The Arc of Heaven
“The white birds
they flash by,
across the ocean,
move like clouds
across the sky.
they flash by,
in the arc of heaven.”
—Jümperliin Saruulbuyan, “The White Birds”
“Is it a fact—or have I dreamt it—that by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence: or shall we say it is itself a thought, nothing but thought, and no longer the substance which we dreamed it.”
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables
“If you were to ask a shaman, he would say that the spirit comes from the trees themselves. But it doesn’t. It is an electric current—a natural element,” a Darhat Mongolian once told anthropologist Morten Pedersen. When religion was illegalized under Mongolia’s socialist government, Buddhism and shamanism were repressed and subsumed by Soviet modernity. With the fall of the Soviet order, religion reemerged not in distinction to, but from within modern ontologies—as the electric spirits begin to suggest.
Though modernity is not traditionally spoken of in terms of religion, the merging of Buddhist-shamanic and modern-electrical cosmologies apprehends the religious dimensions of modernity and electricity. It can hardly be an accident that the grid as a visual form—the symbol of modernism—recreates the image of the cross in its transecting horizontal and vertical lines; nor that the short perpendicular bar near the top of a utility pole is technically known as a pair of “cross arms.”
Modernism tells us the world is composed of dichotomies: modernity and tradition, science and faith, West and East, the nomadic and the sedentary. But the closer we look at the lines between and amongst things, the more they are revealed to indicate only themselves. Ordered, gridded reality dissolves into gradients, spectrums, continuities—or disappears altogether.
The merging of religions is often spoken of as “syncretism,” but the term presumes some originary purity that simply never existed. Everything has always been in the act of becoming.