Atlas/ Alas/ At Last
They say that to dream of the moon is a sure sign of impending good fortune, but I dreamt last night of the full moon in Beit Ummar, in the occupied territories of the West Bank, where good fortune is notoriously hard to come by. Last year at this time I was working in Israel, putting together the beginnings of a research report that would delve into the Arab and Jewish history of a beautiful small town in the northern Galilee named Safed. During the Golden Age of Qabbalah in the 16th century, this little town was the center of the world: from which vast quantities of art, music, mystical literature, and poetry poured out, and from which much modern Jewish tradition derives. As I found (but which is not widely known any longer), the Arab Sufis had a great deal of discourse with the Jewish Qabbalists at that time in Safed, and these two spiritual communities shared many techniques and ideas for religious meditation and practice. (You can read an article I wrote on that research here)
In the course of time, I traveled all over Israel, and by July I found myself in the West Bank, staying with a wonderful Palestinian family and learning about them and about the political situation in the occupied territories. I was staying in a little guest room they had, with a pretty view overlooking the few farming lands left to the community there.
I woke up in the night, just as the Muslim Call to Prayer was sending its first sonorous echoes across the landscape, sounding like a lonely love-song. Outside on the bare soil between the olive and fig trees, skinny dogs dragged their chains. One uttered a low howl, but the other kept silence, her head down, her black feet raising the dust as she slowly paced the circumference of her captivity. The full moon hung so low over the trees I felt I could touch it. The Call to Prayer seemed to be pulling it down out of the sky. I was sure that unless the Call stopped, the moon would crash into the earth, breaking open and spilling bright water into every pore of the parched soil. The Call did cease, and the night insects (as if they had quieted themselves to listen to its beauty, though they were as ignorant of Arabic as I was) resumed their clockwork sounds, ticking out the time until morning.
I did not sleep again that night; I lay and listened to the sound of the dragging chains, the heavy sounds of the thirsty dogs, the memory of the Call, the night insects, and I watched the way the moonshadows slowly dripped over the landscape, turning black and blue and then fading like a bruise to pale purple as dawn approached.
Last night I dreamed of that night last July. The dogs were black wolves, and the moon still did not break open and water the earth. I woke up as hot as I had been that night in the tremendous heat of summer in the high desert, and with the taste of fresh figs in my mouth.
Atlas was the god with the worst job (or, rather, it would be the worst job if there weren't so very many others). Atlas, while his Titan brothers were imprisoned in Tartarus, was singled out by Zeus and condemned to carry the the celestial spheres on his shoulders, in order to keep the primordial father and mother (the sky and the earth) forever apart. Atlas was a tragic giant with a monstrous burden (which could only have gathered in bulk as, over the centuries, human beings discovered just how deep the sky really went).
I love Atlas for his burden, because the world is indeed a heavy, heavy place. But I think that the god that holds up the universe isn't a strong man at all, but a baby, a madman and a madwoman, a beggar, an animal, a wandering idiot. A Fool.
The Fool doesn't take on burdens, doesn't try to help or to fix problems or even to heal wounds. The Fool is simply the Fool, ignorant, self-centered, and unable to rise even one inch above personal survival. The Fool stands on the top of a mountain because to a Fool, every direction is down. Any little movement will decide the whole course of existence; the Fool will keep falling, and the direction of life from there on out will be initiated and perpetuated on its own, like a glacier slowly and irresistibly carving a canyon out of a high, rocky steppe.
An innocent adventurer, the Fool is built to learn rather than to help. And in this way, naturally obviating the well-intentioned trap of paternalism, does not rob others of their own powers of salvation. The Fool has nothing to give, and everything yet to understand. The two tails reveal an animal nature: a person driven by physiological needs and the animal instincts enshrined in every human being's genetic makeup. The Fool may someday reach the black sea (or perhaps it is a dark stretch of desert) beyond the mountains, but at present the Fool is frozen in infancy, neither male nor female, whose two tails recall the number zero, an empty shell, a womb, a hollow world inside which to dance out the stuff of human existence.
I went to Israel and to the territories knowing next to nothing, and without any thought of working for peace or helping an oppressed people. I felt I did not know enough to know where or how to help. I traveled and I spoke to anybody who would share their thoughts with me, which turned out to be quite a diverse lot of people; a foreigner of unstated political beliefs can be a blank slate upon which people of all faiths, political positions, and personal values will write in great profusion, if I could only keep quiet and polite, and listen. And I found I could; my curiosity was stronger than my outrage. And it turned out that being there to understand rather than to help ended up helping more than I would have imagined.
Franz Kafka knew all about fools, and he wrote a beautiful little story called "Children on a Country Road". It ends this way:
"There you'll find queer folk! Just think, they never sleep!"
"And why not?"
"Because they never get tired."
"And why not?"
"Because they're fools."
"Don't fools get tired?"
"How could fools get tired!"
This post is part of a series about my deck, the Cheimonette Tarot.