The Wonder of Humanity in No Particular Order

Four writings by Jimmie Durham

Approach in Love and Fear

For a long time there were only plants. Although in their initial ascendancy they killed most of the existing life on earth by releasing large amounts of poisonous oxygen, plants are not basically aggressive. They process sunlight and a few minerals. When animal life developed its very definition was to move about and eat other life. Without other life to consume, animals die. Therefore animal life developed more and more proficiency in attacking and consuming; first, mouths evolved, then concentrated bunches of nerves to better direct the mouth, then a sense of smell to help the mouth differentiate, then a sense of hearing and sight, then a continual complexity of the bunch of nerves to organize actual brains. Our brains are close to our mouths because their primary purpose is to save those weapons of destruction.

When I was a child I grieved that we killed any animal that crossed our paths and ate its flesh. Plants we would often pull completely from the earth, so that we could consume the roots as well as the leaves. And I saw that we were not the only ones; all of the other animals had the same voracious cruelty.

We had to cringe in fear. Any animal unable to fear would not be successful. You must kill, and fear death.

Mammals, then, as a strategy for survival, developed emotions. We might say that emotion is a secondary definition of mammalian life.

But we cannot say that the emotion of fear is primary. Love and fear must be simultaneous. Because every animal, even your boyfriend, has a mouth with some sort of teeth, one cannot easily allow an approach. Non-mammalian animals overcome this problem of reproduction by what we call “ritualistic instinct” – patterns of behaviour that automatically trigger certain responses. But mammals have overridden the instinct for reproduction with an emotional (and of course it is also physical; everything is “also physical”) desire to mate, to have a mate. We have developed emotions of love and of delight in the voluntary denial of fear.

More, mammalian mothers can love and fear for their young. That allows us to produce fewer young so that the individual can be better protected. Those two kinds of love can easily expand to a phenomenon more important than survival. Recently I saw on the highway to Mexico City, a stray dog risking her life to try to save another dog which had been hit by a car. Saint Dog – Holy dog, but not uncommon.

With humans, every individual is capable of what we call “mother love”, and we can even extend it to the love of other species.

We can love each other and the cat and the mouse.

We also articulate. A fox in a cage knows sorrow and grief for the dangerous freedom of her lost home, but I can miss individual Hickory and Black Walnut trees, and the little translucent salamanders of my lost home; as I remember the constant death and suffering.

We live under such a beautiful curse, all the more a curse because we find so much beauty here.

What is there other than this physicality? Not “transcendence”, not “heaven”, but our knowledge of the intolerable situation and a love of all of us.

Cuernavaca, Mexico 1992

In the Joyeria of the Zanahorias

‘Zanahorias’ is my favorite word. Or maybe ‘impermeabilizante’ is. Or ‘sonreista’. Aren’t words beautiful? A completely artificial, human invention, and yet so often beyond our control, as though they are autonomous. (Oh, wait now, the French ‘invisibilité’ is probably my favorite word.)

When one is in a place where one does not understand the language, one listens so intently, both to the sound (rhythm) and for individual words. One reads all the senseless instructions and advertisements, unless one is in Greece, Japan or Malaysia, in which cases one attempts to see sense in the patterns made by the marks.

What is most extraordinary is the ways we use to convey words. The human voice has a broad range of tones, and we can make as many rhythms as we like. Spoken language is song, already poetry. I am practically sure that syntax - - - stringing words together to make complex sentences - - - comes from the same area of the brain as music.

But writing! What an invention! What a marvelous monstrosity! When I write I know that I am drawing. We even have three different ways of writing here in Europe: the way I like best is the one where all the letters of a word are joined, so that instead of drawing one letter next to another I draw each word. This method has, of course, a word which names it, but I do not know the word. ‘Cursive’? Another method is the one that seems important, formal. At least I feel ‘importance’ when I am using it. Each letter is separate, and more than half (14 to be precise) are simply re-arrangements of three or four ‘sticks’, such as; ‘A’, ‘E’, ‘F’, ‘L’, ‘M’, ‘K’, ‘T’, ‘W’, and so on. The others are based on curls; ‘S’, ‘C’, etc. (I often try to copy Arabic texts, but I cannot see what should connect and what should separate.)

I see no reason to write about the third method of writing because it is the one that has been adapted for printing mechanically and electronically, with ‘big’ letters for some purposes and ‘small’ ones for others.

As an invention, writing has replaced memory with law, and therefore metaphor with ‘truth’. Writing invented history and tied us to it.

All of us who write, then, or use words in any way, have the responsibility to become poets.

I’ve said earlier (but I don’t remember if I’ve written it down, and the only way to find out is to shuffle through mounds and stacks of old papers, which I have neither the time nor the courage for), it is as though we have for certain only two small realities; the immediate past and the immediate future. Language is the immediate past. It is the past of a split-second ago. When I say, ‘I am speaking’, in fact I have just spoken. When I read a sentence I have just read it. When you tell me something I just heard it that split second ago. What you may have told me even only a short hour ago is part of memory—imprecise and often re-interpreted sub-consciously. (Yes, I know that I also mis-understand or mis-interpret what you have just now told me, but that is a different subject; part of the problem of communication more than that of where time is.)

Objects are the immediate future, in the sense of reaching out for something (or trying to avoid it) — of desire.

But let’s face it, objects are treasure. There is that truly strange phenomenon of fetishism and its relative, money. That is not, however, what I want to consider.

One of my earliest memories is of having a pair of pants with pockets. I quickly acquired a reputation for keeping as many things in my pockets as they would hold. (One of my uncles told me that if I could keep a small new potato in my pocket for six weeks without taking it out to look at it, it would turn to stone. Stupid, lying bastard.) There was money, which I knew to value, but many more stones, sticks, knives and un-identifiable objects than coins. These things were valueless treasure. The money meant little because its value was only in exchange for something else (coconut candy—a substance with a short half-life).

It seems, then, necessary to make a diversion about value, and here, like Wittgenstein, I must remind us that no matter what words claim to mean they do not mean what we suppose them to mean or pretend them to mean. It is extremely difficult for an object to lie. Often someone makes an object dishonestly, and presents it as something that it is not. People are deceived for a while, then upon discovery of the deception discard the object. At that moment grace descends, (or perhaps ‘ascends’ is more appropriate). The object itself never lied. As we now see it in the vacant lot or garbage dump, its brave, confessional honesty shines. ‘Yes, I am plastic and glue and impermanent paint’, it proclaims with humble courage. As an act of saintly generosity it further explains, ‘Don’t worry, I’m completely useless.’

English has two words for worth; ‘worth’ itself, and ‘value’. One’s from the German, the other French. Let’s look at the French word first: ‘Value’ means that power or strength has been bestowed, by some agent or agency which has the authority, that is, power, to bestow power. Rather silly, isn’t it?

‘Worth’ simply means ‘price’, but the roots of the word have to do with exchange. If you ask what is the worth of this parrot feather I can fairly reply, ‘Two cowerie shells’, and if you ask the worth of the cowerie shells I can say, ‘one red and blue parrot feather’.

We know that many things are useless. Those things have no value and are worthless.

Because we can speak of these things only in the context of love we seldom speak of them. As yet, we have no science of love.

(In relation to visual art we have a vocabulary around the word/concept of ‘beauty’ and of ‘decoration’, so strangely elliptical as to count as anti-vocabulary.)

In other words (!) language does not describe the world—nor our ideas about the world, nor our knowledge of the world—and most of all, not our paths in the world. Words and objects occupy different dimensions.

Obviously language, as a human intervention, is at fault, and the fact that we cannot make our language talk about our love of objects is certainly worth studying.)

The reader might think that I am a collector, as are so many people who love objects. (Jan Hoet has a collection of ‘medium-sized stones’.) Well, I have a group of green stones but I do not wish it to become larger or to become a collection.

Often love becomes possessive, its opposite. When one loves another person this possessiveness is called jealousy. I guess its origin is fear. With objects, people make collections.

Instead of collecting, I gather things and put them in my studio. Then I can use them in works, just as I might use words to make sentences.

2003, Berlin

Savage Attacks on White Women, As Usual

Yotito tien melahuac:
Wasicus, huinas! Goliga, gatle ya ale gelia. Tsi osda igunh hne hi. Kingefuy sapa tla aca quiquixtiliz, ahalena i. Ag’sihwa sgo, Do he? Tla doyaquanta i tsi sunh sidgwu, nitso tanunh na. Yigiusta tinadunh ganunh nunh. Nitsa l’stahne tictemohiuzque inin xenola nain fey, ka.
Al stisg’wasicus, to dagedoli, atlilo stoht. Di dasquallunh ni! Cuache tla namechpanoz!

Father Thomas to the Council of the Indies:
“On the mainland they eat human flesh. They are more given to sodomy than any other nation. There is no justice among them. They go naked. They are stupid and silly. They have no respect for truth, save when it is to their advantage. They are unstable. They have no knowledge of what foresight means. They are ungrateful. . . . They are brutal. There is no deference among them on the part of the young for the old. They are incapable of learning. Punishments have no effect on them. They eat fleas, spiders, and worms raw, whenever they find them. They exercise none of the human arts or industries. The older they get the worse they become. I may therefore affirm that God has never created a race more full of vice and composed without the least mixture of kindness or culture. The Indians are more stupid than asses, and refuse to improve in anything.”

David de Vries (a Dutch colonist in Manhattan, 1643) in his diary:
“I heard a great shrieking, and I ran to the ramparts of the fort. Saw nothing but firing, and heard the shrieks of the savages murdered in their sleep. When it was day the soldiers returned to the fort, having massacred eighty Indians, and considering that they had done a deed of Roman valor. Infants were torn from their mothers’ breasts and hacked to pieces in the presence of the parents, and the pieces were thrown into the fire and in the water, and other sucklings, being bound to small boards were cut, stuck, pierced, and miserably massacred in a manner to move a heart of stone. Some were thrown into the river, and when the fathers and mothers endeavored to save them, the soldiers would not let them come on land, but made both parties and children drown.”

Street Voices:
“Those fuckin’ Indians sold this place for twenty-one bucks.”
“Yeah, we should give it back to them.”
“Even the Indians wouldn’t take it now. Maybe they weren’t so dumb after all.”
“They didn’t really live here; it was just a hunting ground.”
“You’re really an Indian? Jesus, what are you doing here? How come you’re not out West somewhere? You ever do any of that high steel work?”
“Man, you guys really got fucked over, huh?”

Inner Voices:
“Most Indians drink too much, and there’s too much violence, but at least there’s always a removal or something; some poor Indian families being evicted from their sacred land. Suffering Indians are good. High entertainment value that never goes stale. Fighting Indians are good only if you know they are going to lose out at the end of the movie. And then, they shouldn’t fight too much. They should make a deal with Jimmy Stewart and declare peace, and then get betrayed by General Richard Widmark.”

It is true, and now I can admit it openly, that when I was younger I was a cowboy for a while. But I don’t believe I really had, or have now, cowboy tendencies. I did not really enjoy it, and I only did it for the money.

This other cowboy I knew said, “You’re a cowboy and an Indian? Be careful you don’t kill yourself.”

You think cowboys and Indians go together. When you hear the word “cowboy” you think “Indian.” You probably think we are married or something. The cowboy is the husband and the Indian is the exasperatingly dumb but lovable wife.

I know you think we are part of your rich cultural heritage. Every time some Indian does tricks for the public you bring your kids along. You say, “We know so little about you, I want my kids to know more. They’re fascinated, anyway. Kevin here did a project for school last year about what Indians ate. Did you grow up on a reservation? Do you speak an Indian language?”

You think children and Indians go together, don’t you?

Who is the best Indian princess? Debra Paget was pretty sexy, but a little too solemn. Audrey Hepburn? Yuck. Too skinny and too hyper. Indians are more stoic. Donna Reed. That’s it. She was so pretty on that buffalo robe, with her feet tucked under her and her deerskin blouse opened just enough, and her little headband.

Your grandmother was a Cherokee princess? Amazing. Mine was too.

for my money Burt Lancaster was the best Indian chief. Somebody told me that Jeff Chandler really was Indian, but that can’t be true because he got to be an Indian chief and he got to win a little bit. Charles Bronson; now there was an Apache renegade if I ever saw one. Did you know that Jay Silverheels’ real name was Tony Curtis? Jamake Highwater’s real name was Jay Marks, and when he was a kid he couldn’t decide if he wanted to be a pirate or an Indian. Which reminds me, the Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Cleveland Indians 80–11, and the Washington Redskins beat the Atlanta Braves 2–0.

You probably think we like having cars named after us. You probably think I am part of your rich cultural heritage.

Your Response:
“Real Indians are not at all belligerent. They are very kind and gentle.”

A Serious Question:
What is the difference between a pioneer and a Voortrekker? What is the difference between you and a white South African?

I Answer You:
Oh, you try to understand! You think it’s a shame! And you have a turquoise ring and you just bought a magic Cherokee crystal from that guy — roo in Soho and you loved all those suffering Indians in Broken Rainbow!

Let’s See, What Else:
Let’s see, what else? You are stupid and silly and you eat spiders raw. At least I am absolutely certain that you would eat spiders barbecued if there were a proper marketing scheme for your peer group.

In August 1987 a bunch of white folks went to Central Park (to the stylish part of the park, of course) to celebrate some sort of harmonic convergence supposedly foretold in Mayan prophecies. They just assumed that somehow it was going to center on them, like everything else does. They never once thought that if there were such a world re-alignment it would be all over for their little situations.

Whenever you folks think about the world, you assume yourselves to be not only the center but the standard also, which makes it a little difficult to carry on a conversation with you.
But if an attempt is made, the other party must pretend a good will that could not possibly exist. I am about to enter into that pretense.

First we must consider the language barrier; from the initial encounters between American Indians and Europeans a vocabulary developed that is specific to speaking about Indians, especially in the English language. That vocabulary has no correspondence to works or concepts in our languages and, more importantly, it has no base in our reality. It was developed through racism and pre-conceived notions. More, it is by now so thoroughly the cartography of our thought about Indians that it is almost impossible not to use it, or not to consider that those words are, even though English, “Indian” words. The words “chief,” “tribe,” and “band” had etymological histories within European contexts. There is nothing in our contexts that means anything vaguely similar. “President,” “General,” “nation,” “state,” and “province” work just as well but they are not used because the vocabulary was developed against us, to further the idea that we are primitive. You can think of the obviously racist words such as “squaw,” “brave,” “warrior,” “papoose,” and, I hope “medicine man,” but what about the absurd custom of translating our given names into (incorrect) English, such as “Crazy Horse,” and “Sitting Bull?” There is no movement or urge to translate German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Zulu, or Nigerian names into literal English equivalents.

People ask, “Which do you prefer, “Indian” or “Native American?” Neither is acceptable, nor is any version of the word “Cherokee.” Which would you rather be called, “Wasicu,” “European,” or “Limey?” If you are English you might prefer to be called some version of the word “English.” The Cherokee word for Cherokee is Ani Yunh wiya. If translated literally it might mean “The People,” as so many other Indian nations call themselves. None of the words you call us by are words by which we call ourselves. Consider the import of such a phenomenon upon your knowledge of what you call your country.

By now, of course, some New Age folks have learned to say Dene or Lakota instead of Navajo or Souix, but usually that bit of knowledge is used in a game of one-upmanship against someone else. Like you say, “knowledge is power.”

Now then, have we reached a further point? If so I want to assume the attitude of Vittorio, the cruel Apache who showed no mercy. I am afraid, however, that you will not suffer; that you will instead be entertained by Indian tricks more novel than you expected. If you have been all of your life entertained on TV by our sorrows, you may well be entertained by my anger.

There is an obsenity particularly acute now because it has been so exposed and because of who, for the most part, is committing it. White women seem to be the majority of the perpetrators. The obscenity involves taking bits of Indian culture (or some marketeer’s version of Indian culture) into a nouvelle grab-bag “lifestyle” that is kind of like hippie/yuppie. You get turquoise, crystals, maybe some peyote and some mystical wisdom re-hashed from Castaneda, without having to give up restaurant row on Columbus Avenue. A case of liberated parasites.

Franz Fanon made a hypothetical situation concerning a group of German youths during the Nazi regime who become fascinated with Jewish books and wisdom, without ever lifting a finger to fight the Holocaust. He asked if we would not think of those youths as monstrous. But the parasites have a ready answer now. They say that they are fighting in a “spiritual” way.

I cannot analyze why so many women are involved in that set-up, but I know it is mean and ugly. It means that they have bought their second class niche in the white man’s system, while pretending to move in a completely different system. Instead of hwat should b e a natural solidarity with us, they offer an updated version of “the man’s” thievery. It is unpleasant to see oppressed people get over by oppressing other people on the boss’s behalf.

Finally, I address Matters at Hand:
This is supposed to be an essay for an exhibition of American Indian art. But we began planningn the exhibition with the idea that we would not be tourist attractions, and we also wanted the catalogue to be more than a tourists’ guidebook. We want to figure out how not to entertain you, yet still engage you in discussions about what is really the center of your reality, although an always invisible center.

One artist is not in the show because he wanted it to center on an exposé of the situation in Oklahoma. Others of us objected not because those issues do not urgently need challenging, but because we thought New Yorkers would not fee them a challenge. We thought you would be perfectly willing to self-righteously hate Oklahoma, without seeing any connection to your own lives.

It is a constant problem; how to challenge arrogant people who feel themselves to be the least arrogant of peoples, and who intend to remain unchallengeable. As Indian artists we work on that problem because we are Indians in thet present situation, but also because we are artists. In our cultures things are not so compartmentalized as in yours, so that it seems perversely unnatural that art should only deal with art.

It’s true,
It’s really true;
Whatever your ancestors claim
We cut off of them, we did.

We used dull flint knives.
I don’t know why;
We were feeling mean, I guess.

But we tied them to stakes
Only because otherwise they’d run away.
We would cut them off at the pass.

This is really true, they were by us
Cut off from their loved ones,
Cut off in dead of winter from their supplies.

We would take, it’s true, the pioneers and break
up their social cohesiveness, break up
Their family units, break (we tried to break)
Their very spirits.

Just out of pure-dee meanness
And savagery. Personally, I liked to take
Their women and cut off their hair
to wear on my vest, and then force them
To dance and to eat slimy things
Such as okra, and marshmallow candy.

New York, 1987

Unter den Linden

It has been at least thirty-five years since
Michel Porret showed me his poem
About the great old Linden tree
Struck down by a storm.

In his village of Saubraz, there
In the square where, his poem declared,
Villagers still spoke their own old language
When the tree was young.

The storm had entered the village at least
Thirty years earlier, so we can imagine
That the tree has been gone maybe
As long as seventy years.

I have forgotten what the tree was called
In Michel’s old language or in mine.
It is ‘basswood’ in American English,
‘Lime’ or ‘Linden’ in England,

Although ‘Linden’ is the German plural.
Yesterday after many years I left Berlin
Without ever having learned German.
The air was heavy with the perfume of Linden blossoms.

A pleasant, soporific tisane may be made
From the flowers of ‘Tilleul’, as the French
Call it. (in Berlin I lived in the old French
Huygenot quarter called ‘Moabit’, mais mon atelier
Ete’ dans le foret ‘Grunewald’)

And from the stringy inner bark comfortable
Summer shoes and sewing-thread.

The wood of Basswood, or Linden, is dense
But pliant, good for the detail needed,
In the old days, for scientific wood-cut
Illustrations of human anatomy.

And the sticks of this wood
Still are best for making charcoal for artists.

I am myself an artist but cannot draw well.
Could anyone draw lost forests?
Yet I hope we all remember the pleasant
Expressions from that old language in the square
Of the village of Saubraz.

Pre-Europe was plains and vast moist
Savannahs. Forests grew up around humans
Around fifty thousand years ago.

Noble and generous Hazelnut trees grew, Oaks
With their mast, Linden, Birch and Beech from which
Later Europeans made most everything.

O trees, forget our sins, remember
Our old prayers.