the speaking therapy, bookless cooking, and a book
The page bows before orality.*
Ayurvedic worldview is primarily conveyed through oral tradition, which means that it establishes validity in relationship (in dialogue). Ayurveda is learned heart-to-heart, in the home (kitchen, garden, bathroom) of someone who learned about it by living it in someone else’s home. Oral traditions predate the ossification of the written word into stable definition and Platonic ideal – the etching, scribing, and typesetting that fails to mirror the modulations of voice, but changes nonetheless, unconsciously, with the broader sweep of time that erodes the letters and the pages they mark, and now, the technology of the book itself.
When I learn astrology from my mentor, he scribbles the star-charts on scrap paper for us to study. But I am entranced by his blue eyes and the arc of his words, which spill upwards from a river of heart-memory. Later, we burn the papers in the hearth and warm our hands. Then he looks at my hands by the light of the fire and teaches me palmistry. This friend may never publish a book, because his teaching would be lifeless if abstracted from such moments of friendship. If he did publish, he would probably inject purposeful misteaks, as the old Indian scribes were want to do, to foster uncertainty about righting, and to drive the earnest to seek personal relationship.
As David Abrams points out so gracefully in The Spell of the Sensuous, there are no abstractions in orality, no transcendental signifiers, no capitalized words that ring out so strangely on the page as if they were beyond the changes of song. (Perhaps it is only Capital letter that allows for Capitalism, for as soon as a Word is Capitalized, it seems to store a static value that can be leveraged against more fluid words.) Orality has no ‘Truth’, for example, because the feeling of what is true revises itself with each telling of a story. For instance, Aristotle disrupted the flow of oral feeling by demanding of his Homerically-saturated student – “What is Virtue?” The typical reply would have been a rhyming, metrical quotation from the great oral poetry, a verse that exemplified virtuous action. But this isn’t what the old codger was asking for – he was pointing his student towards an abstract fiction that we’ve chased ever since – “Virtue” that exists beyond single actions, beyond contexts, beyond lived relationships. “Virtue” that can be found only in the silent library, beyond the clamour of children and the quarrels of lovers. In oral tradition, “Virtue” does not exist; there is only the performance of a virtuous mood for this time, this circumstance.
Oral traditions function through play, sound, repetition, pleasure, and context. They are gestural and immediate – you cannot learn the finesse of cooking proportions from the page. My gay Australian cooking guru used to measure in fingers and pinches and demi-hands, tossing black mustard and cumin seeds into the ashram skillet* with a flick of the wrist, narrating with a kind of sound poetry: see, see? da da DA. then – swish swoosh… now, now… wait for it, yes, I said yeeahh – NOW! …comes poppity pop… and there’s your oil dear one, thats what we’re doing, there’s your oil, deary, popping away nicely are we, THAT’S what we’re talking about, pippity pop, oily oily, [snort, snort, chuckle], MMMmmmhmmm, ready for the bok choy, doo-de-doo, fiddle-dee-dee, bocky choy chippity chop, chop!
I never picked up a cookbook again, and Aristotle has never helped me over the stove. “What is Nourishment?” he purred once over my shoulder. I answered with closed eyes – it depends on what’s in season, what I can afford, what’s in arm’s reach, what my tongue and tissues fancy, the time of day and the tasks before me. It depends on all flowing things that a cookbook must pin down and freeze in order to be legible. This is one of many reasons that Ayurveda can (thankfully) never make Money – it offers no Universal principles that can be packaged and sold as transcendent ideals. It knows that truth has seasons, and that vegan or raw or all-cooked or macrobiotic are tools and not dogmas.
The difficulty with tools is that you have to learn to use them. The laziness of dogmatic ideals is that they use you. As for cooking, so for relationship, so for hygiene, so for personal evolution. Who really wants to make the same soup every day? The sky changes, and asks for a little more of this, ploop, plop, and a little less of that, zoop, zup. That’s what we’re talking about, deary.
Also, there is the personal aspect of oral contact. You know that the chat you’re having over tea or the stove or your pillow talk at dawn engages you specifically. But, given the fact that you know that this very page you ponder now is not written for you exclusively, but “You” generally – you become an eavesdropper in a one-way monologue, and the capacity for intimate transmission to occur shrivels. The voice on the page and the reading voice may share sympathetic accord, but it is through a veil of the impersonal, and we have all learned much more profoundly from each other by walking arm in arm through the forest.
How many of the essential things you know did you learn outside of book-learning? Most of them. What would it be like to relearn your book-learning as an illiterate in the field? How much closer can you get to your life?
Traditionally, vidya describes the book as a scaffold only for meaning, stripped of the flesh of oral contact, hardened in vocabulary and idea into rigour mortis. To read a book and think you were getting the goods, vidya says, is like going to the museum and believing that dinosaurs were very large and animated skeletons. The problem with both books and history, says vidya, along with Morris Berman in Coming to our Senses, is that only the hard* remains, and the hard is but one colour of experience. (There are in fact twenty colours, says Ayurveda, in infinite recombinant relationship.) If we were to gain our self-knowledge from archeology and libraries alone, we would suffer the illusion that humanity makes only weapons and laws, arrowheads and concepts. We have to conjure the soft presences always when we encounter their shells – for they do not last, except in our hearts. It is left to relationship to embody the book with the pliant and pulsating.
And yet, the book can still be beautiful in its shining bones, if it acknowledges its deficit plainly. Heartfully dreamt, finely designed and locally printed, it can be a conversation piece, a provocation of daydreaming, a sattvic sleeping pill, a talisman against loneliness, a jolt of creative caffeine, a polemic to spice our general dissociation. What we can hope for in a book about Ayurveda is not that it contains a truth that flowers only in the body of relationship, but that it, in itself by shape and weight and colour and rhythm and sentiment, becomes an object of delight that encourages you firmly to put it down and get out of the house, to find someone who resonates with what you’ve remembered, and love the patterned chaos that envelops you both.
I’m trying to write a book like that. Maybe this is part of it.
*…parallel to every written text of vidya hovers the oral commentary, a voice less polished, with less syntax, an edge of uncertainty in the margin, running on from ellipsis to ellipsis with anecdote and recipe, making the page a site of both internal conversation and a hub of extending spokes, expressing the action side of knowledge, which in its highest form is always frayed and distractable, the flow of daily life beside the theory that would contain it, sometimes a whisper and sometimes melodic, retaining creativity by resisting definition, a voice that changes with the hour, over the shoulder, under the arm, in memory, close to the breast…. the practices of oral health in Ayurveda begin with tongue-scraping, continue with relaxation of the soft palate to soften the senses, brushing teeth with bitter and astringent herbs, and making the mouth a fine dwelling place for speech. The goddess will happily sit on the clean tongue, and interrupt the discourse at will…
*…seeds season the oil of cookery by sacrificing their own growth potential. Oil is liquefied earth element, heavy and clinging yet conductive of heat. Black mustard further heats the oil, cumin cools, fennel rounds it, fenugreek pierces the oil with bitterness… and now the oil is tarka, tempered, and the iron is ready for the root vegetable, the pea, or the pulse. We begin by popping open the seeds and extracting what could have blossomed in the future. Take the flavour of time and season the present. Draw past summers’ heat into the winter morning through the black mustard. Pull future falls’ bitterness into this wet spring through coriander, coat life with oil and flavour, begin at the beginning. And of course, there are the seed syllables of language. Om will pop open in the hot oil of devotional song…
*…kathina: ‘hard’ quality of experience, giving rigidity, strength, and insensitivity. Typically found in proximity with “cold”, “immobile”…. A prevalent quality of modernity, e.g. steel and glass. Ayurveda claims there is a relationship between the clack of heels striding down a hall of polished concrete and the suppression and/or oblivion of mrdu, “soft”… the hard surfaces of the modern hospital, for example, are engineered to slice into the viscera of experience that has become disorderly and/or septic; even the soft materials have hard and crinkly lacquer to them: sheets and gowns are starched, cushions are coated with vinyl derivatives. The truly soft objects of the hospital – the swabs and gauzes and dressings – are as disposable as the flesh to be opened and excised. The hospital confers health through a series of aggressions upon the soft. So too would capitalism confer wealth, militarism confer political power, and religious dogma confer power over the imagination…