Amazonia, when I first thought of it, this time, before taking the trip, I stopped myself from thinking anything other than getting there, and, as if by miracle, was instantly filled with an irrational and unquestionable motivation, of which a big part was to take my yoga and mystic oriented children with me. It had been a tough trip, through which we had to take an array of different means of transportation, and after an Ayahuasca ceremony under the starriest sky I had ever seen, there I was, desperately trying to devise in the darkness one of those “outhouses”, after having taken a few steps away from the open porch of Benki's house, where my hammock was set in between those of my two kids, along with others, belonging to local Indians .  That  repeated back and forth, the constant getting in  the hammock, praying it was over, only to rush out of it again with  small flashlight and toilette paper in hand, as quietly as possible to not wake up others, as I meandered my way out amidst their hammocks, was becoming a torture.   Reaching the “hole”, not only was I obliged to overcome my repulsion at squatting over the smell of other’s waste, placing my feet among residues of disposed paper,  insects, dry leaves, and whatever else I preferred to not identify, but modesty, need of privacy,  “civilized” hygiene,  and the fear of how that predicament was gonna end,  demanding from me an overcoming of my whole person in its reliance on habits of the past, and taking for granted expectations of  more easiness, for the most trivial of human functions. It was useless to lament not being able to devote my attention to the revelations Ayahuasca would bring into my mind- just like it did at the beginning of the ritual- if I didn’t have to be in that constant, urgent, motion.  To top it all, I got lost in one of those ventures, seeing neither “outhouse”, nor the side of the porch I had come from, no matter how many times I turned the flashlight in every possible direction, while animals went on with their plights, like the cacophany of frogs, the crickets’ syncopated marking of time,  the grunting of some boar like creature nearby,  and the forlorn chant of a rooster. Images of me  being exiled there for the rest of the night, exposed to possible snakes and  being devoured by mosquitoes, to say the least, filled my head, along with the shame of being eventually found  in pathetic distress…  I could not… I ordered myself to not despair and took a deep breath, giving it all up to Ayahuasca. “Whatever happens in or of a ritual is part of it”,  I remembered hearing the first shaman we knew say, during an  Ayahuasca ceremony.   Having  to overcome revolt, being exposed, the horror of shitting in a hole, and  the difficulty of managing, with shaking hands, toilet paper, flashlight, attack of mosquitoes in foul smell, was then Ayahuasca’s lesson to me. The vine of the soul despises nothing, in the same way it often brings visions of the sublime and the grotesque “hand in hand”, as if redeeming all chasms,  just like making shit and vomit be as natural as the sublime view of the stars above; physical and spiritual reality, gruesome and poetic images reconciled, in the cosmic power it has to obliterate patterns of measure, labels,  the relativity of comparison and opposition, and any other limits of our finitude -bound perception of reality.  Ayahuasca’s unrestrained freedom to put down all these mental crutches through which we see the world, rendering each of its  revelations absolute, can only be love, the magic wand under whose touch a mere one- among- many is revealed unique, unrelated and whole; I had to recognize and trust this indiscriminate generosity of the plant medicine, I had to leave everything up to it right then... An instant reassurance  took over me, right before my coming to identify the corner of the looked-for porch, and became able to retrace my steps,  before having to re start it all over again, with the hope of finally being able to settle down. And still, by what felt like the millionth time stepping back into my hammock, I realized I had to return into the wild yet again, and could no longer care about finding the outhouse.  Any tree behind which I could squat should do, if I managed to get to one. As for disposing of the toilette paper, a depression in the land, filled with other residues and dry leaves, was providentially revealed to my eyes. After another three or four more incursions out there, my stomach finally settled and, back to my hammock,  I zipped up its mosquito screen over me yet again. By then, no more visions were coming to my mind, and, in sheer physical fragility and nervous sensitivity, I could not manage to abstract myself from the spookiness of the ongoing chant of the rooster, a co co ri co that was invariably followed by a plaintive, even painful whine, the sound of which I had never heard before. The  ducks, in the open area by the porch, were constantly picking at one another and repeatedly crashed on the side of our slightly elevated floor, producing, with their clumsy and failed attempts to climb on it, a reverberating,  absurdly aggressive noise,   as if the house was being punched by some gigantic, invisible, haunting fist, the evoking of which gave those birds a perverse dimension. They couldn’t be just dummy ducks falling short of their target. No animal, out of domestic limits, is just a creature that can be explained away by our utilitarian  ends;  I was sure there was mystery inside each  and all around them, some sort of atavist secret that our tyrannical commitment to survival entitles itself to ignore, as it blindly  appropriates a right to profanation of everything the respect of which clashes with our material needs. It says that a duck is a duck and is eatable, period. But the sound every one of those birds made transmitted to me an eerie misery,  worse of all, the whining of the rooster. I could hear no more, I wanted to improve its life and I couldn’t.  In a few hours, a celebratory party would start some distance from there, and all the Indians would be up and about, to dance, drink the “Caiçuma”  beverage they prepare, and sing until the following day. Depleted, I wanted to be asleep by the time the first one of them awoke, but I couldn’t stop myself from mentally following the insistent chant of the rooster every time it first started, in expectation and dread of the final lament, that infallibly followed. “Not this time”, I would think, at the hearing of its first notes, to no avail. Morning was in progress already, why didn’t it shut up?
 Then, I remembered.  My  iphone. I would listen to the recording it has of Proust’s masterpiece, just like I had done at that God forsaken little town we had to spend the night at- after having been twelve hours up the river, under the hottest sun, in the precarious boat we’d hired, with a poor engine and bad driver to boot- before proceeding the trip to Benki’s village.  An open place with a roof, from which one could hang one’s hammock, had been shown to us then, by a skinny guy who had been on the shore, when we arrived, and, almost incapable to believe that some non local  people had travelled there at all, generously cooked us a meager dinner, delighted to find out, from my gringo looking son, what  “mystery” had taken us to that end of the world.
   Our sleeping place was next to a little chapel, where a driven evangelic minister was indoctrinating the innocents with the supposed demands of Jesus Christ, of whom he talked with the assertive impunity of mediocrity, as if relating a chit -chat with someone he’d just had a beer with. In his mouth, Jesus was merely that which made him feel important, over bearing, self-righteous, and incredibly stupid. I could not listen to the influence of that self-interested presumptuousness, over the vulnerability of primitive people, and peacefully drift into sleep, especially remembering that the presence of Benki, in his harmony with spirit, transmits an incorruptibility that, without his ever having to pronounce the name of our Lord,  he made me more of a fully believing Christian, than any indoctrination could ever do.  I thanked God I could listen to Proust and obliterate the minister. And the passage that came to my ears was about Marcel’s describing a duchess he was in love with. Admiring her, whom he could watch  before her mirror, from his window, he says, “ et dans l’oubli mithologique de sa grandeur native, elle regardait si sa voilette etait bien tirée, aplatissait ses manches, ajustait son manteau, comme le cygne divin fait tous les mouvements de son espèce animal, garde ses yeux peints des deux côtés de son bec sans y mettre  de regards et se jette tout d’un coup sur un bouton ou un parapluie, en cygne, sans se souvenir qu’il est un Dieu.” ( “in  the mythological forgetfulness of her innate greatness, she would check whether her veil was straight,  flatten her sleeves, adjust her overcoat, like the divine swam makes all the movements of his animal  species, keeps his eyes painted on both sides of  his beak  without having  to look at it,  and  all of a sudden throws itself  on  a button or an umbrella, as a swam, without remembering he is  a  god”). 
   Even though, Proust recognizes that his imagination, in search of perfection, saw transcendental dimension in the most carnal of his desires, he nonetheless comes to the conclusion that, in the search for love, we do attach the loved person to divinities, and can thus people our world with them.  He was able to worship humans with words that, on account of their beauty,  were truer than factuality; they did reveal the finger prints of God on the person he loved. In relating to the divine, they were certainly more convincing, more transcendent, in their poetic power, than those of that evangelic priest, who sounded completely devoid of any reverence, or devotion. In his mouth, Jesus’ humanness was the license he entitled himself with to express a sentimental closeness to the Messiah, in order to collect money from  the audience.
   Jesus was human and he constantly mentioned it, in his generosity to share his closeness to the Father with all of us.  “Father, why have you forsaken me?” He says, at the peak of a human suffering he had no qualms to express. 
    “The flesh is weak”, but its sacrificial nature, its possibility of surrender to the  divine is the strength of the human.
   Good-bye evangelic priest, and forgotten little village on the way to Benki; I managed to fall asleep, and we had already crossed the limit with Peru in the river, inside the boat, with no problem. On the following day, we should arrive at the Indian village, of which Benki is the leader. 
   Now I was there, still resorting desperately to Marcel Proust’s words, the hearing of which, then, felt more healing than the inspiration of shamanism, especially as I chanced upon one of the passages Proust transmits the absoluteness of individuality; what corresponds to that dimension of novelty, before which one has to be disarmed; free of mental concepts that are prior to its perception, because, “notre esprit attentive a devant lui l’insistence d’une forme don’t il ne poss`ede pas l’equivalent intellectual, don’t il lui faut dégager l’inconnu.” (  “ our attentive mind has, before it, the insistence of a form of which it has no intellectual equivalent,  of which it has to detach the unknown”)…“dans la collection de nos idées, il n’y en a aucune qui reponde `a une impression individuelle. “ ( “ in the collection of our ideas, there is none that responds to an individual impression”).  
   This was related to the difference Proust experienced between the first time he went to watch the great actress he named “Berma”, and the second.  Eager to appreciate her talent at first, he missed it, precisely because he was so intent on separating it from the role the actress was playing, having, in his mind, ready to be applied to it, prior ideas of what a great talent should be. But, at watching her play the same role for the second time, when he was no longer expecting great revelations from it, he “got” what he had once missed, because, to put it simply, he was no longer “armed” with those mental concepts to fit over what was, until then, “unknown”. 
   The need of disarmament Proust is so aware of for the perception of individual impressions, that can only be gotten from what life presents as absolutely new and, in its surprise, unstained from mental projections, concerns the same nakedness Ayahuasca reduces one to, for its revelations. Proust attained it with his otherworldly intelligence, and, as the narrator of “ A la Recherche…”, lived in the world of essences, of that which is in itself, rather than in relation to anything else. It is the world of respecting, rather than using, prayer-like appreciation, instead of taking for granted, letting go, in the place of projecting. Proust’s mental disarmament is his  courage and humbleness to be open to that which, being until then unknown, represents a threat to the common, repetitive perception we make of reality, which  is built upon prior expectations and concepts we have that, like a formula,  give us the illusion we can mold what is to come, and be protected from unpredictability. From the language of God, really.  
   God will not talk to one’s “protected” person, nor will Ayahuasca. 
To put down the arms of the mind is to disclose oneself to the humbleness and surrender of genuine prayer. 
  
   Before falling asleep, I could see Benki go by, heading to the Caiçuma party. Dressed in  full regalia, he  was so graceful and unaffected, moving swiftly, as if every part of his body was weightless, floating in the air,  somehow,  carried by his mission, which the elements around him seemed to be aware of.   I once thought that Indians, unlike us, “civilized”, coexist with the trivial and the sacred naturally and simultaneously. Civilization, on the contrary,  asserts what is through what is not, and vice-versa, making opposition the core of the whole edifice of its thought. It opposes magic to science, soul to body, spirit to matter, just like it puts discipline and duty on one side, informality and fun on the other. 
   Benki was on his way to oblige a ritualistic behavior- the most  serious of duties- as well as to be festive. The “civilized” mind blindly ignores that real fun, a state of gratefulness to life, is something very serious.  The Caiçuma party was everything. I was happy to watch Benki go by, and happy to finally feel independent, from him. 
   Lessons are given from  what one least expects to learn, just like, in communion with Ayahuasca, the circumstances around a Shaman can speak for themselves and bring, to someone much needing them, the words and inspiration of Marcel Proust.


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