Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Out Damned Virus

As the Corona Virus pandemic marches on, despite having claimed more American lives in four months than the entire 19 years of the Vietnam War, Americans are becoming increasingly impatient. Some are frightened about their health and economic well-being, some are panicked and locked in the grip of irrational fear, hoarding food and supplies, and too many, it seems, deny that there is anything to fear from the disease and rail against the weak-minded, cowardly lot of social isolators and distancers, and take no precautions against the virus whatsoever (some people in this category have paid for their dubiety with their lives). Of course, confusion and anxieties are stoked by leaders who dismiss science, history, ethics, and instead rely on wishful thinking, superstition, and lies. This isn’t new, of course, and certainly by now we shouldn’t be surprised by the craven personalities that populate elected seats of government. 
Mark Twain is supposed to have remarked that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” and that is, whether Twain said it or not, the truth. In 430 B.C.E. Athens found itself in a profound political crisis as the result of a plague. Thucydides tells us that prayer and appeals to the gods were useless, that social order disintegrated, and anarchy reigned because there wasn’t a figure of authority capable of managing the response to the emergency. In Sophocles’ drama, Oedipus Tyrannus, the city-state of Thebes is being devastated by a plague. This play, many scholars agree, was performed for the first time after the outbreak of plague in Athens, and opens with a chorus of Thebans of all ages pleading with Oedipus the King to find a way to end the devastation. Oedipus assures them that he has it under control, that the best minds are on it, and relief will soon be found. Of course, the problems that perpetuated the plague in Sophocles’ play were problems fundamental to the person of Oedipus. Once he had been deposed and proper expiation made, the miasma was eliminated.
In ancient Rome, there were nine plagues between 174 and 463 C.E. and no doubt out of desperation and due to the lack of scientific understanding of viral and bacterial contagions, sometime in the late 3rd century C.E. an island in the Tiber River was set up as a sanctuary and temple to the Greek god of healing and medicine, Asclepius. This seemed to have some palliative effect, but it was probably due more to the island temple’s proximity to fresh water and its isolation making it a good place to quarantine that helped to flatten the curve, rather than any kind of divine intervention. But human nature being what it is, I’m reasonably sure the citizens of Rome were relieved to be able to “return to normal” and were satisfied to attribute their good fortune in surviving to “amazing, tremendous leadership” and to the gods hearing and responding to their supplications. 
It doesn’t appear that much has changed in the past 1,900 years or so. A surprising number of people still say the pandemic will be neutralized by prayer and that god will protect them; that the virus “will just disappear,” that it isn’t any worse than a cold, or that it’s a hoax. Many people are mobilizing to protest lock downs, even in states that are among the hardest hit by the virus. Please explain to me, as Lionel Trilling put it, 
Why, in American Culture, intelligence is considered to be some sort of perilous faculty, that ‘cleverness is the first step into mischief,’ that the heart and the mind are rivals in the struggle for truth. Why is it always too late for mind, yet never too late for honest stupidity; always a little too late for understanding, never too late for righteous, bewildered wrath; always too late for thought, never too late for naïve moralizing? (The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent)
Another, less obvious part of our problem in dealing with COVID-19 is that there are the primordial, archetypal fears which are reflexively attributed to a surprisingly novel existential threat, a threat which we don’t understand and can’t control. Viral pandemics carry with them the metaphor of pollution. There is something unclean, something dirty, something disgusting, about a virus that requires constant hygienic attention, and it seems, perhaps because of its asymptomatic presence, much more hygienically disturbing than say, a rhinovirus that gives one watery eyes and a runny nose. With Coronavirus, one can’t be self-aware enough to know that one is dirty; and such unknowing is shameful, a bit like not knowing that much of one’s supper has remained in one’s beard. Anxieties about cleanliness and purity are often accompanied by feelings of disgust, revulsion, and abhorrence, feelings that have some evolutionary benefit to us in that they help us to avoid substances like feces, vomit, blood, or rancid, maggot-infested meat. We also instinctively avoid people with visible signs of something that might be contagious—suppurating wounds and lesions, infestations of one kind or another (DO NOT google this), or disfiguring illnesses (probably shouldn’t google this, either)—as a way of enhancing our own chances for survival. 
But unfortunately, our mysophobia, fear of dirt or germs, often crosses over into xenophobia, a phobia of strangers, and in this case the stranger is identified as the threat rather than the actual threat, which is the virus itself. A variety of Xenophobia is probably at work in the willingness of some people to let others (most likely strangers to them) die in order to develop “herd immunity.” Surely they aren’t so committed to the well-being of the herd that they would consider sacrificing themselves, their own spouses, their own children, their own parents to scale up the immunity of the herd, would they? I’m doubtful. The cruelty of relying upon herd immunity is hard to escape; it lies in the sacrifice of those who are deemed to be impure, polluted, and unhealthy, those who have themselves become societal pollutants, and they are, unconsciously, held responsible for the miasma that can only be eradicated by their sacrificial death. This reflexive need for purification is unconsciously, and ironically, reinforced by handwashing, the most effective way we have of preventing COVID-19 contagion.
Handwashing is a way of removing personal responsibility and guilt. Idiomatically we say, “I’ve washed my hands of this matter.” Pontius Pilate washes his hands in front of the crowd and says, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” After King Duncan is brutally murdered, Lady Macbeth tells her blood-soaked husband, “a little water clears us of this deed.” But her compulsive handwashing is a sign that her contamination cannot be washed away, her guilt is inescapable, and her crime, unpardonable.
Therefore, if one is so inclined (and I fully realize that I may be the only one) to understand handwashing as activating an unconscious awareness of guilt and the attempt to expiate it, what exactly are we guilty of? First of all, we are all of us, every day and to varying degrees, guilty of the petty larcenies and perjuries of social interaction, of living a life that bumps up against other lives in a sometimes messy, frustrating, and disingenuous manner. Some are petty criminals and engage in misdemeanor frauds or thefts, some commit crimes of passion, some aspire to be criminal masterminds and ply their nefarious trade as racketeers, CEOs, or politicians. These last mentioned are, obviously, lives of crime that require a degree of intent, a certain level of mens rea, stitched together with a crippled conscience that is usually not found to such a degree in an ordinary life. 
But even those of us living relatively normal lives, comfortable with our image of ourselves as good citizens, good neighbors, and good parents, even we are condemned to live with a guilt of which it is hard to rid ourselves. Paul Tillich put it this way:
The citizens of a city are not guilty of the crimes committed in their city; but they are guilty as participants in the destiny of [humanity] as a whole and in the destiny of their city in particular…. They are guilty, not of committing the crimes of which their group is accused, but of contributing to the destiny in which these crimes happened. (Systematic Theology)
I realize there are people who, thinking and acting in good faith, refuse to believe that we are interdependent to that degree and who, perhaps, wrestle with the competing values inherent in governmental intervention in areas of social and individual self-determination. But such an acknowledgement of, and struggle with, competing values suggests at least some small awareness of existential guilt. In what I’m about to say, I’m referring only to the most arrogant and radical of the protesters, those who stand in heavily armed defiance of best medical advice and mock or aggressively threaten those who attempt to follow it. 
People who behave in such ways are self-righteously convinced that they have been prevented from achieving the kind of life they wanted by outside forces, some massive conspiracy instigated by minorities, a secret cabal, or a “rigged” system. They imagine themselves bold enough to have chosen the “red pill,” smart enough to avoid the comfortable prison in which most people live, and their public pose indicates that they are no longer subjugated to, or enslaved by, anyone. They ignore expertise and believe they know more themselves than scientists, intellectuals, or anyone whom they derisively associate with “the elite.” They are always self-righteous, they tell themselves that they know what is right, what is correct, and what is true in any situation. Their unconscious defenses are revealed in their refusal to wear masks, in their ridicule of those who do, and in their refusal to pay any heed whatsoever to the communicability of the virus; they may privately believe they won’t contract the virus, or even that it doesn’t exist in the first place. They protect themselves, not from a real physical threat, but from feelings of vulnerability, a lack of understanding, and profound insecurity; all of which, one may presume, present a greater threat to them than death. These compensatory behaviors don’t allow for the possibility that they might possibly bear a significant degree of responsibility for their dissatisfaction with the state of their lives and the state of their world, and therefore they won’t allow any kind of introspection or any acknowledgement of guilt, either consequential or existential. 
If we are to be connected to our own inner world, more connected to other human beings, and more connected to the natural world, we must engage our faculty of self-reflection and take stock of how we live, exploring the nature of our own existential guilt. We must eventually come to accept that we can’t possibly know everything, that our lives collide with other lives in all sorts of ways, often unintended, and that most pernicious of American Myths, that of the rugged individual, is an invention designed to let one rest comfortably within a specious sense of unrivalled individual mastery and unfettered free will. However, by becoming more self-aware we have a better sense of reality, we actually end up making better choices for ourselves, for others, and for the planet, by understanding that we cannot overcome the difficulties of living by simply martialing personal will, by a declaration of individual fiat, or pretending that such difficulties don’t exist.
Individual acts of self-reflection can initiate powerful personal changes; it gives one the opportunity to experience the gift of self-reconciliation via a radical acceptance of one’s own life, and life in the world, exactly as it is and needing nothing in it to be different. Reconciliation may even be found in washing and keeping social distance if we do it with an eye toward understanding the unconscious specter of existential guilt and, perhaps, even the guilt of privilege which we might otherwise deny and repress. It affords one an opportunity to face that guilt and privilege and cast off the comforting, albeit distorted and deadening, illusions of security, opportunity, freedom, exceptionalism; especially the delusions of la folie pour beaucoup. 
Appreciated this way, the modest act of self-reflection lays the groundwork for a revolution that is at first personal, but one which, some way or another, eventually radiates out to one’s friends, community, state, nation, even the entire world. That’s the type of pandemic we need, a pandemic whose symptoms are self-awareness, compassion, and communitas. A contagion that opens the mind and expands the heart, rather than one that closes the heart and suffocates the mind. With an open mind and a heartful attention we may take in the whole of life, “wrapped cool in its mystery and promise” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, My Lost City), and be confident that no matter what we may face, it is right and proper and entirely suitable that we should face it.

Brad has lived in Flagstaff nearly 25 years and is a Dept

Sunday, March 29, 2020

More Joyce

As you may know, James Joyce, was an important influence on the work of Joseph Campbell, and continues to be an important influence for many of my colleagues and friends affiliated with the Joseph Campbell Foundation. But I must admit that I’m at a bit of a loss regarding the way to distill the essence of James Joyce in a MythBlast. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with Joyce; to the contrary, I’ve read Joyce most of my adult life. It is impossible not to regard James Joyce as a giant of the modernist movement and, despite the too common currency of the word these days, a genius. But I find that in his books, Joyce remains distant, difficult to know, unknowable in the way that one feels one knows Hemingway or say, Virginia Woolf. This lack of knowing, this authorial distance or remove, exists as paradox in the most autobiographical of authors.Paradox is the word that best defines Joyce, it seems. Lionel Trilling wrote that in Ulysses particularly, Joyce exhibited an intrinsic “sympathy for progressive social ideas.” Relying on Ulysses alone, one easily assumes the author to be politically liberal, democratic, protective of individual rights, and supportive of social and political reformation. But Dominick Manganiello, in his work on Joyce’s politics, concludes that Joyce was a libertarian. And then there’s the matter of Joyce’s nuanced relationship to religion. While Joyce categorically denounced the Catholic Church, some of the subject matter of Ulysses sincerely wrestles with profoundly religious concerns and intimations. Some catholic supporters of Joyce argue that he reconciled with the church prior to his death, and in an interview, during which he was asked when he left the Catholic Church, Joyce replied, “That’s for the Church to say.” On the one hand he adored Nora Barnacle; so much so, that he memorialized the date of their first encounter, June 16, 1904 as the single day within which the narrative of Ulysses unfolds. He was capable of summoning feelings of great love, and yet he was often faithless, self-centered, and unthinkingly cruel to her. Joyce was both highbrow and lowbrow at once: he was undeniably the brilliant stylist of literature, something of an elitist and an aesthete, dandyish, spendthrift; and yet had remarkable affection for and concerns about the plight of everyday, ordinary, anonymous people barely eking out livings in the great urban sea of everyday life. Joyce granted some of the faceless mass immortality through his indelible characterizations and satires of them. His family was often nearly destitute during Joyce’s adolescence and in the early days of his adulthood, his father having squandered, if not a fortune, at least a very sizable nest egg. Perhaps, better than anyone, Gertrude Stein summed up the paradox of James Joyce when she remarked, “Joyce is a good writer. People like him because he is incomprehensible and anybody can understand him.”
Paradox is the métier of myth, and the more intensely paradoxical one’s situation, the more deeply one finds oneself in the mythic world. Paradox is the most present and identifiable feature of the sublime mystery commonly referred to as the divine. Joyce’s writing, as well as his life and biography, abound in paradox and I don’t think it a stretch to call him the most mythological of modern writers. Furthermore, I don’t even think it is a stretch to favorably compare Joyce with Sophocles; like Sophocles, Joyce has a great compassion for those unfortunates who have to bear difficult fates, he empathizes with those who find themselves struggling with, and ultimately pinned beneath Fortuna’s revolving wheel.

Finnegans Wake
 has a distinctly mythic, cyclical structure, and one can’t help but recall Joseph Campbell’s remark that dreams are private myths, and myths are public dreams. HCE’s somnambulistic journey through dreams and a bad conscience has the familiar mythic elements of finding oneself in a strange world with unfamiliar physics, populated with challenges and terrors (not the least of which are the ten one hundred letter words scattered through the text), and finally emerging once again into the familiar light of day, transformed and renewed. Wake’s narrative pattern is, as is its entire form, circular and recursive, falling back onto and into itself and reemerging from the murky dream and myth-like darkness with new directions and insights; worlds coming into being and dissolving, Brahman-like, dreamt by the dreamer dreaming the dream of the Universe. What Picasso’s cubism did for the visual arts, in his last two books Joyce did for the literary arts. I don’t even pretend to fully comprehend Joyce, but as he wrote in Ulysses, “I’m almosting it.”
I originally wrote this essay for the Joseph Campbell Foundation's MythBlast series. I thank them for their permission allowing me to repost it here. 

What Will Be, Is

A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake coverThis piece was orginally published by the Joseph Campbell Foundation in their MythBlast series, of which I am the editor. I thank them for their kindness in allowing me to republish it on Falstaff Was My Tutor.
This 1944 preface to A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, Joseph Campbell calls Joyce’s book “…a kind of terminal moraine in which lie buried all the myths, programs, slogans, hopes, prayers, tools, educational theories, and theological bric-a-brac of the past millennium” (xxiii). It’s apropos, then, that Joyce’s main character in Finnegan’s Wake is named Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, HCE, or as Joyce refers to him, Here Comes Everyone. HCE is, himself, a terminal moraine in human form. When Finnegans Wake was published in 1939 (you can see what an early enthusiast Campbell was) many critics didn’t know what to make of it. Vladimir Nabokov, for instance, thought Ulysses to be the finest book of the 20th century, but found Finnegans Wake to be “formless and dull,” “a tragic failure,” and “a frightful bore.” I think that Nabokov may have been wrong in his assessment of Wake, though absolutely right in his admiration for Ulysses. In Finnegans Wake, it might seem that Joyce abandons any regard for his readers. It’s hard to find any narrative traction, and while Wake may be wrought from the English language, it is certainly not written in English, but rather in some strange, “Nichtian glossery which purveys aprioric roots for aposteriorious tongues”; as Joyce writes, “ this is nat language in any sinse of the world” (Finnegans Wake, 83).
Friedrich Nietzsche, c. 1875 (photograph by Friedrich Hartmann)
Friedrich Nietzsche, c. 1875 (photograph by Friedrich Hartmann)
But Campbell found traction, and boy, did he ever: “Underneath the verbal ambiguities and philologic traps of the Wake, deep speaks to deep about such everyday matters as marital discord, sibling strife, military slaughter, racial violence, theological differences and financial thimblerigging—fascinating material that academicians (at their peril) fail to discuss or continue to ignore” (Skeleton Key, xxvi). What’s more, Campbell sensed the profound influence the work of Friedrich Nietzsche exerted upon Joyce: “Nietzsche’s description of his own creative struggle, ‘I write in blood, I will be read in blood,’ is applicable tenfold to Joyce” (Skeleton Key360). But I’ll return to that “Nichtian”  influence in a moment.
Perhaps it may seem odd, then, that the only thing approaching a ritual that I’ve associated with the arrival of the new year in the past two decades or so is reading from Finnegans WakeAt some point, near the end of December or the beginning of January, I read the last lines of Wake and let it bear me serenely along like the Liffey, “So soft this morning, ours” and a bit later, “End here. Us then. Finn, again!” And finally, Joyce tells me I have the key to the whole thing: “A way a lone a last a loved a long the” and thus endeth Finnegans Wake. But in this book, as it almost certainly is in life, the end is not really the end. This understanding is the key to life that Joyce offers his readers. That last sentence of the book is the first part of the sentence that begins the novel: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs” (Finnegans Wake3). That is the nature of mythic time: circular, recurring, non-linear. There are no beginnings or endings, only the eternally recurring flow.
Circling back to Nietzsche’s influence on Joyce, we arrive at the notion of eternal recurrence, an idea central to Nietzsche’s philosophy. Eternal recurrence suggests that since time is infinite, while the things in time (atoms and events) are finite, events—your life, exactly as you have lived it—will recur again and again and again, innumerable times. As Nietzsche remarked, how well disposed to oneself one would have to be to crave nothing more than this and be able to say, “and never have I heard anything more divine” (The Gay Science, section 341)! This is radical self-acceptance; not merely bearing the circumstances of one’s life because it is necessary that one does, but to love it! That’s the move Nietzsche called Amor Fati, the love of one’s own fate, perhaps the most burdensome, the most awesome, of our responsibilities to ourselves.
Saying—no, shouting—yes! to life is the primal response to life. The eternal yes is not a call to reformation or redemption, but rather a response to life exactly as it is, embracing the creative, sustaining, destructive nature of life itself. It’s Molly Bloom’s Yes at the end of Ulysses, and likewise, in Finnegans Wake, Anna Livia Plurabelle is, as Campbell notes, “the carrier of the Eternal Yes; […] Men, cities, empires, and whole systems bubble and burst in her river of time” (Skeleton Key, 362). As it is with dreams, the more we live with them, reflect upon them, marvel at the symbols and puzzles of them, the more meaningful to us they become. And so it is with Joyce’s dream of a book, Finnegans Wake. And, as I find with most symbolic puzzles, Campbell stands alongside, enthusiastically pointing the way.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Goats, Jars, and Pandemics

March, in Flagstaff, has it all: snow, rain, cold, warm, skiing, hiking, spring break and vacations, work, an equinox and daylight savings, basketball madness, the death of dictators, and even the celebration of umbrellas. This list merely scratches the surface of life’s promenade through March and to it, I’m afraid, I must now also add pandemic.

The possibility of having it all; that’s the American Dream, yes? Many of us that choose to live in Flagstaff do so because we’ve decided that living in this mountain community offers the best chance of approximating whatever each of us may think having it all entails. And when we tell ourselves that we desire it all, we forget that all means, all too often, the horrors as well as the pleasure of life. The “pan” in pandemic means “all,” and the “demic” part of the word is related to demos, “of the people.” So, a pandemic is something that affects everybody, and today there can be no doubt that we are all affected.

And this ability to affect everyone is one of the characteristics of the ancient Greek god, Pan. Bearing the horns and the lower body of a goat, he wasn’t a particularly cruel or punishing god. In fact, he was rather more inclined toward music and sex. Lots of sex. Perhaps not coincidentally, he also liked to sleep a lot and whenever he was disturbed in his midday slumber, he would issue forth an angry, ear-splitting shout that created panic (panikon deima, fear inspired by the god Pan) in those who heard it. Panic, then, is inspired by something one has heard, it’s a kind of aural contagion. If one hears, for instance, that people are buying up all the toilet paper or chicken or milk available, it inspires a kind of panic to do the same; a primal, instinctual variation of the Fear Of Missing Out. Panic is always about the inability to know something, always about the possibility of having missed hearing of a circumstance or protocol that impacts one’s chances for survival.

But there is another Pan that is relevant to life in our mountain town today, and her name is Pandora. In Greek myth, according to Hesiod she was the first woman, a “beautiful evil” created by the gods on Olympos, whose destiny it was to become a central figure in the inescapable suffering of humankind. After Prometheus gave the gift of fire to men—humans were literally all men at the time, there were no human women at all and human men seeking the company of the feminine often consorted with or married nymphs or dryads or some similar creature, Zeus was angry and gave this first woman a jar (mistranslated as a box) filled with “burdensome toil and sickness that brings death to men, […] diseases and a myriad other pains.” Prometheus (his name means foreknowledge or forethought) warned his brother Epimetheus (his name means afterthought) not to accept any gifts from Zeus but because foresight wasn’t Epimetheus’ strong suit, he accepted anyway the gorgeous, the literally heavenly, Pandora who arrived at his door carrying her jar, the contents of which she immediately released. As a result, Hesiod remarks, the world is full of evils. Only elpis, hope, a winged creature itself and nestled under the lip of the jar, did not fly away and the lid was replaced on the jar, retaining hope within it.

Opinions differ about what it means that hope is left in the jar. Does that mean that humans have no hope, or that hope is the most evil of all the contents because it prolongs man’s suffering, or does it mean that hope, optimism, and inspiration remain accessible to humans since it didn’t wheel away on, to gloss Emily Dickinson, feathered wings. Pandora’s name means “all giving,” and another yet older name for her is Anesidora, “sender forth of gifts,” another name for the earth goddess herself, which connects her to the source of life.

Pandora cannot fail to be all giving; that’s not merely her name, it’s her essence. She cannot be the source of evil Hesiod claims she is, since all the ills of humanity were brought about by masculine deities and she herself was created by those same figures as a kind of Olympian Trojan Horse to bring suffering to mankind. So, what gifts other than hope are to be found in her jar? To begin with, human beings cannot be complete or whole without a corresponding dark aspect, and an understanding of life that makes allowance for such a reality is richer, more surprising, and more beautiful. In fact, the richness and the beauty of life is only made recognizable by comparison to “burdensome toil and a myriad other pains.”

Most importantly, the panics and the pandemics of life reflect us to ourselves more deeply and disturbingly than almost anything else is able to. We see that the lives we live and the philosophies that support us in the living of it are often irrational and unnatural. Social structures and institutions that appear to be monolithic are suddenly revealed to be as insubstantial as air, and so insignificant to the exigencies of life as to be nonexistent. But most importantly, we see reflected in them our own psychic illnesses, our own tattered, malfunctioning perceptions of ourselves and our reality. C.G. Jung wrote,

"We are still as much possessed today by autonomous psychic contents as if they were Olympians. Today they are called phobias, obsessions, and so forth; in a word, neurotic symptoms. The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting room, or disorders the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world" (The Secret of the Golden Flower).

It's no less true today than it was in 1932 when Jung wrote those words. What Pandora offers us today is the opportunity to take a clear-eyed look at the world we’ve created and decide if we want to reevaluate and revise our neurotic symptoms as well as our neurotic culture and its institutions, do away with our infantile perceptions of reality, and create a way of living, create life—individual and societal—that is in harmony with the energies of life, with the aims of life, and with the planet itself.

To Make An End is to Make a Beginning

The new year and New Year’s celebrations are traditionally the time set aside for reflecting on the year just past, and setting goals and making resolutions for the year to come. It is a curious psychic position in which to find oneself, not quite out of the old year, yet not fully engaged in the new, inhabiting a liminal space which leaves one betwixt and between, attempting to resolve the conflict between past memories and future ambition.
This year, as in others, my family watched the New Year’s Eve celebrations from around the world. Sydney’s fireworks display and beautiful skyline never seem to disappoint. London focused its Eye on the New Year celebration. Beijing’s celebration was reliably surreal and often, to a Westerner’s eyes at least, unintentionally comical as it tried to project the image of an ethnically diverse nation (which it is) open to individual expression and hep to contemporary Western Culture (which it is not—but then, I just used the word “hep,” so you’ll have to decide for yourself.). But watching the event—I can’t rightly call it a celebration—in Hong Kong, one of my favorite cities, was an eerily foreboding, and sad experience. The fireworks display over Victoria Harbour was cancelled due to concerns about the ongoing protests in the city, and the laser light show and the accompanying music that replaced it seemed to me ominous and dirge-like. The laser show had a Star Wars feeling to it, as though it were produced by the Palpatine Empire, and seemed to carry a thinly veiled warning to protestors, who were raising their hands and spreading their five fingers to denote their “five demands, not one less” for which they are risking their careers, their safety, their freedom, perhaps even their very lives.
These incongruities in the celebrations left a gap, a hole, a kind of lacuna in that big pieces of the story were missing. Instability, be it environmental, political, or social, places one in a gap, in a psychological situation of uncertainty, or a feeling of being “betwixt and between.” The Australian fires seem unquenchable, Brexit is ongoing, and it’s hard to imagine Beijing won’t forcefully intervene in Hong Kong eventually. Perceived gaps or holes reveal a lack of structure and predictability, an inability to know anything. The gap of unknowing creates a psychological situation Homo sapiens has a hard time tolerating. Homo or hominis means human being; sapiens means wise, discerning, knowing. Our species is defined by knowing, by developing expectations and methods of prediction which, when finding ourselves in a gap, or realizing that we are enshrouded by the fog of ignorance, is constitutionally abhorrent to us. Gaps and holes are generally associated with emptiness, with something missing, and unless one is very wise or has practiced seeing and thinking through the manifest appearance of “things,” we fail to see how abundantly rich, how teeming with life and possibility, how present with something is the nothingness, how filled with divinity are the gaps. In antiquity, chaos defined the nature of the gods much as chaos defines the nature of emptiness and gaps, and it’s readily apparent that the emptiness is not nothingness, it is a teeming surfeit of potential and possibility.
The month of January was named for Janus, who was the unique (he had no Greek precedent), ancient (some scholars find a relationship to Romulus, the founder of Rome), and the essential Roman god whose numerous and elaborate rituals acknowledged his influence over thresholds, transitions, endings and beginnings, gateways, passages, and time. His two-faced image was what one first saw upon entering the most significant gate into the Eternal City. The gate called the Ianiculum displayed the old face of Janus looking into the past—into the void from which all life arises, even—while his young face is turned to the future and possibility, as well as toward that same void to which we inevitably return. One might think of his domain as eternity itself, replete with births and deaths, beginnings and endings, and all varieties of psychosociomorphic possibilities. In fact, Janus is the god of the gap, monopolizing the liminal space and offering a way of understanding our relationships to the no-things of life that are the antitheses of nothing.
The singular image of Janus has transformed over time and cultures and has become, in American life, the image of aged Father Time ceding the stage to the infant New Year. In America we celebrate the New Year by dropping a ball amid a million people in Times Square, or a giant Pinecone amid thousands at Leroux and Aspen Streets. As a mythologist, it seems proper that the new year begins with a drop or a fall. So often we associate dropping something or falling as a failure. A failure of skill, clumsiness or carelessness, even a failure of ambition—we have reached too far, flown too high, exceeded our capacities somehow. But falling isn’t a mistake or a crime, it’s one of the ways that life begins. The Ponderosa Pines we all love propagate by dropping pinecones to the ground where new life then takes root. Even its name, Ponderosa, is a Latin word that conveys a sense of the great weight or heaviness of these trees, and the more subtle knowledge that eventually, heavy things tend to fall.

Falling into the gap, finding oneself in liminal space, is often an opportunity and not ruin. It’s an immersion in the generative, cyclic nature of existence and not a death at all. It is a felix culpa; it is, if we can find the courage to so view it, a very fortunate fall.

The Powerful Play Goes On

Living here, in Flagstaff, AZ one can’t help but learn about at least a few of the many rich layers of history submerged just below the surface of the city's daily bustle. The history of Flagstaff’s early days is always within reach; and the vestiges of lumbering, ranching, and railroading are still hiding in plain sight. But I never fail to be touched by the whispering echoes of ancient voices that spoke, sang, laughed, wept, hoped, and shouted more than a millennium ago in and around what would become the Flagstaff with which you and I are familiar.

The earliest habitation of the Southwest dates to before 9,000 B.C.E. and those residents lived much like the indigenous hunting and gathering peoples of the Great Basin or the Plains. Eventually the inhabitants of the Colorado Plateau developed a genius for masonry and agriculture, created impressive architecture and grew crops of maize, beans, squash, and even cotton, by virtue of imagining ingenious irrigation systems that mitigated the harsh growing conditions of the arid climate. After Sunset Crater’s eruption in 1064 or 65, the volcanic ash deposited around the area was a significant factor in the creation of a fertile, hydrophilic soil that made the agricultural arts even more viable in the region, and enticed an influx of people over the next several decades.

Even though by the early 1200’s the community was permanently abandoned, there is something ineffable that remains, some…experience that one may have standing in the ball court or peering through a window of a partially collapsed wall at Wupatki. In places such as this, a murky pre-history arouses my imagination, and the place comes alive with images of families, young men and women, leaders, story tellers, the elderly, going about their daily lives, their routines and recreations. I imagine that, like ourselves, they hardly ever gave a thought to the inevitable reality that one day life as they knew it would end; that their people would disappear, and that what they saw and heard and felt and believed would, in some unimaginably distant time, become the subject of abstract conjecture, speculations proffered by archaeologists puzzling over the remnants of the communal trash heap.

The temptation to imagine these early residents of the Flagstaff area as uncomplicated stone agers is largely due, I think, to the fact that the indigenous people of the region were pre-literate, and therefore left no bequest of a written record to us modernes. I mentioned that in 1065 Sunset Crater Volcano erupted, and because we have no contemporaneous writings to which we might refer for first-hand accounts, all we can do is speculate about the effects of such an eruption on human life and activities in the area. But at the same historical moment in Normandy, William the Conqueror was maneuvering to contend for the hereditary throne of England and, one year later, win it in the battle of Hastings. Because there exist contemporary written accounts, it sometimes seems that British history of the same period is more accessible, and nearer to us, than our own.

But a lack of a written history should not bamboozle one into believing that the inhabitants of ancient sites like Wupatki were living in a disorganized, undeveloped, or crude society. In fact, they seemed to engage in a robust trade economy: Scarlett Macaw remains have been found on site, and there is also evidence that they traded with other communities ranging from the Pacific Ocean to the Lower Mississippi and Gulf Coast regions. These were smart, competent, adventurous, and creative people, and I think that in many ways they thought about the world the same way we contemporary human beings think about the world. But we don’t often recognize that because we don’t feel the need to reflect upon the antiquity of the ideas we use each day in the living of our lives.

Our own human-all-too-human expectations, spontaneous responses and obsessive fears have not markedly changed since the dawn of human history. In fact, the same rational, imaginative abilities that invented those ancient irrigation systems invented the iPhone. The human imagination functions now much as it always has, and gives us the power to imagine things that aren’t, and the power to imagine differently the things that are; and in that most human of qualities lies the power to radically transform the world. 

Of course, it’s wrong to say that sometime after the beginning of the 13th century the people who created Wupatki or the cliff dwellings along Walnut Canyon mysteriously disappeared. I’m sure their emigration was no mystery to them, and in fact, they continue to live on in their descendants. Thirteen different Native American communities, including the Hopi and Zuni people who consider Wupatki to be a sacred site and have a significant oral tradition regarding the area, claim to have some ancestral ties to the site.

But doesn’t every piece of earth, each plot of land, a rock outcropping, a river, a grassy knoll, have a rich and sundry history? We forget that Planet Earth is as alive as you or I (If you don’t think the earth breathes, just watch The Blue Planet documentary’s segment on the earth’s water cycle). And like us, the earth is also possessed of an unconscious, just as sleepily awash in memory, reverie, and dreams as we are. It is alive with its own movements, its unique interactions; it lives with and experiences emotion and memory, which then interfuse with our own. We, Alan Watts has said, don’t come into this world, we come out of it. The Earth influences us the same way children are influenced by their parents.

So, now we find ourselves in the first quarter of the 21st century, blithely using technology we don’t understand, in a world whose manias often sweep us along as though we’re caught in a rip tide. Regardless of our will or desire, we are often left wondering what life means and how we should live; I should think that every human generation from the beginning of our species has felt this way about life. And what is the point of such a life? Well, I don’t think there needs to be one beyond having as full an experience of being alive as possible. But that’s no small thing; having such an experience of being alive transcends understandings of meaning and purpose, it constellates the longing that triggers imagination, which drives most human behavior, and connects us to those ancient peoples across the “dark backward and abysm” of time. If there must be a point, then the point is that, as Whitman wrote, the powerful play goes on and we may contribute a verse.