The Palm at the End of the Mind: Relatedness, Religiosity, and the Real

Overview


In many societies and for many people, religiosity is only incidentally connected with texts or theologies, church or mosque, temple or monastery. Drawing on a lifetime of ethnographic work among people for whom religion is not principally a matter of faith, doctrine, or definition, Michael Jackson turns his attention to those situations in life where we come up against the limits of language, our strength, and our knowledge, yet are sometimes thrown open to new ways of understanding our being-in-the-world, to ...
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The Palm at the End of the Mind: Relatedness, Religiosity, and the Real

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Overview


In many societies and for many people, religiosity is only incidentally connected with texts or theologies, church or mosque, temple or monastery. Drawing on a lifetime of ethnographic work among people for whom religion is not principally a matter of faith, doctrine, or definition, Michael Jackson turns his attention to those situations in life where we come up against the limits of language, our strength, and our knowledge, yet are sometimes thrown open to new ways of understanding our being-in-the-world, to new ways of connecting with others.

Through sixty-one beautifully crafted essays based on sojourns in Europe, West Africa, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, and taking his cue from Wallace Stevens’s late poem, “Of Mere Being,” Jackson explores a range of experiences where “the palm at the end of the mind” stands “beyond thought,” on “the edge of space,” “a foreign song.” Moments of crisis as well as everyday experiences in cafés, airports, and offices disclose the subtle ways in which a single life shades into others, the boundaries between cultures become blurred, fate unfolds through genealogical time, elective affinities make their appearance, and different values contend.

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Editorial Reviews

Rebecca A. Allahyari

“Jackson excels at an interpretive method in which the power resides in storytelling. The Palm at the End of the Mind is a book to think with as it evokes the beauty and mystery of our experiences. Its stories haunt the imagination and so illustrate the power of phenomenology.”
From the Publisher

“Michael Jackson’s sixty-one short essays, based on his experiences in disparate geographical settings, are designed to speak to each reader individually like a sophisticated musical composition, rather than advancing a linear argument. . . . Jackson’s case that ‘history, religion, spirituality, culture are shop-worn terms,’ and should be replaced by ‘the image of life at the edge of language, a shoreline on which the sea washes ceaselessly,’ is given substance by his own literary skill. And it is possible to glimpse here the makings of a shared ‘religious’ sensibility that may be fitfully emerging to unite different peoples and traditions, in ways influenced by, but not entirely decreed by, the gods of the marketplace.” - Jonathan Benthall, Times Literary Supplement

“As always . . . Jackson writes with beauty and great clarity on demanding
and elusive topics.” - Hayder Al-Mohammad, Social Anthropology

“Jackson excels at an interpretive method in which the power resides in storytelling. The Palm at the End of the Mind is a book to think with as it evokes the beauty and mystery of our experiences. Its stories haunt the imagination and so illustrate the power of phenomenology.” - REBECCA A. ALLAHYARI, Anthropology and Humanism

The Palm at the End of the Mind is a marvelous work of deep scholarly and artistic significance. Michael Jackson reflects on those things—love, loss, pain, courage, resilience—that define the human condition. Bringing a lifetime of work in anthropology to bear, he provides a rich description of the irreducible dynamics of living in social worlds that are in continuous flux.”—Paul Stoller, author of The Power of the Between: An Anthropological Odyssey

“Elegant and harrowing, this book from renowned ethnographer Michael Jackson takes us to the borderlands of human experience, where normal habits of thought and rules of social location are lost or ruptured, ‘where we confront sides of ourselves that ordinarily do not see the light of day, yet from which new modes of consciousness may take shape.’ As Jackson moves fluidly between storytelling, poetry, memoir, metaphysics, social commentary, interior exploration, and existential reflection, we travel with him around the globe and through incongruous histories: ‘penumbral domains’ that he argues do not belong exclusively to the language of religion, or even to language itself. The Palm at the End of the Mind insists on the integrity of transmutations, even terrible ones, for these are still eternally precious and deeply true. It bears witness to the cosmic connections forged in such mystery, refusing to let us look away. Long after its last page, it haunts, it sings, it prophesies. This is a brilliant ethnography of the heart.”—Kimberley Patton, Harvard Divinity School

Hayder Al-Mohammad

“As always . . . Jackson writes with beauty and great clarity on demanding and elusive topics.”
REBECCA A. ALLAHYARI

“Jackson excels at an interpretive method in which the power resides in storytelling. The Palm at the End of the Mind is a book to think with as it evokes the beauty and mystery of our experiences. Its stories haunt the imagination and so illustrate the power of phenomenology.”
Jonathan Benthall

“Michael Jackson’s sixty-one short essays, based on his experiences in disparate geographical settings, are designed to speak to each reader individually like a sophisticated musical composition, rather than advancing a linear argument. . . . Jackson’s case that ‘history, religion, spirituality, culture are shop-worn terms,’ and should be replaced by ‘the image of life at the edge of language, a shoreline on which the sea washes ceaselessly,’ is given substance by his own literary skill. And it is possible to glimpse here the makings of a shared ‘religious’ sensibility that may be fitfully emerging to unite different peoples and traditions, in ways influenced by, but not entirely decreed by, the gods of the marketplace.”
From the Publisher
“Michael Jackson’s sixty-one short essays, based on his experiences in disparate geographical settings, are designed to speak to each reader individually like a sophisticated musical composition, rather than advancing a linear argument. . . . Jackson’s case that ‘history, religion, spirituality, culture are shop-worn terms,’ and should be replaced by ‘the image of life at the edge of language, a shoreline on which the sea washes ceaselessly,’ is given substance by his own literary skill. And it is possible to glimpse here the makings of a shared ‘religious’ sensibility that may be fitfully emerging to unite different peoples and traditions, in ways influenced by, but not entirely decreed by, the gods of the marketplace.” - Jonathan Benthall, Times Literary Supplement

“As always . . . Jackson writes with beauty and great clarity on demanding and elusive topics.” - Hayder Al-Mohammad, Social Anthropology

“Jackson excels at an interpretive method in which the power resides in storytelling. The Palm at the End of the Mind is a book to think with as it evokes the beauty and mystery of our experiences. Its stories haunt the imagination and so illustrate the power of phenomenology.” - REBECCA A. ALLAHYARI, Anthropology and Humanism

The Palm at the End of the Mind is a marvelous work of deep scholarly and artistic significance. Michael Jackson reflects on those things—love, loss, pain, courage, resilience—that define the human condition. Bringing a lifetime of work in anthropology to bear, he provides a rich description of the irreducible dynamics of living in social worlds that are in continuous flux.”—Paul Stoller, author of The Power of the Between: An Anthropological Odyssey

“Elegant and harrowing, this book from renowned ethnographer Michael Jackson takes us to the borderlands of human experience, where normal habits of thought and rules of social location are lost or ruptured, ‘where we confront sides of ourselves that ordinarily do not see the light of day, yet from which new modes of consciousness may take shape.’ As Jackson moves fluidly between storytelling, poetry, memoir, metaphysics, social commentary, interior exploration, and existential reflection, we travel with him around the globe and through incongruous histories: ‘penumbral domains’ that he argues do not belong exclusively to the language of religion, or even to language itself. The Palm at the End of the Mind insists on the integrity of transmutations, even terrible ones, for these are still eternally precious and deeply true. It bears witness to the cosmic connections forged in such mystery, refusing to let us look away. Long after its last page, it haunts, it sings, it prophesies. This is a brilliant ethnography of the heart.”—Kimberley Patton, Harvard Divinity School

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822343813
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 2/20/2009
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,020,301
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Jackson is Distinguished Visiting Professor in World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. His many books of anthropology include Excursions, In Sierra Leone, and At Home in the World, all also published by Duke University Press. He is the author of a memoir, six books of poetry, and two novels.

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Read an Excerpt

THE PALM AT THE END OF THE MIND

Relatedness, Religiosity, and the Real
By MICHAEL JACKSON

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4381-3


Chapter One

ANCESTRAL ROOTS

The Real

I am listening to Osvaldo Golijov's Ayre on my car stereo. Along Concord Avenue, the rising sun is like a gobbet of molten glass burning through the wintering trees. As I park my car in Cambridge, Sephardic street cries and a poem in Arabic are still echoing in my head. It is only a short walk from the parking garage to my office at the Center for the Study of World Religions. Before settling to work, I gaze at the reproduction of one of Paul Cézanne's paintings of Montagne Sainte-Victoire that I have pinned to my wall. I can hear the wind soughing in the pines and smell sage and thyme. I check my e-mails. My daughter Heidi has sent me a sonogram of her baby at thirteen weeks. She also tells me about an Aboriginal painter whose works I should see. On Google I track down images of Paddy Kuwumji Jawaiyi's emu dreamings from the East Kimberleys. I am moved by something I cannot name. What do these things have in common? This strange musical work by a Jewish composer, born in Argentina but now living in the United States. This French painter who returned time and time again to the landscapes of his natal Provence. This fetal image of my first grandchild. This Aboriginal painter whose elemental canvases take my breath away. What moves me to think that these are all of a piece? Is it that they carry me to somewhere I have never been before, or somewhere I once knew and have forgotten? Harbingers of the new, they are nonetheless reminders of something very old. I have a sense of being grounded in something I can only call "the real" that connects my life to the life of the earth itself, its generations succeeding one another over time, its multiple geographies and cultures. Is this what the Greeks called apo-kalypto, the sudden disclosure of the ordinarily hidden relationship between ourselves and that which came before us, that will follow us, and that lies beyond our ken?

Only Connect

That I have become so preoccupied by connectedness and transmigration may have something to do with the vicissitudes of leaving Europe and resettling in the United States as a "resident alien." Perhaps it is because I have uprooted myself so many times in the course of my life that I am skeptical about identity and definition, preferring to explore transitive or transitory phenomena, including the fields of relationship within which our sense of self emerges and is transfigured-fields that extend far further in time and space than many of us are prepared to acknowledge. If I repudiate a priori distinctions between types of connectedness-familial, affinal, economic, religious, political, etc.-it is because, for me, the most intriguing thing about human relationships is that they include relations not only with other persons but with abstract ideas, imaginary beings, and inert objects. Moreover, they are in constant flux. Much as we try to name, contain, and control our interactions with the world around us, the interplay between self and other has a life of its own. It is this intersubjective life, rather than any one life, that I feel compelled to explore.

Nowadays, the word "connection" is practically synonymous with networking, and we often think of sociality in corporate or technological terms. But there are limits to what we can accomplish with the digital gadgetry with which we currently chat, communicate, and go about our business. In London, my friend Sewa Koroma struggles to resolve a political crisis in his natal chiefdom in Sierra Leone, making calls on his cell phone, urging friends and kinsmen to do his bidding, but exasperated that he must live in England to earn money when he is needed back home. On the T from Boston to Harvard Square I read a Corporate Networking Collaborative advertisement: "We help you make those right connections by pointing you to the right event. Networking is about building connections, and the best ones are made in person." The ad reminded me of Sewa's dilemma and sharpened my sense of the difficulty we have in reconciling the familiar, face-to-face worlds of which we have direct experience with the far-reaching and remote worlds that also determine our fate. There was another advertisement on the T that also caught my eye-a dating service, promising romantic connections. That dating agencies have failed to come up with any scientific system for matchmaking also brought home to me the gap between what can and cannot be achieved by reason or will. Was I old-fashioned in thinking that we set too much store by the idea that our lives can be consciously programmed, that we are losing the knack of letting go, allowing nature to take its course, accepting that connections are often made, insights given, and life most fully realized when we open ourselves up to that which lies beyond our knowledge and control? In his ethnographic study of networking in contemporary Japan, Brian Moeran notes that people are "always looking for suitable excuses or justifications for being together." Although age, place of origin, kinship, and education are, as elsewhere in the world, the usual ways of establishing common ground, people occasionally come up against limits, and it is here that mystery begins.

When all else fails, there is always the fallback position of "fate" (go-en). A man may pore over a visitor's name card, examining the fine print, asking questions about the other's past and present life, searching for a connection. How long has he been in his company? So he must have graduated from university in such-and-such a year (indicating a possible age connection)? And where did he go to university? Does that mean he is from such-and-such region of Japan? Perhaps he knows so-and-so in such-and-such a company who also went to the same university and is from that part of the country? And so on, and so forth. This kind of inquiry borders on the hopeless when conducted of a foreigner in Japan. Once age has been found wanting as a method of bonding, there is little likelihood of the foreigner being able to satisfy other criteria like kinship, geographical origin, or university. A potential line of help exists if the foreigner is married to a Japanese, because questions can then circle around the spouse. But generally the only way in which the informal relationship can be formally sanctioned is when, having socialized with the foreigner sufficiently to be able to judge whether he or she wishes to continue the connection or not, the Japanese can exclaim with unconcealed pleasure, "It's fate that's brought us together, isn't it?" The Japanese word for fate (en), a little like the Greek moira (thread), literally means "connection."

In these fragmentary and inconclusive sallies, I suppose I was trying to fathom the kinds of connections, so crucial to our well-being, that refuse cognitive closure or codification-the bonds of close friendship, for instance, of parenthood, of elective affinity, and of love. The sense of inevitability and fate that the Greeks captured in the image of a thread spun at a person's birth, binding him or her forever, or that Norse and Anglo-Saxon traditions depicted as a web or weave, hanging over every man, whether on the battlefield or in the "fetters" and "bonds" of pain, love, and death. And then there was the question that crops up in both Norse and Vedic texts, as to what powers, human or divine, can loosen the knots that hold us or magically tie up the forces that constrict our freedom.

95 Irving Street

Whenever I feel the need to stretch my legs and clear my head, I go for a walk through the streets behind the Center where I work, often passing 95 Irving Street, where William James lived between 1889 and 1910 and wrote his most enduring work. There is a commemorative plaque on the stone-gray picket fence, and the house, still a private home, has been well maintained. Sometimes my passing contact with this house brings to mind a passage in James's writing that resonates with my own work in progress and helps me clarify what I am struggling to say.

One cold March morning, for instance, I was passing the house just as a City of Cambridge Recycling Collection truck was moving laboriously down the street, as if to remind me that I was simply putting back into circulation ideas that James had set down one hundred years ago. "Reality, life, experience, concreteness, immediacy, use what word you will, exceeds our logic, overflows and surrounds it," James declared in a lecture given in Oxford in the spring of 1908, adding that by reality he meant "where things happen."

One can, I think, readily understand why James's notion of radical empiricism, with its emphasis on relations as well as relata-flights and perchings, rivers and embankments, verbs and substantives, conjunctions and disjunctions-proved so difficult to spell out and so irksome to many of his readers, for who in his right mind would identify reality with things that cannot be readily grasped or systematically named, with phenomena outside the reach of reason? Yet James insisted: "Our fields of experience have no more definite boundaries than have our fields of view. Both are fringed forever by a more that continuously develops, and that continuously supercedes them as life proceeds. The relations, generally speaking, are as real here as the terms are." Nor is it the world that lies about us that is refractory to comprehension and control; it is also the world within. "Whatever it may be on the farther side, the 'more' with which in religious experience we feel ourselves connected is on the hither side the subconscious continuation of our conscious life."

There is probably no human being who has not been intrigued and troubled by the mysterious relationship between his or her own immediate world-a world of direct experience-and all that lies beyond it. It is never simply a matter of acknowledging or naming this extramundane dimension of our existence; it is most vitally a question of our relationship with it-how we reckon with it, draw on it, and control it. Of this liminal zone, John Dewey observed:

The visible is set in the invisible; and in the end what is unseen decides what happens in the seen; the tangible rests precariously upon the untouched and ungrasped. The contrast and the potential maladjustment of the immediate, the conspicuous and focal phase of things, with those indirect and hidden factors which determine the origin and career of what is present, are indestructible features of any and every experience.

Although we often assume that reason enables us to grasp the unseen intellectually, if not actually, Dewey declares that this invocation of scientific rationality is as much a "magical safeguard against the uncertain character of the world" as the so-called mumbo-jumbo and superstition we attribute to premodern peoples.

Dewey's remarks echo certain passages in William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience where he too speaks of the ways in which our private and mundane lives are embedded in wider fields of being from which we draw inspiration and vitality. Though there are countless ways in which any one of us construes and interacts with this nonimmediate realm, James prefers to speak of it in fairly neutral terms as "a wider self," or "the more," or simply "life" rather than as God. As such, it bears a family resemblance to what Freud called the over-I, Jaspers called the encompassing, and Heidegger called Dasein. As a pragmatist, James is less concerned with whether our language actually captures the essence of the elusive world that lies about us, since what is most crucial are the entailments of what we say and do for our own well-being and the well-being of others. "Does God really exist? How does he exist? What is He? are so many irrelevant questions," James writes. "Not God, but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life is, in the last analysis, the end of religion."

Basic to all these reflections is the view that one's well-being depends on one's relationships or connectedness to an "elsewhere" or "otherness" that lies beyond the horizons of one's own immediate lifeworld. This "other" world is sometimes identified with the dead, and ritual labor enables the living to fuse their being with ancestral being in a life-giving union. Sometimes, as in traditional Christianity, it is a realm of divine power and presence, associated with the empyrean. Sometimes it is identical to the natural environment of forest, bush, and stream.

Although, as Alfred Schutz observes, most philosophy and religion attempt to reduce the extramundane "to a concept, to make it graspable and accessible to accustomed experience, to tame it," it remains at the limits of what can be thought or said, encompassing our relationships with ancestors, nature, God, foreigners, and even the unborn. Martin Buber speaks of the religious, not as "something that takes place in man's inner life" but rather "between man and God, that is, in the reality of their relationship, the mutual reality of God and man." But we have to go even further in our thinking, acknowledging the limits of laws, the limits to which nature can be controlled: the confusion, turbulence, openness, and instability that compose the "liquid history" of the world-clouds massing and dispersing; a thunderstorm breaking and just as suddenly passing; a stream running muddy then clear; the sea leaving its always different rib patterns on the hard ironsand.

Reconnecting

Thirty-six years have passed since I first did fieldwork in Sierra Leone, but I remember as vividly as if it were yesterday the burnished surface of the porch at Abdul's house in Firawa where I installed myself every morning, dunking dry cabin bread in a mug of instant coffee while, in the mist-swathed village, bleary-eyed men with blankets drawn about their shoulders stood around improvised fires, chewing on lophira twigs that served as toothbrushes or murmuring greetings to passers-by.

As the sun came up and the mist began to lift, Abdul would set up his treadle sewing machine at the other end of the porch. I would hear the voices of Tilkolo and Mantene (Abdul's wives) from the backyard as they winnowed or pounded rice. A rooster crowed, a child cried, a mortar thudded rhythmically into a wooden pestle, Abdul's sewing machine rattled into life, and villagers passed by on their way to the bush for firewood or the stream for water.

My fieldwork followed the course of people's everyday lives. Like the local weaver's cotton threads, gathered and anchored to a large stone in the middle of the compound and emerging from his loom as a narrow strip of country cloth, the various strands of my own work were gradually coming together: a detailed genealogy of the Barawa chiefs, notes on a rice-flour sacrifice to family ancestors, a detailed account of a funeral, lists of totemic clans and their far-flung affiliations, data on the composition of labor cooperatives, marriages, and ongoing court cases, not to mention the mysterious relationships that diviners formed with djinn.

All this data afforded me glimpses into the warp and woof of Kuranko social life. But rather than this metaphor of society as a web or net, Kuranko used the image of paths: paths worn into the earth by the traffic of bare feet-evidence of the social connections that linked different family compounds in a village or scattered kin within a chiefdom; paths that led uphill-whose steepness was a metaphor for the difficulty of childbirth and labor; paths that were closed by makeshift barriers, fallen branches, or collapsed bridges-images of the falling out of friends and neighbors; paths that petered out in swampland or darkness-signifying distrust and alienated affections.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from THE PALM AT THE END OF THE MIND by MICHAEL JACKSON Copyright © 2009 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface xi

1. Ancestral Roots

The Real 1

Only Connect 2

93 Irving Street 4

Reconnecting 8

Missed Connections 11

Tertium Quid 14

The Dead 19

Mind the Gap 23

The Genealogical Imagination 29

The Penumbral 34

After Midnight 38

Second Skins 40

On Not Severing the Vine When Harvesting the Grapes 42

Corrupted Con-texts 46

The Broken Heart 48

2. Primary Bonds

Incarnations 52

The Matrixial 57

A Letter from Athens 61

Emily's Journal 62

Beginnings 65

The Pain in Painting 69

Paths 73

Parallel Lives 75

My Lunch with arthur 81

The Wellness Narratives 84

Night 94

Outside the Window 98

"What Really Matters" 99

3. Elective Affinities

Knots 103

Marina del Rey 106

In Limbo 108

In Media Res 108

In Wellington 112

The Enigma of Anteriority 116

Survivor Guilt 119

Ventifact 123

Measured Talk 129

Heaven and Hell 131

Manifest Destiny 134

The Nature of Things 148

The Road of Excess 159

The Eternal Ones of the Dream 162

Strange Lights 15

Recognitions 168

The Other Portion 173

It Happens 176

Ships That Pass in the Night 178

4. Competing Values

Cafe Stelling 182

Value Judgments 184

The Bottle Imp 189

Marginal Notes 193

A Storyteller's Story 195

Big Thing and Small Thing 200

Sacrifice 203

Prince Vessantara 208

The Girl Who Went Beneath the Water 210

Ill-Gotten Gains 216

Is Nothing Sacred? 221

Return to the Cafe Stelling 229

Metanoia 232

The Place Where We Live 236

Acknowledgments 239

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