March 30, 2018
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What Legba Means to Me

by Jonathan Wallace

The following is an excerpt from a Mad Manuscript about the idea of free speech, which I have now been working on for six years.

Papa Legba, an African deity, “stands at a spiritual crossroads and gives (or denies) permission to speak with the spirits of Guinee, and is believed to speak all human languages.....Legba facilitates communication, speech, and understanding”. “Papa Legba”, Wikipedia,

I first encountered Legba in the novels of William Gibson, in which the concentration of human minds in cyberspace gives rise to some entities, the loa including Legba. There seems to be less scholarly writing about Legba than I would have expected, as if the African gods, brought secretly to this country by slaves, conflated with the Christian devil, and willed to the first bluesmen, were more fitting subjects for music and fantasy (and even for actual belief) than for study.

I found an exemplary article, though: Roger Bastide, “Immigration et Metamorphose d'un Dieu” (a title almost Borgesian in its power). Why exemplary? Because it is in French, and from 1956: I imagine Bastide (knowing nothing about him) at a cold metal typewriter placed on a wooden table in the chilly kitchen of an apartment in the 15th arondissement, the smoke from a Gauloise curling in the air as he types as lightly as he can, trying not to wake the woman with the delightfully tousled outspread hair sleeping in the next room. (Parisian sociology Kitsch.) Bastide's first sentence, my translation: “The sociology of religion must not neglect the problem of the transfer of religions from one civilization to another and all the resulting consequences”. Roger Bastide, “IMMIGRATION ET MÉTAMORPHOSE D'UN DIEU”, Cahiers Internationaux de Sociologie, NOUVELLE SÉRIE, Vol. 20 (Janvier-Juin 1956) 45 p. 45 Slavery destroyed almost every vestige of the social organization of the enslaved peoples, but “left intact the world of values, ideas and religious beliefs”. p. 46 Slaves were baptized into the master's religion but in most cases the effect was superficial. Legba lived on in “Brazil, the Amazon, ….Recife, Bahia, Rio, even Sao Paulo.... We find him also in Cuba and Haiti....and in certain Southern regions of the United States”. p. 46 Legba “remains everywhere the one we may call the interpreter of the gods, for divinities do not speak the same language as mortals; it is necessary to translate from their language into the human one, and the role of divination consists justly in translating the will of the Orixa or of the Vodoun into 'signs', in little groups of nut-shells or seashells, open or closed, to be read by the initiated”. pp. 47-48 Legba “always dances with a huge wooden phallus”. p. 48 Legba sometimes has a Dionysian aspect: the “daughters of Legba”, the Legbano, manifest “a hysterical violence, dragging their bodies on the ground, twisted”. p. 48

Bastide traces Legba from Africa to Brazil. The beliefs and practices have been modified in the new country by “Brazilian Catholicism” and “the control of the police” over the temples (the candombles). “Therefore, there is a certain puritanism in the religion's external manifestations, a certain prudishness in the dancing”. p. 48-49 By the time the religion reaches Haiti and Cuba, “Legba has become an old man and has become the god of sexual frigidity”. p. 49 “Another element which has endured, is that of the 'trickster', the malicious and mischievous god, who loves to engage in pranks”. In Haiti, Legba “is considered the obligatory intermediary, through whom one must go to address the Vodou; he is our messenger to the divinities and we always chant this canticle for him, 'Legba, open the barrier for me', the barrier, that is to say, the door which lies exactly between the divine and the human”. p. 49 “In Cuba”, Legba “is identified with St. Peter, because St. Peter is the one who opens the gates of Paradise, and thus permits the same passage between two overlapping worlds, the terrestrial and the celestial”. pp. 49- 50

Bastide asks again why certain features of Legba survived in the diaspora and others vanished. Although he doesn't use the vocabulary I adopt, his effective answer is that Structural components vanished, while the Solvent-like ones survived. “In the myths we have just enumerated, of the trickster, of divine multiplicity, of the messenger god, there was no connection to the priestly organization .... Therefore no reason for them to disappear”. p. 50 According to Bastide, it was in Brazil that Legba became “the god of roads and of crossroads”, of “space and orientation”. Legba “is first and foremost the god who governs the order of the world”. p. 52 But, where Catholicism has most influence, Legba becomes identified with Satan Like the Greek gods, the African ones are amoral, “able equally to perform good and evil deeds”. p. 52 To Christianity, a god capable of evil, especially a trickster, must be Satan. In certain parts of Brazil, instead of asking Legba to open the barrier, a ceremony begins with a request that he, as troublesome trickster god, go away: “Your place is not here”. p. 53 However, in Cuba and Haiti, “Legba is never identified with the Devil, but always with quite moral saints....In these two great islands, the trickster element never develops into pure wickedness”. p. 53

Bastide describes how Legba stayed alive hiding inside St. Peter. “The slaves were forced to adapt to a Christian milieu. To conserve their religion, they placed Catholic masks on the faces of their gods”. p. 55 This offers a vision of a Marrano- truth, a truth-inside-lies, a magnificent truth-in-Sophistry. In some places, Bastide says, Legba crystallizes as the Devil under Catholic influence. “The mask has triumphed over the face”. p. 56 The next step is that “the educated black or mulatto, who lives in a large and progressive city, and is climbing the social ladder, no longer wants to hear anything about a cult” of Legba. “Nonetheless, this abandonment of tradition raises in the unconscious mind a species of remorse”. p. 58

Bastide concludes that in Brazil, where due to great distances and decentralization, the remainders of African religion differentiated from each other like Darwin's finches, you can judge a group by its Legba. “The history” of Legba “thus confounds itself in Brazil with the history of a race”. p. 59 The history of colonialism creates waves of Legba-speech in response, first to rediscover Legba at emancipation; to reject him again in an era of social mobility, as declasse, too lumpenproletariat; then to embrace him again, upon discovering the “glass ceiling”, the limits white racism sets upon African-Brazilian development.

Come to think of it, I have always known that you can judge people by their Jesus; I have always preferred the loving Jesus of Catholics to the raging one of Pentecostals.

I imagine Bastide reaching a stopping point, feeling a slight flaring up of desire for the sleeping woman in the bedroom, standing, stubbing out his Gauloise in an ashtray he found in the Marche des Puces which he imagines represents a laughing Legba, walking towards the bedroom, and tripping and falling headlong over a large volume of sociology he does not remember having placed on the floor.

Two Delta bluesmen with the same last name, Tommy Johnson and Robert Johnson, were the subjects of a similar folk tale. Each man vanished a short while and came back a much better musician. Asked how that could be, Tommy Johnson told his brother he “sold hisself to the Devil....If you want to learn how to play anything you want to play and learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where a road crosses that way, where a crossroad is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little 'fore twelve o'clock that night so you'll know you'll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece sitting there by yourself. ...A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar, and he'll tune it. And then he'll play a piece and hand it back to you”. Robert Palmer, Deep Blues (New York: Penguin Books 1982) pp. 59-60 The black man, says Robert Palmer, is “recognizable as Legba, a Yoruba trickster god who 'opens the path' for other supernatural powers and is traditionally associated with crossroads....Legba became identified with the Devil of Christianity early on. Slave lore often depicted the Devil as a trickster figure, more like Legba with his mordant sense of humor and his delight in chaos and confusion than like the more somber and threatening Devil portrayed in hellfire-and-brimstone sermons”. p. 60 Robert Johnson also, years later, took a break from his friends and came back far more talented. Some of Johnson's relatives told a blues researcher that “Robert had sold his soul to the Devil and claimed they knew the exact backcountry crossroads where the deal was made. 'The Devil came there...and gave Robert his talent and told him he had eight more years to live on earth”. p. 113 Robert Johnson recorded two versions of a “Cross Road Blues” in which he sang that he “fell down on my knees/ Asked the Lord above, Have mercy, save poor Bob if you please”. Robert Palmer says: “Anyone who's ever stopped at a deserted Delta crossroads in the dead of night knows what a spooky experience it can be. Everything's empty and black—black bottomland stretching away for miles in every direction, cloudy black sky above—and unnervingly quiet”. p. 126

Robert Johnson recorded “Me and the Devil Blues”, at his last session, shortly before his death. It ends: “You may bury my body down by the highway side/ So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride”. p. 127

In a mind-blowing article, Ayana Smith connects Legba, the crossroads, tricksters, the blues and the railroad. A character named “Railroad Bill” who turned up in early blues songs “links together two prominent themes in the blues—the trickster and the railroad”. Ayana Smith, “Blues, Criticism, and the Signifying Trickster”, Popular Music Vol. 24, No. 2, Literature and Music (May, 2005) 179 p. 180 “[T]he train becomes a sort of inanimate trickster figure”. p. 181

Smith notices that, in many blues songs, the first verses identify a trickster figure, and then the lyrics segue to an identification of the blues singer with that archetype. “[T]he blues singer assumes the persona of the badman, self-identifying with the trickster, who is a real force of destruction for a society with strict moral codes”. p. 182 “Two important and related metaphorical tropes developing out of this mediating juncture—border crossings and crossroads”. p. 183 “Because borders are erected to separate,marginalize, and exclude, borderlands are sites of contestation, transition and flux. At the same time, they are places of negotiation, communication and exchange”. p. 184 (quoting Alma Jean Billingslea-Brown) “In the blues, border crossings are manifested in two common thematic tropes—crossroads and railroads—and are linked to the signifying trickster figure in many different ways”. p. 184 Smith has the highly interesting insight that crossroads represent an unaccustomed and painful freedom. “The crossroads at once symbolizes freedom of movement, travel and self-determination; the dilemma of the crossroads is that one must choose which path to follow”. p. 184 “By understanding how crossroads and railroads are linked as mediatory tropes in the blues, we can also gain further insight into African American identity in the early twentieth century”. pp. 190-191

There is a strong connection, strangely enough, between the Devil and truth. In many versions, the Devil is a truthteller: for example, Asmodeus, the halting devil, lifts roofs off houses to reveal the perversity inside. One sometimes encounters a trope or truism that truth kills. I myself have experienced the unexplained despairing transition, on a date in my twenties, from alcohol-fueled hope and illusion, to a perception that a neurotic, ugly man is sitting at table with a woman neither highly intelligent nor beautiful, and with a discomfiting preference for Kitsch; the man is bragging unbearably and the woman feigning interest.

I have somewhere referenced the moral dilemma that sometimes telling truth can be sadistic, and lies compassionate. In the first decade I published this Ethical Spectacle website, I stopped arguing with people about God's existence after several correspondents wrote words like “After my baby died, only the idea of a benevolent God kept me alive”. An ultimate truthteller, the alien or weird individual of comedy unable ever to lie, who tells you always that you have a smut on your collar or smell bad today or stole someone else's anecdote to impress colleagues at lunch, would be an unbearable companion. In art, theater or fiction, nobody wants to devote two hours or read three hundred pages on the theme, “life's a bitch and then you die”.

There is a sense in which the Devil is more honest than most saints. Even trickster figures and gods put their point across by revealing the truth at the end, usually when it is too late. In a very disturbing movie, Arlington Road (1999), directed by Mark Pellington, there is an unforgettable moment at the end, in which the protagonist and his FBI agent friend simultanously realize that the former has been tricked by a terrorist into driving a car bomb into the FBI garage: as you see the dawning knowledge in their eyes, the device explodes and kills them both. There is an anecdote I have run across in several places I think, about a man who decides to experiment with being a sadomasochistic bottom who, when bound and gagged, realizes that he didn't really want to. After a few hours thought about truthful devils, it seems to me that, in a way, truth is built in to the Second Law: disorder makes no attempt to conceal itself. The closest I can come up with is that Sophistical beings make an attempt to conceal disorder. Desperately ill birds fly and sing. “In the wild, a bird will endeavor to uphold a strong appearance when sick. This is called, 'survival of the fittest'. By the time a bird actually shows an owner that it is unwell, it has likely been sick for some time”. Rick Axelson, “Sick Pet Birds”, Chaotic Sophists such as Nixon and Trump present as proponents of order.

Outside our brains and words, however, chaos—rotting carcases, ruins of buildings, dead trees, the foundations of farms abandoned eighty years ago—are “loud and proud”. Death and decay, and therefore the Devil their emanation, are truth-tellers.

I remember a movie seen almost fifty years ago, Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960) which I now realize is a little parable about truth and the Second Law. A woman vanishes, and her boyfriend and best friend play detective for two hours trying to find out what happened to her, but, in an ending that seemed revelatory at the time, never arrive at truth. At the end, Sandro “goes for a walk to the Piazza Municipio, where he notices an ink sketch left by one of the students. With his keychain he 'accidentally' knocks over the ink onto the sketch. The student notices and confronts Sandro, who denies he did it on purpose”. “L'Avventura”, Wikipedia In my memory, Sandro is incontestably Marcello Mastroianni, but Wikipedia informs me he is Gabriele Ferzetti.

If the despairing man on the disappointing date then conceives, despite everything, an extraordinary love for the woman, which may first require an epiphany that her worthiness of such a love is irrelevant (as is the question of whether he is the correct figure, in any reasonable Narrative, to love so), and she reciprocates, not just the best she can, but beyond the best, then both are lifted out of the underworld, Philip K. Dick's world of “kibble”, up into the light and transcendence, and (yes) into truth.