Thursday, November 19, 2009
Eshu = Voice X:
On a recent trip to Louisville, I talked with some middle school students about the Yoruba art objects in the Speed Art Museum. A number of those objects had to do with the orisa Eshu, and much to do with You'll Always Come Back. Last night I woke up in the deep dark thinking about those connections. While the images are fresh in mind, I thought I'd share them. (The illustrations, and the assemblage, are my own.)
It is my understanding that Yoruba cosmology divides the phenomena of the universe into the realms of the seen, or material world, and the unseen world of the ancestral dead, the unborn, and the orisa ~ that unseen world is made manifest in our world, the world of the living, through imagination and performance.
The ancestors and the unborn, in this view, are in a cyclic continuum. The orisa are the realities of natural forces and physical dynamics personified by, and for the benefit of, human understanding. We can only conceive of variations on what we already know, and since the only thing we know are our own human perceptions, the orisa of necessity reflect particular aspects of our nature, described in the terms of our culture and environment. The orisa are original to the Yoruba, their land and culture; the experiential knowledge that they embody is universal - in the sense that certain of the dynamics made explicit in their characters occur wherever and whenever humans live.
The orisa provide a way to understand, and talk about, real phenomena in the terms of human experience - hence they are described as having human characteristics, even when they are observed in non-human phenomena, as in the case of lightning, a manifestation of the orisa Sango.
The orisa Eshu is the embodiment of "the crossroads" - the intersection of boundaries, the meeting, parting, and convergence place of paths, vectors, and experiences. Eshu is (at least) a binary being, a contradiction, a dynamic state of flux; change personified. This convergence point, situated in a state of being, is, for at least an instant of perception, at once a unity of phenomena and a recognition of differences, even irreconcilable differences - a moment when there is certainty of uncertainty. Eshu is the agent of transfer, transformation, and transcendence. Eshu is his own complimentary and opposite twin ~ paradox incarnate, but wait - also not incarnate.
Eshu is sometimes depicted in Yoruba art with what appear to be two, or three horns. These cone shapes represent Eshu's "ori" - head(s) - and destiny(ies) - dual or multiple characters present at once. Eshu's ori are in two worlds. Two worlds, moreover, that may be in binary opposition. In life there is good, bad, and the totality that contains them ~ Eshu is present in, and signifies the interdependence of extremes.
Gaston Bachelard proposed a concept of time, or duration, composed of discrete instants separated by "epistemological breaks." The experience of continuity, or in his terms, the imagination of continuity, occurs when the rhythmic sense of the organism connects these instants (let's call them dots, representing beats...) into a quality of duration; a tempo, a riff, the cellular units of perception, assembled by the will and imagination of the being into the song of life. In terms of time, Eshu then is both the division of duration into rhythmic beats, and the connective line that makes it possible to arrange an recognize them as a coherent pattern.
In YACB Eshu is titled "Voice X", and has the function not only of connecting the disparate frames of perception required by narrative art (dialogue implies at least two), but also a vocal signifier of the movement between levels of self-awareness - from, for instance, sensual immediacy to ironic detachment. This is accomplished with the devices of mimicry, allusion, metaphor, observation/description, recounting, distorting, and sampling - the production of copied content re-situated in context to create new meanings via references and relationships, pointing up the presence of layers controlled by creative activity. These layers reveal Eshu, in performance, in the vertical concept of cogito multiplied. The cogito ~ "I think therefore I am." (cogito1)
Cogito2 then, would be "I think that I think that I am." ~ implying not only the awareness of being, but a second being observing the activity of the first, with some degree of perspective. This perspective is, in essence, a different mode of duration. The effect of an operation is always realized on a different layer of duration from the one on which it is enacted.
Eshu's gear-shifting of consciousness powers extend beyond the immediate powers of human imagination. "He" (you may have guessed by now that any designation of gender applied to Eshu is also temporary and provisional) is active not only in the cogito to the first power, but in the second, the third, at once upward and downward in the verticality of being, to the nth power, infinity; the audacity of (and the fear evoked by) anything and everything beyond.
With these observations in mind, it is easy to grasp the significance of two common examples of Eshu iconography in Yoruba art. Eshu's face typically appears on the carved wooden rim, or boundary, that frames the opun ifa, or divining board, site of the ifa oracle. The opun ifa bridges, in the diviner's performance, the seen world of the consultant and the unseen world of the orisa and Oludumare "the owner of the universe" and source of ase, the animating power of life and wisdom.
It is on the sawdust powdered surface of the opun ifa that the newborn infant first sets its foot upon the earth, having arrived from the unseen world of the unborn on the other side of the board. Thus the divining board is a material object equivalent to a portal or passage between worlds. Eshu, of course, appears as an image shaping the substance of the portal's frame.
For similar reasons, a common household image of Eshu, a shrine in effect, is sometimes an unshaped lump or mound of clay, the potential of form in relative formlessness, situated by a doorway to mark the fluctuating and ambiguous boundary between inside and outside.
The orisa originate in Yoruba land, but have traveled, in the diaspora, and more recently via that most Eshu-like of mediums, the internet, throughout the world.
In the US, one early manifestation of Eshu is found in the legend of the Blues Guitarist (Robert Johnson is one reputed example) who meets the Devil at the Crossroads, precisely at the instant of Midnight, to exchange his soul for the power of superlative musicianship. The conflation of Eshu with "the Devil" does not, of course, originate with the Yoruba. But in one way the moral message is retained, albeit somewhat obscured in a culture where the rewards of individual recognition are often pursued at any cost.