Thursday, July 15, 2010

July 15:

It has been a strangely lethargic day, a day of paralysis almost, even though I continue the reading I must do, and I realize that I'm lost. I've been immersing myself in an altogether alien world, among serious people who accepted without question that, far in the East, in India, or in Cathay, somewhere way to the east, in any case, the Garden of Eden still existed; that India and probably Cipango, the name they gave Japan, and other nations as well, were populated by races who had ears so long they could wrap themselves in them at night, use them as blankets, and yet other races who had no heads but did have faces--in their chests, and there were men with the heads of dogs and men with one leg, at the end of which was an extremely large foot, which they used to shield themselves from the sun when they lay on their backs. And this is just one window into their minds.

The sources of these particular races go way back, I think ultimately to folk myths; they appear in the ancient Sanskrit epics, in Chinese lore, and they reached the West via the Greeks at least four or five centuries before Christ. And they survived, that's the extraordinary thing, well into and then beyond the Middle Ages, so that Columbus, when he reached what he thought was India, expected to find them there, in what we know as the West Indies; and they appear in explorers' tales for a long time thereafter, always in the guise of the explorers being told by native informers that such races existed at the fringe of their territories.

There has been a great deal of scholarship addressing this pre-modern, mythical ethnography, and I've read a good deal of it now, but I find it doesn't help all that much. I think that if you could go back in time, even if you could speak their languages, and talk to, say, Columbus or Vespucci or Pizarro, you would feel utterly lost in their mental world, in what the French call their mentalite. If a lion could speak, Wittgenstein said, we could not understand him. It's the same thing; their assumptions, their way of looking at the world, their reactions to things: a great gap would divide us, and I doubt it could be bridged. Henry James wrote a novel on this subject, unfortunately unfinished, A Sense of the Past, and I've always wanted to read it but never did. Maybe now. Who were you, Christopher Columbus? There have been hundreds of books trying to answer that question.

And yet these strange imaginings survive. I remember vividly the scene in the bar in the first Star Wars movie, when Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan are looking for a suitable pirate to spin them off Skywalker's home planet to, where was it? the rebel hideout? and find Han Solo, and the place is full of just such creatures as I am talking about, including, if I remember correctly, somebody with the head of a dog.

On his third voyage Columbus found himself skirting the edge of the Terrestrial Paradise--the Garden of Eden. He thought the mouth of the Orinoco was the mouth of the Ganges. It fills me with wonder, and a kind of despair at the same time.