El aire de basura

22 07 2008

 The Metaphysics of Sex in Mexican Folk Magic

Magica operari non est aliud quam maritare mundum

(To perform magic is nothing other than to marry the world)

-Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

As I said in a previous post, for all the talk of modern society’s liberation and new appreciation of the body, ours is perhaps the least corporeal existence in all of history. Ours is a very sanitized and safe way of life here in the First World, and any talk of being delivered from this “vale of tears” is often reduced to pious rhetoric, an afterthought that may occur to the very unlucky whose children will come down with a rare form of cancer. Tragedy and sickness are not supposed to touch us anymore, and if they do, we cover it up, put it away, and try to forget about it as soon as possible. (Anyone who has visited a convalescent home will be well aware of what I am talking about.) What has happened here in my contention is not a new appreciation of the body, but a Promethean attempt at disarmament of the dangers of corporeal nature. In the past, however, great respect was paid to this falleness, to the point that the body was not merely something unreliable that could break down due to illness, but outright dangerous in and of itself.

In John M. Ingham’s informative book, Mary, Michael, and Lucifer: Folk Catholicism in Central Mexico, the author gives a thorough anthropological exposition of various preternatural illnesses that often had their roots in the sexual realm of human existence. In particular, Ingham discusses the presence of “mal aires” or bad airs that can cause everything from fetal deformation to high fever in children. According to his research, inhabitants of central Mexico say that “mal aires” often emerge from contact with people who have had sexual intercourse or exposure to garbage on the street. The author further observes that the cures for these ailments are themselves sexual, used to lure away the bad spirits who are drawn to human genital parts and thus cure the patient of his ailment.

The term “aire” can best be defined according to Ingham as a “symbolic transformation of natural and spiritual reproduction”, a spiritual force fundamentally bound with the sexual cycle of fallen man. They can be attracted to any part of the body, but are especially drawn to genitalia. They can cause miscarriages, afflict children with fatal diseases, and even cause swelling in men’s testicles. Ingham cites various traditional opinions of the Fathers of the Church such as St. Augustine as a foundation to people’s fear of the “aires”. He even cites St. Clement of Alexandria who believed the Holy Ghost vacated the soul during an orgasm. This coupled with the indigenous beliefs already in central Mexico at the time of the conquest created a metaphysical system in which sexual reproduction and its consequences were often the cause of severe illnesses and even death.

The starkest example of this belief was that of “aire basura” or garbage air. People who have just had sexual intercourse, especially loose women, often carry garbage air. In one anecdote, a woman who had just had sex in a creek went into the house of a neighbor and made her child’s eye turn completely white. Men in central Mexico would often linger on the porch a bit before going into their house as not to accidentally carry garbage air into the home and infect their children.  

The cure for the “aires” often employed the help of an egg being rubbed on the patient and the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed or another prayer, but other physical articles could be used as well. The egg for Ingham is seen as representing both masculine and feminine qualities, being both the reproductive cell of the chicken and a slang word in Mexican Spanish for the testicle (“huevo”). Thus, it is seen as being capable of drawing the “aire” out, and more often than not it is broken and examined for the presence of a “mal aire” and then buried. Other things that can be used in a limpia ritual as well are underwear, hair, and garbage. Underwear has obvious sexual connotations. Hair is perceived to contain in this cosmic vision the vital forces also present in semen. Garbage of course draws out the garbage air through mutual attraction.

This is in large part John Ingham’s reading of the rituals he observed in one village in Morelos, but my own experience growing up in Mexican culture can affirm some of his claims. Mexican culture is far from puritanical, but it has what some would consider an unhealthy fear of the body and the harm that it can do. The common affliction of the evil eye is passed down to children through a covetousness akin to lust as I have explained before. If one looks at a child and notices his beauty, that gaze can make the child deftly ill unless you touch the child, thus quelling your admiration. Eggs in my family were also put against the child’s knee as a vital force aiding him to take his first step. While people in rural Mexico often lead earthy lives, there is a great fear and reverence of that earthiness, and a sense of sinful nature haunting the cosmos. 

The reader at this point can ask how much I “buy into” these things. I will say that I have never seen them first hand, but I know the stories that I have been told and  I believe them. My main contention, however, is that what may have occurred between then and now is not that we have grown less superstitious, but rather that we have so devalued the body through casual sex that preternatural consequences to intercourse no longer exist. Man has passed from incarnate spirit to Cartesian ghost in a machine, and thus the body signifies nothing and has no “power” over us. One can respect to a certain extent the attempt to create a “theology of the body” for people of the First World; the only problem is that in traditional Catholic societies such a “folk theology” already existed and it was not very positive. A life tossed about by high infant mortality, malnutrition, and painful terminal illnesses tempered any resoundingly positive rhetoric about our incarnate nature. Always and everywhere, the Christian vision seeks to contemplate and overcome this problematic body of death on this side of the eschaton.



9 responses

10 08 2008
Arturo Vasquez

I guess you would want me to give you Faith. I can’t do that. Only God can.

I would say, however, that even though I have had some rather interesting experiences that have lead me to believe in the existence of a supernatural world, I also find the testimonies and experiences of many other religions, Christian and non-Christian, as testifying to this dualism.

And of course, an empty tomb in Palestine…

Thank you for reading.

10 08 2008
Michael Cifone

I’m sorry Arturo, but your comments are now tending towards, basically, dogmatism. I’m at a loss as to how to respond, for you cannot shake the Catholic dogma to see what I’m actually saying.

First, the position is not “monism”. Such an appellation, again, does not speak to the position I’ve actually articulated.

Furthermore, I did not claim, nor is it any part of the thesis I outlined at length, that “otherness does not exist”. I don’t even know what that would amount to, honestly.

You speak about “creation” in your reply, but I see no connection to the actual order of things, other than some (dogmatic) appeal to the “incorporeal” and to immaterial entities. What do these things mean? Are you saying that it is your experience which has lead you to accept this hierarchy of ontology? On what grounds to you believe these things? What arguments can you advance for their justification in terms of a connection with experience? Are you a mystic? Do you literally experience reality this way, or are you repeating dogma? (Notice that in my arguments, I nowhere appeal to any other “realms” or other, i.e., “immaterial”/”incorporeal” substances, sorts of “stuff” to make my arguments go through, yet just from a basic analysis of the concept of “separation” and “relation” and “dependence/inter-dependence” I am able to arrive at my conclusions. And the force of the conclusion is to give up the dualities you take as basic. I want to know what’s wrong with the position stated, and upon what do you base your acceptance of the ontology you outline. What I don’t want is an argument to the effect that positions X (the non-dual position I defend) is incompatible with Y (the “Trinitarian” position you defend).

Sorry for being a bit hard here, but when I don’t think there’s good reason to hold or believe in what’s being said, and there’s no attempt to relate the thesis to observations about reality itself, then I’m frustrated. (Notice that this line I’m giving you has nothing to do with a “materialist” bias — I reject the very idea of materialism, as should be obvious from the thesis I’ve defended — nor am I biased against the epistemic value of spiritual experiences. Indeed, my thesis suggests a way of understanding their ontological significance:that of a new experiential dimension where the self is widened or “phased in” with Pure Being, i.e., the acquisition of a “stretched” or “cosmic” mode of thought. So you shouldn’t interpret my comments through yet another dogma: that reason and spirit are in conflict, that the “senses” and spiritual truths cannot/don’t overlap, etc. These would be distinctions that I’d also want to dissolve, on the basis of my ontological thesis of non-duality, to use a somewhat vague appellation for it.

Again, I want to stress that I’m not trying to offend your beliefs. I just want to know what connection they have to experience — whereby experience I means something in principle accessible to all human beings as such, not just to those who hold certain dogmas (by the way, I am not sure that the “Trinitarianism” doctrine is really all that coherent, unless you adopt some more sophisticated philosophical understanding of the notion of “separation”, and ditch the “mystery” thesis. Unless, that is, you have some deeper spiritual significance attached to the doctrine which plays a central part in the experience of divine reality, etc. In which case, please inform me!

10 08 2008
Arturo Vasquez

I think the main problem here is that you are speaking from a monistic perspective, and I am speaking from a Christian Trinitarian perspective. Indeed, as much as I like Neoplatonic thought forms, I draw the line at their monism, and thus maintain Christian orthodoxy. In Christianity, there is really no One: there is the One in the Three, that is, the One always assumes the Other. In Pythagorean number terms, the One is what it is, but Three is the number of perfection: the movement of duality rests in the triad. The Other exists not to be separate and totally subordinate, but as gift. The One rests in the Three through love. That is the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

In creation, we find ontologically an infinitely inferior entity to the Most Holy Trinity. Aquinas said that that which is created from nothing (i.e. all that is not God) has a tendency to nothingness. God creates the cosmos in order to unite it to Himself and give it the felicity that He has. He does this through man, who is the meeting point in creation of the corporeal and incorporeal realms, specifically through the Word of God made flesh, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is, in the end, an act of grace, a free act by God that requires no necessity but rather an act of love.

Otherness then is not an illusion. It is the first condition of union through love: things must be separate so that they may come together through mutual attraction and self-giving. In traditional scholastic philosophy, man can become all things immaterially in the passive intellect; I think you are mistaking this to mean that “otherness” does not exist. And since man is the borderline between the spiritual and the material, he can become all things and is lord of all things (Pico della Mirandola even believed this to be the case literally.) Even the angelic powers exist to serve man in the sublunar realm. Man then is indeed a marvelous creature, but he is a creature nonetheless, meant to be divinized through the grace of the Trinitarian God. That is my understanding, anyway, of the difference between Christianity and other thought forms, even the Neoplatonic ones. And it is my understanding of the holy and orthodox Faith outside of which no one can be saved from eternal damnation prepared for the wicked who believe not in the Son of God, Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

9 08 2008
Michael Cifone

Ah, thanks for that clarification. Now I see your position. But I must say that I don’t think that I’m still getting my point across fully. Let me try a different tactic here.

Firstly, what evidence do we have that there is an “incorporeal” realm? Most likely you’d say: spiritual experiences (of various sorts). But I would say: that’s not evidence of *another realm*; rather, that is evidence of (now it will depend on what those experiences are exactly — “otherness”, “cosmic consciousness”, “pure being”, “widening of conscious awareness” etc.) not the existence of another realm by rather — and this is my point — an *extension of self*, or rather, a realization of (experience of) the non-individuality of your personal existence in the sense that you are non-different from anything at all! There is, according to this thesis, no fundamental existential/ontological distinction *in the main* between personal existence and anything else. From the point of view of everything, you are all; from the point of view of something (i.e., your individual experience) that all is *in you*. *Neither* the “cosmic” *nor* the individual points of view are incompatible or disjoint. They actually are interdependent, not independent, according to the thesis I am developing in conversation with you.

It follows that your statement “In Plotinus, it is more likely that you can “make it on your own”: divinity is something wholly within us that we must return to” effectively presupposes exactly what is being denied, i.e., that we must “return” somewhere, as if we are “gone”. Plotinus says stuff like that, but a fundamental epistemological distinction is in order: that of the relative vs. absolute modes of discourse. From the relative point of view, we say (with Plotinus) that *man* must return to the divine *within him*, which implies a duality, that of the “fallen” and the purifed divine potential “within”. However, from the absolute point of view, no such duality exists. Indeed, the very distinction between “pure” and “corrupted”, or “inner” vs. “outer” no longer holds sway. Relative to *this* fundamental epistemological distinction (between the relative and absolute modes of discourse), we may speak about a going to, looking within, etc. But originally, no such distinction holds.

Two problems arise: is this a coherent view to maintain, generally speaking? And secondly, How do we reconcile our seeming need for transformation with the claim that from the absolute point of view no such transformation “needs” to happen, for there is no difference between “fallen” and “purified”. Notice that these questions crucially depend on a kind of logic of explanation which has temporal underpinnings: moving *from*, in the past, a certain — separate — state of being *to* another, future — separate — state of being. The thesis put forward here, and, as I am trying to suggest, the one adhered to (ultimately) by Plotinus, says that this notion of separateness is wrong, and that questions, really, the fundamentality of even time itself. Rather, the claim is that, ultimately, there is an a-temporal, non-dynamical, interdependency between the states. Indeed, they are not to be understood as separate, for on the assumption that they are separate — that the fallen is ontologically distinct from the purified — would imply that the fallen could *never become* purified! If they are literally distinct, then how can the one “produce” the other? The very notion that they are separate is, upon analysis, incoherent!

This is a turning-of-the-tables, you see, on those whose thinking presupposes various sorts of duality. Once you dismiss these dualities, and once you adopt the fundamental epistemological distinction between the two modes of discourse (relative, absolute), then many conundrums go away. So, indeed “look with”, but “as above, so below”; the whole (cosmos) is *interdependent* upon the individual (self). They are not two, and possibly not even One (for at this level of discourse, what can “one” be contrasted with? As the Buddha once remarked, when you have one, you already have two). Moreover, yes, the divine is within, but is nothing different from that without. What you find in the recesses of your being, so too with everything. As the Upanishads put is, “as the atom, so is the universe”.

7 08 2008
Arturo Vasquez

I think the main divergence here is that you are more “Plotinian” than I am. Even though you say you are an atheist, what you say here seems at least from my perspective to be informed by the idea of the “unfallen soul” that differentiated Plotinus from later Neoplatonist. That is why Plotinus is also more popular with the New-Age-ish, Ken Wilbur crowd. In Plotinus, it is more likely that you can “make it on your own”: divinity is something wholly within us that we must return to.

Iamblichus, Proclus, Pseudo-Dionysius, and the rest of the gang are much less optimistic in this regard, and that is why they exalt the idea of ritualistic theurgy so much. In a word, the difference between me and you, Michael, is that I believe in a realm of incorporeal beings in a great chain of being stretching from the One (rather, to the Holy and Unidivided Trinity) to the smallest particle of dust. Human knowledge is not the highest form of knowing: there is angelic infused knowledge, and the way God knows Himself as the One, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. In this we can only partake through Divine Grace, a concept of which existed in the late Neoplatonism as well: to do sacred actions was higher than to know them, since they ontologically transcend us.

In a word, I think Plotinus is too “spacey”. The highest action man can do is pray and commune with the Divine. There I think lies the difference.

6 08 2008
Michael Cifone

Thank you for this very thoughtful remark. I must think about it, as you raise some interesting, and difficult, points to consider.

May I just reply in brief, more of a comment about your comment:

You seem to imply that academic thought is separate from the mystical or folk traditions that it might think about. Maybe in some sense. But I am more of the opinion, these days, that philosophy and poetry and “mysticism” and folk ways are not substantially different. They differ from each other in terms of their respective levels of discipline of thought, and the products of it, but do not differ in kind. Some academics don’t “have it”, but the same can be said of those in artistic, folk or mystical traditions too. Indeed, those who “get it” there are usually fundamentally gifted with a kind of “insight”, and this quality is universal or invariant from tradition, to tradition (that is, this “insight” is a deeper trait that may manifest in human consciousness irrespective of tradition).

Also, I don’t claim to have any expertise either! I read and think and try to systematize my thinking … but I would assume that that’s true of you (and has been true of mystics, artists, etc.).

As far as your closing comment “how can human thought do justice to a realm, spiritual or otherwise, that is above it” — I think this is the wrong question, perhaps, because it presupposes that there are “two realms”, which is the very thing I am suggesting is being avoided by Plotinus. And here I supposed it’ll come down to how your read him, and whether or not you think that his thought can be understood as originally keeping a unity where we find a duality, i.e., between “human thought” and the realm of the spiritual. I am suggesting that there are not two realms, and that this is Plotinus’ deeper — spiritual — message. But perhaps I am wrong. In other words: this is my question, can we so read Plotinus, or the neo-Platonic tradition?

5 08 2008
Arturo Vasquez


Well, I am not a philosopher, and I am certainly not an academic, nor do I particularily care to be one. So the philosophical issues you raised are perhaps not in the realm of my expertise. But if I can give you some sense of how I READ these things, the best we can get out of this is an invocation, not a solution. It just seems with the late Neoplatonists that ideas haunt matter, they are around them, joined to them, but beyond them. Almost like an icon. An icon of Christ is not Christ, but we Catholics treat it like Christ. Or better yet, like possession of a person by the loa in Haitian Voudou, or the Delphic Oracle. The beauty of things is not in things, it floats around them. What makes a face beautiful? Can you put it into some sort of an elaborate equation: of this symmetry, a nose this large, a mouth this wide? Chances are that you can’t. It’s not an equation. So truth is not an equation, beauty is not an equation, good is not an equation, etc.

As for speaking for “folk traditions”, I am well aware of the dangers of co-option. Academics and philosophers can say what they like about what a certain ritual or belief means. Chances are, the reason why people lived in that system is because they HAD TO. Very little abstraction or reflection was involved. Paradoxically, in late Neoplatonism, it seems that many of these “folk traditions” would have been revered as being above philosophical thought precisely because they are revealed by super-human powers (gods, daemons, heroes, etc.). Think of the didactic schemas of intellectual training that began with Aristotle’s categories and ended in the Chaldean Mysteries and theurgy. The problem is not how we can harvest higher abstraction from the murky depths of the concrete, but rather how can we better invoke the sacred that is more present in that concrete “superstition” than it is in our philosophical meanderings. In other words, how can human thought do justice to a realm, spiritual or otherwise, that is above it.

4 08 2008
Michael Cifone

Dear Mr. Vasquez:

I like this post, but I’d like to question you a bit more since I’m not sure of your argument or basic point.

The tension in this piece is between superstition and the preternatural on the one hand, and the physical or natural on the other (btw, I don’t like this dichotomy for several reasons, but let’s just go with it for now). One question raised is, if we want to abstract away from the superstition per se without eliminating at the same time the spiritual content, then what exactly are we left with? Let’s dwell on this point a bit more before moving on to another.

I am *not* suggesting that we “naturalize” the account, or reduce it to “purely material” cause and effect relationships. This reduction would violate, I’d argue, the condition that our reinterpretation should not eliminate the spiritual content. Question is: how is this abstraction to be done? My claim is that this issue here, of how to reconcile the natural and preternatural aspects of the folk practice, is related to the basic problem that, I think, Plotinus concerned himself with, and that is: are matter and spirit wholly separate, unified (but *without* either of their distinct qualities being thereby nullified), or not originally two, but only two aspects of a more fundamental unity (that is: originally, matter and spirit have no separate qualities, but only attain them through an act of division … call it creation, call it the “fall of man” or the arising of egoic consciousness, and so on … note that this is an “evolutionary/cosmological” perspective). And, of course, Plotinus himself was warring with the old Platonic/Aristotelian dispute as to the nature of Form: entirely separate from matter (Plato), or somehow (to be filled in …) unified with it or otherwise non-separate from it (the Aristotelian line).

What I am proposing is that it’s possible to avoid both the preternatural/natural distinction and to avoid a reduction of spirit to matter or matter to spirit, and to retain, nonetheless, the spiritual value present in such folk traditions. This would, if carried out successfully I think, also allow for deep contact between the folk traditions and those of the “first” world mentality. What we would find is that both derive from some more fundamental facts about human existence (this is all vague, because I haven’t spelled out what form that this suggested unification would take. Sorry.).

Can I get your opinion here, Arturo? (And sorry for my rambling…).

Also, this is more a question out of curiosity rather than of intellectual probing, but have you read Morris Berman’s “Consciousness” trilogy? On the topic you raised here — modern, “first-world” mentality and the distance it creates between ourselves and our actual, physical embodiment — I agree: we’re much *less* body-aware than those steeped in the “folk” traditions, despite *their simultaneous fear and respect for the life of the body and *despite* our sophisticated scientific technological understanding and mythology of “sexual liberation” or the supposed banishment of Victorian puritanism from our culture etc. Berman, in particular, chronicles this change, beginning in 16th century Europe, i.e., during the Scientific Revolution (his first book, 1981) and brings us to the twentieth century (in his second book, called “Coming to our senses”), before, in the final book of the series, going back to the Neolithic revolution (in “Wandering God”, 2000). His work is very important, I think, as it’s well researched and written not with an academic obsession for jargony precision, but with a true, searching soul (Berman’s off the academic map, but continues to teach as an ex-pat in Mexico).

In any case, I highly recommend Berman’s work. He considers himself to be a “mystical atheist”. And that’s as close to a label as I’m willing to go for myself — and I’d hazard that this is exactly what Plotinus would have described himself as, were we to have been graced with such a figure in the 21st century.

I’d like to get your thoughts here, Arturo!

Mike C.

23 07 2008

Interestingly enough, the account you give of superstitious practices surrounding sex makes much more sense than the current attitude found in Western countries. The twentieth and twenty-first century attitude towards sex is that it should be “responsible” and performed in a “scientific” manner (whatever that means). This is why large families are frowned upon even when the couple in question is capable of supporting the children; they indicate a lack of responsibility towards natural resources and the inability to use reason in determining how many children one ought to have (two is acceptable and three is definitely too many). Yet, as your post indicates, it’s pretty ridiculous to think that people will always act perfectly rational while perform the most irrational act imaginable. The peasants you describe seem to be much more reasonable, since they acknowledge that sex is dangerous and mysterious and can lead to terrible consequences. Whether the evil eye is one of those is debatable, but it certainly makes more sense than trying to pretend that the urge for sex should be as casual as the urge to eat lunch.

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