from an old english word, lifer
it is unclear what the exact english etymology of the word is, though it bears close resemblance to the word, life.
as an organ, the liver is responsible for detoxification, cleaning and filtering venous blood, synthesizing protein, glycogen storage, making bile, aiding digestion, and plays a large role in metabolism function. it is an indespensible organ–a human cannot live without one–yet it is able to grow itself back if partially removed, up to 75%, because of hepatocytes reentering the cell cycle. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liver)
in chinese traditions (from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liver_(Chinese_medicine)
The Liver Stores the Blood and allows for the smooth flow of Qi. The Liver’s blood is responsible for the repetitive cycles of human life, for example menstruation. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic, or Nei Jing, describes the Liver as “the general of an army”. The Liver Stores the Hun. It opens into the eyes. It secretes bile, which is stored in the Gallbladder. The Liver is associated with anger and depression. It governs the tendons and nails. The peak time for the liver is between 1-3am. The Liver also determines the capacity for pain. The fluid secretion is tears.
so from both sides there is a kind of mystery surrounding this exceptionally important organ, partly because its functions seem so much more diverse than, say, the heart. it is the general, the heart the emperor. these are the ministers of life, and their functions are greater than our simple physiology to the extent that our life is greater than such. the place i would like to start is with the associated emotion of the organ:
earlier this year, and last, i spent the better part of six months training my body, adapting, gaining flexibility, eating ascetically, no alcohol, almost no sex, sleeping monk-like hours and doing so somewhat militantly. i was very surprised when i went to be examined by a naturopath to learn that i was close to liver failure. the examination, in my mind, laid bare my achilles tendon or archetypal weakness, and i will be the first to admit that the delivery of this information, like many things in my past, made me very angry. so i want to discuss this feeling. when i say angry, i don’t mean miffed or inconvenienced. it is a force that occupies the spirit, as kind of another occupant, seizing your being and using your body to express a kind of divine indignation about the state of things. it is a feeling very closely linked to a sense of justice. or injustice. it is not something that just comes and goes: it is a palpable, chemical/emotional/spiritual transfixion upon something “that is not right.” the sufferance of this feeling can quickly lead to many forms of destruction. if dealt with poorly, it can lead to poor health and, on the other side of that coin, if used positively, can lead to tremendous movement and creativitiy. so when i learned that my liver was about to fail, a whole matrix became clear to me about my physiology, my past angers, and activities. i realized how unlike our bodies are to machines… or that they are kind of emotional machines, and that belief structures, passions, and behaviors actually do change the real composition of mortal configuration. in a certain way, this being so imminently clear in a non-intellectual way, it seemed like magic, like a ‘mind over matter’ scenario. and it took a lot of work to mitigate the anger about my state of health. like, how could this happen to me after all that i’ve done to be healthy, after six months of salads, smoothies, meditation and vigorous exercise? and when i asked the doctor, “how the fuck could this be happening?” he looked at me with irony and indicated without speech that the answer lay in my question. this silence, this sudden illumination, catalysed a flooding awareness of myself, and how i’ve been in the world, organizing my life.
i suddenly remembered being in a bar in santa fe and bumping into a drunk cowboy who smashed his pint glass against my head.
i remembered a woman i loved that left me and going into a building with a bag full of coffee cups and hurling them at a masonry wall.
i remembered screaming at a man that was dragging his cat behind him with a makeshift leash.
i remembered a lot of things, a lot of states of being, a lot of letters written, disputes, and activities captivated by utter raging prolific flooding anger. and nearly all of them oriented around a sense of injustice.
i went to college in santa fe, at a small very specialized (or very specially un-specialized) liberal arts school called, st. john’s college. when you get accepted, you receive in the mail the first book you read in the program: the Iliad. story of achilles, agamemnon, odyseus, the seige of troy, etc. i read the book in english. i liked it. i liked the descriptions of a far flung spear cracking through a warrior’s helmet and piercing his skull, spilling blood and so on. i loved achilles, his power and idiosyncratic sense of right. when i arrived at school, we began to study ancient greek and ultimately read much of the Iliad in greek. it took me more than a decade to realize the importance of that book, as the anchor, the beginning point of the “western canon.” for the West, that is the oldest written document, the Iliad. in english the first line reads something like this, as it invokes the Muse,
Sing to me goddess of the wrath of Achilles
in greek it says this:
Sing, goddess, the rage of Achilles the son of Peleus,
the destructive rage that sent countless ills on the Achaeans…
but i want to be careful to point out that the way it sounds in greek is especially striking. we are beginning with all words, with all books, with all literature, with the history of men, the west. and what is the first word? look there: meinin. it get’s translated here as “rage”… we learned that meinin is wrath; it is nothing less than the most powerful destructive passion in existence in heaven or earth. and it’s the first word of our long colorful history. wrath.
this makes particular good sense to me, a person who i mysteriously organized around this concept, and who has the exact pathology that you would expect… from ancient terms, to chinese conceptions, to now. i did a little internet search for “hepar” (greek term for liver) and “achilles” and found this, by Christopher Collins:
i cannot but except a more hollistic sensibility when i think of passions now. the word, passion, in greek, comes from paschein, to suffer. if we suffer without control, without art, we will kill the very organs those passions live in and through… and in the case of potent emotions such as anger, rage, wrath… they will very immediately tap the life giving organ itself, hepatic function: liver. the liver is a liver. we are livers. all of us. the question becomes, how are you organized? what’s your original nature? what are your tendencies, how do they cant towards darkness, how towards good?
another associated activity with the liver is accomplishment, functioning. i thought about this as i dealt with my faltering hepar. i realized that in all my “work” to meditate and be healthy… i hadn’t accomplished much, i hadn’t provided service to others… i had gone totally inward in what i thought would be a healthy reprieve from the chaos of my previous work schedule, etc. it turns out that that reprieve almost killed me. it was such a strong realization, that for days after i was overwhelmed with joy, exceptionally aware that nature has this mysterious order and balance and that that is expressed in our own physiology: we must be who we are. we must do everything possible to extract that essence and give it back to a community, to the place that loaned us the material of our bodies.
for a long time after i started making things, i would reach threshold moments where impatience and anger so consumed my activity that i would destroy something in my shop, or scream, or do any number of rash things to vent what i now know to be a part of my composition. one day i was glueing up seat bottoms and a clamp sprung free and hit me in the face; i was so angry that i wanted to break the seat bottom. i thought better of it (it was on its way to being a $900 chair) and went inside and picked up two old guitars and brought them out to the shop. i was about to begin smashing them, when i realized i had a big choice to make. it wasn’t a choice about whether to break a guitar. it was about whether i would continue to let rage direct me rather than vice versa. i breathed, and looked around. the feeling was still predominantly there… but i realized that i could use it in a more directional way… and strategically unstrung the guitars, and then sawed them apart. then i made this:
and use it in my office as a writing desk now.
as i considered the liver and spoke the word over and over in greek…hepar… i realized that it is a root in the name hephaestos, the greek god of metulurgy and craft. hephaestos was known throughout the ancient world as the master craftsman, making achilles’ shield, hermes’ winged shoes, the invisible net that caught his wife, aphrodite, in bed with her lover, ares. he worked in a volcanoe in lemnos, using the fire there to forge bronze. he was known to be lame, afflicted with a terrible limp on account of a mutated foot, so the gods threw him out of heaven and, in anger, began to make. he was angry to be estranged, and angry to be disabled. he took “revenge” by making things with bronze, welding with fire, furnishing warriors with terrible instruments of death. as his craft evolved, he became celebrated for bringing divinity into material form… and the drive to do so comes from that heated liver, from anger at some original injustice, that causes a maker to forge a new reality, one for which he alone is responsible.
consider shakespeare’s tempest: Prospero begins all his studies, all his arts, as a mechanism to wreak vengeance upon his brother the duke, who ousted him.
listen to beethoven’s late symphonies, filled with a terrible wrath at being deaf, deaf to the craft that keeps him alive.
so last week, returning to the craft of hephaestus, i found that sense of injustice boiling in my system, making these:
at a place for which i did all the other steel work. when you begin to apply heat to steel, bending it, welding it, getting dirty and hot… a sense of this godly rage takes place, that in order to bring something out of nothing, one must begin angry.
for two days i remained angry… almost oblivious as to why. one of the days a dog that lives in this house ate my lunch; so i worked all day hungry and wanted to eat the dog for lunch. i bent metal and pounded it and welded consumed with hatred for the dog, and the dog was somehow related to the unpleasantness of welding and making this stuff in eighty degree heat. as i drove home from this job, however, and swam in the cool river, i began to realize what a gift this heat is. if this wrath can be directed, if it can be pounded together with bronze to make it harder, and added to breath and awareness to become strength, then it can begin to heal the liver instead of break it down. as we begin to connect our drive to something higher, a service, that which would otherwise kill us… saves us, and becomes the fuel of life, the liver. it is afterall a feeling that comes from elsewhere, from something higher… and achilles did make a choice between life and death.