Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Food for the Gods

Anyone contemplating the pre-Columbian civilizations south of the U.S. border must be struck by the importance of human sacrifice. Who can forget the tens of thousands regularly killed by the Aztecs, the mummified Inca children found on mountaintops, the Mayan altars with a concavity atop for the victim’s heart and carved grooves for comely symmetric flow of blood? Such practices, virtually universal during the Bronze Age, but originating far back in Paleolithic times and continuing into the present, puzzle if they do not shock us moderns. Was Adorno correct in classing a practice so widespread with the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis as “touchstones of barbarity”?

The killing of servants to accompany a royal pooh-bah, attested in many cultures, may be viewed as simply a reinforcement of hierarchy and control and the deaths of war captives as a gloating display ritual. When I entered the courtyard of the Oba of Benin City, I saw an image, made of the same rusty-red laterite clay as the palace, depicting the ruler with a large blade in one hand and half a human body in the other, an image clearly designed to intimidate visitors. I recalled the gruesome tales of the sacrifice of over a hundred told by a member of the punitive expedition of 1897. [1] The offering of people of status, however, must arise from other causes.

The Hebrew scripture contains ample evidence for human sacrifice in the ancient Near East. The binding of Isaac will come first to mind. Abraham is specifically ordered to make his son “a burnt offering upon one of the mountains.” (Genesis 22:2) Whatever else it may signify, this narrative surely was written to justify the end of a ritual that had existed earlier. Jephthah’s burnt sacrifice of his daughter (who willingly cooperates) in return for victory in battle reminds the reader of another general, Agamemnon, and his equally cooperative daughter Iphigenia. (Judges 11:29-40) [2]

Clearly, human beings caught up in a world they cannot control have always striven to master the situation through currying favor with greedy deities. Since we are self-interested, we assume god must be as well. Do ut des. The old ritual magic compelled divine gifts, but the gifts do not come for free. The more valuable an offering one can give, the greater the likelihood one’s prayers will be answered. From this perspective, human sacrifice is simply a stronger magic than the offering of animals or flowers. [3] The use of incense or candles preserves the archaic notion that some “sweet savor” ascends to the Almighty who inhales it with pleasure. The body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist ratchets the value up further from the human victim to a divine one. The central duty of both Brahmins and Kohanim is the proper administration of sacrificial offerings in order to obtain benefits for the donor.

This practical ego-centered motive, however, by no means exhausts the meaning of human sacrifice. Most importantly, the shedding of blood dramatically enacts the fact that life lives only upon life. There is no inorganic food. Survival depends on consuming living things (animal or plant makes no difference), making them a sacrifice to ourselves. Thus, the offering of life to god reflects human recognition of our necessary ensnarement in the web of life and death. We eat, and, if we are not cremated, our bodies are eaten. Ahimsa is an unrealizable ideal. Even a fruitarian sannyasin can only approach perfect non-violence as he destroys the potential to grow and reproduce of the products he consumes. Human sacrifice dramatizes this fact in the most memorable way.

Surely the witness to human sacrifice would experience pity and fear even more profoundly than the audience at a Greek tragedy. To witness the spectacle of death straight-on with open eyes portrays our human condition more profoundly than any philosophical text. How else can one explain the popularity of gladiatorial contests, executions, and bloody Mexican tabloids, not to mention the otherwise gratuitous violence in popular American films? Watching others die, we rehearse our own death, at once pleased not to be for the moment at least on center stage, yet knowing that our time will come, that each will play the central part, at once so titanic a change and so utterly ordinary.

As mythology, of course, the dying and reborn god is characteristic of planting societies, and the individual who is to die not infrequently welcomes this fate. Sacrifice means to consecrate or make holy, to the believer a desirable end. Martin Luther King’s apothegm “undeserved suffering is redemptive” includes of course the implication that death that serves the deity, whether through magic or morality, carries the highest “redemptive” value. The selflessness that enables such sacrifice is the opposite of the ego-driven motive in political and magical uses of sacrifice.

The practice of human sacrifice implies the ultimate identity of the mundane and the divine as one can pass into and fructify the other. Even more deeply, it suggests what the Uddalaka Aruni tells his son in the Upanishad [4] “That is you.” Far from the idea of the divine as “utterly other,” this identity implies the same sort of radical monism one finds in Parmenides, Stoicism, Spinoza and the mystics of many traditions. Modern physicists, while seeking to account for experimental results, have provided excellent images for this sort of view.

These sorts of sacrifice -- political, magical, psychological, ritual, philosophic, moral, and mystical – are not mutually exclusive. Like the meanings in every work of art, every cultural construct, they exist together in a dynamic and complex balance. The great essayist Montaigne relays a song sung by a prisoner of war during the time before he is killed and eaten by his captors. He invites his tormentors. “Let them boldly come altogether, and flock in multitudes, to feed upon him; for with him they shall feed upon their fathers, and grandfathers, that heretofore have served his body. These muscles, (saith he) this flesh, and these veines, are your owne; fond men as you are, know you not that the substance of your forefathers limbs is yet tied unto ours? Taste them well, for in them shall you finde the relish of your owne flesh.” [5] One hears, through the languages and the centuries, the defiant and stoical brave man taunting his murderers. One infers the victors’ aspiration to magically assume such courage from the vanquished. And for me at any rate, there is at least a hint of those more sublime intuitions: that each takes a turn in the procession of the flesh, and that in the end there is no distinction, they are he and he is they and in eating him they eat themselves.

I readily concede, of course, that this reflection would have had little meaning to the captive in question. While every cultural practice contains symbolic insights and, through its functional value to humans, is “true” from a certain perspective, human sacrifice and a number of somewhat less horrifying institutions (such as war, slavery, and oppression of women) should be banned by our species, regardless of past tradition. All the same, as a visitor to the once bloody altars of Mesoamerica, I recalled Montaigne’s conclusion that what he had heard of the New World “canniballes” sounded no more barbarous than what he knew without doubt to be occurring in Christian Europe, and, we may add, what we read in our daily newspapers. “There is nothing in that [American] nation, that is either barbarous or savage, unlesse men call that barbarisme which is not common to them. And indeed, we have no other ayme of truth and reason, than the example and Idea of the opinions and customes of the countrie we live in. There is ever perfect religion, perfect policie, perfect and compleat use of all things.”

1. See Alan Maxwell Boisgragon’s The Benin Massacre.

2. Biblical examples of other sorts of human sacrifice occur as well. For instance, “Thou shalt not delay to offer the first of thy ripe fruits, and of thy liquors: the firstborn of thy sons shalt thou give unto me.” (Exodus 22:29); Jeremiah 32:35 describes Israelites offering their own children to Molech (as the King James has it) though the text condemns this sacrifice; in I Kings 16:34 Hiel rebuilds Jericho through the loss of his children; II Kings 23:20 tells of the burning of false priests on Jehovah’s altar; Deuteronomy 13:13-19 tells of the burning of an entire defeated town “for the Lord thy God.”

3. In Genesis 4:4-5 God accepts Abel’s animal sacrifice, while rejecting Cain’s vegetable one. The early Israelites were, of course, primarily pastoral people while the older civilizations around them depended on agriculture.

4. In the Chandogya Upanishad, 6th Prapathaka, 8th Khanda, verse 7.

5. “On Canniballes,” quoted from Florio’s admirable 1603 translation.

A Palm Wine Shack

I had spent the day with Mr. Varghese, a pleasant and kind Indian Christian from Kerala. He and his wife were the only other foreigners at Unity School in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. We had idled away the day in the offices of bureaucrats at the provincial Education Ministry in Benin City. Mr. Varghese and his fellow Indians had mastered, so far as a mortal may, the techniques of survival for the expatriate in Nigeria. His favorite gambit when he had to visit the capital of Bendel State was to avoid the officials, instead bringing seven or eight cold Cokes to the file clerks in the Records Department. He regularly cultivated these lowly workers, expressing his faithful friendship with a gift always welcome in their sweltering rooms, where the files had overflowed their cabinets and were stacked on the floor as though the entire government was a compulsive hoarder in need of immediate intervention. When Mr. Varghese wished to accomplish anything, he would simply get his file from the young workers (though how they located anything was a marvel). He could then make whatever adjustments he required without bothering to go through channels.

On this occasion, though, this method could not serve and we had spent eight hours in fruitless waiting while our classes, of course, did not meet. We may both have been somewhat weary. On our way we passed a river with wide belts of vegetation as profoundly green, surely, as anything ever has been since Adam and Eve, and so extremely dense one could not see a foot into the bush. Not far further was a palm wine stand with enormous calabashes hung in clusters. We looked at each other, but passed on only to see another palm wine spot, and at that point we could not resist.

Mr. Varghese pulled up, rolled down his window, and inquired “Sweet one?” (as opposed to “strong one”). Satisfied they had his drink, we went under their thatch, still dripping from the recent rain and joined several other patrons on a wooden bench.
For twenty kobo (maybe twenty-five cents) our waiter (a boy of perhaps seven years) brought a gourd holding at least a pint. It was colored with coarse red specks, cam wood or something like, and had the yeasty, “working” fizz of fresh palm wine.
We sat in this place, feeling as though we were present at the dawn of the world, still just poised before tumbling into the endless “nightmare” of history (as Joyce’s Stephen had it). One could hear the nearby stream purling on. Now and then a drop fell from above like a benediction. We did not speak.

A woman dressed in neatly tied and knotted fabrics, including an elaborate headdress, strolled over from the nearby fire where she prepared food for the palm wine customers. She seemed shaken to see me there and once her comments had begun, they did not cease and her fixed gaze never left me: “Why are you here?” (A good question, I do not doubt.) “Do you drink palm wine? Is bad, very bad for oyibo [white person]. Oyibo, give me money. I need money to drink for myself. Why are you drinking and you don’t want me to drink too. Oyibo, palm wine is not for you, give me mooooney. You are bad oyibo if you no give me moooney.”
Eden had slipped away once more from right between our fingers. We finished our drinks hurriedly and returned to the dusty car. We hadn’t been stopped long enough for our sweat to dry on the seats.

Rereading the Classics [Rabelais]

In a few months, I shall visit Portugal. We have engaged a room in Navaré on the coast during the days of Carnival and shall blame only ourselves if we are kept awake by revelry. I have, in anticipation, been thinking of Bakhtin’s study of Carnival customs and of Rabelais. While dealing with Stalinism and his own osteomyelitis, Bakhtin found in the great Renaissance monk an irresistible source of laughter, a way to cope with being human, with belches and farts and pains and death and murderous hypocrites in power all the while.

Now, of course, physicality has always been a major source of humor, puncturing pretensions and downing idealistic flights of fancy. It is the stock in trade of clowns, of commedia dell’arte, and of a good many contemporary comic actors like Jim Carrey. Though comedy often springs from the most material human attributes, the abstract logical mind is the another major source, perhaps equally significant. This reflects the human predicament: as Pascal had it, neither wholly angelic nor wholly bestial. [1] Thus cerebral humor like incongruities and puns generate a laugh as well as pratfalls and stomach gurgles. [2]

The physical side has attracted the most attention to Rabelais. His reputation for obscenity and crudity is, in the end, inconsistent with his utter normalcy; his body-consciousness strikes the reader as unusually healthy. In spite of the basic impulse of monasticism to reject the world, Rabelais embraces physicality, not with resignation but with joy. Life, death, eating, excreting are such fun, such loci of energy that they inevitably spawn great torrents of words. Rather than fleeing their humanity, Gargantua and Pantagruel magnify it through their gigantism, and the language does its best to keep up.

His book, however, is as erudite as it is vulgar. Of course, the manipulation of symbols is indeed more distinctly human than intestinal gas, at which bovines, for instance, far surpass us. Surely the mind is the single characteristic that most distinguishes our species, the most critically important in the development of homo sapiens. Semiotic use belongs to humanity as pouncing to cats or webs to spiders, and Rabelais delights in language, the most sophisticated code in existence. His book is filled with effervescent examples of what the medievals called amplificatio, piling it on, compiling great catalogues, adding one largely synonymous figure to another, listing authorities as though presenting a learned argument. He makes endless allusions, employs every sort of rhetoric and verse imaginable, and elaborates commentaries on commentaries for the sheer exhilarated joy of it. Knowing no bounds, he invents outlandish names and words, and shuffles foreign tongues together. Such Whitmanic/Joycean exuberance in a learned French monk!

Loving language, he loves literature, and book-studies of all kinds. He is full to overflowing; he is encyclopedic. He mixes high and low styles in a way that would have seemed barbaric to the ancients. In the list of Gargantua’s games one feels the pulse of life even more than in Breughel’s painting. In Xenomanes’ description of King Lent [3] are a hundred surrealist images. Few others construct such grand textures of words out of playful high spirits alone.

His rhetorical figures correspond precisely to the author’s world-view. He is constitutionally filled with a buoyant delight at existence, inspired by learned studies no less than by a fine dinner or an admirable sunrise. This delight in simply being alive is stronger in some passages than others, but never absent through the entire work. This is surely in fact the work’s most significant theme. It may be true, as the Buddha said that life is suffering, but it is no less true that life is joyful, and it can only be salutary to look through the eyes of one who expresses the other half of the undeniable self-contradictory truth. As Rabelais says, echoing Aquinas in his initial address to his readers: “to laugh is natural to men.” [4]

Pantagruelism, according to its creator, arises from “a certain jollity of mind, pickled in the scorn of fortune” [5] But in fact, what the translator calls “jollity” is in French gaîté, and this word has a long history in French poetry. Among the troubadours “gai” was used to imply a sort of sublimity bordering on divine afflatus. [6] Thus gai saber came to be used for the “sciences” of poetry composition and of lovemaking as in the 14th century Consistori del Gay (or Gai) Saber. Rabelais in the stirrings of the Reformation and Nietzsche with the 19th century “death of God” both saw the world opening before them.

Nietzsche says in his Fröhliche Wissenschaft, “Indeed, we philosophers and ‘free spirits’ feel, when we hear the news that ‘the old god is dead,’ as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea.’” [7]

In a temperament of a soberer sort, George Santayana thought of the world as a grand mardi gras, saying “It is a great Carnival, and amongst these lights and shadows of comedy, these roses and vices of the playhouse, there is no abiding.” [8] In fact, Pantagruel’s whole story, like that of Dante or of Monkey in Journey to the West is a journey toward enlightenment.
Less foregrounded, but a natural consequence of Rabelais’ sensibility, is his political radicalism, his uncompromising sharp satire of the ruling class of church and state, and his admiration for More’s communist utopia. Bakhtin was on the money, as many subsequent critics have agreed, when he associated Rabelais’ attitude with the social practices around Carnival in which social order was overturned, at once revealing temporarily the artificiality of the everyday and reinforcing its essential reality by playfully enacting its opposite. All laughter has an element of letting go, of a sudden release of repressed ideas. [9] When Epistemon’s throat is cut and he finds himself in the underworld, social roles are reversed. [10] Kings and conquerors are reduced to beggary, while the philosophers prosper. Of course, in the Abbey of Thélème, with its slogan “Do as thou wouldst,” the inmates need not support themselves; indeed, like nobles, they have troops of workmen to provide their needs. Their behavior is decorous due to the aristocratic virtue of “honor,” really an aesthetic category. Still, Rabelais’ book must be counted among those that presaged the breakdown of Roman Catholic hegemony and of European feudalism, though what followed was not liberation but new varieties of Protestant intolerance and capitalist exploitation.

Am I the only reader to suspect a poignant note in the constant barrage of good humor about drinking alcohol? To me it sounds as though, for all the ebullient story-telling, all the optimistic brio, all the hearty Renaissance self-celebration, the subject in the end must seek some anesthetic or analgesic at least to make it through the night. Even the healthiest of monkish physicians felt the need for a chemical fix when it seemed that reality was gaining on him. In addition the fantasies of titanic meals may be seen as the inversion of the sort of starvation anxiety Bettelheim found in stories like Hansel and Gretel. Clearly, the fantastic liberty of actors like Pantagruel and Panurge gains its appeal from the compromised and highly programmed lives most people live. Similarly, Rabelais’ frequent “jolly” references to people identified as physically ill (most often “syphilitics” and “gouty ones,” two conditions that were associated with over-indulgence) reinforces the fact of mortality and the transience of worldly things. Just as in ancient Greek and Chinese poetry, the recognition of the illusory nature of pleasure heightens its enjoyment even as it adds a dark shadow to the scene.

Glorious as I find him, Rabelais is not, indeed, to everyone’s taste. For those of us who like to believe in the power of words, it is gratifying to find that the Church is still after him as it was during his life. The Catholic Encyclopedia says of Rabelais’ book, “It is impossible to analyse it” yet adds as well the caution: “as a whole it exercises a baneful influence.” I would not blame the pious fathers for doubting that the author of Gargantua and Pantagruel was a believer in original sin.

He is also capable of offending George Orwell who calls him precisely what he is not: “an exceptionally perverse, morbid writer, a case for psycho-analysis.” Orwell marvels that “anyone can find something ‘normal’ and ‘hearty’ in coprophilia,” [11] and suggests that Rabelais’ reputation can only exist due to people’s failing to actually read his book.
Orwell wrote on the eve of the immensely and deservedly popular translation of an abridgement by Samuel Putnam. Urquhart/Motteux is good fun but can tire the reader. J. M. Cohen’s Penguin version is complete and reliable as well as inexpensive and easily available. Donald M. Frame’s The Complete Works of François Rabelaisis the best current scholarly version for serious students who don’t read French. I can only think that the more people who read Rabelais, the better. He is an enormous spirit and we can all use the tolerance, good sense, and profound learning as well as his high spirits which delighted not only in food and drink but in the most entertaining play of all, the play of the mind.

1. Blaise Pascal, Pensées 329.

2. For the gastric sounds I am thinking of Chaplin’s “stomach duet” with a charitable prison visitor in Modern Times, for which he created the noises himself by blowing bubbles into a pail of water.

3. Book IV, chapters 30-32 contains such figures as “his lungs like a fur-lined hood,” “his imagination like a peal of bells,” and “if he blew his nose, it was salted eels.”

4. Rabelaisian it may sound, but the line is directly from the Summa Theologica, LI, 1.

5. “Une certaine gaîté d'esprit confite dans le mépris des choses fortuites.” In Urquhart’s edition, though by this point translated by Motteux, from the prologue to Book IV. Motteux was also an early translator of Don Quixote, though, according to Samuel Putnam, he was very free, adding obscene material in particular and omitting at liberty while emphasizing the “slapstick.” His death in a brothel led to a sensational closely watched trial.

6. See, for instance, the Contessa de Dia’s “Ab joi et ab joven m’apais,” William IX’s “Pos de chantar m'es pres talenz,” and Peire Vidal’s “Ab l’alen tir vas me l’aire.”

7. Aphorism 343 of Die fröhliche Wissenschaft in Walter Kaufmann’s translation. Nietzsche owes to Emerson for these concepts. Among the many commentators, Harold Bloom regards Nietzsche as “Emerson’s belated rival.”

8. Santayana 34 in "Carnival" from Soliloquies in England and later soliloquies.

9. For Freud, humor arose from a rejection of reality and a triumph for the pleasure principle, the superego temporarily allowing the ego to gain id satisfaction from introducing tabooed topics. Among the likely sources of comedy, then are sex and scatology, heterodoxy and revolution.

10. Rabelais owes a debt, here, to Lucian’s Menippus.

11. The line is from a dismissive review of Albert Cohen’s now-forgotten Nailcruncher that appears in George Orwell, My country right or left, 1940-1943, p. 45-6. I am curious as to what episode Orwell thought could properly be termed “coprophilic.”

Walkin' Blues [Son House]

Another close reading of a blues song (see “Down the Dirt Road Blues,” posted during October 2011). My goal in this series is to demonstrate the subtlety and poetic value of these great American lyrics.

Son House’s “Walkin’ Blues” is at once a narrative, like a brief short story, and a lyric cri de coeur. Musical style and tone are masterfully unified in a classic statement of the Delta blues.

The persona of the song (recorded in significantly different form by Robert Johnson) opens with a blues formula. The speaker comes into consciousness (“got up this morning”) in darkness and bewilderment (“feeling ‘round for my shoes”). While disorientation in the dark nighttime might be normative, this is unusual. Unable to put things straight, he acknowledges his ill: the “walkin’ blues.” Parallel to “walking pneumonia,” he is stricken, though able yet to function.

Initially the first person pronoun is omitted, universalizing the line and making it seem a general characterization of the world. When this is repeated in the third line, the sufferer is particularized as “I,” as though his pain has caused him to emphasis his individual ego. The fourth line addresses the listener as a potentially sympathetic confidant, an amelioration of his condition created by his words. Though the second person may lack the singer’s first-hand experience, he has experienced the blues through the lyric.

This relationship is expanded in the second verse which characterizes the blues as a “chill,” a symbolic negation of the “warmth” of life as well as a straightforward medical symptom. The relationship between imagined speaker and projected listener becomes reciprocal as the one expresses good wishes for the other: “If you ain’t had ‘em I hope you never will.” The fragility of the persona is enacted in his hesitation, as he repeats “I” in a stammer that poignantly indicates the instability and, at the same time, the trembling vulnerability of the ego.

This other figure crystallizes in the third stanza. She is a woman with whom he has a conflicted relationship. The first line kindly offers her emotional support and invites reciprocity (“When you get worried drop me a line”) but his thoughtfulness turns immediately to pessimistic self-absorption expressed ironically: “If I don’t go crazy, honey, I’m going to lose my mind.” The affectionate term “honey” appears though his distress is attributable to her failure to accept his love.
The fourth through the sixth stanzas analyze the mésalliance. The singer indicates their racial compatibility, implicitly suggesting that she is “dicty” or hoity-toity, and denouncing himself for his mad infatuation, yet ultimately he can only renew his lament, finding himself with “nobody to throw his arms around” when “the sun goes down.” He has made all possible effort toward harmony and must ask in the end her pity, despairing for the moment of her love.

The profundity of his desire is expressed in the imagery of the seventh stanza which sounds archaic enough to be Neolithic: “I love my baby like the cow love to chew her cud.” The depth of desire and the utter naturalness of the singer’s need heighten his poignant predicament. His life is aimless and pointless without love. His wife’s mistreatment, presumably infidelity, her “lowdown ways,” makes time spread out to purgatorial lengths of suffering. Convinced that “somebody is stealing my jelly roll,” he has recourse to a supernatural consultant.

The poem ends with a renewal of lament and a final resolution. “Feeling sick and bad,” he can only contrast his state with past “good times.” As the sun disappears in a lyrically distorted stanza with prolonged cries of loss, and the evening that brings depression returns, the singer declares his own righteousness to the society of men who might sympathize: “I wouldn’t do nothing boys, not against my woman’s will.” Yet in the end, he does. He resolves to leave his unfaithful wife for “a great long time,” never to return until she changes her mind.

The world of the song is hazardous and mysterious; the singer is lost, sick, and fears mental breakdown. The polarities within which he must try to make life livable – black and white, male and female – seem all but impossible to reconcile. At the moment he is alienated from a tangled love relationship. The regular recurrence of nightfall seems sinister and foreboding, magnifying the singer’s Angst and helplessness. Yet the singer, and each of us who hears him, simply go walking on toward the uncertain future, lured always forward by the memory of “good times” in the past and the ideal of satisfaction evident in the down-home image of the ruminating cow.

Walkin’ Blues Son House

Well got up this morning, feeling ‘round for my shoes
Know about that, I got the walkin' blues
I said I got up this morning, I was feeling ‘round for my shoes
I said you know about that now, I got the walkin' blues.

The blues ain’t nothing but a lowdown shaking chill
If you ain’t had ‘em I hope you never will
Oh, the blues is a lowdown old aching chill
If you ain’t had ‘em boys, I -- I hope you never will.

When you get worried drop me a line
If I don’t go crazy, honey, I’m going to lose my mind
When you get worried I said sit down and drop me a line
If I don’t go crazy, honey, I’m going to lose my mind.

Your hair ain’t curly, your doggone eyes ain’t blue
If you don’t want me what the world I -- I want with you?
Oh, your hair ain’t curly and your doggone eyes ain’t blue
I said now if you don’t want me, babe, what the wide world I want with you?

Don’t a man feel bad the Good Lord’s sun go down?
He don’t have nobody to throw his arms around
Can’t a man feel bad, I said when the Good Lord’s sun go down?
I said he don’t have a soul, not to throw his arms around.

Looky here baby, what you want me to do?
I’ve done all I could just to get a-along with you
Looky here honey, what do you want poor me to do?
I say I’ve done all I could, honey, just to get along with you.

You know I love my baby like the cow love to chew her cud
I’m layin’ round here though I aint doin’ no good
Ooh, I love you honey like the cow love to chew her cud
I’m layin’ round here, baby, but I -- I sure ain’t doin’ no good.

You know the minutes seem like hours, the hours seem like days
Seem like my baby don’t stop her lowdown ways
Oh, the minutes seem like hours, I said the hours, they seem like days
You know it seems like my bride never stop her old lowdown ways.

I’m going to the gypsy now to have my fortune told,
I believe somebody is stealing my jelly roll
I’m going to the gypsy, I believe I’ll have my fortune told,
'Cos I believe somebody is trying to steal my jelly roll.

I got up this morning, feeling sick and bad,
Thinking ‘bout the good times that I once have had
I said soon this morning, I was feeling so sick and bad,
You know I was thinking ‘bout the good times now that I -- I once have had.

The sun is going down behind that old western hill
Yes, yes,
Ooh, behind that old western hill
And I wouldn’t do nothing boys, not against my woman’s will.

You know I’m going away, I’ll stay a great long time
I aint coming back here until you change your mind
Oh, I’m going away, I believe I’ll stay a great long time
I said I aint coming back, honey, until you change your mind.

Iowa Communards

My Uncle Bill, a factory worker who lived his entire life on a small farm near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, knew that, if he entered the bar of one of Amana’s popular eateries not far from his home, he would probably find an acquaintance or two, perhaps someone who, like himself, rarely shed his bib overalls. Their quiet beer-sipping was hardly a footnote to the tourists – though little-known outside the region, the Amana Colonies are Iowa’s top tourist attraction. (To some, of course, the very idea of a tourist attraction in Iowa is oxymoronic.) Apart from today’s family-style dining and an appliance name now belonging to Whirlpool, from 1855 until 1932, the Amana Colonies were the site of one of the most successful of nineteenth century America’s many experiments in communal living.

The Germans who settled these lush fields were members of a small sect. Their beliefs had deep roots even within the Roman Catholic Church which had always included mystical and pentecostal tendencies as well as spawning heretics of more radical views. The followers of Montanus are a significant early example and Meister Eckhart’s Friends of God a medieval one. The hierarchy did its best to control these extra-bureaucratic movements, however, and they found more space in the left wing of the Reformation.

Among Protestants, Anabaptists from the 16th century had sometimes chosen to remain aloof from the inevitably corrupt institutions of church and state. They refused oaths and military service, and sought direct openings from God. By the late 17th century there arose groups of Pietists who stressed individual morality and Inspirationists who believed there were prophets among them. Philipp Jakob Spener preached universal priesthood, and in 1716 E. L. Gruber organized the group that was to come ultimately to the United States. In the broader sense one may include in the varied complex of this general trend of belief Evangelical Lutherans, Brethren, and Mennonites. The Society of Friends (Quakers), Methodism, and Baal Shem Tov’s Hasidic Judaism are similar in certain significant ways as well.

What these groups had in common was a suspicion of institutional hierarchy and an emphasis on individual behavior and the possibility of direct contact between the individual and the divine in the modern age. In the religious sphere, these movements reflect the Renaissance appreciation of individuality; we moderns, too, tend to be sympathetic to the privileging of each person’s experience over the dogmatic transmission of tradition that had obtained since the Stone Age. Whereas the shaman’s skills, the priest’s learning, and the aristocrat’s authority had long insisted on their prerogatives, with the coming of earliest capitalism came mysticism’s transvaluation of values, which sees the holy glow in each soul and in acts of everyday life.

The group that founded Amana (after first establishing the Ebenezer commune in New York) was descended from Gruber. Calling itself the Community of True Inspiration (Die Gemeinde der wahren Inspiration), they were enthusiastic Pietists who sought to live a fully Christian life and convinced Inspirationists who believed they heard prophets among them, though they had no ministers, regarding all true Christians as equal.

Upon settlement in America, they determined to take seriously the words of Acts that described the early Christians’ communal life. [1] The means of production, land and workshops, were held in common, though people lived in individual homes. Meals were served in silence to sex-segregated diners in groups of thirty to sixty. After the age of two children attended school. Their enterprise was successful enough that they flourished for nearly a hundred years in consistent prosperity. According to an observer in 1876, “They live in such perpetual peace that no lawyer is found in their midst; in such habits of morality that no sheriff walks their streets; in such plenty that no beggars are seen save such as come from the outside world.” The description concludes polemically: “If Communism can be applied with such beneficent results in the case of seven villages, why not over an entire county? Why not over a State? Why not over a Nation?” [2]

These partisan words were written at a time during the nineteenth century when America had a great many of these utopian experiments. Some were secular: Brook Farm, the Fourierists and Owenites, all the factions Marx would deride as “utopian.” Many were religious such as Oneida or the Shakers. They had in common a rejection of the economic system and the social values of capitalism. Instead, they sought to substitute a loving community in which each was supportive of all and all of each. In their separate groups the pious and the irreligious alike attempted to create a society in which work would be a pleasure and alienation would vanish. Many of these experiments arose in the Western part of the United States where land was still cheap or free.

Apart from available land, all such societies benefited from the significant economies of communes, the efficiencies of central planning, and social cohesion of a committed population, at least at first. The shortest-lived, in both periods of communalism (the mid-nineteenth century and the latter part of the twentieth) were the intellectuals and the anarchists such as Fruitlands, Brook Farm, and the latter-day Drop City. The socialists lasted, in most cases, little longer. Those groups which had a rigid organization or a charismatic leader -- recent examples include Baba Ram Dass at Lama, Gaskin at the Farm, or the Krishnas in New Vrindaban -- lasted longer, as did the Amanas, America’s longest-lived commune to date.

Doubtless the society was broken primarily by the end of its isolation. Governor Harding’s chauvinist 1918 Language Proclamation banned the use of languages other than English in such public places as stores, streets, schools, and churches. [3] Once people could travel more easily and hear of doings outside Amana, they became restless. Mass culture arrived, and the group, once passionately attached to their way of life, became uncertain. The radio was perhaps the greatest single factor in the so-called Great Change – once the youth got wind of popular culture, the traditional ways became unacceptable. In fact, faith had been eroding and people had begun falling away long before the end in spite of graduated sanctions with total banishment as the most severe. It is sufficient evidence that the influence of the church authorities and the traditions of the settlement had been on the wane for a long time that in the 18th century there were eighteen prophets, called “Werkzeuge” or “instruments;” in the 19th century there were but three, and none had appeared since the death in 1883 of Barbara Heinemann Landmann.

The contemporary visitor enjoying a hearty meal served family style, tasting perhaps a bit of rhubarb wine (for legal reasons, labeled "substandard")at the Colony Inn Restaurant or the Ox Yoke Inn might reflect on how people here had sought to pursue perfection, to realize the ideals of the gospel in their daily lives. They were, for several generations, convinced that, if they wanted a loving community, they would have to do as the Wobblies said, “to build the new society within the shell of the old.”

1. Acts II 44-45: “and all that believed were together and had all things common. They sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.” Acts IV 32-35 “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things in common . . .Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.”

2. American Communities, William Alfred Hinds. New York: Corinth Books, 1961. 55. Hinds’ book is an excellent account of a variety of nineteenth century utopian communities. The author himself grew up in John Humphrey Noyes’ Oneida where all members were united in marriage together. Much the same ground is covered in another early book: Charles Nordhoff’s The Communistic Societies of the United States (1875).
More modern general studies include Mark Holloway’s Heavens on Earth. Utopian Communities in America, 1680-1880 and Delores Hayden’s Seven American Utopias. The Architecture of Communitarian Socialism, 1790-1975.
References focusing on individual states include Robert V. Hine’s California's Utopian Colonies and Catherine M. Rokicky’s Creating A Perfect World: Religious and Secular Utopias in Nineteenth-Century Ohio.
William H. and Jane H. Pease are the authors of Black Utopia: Negro Communal Experiments in America.
Probably the best guide to contemporary or recent communes is the authorless Communities Directory: A Guide to Communal Living published by the Fellowship for Intentional Community.
Though less scholarly than some of these and broader than others, I find Kenneth Rexroth’s Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century engaging and engaged, a good read apart from the information it contains.

3. The rule was overturned after World War I, but the use of German and other languages had already been profoundly affected.