The Palm at the End of the Mind

Relatedness, Religiosity, and the Real

The Palm at the End of the Mind

Book Pages: 256 Illustrations: Published: February 2009

Author: Michael Jackson

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Religious Studies, Theory and Philosophy

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.


“[Jackson] has produced a book that is no straightforward text in either religion or theology. It is, rather, an exceptionally good example of an autobiographically framed critical reflection upon many themes and issues that are varyingly religious and/or theological in nature.” — Douglas Pratt, Reviews in Religion and Theology

“The whole book is permeated with twists and often unexpected developments revealing the complexities of human life. Habits are ruptured; restrictive knots of social life are loosened. It seems as if the stories from the book would themselves stand in a twilight zone between day and night, between waking and sleeping, when illusion becomes real and reality an illusion, when poetry is lived and life itself becomes poetry. From the moment I took the book into my hands, I found it hard to put it down. This ethnography of the borderlands of human experience captures the reader enabling him or her to reflect not only upon the intricacies of relatedness and religiosity but to move beyond thought, into the realm of ‘the palm at the end of the mind,’ and look at the world through more sensitive and compassionate lenses.” — Borut Telban, Anthropological Notebooks

“As always . . . Jackson writes with beauty and great clarity on demanding and elusive topics.” — Hayder Al-Mohammad, Social Anthropology

“Jackson excels at an interpretive method in which the power resides in storytelling. The Palm at the End of the Mind is a book to think with as it evokes the beauty and mystery of our experiences. Its stories haunt the imagination and so illustrate the power of phenomenology.” — Rebecca A. Allahyari, Anthropology and Humanism

“Michael Jackson’s sixty-one short essays, based on his experiences in disparate geographical settings, are designed to speak to each reader individually like a sophisticated musical composition, rather than advancing a linear argument. . . . Jackson’s case that ‘history, religion, spirituality, culture are shop-worn terms,’ and should be replaced by ‘the image of life at the edge of language, a shoreline on which the sea washes ceaselessly,’ is given substance by his own literary skill. And it is possible to glimpse here the makings of a shared ‘religious’ sensibility that may be fitfully emerging to unite different peoples and traditions, in ways influenced by, but not entirely decreed by, the gods of the marketplace.” — Jonathan Benthall, TLS

The Palm at the End of the Mind is a marvelous work of deep scholarly and artistic significance. Michael Jackson reflects on those things—love, loss, pain, courage, resilience—that define the human condition. Bringing a lifetime of work in anthropology to bear, he provides a rich description of the irreducible dynamics of living in social worlds that are in continuous flux.” — Paul Stoller, author of The Power of the Between: An Anthropological Odyssey

“Elegant and harrowing, this book from renowned ethnographer Michael Jackson takes us to the borderlands of human experience, where normal habits of thought and rules of social location are lost or ruptured, ‘where we confront sides of ourselves that ordinarily do not see the light of day, yet from which new modes of consciousness may take shape.’ As Jackson moves fluidly between storytelling, poetry, memoir, metaphysics, social commentary, interior exploration, and existential reflection, we travel with him around the globe and through incongruous histories: ‘penumbral domains’ that he argues do not belong exclusively to the language of religion, or even to language itself. The Palm at the End of the Mind insists on the integrity of transmutations, even terrible ones, for these are still eternally precious and deeply true. It bears witness to the cosmic connections forged in such mystery, refusing to let us look away. Long after its last page, it haunts, it sings, it prophesies. This is a brilliant ethnography of the heart.” — Kimberley Patton, Harvard Divinity School


Availability: In stock
Price: $25.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Michael Jackson is Distinguished Visiting Professor in World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. His many books of anthropology include Excursions, In Sierra Leone, and At Home in the World, all also published by Duke University Press. He is the author of a memoir, six books of poetry, and two novels.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface xi

1. Ancestral Roots

The Real 1

Only Connect 2

93 Irving Street 4

Reconnecting 8

Missed Connections 11

Tertium Quid 14

The Dead 19

Mind the Gap 23

The Genealogical Imagination 29

The Penumbral 34

After Midnight 38

Second Skins 40

On Not Severing the Vine When Harvesting the Grapes 42

Corrupted Con-texts 46

The Broken Heart 48

2. Primary Bonds

Incarnations 52

The Matrixial 57

A Letter from Athens 61

Emily's Journal 62

Beginnings 65

The Pain in Painting 69

Paths 73

Parallel Lives 75

My Lunch with arthur 81

The Wellness Narratives 84

Night 94

Outside the Window 98

"What Really Matters" 99

3. Elective Affinities

Knots 103

Marina del Rey 106

In Limbo 108

In Media Res 108

In Wellington 112

The Enigma of Anteriority 116

Survivor Guilt 119

Ventifact 123

Measured Talk 129

Heaven and Hell 131

Manifest Destiny 134

The Nature of Things 148

The Road of Excess 159

The Eternal Ones of the Dream 162

Strange Lights 15

Recognitions 168

The Other Portion 173

It Happens 176

Ships That Pass in the Night 178

4. Competing Values

Cafe Stelling 182

Value Judgments 184

The Bottle Imp 189

Marginal Notes 193

A Storyteller's Story 195

Big Thing and Small Thing 200

Sacrifice 203

Prince Vessantara 208

The Girl Who Went Beneath the Water 210

Ill-Gotten Gains 216

Is Nothing Sacred? 221

Return to the Cafe Stelling 229

Metanoia 232

The Place Where We Live 236

Acknowledgments 239
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing
Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4381-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4359-2
Publicity material