Before I start watching and writing The Divine Horsemen. Before I start watching and writing The Living Gods of Haiti. I let the Internet teach me how to give good headscarf because there is a shot of Maya Deren (from In the Mirror of Maya Deren) in which she does so in a navy and magenta pattern glittering way. My scarf is mid blue and if you took one letter off it, it would be my mid blue scar. It's dark this far north, and my room always feels dark. I want my head to feel bright.
Here I am wearing what you can't really see all that well on my head:
I watched this for the first time in an anthropology-theory-mixology class I'm taking this semester called, "Making the Dead Matter." Last week, class was cancelled because my professor was doing an invisible crowds death presentation on the west coast in a whale mask. It has been a relief to have a professor who is the Grand Canyon filled with confetti, to share an intellectual space with a believer in hoping some foam shows up around the mouth.
Deren intended this floaty, light-ish, heat-dusting footage to be considered and discussed in university/anthropology settings. However, because Deren practiced and danced the Haitian Voudoun rituals she recorded (though she never appeared in the footage her husband, Tejii Ito, put together after her death) using Guggenheim (Googlyhymen) money over several years, she was given stodgy and probably yellow grimaces by professional stodgy grimacers pulling on academic cigarettes.
Of course, all the notes I've read on the project say Deren got closer to the Voudoun sweat than others who have tried. She was anti-aloof and anti-safe: anti-speculative scientific distance. Deren moved because she was a dancer. Dance was a huge access point through which many of Deren’s films flowpoured, flowerpowered. The Voudoun gods continued to show up and swag and speak and possess with the open mouthed cameras around because she was willing to get pulled into something else. My syllabus for the aforementioned class now comes in handy/comes in with its hands.
“Academic discourse stands to learn most from literature, the performing and visual arts insofar as each of these engage more or less explicitly with the interface between materiality of a medium - whether it be paint, stone, celluloid, the body of the performer or the pre-signifying rhythmic and phonic ‘substance’ of language (particularly in the case of poetry)-and discursively redeemable cultural “meaning.”
Deren saw that you have to rub against, you have to unleash your mindminebody to feel it rejoin and recombine. She was pro-getting possessed by the surroundingworld, the underworld, the oceanworld, the betweenworld, which is what makes this whole film really swing for me. This might even be what is most chick flick-y about it for me, this opening to the bodily beyond of bodies processing vicious painfun sprouting trans to forms of becoming trans to voices.
When I watch this film, I am seeped. I am steeped in the clean white shirts gouged with pit stains, the busted feathers lapping up entire legs, the animal blood on the mambo’s dress, the island under the water where the dead live with the loa/the gods/the spirits that wash into the Voudoun congregation, the touch of the possessed person that burrclaws possession and divine spittle into the other nearest thriving person, the belted khakis spinning, the patient slow delicate and the back and forth-ness of the dance sequences, how clear it is that they have been passed through persons in much the same way the loa have been, the pulse music, the thin details of the flour drawings that indicate which spirit is being attended to for a particular ritual, the altar space clutter, the hairy wind deciding the direction of poured libations, the hip maps, the sparkling shorts worn with deep sunglasses.
We (American sized, Western eyed?) are uncomfortable with the idea of spirit possession, with the idea of our body not being entirely ours or a spirit invader's or anyone else’s for some measure of time. We admit the de-stablized self, the de-centered self, the fragmented self, the multituded self, but we still feel present and accounted for when we enact and recall and write those encounters out. We feel and like to announce feeling shredded beats of control over how we articulate that broken fracture picture self. We’ve almost got it cornered. We’ve almost got that busted-up self mastered. Giving yourself to possession, though, to the martians as Jack Spicer says in Vancouver Lecture #3, is something else.
“Q: Then let me ask you who are you vulnerable to?
Jack Spicer: Ghosts.”
I was out with a friend at Tracey’s Saloon. You get wooden coins you can exchange for drinks. One is still stuck to my coat pocket. I hadn’t eaten enough that day to drink more than two drinks. I was explaining a book we were reading about Thai monks meditating on dead body parts, about monks living near a forest meant to corral unquiet spirits to keep them from possessing and subsequently attacking the living, about monks using pictures of corpses so that they might imagine their own death (Stellar corpses. -Ray Brassier), not mentally so much as physically attempting to gain a clear glimpse of their body decomposing and falling apart. The monk who headed the temple had hair that changed from gray back to black after a long relationship with meditation. Meditation, I would say, is an allowing of the self to be possessed by the self. My friend looked at me. “You don’t really believe in any of that.”
I bit at my whiskey. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s real or not. I believe in it because there’s transformation to consider either way.”
The goword mount is used in Voudoun rituals to describe the possession by the loa of the living. A loa mounts a person or a person is mounted by a loa, a la horse and rider. The narrator, whose words are taken from a monograph written by Deren, his 1950s PSA accent cranked to 11, lets us in on what kind of rubbing against these possessions are, “What happens is an expression of the will of the rider. One travels by the most visible and physical means. Yet, to the traveler, it is itself invisible.” The gestures of the possessed are big, unpredictable, though the movements are often in tune with the personalities ascribed to the different loa that visit. The whites of the eyes are snow everywhere. The drums carry and cradle everyone around and around.
We avoid giving away control of whatever self it is we hang on to. To consider that we can enact a process of body/spirit/something else interbraid out there under language is difficult. We move to protect individual-ness, the individual-nest. Mostly because we know what the violence of having control taken away from the self is. We understand being forced better than living vulnerable, living on incoming pulses, living out on open fields. Spiritual possession leaves traces behind, leaves behind a process to work and swim through, leaves behind a dance that can engage a community. Spiritual possession teaches us how to live through possession as it inhabits us. The soul and body certainly can act out and engage in maybe even violent conflict (individual not lost still here always) with the invading. That is a dance of ruffling waves, hurt necks, just as settling into the possession encounter is the sound of feathers winding in a circle, the sound of sinking into separate beach, just as stepping out of it means removing your sweat, moving a costume, showering, feeling the earth return.
Carrie Lorig is a poet in Minneapolis, MN, who believes in the crusts in the bicycle and in the skin around buildings. If she could have any t-shirt on her cupcake it would say, “Wonder Bender.”