Thursday, June 21, 2018

Of Mere Being: Wallace Stevens and the Mythic Imagination

Lately I seem to myself to be more removed from the world, more separate somehow. I don’t know if I like it or if I do not; it simply seems that it is so; my remove is a fact. I don’t know if it is because at sixty, I’m older, or perhaps because it’s due to the current social, economic, and political climates which seem to make cultural life, and a life lived in it, less of a pleasant proposition. Perhaps my inward reality no longer tallies well with the outer reality. Perhaps I simply desire to reach beyond what I think are the edges of myself and discover a place within large enough to hold and reconcile the totality of my being. Whatever it is that I must do, it may only be accomplished by going beyond inner and outer perspectives, beyond pairs of opposites, beyond judgments of good or bad, right or wrong. I must go to the place, and perhaps beyond, that allowed Whitman to say, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” The poet, Wallace Stevens, in the final stanza from his poem, “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” put it this way:

                           I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
                           Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
                           And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

An early reviewer of Stevens’ poetry remarked that he created “fictitious” realities and was apparently unwilling to concede that the lie of art often exposed more truth than objective or consensual reality could muster. Stevens himself often seemed to be a refugee in a war between his outer and inner realities. He was a big, some might say burly, man who was often depressed, drunk, and self-centered; he seemed to cause his family frequent unhappiness. In the mid 1930’s he, drunk, broke a few bones in his hand when he punched Ernest Hemingway in the jaw. Hemmingway promptly beat Stevens to a jelly, and afterward agreed to tell others a face-saving story that Stevens had fallen down the stairs. And yet, for all his human-all-too-human messiness, Stevens’ poetic insights and his use of language were utterly sublime.

It is the sublime, in fact, that is the subject of my favorite Stevens poetry. Stevens is a hard poet precisely for this reason: the sublime is hard. The sublime is not merely beautiful, although an aesthetic experience is certainly a consequence of encountering the sublime. In the writing of Edmund Burke, the sublime is characterized by its “vastness” and “terror.” The sublime is overwhelming, disturbing, and possessed of a tremendous force, while the beautiful is “balanced” and “delicate” and serene. But myths are made of the overwhelming, the terrifying, the incomprehensible, and the vast; one’s experiences of these qualities are the proper subjects of myth.

In his best poems, Stevens is working with, and on, the sublime, rendering it through a modulating lens of beauty. The sublime, according to Immanuel Kant, is a natural phenomenon, a phenomenon extant in nature, and as such is difficult for a human consciousness to understand and be with it in relationship because we feel, subjectively, a bit separated from it; a bit different, alien to it. The best poetry and the best mythology (are they really different?) present the sublime in a beautiful form; this is, to gloss Picasso, the art of the lie that tells the truth. And the truth pointed at by fortunately fashioned myths and art is that there is much more to being an animate, living human than we can imagine based upon the reckonings of established, conventional consciousness. Great art and great myth pitch us out of our ordinary, domestic consciousness and exposes us, in some moderated way, to the sublime realities of our existence.

Here is another Stevens poem, Of Mere Being, that provides a good example:
                            The Palm at the end of the mind,
                           Beyond the last thought, rises
                           In the bronze décor,

                           A gold-feathered bird
                           Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
                           Without human feeling, a foreign song.

                           You know then that it is not the reason
                           That makes us happy or unhappy.
                           The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

                           The palm stands on the edge of space.
                           The wind moves slowly in the branches.
                           The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

This poem, for me at least, symbolizes an approach to a transcendent experience beyond definition or clear form, and exposes one to the very substance of all things, which includes ourselves. One might think of it as the singularly sublime. While ultimately unknowable in toto, the images It produces (and the images we produce since we are It) act upon us as a glittering, golden lure drawing us ever nearer and deeper into the ultimate mystery of being. Stevens’ images succeed in this respect exceptionally well. By conjuring “the palm at the end of the mind, beyond the last thought,” Stevens moves the reader to struggle free from rational, domestic thought experience and into a metaphorical, mythic, imaginal thought, and a distant, somewhat alien internal landscape that lives apart from the familiar world of known things. The palm calls to mind an oasis in the vast unmapped desert located between the mundane, rational world of experience and the transcendent essence of being, and in this palm is a bird with golden feathers singing a song without “human meaning” and “human feeling,” a song previously unheard and unknown, a song that feels alien and strange to we who visit this strange new world, but indigenous and well-known to the new world in which we find ourselves.

Stevens suggests, I think, that in this mythogeographical place, human meaning and feeling are not the constituent elements of happiness. Rather, concepts like imagination, courage, and the sublime become the ideals that offer one a deep sense of satisfaction. The mythological space of the poem is the place of gold and bronze, colors that suggest illumination, recherché riches, and the sun burnished, sun infused experience of an Odyssean traveler on a mythic journey. Odysseus himself, is burnished bronze by his years under the Mediterranean sun, a Bronze-Age king whose palace has floors of bronze reflecting his great wealth, achievement, and not quite god-like but certainly not merely human, standing; his strange encounters, over so many years, with divinities, monsters, and his own, solitary experience, carried him beyond his own last thoughts, beyond human meaning, they sustain him and guide him (often roughly), and finally, drive him deep within himself to once again transform, to deepen his understanding of self, of others, of the world, to psychologically and metaphorically die and be reborn. He washes up on the island of the Phaeacians and buries himself in leaves beneath two shoots of an Olive tree as one would, Homer writes, hide a “fire-seed”—a hot coal—in the ashes to keep its light alive. And out of those ashes, he finds himself reborn.

One might begin to have an inkling of what this bird with golden feathers is, the bird who inhabits the palm beyond the last thought; it can be aught but the Phoenix, that bird with golden feathers invested with the power of the sun itself to self-immolate and be reborn of its own ashes. This is the metaphysical reality encountered beyond the last human thought, rooted at the edge of space. In this Stevens echoes Whitman, who unabashedly averred, "The smallest sprout shows there is really no death; and if ever there was, it led forward life." That palm at the end of the mind, on the edge of space is a symbol of indefatigable, indestructible life, for the brilliant mind of Wallace Stevens knew that the Greek work for palm is phoenix, φοίνικας, and by placing in the phoenix a Phoenix, he compounds and insists upon the point that just beyond the place of human thought and feeling is a metaphysical reality that dictates birth, life, and death be understood as metaphors. Where are we before we're born? After we die? What is that realm or aspect of being?

The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangling down may be the only glimpse I can have, but I am discovering in my increasing alienation from the material world, that those dangling feathers may be just enough of an enticement to continue the inward journey, to find myself more truly (and more strange), to continue exploring the boundaries of consciousness, to continue to turn over the fertile ground of the unified field and plant the seeds of a far reaching--and ever farther reaching, human potential.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

One Must Forget Much To Live Here

It's not a new realization, one might even regard it as prosaic, yet to me it never fails to be striking--sometimes even startling--when I realize that every piece of earth, each plot of land, a rock outcropping, a river or a lake, a grassy knoll, has a rich, sundry history. Sometimes the history of a given place is a secret lost to the amnesia inducing ravages of time; the earth’s arcane arts are buried by the passage of time and interred by the developer’s promiscuous blade. But in some instances the history of a particular place is so powerfully compelling, so majestic, so horrific, that the place forever after becomes a memorial and its events are preserved in the collective human memory. Such a memorializing is often, it seems, not through human agency alone but rather through the insistence of the earth itself whose purpose is to manifest images within us humans that serve as a link to the earth’s intelligence and make us remember. We seem to have forgotten that Planet Earth is as alive as you or I. And like us, the earth is possessed of an unconscious, too, just as sleepily awash in memory, reverie, and dreams as we are, likewise pulsing with exhausting intervals of emotional, intellectual, and physical activity. The world thinks and feels and imagines. It is alive with its own desires, its own memories; it lives with experiences, regrets, and longings that interfuse with our own and influence us the way children are influenced by the way their parents feel and think and live. This truth is among the first things we forget in order to live.

We forget that a most remarkable thing about this planet is that it literally hums with energy, a magical energy which inexplicably, one might even say lovingly, sustains and creates all life on it. Because our sustenance is largely inexplicable it may be regarded as magical, yet because of its sustaining energy the different aspects and emanations of the world are united. In his commentary on the Symposium, Marcilio Ficino insisted that the force of all magic is constituted of love, and it is love that is essential to, perhaps even essentially is, the strong magic of healing ourselves and the earth:

The work of magic is a certain drawing of one thing to another by natural similitude. The parts of this world […] depend on one Love […]. From this community of relationship is born the communal Love: from which Love is born the common drawing together: and this is the true Magic.

I grew up along the Minnesota River, an ancient, beautiful river valley teeming with wildlife, densely wooded hardwood forests, and ravishing, arresting vistas that can be savored from any number of spectacular rocky cliffs and promontories along its entire length. This river valley was formed relatively recently, in terms of geologic time, 13,000 years ago when Glacial Lake Agassiz burst through a natural earth dam creating a massive tsunami which proceeded to carve out the river valley from the flat and relatively featureless grassland plain.  The river, which previously ran over the plain in a much smaller, inconsequential form, is known to geologists as the ancient Warren River so as to distinguish it from the modern Minnesota River. There were almost certainly people, though perhaps not particularly great in number, living along the peaceful, humble stream when the earthen dam broke, creating what was for them, a natural disaster of cataclysmic proportions. People and animals died, ecosystems were destroyed; life and all ways of life in the path of the oncoming wall of water were obliterated.

If some similar event happened somewhere today, there would almost certainly be plaques placed, memorials erected, and an understanding that the affected geographic area—the earth as well as the river--would be regarded as sacred. Thirteen thousand years ago no such memorialization would be forthcoming, however, it would be a silly, even grotesque, misunderstanding of human nature to think that in regional narratives of place (which is to say, mythologies) this event was not somehow recalled with solemnity, trembling, and awe.

But in fact, there are memorials placed alongside the Minnesota River honoring the event that heralded its inception. And it was the Earth, herself, who placed them there. Periodically along the banks of the river one finds outcroppings of a particular kind of Granite rock called Gniess.  This type of granite is over three billion years old; three billion-year-old rocks on a planet that is perhaps 4.5 billion years old itself, and these rocks were first exposed by the same catastrophic hydraulic forces that formed the valley some 13,000 years ago. Since geologic time is so unfathomable, so unimaginable and utterly inconceivable, we forget the vast, unknowable histories it hides. We tend to think that memory cannot see into nor through what Shakespeare called “the dark and backward abysm of time.” But such thinking is merely a convenient forgetting because the past infuses everything present. Everything from the three billion year old ancient granite rocks and their troves of antediluvian memories, perched like sentinels along the banks of the Minnesota River, to evidence of an ancient and growing human presence evidenced by the spearheads, knives and other Neolithic stone tools found there from around 6,400 years ago, to a vastly diminished yet still visible 19th Century agrarian way of life dependent upon the river’s fertile deposits, to modern, high-tech farmhouses supplemented by solar panels and wind turbines with farm implements that operate with digital precision and ease.

The ancient memory of place seeps into contemporary psyches and without much effort one may vividly imagine ancient inhabitants of the river valley preparing for a buffalo hunt while at the same time half way around the world, Sumerians were measuring the foundations of the first great civilizations; a great flood formed what is now called the Black Sea; and religious practice centered upon the powerful creative energies of ample, fertile goddesses took hold around central Europe. Writing would not be invented for three millennia after these events. Image and imagination, feeling and sensation, intuitive knowing, may well have been the most common and the most effective ways in which our ancestors communicated with each other as well as with the Earth.

Moreover, i believe it is a conceit of human nature to assume that only the human mind and its relationship to the collective unconscious accesses and stores memories of distant pasts. I believe that this earth which produces human beings the way apple trees produce apples, the land that sustains and nurtures us, the land that challenges and tests us and ultimately reabsorbs us, also holds memory and emotion. And we, the current residents of a given place, are influenced by the landscape’s memories, geographic upheavals, and emotions. At some level of consciousness we are made aware of the trauma, the resilience, the hope, and—I mean this quite literally--the dreams of the earth.

One usually doesn’t take the time to consider why one feels certain emotions in particular places. Why do some places feel receptive, safe, and comfortable while others feel forbidding, foreboding, and threatening? Why do some places seem to be filled with a sense of despair or grief that suffuses one’s own consciousness and brings with it an uncomfortable sense of feral remoteness, a quivering sense of the uncanny? Because the earth whispers her story to human ears that are open and attuned, one often finds that the history of a place accords with the intuitions one has of it. It shouldn’t be a surprising or whimsical notion, and yet it is; and unfortunately such intuitive notions are dismissed as fantasy, wild speculation, or neurosis. But in fact, the Soul of Things wants to be seen, it wants to be known, and the Anima Mundi seeks out the often murky and barely conscious depths of the human experience with which to communicate her story.

When I was eleven or twelve years old I spent much of my summers roaming freely through the woods near the river, often alone. In so doing, I presumed to escape the mundane demands of childhood, and yet oddly, I didn’t feel free. I was alone (as far as I knew), far from any house or road, in a pathless wood. Yet I could never escape that most disturbing of sensations, the eerie feeling that I was being watched by something or someone I could not, myself, apprehend. I often had the premonition that over the next hill or around the next bend of the river I would meet with some stranger who would, by challenging my right to be on this particular plot of land, simultaneously challenge my existential right to simply be. I now believe the feelings I had of being watched and the dread such thoughts engendered weren’t generated solely by my own fear or neurosis. I was being watched; watched by the earth herself and unconsciously assimilating her memories and emotions related to the physical and emotional history of the Minnesota River valley; I was connected to the landscape by the suffusing properties of the earth’s intellectual activity and her own processing, her own attempts to understand her experiences through a "dialogue" with another species. Just as it is a principle of human psychological life that we attempt to heal ourselves through remembering and describing our experiences to others--to which they (hopefully) respond with empathy,  the Mundi Intellectus, the mind of the world, works in exactly the same way, except more subtly. Human communion with the earth is remarkably effortless, even commonplace, and yet it is also a and deeply sacred act requiring conscious, focused intention.

Prior to my ancestors arriving in the Minnesota River valley from northern Europe it was home to the Dakota Indians, but by the early 19th Century the Dakota were no longer home alone. Newly arrived people who must have seemed utterly strange to them, people who dressed impractically and practiced odd customs along with a convoluted, self-contradictory religion were making shockingly irrational claims to ancient ancestral lands. These "settlers" broke promises and treaties; they lied, they cheated, they enslaved the land.  They seemed to treat everything, even themselves, with disrespect and force; soon the Dakota were strangers in their own land. The Dakota right to exist as they had traditionally existed for centuries was challenged at every turn, and by the middle of the 19th Century, a dehumanizing and cruel "American" self-interest was as abundant in the river valley as sources of food were scarce. For the very first time the river was arrested by human construction and dammed, indentured to commerce; land was partitioned and fenced off with barbed wire; swamps and marshes were drained to create more arable land. How absolutely shocking it must have been for the Dakota to see their Great Mother, their benefactrix, so enslaved. Traditional Dakota life was turned upside down and a catastrophe of unimaginable scope unfolded in a short, intense, and bloody conflict.  

I married my first wife while standing upon the Minnesota River. It was one of those Minnesota winter days when the sunshine is so bright that it’s too bright and it hurts one’s eyes. The temperature of the air was so cold that the first breath one drew out of doors painfully seared the lungs. The river was frozen solid, a silver and white ribbon winding through a dense welter of barren Ash, Oak, and Cottonwood trees. Not for the first time, I failed to grasp the metaphor, I failed to listen to what the earth was telling me about the wisdom of my impending marriage. Eighteen months later my marriage was in a humiliating shambles and had become an utterly tawdry affair; we were living apart and my wife was involved with someone else.  In another eighteen months we would be divorced amid the thick, incensed air of recrimination, rancor, and deep enmity—feelings that often arise from utter defeat. Between two people these kinds of feelings cause a divorce; between two cultures, they start a war. And as wars always do, this war, the Dakota War of 1862, produced unspeakable atrocities and ultimately provoked a program of genocide, undertaken by the Federal Government and heartily supported by the local white settlers, because people cannot even imagine living with another who cannot, or simply will not, think, believe, and live as they do. Each individual exposed to the horror of a war and its inhumane cruelty is forever altered. Altered too, are the lives of their descendants. Life in the valley can never be the same again.
We have forgotten that ghastly traumas, such as those evoked by war, are not only held in human memory, but are remembered painfully by the earth, too, and much like those countries or worlds of mythology that suffer from a miasma (a Greek idea denoting a spiritual pollution that degrades not only a people and a community or state but the very land itself), the land becomes barren and inhospitable; the earth withdraws from interaction with the source of pollution, and sadly, her indulgent benevolence for her human children is withdrawn: businesses fail and main streets are shuttered, a spirit of meanness lives in its residents characterized by a stingy penuriousness, shamefulness, and sordidness, and visitors sense an insular or vaguely besieged energy suffusing the community. 

One of the most salient lessons of the 20th Century has been learned from the growing awareness that where atrocity has occurred, acknowledgment of the terrible events through an act of contrition must be undertaken in order to facilitate healing among people. Less salient is the awareness that just such an atonement must be offered in relationship to the land as well. I have come to believe that if events are not properly memorialized, if outrages, obscenities, and abominations are suppressed, repressed, or dismissed, the sufferings of all those involved (especially the wounded landscape which has literally absorbed the spilled blood, and has suffered nearly irreparable spiritual harm and trauma) will continue to live on in that geographical space--in the earth herself, and subtly, unconsciously, in those who currently occupy that particular land. The wounded landscape reaches out and into those of us who occupy it by making its own memories, emotions, and traumas seem to be our own. It whispers to us its story, a story we notice at first in the form of vague feelings, uncanny sensations, and dimly perceived shadows, and finally in suprapersonal, sublimely earthed feelings, sensations, and shadows we are obliged to recognize and honor if we are to understand the story and heal ourselves and our land.

An enthralled, open-minded listening to the stories one's told is the surest path to understanding, and understanding is the surest path to forgiveness. Forgiveness is powerful, and often it is the only effective healing act available to either us or the planet. Forgiveness is an implement of the soul, it is love enacted, it is radical acceptance; forgiveness is the instrument of a loving awareness which is always present to hand and always available to be used. Forgiveness is not particularly effective if one insists upon thinking about forgiveness only in terms of offering a dispensation to another. The most difficult challenge of forgiving, if it is to be truly healing, is the often overlooked stipulation that one must become, often agonizingly, aware of one’s own guilt and then, even more agonizingly, to live with it; to live into the realization that there is nothing else to do with one's guilt but to acknowledge it, to experience it, and to surrender to it. And, paradoxically perhaps, while one is surrendering one must also be committed to continued living that is, perhaps, bittersweet for the confessional humility of one's guilt, but simultaneously richer in the human and humane aspects of the living of life. 

I have come to understand that the only purpose, really, of difficult and painful feelings is to simply bear them; one needn’t and shouldn’t find a way to avoid them, or try to offload or project them onto others; instead one must recognize these challenges are in the world because I am in the world, they belong to me, and through the process of radical self acceptance, these feelings and experiences may begin to heal, and in their healing, the world heals, too. But  radical self acceptance is very, very hard; so difficult as to be nearly impossible because, as Macbeth bitterly observes, “To know my deed, ‘Twere best not know myself.” Yet the willingness to know, and not just to know, but accept the motives for the deed as a part of oneself as well puts one in proximity to a very deep truth that, from some safe distance, appears to be irrational or at best, paradoxical. Niels Bohr once remarked, “It is a hallmark of any deep truth that its negation is also a deep truth.” Deep truths invite paradox, and paradox is a singular quality of what we often call the divine. When we find ourselves in such a paradoxical position, we may be sure that the gods are not far away, and their paradoxical revelation to us is that in our guilty, broken, pained existence we are perfect, and in a position to not only heal ourselves, but our world as well.

What we call history is not merely a dialogue the past has with the present, it is a colloquy involving ourselves and the earth with an aim to engendering a deeper understanding of past, present, and future actions. A proper understanding of history (and when I say history, I am simultaneously saying  mythology) may lead to the intentional creation of more accepting, loving relationships between humankind and the landscape upon which the human drama unfolds.  There is no single, eternal, unalterable, or immutable meaning of history. One’s relationship to the past, like one’s relationship to self or to the world, is a constantly evolving understanding, the past--history, is relentlessly renewing itself in a state of perpetual becoming. 

We necessarily forget who we really are and what our connection to the world really is--we must forget if we want to continue to live life in the way in which we always have. Nevertheless, opportunities for greater awareness and understanding abound and that just once, we may be possessed by a notion, a radically different idea of reality that allows us to make novel connections that inspire a re-evaluation and redefinition of ourselves and the world, and if we're lucky, we discover we like it and search more and more earnestly for the opportunity. Like the startling revelations of heliocentrism in its time or quantum physics in our own, the strangeness and complexities of reality consistently outstrips not only our own subjective experiences and expectations of reality, but those of science as well, and one may only wonder at what sublime strangeness will be revealed as we extend ourselves farther and farther into humanity and into the world with a radical curiosity and openness.

Shakespeare challenged us to “Go to your bosom; Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know.” Once you've done this you know in your most secret heart that the earth is alive. The heart knows that the supreme adventure is the road that unfolds before us once we've acknowledged the deep truth that we are unquestionably the earth's children and the umbilical of the human mind connects us to her in all ways and for always. Homer describes a scene in the Iliad in which Glaukos tells Diomedes “I always hears my father’s voice in my head: ‘Be the best, my boy. Be the brightest, and hold your head high above the rest’.” Like Glaukos, we, too, have our parent’s voice always in our heads, and no longer can we afford to dismiss or silence the suffering Vox Mundi and her instructions in the art of healing ourselves and our planet.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A Meditation on Myth

A bit long, this one...but I am grateful for Stephanie Pope asking me to write a guest blog on her marvelous site,, and here it is, reproduced on Falstaff. 

I thought for that at least a portion of this blog post, I might respond a bit to Dave Alber’s really fine September posts, which reflect nicely the essence of his recent book, The Heart of Myth:Wisdom Stories From Endangered People. I particularly like his phrase “the grammar of myth,” because it is an unusual and surprising pairing of the words myth and grammar but soon, upon closer examination, one discovers the reasons for why the pairing of myth and grammar is apropos. Grammar is comprised of an internalized set of rules for the use of a given language, and for most native speakers those rules are not learned—internalized—by study and instruction. Grammar is learned by watching and listening to other speakers, and the grammatical nuances of a language learned very early in childhood are intuitively relied upon in writing and conversation, and even in thinking. Grammar may also be a word used to describe an orthodoxy that prescribes and governs punctuation, spelling, and usage. In other words, grammar is the foundation of self-expression. 

You see where I’m going with this; each mythology has its own grammar as well: rules that govern denotation, expression, orthodox understanding, thinking, and form. And these grammatical rules, sometimes called mythemes, tenets, or articles of faith, are also learned in very early childhood and often inexorably remain, over the course of even a very long life, the intuitive framework for understanding oneself and one’s world. Those of us cohabiting with a particular mythology rely on its grammar to communicate comprehensibly with one another, to support, instruct, encourage, and all too familiarly, rebuke. Perhaps even more important is that grammar insists on storytelling and making narrative possible, in fact, grammar may frankly necessitate story. I suppose one cannot truly imagine what trying to communicate with another person might have been like before, shall we call it, the invention or the organization of grammar, but I suspect that a lot of grunting, pointing, the use of contorted, exaggerated facial expressions, stick and dirt drawings, and an exasperated, repetitive emphasis on a few key sounds would have been the norm. An unwieldy enterprise, to say the least, and coupled with its longueur, it would certainly seem to incline one to fewer verbal interactions. Grammar allows one to participate in relationship by virtue of the narrativizing of life, not only one’s own life, but the lives (and deaths) of others, of the community, of animals, of forests, grasslands, deserts, seas, as well as the heavens. Grammar makes myth possible, grammar may even insist upon myth.

Rethinking Myth Through Joseph Campbell’s “Four Functions”

In David’s September 4th guest blog on this site, “What is Myth For You?”, he referenced an essay I had written: “Bradley Olson recently posted an essay on the importance of rethinking myth and personal definitions of myth, and similarly, he referenced it back to the mystical function of myth.” I was surprised to read this, because as I was writing it, I was thinking of it in terms of the psychological function of myth. But Dave was not wrong in associating what I had written with the mystical function of myth, of which is to awaken a sense of “awe” in the encounter with the, as Jung put it,mysterium tremendum. Joseph Campbell’s four functions of mythology, as I think about them now with Dave’s grammaticus influencing me, are also attempts at grammar, and it would be as wrong to relegate them to discrete domains as it would be to insist upon always speaking the King’s English; more elegant and clear, perhaps, but not nearly as interesting, nor as alive.  Each of these four functions—metaphysical, cosmological, sociological, and psychological—are in dynamic relationships with one another, sometimes opposing, sometimes syncretic, and sometimes paradoxical. The student, less innately fluent than, say, the initiate, will struggle with the intellectual imperative of properly consigning this experience or that phenomenon to its proper function. For instance, is this particular narrative supporting a sociological function or is it advancing my own psychological needs? At any given time, the answer may be yes, no, or both. How does one decisively separate cosmology and awe (the metaphysical function) for instance? Here again, these categories function as grammar, and as such, one must first learn how to use and apply them correctly and reliably in order to effectively and creatively transgress the rules at some future point when the goal is to creatively open up and revitalize the mythic narratives. In mythology, as in the lives of cultures, perhaps this task falls to those best suited for the work: the heretics, the visionaries, the poets, the artists, those singular individuals living within a particular narrative who see, perhaps for the first time, something entirely new in the old forms, plasticity in the rigid structures, and beauty in the unavoidable, and often unforgiving, realities of life.

Dave writes that “Myths are transmissions of knowledge from the enlightened state, from cultures that rightly identify spiritual work with the routine moment-to-moment development of their awareness state.” As David soon points out, “[the definition] is imperfect and limited,” and he believes the imperfection is intentional in order to, I presume, give myth the room and imprecision it requires to make it flexibly expansive enough to contain and transmit extraordinary esoteric, metaphysical knowledge. I am aware from our personal conversations and correspondence that Dave values, as I do, the timeless, mercurial, eternal, archetypal qualities of myth, the fleeting “Protean slipperiness” of it (as he once put it to me), and the ability of myth to evoke “profound states of awareness.” Dave’s September essays are deeply thought, innovative, and pleasurable to read, and I have no criticism for him in this regard. But since the point of my essay this month is to contribute something of my own thoughts about myth, my response is, it seems, yes and…. The and… is my problem with the focus on the transcendent and spiritual aspects of myth, a focus I acknowledge as a venerable interpretation and use of myth, but one I am exhausted by and, frankly, one I think the world can ill afford any longer. At its best, it denies the reality of human effort and inter-relatedness and creates comforting illusions; at worst it creates an excess of greed, stupidity, and shallow, trivial gestures performed within an atmosphere of mercilessness.

Myth’s Grammar, Thought, And Imaginal Life

I prefer to consider myth as a mode of thought or a condition of imagining rather than a narrative containing a body of knowledge. Perhaps, referencing my above discussion of Dave’s notion of grammar, I can call myth the grammar of thought, or the grammar of imagination (as I recall, Hegel mentioned something along the lines of grammar being the work of thought). Myth was “taken up” or rediscovered during the Enlightenment because, as a mode of thinking, it was believed to be a key to comprehending history, philosophy, religion, art, linguistics, and creativity itself. Considering myth to be a mode of thinking returns ownership of myth to human beings and, from that point of view, a mythic imagination is an uncritical, non-causal, wholesale search for meaning and significance in a human life lived in a fundamentally mysterious world. Myth is no longer the province of gods or the expression in the world of supernatural intervention but instead, it rightfully reclaims for human beings an apprehension of the sublime nested within human passions, changes of fortune, joys, and depressions, elation and pathos

A Fifth Function Of  Myth? 

There is at least one other exquisitely human function of myth that I would add to Campbell’s well known four, and that is the function of delight. Delight as a function certainly isn’t my discovery. John Dryden specifically, and all manner of poets, writers, painters, classically educated people in all walks of life, have noted this function at work one way or another in the mythopoetic genre. The mythographer is, as the word poesis suggests, a maker and a creator, she aims at making something beautiful, something that stirs us, not by representing things exactly as they are but by heightening their intensity, deepening their depths, qualities Dryden called “lively” and “just” (Essay of Dramatic Poesy). Poesis, and by extension mythopoesis, is a uniquely human endeavor and delighting in it allows one to, if not exactly remake the world, remake our own reality here and now, for there is no fear in delight, and no pain, delight is play, not pressure. Poesis and drama also instruct, says Dryden, but the function of instruction is secondary in his mind, and what always assumes a place of primacy in his thinking is the function of delight. Delight is created by the contemplation of beauty, and it is the job of the creative person to create or highlight a beauty that contributes to the pleasures of the soul. The condition of delight taken in every aspect of life, even the difficult, allows one to accept one’s human, all too human, existence without the vulgar, slavish, and undignified need for transcendence.

Meditations On Existential Dread,
Salvation, And Transcendence

There is a story I love about D.T. Suzuki, the great popularizer of Zen in the West and who was, as he was dying, visited by a friend and they had a wide-ranging conversation about Zen, poetry, and, of course, the meaning of life. Suzuki excused himself from the room for a bit, and once he was out of earshot his wife leaned over to the visitor and said something like, “You know why he doesn’t believe in Satori, do you not?” The visitor shook his head and said, “No.” Mrs. S. began chuckling and then exclaimed, “He’s never experienced it, himself!” I suppose I like this story because it reflects my own understanding; I’ve never been, in my exposures to Christianity, Zen, Sufism—all of which I took rather seriously at one time or another in my life, able to experience what “they” said I should, namely, some sort of transcendence. Some sacred wisdom, or some spiritual practice, was supposed to enter me, heal me, or expand my consciousness or something, and I would be fundamentally changed as a result. But stories, narratives, even sacred ones, don’t change anyone. Human beings don’t change. We are not transformed. We do not become different, altered (although we may well become altared, tied to doctrine, rituals, and forms) beings.

One might wonder that with an attitude like that, what is the point of being a psychotherapist? Well, there is quite an important point it, and while I don’t believe that people can change, I do believe they can relieve their suffering. Suffering is created by the apparently insurmountable gap between who people believe themselves to be and who they believe they should be. Because they can’t change themselves in any way to which they are not already predisposed, that gap appears to be unspannable and they begin to long for transcendence, a transcendence that in its most frank, naked intention, is to somehow escape their human condition, the condition of limited agency and vision, competency and comprehension, beset by frailty and existential dread. It makes sense, I suppose, to wish that some divine hand of a supernatural agent, some compassionate, just and virtuous suspension of the universal order would simply erase my misery and install me in a life of happiness and ease.It may be that the wish for salvation and transcendence is built into myth as well as human nature. Chekov once remarked that if you see a prominently displayed gun in the first act, you can be sure it will be fired in the third. Likewise, in mythology, the first act emphasis is religious, it is focused on supernatural, divine beings, divine, supernatural realms, and the religious thinking that encapsulates them. So naturally now, in the third act, people often turn to myth the way they used to turn to religion, except that we tell ourselves we’re not being religious, we’re too sophisticated to fall for that. Instead, we think of ourselves as being scholarly, or psychological, or merely “spiritual.”  Practices arise such as personal mythology, culturally esoteric and exotic spiritual practices, and what they have in common, deep down in their religious DNA, is the desire for transcendence and salvation in some fashion. Please, the practitioner begs, let me be something I presently am not, and seem incapable of becoming. And I suppose, to some degree, that’s what those of us who privilege the metaphysical or psychological function of myth may have wrought. We’ve focused on the transformational, cathartic properties that an immersion in mythology is expected to offer. And it is, after all, a reasonable first step in the study of myth to try to understand exactly what is the impact myth is having on my life, on my personal situation.

Is That All There Is To Myth?  

But if that’s all it is, if myth is only beneficial to individuals because it makes their personal lives seem easier or better, we might as well give up on the way we (in the manner of Freud, Jung, Campbell, etc.) study myth right now. If myth has become merely another more exotic, and because of its unfamiliarity potentially more likely, shot at salvation, the genre has been exhausted in the way that a lode of gold or silver has been worked out; the mining of myth can no longer yield usable amounts of its natural matter. Secondly, we cannot continue to believe that our human condition is somehow inferior, fallen, or inadequate to the task of living. Life in the contemporary world has given way to other circumstances which must be met with other ways and forms of mythological imagining. And even if my second point isn’t correct, and the circumstances of human life haven’t changed fundamentally in ten thousand years, we either lack the imaginative power to approach the form novelly, or we no longer find the answers that novelty supplies to be of value. Finally, and we see this played out on every world stage multiple times every day, misunderstanding myth (intentionally or not) serves as some advantage to someone, and when mythic narratives are an advantage to someone or some group, one is helpless to be understood or to lay in course corrections.

Freud once remarked of his own theories that they appealed to him because they tended to, like the theories of Copernicus or Darwin, diminish man’s pride. Perhaps it isn’t asking too much to imagine that pride is at work in the sacred fantasies of transcendence, salvation, the project of leaving one’s human condition behind. Pride has at its core a loathing of the human condition and its forms, and pride refuses to see that simple human life and living has a profoundly aesthetic quality. The myths we cling to tend to summarize our cultural life, which may be why we so badly want to impress them into the service of escape. To my way of thinking, myths investigate and celebrate human will and if that avenue of their contemplation is dying, then perhaps it’s because the will of our society is dying, and if it is, it is likely dying of its own excess. But contemporary culture seems intent on transcending human nature, too, and self-interested, selfish excess is the chosen option for the program: multiply, augment, display, annex, coopt, volatize, transmogrify, transmute…and, like the directions on a shampoo bottle, repeat over and over until we are, finally, no longer human. As Oscar Wilde aptly put it, “nothing succeeds like excess.”

An Ethical Ideal

The answers to the problems of living are not found in self-transformation or through “realizing one’s divine nature,” but rather, becoming more and more and more human; more and more and more oneself. This is precisely what Nietzsche (no mean mythographer, himself) would prescribe. A self isn’t, according to Nietzsche, something you just naturally are. A self must be achieved, continually, over and over again. As Duncan Large notes in his forward to Ecce Homo, Nietzsche insisted that “the process of self-becoming [is] an ethical ideal.” In Nietzsche’s own words:

Becoming what you are presupposes that you have not the slightest inkling what you are. From this point of view even life’s mistakes have their own sense and value, the temporary byways and detours, the delays, the ‘modesties,’ the seriousness wasted on tasks which lie beyondthe task. […] You need to keep the whole surface of consciousness—consciousness is a surface—untainted by any of the great imperatives. Beware even every great phrase, every great pose! With all of them the instincts risk understanding them too soon. Meanwhile in the depths, the organizing ‘idea’ with a calling to be master grows and grows—it begins to command, it slowly leads you back out of byways and detours, it prepares individual qualities and skills which will one day prove indispensable as means to the whole—it trains one by one all the ancillary capacities before it breathes a word about the dominant task, about goal, purpose, sense (Ecce Homo).

This is exactly, I think, what Campbell means by following your bliss; one realizes that living a human life is often accompanied by inescapable constraints of one kind or another, but there need be no authority but the inner deep, Nietzsche’s “organizing idea,” that continually unfolds proportionally to how intensely we approach our own self-becoming. That was a rather long quote, but one often reads about Nietzsche rather than actually reading Nietzsche, and we should be reading him…deeply. Those we turn to in our study of myth were powerfully influenced by him; Campbell certainly read him, Jung read him and worried that perhaps his philosophy made him mad, Freud almost certainly read him and lied, saying he had not.
Self-becoming, not change, is what happens in psychotherapy, although I suppose from an outside perspective it appears that, through this process, the individual has changed. But that would be wrong; in fact, she has simply become more of whom she has already always been. When a rose seed becomes a beautiful, blooming rose, it might appear to have changed from a seed to a rose, but the mature rose was always there, inside the seed, and she became the fullest expression of herself. The true value of myth is found not in esoteric teachings about transcendence, nor in, as seductive as it may be, an occulted promise to escape one’s human legacy. Rather, the value of myth is found in its way of consoling us, beings who are subject to wild swings of fortune, impossible moral dilemmas, horrifying exposures to the cannibalizing tendency of life itself to devour life, to triumph, love, joy, sorrow, and all the rest of the exquisitely human experience—as Zorba lovingly called it, “…the whole catastrophe.” To be more fully human should be the goal, to enter one’s humanity more and more deeply, to become as fully and completely human as one can possibly be, and those indispensable qualities and skills which benefit, not just oneself, but the entire collective, are found there.  What myths teach is what I have called, in other venues, radical acceptance; Nietzsche called it Amor Fati, Jung called it individuation, and Campbell called it bliss. Keats, in Sleep and Poetry, says it this way:
                        …Though no great minist’ring reason sorts
Out the dark mysteries of human souls 
To clear conceiving: yet there ever rolls 
A vast idea before me, and I glean 
Therefrom my liberty…

Myth has the power of absorbing and disturbing us in secret ways, just as our own self-reflection is likely to absorb and disturb us, in ways remaining frustratingly secret. Myth is one of the few ways complex civilizations keep in mind the uncivilized and untutored selves we desperately want to have outgrown. To keep us in mind, too, the existentially puzzling phenomena we’d rather not give too much thought to, things like death, birth, and the constant struggle between free will and fate, issues that remain stubbornly resistant to the intellect. Myth allows one to see the full force and effect of a complex world on a limited human being, and if one begins to think and imagine mythically, one wakes up and is less constrained by the complexity and limitation of living a human life, and opens the doors of perception to lives of joy and significance. Imagined and thought this way, myth serves the purpose of a closer and truer relationship with life. Myth doesn’t transform or solve the problems of living, but it does illuminate the subject, and that, itself, is something important and worth having.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Stop Personalizing Mythology. Just knock it off!

Google the phrase, personal mythology, and one gets in the neighborhood of 2.4 million results. Personal mythology is a big deal. It’s an especially big deal for mythologists and mythographers working on the edges of popular culture, particularly those who seek to capitalize on the spiritual vacuum afflicting the Western World at present. Religion is in precipitous decline, even among (perhaps most noticeably among) the implacably religious. An odd statement perhaps, but bear with me; “none” is the third most endorsed religious identifier in the world after Christian and Muslim. 

But even more problematic for religion is that those who strongly identify with a religion are in wild disagreement with one another over what their religion says, what it actually demands of, and how it compels, believers. For instance, many who argue that the bible is the literal word of god have never, apparently, read the Christian bible. Doctrinal literacy is at an all-time low, and the bible takes its place on the book shelves—likely adjacent to War and Peace or Democracy in America—of people who also own many other books they have never read, and chagrined to various degrees, understand they should have read them; just another artifact or accessory that implies or signals something to others about the intelligence, sophistication, or piousness of its owner.  In contemporary life, some of the most egregious acts of cruelty, moralistic meanness, and unchristian malice are committed by those who proudly, obtusely, and very, very loudly proclaim themselves to be humble servants of the Christ they so preposterously claim to revere, a god with whom they must be only passingly familiar. The silver lining appended to this cloud is that religious affiliation is falling off markedly; people are leaving organized religions in droves.

Polls suggest that the numbers of those who claim some sort of religious affiliation are declining precipitously. Presently, one in six Americans claim no religion at all, and by 2050 that number will likely be one in four. But most human beings appear to possess perspectives wired for narcissism atop brains wired for belief, and fortunately for those thusly wired, into the breech ride the personal myth missionaries. Personal mythology is one of those oxymoronic phrases, like jumbo shrimp or minor miracle, that seem to offer new depths or innovation that is, in reality, simply a contradiction in terms. I find the use of the phrase “personal mythology” to be particularly arrant in its narcissistic and personalistic expropriation of a necessarily cultural phenomena. Mythology is mythology precisely because it is a cultural product; it belongs to a particular time, a particular geography, and a particular group’s experience of the lived-in world. To personalize a myth does violence to the myth by making it ubiquitous and holographic; it no longer symbolizes a larger, culturally contextualized experience of hope, say, or anxiety, or sociopolitical influences, but it rather is made to reflect only itself to itself—its meaning is reduced to only its merest appearance.

Personalizing myth is similar to a butterfly collector pinning a butterfly to a display; the object of regard, of beauty, of a particular kind of awe, is no longer a living thing. Semiotically speaking, the butterfly once pinned has become a sign rather than a symbol. Likewise, in personal mythology, the myth has become familiar, domesticated, and has no ability whatsoever to produce in the one regarding it a sense of awe and mystery, the very experience that Joseph Campbell insisted was the first function of mythology. It seems to me that in personal mythology, myth and archetypes are conscripted into the service of the individual ego in order to reassure and support, legitimatize, or valorize the individual’s mode of expressing herself in the world. One may realize that one has characteristics that are analogous to Aphrodite, or those that line up with Mars, but that sort of pattern identification is focusing merely on archetypes and not the archetypal. In focusing solely on the archetypes, one may behave with a self-conscious awareness of approximating some archetype or another and its behaviors, even attempting to cultivate the behaviors of archetypes with which one wants to identify. Used this way, personal mythology is nothing more than a psychic tchotchke, an object of bemusement, a parlor game; it is little more than an exercise in pattern recognition—something humans are doing all the time, consciously or not—that has no relevance to a contemporary, lived-in-world. Its only aim is the satisfaction of the ego’s need to see itself as having penetrated to the core of some deep mystery.

Personal mythology simply projects one’s own ego onto the world, and then having repressed one’s own projection, stumbles across it as though it were a novel, self-evident fact of existence, and plants its flag, declaring itself to have found the soul of the world and the mythic foundations of existence. Personal mythology is nothing more than self-bamboozlery, albeit a pretty and a satisfying bamboozle, and its adherents, as was once said of President Coolidge, once bamboozled, are impossible to unbamboozle.

The archetypal, on the other hand, possesses and overwhelms individuals, often to their great dismay and without their awareness, without their consent, and impels them to actions of which they had never thought themselves capable. Survey some of the writings of the personal myth genre and you will be invited to discover your inner guru or lover or magician or warrior, and so on. Pleasant things to discover, certainly, but what about one’s inner demagogue, savage, murderer, traitor, fraud, and so forth? These are all archetypes, too, and live in the inky darkness of every heart. But understanding archetypes, even locating them within, is not the same as understanding the archetypal. David Miller writes that the archetypal “refers to the deep self, to complexity and fundamental ambiguity, to plurality and polymorphous structures, to depth, to the fact that things have more than one side, many sides, like the many gods of mythology. The logic of the term is metaphor” (A Myth is as Good as a Smile: The Mythology of a Consumerist Culture[1]). The archetypal is never only one thing.

The archetypal seems similar to Kant’s description of the sublime in his Critique of Judgment, while the archetype may be related to what he described merely as the beautiful. As Kant imagines it, the sublime has a few dimensions, most notably those of magnitude and force. The sublime is immense, it is an experience, as well as an idea, that one simply cannot wrap one’s mind around. In addition, the sublime is overwhelming and destabilizing to individuals when it is encountered; it’s not all that comforting or pleasant, in fact, it’s often destabilizing and disturbing. Encountering the sublime requires one to wrestle with the inner and the outer experience much longer than one would ideally like, until some sort of equilibrium is reached, and reaching equilibration, a profound aesthetic realization is realized. As the poet Shelly once remarked, the sublime requires us to forsake the easy for the harder pleasures.

There must be, I believe, a similar wrestling with mythology because, strictly speaking, mythology is not relevant to the modern contemporary world; the study of myth is always pointing us backward, to the past. Wolfgang Giegerich puts it this way: “Working in and with mythology is anachronistic, atavistic, regressive. Gods are lifeless relics. They are the result of learning, not of religious or mythological experience” (The Soul’s Logical Life: Toward a Rigorous Notion of Psychology, Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1998; “Killings," Spring 54, 1993). Myths allow us to explore how we once thought rather than how we think now. But here is the interesting, and I think important, thing about that: myths give us the chance to wonder deeply, and imaginatively, about why we no longer think that way and how, in the unconscious, inky depths of ourselves, we still want to. We are attracted, ironically, to the comfortable certainty with which myths provide us. We know, for example, that we live in a heliotropic solar system and the planet Earth orbits around the sun like all the other planets, but it doesn’t feel that way, does it? It feels as if the Earth is still and the sun is moving. One’s intuitive experience is that the sun moves and the Earth is still, and we occasionally need to remind ourselves of that in times when, say, we witness a glorious sunrise or a heartbreakingly beautiful sunset. Myth is often more aligned with intuition than with the reality of being--which we cannot fully know, and therefore we find solace in that which makes intuitive sense to us. 

On their surface alone, many mythological narratives offer the reader an unparalleled delight; that itself is an important function of myth. But mythology is ultimately meaningful when we use it to explore the deeper structures and motives toward which myth points. Those structures are not generally apprehendable with an understanding other than metaphorical, and we always end up saying what it is "like." This is not a failure at all, in fact, and this dance, this wrestling, this perspective, is a deep movement into and among the rhythms of contemporary life, our own as well as the life of the world. Wittgenstein suggested that the limits one perceives on one's world are created by the limits of one's language, and it is at this place, the place of limits, a protean potential for change and the realization of meaning exists. But to get there, on must transgress boundaries and categories, comfort and conventional thought, and that's why understanding the language of myth in the context of our present mythlessness is so important. It is literally the activity of working at the limits or the edges of oneself, and of oneself in the world. Myth must not, I believe, be worked within the confines of what one finds comfortable, attractive, or familiar; those things never take us closer to boundaries or limits. Furthermore, it seems proper somehow that if one is working at the limits, boundaries, or edges one becomes unsure of the way, one feels lost. The forms become strangely alien, perhaps even frightening or horrible, and our charge at these times is not to flee from nor banish them, but to more deeply understand what they are telling us about ourselves and our world.

The ancient gods and goddesses have no relevance to modern thought or life, no influence at all, but the archetypal energy and thought from which they precipitated is shaping our modern world at every turn. It isn't Aphrodite or Ares, Sekhmet or Anubis, angels or demons, at work in the world but, every bit as archetypal, it is greed and wealth, digitalization and information technology, political theory and science, and to think of myth only in terms of individual, ancient gods and goddesses is to not only be wrong, but to be exactly wrong.

The pull to domesticate the archetypal image is powerful, and it is ultimately destrictive to the image precisely because it excises the image from the primal, polymorphous, uncanny depths in which it first formed--those "terrors of which myth are made;" yet that is exactly what person mythology seems to do. It may also be a danger to one's self as well, because a domesticated, familiar, comforting image is finally, at bottom, only the image of desire and the product of desire's corrosive dullness and fatuous pacification. James Joyce called art that inspires in the observer the desire to possess the represented image pornographic, as opposed to didactic art that demands a conversation, or the transcendent image that inspires a "seizure of the heart," an aesthetic arrest. Doesn't that sound something like a heart attack? To have the epiphanic, transcendent, or numinous experience, one must risk being in danger. William Blake's Tyger is beautiful, but to run into a living, hungry tiger in the jungle is much more of an ordeal and much closer to the experience of the sublime (if one is fortunate enough to survive it).

A more rigorous, critical thinking will prevent our mything from lapsing into the prosaic and comfortable, from becoming a fantasy of consolation. I think there should always be an element of danger as one works with metaphor and myth. I don't mean physical danger, obviously, but I do think I mean an element of psychological danger in the sense that one is courting actualities that once realized, have the possibility of changing one's life, of bringing one to one's knees, of overturning and subverting one's perceptions and values. It's dangerous! And the failure to make room for, and valorize this type of danger (as well as ignorance and confusion) and focus incessantly on personally uplifting, comforting, even protective images and narratives, produces in me a bone-deep exhaustion and cynicism. Personal mythology turns myth into a mirror in which every face is perceived except one's own. In her Wolf's Hall, Hillary Mantel writes this: "Why does everything you know and everything you've learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corner are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world, too." By now you know where my sympathies lay; let's knock the corners off the certainties we think we know about mythology. Let's knock off the mummery of personal mythology. It is possible to have a personal relationship to the realm of the mythic--one thinks of methodologies like transpersonal psychology--but the mythic realm has no relationship to you, at all. A mythology that is in service only to individuals is not mythology; it's merely belief and fantasy, belief which has no real egalitarian, relational tie to the collective, to humanity writ large, to the social units of culture, other than in its desire to proclaim certainty and to regulate the behavior of the masses.

One may believe whatever one wants, I have no issue with that until it gets personal. And when it gets personal, that usually means somebody is knocking at my door, telling me that I should believe the same things they believe. By my lights, that sort of compulsion only happens when the personal is seen as the anodyne for the collective, when dogma and missionaries are born simultaneously, when vice and ferocity are ennobled, and evil glories in its grotesque convictions.

[1] David Miller gave this presentation at a Pacifica Graduate Institute conference on Archetypal Activism in Santa Barbara, California, on June 12, 1999.  An abbreviated version of these remarks was published by The Salt Journal, 2/1 (1999), 64.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Every Man a King

Populism is not new to American life; in fact, it is as old as the republic itself. In its most basic, lowest denominator, populists are the “pure people” who set themselves against a “corrupt elite.” One might argue that this sentiment is at the beginning of, and is the heart, of the American experiment. Parallel to that sentiment is the desire to not be subservient to any other living human. Every man, as Huey Long said, should be a king. And this is an interesting thing; until Donald Trump arrived on the political scene, Huey Long was perhaps the most successful populist politician in the modern age, and though Huey wanted every man to be a king, he wanted to be, and tried very hard to become, the emperor who ruled over all the kings. The authoritarian government that Long set up in Louisiana was “…the closest thing to a dictatorship that America has ever known” (David Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War). One of the major problems with dictatorships is that the martinet seldom thinks about what his subjects need or want. Absolute monarchs only think about what they, themselves, want and will selfishly do whatever it takes to get it. Dictators are less statesmen and more Mafiosi.

It might be interesting to go on and further compare Huey Long with Donald Trump; both brash, both almost feral in their cunning ability to get what they want, their demagoguery, their flamboyance, their rejection of a globally unifying vision of the world, and their extremely thin-skinned intolerance of criticism and contradiction. But these similarities are not what interest me right now; I’m more interested in the message rather than the messenger, because this populist notion of being servile to nothing and no one except one’s own conscience is a malignant and pernicious idea. It’s malignant and pernicious in large part because there is no longer (and perhaps there never was) an agreement among the members of our society upon the very simple, manifestly evident proposition that we all do better when we try to ensure that we all do better. But dictators must do better than everyone else in order to have someone to rule, creating a climate of competition that forces competition one with another in order to curry favor with the powerful and wealthy, rather than cooperation.  An autocrat creates largely artificial differences between genders and races, wars external as well as internal, and a constant state of chaos designed to keep others off balance and frightened enough for them to look to him to provide them with answers, stability, and leadership.

Populism insists upon the fantasy of not being subjugated or enslaved to anyone, and it is a fantasy which belies the reality of life, the hallmarks of which are the painful disparities and frustrating limitations of being a human being. But being human beings, we are geniuses at creating the comforting illusion and the frangible “reality” that convinces us that we are unrestrained free agents and can do as we please, especially if what we do pleases us. Populism seems to depend upon the human tendency to create comforting illusions of existential freedom and easy certainty while ignoring the utterly crushing weight of all that one doesn’t, and can’t, know or accomplish. These kinds of movements reject expertise and ridicule as naïve the idea that scientists, journalists, philosophers, educators, and others may actually be working in good faith, holding no agenda other than the desire to shed more light on the mystery of human existence and, as Aeschylus put it, “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” The task of living a human life is, in large part, the struggle to understand one’s internal and external limitations and constraints, and the fundamental problem to undertake when we encounter those limits, is one of consoling and encouraging ourselves and each other to be adaptable, resilient, and hopeful. But now in populist America there exists a rage, rage predicated upon a belief that one’s failure to achieve a satisfying life is the fault of someone else.

Why are so many of us willing, even eager, to believe the worst about other people, especially those people who have struggled to somehow cobble together an existence lived outside of “conventional” societal expectations? Are we such a fragile people that we must purge from our midst any ideas that emit the merest whiff of challenge or pose the slightest danger to a fatuous and puerile comfort—a form of comfort that, I can only conclude, many have proclaimed to be an unassailable, right? Are our identities and our beliefs so fragile that we can brook no criticism of any kind or calls for self-reflection whatever? Why do so many of our people and politicians want to hurt, actually want to harm and punish, people who, harming no one by their actions, dare to step outside of the influence of conventional social life and love, work, create, and simply live as some deep, impelling need commands them? Like a January nor’easter, there is a profound meanness and a chilling humorlessness blowing across the U.S., and if it doesn’t freeze you in your tracks it should at least give you pause, because no one, and I mean no one, is really safe in such an ungenerous world for very long. One’s successes are not owed to one’s special brilliance, or a shrewd manipulation of the constituent forces comprising life. Good luck is always the most influential factor. Fortuna’s wheel can turn very quickly and in so doing, unexpectedly crush one beneath it even though just a moment ago, one was thrilled to have been atop it. And—make no mistake—we must all, as Bob Dylan sang, serve somebody. In Melville’s Moby Dick, Ishmael articulated this fundamental truth saying, “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that […] either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.” The populist vision sets no one free, it makes no person a king; in fact, it always does the opposite by enslaving one to a dollar, a demagogue, a desire, a nation, or a religion. How the enslavement happens varies, but it is a virtual certainty that one will be enslaved, at the very least, often to one’s own worst impulses.

So why, then, are people attracted to mass movements like populism? I think Eric Hoffer provides us with the answers in his 1951 book, The True Believer. Movements such as populism are especially appealing to those who long to be other than who or what they are; they want to be rid of an unwanted life, an irksome existence, a too weighty humanity; they have failed in terms of finding the ability to create the kind of life they think they should have been able to live, and they find no hope of life being different for them in the future. Mass movements appeal to those who feel cheated by life, that they have been prevented from succeeding by outside forces or some massive conspiracy instigated by minorities, a secret, wealthy cabal, or a “rigged system.” The fanatic, writes Hoffer, “…is usually an unattractive human type. He is ruthless, self-righteous, credulous, disputatious, petty and rude.” He is willing to “sacrifice much that is pleasant and precious in the autonomy of the individual […] The true believer is eternally incomplete, eternally insecure.” Fanaticism is the only way for some to quiet the inner voices of doubt and uncertainty, and by joining a mass movement they hope to lose their frustration and seem to give themselves a new self, a new identity, and a different, less problematic life.

Unfortunately, their new lives are empty of any individual uniqueness, critical thought, self-reflection, or free choice. They give themselves over to a demagogue who has convinced them that he is leading them away from their undesired, intolerable lives, and the kind or quality of ideas the movement espouses is of little significance to them. What is significant to them is “…the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the single-handed defiance of the world” (Hoffer). The act of taking up fanatical points of view is tantamount to an admission of deep fear and uncertainty, a profound personal shame at the center of one’s being. And if he can convert others to the fanatical cause, he shores up his weak self-concept and feels more whole and complete. Curiously, a forced conversion of others through intimidation or other coercive means doesn’t seem to subdue his enthusiasm for, or cause him to question the moral, ethical strength of his belief.

It seems to me that the loudest, most insistent, most authoritative voices demanding patriotism and trumpeting freedom are likely to come from the very people who feel the least whole, and the most aggrieved about their inability to live a life of personal meaning and personal significance and who are the least fit for living contentedly in a truly free society, let alone governing it wisely.

Monday, February 6, 2017

An Open Letter to my Colleagues in the Study of Mythology

             David Miller tells a charming anecdote in which Joseph Campbell delivers the punchline, saying, “A myth ith ath good ath a sthmile,” punning on the idiom, a miss is as good as a mile. More than simply recalling the incisorless speech of a child, mything and missing are a conspicuous pair pertaining to the study of mythology as well. There is, as Dr. Miller points out, something missing in our mything.
              Indulge me the telling of my own anecdote, one that I’ve heard in various settings and circumstances my whole life, and has always suggested to me the peculiar ability of my people to ignore discomfort or emotional disturbance. It goes like this:
                             An English couple have a child. After the birth, medical tests reveal that the child is normal, apart from the fact that it is Norwegian. As the child grows older, it obsessively reads about farming and farm implements and dresses in overalls, flannel shirts, and hand knit sweaters bearing wintry designs, but all his basic functions develop normally. He walks, eats, sleeps, learns, and so on, but for some reason the Norwegian child never speaks. The concerned parents take the child to the doctor, who reassures them that the child is normal in all other areas and he is sure there is nothing to worry about and that the child will speak in time. Well, years pass and the child becomes a teenager and still does not speak, although he seems to be completely normal in all other respects. The Norwegian child’s English mother is particularly distressed by her son’s apparent inability to speak, but she tries to hide her worry and sadness from the child while she works very hard to make her unfortunate child’s life comfortable. One day she makes the now 17 year old, still silent child, a bowl of tomato soup and takes it to him in his room where he is listening to music on the stereo. Not long after, the child appears in the kitchen and suddenly says, “Mother. The soup is a little tepid.” The astonished mother says, “All these years you never spoke a word, and it appears you could speak all along! Why? Why did you never say anything before?” “Because, mother,” answers the child, “up until now everything has been fine.”
 For most of my life, whenever I heard one of the several variations of this joke, I merely chalked it up to a gentle lampooning of Scandinavian stoicism. But now I find something deeper and darker in this old joke, a disturbing truth about a cherished value, comfort. This little anecdote reveals the disturbing shadow of comfort in that when one becomes too comfortable one is removed from, or taken out of the stream of life, one lives as an invalid. Being comfortable and certain, suppressing dissonant voices and unwelcome experiences, creates a wound; a wound that inhabits and inhibits individuals—as well as scholarly disciplines—as well as intellectual discourse, and inhibits the development of more subtly complex perceptions of the sublime mysteries to which one is exposed through the often prosaic effort of living.  If one is to more deeply understand the sublilme mysterium which lives us, a willing acceptance of the uncomfortable, discomfiting voice, the voice of the stranger at the door, the speech of that which is disturbed and disturbing, is essential. One must encourage the kind of disturbing conversations and inquiries which are often missing from the methodology that we, in the Pacifica tribe, employ in the study myth. And like the little Norwegian boy, I found that up until a few years ago, the way we studied myth had been fine. But it is no longer fine, at least not for me, and now I have something to say.
              Considerations of disturbance lead me to, once again, consider David Miller. In a keynote address, in fact, the same speech in which he told the anecdote I previously referenced[1], Dr. Miller spoke of the need for those of us who employ what he calls a synoptic study of mythology to address its criticisms. Upon reflection, I believe Dr. Miller was characteristically generous in his understanding of our understanding. Those of us who attended Pacifica Graduate Institute and who, like myself, received a Ph.D. in Mythological Studies, run the risk of cultivating an embarrassing self-deception because we did not really study mythology; we did not study the source material that C.G. Jung, Joseph Campbell, and James Hillman studied. Instead, we learned about Jung, Campbell, and Hillman, and their psychological, metaphorical approaches to mythology. All too often critiques of that, largely psychological, method were received as ad homonym attacks rather than legitimate, albeit disturbing, appraisals. Professor Miller assumed, perhaps over-optimistically, that those of us listening in full sympathy with him on the cusp of that Labor Day weekend in 2012 knew full well what he meant when he uttered the word synoptic. I know that I thought I knew. I knew that the word synoptic meant that several different stories, perhaps by several different authors, writing in different places and at different times, despite their lack of correspondence or consistency, all told the same story. I was sure that I knew that the word synoptic meant that different narratives point to the same meaning—in the case of myth, a psychological meaning—and I became enthused to write just such a synoptic methodology for the study of myth and answer critics like Roland Barthes, Bruce Lincoln, and even our own academic sibling, Sophia Heller (whose work holds no small appeal for me). Not surprisingly, as a psychotherapist the program running in the background dictated that, for me, the best use of myth is that use which clarifies and valorizes the human-all-too-human condition. Other, unconsidered and "irrelevant,"  perspectives had been of little importance and held only a marginal interest for me. Perspectives like that of, say, William Faulkner’s, himself a great mythographer who is supposed to have said, “One of Keats’ odes is worth any number of old women;” or that of Roland Barthes, who seemed to aggressively suggest that myth “…is stolen speech” and is best understood semiotically, or even the notion of Goethe’s in which he insists that the presented form of myth is not allegorical or metaphorical but is itself an Ur-phenomenon, or in other words, the reality that a Greek statue of Aphrodite is not a mere representation of the goddess, but is itself nature manifesting in material form, the very form love would necessarily take were it to become incarnate.
              So I wrote David a longish letter about my plan to write a methodology for the synoptic study of mythology illustrating that all myths had one meaning—namely, a psychological one—to which he responded that that would be a fine idea, and that since he didn’t have ownership of the word synoptic, I could use that word however best I saw fit, but he wanted me to know that the way I used the word was not how he used the word. Professor Miller borrowed the term from Feldman and Richardson (The Rise of Modern Mythology 1680-1860), a term which they used in the early 70’s to argue for a return to treating myth as a “master field” unto itself, a primary subject which could be used to illuminate other disciplines rather than the other way around, causing mythology to be embedded within other disciplines. For example, from a Jungian perspective, archetypes are meant to “attract, to convince, to fascinate and to overpower” (Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious). Myths, in Jung’s conceptualization, are the epiphenomena of archetypes, psychic products which are themselves twice removed from conscious inspection or elaboration. From such a perspective mythology is in service to psychology, and while that is very appealing to me, it is very far indeed from being the only possible reason for the existence of myth. For instance, it is clearly possible that it is not only differing levels of consciousness which are responsible for the production of myth, for archetypal images are “…neither evenly distributed, nor found on all continents” (Witzel, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies, 15). It may be that physical and social environments, pathway dependencies, charismatic qualities of political or spiritual leaders, and other individual and cultural factors all, in some way, condition systems of mythology. As G.S. Kirk stated it, “Analysis of a myth should not stop when one particular theoretical explanation has been applied and found productive” (The Nature of Greek Myths).
              Because I am nothing if not persistent, although I acknowledge that some call it perseveration, let me return to Jung’s statement about archetypes, those productions of Psyche which he described as overpowering, fascinating, and enthralling, or some words to that effect, and which provide a very big clue to that with which mythology is engaged, and why we find it so engaging. Jung’s language is very similar to the language the 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant used in his descriptions of the sublime[2]. But the sublime is not a product of psyche; it is itself a totality which exists outside of psyche and to which psyche may be exposed. As I recall, Kant argued that the sublime has at least two dimensions, one of magnitude and the other of force. In other words, when confronted with the sublime, the experience is so big, so immense, that one simply cannot wrap one’s mind around it; it is incomprehensible. In addition to its incomprehensibility, there is the added and intense feeling of being overwhelmed in its presence and one’s physical and emotional integrity feels threatened by an encounter with the sublime. What makes the sublime even more disturbing is the feeling of undeniable pleasure in the face of the apparent “counter-purposiveness,” as Kant named it, and which one experiences as the disorganizing, distressing, and disturbing effect upon cognition, emotion, and consciousness in general. One would expect such an encounter to be painful, but instead the sublime encounter evokes pleasure and an aesthetic experience one retrospectively understands to be beauty.
              Perhaps it is, in fact, the sublime which is the proper subject of myth—that mysterium tremendum which the logos of myth attempts to render intelligible, and if this is so, the addressed subject is so vast, so extensive, so interminable and immeasurable that only one approach to its study, or a singular voice of understanding serves ultimately to trivialize and domesticate an ungovernable and unfathomable reality. As David Miller put it, “The danger is that we may be unaware and unconscious[3].” Unaware and unconscious of the embedded political, theological, social, and psychological agendas buried so deep within the psychological way we study myth as to be unrecognized, we are more likely to further shackle than free, more apt to obscure than illuminate, more likely to limit than restore mythography to its rightful place as a master discipline. As the philosophical method referred to as destructuralization has repeatedly demonstrated, what we see is determined by what we cannot see; or as the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes, “Our vision, […] what we are able to see, is sponsored by our blind spots; [knowing] what we are determined not to know frees us and forces us to know something else” (Becoming Freud). To accomplish the knowing of what we do not know provokes and invites disturbance and discomfiture, it demands from us a willingness to allow our senses to incorporate something that initially appears insensible. But there is something else going on in one’s experience of the sublime. One’s own ideas and intuitions (both conscious and unconscious ideas of one’s own reason, which Kant suggests interact with the sublime, if not actually constituting an aspect of it) are brought to bear on the experience and eventually result in a harmony of reason with the sublime. With this move, the sublime becomes “purposive” rather than “counter-purposive” and creates a feeling of deep, acute pleasure. The deep disturbance is now matched by a higher pleasure rising from the newly discovered purposiveness, and it persuades us, as the poet Shelley noted, to forsake the easy for the harder pleasures. Of course, one can’t shoehorn the sublime encounter into a continuous state of being. The purposive and counterpurposive states are alternating continually and neither of them wins out, which is to say that experiencing the sublime subjects one to a disturbing, rapid alternation of feelings and perceptual states[4].
              If myth is indeed the speech of the sublime (ology typically refers to the study of something, but the root word is logos, commonly taken to denote speech) then one, single, unopposed perspective is nothing more than a blind alley in a welter of urban streets. Myth needs a variety of approaches and voices in interposition to even begin to plunge its limitless logos; it requires a cacophony of voices clambering to live in the awkward fullness of life rather than seeking out a comfortable, banal, and ultimately regressive paradise of belief. Campbell knew this very well, and while his rhetoric or his imagery sometimes left the earth, he never did. And if there is a hell, it is not to be found in some distant place either, but exists here and now, formed by all of us together. It seems to me there are only a few ways out of hell; one is common and used by many: fail to attend to the hell and become so much a part of it that one no longer sees it. An alternative way, a challenging path to be sure, demands that one live seeking out the sublime encounter, a way of living and thinking that places one, more often than not, uncomfortably outside of one’s pleasingly comfortable beliefs. This way out of hell requires one to disregard easy pleasure and instead be determined to recognize who and what voices, in the midst of hell are not hell, and subjecting them to rigorous examination help them to be recognized and abide, creating a space for them and in so doing, experience marvelous hopes, extraordinary insights, and sublime pleasures, rendered all the more marvelous for their difficult acquisition.

[1] The Symposium on Myth, August 31, 2012.
[2] As found in his 1790 work, The Critique of Judgment.
[3] Keynote address, August, 2012
[4] I have written about this rapid alternation of perceptual states in an article entitled, “The Disturbing Release of Personality,” published on the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s website,