Joy Conjoined to Stillness
Here lies Nzuzu, a fossilized water spirit, her petrified essence discovered inside green serpentine stone and released by sculptor Nicholas Mukomberanwa.
Human activity flits past her massive stillness. Travelers march and sprint by with their wheeled luggage. This vast, dim tunnel is the pedestrian corridor between concourses of the Atlanta airport — also the underground site of an exhibit of Shona stone sculpture from Zimbabwe. The fleeing people ignore or overlook Nzuzu’s stony silence. No one is meant to linger here.
She is like a deep secret, left uncovered in plain sight, yet entirely unnoticed … open to view and un-viewed. Her pursed, fishy lips thrust forward. Her hair ripples back. Her flat, stylized face is rigid and remote, its expression detached, impermeable to gusts of energy that vibrate loose from passing individuals.
I am a fortunate individual because my schedule allows me to linger an hour in this uncanny passageway where there are no shadows and no benches. But at first it feels awkward, perhaps transgressive to loiter. Once I step outside the constant and lively foot traffic, the movement of strangers appears so purposeful. A pang of loneliness hits me. The absolute, unmoving center is never a social place, and Nzuzu in her stillness is not immediately companionable.
Nicholas Mukomberanwa offered some explanation for his water spirit when the exhibit opened in 2001: “There has to be a dialogue between you and the stone. What I do is highlight what already has been achieved by nature.”
Indeed, Nature made the serpentine minerals from which she is carved by a rare metamorphic process that sucks up water and binds it within solid rock. Nzuzu’s body is, chemically and metaphorically, bound water. Call her watery stone, or perhaps stony water, conjoined layers of H2O molecules and rock minerals locked into crystal lattices. Her water is no longer liquid. This happens under extraordinary circumstances when material from deep beneath the Earth’s crust gets shoved to the surface where it grows unstable outside its subterranean comfort zone. Chthonic rock wants to be hot and stressed. For chemical reasons beyond my ken, its agitation will be resolved by an abduction and a forced marriage. Seawater becomes the captive bride, and recrystallization the wedding night rape. Complete transformation results.
How like the mythic rape of Proserpina. (Her Roman name. I prefer the softer Greek Persephone, but I’m reading Roman poet Ovid, so when in Rome …) Rape in the old tales meant the kidnapping of a maiden for the purpose of marrying her. Brutal stuff, mythologizing the impersonal brutality of natural processes.
Ovid’s grand mock-epic Metamorphoses is, as its title suggests, the ultimate anthology of stories about wrenching change. He retells Proserpina’s #MeToo trauma in a way that eerily matches what geologists call serpentinization. It begins with the claustrophobic, soul-crushing pressure of colliding tectonic plates. What better to express such agony than a vast, raging, primeval monster buried alive, his body weighted down by mountains. Here is Allen Mandelbaum’s translation:
The island mass of Sicily is heaped
upon a giant’s body: underneath
its soil and stones Typhoeus lies …
He writhes; he often tried to rise again.…
His head is pressed — vast Etna holds it fast.
Beneath this mountain, on his back, in rage,
Typhoeus’ mouth spits ashes, vomits flames.
He often strives to heave aside the ground —
the towns and heavy peaks that pin him down.
Then earth quakes.
When Typhoeus struggles all the underworld is disrupted, and its ruling god, Pluto, must repair damages. Divinity is not just parties and ambrosia.
… As [earth] trembles, even he
who rules the kingdom of the silent dead
is anxious, for the crust of Sicily
may split and a wide crack reveal things secret:
Daylight might penetrate so deep that it
would terrify the trembling Shades. His fear
of such disaster led that lord of darkness
to leave his sunless kingdom.
Duty compels Pluto up and out of his infernal realm. To surveil the boundaries of Tartarus he must go outside them, which removes him from the deadening constraints of heat and weight, the massive tonnage bearing down constantly on his deadened kingdom. It’s a gulag, where passion is smothered and suppressed. Pluto is deep mantle rock emerging into a light, bright world. The pressure change makes him ten pounds of god in a five pound bag … volatile and unstable.
Nature abhors disequilibrium. Nature’s reaction will be impersonal, amoral, and merciless.
Her words to Cupid:
But a purpose of myth is to personalize events, so story-wise, Pluto’s reaction will involve another god. In Ovid’s telling the amoral, merciless mother-son team of Venus and Cupid step in. Venus tells her beautiful, heartless boy that the procreative drive manages everything on land and sea. Why not the underworld as well?
‘You conquer and command sky-deities —
not even Jove is free from your decrees;
sea-gods are governed by your rule — and he
who is the god of gods who rule the sea.
And why should Tartarus elude our laws?
Why not extend your mother’s power — and yours?
One-third of all the world is still not ours.’
It takes at least two for the sort of carnality Venus manages. She partners Pluto with “that goddess-girl, Proserpina,” and she does so out of pure meanness. Venus bears a grudge against all things celibate. She loathes the virgin goddesses Athena and Diana, and has concerns that Proserpina, child of Ceres, inclines the same way.
‘… Do you not see
how both Athena and the hunting goddess,
Diana, would defy me? And the daughter
of Ceres, if we let her choose, will be
like them: she is so bent on chastity.’
Unseemly matchmakers, Venus and Cupid conspire to force what the alchemists called the “chymical wedding,” a coupling of two unlike substances, bachelor Pluto and chaste Proserpina. This love has nothing to do with romance or the volition of either party involved.
Love’s hooked barb pierces Pluto through the chest.
Pluto sees the girl in a meadow, “gathering violets and white lilies.”
There Pluto — almost in one instant — saw,
was struck with longing, carried that girl off —
so quick — unhesitating — was his love.
The goddess-girl was terrified. She called —
in grief — upon her mother and companions …
They cannot save her from Nature’s appetite. The marriage is consummated. The rape is complete. Seawater is enveloped by stone. A witness describes Proserpina’s new aspect:
‘… she was
downcast, still somewhat touched by fear — and yet
she was a queen within that world of darkness,
the powerful companion — mighty mistress —
of Pluto, tyrant of the underworld.’
Back to Nzuzu, recrystallized water spirit and mighty mistress. Her affect is beyond grief and terror.
She is mature, having reconstituted, her fluid self now hardened so what used to flow, what used to submit to the shape of any container now acts as the container in its own right. Look at her powerful lips girdling that suggestive orifice. What used to be passive and yielding now actively sucks up into her anything the world presents. Nzuzu’s mineral self is solid, yet radically influenced by the nature of the water within it.
Water is a Trickster and will always have a say, even when shackled. The water molecules bound inside serpentine minerals cause the resulting rock to swell in volume and to be less dense, less hard. Once water joins the mix, an identical blend of elements can crystallize in varying structures, allowing serpentine minerals to be crafty shape-shifters.
The minerals incarnate as “thin sheets loosely bound together like pages in a poorly manufactured book,” according to a publication from The Natural Stone Institute. “[S]erpentine sheets are not elastic, but they are flexible.… The slippery surfaces act as a lubricant in faulting of the stone. Serpentinites often occur in contorted and complex shapes because of the flexibility of the sheets…” Thus their nickname, green marble.
Must the metaphor for this new thing be grim, as in Proserpina’s rocky marriage? Must exploitation and imperialism be the drivers of change? Ovid’s 250-odd stories tend that way. Metamorphoses is a collection of ancient cautionary tales and origin myths, but the narratives are overlaid with a very Roman mindset. One might call it a calcified mindset: things change this far and no further. Yet change is constant, perhaps the only constant.
There’s another metamorphically themed text that archives oral tradition. The Chinese Book of Changes, or I Ching, is a field guide for fortune tellers. It’s a probability handbook and a crowd-sourced document that originated in prehistory from the work of countless generations of shamans. They consulted the spirit world by reading patterns of cracks in burnt bones and turtle shells.
Those patterns have been abstracted and organized into a database for change, a library of 4096 possible outcomes. The I Ching provides more ways to describe transformation than you can shake a yarrow stalk at. As a result, the book fascinates every sort of thinking mind, from number-nerds to cosmic-white-lightening occultists, from physicists and cryptanalysts to poets and mystics.
Whole and partitioned lines — an on-off/yang-yin binary code — are stacked in tiers of three to make trigrams. The trigrams are paired to form 64 hexagrams — I think of them as 64 “marriages” — each of which has its own obscure, oracular title and poem. A set of rules determine which of the lines can blink into its opposite and transform the image into a new hexagram. Change cascades into change. Around this framework has grown 3000 years’ worth of commentary, literature, and philosophy.
For Nzuzu I found hexagram 31, Xian or Conjoining — also called Wooing, Courtship, Seeking Union, Reciprocity, Mutual Influence, and a bewildering variety of other names due to a bewildering number of I Ching translations. It’s my metaphor, so I’ll stick with Conjoining. That wasn’t an accident earlier when I described Nzuzu as carved from “watery stone, or perhaps stony water, conjoined layers of H2O molecules and rock minerals.”
The prefix con-, “together with,” in front of join, doubles down on the notion of an inescapable and fated union. Conjoined twins may be its most frightful expression. Etymology-wise, join can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European root yeug-, from which a slew of ancient languages, including Sanskrit and Hittite, each created a word for “yoke.”
What is marriage if not two disparate (and perhaps desperate) souls yoked to the plow of life?
I Ching images are endlessly paradoxical. While “yoke” conjures dark notions of domesticated beasts and grueling labor, that root word yeug- also became yoga, which seeks to “yoke” humanity with the divine. Impulse control, always a useful behavior, requires that we “yoke” instinct and emotion, and train them to work for the long-term needs of the conscious self. The “yoke” of marriage can be both a burden that inhibits and an tool for multiplying the efficiency of two people.
Hexagram Xian marries the trigrams Tui, a youngest daughter, with Ken, a youngest son. Her name translates as Joyful, and her symbol is the watery lake. He is called Keeping Still, and he manifests as the rocky mountain. I imagine them at the wedding as shy adolescents, both virgins.
He is a solid, quiet, virtuous boy. She is sweet-natured and giddy, with a delightful laugh. An auspicious match. Lakes and mountains go well together.
But the typical mountain lake lies in a valley far below the summit. This couple’s relationship appears inverted. The lake trigram is above, on top of the mountain trigram. The rigid mountain has no peak. Instead, a hollowed crater crowns it, and inside that stone cauldron rainwater fills a lake.
The tumbling, lively fluidity of the bride’s water brings joy to a stolid mountain. The constant, implacable, steadfast groom calms and stills the unfiltered exuberance in his bride. Together they will grow into a marriage of watery stone, or perhaps stony water. Nzuzu is born from that union, joy conjoined to stillness.