January 27, 2009
Webster and the Ark
It was a by-appointment-only barn sale, in Old Saybrook, near my parents’ new home and I had come along for the ride. My mother was looking for something, an end table? – and I lagged behind as she, the owner, and my aunt who had arranged the excursion, walked up and down the thick wooden stairs and toured the entire chilly, but immaculate, structure. I was visiting from my retreat on Block Island where I had begun to love the town dump, and was learning the fine arts of salvage, recovery, and reuse, of finding treasure amongst trash.
This was not a dump. Everything had a price tag and was expensive and laid out nicely, more nicely than how most actual rooms in real houses are arranged. Everything was new-looking – or very old-looking, as in real antiques, by-the-book antiques. There were odd relics too, trophies from far-off lands or long-ago hunts. The most commanding thing, stunning and alarming, was the magnificent head of a Buddha – large, shining – made of very old brass, with eyes closed, smiling, mounted on a pedestal. $3000.
How can you sell the Buddha? Or buy him? Where’s his body? If you looked closely you could see the jagged scar along the bottom edge of his neck where the thief had hacked and sawn. It was strange, unbearably strange and violent, absurd, his severed head beaming in this well-lit Connecticut barn, surrounded by mirrors and plush sofas and dining tables. What was he doing here, all disconnected, dis-bodied, with a price tag? The Block Island dump was far more wholesome than this place. Was his body still intact? In Thailand? Cambodia? India? How could it be? Without a head is it still Buddha? or just scrap to be melted, recast? I tried to imagine it. It was difficult. Headless bodies are hard to see. Eyes look for eyes, faces for faces. I stared at the photos in a recent National Geographic magazine for quite a while until I suddenly realized that the furry dark twisted shapes on the grassy floor were actually dead gorillas. They had no heads; just wounds were the heads should be, the heads taken for keepsake ashtrays. It took a while to even see the wounds, to recognize what was missing. I think the gorilla is a Buddha and the Buddha is a gorilla, an ancient brass gorilla with his severed head stuck on a pole in a polite used furniture store. Or the ten-point buck mounted in the next room.
As my mother was deciding there was nothing suitable I found, in a low wooden case, a large, old, leather bound dictionary – The International Edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The original Webster. Noah, the great Webster, from a long line of websters (spinners of webs, weavers), who like the Noah of old was a collector, preserver, not of animals in an boat, but of words, in a book, not two, but one of each and all their relations. The collector, preserver, re-presenter of “American” English.
The book wasn’t the First Edition, not yet, because there hadn’t been a Second when it was published, just as World War One wasn’t World War One until World War Two. It was simply The Great War. Back-formation. The new thing causes us to rename the familiar old thing. We never had analog watches until digital ones came along, or broadcast television until cable, or fretless banjos until frets. It was just television, or a watch or a banjo. I digress.
I asked the proprietor how much for the dictionary. She seemed embarrassed to have such a tawdry unpriced thing and quickly said “five dollars.” Such a deal.
Words had lost their weight for me – something that had happened in seminary, when I worked with the homeless in a crazy shelter in Manhattan. The big words – love, humanity, God, hope, fairness, kindness, community, faith had become dis-bodied sounds, referring to nothing, at least nothing real, smiling, grinning heads floating in the air, in people’s mouths and ears, but having no body, not meaning anything, not where it mattered, on the edge, where things fall apart. There, for me, language had fallen apart; reference stopped referring, hands lost hold. Many different things brought me back over the course of many years, but that dictionary was chief among them, an ark full of living beings, ancient and new, a great web of relations, origins, shifts, connections, roots, branches, leaves, organs, limbs, traces, footprints, mindprints, evidences of the great living beast, language, and of us, our trouble-making cursed head-chopping, ear-slicing species, our marvelous and blessed city-building, banjo-playing, language using, abusing, losing, language reclaiming and constantly recreating species. Amen (Greek for truly, verily, let it be so).