Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Secret knowledge, sacred knowledge

"Secrets are to religion what lingerie is to the body."
The verb secrete can denote either "to hide" or "to release." Both derive from the Latin root of se-cernere, to sift apart or to distinguish. Secrets are not buried far from the sacred, etymologically or otherwise, since the value of both lies in their qualities of being set apart, distinguished and defended from the everyday. To view religion in light of the secret entails, among other things, dividing the set-apart quality of the sacred into two distinct movements. The first movement is hiding, the act of classification that removes something or someone from obvious and banal evidence, the act of restricting its flow. The second movement is release, the rare and fragmentary revelation of a secret, its return to circulation. The return is not usually of the secret as substantive information. More typically, revelations are about the secret, words and acts hinting that it exists and is near and powerful in spite of its invisibility, "that which is not said even though it gets around" [quoted from Baudrillard's On Seduction] . . . .

To hide and to unveil, to contain and release -- this is the rhythm of secrets and also of the sacred. Without secrets, religion becomes unimaginable. For religion is in its cultural sense a technology of periodic human access to extraordinary powers, which generally remain concealed, and in its social sense a group of people who share such a technology and exercise it. If it is true, however, that all religions seek human relations with generally mysterious powers, which are revealed only in intermittent staccato bursts punctuating everyday experience, it is not true that all religions embrace secrecy and secretism as fundamental tools in their cultural repertoire and basic social form, nor do all historical contexts equally evoke secrecy as a defense against outside intrusion. Consider the tendency in most forms of Protestant Christianity, where there is no developed language of secrecy at all. God is transparent, revealed, even historically present in person and in text, "fully human, fully divine." One finds no developed ritualization of secrecy, little initiatory fencing off of those inside from everyman, and neither strong taboos nor sanctions guarding against disclosure. Despite the biblical injunction to "pray in secret" instead of for public glorification, in practice congregants are enjoined to make the religion as publicly conspicuous as possible, to "bear witness" in every word and deed so that as much of civic life as possible might be conformed to the religious mold. In theory, at least, there is no priviledged Protestant information, and all share equally the benefits and burdens of proximity to religious powers.

It is hard to imagine a religion less like this than Brazilian Candomble. Here the techniques of wresting power from the Gods (Orixas) are secret, foundational matters (fundamentos) guarded behind layers of graded initiations and strict hierarchies marking off those possessing the knowledge of fundamentos from those who do not. Here the reputation of knowing the deepest, most authentically African secrets is a hotly contested, fast-trading form of prestige, highly dependent on a consensus of pratitioners and networks of gossip along the channels of the informal "Yoruba post" (correio nago). To gain and keep the reputation of deep knowledge, priests and priestesses must be able to advertise it. They must master the art of flirtation, of accenting the contours of what remains concealed.

There is, then, an unspoken exchange between exhibition and voyeurism to secrecy. It is always socially constructed in a triangle composed of at least two confederates who are watched and envied by a desiring Third. Secrets are to religion what lingerie is to the body; they enhance what is imagined to be present. Even when the secret is known but unspoken, a "public secret", its allure is greater when veiled by shimmering textures. It is this capacity for dissimulation, the fact of a possible disjunction between the reputation and the reality, that renders secrecy a suspect force.
[Paul Christopher Johnson, Secret, Gossip and Gods: The Transformation of Brazilian Candomble, pp. 3-4]
Paul Christopher Johnson (on the Anthropology and History faculty at U Mich, and a 2008 Gugenheim Fellow) spent several years doing field research on the Afro-Caribbean religion called Candomble, which is primarily based in Brazil. Greg Downey (Historian, U Wisc-Mad) writing in the journal History of Religions, wrote of Johnson's Secret, Gossip and Gods that "A reader interested in learning about Candomble would be hard-pressed to find a more comprehensive yet deftly written introduction to the religion and to the intellectual debates that surround it ...."

During his field work, Johnson was frequently urged, by those he was studying, to be initiated into the religion so that he could see it from the inside, so to speak. One priestess in particular, whom Johnson refers to as "Mother B.", pushed Johnson to undergo the secret initiation ceremonies, despite Johnson's insistence that he did not believe in the Orixas: "While she found that utterly absurd, she found it equally trivial and always reassured me that it did not matter in the least. 'The question is whether you perform the rituals, not whether you believe in them.'"

But Johnson did eventually accept the repeated invitations and took initiation from Mother B., becoming one of the hundreds of filhos de Santo under her spiritual direction. Many of these "children of the Saints" live together in Mother B.'s terreiro, which Johnson describes as a "powerful, genuinely African place" in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro.

Johnson (above) does an excellent job of very succinctly communicating the suffocating psychic limitations of the "Protestant" world view, which literally (if that is the right word) makes religion "inconceivable". This "inconceivability" of genuine experiential religion is what creates the proportionately intense longing for spiritual experience in the modern Western soul. As Socrates explains so eloquently in Plato's Symposium, one only desires what lies beyond one's reach.

Many people have incorrectly interpreted words like those of Mother B.'s (to the effect that it is only necessary to perform the rituals, not to believe in the Orixas) to indicate that "primitive" or "pagan" religions are orthopraxic as opposed to orthodoxic, that is, that in these supposedly un-philosophical, pre-civilizational religions there are no beliefs or ideas worth bothering with, just the mindless performance of rituals.

But you see, Mother B. was not really telling Johnson the truth, or at least not the whole truth. Instead, she was seducing him -- and not in some po-mo lit-crit baudrillardian sense, but in the old-fashioned, everyday meaning of the word. She was carefully choosing her words to overcome his resistance: so she "reassured" him that his concerns were baseless, his hesitation unwarranted, his fears "utterly absurd."

There can be no doubt that Mother B. genuinely believes in the Orixas, so there is no use trying to argue that her Candomble does not involve belief, i.e., that it is purely "orthopraxic." But then why does she insist that Johnson need not believe, and need only perform the rituals? Johnson actually explains this quite nicely further on in the book:
In their ideal form, which only moderately constrains actual practice, fundamentos are not to be known about, knowledge gained through books, but to be known through, learned through practice. It is the doing, not the knowing, of secrets which is the key. Only through long ritual apprenticeship, and especially through progressive initiations, can this ideal form of knowledge be gained. During these years it is not transmitted by the answering of questions, but rather by attentive observation and memory of the surroundings as one enters more restricted places and groups within the terreio and its hierarchy. Hence in the Candomble conception of learning there is an implicit geography. As an adept moves along the initiatory path, he arrives nearer to knowledge (saber) real fundamentos. Spatially he moves closer to the center of the terreio, into the most secretive rooms, where initiates heads are made, and where Orixas are dispatched from possessed bodies. In the metaphoric time-space of secrecy he moves back in time toward the ancestors and, ultimately, the creation of the world and the adventures of the Orixas; across the sea toward Africa; and deeper, down through the layers toward a more genuine, solid foundation. By mastering fundamentos, plural, he arrives ultimately at the possession of fundamento, "having foundation", in the singular.
[pp. 31-32]


Ellen Catalina, LCSW said...

I have never read Johnson's book, but I am completely blown away by what he has written here. He is right about initiation, seduction, and secrecy. I used to wonder if there was something slightly pathological about the secrecy of Condomble rights because (A) the secrecy largely arose out of persecution and (B) it often leads to gossip and the 'left out parties' that he so aptly described in these paragraphs.

There are many hurdles along the way to initiation in Candomble, Santeria, and other Yoruba-based spiritual systems. There is nothing written so one becomes dependent on the pai do santo or santera to learn and to be initiated, and one's autonomy and power is willingly surrendered to them.

As a result of these hurdles and the years of discipline and devotion and desire have ashe (axe) or feel closeness of the orixas, when initiation comes (or is achieved) it is powerful indeed. A certain ego death happens and one is transformed.

I don't say this as an initiate as I never have initiated, but you can imagine the what it would be like to be in your mai do santo's terriero, sleeping on the ground in a mud hut for thirty days having her feed you and bathe you and care for you like a child. I have no idea what religious rites happen over that time but you can imagine that in some sense linear time ceases to exist, ego destruction occurs, and, well, magic or transcendence happens. You walk out of that hut a month later as a completely different person.

Reading this has helped me see the function of that secrecy and seduction. It is enormously helpful to see it articulated like this. It struck me immediately as informed and true and it will enable me to let go a bit of my ideas about secrecy being somewhat pathological. What he has said about secrecy here can probably be applied to mystery cults of antiquity as well.

*Loved the image of the Yoruba- inspired costumes, too. *

Anonymous said...

The thing about religions with mysteries and depth --- religions that tend to use mythological narratives that are not strongly tied to historical events --- is that there is a strong learning curve. If someone says, "I can't believe you worship those Gods because they do such-and-such in the myths, and that's not good behavior," it is very difficult to explain that people can take myths in a non-literal fashion without being intellectual cop-outs.

On NPR the other evening, I heard a story about a Christian denomination that came out of the sixties and the denomination's difficulty holding children. They spoke about the lack of conversion fervor that the children feel, and how they are now implementing megachurch technologies (video screens, modern-sounding music) to give them an ecstatic experience that will make them want to remain. It's just Huxley's soma unless there is actually a deeeper experience waiting behind the seductive bells and whistles ... which is something that the mystery religions tend to provide much better.

It takes a good deal of time to prepare one's mind for mysteries. In Kyklos Apollon, I am now just beginning to read the post archives articulating aspects of deeper meaning ... I wasn't prepared for it beforehand, and the computer screen is not an ideal place to first know of these things.

Religions without mysteries seem very jealous of those that do.

Arturo Vasquez said...

Maya Deren, in the Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, writes something similar:

If divinity is understood as a reference to principle (whether of life, death, love or affinity, war or conflict, etc.), the insistence of the primitive that all physical phenomena are animated by divinity, his refusal to conceive of accidental – i.e. un-principled – phenomena, and his conviction that even the most minor detail is an expression of a major force- these beliefs are consistent extensions of the conviction that the universe is completely integrated and entirely logical, however devious or obscure that logic may sometimes seem. The Voudoun loa do not have a supernatural prerogative of arbitrary decision. An event which, to the serviteur, does not seem logical is not accepted with good grace as the “will of God”; on the contrary, the serviteur is aggressive in calling the loa to account and in exacting the explanation to which he feels entitled and which would indicate the corrective procedure he should follow. This belief that all phenomena must contain some logical principle, this concept of a pervasive logical causation is, as a matter of fact, identical with the premise underlying scientific investigation...

The man of such a culture must be, necessarily, a pragmatist. His immediate needs are too persistent, too pressing, and too critical, to permit the luxury of idealism or mysticism, and they must be answered rather than escaped from. He has neither time, energy, nor means for inconsequential activity. His religious system must do more than give him moral sustenance; it must do more than rationalize his instinct for survival when survival is no longer a “reasonable” activity. It must do more than provide a reason for living; it must provide the means for living. It must serve the organism as well as the psyche. It must serve as a practical methodology not as an irrational hope. In consequence, the Haitian thinks of his religion in working terms. To ask him whether he “believes” in Voudoun is to pose a meaningless, irrelevant question. He answers, “I serve the loa”, and, more than likely, he will say, “I serve so-and-so, giving even to general divine power a specialized focus.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

I keep running into references to Deren's book. Guess I should check it out. A close friend recently read "Secrets of Voodoo" by Milo Rigaud, and he raves about it -- do you know that book, Arturo? If so, what do you think (I still haven't read it, either).

Arturo Vasquez said...

On Rigaud: I have heard of it, but haven't read it. It has much more of an "outside observer" tone from what I hear. Mambo Sallie Glassman recommends Deren and her own books on the subject. Deren, as you know, was initiated into voudoun and practiced it until her death. Some of the passages in the book are quite beautiful. I would really like to know your thoughts on it once you do read it.