Sunday, March 29, 2020
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.”
Saturday, March 28, 2020
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.
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.
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.
Thursday, June 21, 2018
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.