One’s wellbeing depends on one’s relationships or connectedness to an ‘elsewhere’ or ‘otherness’ that lies beyond the horizons of one’s own immediate lifeworld. This ‘other’ world is sometimes identified with the dead, and ritual labor enables the living to fuse their being with ancestral being in a life-giving union. Sometimes, as in traditional Christianity, it is a realm of divine power and presence, associated with the empyrean. Sometimes it is identical to the natural environment of forest, bush, and stream.
In many societies and for many people, religiosity is only incidentally connected with texts or theologies, church or mosque, temple or monastery. Drawing on a lifetime of ethnographic work among people for whom religion is not principally a matter of faith, doctrine, or definition, Michael Jackson turns his attention to those situations in life where we come up against the limits of language, our strength, and our knowledge, yet are sometimes thrown open to new ways of understanding our being-in-the-world, to new ways of connecting with others.
Through sixty-one beautifully crafted essays based on sojourns in Europe, West Africa, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, and taking his cue from Wallace Stevens’s late poem, “Of Mere Being,” Jackson explores a range of experiences where “the palm at the end of the mind” stands “beyond thought,” on “the edge of space,” “a foreign song.” Moments of crisis as well as everyday experiences in cafés, airports, and offices disclose the subtle ways in which a single life shades into others, the boundaries between cultures become blurred, fate unfolds through genealogical time, elective affinities make their appearance, and different values contend.