Inspiration: Playing to the gods


Thirty years ago in New York City I used to stay up late almost every night listening to Jean Shepherd's rambling soliloquies on the radio. He had a show with a lot of interesting talk and a little music. One night he told a lengthy story, which I still remember, about the sacred ritual of some Amazon tribe. it went roughly like this: 

Once every seven years, the members of this remote tribe would dig a deep hole in the jungle and lower their finest flute player into it. he would be given no food, only a little water and no way of climbing out. After this was done, the other members of the tribe would bid him good-bye, never to return. Seven days later, the flute player, sitting crosslegged at the bottom of his hole, would begin to play. Of course, the tribesmen could not hear him, only the gods could, and that was the point. 

According to Shepherd, who was not above putting on his audience of insomniacs, as an anthropologist had hidden himself during the ritual and recorded the man playing the flute. Tonight Shepherd was going to play that very tape. 

I was spooked. Here was a man soon to die, already dizzy with hunger and despair, summoning whatever strength and belief in gods he had. A New World Orpheus, it occurred to me. 

Shepherd went on talking until finally, in the wee-hour silence of the night and my shabby room on East 13th Street, the faint sound of the otherworldly flute was heard: its solitary, infinitely sad squeak with the raspy breath of the living human being still audible in it from time to time, making the best of his predicament. I didn't care then nor do I care now whether Shepherd made up the whole story. We are all at the bottom of our own private pits, even here in New York.

From the poet Charles Simic 

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