cut up

In a recent discussion I mentioned bricolage:

Though it’s evolved organically the Starry Bull pantheon is tightly-knit with a lot of intersection among its members. Many of them have a habit of showing up when the others are called, especially within specifically thiasos-style rites. This is part of why there’s such a strong insistence that one get to know the entire pantheon during the early stages – we don’t want folks freaking out when headless saints or giant spiders show up during their devotions. Another part is because all of them are involved in the mysteries of our tradition. In fact how and to what degree they are involved determines which mystery a person goes through, bricolage-style.

Bricolage (and there’s a fairly decent entry on it at Wikipedia) was Radcliffe G. Edmonds III’s solution to the problem of varying types of Orphism:

I propose a re-examination of the ancient evidence that takes seriously the model, proposed by Burkert and others, of itinerant religious specialists competing for religious authority among a varying clientele. Rather than looking for a coherent set of sacred texts canonical to people who considered themselves Orphics, texts expressive of doctrines pertaining to sin, salvation, and afterlife, we should look for the products of bricolage, pieced together from widely available traditional material to meet the demand of clients looking for extra-ordinary solutions to their problems. If the texts and rituals are products of bricolage, however, and their creators bricoleurs competing for authority, we cannot expect to find either consistency of texts or doctrines, merely a loose family resemblance between composites of the same traditional elements. A redefinition of ancient Orphism requires a polythetic definition that accommodates the complexities of the ancient contexts rather than the sort of monothetic definition that identifies Orphism by its scriptures and doctrines. Nevertheless, the attempt to force the evidence into this preconceived modern construct has created unnecessary confusions in interpretation, as, e.g., the debate over the Orphic status of the author of the Derveni papyrus shows. (Redefining Ancient Orphism)

There’s a strong parallel between this and a practice pioneered by William S. Burroughs called the cut-up technique:

Also in the 1950s, painter and writer Brion Gysin more fully developed the cut-up method after accidentally re-discovering it. He had placed layers of newspapers as a mat to protect a tabletop from being scratched while he cut papers with a razor blade. Upon cutting through the newspapers, Gysin noticed that the sliced layers offered interesting juxtapositions of text and image. He began deliberately cutting newspaper articles into sections, which he randomly rearranged. The book Minutes to Go resulted from his initial cut-up experiment: unedited and unchanged cut-ups which emerged as coherent and meaningful prose. Gysin introduced Burroughs to the technique at the Beat Hotel. The pair later applied the technique to printed media and audio recordings in an effort to decode the material’s implicit content, hypothesizing that such a technique could be used to discover the true meaning of a given text. Burroughs also suggested cut-ups may be effective as a form of divination saying, “When you cut into the present the future leaks out.”

Interestingly I just came across a reference to this from antiquity, Irenaeus’ Against Heresies 1.9.4:

Then, again, collecting a set of expressions and names scattered here and there in Scripture, they twist them, as we have already said, from a natural to a non-natural sense. In so doing, they act like those who bring forward any kind of hypothesis they fancy, and then endeavour to support them out of the poems of Homer, so that the ignorant imagine that Homer actually composed the verses bearing upon that hypothesis, which has, in fact, been but newly constructed; and many others are led so far by the regularly-formed sequence of the verses, as to doubt whether Homer may not have composed them. Of this kind is the following passage, where one, describing Hercules as having been sent by Eurystheus to the dog in the infernal regions, does so by means of these Homeric verses—for there can be no objection to our citing these by way of illustration, since the same sort of attempt appears in both:—

Thus saying, there sent forth from his house deeply groaning.— Od., x. 76.
The hero Hercules conversant with mighty deeds.— Od., xxi. 26.
Eurystheus, the son of Sthenelus, descended from Perseus.— Il., xix. 123.
That he might bring from Erebus the dog of gloomy Pluto.— Il., viii. 368.
And he advanced like a mountain-bred lion confident of strength.— Od., vi. 130.
Rapidly through the city, while all his friends followed. — Il., xxiv. 327.
Both maidens, and youths, and much-enduring old men.— Od., xi. 38.
Mourning for him bitterly as one going forward to death. — Il., xxiv. 328.
But Mercury and the blue-eyed Minerva conducted him.— Od., xi. 626.
For she knew the mind of her brother, how it laboured with grief.— Il., ii. 409.

Now, what simple-minded man, I ask, would not be led away by such verses as these to think that Homer actually framed them so with reference to the subject indicated? But he who is acquainted with the Homeric writings will recognise the verses indeed, but not the subject to which they are applied, as knowing that some of them were spoken of Ulysses, others of Hercules himself, others still of Priam, and others again of Menelaus and Agamemnon. But if he takes them and restores each of them to its proper position, he at once destroys the narrative in question.

Why must we assume intent to deceive? Who is to say that the bricoleur did not feel himself inspired in the arrangement of these random scraps of text, especially when a new story seemed to emerge almost of its own bidding from the disparate fragments? As Burroughs said, “When you cut into the present the future leaks out.”

At any rate, these methods have deep resonance for me because of Dionysiac sparagmos:

Dionysos, when he saw his image reflected in the mirror, began to pursue it and so was torn to pieces. But Apollon put Dionysos back together and brought him back to life because he was a purifying god and the true savior. (Olympiodoros, Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo 67c)


2 thoughts on “cut up

  1. This would be anthropologically consistent, since in the absence of a rigid archival doctrine that stresses literal word continuity over continuity of meaning, things change- a lot. Even if an Orphic cleric stayed in one place and was followed by a whole of descendent clerics, the specifics would likely have changed (especially in the eyes of outsiders) as more Mysteries are revealed, etc. This diversity and change is the more standard human experience.


    1. Absolutely. And even with the more institutional mysteries (Eleusis, Andania, Samothrace, etc) where they have methods of enforcing strict conformity with regard to the telete, we have no idea what the inward experience of the average participant was, beyond a handful of scattered allusions. I’m sure that most fell within a socially determined range, along with a bunch of novel outliers, and then a couple folks who just didn’t get anything from it, no matter how generally effective the preparation and ceremonies were.

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