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.