Maxine Kumin wrote an ode to excrement. She was not being cute. This farmer-poet is among many artists who challenge conventional notions of what is beautiful, superior, and sacred.
Tag or perceive something as “sacred” and its apparent opposite as profane, and you risk forming an unchecked, dualistic prejudice. In the history of Yoga, Tantrikas have flipped notions of what’s sacred on their proverbial heads. I have written elsewhere [http://yogamodern.com/categories/writing/hatha-yogis-in-the-counter-current-by-jeff-davis-2/] of how classical Yoga maintains that the body is an “ill-smelling… conglomerate of bone, skin, sinew, muscle, marrow, flesh, semen, blood.” So-called “left-handed” Tantrikas have developed practices that involve physical intercourse and eating meat, challenges to purist notions that demarcate the sacred from the profane. Historically, several Tantrikas and Hatha Yogis also allowed women and people of varied classes to become practitioners, a challenge to Brahmin notions of who is and who is not a candidate for sacredness.
Some Western poets and painters, especially but not only during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, are artistic Tantrikas. In the mid-1800s, caught in a fever of democracy’s potential, Walt Whitman writes
Through me many long dumb voices;
Voices of the interminable generations of slaves;
Voices of the diseas’d and despairing, and of thieves and dwarfs;
…And of the rights of them the others are down upon;
Of the deform’d, trivial, flat, foolish, despised,
Fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung.
Through me forbidden voices;
Voice of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d, and I remove the veil;
Voices indecent, by me clarified and transfigur’d.
That last line articulates precisely what artistic tantrikas do: They see clearly what and who others have deemed profane and recast them as sacred. The profane becomes transfigured. By the late nineteenth century, Degas painted portraits of beggars and prostitutes in a style once reserved for society’s “elite,” and Rilke wrote laments from their points of view. In the 1910s, John Sloan, of the American “Ashcan School” of journalists-cum-painters, cast his painterly eye toward the city’s grittiest criminals and alleyways.
And that dung beetle in Whitman’s poem merits mentioning. You can imagine where the dung beetle might rank among some conventional Buddhist and Hindu constructs of reincarnation. The Medieval Western concept of the Great Chain of Being codifies the elements and the animal kingdom into an elaborate ladder of who’s closest to God and who’s farthest. At the chain’s lowest link are snakes. Above them, beetles. So, of course, the twentieth-century master of odes, Pablo Neruda, follows Whitman’s lead and sings to the beetle in an ode.
And what about artist Andres Serrano and, among other provocative pieces, his “Piss Christ”? Damien Casey, a Lecturer in Theology at the Australian Catholic University, argues [http://www.artsandopinion.com/2004_v3_n3/pisschrist.htm] that the art piece is “profoundly religious.” Casey performs a philosophical analysis of the piece’s profane/sacred signs that I have neither space nor patience to address here.
My point is this: Hatha Yogis and artistic Tantrikas should keep us on our toes. They’re not simple provocateurs for the sake of provocation. Their smirking yet authentic brand of sacred irreverence reminds us that if consciousness is, indeed, non-dualistic, then let’s dance the sacred-profane tango.
However much we stain the world, spatter
it with our leavings, make stenches, defile
the great formal oceans with what leaks down,
trundling off today’s last barrowful,
I honor shit for saying: We go on.
- from Maxine Kumin, “The Excrement Poem”