Category Archives: Pyschology

Notes to “The Fall of Hades”

Noel Coypel, "The Resurrection of Christ," 1700.

Noel Coypel, “The Resurrection of Christ,” 1700.

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1. In Dream and Underworld, James Hillman cites three habits of mind that prevent us from entering the dream’s underworld: materialism, which attempts to physically locate the invisible, imaginable underworld as something concretely Down; oppositionalism, which separates brain from mind and conscious from unconscious, and relentlessly dualizes This and Other, so that the dream is reduced to a compensation for dayside realities; and Christianism, which pulled off the feat of doing away with the pagan underworld at the same time replacing it with a Hell that all souls are damned to if they don’t surrender to Heaven.

If sleep and dreams are our nightly portal to the underworld, then they too must be banished under the Christian dispensation. When Paul declares “we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51), Hillman notes that the word Paul uses for that transformation is allagesometha or “translation,” and what is translated here is soul for spirit. He writes,

The ascension requires that we leave not only our blood behind … Paul goes Heraclitus one better—or worse, because the Christian ascensional mystery exchanges psyche for pneuma. We pay for spirit with our loss of souls. Christianism’s defeat of the underworld is also a loss of soul.

2. That pneumatic lift really took off in the late Middle Ages. Henry Adams wrote about the furious spate of cathedral building during this time in his essay “Saint Michael and Chartres” (1904):

According to statistics, in the single century between 1170 and 1270, the French built eighty cathedrals and nearly five hundred churches of the cathedral class, which would have cost, according to an estimate made in 1840, more than five thousand millions to replace. Five thousand million francs is a thousand million dollars ((when Henry Adams wrote this in 1904; today, the figure is close to 30 thousand million dollars or $30 billion)), and this covered only the great churches of a single century. The same scale of expenditure had been going on since the year 1000, and almost every parish in France had rebuilt its church in stone; to this day France is strewn with the ruins of this architecture, and yet the still preserved churches of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, among the churches that belong to the Romanesque and Transition period, are numbered by hundreds until they reach well into the thousands.

The share of this capital which was — if one may use a commercial figure — invested in the Virgin cannot be fixed, any more than the total sum given to religious objects between 1000 and 1300; but in a spiritual and artistic sense, it was almost the whole, and expressed an intensity of conviction never again reached by any passion, whether of religion, of loyalty, of patriotism, or of wealth; perhaps never even paralleled by any way of single economic effort, except in war.

3. Why the torrid pace? Joseph Campbell writes in Creative Mythology that Adams was right in asserting the Virgin Mary was “the creative muse of civilization,” but the great rose window of Chartres, which showed Christ in Glory as a sunburst in the Virgin’s heart, belied a devilish change in the pneumatic procedure – a woman’s heart cathedralling love. He writes,

Of all the modes of experience by which the individual might be carried away from the safety of well-trodden grounds to the danger of the unknown, the mode of feeling, the erotic, was the first to awaken Gothic man from his childhood slumber in authority.

4. Enter the troubadours and their infernal love-tales, stories so potent they would cause Guenevere to betray Arthur after hearing of one sung by Lancelot. Carnal sin –- knowledge of the tree of good and evil –- made us defiant voyagers into the forbidden mystery. Jack Lindsay writes in The Troubadours and Their World, “the name trobador came from a hypothetical Latin tropator (verb tropare) and meant discoverer.” I lust, therefore “I Yam, as Popeye put it.

Early in the 12th century, the troubadour Guilhem de Poitou took the form of the church conductus (a strophic composition used in the monestary of St. Martial) and used it to compose a bawdy tribute to his lady’s, um, maidenhead. Written church-style and sung like a well-strung monk:

Well, here’s the law of cunt and how it goes.
I speak who suffer through it many woes.
Other things, taken from, grow less. Not so with cunt. It grows.

And so just as the great stone Lascauxes of France were reaching ever highter toward God, He was at the very same time being translated into the magic of courtly love.

5. I say that our hyper-speeding hi-tech age is the extreme result of this ancient procedure of translation – of outer nature into inner psychology, fire of the gods into godlike tools, soul into into spirit, Christianism into capitalism — all repeat a pneumatic lift in our death-fearin’ DNA that won’t stop at the deathless stars.

Until we sleep, and dream, and fall back into the underworld, and there learn to temper our spirit’s choiring excess in death’s ensouling blue fire …

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Crossing The River Whose Source And End We Are (Because We Cross It)

The Euphrates River in southern Turkey, not far from the ritual site of Gobekli Tepe, where the excavation of a ritual site for  hunter-gatherers predating agriculture is challenging conceptions of how human civilizations began.

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I.

The hunt takes them far
into the great forest,
heaving spears at bear and elk
whose hot hearts have kept
flint-edges true for a million
years of this one and only day.
They have walked the steppes
of night so long and far
that birth from a woman
seems impossible in their myth,
a tale for children’s comfort
til they too join the hunt.

But down there in the valley now
a new tribe—disturbing because
nothing ever changes for the hunters–
is curiously still, laboring
dawn to dusk in one bounded land
and sleeping in round huts
that huddle against the open night,
on beds of straw no spear invades,
encircled by a woman’s sleep.

Even the animals have slowed
from flight into duration,
lingering safely in the shadows
of these people, feeding on scraps from
the table, hunting mice in granaries.
The heavy aurochs now submit
to great leather straps ,
walking tense across the fields
tendoned to a stone blade,
creating long furrows  in what
they sing mother as they cast
their seeds in, invoking a plenty
it will a pregnancy to reap.
Ox they call them, their
hot meat resisted for
the greater yield of labor …

Sometimes the hunters on the hill
and the farmers in the valley
watch each other across the river,
each group perhaps yearning
for something in the other –-
endless couplings with the goddess
in a safe communal bed,
the freedom of a long night’s hunt
in the boundless forest.

That river runs through the mind
and is a perilous fjord to both.
From the hunters’ vantage
the rising sun caresses their
faces and the morning breeze
exhales a scented musk;
to cross the river
is to lay down spear and knife
and take up plow and sickle,
tending fields with sons,
coming home each night to
a wife who suckles babes
and joins their daughters
grinding grain in stone bowls
holding the pestle like a phallus,
singing as if to a god’s desire
to loose semen from the storm.

Come night and sleep
the settlement is besieged
by dreams of fleeing back
over that river, of running fast
after boar with flashing bloody tusks,
killing bears and lions
like bears and lions,
resumed in that fraternity
whose father is eternity,
the stars spiraling
in a dreamtime sprung free
from the fields’ fixed round.

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II.

The bridge across the river
is a ley of stone pillars arranged
in circles atop the hill
that overlooks the valley.
The hunters raised those stones,
summing something there
that somehow sprouted in
the fields.  They carved them
with bears and lions, vultures
and snakes – predators all,
the fiercest glutters of red death –
devout in the name of that
which keeps the hunters’
spear-thrusts true.

The ritual appeared out of
something that took centuries
to shape in nascent mind.
The prey that once talked to them
in dreamtime had gone silent,
the woods no longer braided
night with starry song.
Words kept rising on the tongue
up from that growing absence,
a song of longing that
led to pillars carved in likeness
of that old forest enactment
as if the symbol were the thing,
re-enacting the trope for
generations, setting each new
circle of standing stones
upon the covered-over
phalli of the last entreaty to the lost.

The very act of tending these
sites meant stilling in their motion
for a season, quarrying, carrying,
carving and setting the pillars in place;
out of that duration welled a
strange new tide that bid
them linger on when all
instinct screamed Run!
in a voice somehow fainter
with each raising of the round–:
Bid them gather, bid them stay,
bid them weave their story of
ancestor kin on looming stone
that somehow made the animals
present in the new way and
and receding in the old.

Over unmarked centuries that
absence became presence,
the old forest abyss become
both history and mystery
carved by words into a round
of named seasons, making it
possible to walk across that
river and set spear by a
permanent door, settling down
by putting terror that far enough
away – just beyond the river, say –
and turning animal speech into
prayer to the Mother of
Domesticated Beasts, her
forest-green waist
become a fertile field.

And with those softer, more durable
words the farms appeared,
the huddled huts, the granaries and
priests: all the product of words
for settling down into the enduring
comforts of duration. And out
of that bounded round of time
a mind came into being, one
half bent to field-labors,
the other loud with gods
who sang into being
a hundred cunning crafts,
fashioning new tools to increase
the yield of field and thought,
baking pots in the womb of kilns,
writing laws on tablets
to keep the rounds bound
to orders of consequence.

And when people of the settlement
died their heads were interred
into the foundations
of their houses along with the
skulls of parents and grandparents,
an ossuary of thought that
grew, like grain, into strings
of words called narrative,
a purely human world
bound in time and space
far from the hills and
forests of the old wild night.

Those who stayed on the other
side of the river slowly died out,
stubborn in the ways of a world
that less and less existed
the way some drinkers never get off
their barstools chasing the last cherry
to the bottom of an endless glass
while the rest of the world
is sleeping, repairing
for the next long working day.

Settling down means ceasing
to wander the unending avenues
of the big night music
and sitting down {here},
calling this place home by
working in one place only
of the heart’s far vistas,
round after round of
the mind’s spiraling life,
become a tower or steeple
filled with words for world.

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III.

Over ten millennia
[the distance of a spear-toss
in the old dreamtime]
the settlements evolved
into civilizations that
rose and fell and rose and fell.
Each new round was
fathered by new tools
and midwifed by words for
them—copper, bronze, steel,
Delphi, Chartres, World Trade Center,
scroll, book, virtual.

The round of civilizations
became a whirl and
then white noise
and so did those words, first
profane, then sacred,
then learned, then distant,
then empty as the hills
where the vanished hunters’
last pillars were deep
in nameless dirt.

The river is still there
and we’re now here
looking across to something
yet to have a proper name,
calling from every empty
word scattered from
the fallen siloes of the times.

There’s no more running
back to the fields,
no more refusing
the bridge’s call:
a  strange new faith bids us
step out as if on air
and join the hunt
that’s deepest in the furrow
feet bare and calloused
running all night after
sunlit prey, true to old freedoms
inside the working day.

Long ago the hunters
crossed that bridge
and now it’s our turn
to dig down deepest
in the ground to find
it in open doors
inside black holes,

revealing a face that,
finally unearthed,
smiles with that old hungry
look that sees the forest
orchard beyond the raging
river of the fretted mind,
world and word now over
the bridge, settled-wild,
fertile-free, our next home
amid the beasts and stars,
become their husbandry.

January 2012

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Some of the excavated pillars at Gobekli Tepe.

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Note

Excavations at Gobekli Tepe in southern Turkey over the past decade have revealed a ritual site of carved pillars dating to about 9,500 BCE – predating, archaeologists believe, the beginnings of agriculture. It is the oldest known temple, and leads to an upending of theory about the transition from Paleolithic hunter-gatherer culture to those agricultural societies that sparked what we call civilization.  Writing, art and religion were believed to have been the result of the development of agriculture, but with the evidence from Gobekli Tepe, it seems that worship is what led to agriculture, not vice versa.

For whatever reasons the hunter-gatherers created and maintained Gobekli Tepe (similar to the way animals in Paleolithic caves were often painted over each other by long successive generations, the ritual stones at Gobekli Tepe were erected right over previous circles), they stuck around in one place long enough (it takes a while to quarry, carry, and carve those big limestone pillars) that some of them stayed and eventually settled and began domesticating the land.

One local tradition has it that Gobekli Tepe is the site of the Garden of Eden, and it makes mythological sense, for it was in Eden that humans lived off the fat of the land, much as hunter-gatherers had for hundreds of centuries; by eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, humans were separated from that Eden and bid to live by the sweat of their brow, working the land.

There’s a good article in National Geographic about the site and its radical challenge to theories of cultural evolution here.

The poem owes much to The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, though similar to the Big Bang theory, his left me wondering what mind came before? And as it seems the bicameral, god-ruled mind has about burned out its candle (don’t tell Rick Santorum), I wonder: what mind comes after?

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Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Adam and Eve in The Garden of Eden.”

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Hanging On The Line With The Lineman

Jimmy Webb (r) wrote “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Witchita Lineman,” and “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” — a triptych of songs leading to this present moment.

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(Reposted from December 31, 2010, in honor of 24-year-old  US Army PFC Kurt Kern of  McAllen, TX , killed by a roadside bomb on Christmas. Kern, a graduate of the Texas Culinary Academy, was the 415th U.S. military death in Afghanistan this year.)

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1.

Frank Sinatra once called “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” “the greatest torch song of all time.” It is one of the most covered songs in history, with thousands of recorded versions by the likes of Ray Price, Dean Martin, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and an 18-minute version by Isaac Hayes which includes an elaborate backstory on the events of the song. A country song black soul could take off on: now that’s clout.

Glenn Campbell was playing guitar as a session musician in a recording of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” by Pat Boone when he became so enamored with it that he decided to record it himself, which he did following a tour with the Beach Boys. It turned out to be pure payola of Campbell, with “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” earning him two Grammies in 1967 and launching a solo career which would earn him his own hit TV show and role in the 1969 movie “True Grit.”

Webb was 21 when he wrote the song and living in Los Angeles, though he’d been raised in Elk City, Oklahoma. It’s one of three songs he wrote about a broken-hearted love affair he’d had with a woman named Sue (“MacArthur Park” and “The Worst That Could Happen” were the other two).

In this attempt to frame that painful love affair, a man describes his decision to leave — at last, for good, for real — his unfaithful lover. He drives east, presumably from Los Angeles, imagining what she is experiencing and thinking as he arrives different cities in his long and lonely drive:

By the time I get to Phoenix she’ll be rising
She’ll find the note I left hangin’ on her door
She’ll laugh when she reads the part that says I’m leavin’
‘Cause I’ve left that girl so many times before

By the time I make Albuquerque she’ll be working
She’ll prob’ly stop at lunch and give me a call
But she’ll just hear that phone keep on ringin’
Off the wall
that’s all

By the time I make Oklahoma she’ll be sleepin’
She’ll turn softly and call my name out loud
And she’ll cry just to think I’d really leave her
Tho’ time and time I try to tell her so
She just didn’t know I would really go.

A fan once told Webb that the geography of “By the Time I get to Phoenix” was impossible — the time it would take to get to Oklahoma from Albuquerque is too short to go from the woman at lunch to being asleep at night. Webb replied, “It’s a kind of fantasy about something I wish I would have done, and it sort of takes place in a twilight zone of reality.”

It’s a zone where all the heart’s opium is found. Something about the liminal space of that song — an imagined journey with imagined affect on a woman who keeps doing one wrong — is like dope to the ears and heart of a torch song. Who doesn’t dream of punishing a harsh mistress with the ultimate payback of finally shoving off and letting go, much to her surprise and, hopefully, filling her with hopeless regrets she will never resolve?

A broken heart for a broken heart: paybacks are hell, but in reality they never work when it comes to love, because an unfaithful beloved won’t wait by the phone for the departed jilted one to call — she just doesn’t care. The Beloved just isn’t there, her heart having fled long ago, perhaps as long ago as the Middle Ages, or back to the primal first days when Lilith, Adam’s first love, did him so wrong.

Adults who reckon back on these lost loves usually realize their own complicity in betrayal and lost — an infantile desire for complete immersion in the womblike embrace of an Other, the illusion of such boundary-less, ego-freed existence, the confusion of mortal and immortal love — but the bursting of that red balloon in the heart is a primary locus of childhood’s end, and as such is unforgettable, and saturates the imagination in the realm of myth. Once there was an Eden, and her name, sang David Crosby, was Guienevere.

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Glenn Campbell in 1967.

The Glenn Campbell version of “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” hit the pop charts in 1967 when peace and love was in the air, still deep in the romance of Flower Power, the Summer of Love. (Among its companions on the chart was “To Sir With Love” by Lulu, “Happy Together” by The Turtles, “Windy” by The Association, “Ode To Billie Joe” by Bobby Gentry, “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees, “Light My Fire” by The Doors, “Groovin'” by the Young Rascals, “I Was Made to Love Her” by Stevie Wonder, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by Frankie Valli and “Never My Love” by the Association.) The time is enthralled – perhaps bewitched – by the belief in the power of love, like a teen in love for the first time.

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Yet those weren’t truths in Vietnam in 1967, as the sorties of B-52 headed out to drop their tonnage of napalm and explosives over North Vietnam and as 16,000 troops set out in Operation Cedar Falls set out to clear Vietcong operations around Saigon, discovering a massive network of Vietcong tunnels they would call The Iron Triangle. American casualties doubled in from 1966 to 1967 (to around 11,000 killed). Surely a song like “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” making it to camps in the middle of that jungle had the sort of ennui of “White Christmas,” a fantasy not of homecoming that every soldier feared, to a woman who had moved on his absence. That would be the ultimate irony, to survive the helicopter battles over Tay Ningh or the ground near the Cambodia border only to come home and find one’s bed occupied by an other. “By the Time I Got To Phoneix” delivered on that fear, and must have made those lonely boys think of what roads lead away from homecoming.

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2.

Jimmie Webb wrote “Wichita Lineman” Glenn Campbell as a follow-up to his success with “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.” Campbell, a country crooner from Billstown, Arkansas, one of 12 children born to sharecropper parents was perfect for the role, whose pure twangy alto sounded contemporary and corn-pone at the same time, the crossover predecessor to John Denver and Kris Kristoffersen.

The idea for song came to Webb as he was driving along the Kansas-Oklahoma City border and saw a solitary lineman working on up on telephone pole in the middle of nowhere. It struck him as exceedingly sad; he imagined that lineman as a long-wandered-on lover trying to hear the voice of his lover in the song of the wind working those cables carrying messages from afar:

I am a lineman for the county
and I drive the main road
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload
I hear you singin’ in the wire
I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

I know I need a small vacation
but it don’t look like rain
And if it snows that stretch down south
won’t ever stand the strain
And I need you more than want you
and I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line.

Webb recorded his demo of the song accompanying himself on and Hammond organ. When Campbell went into the studio in 1968 to record the song, the takes seemed lacking to Campbell, missing the feel of Webb’s demo which had so excited him initially. He got that feel down when he added a Hammond organ to the instrumentation. And the chiming at the song’s fade at the end, meant to represent telephone signals the lineman hears in his head — calls he meant to make but didn’t, now too long ago — were produced by a massive church organ. The Beloved in her great absence had taken on the voice of the God of empty cathedrals.

The song was another hit for Campbell, taking his album of the same name to #3 on the pop chart, and the song was two weeks in the #1 spot on the country singles chart and six weeks atop the adult contemporary chart. Glen Campbell’s career was assured. He would go on to release some 70 albums, with 27 of them reaching the Top 10 (12 went 4 went platinum and 2 double platinum), selling some 45 million units in all.

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“Wichita Lineman” has been described as the “the first existential cowboy song,” and there’s something undeniably gooey-eerie about it, haunting in a way that made the song seem timeless from the first spin, a song as old as the ache in the heart in every person to have loved and lost.

You could say that “Wichita Lineman” furthers the narrative of “By the Time I Get To Phoenix.” Here the lover who left love behind has settled into a long, lonely existence in Oklahoma, working as a county lineman. Working up there in the wind and cold in the middle of nowhere, he strains to hear the voice of his love up in those wires.

The chorus makes the entire song, layering three lines which pack an infinity of power:

And I need you more than want you, Campbell begins, soft and pained in the plaint of every sorely-wounded lover;

And I want you for all time — Bang, gotcha: no matter how far you flee, the dream of love is just ahead, waiting for you in the next town to remind you how much there is to lost. The wallop of this line comes from its pairing with the first, a doubling which takes you in two directions at once, transversing the the wild depths and breadth of the heart in 14 words;

And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line — This completes the trio of lines with an eerie, lonely, permanent image, the fact of the first two lines characterized by a lineman lost up there in the wind and the cold with the wires of memory pulsing with lost messages from the Beloved who has been forever lost. And that church organ, plays the high notes of a telegraph operator sending his SOS of the soul out across the vast winter heartland.

Thus the Wichita Lineman becomes a mythic figure like the Wandering Cowboy or the Ancient Mariner, forever out there in the space between memory and heartbreak, doomed to tend lines of communication he will never be able to receive and decode and articulate from his own, small, long-broken heart.

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“Wichita Lineman” is also one of those quintessential fin-de-siecle moments which somehow captured the death of the 60’s, a passing of the Flower Age of just two years previous into the nightmarish realities of death in Vietnam (a Vietcong assault on US bases around Vietnam in February 1969 killed 1,400 American soldiers), the shootings at Kent State, murder during a Rolling Stones performance at Altamonte, mass clubbings by Chicago dicks outside the Democratic Convention the year before, folk song become hoarse acid rock, the looming nightmare of Charles Manson singing “Helter Skelter” as he carved up the body of pregnant Sharon Tate, the assassination of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, the breakup of The Beatles. The Summer of Love was over. A cold wind was sweeping the land.

There is a palpable ennui in the culture of 1969, a feeling that the passing of the 1960s was like summer into winter, an intensely bittersweet dying. “Wichita Lineman” had many companions in the mood, especially in a slough of wry, wistful and bloody grown-up cowboy movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sunset Kid, The Wild Bunch, Midnight Cowboy, and True Grit, all of which ended with death – Glenn Campbell himself taking the fatal bullet in that last movie. A grand, sad fadeout to a wild age.

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The bloody end to “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” went from color to sepia to black.

The same fadeout permeated all of Hollywood. The Sand Dollars was the first American movie where the hero — Steve McQueen — died.  Love Story — heroine dies. The animated short Bambi Meets Godzilla — innocence crushed. Easy Rider — youth culture dies.

“Wichita Lineman” has a vibe which persists to this day, soaked in a sweet oblivion that borders on something on the verge of winter, entering longer darker days as the last warm ray fades from earth. Webb’s lyrics for the song are far from perfect — some of them are almost nonsensical – yet the singular image of the Lineman is so powerful that the song endures. (One of my favorite renditions is by Johnny Cash in his last years, singing with that ruined voice of his, strained by addiction and long roads and hard love, still working the wires of song.)

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But I’m also sure that “Wichita Lineman” and all those other songs of the late ’60s are especially poignant to me because it was the eve of my own coming of age–a very bittersweet time, with my parents separating, my father moving downtown Chicago while the rest of the family relocated to a much smaller, rented house in Wilmette before taking a dive to Florida.

Factor in as well that it was also the season of my first hopeless love. Lauren was an 8th grader like me who was (unlike me) impossibly beautiful. For a short while she deigned to smile at me, probably only because she had wounds greater than mine. (She’d smile at any guy to forget that jagged wreck of a man she called Father with cold hostility).

Lauren smiled at me briefly and then turned away, leaving me to curse my ugly fat face in the mirror, beg my God to deliver her to me (He was silent). I’d lay on my lonely bed listening to “Wichita Lineman” on WLS, wondering if those wires carried news of Lauren, too. But it was only the winter wind beating against my frozen window.

The cowboy reaches were not found in cold Chicago, but other cowboy experiences — loneliness, hard realities, wandering, alcoholism, death-were becoming familiar, were painting the age sepia, like the color fade at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

My favorite movie that year was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. (James Bond is a cowboy of sorts I supposed, with a tuxedo for chaps and machine-gun Astin-Martin convertible for a horse.) It was a movie fraught with losses: Uber-Bond Sean Connery gone; his mojo is lost when he marries Tracy (Diana Rigg); and then she gets killed in the end. The theme song “We Have All the Time in the World” was composed by John Barry (the theme song to OHMSS is eerily similar to that of Midnight Cowboy, which Barry also composed. Weird twins, eh?) with lyrics by Hal David (who wrote many songs with Burt Bacharach, including the theme song to Butch Cassidy, “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”

Armstrong’s voice is sure in his own way – a majestic, New Orleans jazz quaver – in “We Have All the Time in the World”:

We have all, the time in the world
Time enough for life
To unfold
All the precious things
Love has in store

We have all the love in the world
If that’s all we have
You will find
We need nothing more …

But Armstrong was sick in the recording, too ill to play the trumpet part (which sounded more like Herb Albert), and would die himself of heart failure a couple of years later.

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Diana Rigg and Georges Lazenby see that James Bond gets married — only once — in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”

The irony of the song is drawn out as wide and tall as the Swiss Alps where the movie was filmed when, in the final scene, Bond holds Tracy in his car at the side of a mountain road, his bride dead from a bullet in the forehead shot by his arch-rival Blofeld, a few miles down the road from the church where they had just wed.

“We have all the time in the world,” Bond whispers to the only woman he would marry in the series, looking out at those impassible Alps, nuzzling her cheek with his as John Barry’s elegiac orchestral reprise swells to infinity.

At the time he spoke those words, Georges Lazenby didn’t know they also applied to his tenure as Bond, as he was replaced by Connery in the next installment, Diamonds are Forever.

I have the soundtrack album and still listen to it from time to time, remembering so sharply that profound, bittersweet time. It’s said that you never forget the music of your puberty, and mine is split between those AM/FM heart-wrenchers of the late 1960s and early 70’s (moving from Glenn Campbell to James Taylor and Carole King — all of whom still performing the songs of that age), James Bond movie soundtracks (I collected all of them), and the later erotic-demonic eruption of hard rock bands like Grand Funk Railroad, Santana, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.

One age answers the previous, and my birth, psychologically and emotionally, into adolescence was right at that hinge between the death of the Summer of Love and the Season of the Witch, from hopeless ennui to opiate thrall, still trying to find out whether there’s anyone at the far end of those Witchita lines.

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Rooster Cogburn of “True Grit”, then and now.

Something in the bigger news of the day is closely akin to the late 1960s, the sense that an age is coming to an end. Perhaps that is why the Coen Brothers have released their remake of True Grit, featuring Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, Matt Damon in Cambbell’s former role as La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger who has ulterior motives in hunting down the killer of Mattie’s father (played, in the remake, by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), and Josh Brolin as the killer Tom Chaney, who was played originally by Jeff Corey (who would later play one of the backwoods killers in Deliverance.)

Oh, the threads of irony and fate which give current events an eerily familiar feel are many. The True Grit remake is reported to be a shoe-in for Oscar competition, repeating the original’s success in the Academy Awards. Jeff Bridges, playing the drunken lawman Rooster Cogburn, picks up a piece of the alcoholic country singer he played in Crazy Heart — another tale of The Lineman. True Grit is the first film he’s made with Coen Brothers since playing the Dude in The Big Lebowski. The narrator of that film, played by Sam Elliott, is a cowboy known only as “The Stranger,” is a Wichita Lineman-type who comes to check on things back at home in Los Angeles. (Love is not present, but there is bowling.) One of the Coen Brothers early successes was the comedy Raising Arizona (1987), with Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, a movie rich with the Arizona scenery which surrounds the Phoenix the long-jilted lover first drives through in first Jimmy Webb song of this tale.

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Love and life in simpler Coen times in “Raising Arizona”

Love was very much present in the film–it is perhaps Cage’s sweetest performance, ripe with an innocence he stripped himself of when he later became a Major Action Star. And the Coen Brothers lost their love long ago, too, opting to follow the Lineman around the United States with O Brother, Where Art Thou (their Appalachian Odyssey), Fargo (wasting the locals in Minnesota) and No Country for Old Men (hardcore Texas border noir). That movie was based on the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy, a writer who is about the most forsaken in all of contemporary literature, whose language is as primal as the desert and blood-soaked as an Arizona sunset, and whose heart is about as forsaken as Russell Pearce, the Mesa state Republican who sponsored the nation’s toughest immigration law, albeit in divergent ways. Pearce becomes the next president of the Arizona senate and means to use his iron-clad Republican majority to side-step the state’s crucial financial problems to get a new law on the books challenging automatic U.S. citizenship to children of illegal immigrants.

All this cultural history tucks into the closing refrain of “Wichita Lineman” as the composer / artist / wandering wounded lover fades out into infinity by repeating those indelible words,

And I want you more than need you
And I need you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman
Is still on the line
Still on the line
Hanging on the line
Still on the line . . .

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If I were the Wichita Lineman — these days, who doesn’t feel like him? — I would dial into the whine of cables in full song, swinging in the high cold wilderness of winter:

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Lance corporal Randy R. Braggs (right), killed in action 10/8/2010.

– I want to know how things are going for the family and friends of Lance Corporal Randy R. Braggs of Sierra Vista, Arizona, who was killed in October during combat operations in Helmand Province in Afghanistan). Braggs, 21, is the thirteenth member of his battalion to be killed since October 8. Deployed in late September, Braggs had hardly gotten Over There when he began his travels back toward Phoenix in a flag-draped coffin. Braggs joins fellow Arizonans Army Sergeant Aaron B. Cruttendon of Mesa (age 25) and Marine Lance Corporal Matthew J. Broehm of Flagstaff (age 22) among Arizona’ recent dead in Afghanistan:

How does it feel to come home too soon yet forever late, son of Arizona? And will you call the ground you’re to be buried in a place you’d call home?

– I’d like to hear from my brother Timm who died of a heart attack two and a half years ago after an early-evening jog in Salem, Oregon. It was spring and beautiful that night, according to his girlfriend, surprisingly warm and sunny. Not a cloud in the sky. But my brother had been a wanderer for years, leaving behind his family to soothe old wounds with new ones. He was getting better — some fundamental forgiveness had happened in his heart — but he still kept like the wind at his back, a smart, lonely guy who took gorgeous pictures of Oregon and cruised dating sites while planning an eventual wedding with his girlfriend and wrote endless resumes stored on this laptop which I inherited from him after his death. He was just like me in physique and in so many interests, even though he was eight years younger and three thousand miles away. I was just beginning to get to know my kid brother when I lost him, and I listen for his voice at night:

Do still you roam the Oregon coast, looking for the last westwarding boat? Or are you near here, standing out in the garden in this depth of night where final pieces of the previous day fall, like silt, from the black sky? Speak … and know you are loved ….

– I listen for the sound of Lauren’s voice, that girl in eighth grade who was the first person I fell for so hard and woundedly and impossibly. She arrived and left almost in the same gesture, standing at a door which she said but a few words from — a hi, a bye — with a smile whose welcome faded faster than the 1960s when they were done. I stare out the darkened window and try to see her face, merged now with other women who have lingered too short a while in my embraced and moved on, or were left behind as I kept searching for the one face which cannot exist without killing the quest, the desire, the never-fulfilled, at-long-last kiss:

Say hello once again, Love, just once, and forever …

– I remember PFC Glenn Dick Kerns, killed in the battle of Dak To in Vietnam 43 years ago on November 11, 2010. Kerns was 19 years old and had shipped over the previous August; like Lance Corporal Randy Braggs, he wasn’t long in the theatre before going home the hard way. His son Staff Sergeant Derick Ray Hunt-who never had a chance to meet his father–survived his tour of Iraq and learned some of his father from Andy Eiland, who served with Kerns and survived the battle of Dak To. Kerns was posthumuously awarded a Purple Heart Medal for his combat related wounds and buried in the cemetery of Deep Branch Baptist Church in his hometown of Lumberton, North Carolina. Not much trace of Glenn Kerns today – you can find his plot in the cemetery at Deep Branch, and his name is engraved on the smooth black marble walls of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, where many have gathered today to stroll and remember:

Letters carved in brass and marble — a name — one grainy picture — so many years silent now: Yet is that you with your ear bent to the radio in the ghostly ruins of Dak To, humming along to “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” imagining an eastward heave far different from the one you made after the gunfire and grenades?

– I think of the strange homelessness of being married these past fifteen years, how people who know each other most are yet the greatest strangers to each other, finding an unbreachable chasm in the tenderest good-night kiss just before the lights go out, as if there is no true coming home outside the home of existing well enough in one’s own skin. All else is imagined and impossible gravy, isn’t it love, our years together molding our lives trunks together like two trees wrapped around each other, become one living entity with two sets of sap rising and falling across a distance measured in inches and yet is infinitely far, as far as the sea, as high as the moon?

Can you hear me singing as you sleep, love? Does my voice reach you like the gentlest touch at first light, or is it only more cold starlight, present yet alien, akin or identical to this lonely walk we call a life?

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3.

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The final Jimmy Webb song in this strangely holy trinity is “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress,” first recorded by Linda Ronstadt for her album “Get Closer” in the early 1980’s. “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” is a cold coda to the first two songs, a song about losing the presence of the Beloved and then losing Her resonance, that sound in the wires the Witchita Lineman is forever working. When the echoes of that crushed first love simply become part of the white noise of life, a cruel hardness sets in: or maybe we just grow up, accepting finally that the sound is magical even though there’s no magician in the works.

Much of Webb’s frustrated career — he never made it on his own as a solo artist, despite writing so many great songs for others — is burned into the tracks of “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. He once said of the song, ” … (it) became a standard without ever becoming a hit and was symbiotic of that decade of my life, my struggle, my failure, my angst, my pride and even scorn…. and ultimately my crash .. How could I keep pounding my head into this wall? Every time I thought it would kill me!”

The promise — and eventual defeat — of every artist who tries to touch the moon with h/her creation is set in the first stanza:

See her how she flies
Golden sails across the sky
Close enough to touch
But careful if you try
Though she looks as warm as gold
The moon’s a harsh mistress

The moon can be so cold

Have you heard the cold wind of this dark night, and seen the moon through the window? The moon with its ghostly semaphore and metaphor of separation, itself wrenched from the sea billions of years ago. The first Wichita Lineman, sailing high over the earth, hauling tides and hearts in its silver wake.

The transition from sunlight to lunar bonelight over a career etches a rictus grin where there once was Love’s smile:

Once the sun did shine
Lord, it felt so fine
The moon a phantom rose
Through the mountains and the pines
And then the darkness fell
And the moon’s a harsh mistress

It’s so hard to love her well

“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” is the hardest song of all to sing for anyone who has heard — or believed he or she heard — Her voice on the wires all those years. It is not a song of faith, but of a faith which has been extinguished by realities, by the modern moment.

I fell out of her eyes
I fell out of her heart
I fell down on my face
Yes, I did, and I — I tripped and I missed my star
God, I fell and I fell alone, I fell alone

And the moon’s a harsh mistress
And the sky is made of stone

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What’s it going to be, mythographer? Pedal to the metal for this one defining time, once more? Can you sing all three songs as a rite of passage into the present? Or will you at the juncture of modernity and sleep simply drive the long cold road to obscurity, Phoenix to Albuquerque to Oklahoma to Nyx, driving all night till you come to that stretch of power lines on the freezing, wind-heaved border to winter?

How much colder it is outside as you stand there in the place where the winds of winter blow forever, winter solstice over, Apollo fled for the hinterlands, the full moon of Christmas quaintly ebbing to a Christmas light which too has almost disappeared?

Well, as Linda Ronstadt and Joe Cocker and Judy Collins and Glen Campbell have all sung,

The moon’s a harsh mistress
She’s hard to call your own:

But that doesn’t keep us, ever, from trying …

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Glenn Campbell performs “By the Time I Get To Phoenix”

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Johnny Cash sings “Witchita Lineman”

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Jimmy Webb sings “The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress”

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Army PFC Kurt Kern, killed by a roadside bomb on Christmas Day, 2011, in Afghanistan.

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Filed under Aging, Art and Heart, Culture, History, Life, Madness and Mania, Music, poetics, Prose, Pyschology, Writing

The Pipes of Pan

This happened. The mask makes it myth.

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Among the practitioners of oneiromancy,
the forest stands for the unconscious,
symbolizing the very place containing
all we see when we’re asleep. And the
same for the ocean … (they are)
two entrances to the deep dark
source of dreams. The forest is
a place of danger, magic,
and happy endings.

 – Denis Johnson, Already Dead
(a grand California noir
novel published in 1999)

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One weekend when I was 16
our tiny free school in Chicago
camped out at Pleasant Valley Farm,
a retreat center near Wheeling
about an hour out from the city.

We stayed not in the main bunks
by the mess hall and conference rooms
but in the outer camp, a rustic
post of bareassed shacks you
reached by hiking deep into the woods.

I’d been there a number of times
over my years, my father having
connections as an urban pastor,
now principal of our ragtag high
school of dropouts and illiterates,
dregs of that bum school system
that was Chicago in 1973.

The boys were feverishly bright
and spooked as we trudged that
trail through ever-foggier autumn
woods, looking this way then that
for trouble, far from all they
knew and trusted, lost in
the ghetto of all they feared
with only the faintest path through.

Eddie had a hand inside his long
grey coat (the boys all wore ‘em
back then, calling themselves
The Phantom Lords, a Christian gang
— they said, bound to help the poor
and beat up assholes),
gripping a metal bar wrapped
in black electric tape, his whole
body tensed like a shiv
about to click and flash.

The day was cold and dreary,
foggy and near-dark, the weepage
of autumn hanging heavy in
the trees which had dropped
most of their red gold leaves,
most of that glory now thick
at our feet, brown and damp
and musty with the coppery
smell of corruption — wounds
and menses, death in the woods.

Flanking Eddie, Edwin and
Garcia walked with equally
tensed coils of braggadocio,
the three of them in their
long grey coats like spectral
Huns, heads turning this way
then that at each sound
nearby that cusped — chirp of bird,
falling branch, waft of breeze —
cracking jokes that sounded harsh
and panicked in the deepening pall of fog.

I guess because I’d been there
many times before I felt none
of their fear, just a moody sort
of calm. My woods were too wild
for fright, a place of enactments
that had scored and scoured
me so much that I felt, that day,
like I walking in my genitals.

What they feared, I lusted, my
my mind fixed wholly on Ronnie
walking next to me, the girl
I was so hopelessly in love
with. Her blue eyes were bright
with the  Phantom Lords’ street fear;
the daughter of Norse Appalachians
who had migrated to the city
a generation before, she was
all city, 15, palest blonde and curved

and thoroughly entranced with
Puerto Ricans, with their
staccato-smooth steps on the dance floor,
their dangerous brown eyes,
their nonchalance in fucking her
once then passing her on to
the next Rican to ask her to dance
to Malo and the O’Jays.

She padded the path aside me
in blue sneakers which me wonder
what sort of color her panties were
under those pink jeans she wore,
what sort of brassiere matched them
up under that lavish grey cable sweater,
what sort of breasts so flourished there
as to make her chest that swelled and
rounded place my eyes nippled
whenever I saw her enter the room.

Her blonde hair ran over her back in
a long cascade of white silk
— sometimes it seemed like poured
sunlight, others like washed ice.
Her musk perfume mixed with the
rot of leaves as to remind me of
woodland liaisons I had made
as a child with girls, showing them
mine as they showed me theirs,
playing games no one must ever find out.

Ronnie was chattering high and fast,
staying close to me, her tall lanky
white boy pal and confidant — O the
hours I had sat close to her in the church
sanctuary as she cried and cried
over this then that bad Puerto Rican
boy, all of ‘em buds of mine, my
loyalties forever rent between
Christian brotherhood and prayers for her love.

Many of her lovers had been kicked out
of their homes and moved in with
mine in that row house next to the seminary
on Fullerton Avenue, staying in my
bedroom up on the third floor where
three beds were crammed. We stayed
up late every night, grabassing,
playing air guitar to Alice Cooper
& thumping on pots and pans to
“Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” reciting
whole bits from Cheech & Chong.

I hated them all right then
for getting to Ronnie in every way
I couldn’t, me the lonely failing
Christian preacherboy who
played guitar for the choir
& wrote happy Jesus songs
all of which I’d gladly trash for
just one kiss from this
nubile blithe blonde girl.

Here in the woods we walked
and talked as our small tribe vanished
in the fog of October woods, strange womb
and ritual space of the remembrance
35 years later where its dark and
rainy here in Central Florida,
the garden as plush verdant as
those remembered woods were so dying,
like the last tatters of my virginity,
like the fleeting remnants of my faith.
This garden grew from all I lost
on that forest, then found beyond
its darkest center — marriage, myth,
blue song … But I digress.

How I managed to break off from
the group I don’t recall — maybe I said
I needed to piss — and why I dared to
do what I then did is beyond me today
and hence a mystery to celebrate:
I veered off the known path into woods
where the others would not dare,
disappearing into fog, stumbling over
tree limbs and trunks half buried
in the leaves, going far enough
out of sight to stand alone out there,

deep in those chilly damp and
near dead woods, zipping and pulling
out my little cock into the cold
and then wildly beating off,
suddenly overcome with the
wildest lust for all I couldn’t have,
my hand flailing fast and furious at
that flapping flesh until it filled out,
become a branch of that forest,
a herm of its pagan ancestry.

Breathing hard and harder gouts
of hot into the hoary cold,
the white wave rose in a silver gorge
as I sighed and spume leapt out,
splashing against the tree trunk
and glistening on stones and leaves
below, completing with a single
guilty dollop steaming on my boot.

I leaned there against that tree
with my heart racing in full roar,
my head dizzy blue and airy,
breaths jaggedly slowing down,
wondering what the fuck had
just assaulted my lame Christian sense.

I could hear them calling from
the path, sounding brave and
worried at the same time, cracking
jokes too harshly. Ronnie
was calling too, with a sound
I so needed to hear, concerned,
o deeply so, almost in anguish.

That’s when I began to laugh,
deep and low and bawdy
to the forest, happy with the
sound of her voice as my
balls still tingled with the exult
I had splashed all over her

imagining her naked there
as if come out of that tree,
lifting her blouse and bra to
expose her heavy pale breasts
to my need, begging her pink
nipples for the splash of seed,

turning around to pull down those
pink pants and blue panties
and bend over to take my
cock full and deep to the balls,
slick in pussy walls I’d never fuck,

her face half turned to me,
singing my name the way I’d never
quite hear it though the way that
distant voice back on the path
was getting close, would be there
if not for the panic in it,
the fear of the real life that
is always too damn close.

I chuckled as I tucked my flaccid
drooling dick back in my jeans
and zipped up, stumbling back through
fog to join them on the path: I
swear as I came close to the
threshold where they’d see me
that I heard those reedy pipes,

flute music of a high exalted
sort, shrilly discordant and then
swoony-sweet — just a fast run,
like Jethro Tull on “Aqualung,”
running up and down my spine’s
memory as to make me start and
smile, writing these last lines,
a zipper of such startled rustic
pleasure that I still laugh out loud.

I was trying to contain myself
as I broke out at last from
the invisible, appearing from
fogged up woods the lanky spectre
in his black peacoat, fresh-parted
with another essential squirt of soul
as the crew scowled and cursed me,
infinitely relieved that the rural
horror movie housed in their minds
would not reenact the strangler’s
curse that dank cold forest day.

And the look on Ronnie’s face
when she saw me emerge at last —
a flush of joy and relief, almost
childlike as she wiped off tears
and ran up to hug me once —
pressing those big breasts against
my peacoat in a squeeze

that I celebrate today, a
milky rounded warm sort of joy
that I’ve found ways to splash
my sperm and ink on, as if
brassiere and page were pale
presences to lift and turn,
seeking out the red business of things
that only Great Pan can sing.

She squeezed me tight in
desperate joy and then let go,
angry for a moment, chastising me hard,
then resuming her walking chatter
about this and that as I walked
on next to her, her pal, with
all the boys she really loved
who were the brothers I abandoned
for love of women like her
resuming their reconnaissance

as we walked on to that camp,
disappearing now into
the renaissance of fog,
Timmy Thomas singing “Why
Can’t We Live Together” to
that Hammond B3 organ groove,
our bodies fading into mist,
our voices trailing out.

spacespaceRelated essay: “Tooting on Great Pan’s Pipes”

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Detail from the Gundestrup Cauldron, a silver ritual vessel of a base plate and five exterior plates a dug out of a Danish peat bog in the late 19th century and probably originated in Ireland in 1st century BC. This plate shows a woodlands god, probably Cernunnos, who is closely associated with Pan. (Christians demonized both into the Devil, perhaps wisely knowing that its greatest threat was unadulterated Nature.) Some authorities believe the vessel to have Thracian origins influenced by Indian iconography. Alwyn and Brinsley Rees in Celtic Heritage argue that Celtic myth is Indo-European in origin and traveled from India to Greece and up into the Celtic woods and islands of Western Europe – sort of a reverse Dionsysian march).

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Filed under Archetypal Mythology, Art and Heart, Arthurian Romance, Celtic myth, Creativity, Devotions, Forest Shenanagans, Greek mythology, Life, Love, Madness and Mania, Mind, Myth and Archetype, Nature, Oran, poetics, Poetry, Post-Christianity, Pyschology, Sexuality, Shamanism, Spirituality, The Dark

REPOST: Consciousness, Complexity and Catastrophe (The Hermeneutics of Risky Business)

 

Arthur Rackham’s illustration to Poe’s “Descent Into the Maelstrom.”

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Repost Preface: Here We Go Again…

Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “A Descent Into the Maelstrom” is a classic tale of the horror(s) which can result from trading too close to the abyss of the gods, that wilderness of nature we foolishly and arrogantly think we can master with our tools.

The story is told by a man who became an old man after “six hours of deadly terror” inside the Maelstrom, a vast whirlpool off the coast of Norway made even more monstrous by a sudden hurricane. The narrator had been a fisherman who plied the waters off the Maelstrom with his brother because business was good there: “… we made it a matter of desperate speculation—-the risk of life standing instead of labour, and courage answering for capital.”

The result was a descent into the Maelstrom, the huge whirling mouth of Hell, each round bringing the fisherman and his brother closer and closer to doom. With a riveting fasincation the fisherman observes the horror of their descent:

“…Round and round we swept –not with any uniform movement –but in dizzying swings and jerks, that sent us sometimes only a few hundred feet –sometimes nearly the complete circuit of the whirl. Our progress downward, at each revolution, was slow, but very perceptible.

“Looking about me upon the wide waste of liquid ebony on which we were thus borne, I perceived that our boat was not the only object in the embrace of the whirl. Both above and below us were visible fragments of vessels, large masses of building timber and trunks of trees, with many smaller articles, such as pieces of house furniture, broken boxes, barrels and staves. I have already described the unnatural curiosity which had taken the place of my original terrors. It appeared to grow upon me as I drew nearer and nearer to my dreadful doom. I now began to watch, with a strange interest, the numerous things that floated in our company. I must have been delirious –for I even sought amusement in speculating upon the relative velocities of their several descents toward the foam below. ‘This fir tree,’ I found myself at one time saying, ‘will certainly be the next thing that takes the awful plunge and disappears,’ –and then I was disappointed to find that the wreck of a Dutch merchant ship overtook it and went down before. …”

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Although written in what is now a distant century, the story perfectly describes the vortex of events unfolding in Japan and is an apt metaphor for the wider mess we’re in as the result of technology leading civilization into dark and darker territory.

Just catch the latest news: The American Nuclear Regulatory Commission has recommended that Americans should stay at least 50 miles away from the earthquake-and-tsunami-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. That’s 40 miles further than the margin of safety set by the Japanese government, and suggests that the situation there is a lot worse than anyone officially has been saying.

Government confusion – if not outright equivocation — has always been the case since a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck off the northeast coast of Japan on March 11, causing a tsunami which belted 1,300 miles of Japanese coastline with waves up to 33 feet high and traveling ten miles inland, killing some 10,000 with an equal number still missing (presumably washed out to sea) and destroying 100,000 buildings.

Such a combination punch is horrifying enough, but the crisis entered a new, even more harrowing dimension when it was reported that four of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Station had been badly damaged and were headed south.

News from the Fukushima plant has been a daily ride down a maelstrom with things going from bad to worse almost daily. 200,000 residents in the area were evacuated as workers tried what seemed in vain a baker’s dozen attempts to mitigate the threat of meltdown. Buildings housing the reactors exploded, sea water was poured in, by helicopter and water cannon after the normal vents failed. All the while was the Plume of radiation coming up mixed with steam, rising into the atmosphere and spreading – not a real threat to human safety, the Japanese government warned, but always of a great and greater threat. (The plume reached California on Saturday – not in any concentration enough to worry residents, the authorities said).

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Godzilla vs. Fukushima Reactor Number Three.

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Every day, another round, deeper down the well of sinking water. We learned that the greatest danger is not from a meltdown of the reactor core is not as great as in the amount of potential radiation that could be released by some 10,000 spent fuel rods still at the plant. (the Japanese government has been slow to develop a policy on safe off-site storage).

Now the government has announced finding higher than normal levels of radiation in spinach and milk at farms 90 miles away from the stricken plant, confirming that the crisis is affecting the nation’s food supply.

There’s hope – authorities said yesterday that power had been restored to two of the reactors — a key step in restoring cooling functions – and that temperatures were stable in the spent-fuel tanks for all six reactors. But it’s a dicey hope, with all involved quite aware how any number of fuckups sent by Fate – an explosion here, a collapse there – could still send the whole thing raveling down to the bottom of the whorl.

So the news remains riveting, with images from the Fukushima reactor having the same sort of dreadful fascination drawing us in as the images from last spring of the uncapped Deepwater Horizon well, spewing all that seemingly unstoppable oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

And what’s scariest here is that such disaster is not only possible here — The NRC also last week cited 14 critical problems  (“near-misses,” in their own language) at various nuclear power plants in the U.S. last year – the harrowing events and consequences of Fukushima could easily happen here with a large-scale natural event (California’s El Diablo Canyon plant sits close to four earthquake faults). The Commission added in its report last week that it was “utterly unrealistic” to expect current U.S. standards for nuclear safety to fare any better in the event of a disaster on the scale of Japan’s.

With oil supplies imperiled by unrest in a dozen Middle Eastern countries (another unfolding flower of badness in the news, with U.S. cruisers firing Tomahawk missiles at Libyan air defense installations in the first stage of a U.N.-sanctioned multi-nation assault of Gadhafi’s reign of terror), the need for alternative sources of energy including nuclear power never seems higher. But as the crisis in Japan reveals, that alternative is just as fraught with danger, perhaps worse.

So just what the Jesus Hail Mary arewegonnado?

Back in January I posted an insearch examining the fast-spreading phenomenon in advanced societies of large-scale disasters and looming  catastrophes cultured by our growing techonolgical complexity. The effect of global warming, the result of fossil fuel emissions, snowballs. There was Deepwater Horizon. There was the meltdown of the financial system in 2008 due to instruments which no one foresaw the dread implications of until real estate peaked and then began to tank. There were the Challenger and Columbia shuttle explosions? There exists the threat of a suitcase nuke carried by some terrorist into one of our cities. There is the potential havoc of a communications white-out due to cyber-terrorism.

All of these swarming bugaboos root down into the single issue of complexity: our technology is now smart enough to create vast systems but far too short-sighted and stupid to effectively manage it complexity when Nature introduces—as She always can—Her free radicals into the works.

My original post is more mythological than technological, for I do believe that the problems we create in the world are the result of problems of consciousness, the analysis of which can be tellingly described by the myths. Our tools for cracking nature have greatly evolved, but our desire to wield and master those tools haven’t changed a whit in six thousand years. If there is work that I can do to amplify that background—small work indeed, compared to the needs we globally face—then at least the post bears repeating.

There is a certain urgency to the task. History is fast-repeating in Japan, and everyone is keeping a wary eye on the San Andreas fault in California, the last corner of the Rim of Fire to not see a major earthquake in the past two years. Silicon Valley is no place to be when the resultant wall of water comes storm-trooping in.

Rim of Fire, walls of the Maelstrom: how do we get out? In Poe’s tale, the narrator survives by jumping ship to ride a barrel which he observed had better ballast in the madness of the whorl. It was a low-tech solution, moving forward by stepping back. Ishmael on Queequeg’s floating coffin, the first singer Arion ferried to shore on the back of a dolphin: these are mythic solutions to the shipwreck of technology.

Ride along with me: perhaps we’ll find a shore.

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CONSCIOUSNESS, COMPLEXITY AND CATASTROPHE

The Hermaneutics of Risky Business

originally posted Jan. 13, 2011

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Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times.”

Note: This essay began Monday, Dec. 26, 2010 on the wings of a cold front barrellng through Central Florida with far worser boreals afflicting the North, and rounded to an end (of sorts) on January 13, 2011 with the next cold front barreling through and the North, again,  getting suckerpunched with ice and snow.)

It’s blowing hard and cold again outside this morning, the third bout of three-nights-of-freezing-temps to hit Florida this December – a record.  Sensitive citrus and vegetable crops have taken an icy shellacking. Disney tourists are glum. The Christmas tree at Lake Eola in downtown Orlando blew over in a wind gust yesterday. I gave up on trying to protect our withered pinwheel jasmines in the garden, already wilted from two previous freezes (I’ll lop it down to the stump and it will grow back.) Our heat pumps lamely keep temps up to 60 in the house at this hour. As I write with a blanket in my lap I have two cats also curled there – awkward, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

I’m sure most of you are laughing at my thin-skinned bitching, especially as a monster snowstorm dumps up two feet up the Northeastern seaboard with 60-mph wind gusts, putting a major post-holiday travel and shopping. (Monday morning back-to-workers faced a miserably long and hazardous commute.)

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Commuter hell in New York City, December 27, 2010.

This area is about as ill-prepared for such wintry visitations as it is for hurricanes, a much more probable event but similarly unthinkable in their magnitude. We here live in balmier averages, with cold only an occasional visitor. Or did: last winter was the coldest (or, in some areas, the second-coldest) ever in Central Florida for number of sub-zero nights and an average astronomical winter (89 days from winter solstice to spring equinox) temperature.  Crop damage was extensive and ornamental landscaping for less chilly climes was vastly killed off. Chilly waters in the Gulf of Mexico led to record-breaking kills of sea turtles, manatees and fish.  (Records which held for only a few months when the Deepwater Horizon spill did the deed with oil.)

Simply, our infrastructure is poorly equipped for 30- or 100-year events–especially when they come calling two years in a row. Monday’s high temperature in Orlando of 50 beat the all-time low-high by some six degrees.

Back in 2004, Florida was hit by four major hurricanes, another hundred-year event which left the area peppered with blue-tarped roofs, a major mauling of southern oaks, and a 200 percent rise in property insurance premiums since. Florida is especially vulnerable to these catastrophes (especially hurricanes), with mega-development over the past 30 all within 50 miles of some coast).

No one, it seems, prepares for the statistically improbable, the catastrophically impossible. Sketchy plans are made for 100-year events which have a 1 percent chance of happening on any given year of a century’s span, have only a 64% chance of happening any time during that century; and yet, it seems that 100-year-events happen every year: Hurricane Katrina, was the hurricane the Gulf Coast had averted for too long, and the flooding of New Orleans was an accident waiting to happen with an aging system of drainage canal levees which breeched in 50 places when the storm surge arrived—the worst engineering disaster in U.S. history.  Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Nashville, Tennessee were both inundated by floods recently. (My father’s boyhood home in Cedar Rapids was completely covered and then torn down during cleanup efforts.)

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Four hurricanes struck Florida in 2004; Cedar Rapids suffered a 1000-year flood in 2008.

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Gods of wind and cold are more potent than our designs: That’s the paradigm behind the futility of building warm enough spaces behind strong enough walls.  I remember a state geologist once said that there’s no fooling Mother Nature when you try to build something durable on a shifting barrier island; the ocean always gets Her way.

Global warming—the product of our fossil-fuel-burning civilization—has a lot to do with shifting weather patterns, including record-breaking heat and cold and storms. The 2000’s were the hottest decade on record, with major droughts in some areas and increasing inundation in others. Scientists are growing alarmed at the rate of glacial melt in the Greenland, now occurring at rate that will probably subsume much of South Florida by 2050.

Of course, the cry to these things is not so much why a god would allow such misery to happen—those cries largely faded , if you agree with Julian Jaynes, with the collapse of the bicameral mind roughly at the close of  the Bronze Age as the loud voice of god faded in function as agrarian civilizations (like Mesopotamia) were routed by unrest and invasion. What emerged was Man Thinking – a level of consciousness which emerged as a response to the bicameral collapse which allowed for the development of a conceiving, conniving, innovating, problem-solving brain no longer dependent upon the gods for direction. Now we cry, how could we let these things happen—though we really mean They, all of  those smart-asses whose solutions have created much bigger problems than any we have seen before.

Look at the disaster registry due to human innovation – war toys from Gatlin guns to mustard gas, nukes and Agent Orange cluster bombs; nuclear meltdowns at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island; the space shuttle explosions; massive floods subsuming Cedar Rapids and Nashville (largely due to floodplain engineering designed to work efficiently with probable fluctiations in water levels but disastrously with the extreme); the financial industry collapse in 2008; the Exxon Valdez oil spill and Deepwater Horizon; the threat of cyber warfare:  all of these misery-inducing events are the result of human invention. And as our solutions pile to such a dizzy height, toppling is frequent and commonplace.

We live in an ever-risky world whose great risk is largely due to our attempts to ameliorate risk. How can this be? In a famous 1996 New Yorker essay, Malcolm Gladwell asserted that catastrophic system failures, as evidenced by the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986, are the result of risk-containment systems which build up to a level of complexity where a simple train of small glitches can trigger a catastrophic breakdown.

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The explosion of the Challenger Space shuttle in 1984 and Deepwater Horizon in 2010 showed the dangers of risk-aversion culture.

Risk-containment systems are built into complex machinery; however, these systems are the judgment call of a particular culture based on prior experience that may not be wide enough in scope. At NASA, where it was believed that space flight was inherently risky, its operating procedures sifted risk between the acceptable (marginal) and threatening (things which could reasonably happen in the normal course of events).

O-rings had been identified as a potential risk for several years, but they were deemed an acceptable one. No one knew how much cold could affect the efficiency of those rings until Challenger launched on a January morning of record cold. Frozen rings caused a stream of flame to ignite one of Challenger’s external fuel tanks and the entire vehicle exploded in system failure.  The United States’ space program, the most expensive and advanced in the world, showed it vulnerable ass to all in those snaky plumes of smoke descending into the cold blue Atlantic that sunny morning in January.

(I was working at the Orlando Sentinel newspaper at the time; we’d gone up on the roof to watch the launch 50 miles away, and when the we saw a straight trajectory of flame turn into a haphazard confusion of smoke plumes, everyone dashed down through a maze of pressroom hallways and stairwells back into the main building and to Editorial to watch the endless loop of explosion footage on TVs mounted in there.)

Following the explosion, the country did what the usual disaster response of massively wringing our collective hands, looking for smoking guns, someone to blame. The Challenger salvage operation was largest-scale event of its kind, going on for months as pieces of wreckage were dredged up from the Atlantic. (Much of it refused salvage; twenty-five years after the disasters, pieces of Challenger still routinely wash up on the shores of Brevard County beaches). A Presidential Commission was named and assigned the task of making meaning out of the incomplete jigsaw of wreckage. The culprit in the superstructure was named—those damned O-rings—yet the Commission could not find fault in the infrastructure of procedure. No one was fired or sued. The O-rings were addressed and launch procedures changed to restrict them during times of extreme cold: but the invulnerable image of the U.S. space program was forever destroyed, entering us into a riskier, more dangerous present.

Nearly 20 years after Challenger, heat tiles fell off the external tank of the space shuttle Columbia when it launched from Cape Canaveral in February 2003, striking the leading edge of the shuttle’s left wing and damaging the shuttles thermal protection system.  Heat tiles had been observed falling off previous shuttles, but since it hadn’t affected those shuttle flights, their falling off was considered an acceptable risk. But this time, falling tiles had done damage at a crucial locus of the re-entry process, and as Columbia began its return descent, the damaged area allowed hot gases to enter the internal wing structure, causing a rapid breakup of the entire vehicle. Remains mechanical and human fell in a rain over a swath from Texas to Arkansas, and the blame game was on again.

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The risky business of space flight was revealed in 2003 from a totally different direction when heat tiles fell off the external fuel tank during liftoff and did fatal structural damage to the shuttle’s left wing.

The space shuttle program represents one of the greatest technological achievements in human history, yet it also is a primee example of  how complex systems cannot be managed with risk-aversion cultures developed in less complex times.

Our technology has outgrown our conceptions of it; we’re playing with fires we know too little about. The company which built Deepwater Horizon had built and placed a thousand deep-water rigs around in the Gulf and was sure in its purpose, but deepwater drilling – something we began only as more available sources of oil have been depleted and reliance on foreign oil became so dicey –- is inherently risky, delving into an environment we know too little about. There was a very real chance that the blown core of the Deepwater drill would be prove unblockable, flooding the entire Gulf with oil. That didn’t happen, but we were exposed to knowledge that offshore oil drilling is a much riskier business than we had ever imagined.

In the same essay, Gladwell pointed out that risk-aversion systems often set up catastrophe by the very assurance they provide. He cited a study of the use of anti-lock braking systems in a fleet of taxicabs in Munich. For three years they were secretly compared with another group of cabs which didn’t have the antilock brakes, and the results were startling: the cabs that had the antilock brakes had a much higher accident rate. Why? The perceived security offered by the antilock brakes made cabbies much more inferior drivers. Trusting their better brakes, they drove faster, made sharper turns, showed poorer lane discipline, tailgated and braked harder. Drivers did not use the antilock brakes to drive safer; it only gave them the incentive to drive more hazardously, trusting their antilock brakes to save them if they got into trouble. “As economists would say,” Gladwell writes, “they ‘consumed’ the risk reduction, they didn’t save it.”

Something about this reminds me of the complex financial tools put into place by the big investment houses in the late 2000s to mine profits they had never seen before. These tools included subprime mortgage lending, mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps; all hinged on an ever-ballooning housing market which, when it topped off in early 2008, caused the tools to work in reverse and nearly bankrupted the entire world. Obviously greed was a culprit – isn’t it always, when you look at the massive oil spills or other disasters where profit had greater leverage than safety? Yet there is also the sense that, as a species, we have become smart enough to wring treasure from heights and depths, wringing power and profits from wind and wave and upwellings of oil and market activity, but we are not smart enough to efficiently manage our machinery. Ragnarok — the Apocalypse of the Gods — has become, in the post-bicameral human consciousness – An Ooopsie of the Odds, precipitated by everything we think we know too well.

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Many have seen parallels with this notion with the scene in Disney’s Fantasia where Mickey Mouse acts out Goethe’s poem “The Sorceror’s Apprentice,” set to the symphonic poem of Paul Dukas. Mickey is the apprentice of an old sorceror; as the old man is leaving his workshop, he gives Mickey chores to perform. Tired of fetching water by pail, Mickey enchants a broom to do the work for him — using magic he is not yet fully trained in. The floor is soon awash with water, and the apprentice realizes that he cannot stop the broom because he does not know how. He tries to split the broom in two with an axe, but each of the pieces becomes a new broom and takes up a pail and continues fetching water, now at twice the speed.

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When all seems lost, the old sorcerer returns, quickly breaks the spell and saves the day. The poem finishes with the old sorcerer’s statement that powerful spirits should only be called by the master himself.

In the take of many on where civilization is today, we are the Apprentice playing with fire. We know enough about processes to set them in motion, but since our motives are selfish, self-aggrandizing or simply self-comforting, we can’t see the big picture and abuse “spirits” which take on a life of their own.

There’s something also to be said about being smart enough to create a complex system—playing God with the spirits of nature—but failing to be smart enough how to shut the system down when it fails. Catastrophe on the order of Challenger or Deepwater Horizon or the financial system is the result of complex systems becoming gnarly beyond our ken and ability to untangle, Google invoking googol-plex morass of knowns, obliterating all hope of knowledge.

Well, to err is human, but to fuck up is divine—at least, error on a grand scale is archetypal in our makeup. Adam and Eve had were under strict instructions not to eat of the tree of knowledge, but Satan had only to wave a juicy apple under Eve’s eyes and the chain of disobedience known as original sin was hammered into our psyche, religious conscience whispering that one bad move and its fire in this life and brimstone in the next.

A traditional Finnish folktale says that our error is rooted in faulty, or insufficient knowledge. (Maybe the sin of Eden was in eating too few of those apples.) It goes like this: There were two brothers, one rich and one poor. One Christmas the rich brother gave the other a ham, on condition that he should go to Pōrgu. On his way, the poor brother encountered a member of the wee folk who told him that ham was a rarity in the Otherword, but he must not sell it for money, but only for what was behind the door, which proved to be a wishing-mill. The rich brother bought it for a high price from the poor brother and set it to grind herrings and milk-soup; but he was soon forced to give his brother another great sum to induce him to take it back, and to save him and his wife, and indeed the whole village, from being overwhelmed by the torrents of herrings and soup. Afterwards it was sold to a sea-captain, who set it to grind salt, and it ground on till the ship sank, and it now lies at the bottom of the sea, grinding salt for ever. According to the folktale, that’s how the sea became salty.

The unmentioned truth is that the fairies withheld the precious knowledge of how to stop the endless productions of the wishing mill. Maybe the poor man forgot to ask in the ambrosial funk of finally getting all of his wishes met. I’m sure no blacksmith forging bronze for the first time considered the number of throats which would be slit by its superior strength and sharpness.

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Harold Lloyd in “Safety Last”

Complexity and chaos are challenges in which traditional mind – the “culture” which surrounds any given group of like interests and purpose—is fooled by what it thinks it knows best. The wisdom of the ancients sometimes an eerie similarity to quantum physics, but the equations are only surficially similar. The assurance of accumulated wisdom is blind to the nakedness of fresh truth: we’ll never quite “connect the dots” if the process is secretly guarded by a sacred trust in ossified beliefs. – The belief, for example, that all dots must connect, the universe being a product of divine design.

Fooled by what our knowledge teaches us to look for. Bush Administration officials failed to see the threat of Al-Quaeda because they thought the threat was from the intercontinental ballistic missiles of the Cold War. The high-tech, big money Star Wars defense system was aimed at the enemy we thought we knew; and with our eyes fixed on the sky for rockets, no one saw the threat of men boarding transcontinental passenger jets armed with box-cutters. We’re still panicking over the threat of weapons of mass destruction – nukes stashed in suitcases and shipping containers – when the enemy is hacking away at us in a death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy, using the much smaller threat of shoe and underwear and printer-toner bombs to bankrupt the airline industry.

Even the notion of “connecting the dots” is an old-school approach to the problem of complexity, since the dots aren’t comprehensible in linear patterns any more. String theory posits a universe of many overlayered, interconnected and discrete universes existing simultaneously, a sort of 3-D chess game brokered by a mad God, or none at all.

What sort of mind can engage this nuttiness and avert the primrose path of risk aversion? I suggest three discretely related paradigms:

  • First, I agree with Wallace Stevens that you have to have a mind of a snowman to comprehend winter: the nakedness of things as they are requires a nakedness where the data is seen without applying one’s inherited or accumulated webs of meaning. In approaching this theme, I’ve floundered in the myths, searching in vain for a motif that isn’t styled by an archetype. The gods all arrived to defeat Chaos—always the defeat of Tiamat or the Delphian serpent, battling the Titans to a fall, establishing a rule of law which was absolute. Those gods – and their laws – are gone, and their archetypal styles only mask the problem in manias of light and might warped every whichway.  Poetry and beauty, elegance and eloquence may produce an aura of meaning, but none of that will prevent the power grid which keeps the East Coast lit and warm from failing. Meaning blinds us to randomness: the dots work because they’re disconnected, or rather, their disconnectedness creates the wholly unforeseen pattern.
  • Second, commonsensical reasoning can’t help, either. Truths which have long been accepted do not necessarily age well into the present. The power grids are built on electromechanical assumptions which work efficiently on one scale, but the larger they become and burdensome to manage, the less those assumptions matter. The nature of electromechanics changes as new layers of complexity are introduced: process become more important than system: the cognition of it has to be figured out from the inside of the works. Our brains should be capable of that, what with their trillions of connections firing at will across multiple networks. Know thyself, the Delphic oracle said – but it may have meant not self-knowledge but knowledge of the self-works, how consciousness arises out of a billion-fold mash of unconscious waves of data.
  • Third, the process of this cognition must work widely, embracing all of the inputs, especially the denigrated ones. As Jung has pointed out, wholeness arises out of the union of the opposites: I and Thou must somehow mate in the middle of the matrix. If system failure is my fear, then I must also engage the fact of system failure, make it a part of my thought, so that chaos becomes a nutrient and dynamo of thought. We learn that most of space is composed not of what  we see but the darkness we can’t, and that the universe is woven by forces which are unnamable, by laws which are beyond human thought. Science can’t unlock those mysteries with tools designed for springing locks; the Unknowable simply is, and thrives outside of our mental constructs of time and space.

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What could it mean to perceive cosmos with a certain resistance to the pitfalls of reason? That’s where the rejected bicamerality of mind – the old-school notions of the gods – can help. If the gods are inscrutable, then to know cosmos is to know without knowing, embracing what simply is. Left and right hemishpheres of the mind – the opposed locii of reasoning and language, science and God – can be paired into an engine which rejects and accepts meaning at the same time, just the way the complex universe is knowable and not.

Perhaps. Such evolution of thought – of thinking – may be the necessary evolutionary response to the failure of consciousness to deal with the present moment, the way bicameral mind failed to deal with the death of the gods. I believe we’re in a dark ages of sorts, trapped in dead-ending paradigms, searching every which way to erect a cognitive structure equal to the realities and challenges we now exist in.

Always there is the threat of falling back into the old traps. To become fundamentalists and literalists of mind, hugging old-school paradigms because we haven’t the fortitude to foray out as far as the task requires. We may blow ourselves up before we figure it out. Or this tiny blue dot of an experiment in mental life gets destroyed by an alien race making room for a hyperspace bypass.

Julian Jaynes contended that consciousness was a late invention in mind, the product of the development of an interior world which identified itself as I as opposed to You, the outside world. It developed a sense of narrative – of coming-to-being and creating a world over time. It replaced the gods in all decision making and eventually made the individual a complete cosmos. Consciousness made possible the sort of godlike manipulation of nature which employed fire, developed agriculture, and became the industrious tool-maker and –employer of modern science.

Consciousness got us into the complexities of the present, and it is challenged to out-think itself, to know how to refute its processes in the name of shutting down the handmill when salt overbrims the prow of the ship. It evolved from a more primary mode of mind (which Jaynes called bicameral, with “the gods” residing in the right hemisphere, uttering the edicts and commands for every stressful situation); it should be able to evolve into a greater, more capable knowledge, translateral in its ability to think and dream at the same time, to create and conceive systems with a  little blue man at its core, flipping the  switch  off at exactly the right moment before catastrophe floods through.

That’s what fascinates me, these days: is there evidence of consciousness finding a way through itself, without falling back into the lost certainties of fundamentalism or the other way into the gulf of its own, overconfident knowledge. To have a mind of winter which knows best what it can’t, a partnership between I and Thou where a faith is at work building a new expression enginned for the next moment’s truth, embracing and rejecting  the past in the same gesture.

So my net is cast out there, searching for new fusions of latter and former fissions:

  • One example might be the current debate over a social-psychiatric science journal publishing a research on evidence of the ability foresee future events using extra-sensory perceptional apparatus heretofore rejected by the scientific community. It was carefully peer-reviewed for rigor of procedure and validity of results, but its publication has sparked an enormous outcry from the scientific community, beleaguered as it is by a vast mainstream of anti-rational and anti-scientific thought which asserts the primacy of belief over reason. Does such publication weaken the field, the unacceptable tide leaking into the embattled realm of accepted method? Is science sinking into the mud? Or is a lid unknowingly being lifted on an evolved, forward-backward science where light and dark are becoming meshed in a new method where the unknowable (or unprovable) doctors the watchworks and calibrates the tools of analysis with a random twist of abyss?
  • Another fusion shows how civilization explodes from its “errors,” the unintended use of a technology become its gold standard. The Internet was first devised in the late 1950s as a component of our military defenses, linking computers at the Pentagon, Cheyenne Mountain (where radars scan the heavens for military threats) and Strategic Air Command headquarters. It was developed further by universities as a means of researchers sharing information in the 1970s. But when it when it was put to commercial use in the 1990s, it big-banged into something which took over modern life with a pervasiveness parallel to the introduction of agriculture at the end of the Paleolithic.

What wonderful cognition brought this leap into the hyperrealities of cyberspace possible? Look low: Sex, the unassailable instinct, was the devil who handed us this apple. Granting world-wide access to the Swedish Bikini Team’s locker room, the Internet exploded, led on the vanguard of sex. Sex it the Internet’s primary source of interest and commerce. YouTube was originally a dating site, where you could view short vids of prospective partners; Facebook was used by Harvard nerds to compare notes on female undergraduates. Without sex, there wouldn’t be online banking, smartphones, cloud computing, social media, Wikipedia or Wikileaks. (Unassailable for his massive leaks of U.S. diplomatic and military cables, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was nabbed by police for his rubber-less indiscretions with two women in Sweden.) Numerous industries which have been decimated by the Internet’s transmission of free content are being forced to transform into a wholly new business model or die. (Many are dying, but some are finding foundation on water, thriving in virtual clouds, having no brick-and-mortar reality. Apple’s market cap is the fourth largest, and its not for its hardware – innovative though it is – but its ability to capture the imagination with hardware vastly pregnant with possibility.

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Sometimes it’s a matter of turning a tool the other way around, realizing the supreme use of it in the opposite direction. Take the tale of Apollo and Marysas. Marysas was a musically gifted satyr who believed so much in his talent at the flute that he challenged the god Apollo to a battle of the instruments, on the condition that the winner could do as he pleased with the vanquished. The Muses collected to judge the outcome. Apollo played the cithara – a lyre or ur-guitar – and Marsyas held his own against the god for beautiful strains until the god began singing. Another version has it that Apollo turned his lute upside down and played the same tune, something which Marysas couldn’t do with a flute.) Either way, that added element – beauty plus, or beauty upside down and backward – resulted in unanimous decision by the Muses in Apollo’s favor, and as a result Marsyas was hung upside down and flayed alive.

Marysas has been seen by some as representative of the older nature religions (he is associated with the cult of Cybele, who crucified her mortal lover Attis by hanging him upside down on a cypress tree), with Apollo representative of the Hellenic mind which sourced there and then superceded it with superior insight and calibration of mind. If so, then Apollo’s victory in the contest suggests that civilization advances not by logical progression but the odd wily banana peel, ass-ending the old with a twist of the new.

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Marsyas and Apollo. Vase painting, ca 360-340 BC.

Statues of Marysas found their way into the public squares of many ancient cities (Horace, Juvenal and Martial all reference the one in Rome), perhaps with mutual nods to Bacchantic license as well as a reminder of the ends of challenging authority. The duple readings perhaps give the tale its enduring, endearing place in the imagination. Nature has its flute, mind its lute; there is a tale of nymph-glades and skin-flutes, and another of overreaching, ambition become humiliation. And it’s possible to read the myth the other way, from the perspective of the god, offering healing corrective in the rawest way possible, suggesting that power comes not from ambition but through sacrifice, that the surrender is the only eternal escape from finitude, our mortal condition.

(For more on the tale, click here. You dowse your own conclusions.)

Such perambling to and fro the length of a myth, one way and then another, reading it from many perspectives, provides its rewards in depth. It’s like retrieving a dream by grabbing its fleeing tail; the last detail, the only one remembered upon waking is loosed in the imagination and the dream returns entire, or maybe the single remembered motion becomes a trope-a-rope by which one descends (or ascends) to discover a new firmament, a fresh expression. I think of the Outer World arrangement of the I Ching hexagrams, aligned according to their natural occurrence; the Inner World arrangement is revealed when you  twist the cycle a notch, revealing Lake and Mountain, Arousing Thunder and the seasons of the soul, like the outer world but  never exactly, florid and exuberant with a symbolic expression freed from its outer semblance.

There is a wonderful myth-metaphor for this hermeneutic work in the figure of Hermes, god of boundaries and roads, animal husbandry and athletic contests, diplomacy and persuasion, music and cunning (commerce), playful thought and a running imagination. Hermes was around a long time before Apollo, sort of a phallic-shaman-satyr whose presence was often marked by a pile of stones called herms. You knew where one territory ended and another begin by a herm. Early commerce was usually undertaken at these boundary-markers, with the trading partners never meeting, the seller leaving the goods at the herm and the buyer later picking them up from it.

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Detail of Hermes from a painting of Zeus dispatching the messenger gods Iris and Hermes. It is probably an illustration of a scene described in the Iliad. Hermes is shown holding a kerykeion (herald’s wand) and wearing winged boots, a petasos and chlamys (traveller’s cap and cloak). From a vase dated ca. 480-470 BC.

Bringing Hermes into the Hellenic age, the Homeric Hymn to Hermes has him, as a child, stealing the sacred cattle of Apollo, concealing the cattle’s tracks  by putting boots on their hooves and hiding them in a cave except for two which he sacrifices to Zeus. Outside the cave Hermes finds a tortoise and kills it, cleaning out the insides and fashioning the first musical instrument, a lyre, making strings from the cattle he’d sacrificed. Apollo tracks down the thief using “divine science” and confronts the infant god. When he hears Hermes play the lyre he is so entranced that he asks for the musical instrument in return for the cattle. Later, Hermes fashions the first pipe while tending his flock of cattle, and Apollo becomes entranced also of that music, and teaches Hermes how to prophesy in return for the flute. Later Zeus makes Hermes the herald and messenger of the gods.

What is fascinating to me is that this god predates the Hellenic pantheon and yet has a mind which leaps ahead of it. In his essay “The Liminality of Hermes and the Meaning of Hermaneutics,” Richard E. Palmer puts it this way:

“By a playful thinking that is more persuasive than the rigor of science,” Heidegger tells us, the Greek words for interpreting and interpretation – hermeneuein, hermeneia – can be traced back to the god Hermes … As a god of sudden magic and mystery and sudden good luck, Hermes is the god of sudden interpretive insights that come from an ability to approach daytime reality with liminal freedom.

Apollo picked up his skill at music from rustic infant Hermes – bartered his sacred cows and the art of divination for it – and, as we saw with Marsyas, learned how to win a contest by a bit of Hermetic knavery, exceeding the boundaries of divine science by playing the Muses’ lyre upside down. Brilliant indeed; the Hellenic age was one of clarifying a god’s boundaries through the arts. As They became clear, we became conscious; the arrival of the Olympians as the new ruling class of gods, bound no longer to the fixed laws of birth, life, and death on earth but free to gambol and gambit from the heavens was a projection of what was happening inside the classical Greek mind. Liminal freedom meant finding divine presence everywhere one looked. There is a freshness and vitality in the poems and dramas, sculpture and pottery of the Hellenic age: everywhere the artist looked, a new world was seen in the old, lit from within a mind now capable of mental play with the possibilities.

In our age, where the light of Apollo burns so brightly as to almost obliterate the night sky, Apollonian certainties have rigored into a science and technology which has created systems so complex that they are blind to their own growing shadow, a shadow which I read as the monkeywrench in the complex works of civilization. The tools of the scientific mind are fast outpacing our ability to manage, much less comprehend them.

And in the shadow of our risky business, Hermes is found, dancing with mad mullet-eyed-drunk Dionysos, the anti-rational half-brother of Apollo. The alternatives to Apollonian complexity – that ever-aggrandizing science with its ever-speeding-toward-careening-technology – are thinking our way through from the playful borderland of Hermes or descending into an anti-rational chaos.

Take the current gridlock in Congress, where partisans so convinced of their correctness are dragging the country closer toward the borders of civil war. Such heated angst inflicts its violence upon a culture, much as it grows out of a violent, armed-to-the-teeth society; and minds which have yet to find a stable center whirl out of the vortex spraying insensate invective and bullets where they careen. Congress wrings its hands mouthing platitudes about civility for a day, then resumes its heated embattled fray, avoiding any sort of gun-control legislation while Republicans fight to tear down President Obama’s health care initiative, which would put more troubled youth within the radar early enough.

It’s not surprising that studies indicate a rise in the percentage of manic-depressives in our population; the network consciousness of social media may flooding impressionable minds way with way too much sex and thugs  and rock n roll. The white noise of online 24-7 may be all but eradicating the sort of individual thinking which establishes a self and constructs safe boundaries between the imagined and the real. (The problem may also root in the culture of pharmacology, a complex system whose inherent risk is that its palliatives may also serve as infectious agents.)

Hermes’ style of thinking – playful, conniving, unwilling to play by rigid rational rules though arising from them – may be the corrective for the ills of NASA and British Petroleum, Washington and Tuscon, Sarah Palin and Jared Loughner. Hermes rules the boundaries between things, and he allows fruitful commerce to happen there with a certain contempt for orthodox thinking. He avoids the risk of complexity by seeing through the system; as messenger of the gods he keeps on the border of their individual fixities with a fleet and fluid language (the tongues of sacrificed animals were offered to Hermes) capable of talking in every divine style. The rigor of any system lies in its adherence to a single culture; NASA culture can launch rockets, but its shadowy treatment of risk allows its rockets to blow up, too; Washington is ruled by Beltway manners which are increasingly unable to adequately rule. Hermeneutics help us to see what the captains of these problematic enterprises cannot, innovating not the tools but our ways of thinking about them. As god of roads, Hermes protects the traveler willing to cross borders, punishing those who refuse to help travelers who had lost their way. His staff is twined with the two antithetical branches (or snakes) of diplomacy and magic, brilliant thought and dark speech. Luck is Hermetic, accidental to the Apollonian mind yet something wholly other to Hermes, the ability to see what the eye can’t or won’t, thinking around (or under) thought to find the hidden treasure.

Hermes may rule the connective fiber that spans the fissure between left and right hemispheres of the brain, each hemisphere tending toward a certain heightened functioning, analytical in the left hemisphere (using linear reasoning) and more wholistic and inflected in the right (call it circular reasoning). Disciplined, routine behavior centers in the left brain; depression and negative thought is linked to the right brain, as is arousal, response to novel situations and self-reflection. It’s easy to see Apollo and Dionysos ruling from left and right sides of the brain; either alone would be a tyranny, but translateral functioning—the whole-brained approach—is enabled by Hermes.

Hermes keeps us keepin’ on. He’s the motive and motivator of the essay, which began with troubling realities and found a way to see through them and step around them on a precipice of air. (Good thing Hermes wears winged sandals.) Now if he could only help me find an ending; but I don’t think that’s his job. He’s simply got me thinking now of the next essay sufficiently so that I don’t care to linger here any longer. It is Hermes who has me put these words into stricken Marsyas’s mouth: “Alas, the way I thought it was is not the way it is at all!”

Those are the same words uttered by St. Oran after his face was unearthed from the grave where he was buried alive to appease the angry former god of Iona when St. Columba came there to found his abbey in 563 AD. Columba wished to look on the face of his friend one last time, and got a mouthful of Otherworld dirt instead. The early centuries of Irish Christianity were a vibrant confluence of old and new; the magnificent manuscripts of Kells and Lindisfarne were richly illustrated testaments to God’s presence, the former oral culture going into the foundations of the new written one. Orthodoxy eventually arrived, killing the vibrant spirit of adventure; but for a time the written word was the frontier West, open, wild, and free. The Internet has some of that nature, as long as we don’t take it too seriously nor let it overtake our individual brains.

And when disaster strikes in the eternal watchworks – when complexity creates its own collapse – let us be reminded by Hermes that in every end there is a beginning, a new possibility. Deep in the maelstrom of the Second World War, T.S. Eliot would write his great poem-sequence Four Quartets. When all seemed lost, he found a way through and out, I believe, through the hermeneutics of a rational-poetic mind. Waving that caduceus, he sang,

..each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling, undisciplined squads of emotion.
And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition —
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found again and again:  and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious.  But perhaps there is neither
Gain nor loss.  For us, there is only the trying.
The rest is not our business.

Or rather, it is Hermes’ business, deal-maker, dancer, venture-undertaker. We can navigate our way into the future by Hermes’ light, one which both connects with the divine as well as the dead (Hermes psychopompos ferries the souls of the dead to the Underworld). We simply do the best we can, rolling the dice, making our next gambit on the inarticulate, trying to find the words. Hermes doesn’t so much promise fortune as another fortunate foray.

As Eliot wrote elsewhere in Four Quartets, the following should be inscribed on the arch we pass under as we head out on the next open road:

Not fare well,
But fare forward, o voyagers.

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Aftermath of blizzard in New York City, 1/12/2011.

 


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Filed under Cognitive Science, Concsiousness, Consciousness, Culture, Folklore, Greek mythology, Life, Mind, Myth and Archetype, Mythology, Nature, Oran, Pyschology, The Future, The Sea

Madness and The Creative

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Note: The tragic shooting of Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on Saturday along with 19 others by 22-year-old Jared Laughner has many dimensions and reverberations.  Arizona has the most lax guns laws (it’s legal for anyone to carry a concealed weapon without a permit), and it is also one of the most polemically charged battlegrounds of partisan politics. Our airwaves are more awash with hate than sexual speech. Developing minds are saturated with the moral nihilism of the Internet; poisonous culture cannot help but ill brains which are increasingly collectivized into a single awareness. Which is bad news for all of us.

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Arizona mass murderer Jared Laughner and a photo from a his MySpace page, showing a pistol laid upon a U.S. history textbook.

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In April 2007 I wrote the following essay just after the Virginia Tech massacre, when Seung-Hu Cho, a student at the university, killed 32 and wounded 17 more. Beyond the obvious comparisons between two increasingly unbalanced young men who descended into a pit of rage which could only conclude with mass violence, there was another odd connective fiber: both were literature students. Both, in my view, were trying to articulate something they could not, and so instead turned to the broader pen of the sword. (Both turned to YouTube and MySpace and other anonymous theaters of rant, their shouting barely audible in those forums – another post there …)

Madness and the creative are, I think, two faces of initiation into culture, and when the culture is ill, the initiation is much, much more difficult.

Anyway, I get ahead of myself …

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A self-portrait of Seung-Hu Cho and the aftermath of his bloody rampage.

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1. The “Swimming  Part”

Mass murderer Seung-Hu Cho was a very quiet young man, at least on the outside, locked in psychic autism which strangled the words in his mouth. But not on paper, not inside his head. We now have ample evidence of the gathering storm from his class writings — he was a senior-year English major — and from that terrible manifesto he sent to NBC News just after the first killings in a dorm (he asked for an ex-girlfriend he never had) and on his way to the grand finale.

A preternatural surface silence attended Seung-Hu Cho from early on, a silence that seemed impossible for the boy to break, despite an obviously hyperactive inner life inside his head. He surfaced at last in a catastrophic eruption of profane joyous rage. Cho seemed like an anaesthetized patient who woke the wrong way, his psychic surgery botched; the pedigreed bachelor of English looked into the camera and spouted profanity and obscenity, and where those words were not sufficient, he held up guns, a chain, a hammer. Swinging those weapons to silence the others who were ranting in his head.

There is a strange relation between madness and creativity, between the anaesthetized will which erupts and the aesthetic heart that sublimes.. Passion arouses us; healing and annihilation swings in the balance as we attempt to find a healthy gradient for it. The madman never finds it, slipping instead down and down an obuliette’s gripless walls, never to return to the light of day. Something different happens with the creative who, at some spiritual nadir of the descent is transformed, making of that self-descending well a birth canal. He or she finds words that seed the rebirth that those words attend.

If the collective myths of our past have distilled through the great religions down into the creative responses of great individuals (or the great labor of individuation, available to all yet practiced by few), what does myth have to tell us about madness and creativity? Do we look to the old myths, or try to read contemporary arts? Does one learn to undertake the night sea journey, or does one learn to write? To me, myth’s trasmogrification — or perhaps desiccation, or even bastardization — into the arts is a strange but adequate way to take our pulse, to check on the state of our hearts, or the art of the heart.

Millions of young people go down into their depths at some point of their passage into adulthood, depressed, grieving, into a limbo of fear and fantasy and oblivion, running from their immanent responsibilities in the adult community. Many get sick and then sicker, freezing into the rigor mortis of paralyzing fears, ripping helterskerlter into bipolar jaunts, going schizo. Millions suffer all of these inwarding demons; most work their way through, on their own or with the help of mental health professionals, newfound (or renewed) faith in the Church, in love or some other life-affirming activity. Many become lifelong addicts of oblivion, alkies and dope fiends and pillheads opting for the slow death. Fewer choose the quick fix, sticking a shotgun in their mouth or noosing themselves with a bedsheet or gobbling bottles of pills. And very, very few explode out into the world in psychotic rage, their victimized sensibility sharpened on the whetstone of madness into a reaper’s blade. A terrible, fraught and necessary passage for which most of us could contribute our own stories, fraught with our personal mix of horror and madness and redemption.

Joseph Campbell put it this way:

“The difference – to put it sharply – is equivalent simply to that between a diver who can swim and one who cannot. The mystic, endowed with native talents for this sort of thing and following, stage by stage, the instruction of a master, enters the waters and finds he can swim; whereas the schizophrenic, unprepared, unguided, ungifted, has fallen or has intentionally plunged, and is drowning. Can he be saved? If a line is thrown to him, will he grab it?”

The “essential” schizophrenia of the shaman in his initiation madness & the killing raptures of the “paranoid” schizophrenic share faces of a truth on how the psyche heals itself by plunging itself into the great waters or the wild wood — dangerous acts which are either fostered by the archetypes or blackened by them.  Who knows why, but it seems that a small percentage of these initiations go awry, keep falling, keep rounding a circle of personal inferno, never to return. As I said before, there’s a genetic link between schizophrenia and alcoholism; alkies comprise about 4 percent of the drinking population. This four percent can’t get enough of the fiery drink of the black mother; the bottle for them is bottomless. So too the small percentage of psychically afflicted who plunge into schizophrenia? And as a small percentage of alkies ever recover, so too only a small number of paranoid schizophrenics ever manage to put a lid on the swarm of voices?

If we’ve read the mythical literature, we know that dark nights of the soul are both places of great wounding as well as the very wombs which gave birth to the productive adults we became, even though we always remain shadowed by those events. One wonders if more are becoming “black shamans” (paranoids) because modern psychiatry has refuted its archetypal gods, opting for talk and pharmaceuticals rather than providing ritual space for the death and dismemberment and reassembly that goes on deep in the cooking pot of the soul. The pills get better, it is said, but the ills get wilder.

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I believe the shore where paranoid and essential schizophrenics share — where they meet and then depart from in opposing directions — is that creative function in us where the gods are still most vital, where they couple and foment and bless and damn, where they brew and quaff our fates, where we make of our selves wings cast in their image — archetypal motions which provide rudder to all of the outward mayhem and meaninglessness of our surface days, to our afflicted narratives, to modernity.

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Seung-Hu Cho is our extreme, and yet he fits the typical profile of the mass murderer. Even as a boy, Seung-Hu Cho rarely spoke more than a few words. He was mocked by schoolmates for keeping mum and his mother prayed his tongue would loosen, that he would emerge from his suffocating cocoon. She prayed that moving to the United States would help, that entering college would help.

You would think that choosing to pursue an English degree would help him find the words, but apparently none of them left the page, the screen, whatever fraught vellum was bound up in his head.

Let me pick up the narrative from the A-1 story from the 4/22/07 New York Times, “Before Deadly Rage Erupted, a Lifetime Consumed by a Troubling Silence,” by N. R. Kleinfeld:

“In class, some students though he might be a deaf-mute. A classmate once offered him $10 just to say hello but got nothing. He hunched there in sunglasses, a baseball cap yanked tight over his head. Sometimes Mr. Cho introduced himself as ‘Question Mark’, saying it was the persona of a man who lived on Mars and journeyed to Jupiter. On the sign-in sheet of a literature, he simply scribbled a question mark instead of his name.

“But he wrote. Those who read his stories, his poems, his plays — they were the ones who wondered.

“English teachers were disturbed by his angry writings and oddness. In a poetry class in his junior year, women said he would snap pictures of them with his cellphone beneath his desk. Several stopped coming to class.

“Lucinda Roy, then head of the English Department at Virginia Tech, began to tutor him  privately. She, too, was unnerved. She brought him to the attention of the counseling service and the campus police because she thought he was so miserable he might kill himself.

“During their private sessions, she arranged a code with her assistant. If she uttered the name of a dead professor, the assistant was to call security.

“Last semester, he took a playwriting class in which he submitted two one-act plays, ‘Richard McBeef’ and ‘Mr. Brownstone,’ both foulmouthed rants. In ‘Richard McBeef,’ a 13-year-old threatens to kill his stepfather. Steven Davis, a senior in the class, said he finished reading the play one night, turned to his roommate and said, ‘This is the kind of guy who is going to walk into a class and start shooting people.’”

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Was our literature, which he surely read at depth in his studies, to blame? Canonical literature surely has enough violent epics — the Illiad, Beowulf, Macbeth, the apocalypses of Blake and John Bunyan (“Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God”), Melville on the hunt for Moby, I dunno, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridean — but you have to plow through a far greater majority of romances and sonnets to find these.

For the rough stuff, for the really interesting fodder for enraged minds, it floods everywhere there’s a bum harbor: pulp fiction of vampires and starmen, manga, slasher films at the Odioplex, millions of websites devoted to the crude and violent and deviant and mad, where terrorists and neo-Nazis and sexual predators and fantasists rave and fabulate eye candy sugared with power and dominance and revenge.

The sheer volume of this stuff show how difficult it is focus on the higher chakras these days — we’re blackening our cultural gums feeding on this sugar. It also shows how much thanatos shares the equipage with eros, death with life in mortal coil — big stuff, especially for disordered fellas like Cho whose lips are frozen shut.

Not that anything teeming in the underworld of our pop culture is not found in the mythic literature. Texts we immerse ourselves in — Bhagavitas and Tains, sagas and immramas — are stuffed to the gills with its share of lions and tigers and bears, oh my. An old Irish Triad says that it is “death to mock a poet, and death to be a poet, and death to love a poet” — and before we think of Cho, we have to go to The Madness of Suibne, composed by an Irishman in the ninth century, flourishes this at great length. Suibne Gelt was a seventh-century poet-king of Dal Araidhe who attempts to insult St. Ronan, himself an ollave or poet, first interrupting the saint as he was marking out the site of his church and throwing his psalter in a stream; then he tries to throw a spear at the saint as he tried to make peace with the high king of Ireland before the battle of Magh Rath. St. Ronan duly curses Suibne (“Sweeney”) with “the flying madness,” sprouting feathers all over his body, making him so light that he can jump from treetop to treetop; and instilling into the man’s heart with a deep fear of human company, causing the man to flee whenever anyone came near. Mad Sweeney lives like a forest anchorite on roots and berries, shivering up in his tree as the elements rage and pour. The long, rambling poem includes passages by Suibne himself, and tells of his wife Eorann who searches in vain for him, and tries to protect him from the vengeance of his political enemies. It is only in his miserable forest death that Suibne’s fame later flourished: A mythologem of the tragic end which paradoxically ascends the highest in our imaginations. It is that driving force in much literature which presents us with heroes we could never be — nor wish to suffer their tragedies — that are precisely what our imaginations seem to desire the most.

I dare say that the same principle rules the violent and pornographic literature of the margins and underworld which Cho was in thrall of. The cultural fascination with this stuff — not only American, but wildly popular in Asian countries such as Japan — to me gets much of its pop and pep from the inherent border between wish and fulfillment. No one lives out this stuff, not hardly, though imaginations may teem with nipples and Glocks.

Technology holds a lens to these things, amplifying the arousal of it, allowing us greater access to a realm which is less policed by the authorities who control our days. There’s lots of free range on the Internet, you can see what you want to see and say what you will. Discourse is uninhibited, and you can be whoever you choose to be. Video games are deeply articulated worlds, where one steps into a role of vast proportions — GI, carjacker, star marine, ninja, dick for hire — and enacts the whole virile fantasy, killing all of one’s enemies, getting all of the girls. I feel for those kids who get lost in that stuff, who never emerge from their rooms, endlessly online, like Mad Sweeney leaping tree to tree of their fantasy life, coming to avoid human contact, even fear it.

This subculture is huge, and how harmless it really is clearly debatable. When NBC aired its series on catching sexual predators by setting up chat room stings, it was really astonishing to see the variety and volume of adult men so enthralled with the notion of having sex with a young girl that they would risk everything for a tryst. How much child porn is really trafficked out there, how many guns or explosive devices or rogue psychotropics are dealt through online channels?

This vast online underworld parallels the crack and meth culture, where hundreds of thousands of young people have wandered into a disordered universe of omnipotent pleasure, unable to return, wreaking havoc on our communities in order to sustain the next day’s jones. (Authorities now say that the archetypal identity theft is a meth junkie who can spend days at a time phishing for someone else’s name; and a recent spread of AIDs has been attributed to meth addicts with pants eternally on fire.)

So the pills may be helping, but the ills seem to be spreading. Call it lack of mythic education, or simply poor writing skills, but it may be true that, as William Carlos Williams once wrote, people die every day for lack of what poetry hasn’t gotten around to saying. (I paraphrase.)

What is it that the creative can heal, and how? And, elusive of all, where can we still celebrate its communions in this hellbent, dimming  world?

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2. Finding the Words (On The Creative)

One of my favorite sayings comes from the gnostic Gospel of St.Thomas, where Jesus says, “If you bring out what is inside you, what is inside you will save you. If you fail to bring out what is inside you, what you fail to bring out will destroy you.” Not to beat a very dead horse, but I can’t help thinking that Virginia Tech mass murderer Seung-Hu Cho fell into the second part of this saying. Always it seemed there was a huge war between foment under the surface and a vastly padlocked silence on top, a witchily becalmed sea. He was a few weeks from graduating as an English major, at the end of the most formal initiation our culture has into the craft of words; but words failed him, or words adequate to the magnitudes brewing between his temples. He died for lack of the right words, and like a suicide bomber, he professed his faith in that absence by taking out those who he falsely believed had been instrumental in keeping those words from him.

Another old saying: That which doesn’t kill us will cure us. Paracelsus believed that like cures like; a disease could be physicked if you knew its name, for you could brew a palliative of the same essence, a tincture which communicated with the god in the disease. Jung communicated the same idea in his alchemical formula for treating alcoholics — spiritus contra spiritus — spirit counters spirits. Whatever great wounds we suffer are the very wombs of their healing, if we find a way to approach them and name them, let them sing their litanies and tragedies, grieve them, let them go.

Cho was on the right track; he was in the nave of the cathedral; he was hearing the words, and trying to put them on paper; but either he was silenced by the weight of tradition (for who could ever measure up to Shakespeare, we are told) or his muse was shackled up in some horrorshow cell like the Forgotten Prisoner model of old, a supermodel who couldn’t deliver real love, words too perfect to say, blickered and blistered by words which had become snakes of fear and loathing.

Cho screwed up, or we screwed him up, left him to too far out there to make sense of the mess, just another weird dork whose flat eyes refused to show what animated ever more darkly at their bottoms. A nut case: but that craziness could have found a way back to the surface, and words — some creative process — should have provided that gradient. Bullets as their alternative were the measure of his failure and ours. As William Carlos Williams said, men die every day for lack of the right words.

So what this creative function in us? Can it heal? And how? Where is its altar in us, which gods attend it? Are we talking about art at all here, or something more sublime?

My responses to this question are both forceful and scattered; it is so central that I can’t keep a lid on the sulphur and eros and logos bubbling in my thought. I’m going to go on much longer than most of you have any patience for, so I understand that I’m heading out into the forest again.

I’m trying to find words for a world for which the question is too vague and the answer is too huge … But that is the essayist’s task:  locating a God-sized hole in the day and then filling it with every divine on the tongue.

To do this adequately one must loosen all the horses, sum up one’s education, and be willing to go wild, to paraphrase Emerson, mapping off a fresh raw region that always falls short of being fully mapped.

(Please note that I use the metaphor of writing throughout, but any creative activity which one has long committed to will do here.)

Indeed, diffuse and digressive procedures may be the only way to get to the question of creativity — that soul inside the sentence which queries for meanings and quarries greater questions. To know the darker, more obfuscate truths, one has to be willing to go dark, deconstructed the over bright intellect, bewilder the tautologies, bemuse the child, spin a mobile of pretty colors.

“Improvement makes straight roads,” write William Blake in his “Proverbs of Hell,” “but the crooked roads without Improvement are roads of Genius.” I’m preaching to my own choir here; I have nothing to prove, no grades or smiley faces to earn; the earnestness which powers these taptaptapping phalanges comes from something deeper than the ego; soul-talk, a converse with angels and devils. So I will linger to lurk in the nooks and poke in the souterrains and sniff in the dirty loam of the Mother for these morels of a truth.

I plow on into a stiff breeze: the company of dead authors is in it, blowing from the depths and breadth of the sayable; gods are packed in that breeze, too, big ones. “We are all wind.” wrote the ur-essayist Montaigne. “And even the wind, more wisely than we, loves to make a noise and move about, and is content with its own functions without wishing for stability and solidity, qualities that do not belong to it”  (“Of Experience”). I’m at home in that breeze, my words are in its element. Though I penetrate, I cannot remain; though I peramble, I circle home; though I obfuscate, gold nuggets crop up in the crud. An urgent, insistent, fleeting wind — a voice up from the well, coming in from the mountains, blowing over the waters; such is the alchemical or shamanic or didactic or poetic procedure which lamps the course of this post.

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Writing about The Creative — that wound which is its own healing — is my most passionate theme. This is the aesthetic bilungsroman, the story of  How I Came To Write. Somehow that story ha become joined with the stories accounting for How I Came To Love and How I Came to Know God. Three centralities, informing motions, didactic and poetic powerhouses, all of them, a triune engine roaring inside my pen …

And most so because I can never get it right. Every time I assay or versify on these these I am aware, in the hollow resonance following the last sentence, the last word, how I missed the boat again, how I failed to say it right, how much there is yet to say, to love, to surrender … Three Graces singing from the wet part of a sea I’ve barely set keel to, alluring, daunting, dire. If there is a life’s work, then this business of The Creative is both its paddle and shore, saddle and hooves, plow and field — an end which is my beginning, an eternally-repeated round which mantras its resurrections in such mythical timbre that my ears are forever haunted by it, the way a conch whispers the sea. See: all of this time I’ve been writing about writing, when the task was to write about nothing, a breath inside the god, a wind ….

The going has not been easy; that’s one of the essential points about the creative. It will damn near kill anyone for lack of finding adequate enough words. There’s no Artists’ Anonymous who become overly or wrongly afflicted by their muse. Dame Art doesn’t give much of a damn for her charges; if one artist blows out his talent or brains, there’s always another fool eager to step into place. Oddly, the booze that was killing me in one way yet kept me alive in another while the gods were hammering away down in the cauldron of trials where the three necessary words were being brewed, three spoonfuls of spirit which would eventually free me from spirits.

There is an arc to the creative, correlative to the Hero’s Three Steps — to go down, walk in darkness, and return. There is likewise a necessary process of going in, cooking things a while, burning off the compulsions and projections, the adolescent fantasies, the egocentric manias. Then the creative returns, having endured the road of trials, laden with the treasure hard to attain.

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But the young hero knows none of these things. That is his education, his bildugsroman. He or she must learn to make something of the mess, arrange it into a narrative, pepper it with colorful language, sinew it with tropes … S/he gets these things formally, from the elders, the wardens of the text, the instructors of craft, the formal transmitters of knowledge; but s/he must also somehow turn all of this back on its head, transforming cultural food into energetic response, into creative acts. In the mythological cosmos, the son who is born of the mother learns to fashion tools in a mother-seeming uterus of invention, bringing out all that was invested in him.

And as there are puberty rites, there are also initiations into craft; mysteries to revel in and techniques to be revealed; overly jubilant hands disciplined to write inside the lines, errant thoughts reigned by discourse and rhetoric, ebullient noctal mayhems sacrificed, thrown like seed into the furrow which eventually grows the durable and real and sustaining life. There are stages in this  craft initiation, like stations of the cross or St Patrick’s purgatory, alternating seasons of instruction and foment, doubt and godlike frenzy, winters of hoary silence where no word or meaningful gesture escapes the mind’s meanad freeze. Then the depressive turns manic: there  follow gallops of abandonment, godlike aspirations dizzily in reach, wings of wax which almost touch the sun and thus begin to melt from their own enthusiasms; then the cycle reverses, turns on a dime, plunging the errant fool hair nose and eyeballs all the way down to plunge into the sea, drift thousands of leagues down to the soul’s abysm where we peramble another season in labyrinthine confusion. There is awakening, dawning realizations, slow trudgings back. There are pouty pissy expletive-choked rants; there are bluer digressions, thick and lewd and dewy with the lust-licking, limerick-salted tongue, darting and circling and diving in every nook a good boy should never go. There’s a time to take stuff to market and another time to throw it all on the pyre; a time to declare the Gods dead and another to weep in their ravished cathedrals down at the bottom of the heart, that secret entrance to the soul. There’s a time to speak plainly and a time to let er rip, some of it meant for publication and a lot else better bound in a private diary or a 4th step inventory which stays in the file cabinet. There are letters which are never sent and posts which should never have been sent.

Et cetera: All of these writerly gambits (and for the painters and musicians and gardeners and cooks and Tantrists and swimmers: apply your own artistic apassionata here) and gambols are part of the circle dance in the hootenanny of the divine creative, necessary stations in the purgatory by which we are simultaneously harrowed as we bring out what is inside of us.

The craft initiations and societies are still around, in all levels of education from elementary school to MFA programs, in associations and writer’s groups and slam festivals. It’s much looser now however — standards of achievement are cloudier, canonical imperatives loosened. In this age of self-expression with enormously powerful channels of distribution, anyone can publish themselves, regardless of their actual achievement or skill. We’re flooded with bad writing choked with grammatical spelling syntax and thought errors, profane and uncivil stuff. Flaming is emotional spam — the old courting adage that if you can’t woo them, wear ‘em down.

There’s an adage that good writing rises to the top, but amid all of the shoutin’ going on these days, it’s hard to see the truth of that. Good writing rises to the top — but you have to wait a century or too for that too happen. Try to name a half-dozen middling writers from 1853, then name the significant ones. Let’s see, there was that poet James Whitcomb Riley, that age’s Rod McKuen, just as popular, equally bad … but then there was Melville and Emerson and Hawthorne and young Dickinson and Whitman. Who do we remember now? Advice to aspirants: don’t measure success by applause.

The true part of ever statement always seems to follow the hinge, like that epigram on the lintel of Delphi which reads, famously, “Know Thyself,” and then, not so famously, “And know that you aren’t God.” What I have to say about the creative gets most of its meanings from the far side of the hinge; that what doesn’t kill you saves you, that everything you could possible say (or have already said) doesn’t come close to saying what’s really there — and never will. Bring out what is inside you — that’s the best insurance against being destroyed by what is there. Only be kind and don’t write with red ink.

But I digress, egressed on the back of a wave which summons the next. Back to the story.

* * *

Wing-footed Hermes, lord of the knowledge of dark roads,
including those which govern these lines.

Wind over the waters: spirit stirs soul: world becomes Word: Hermes rules such motions and emulsions, wing-footed boy-god, thief of Apollo’s cattle, creator of the lyre, singer of the first songs, Apollo’s benefactor, giving the lyre and song to that bright wolf-lord of Olympus, in whose hands the archaic music became art, eloquent, compressed, augustan, pure empyrean spirit; Hermes was Lord of Roads, the one who keeps things movin’ down the road, marking the boundaries of things with his sexuality (those stacks of stones which marked borders called herms), with his fleet-footed penetrations: Hermes as the healer with the snake-entwined caduceus, Hermes as the one who loves a bawdy tale, has a dirty mind (how he loved the tale of Ares and Aphrodite getting caught, in flagrante delictio, emeshed in a metal net fashioned by cuckholded Hephaestus.

Hermes is the assayist’s hermeneut, argonaut of all things yet to be said; he transits all beds and islands, embroilments and foments in the main, carrying the messages of the Lord of Heaven, eternally restless, fleet, ejaculate, proclaiming the Father’s glory. Hermes is the fantasist, the active imagination, an eros which thickens the tongue for a nympho’ parade, a pandemonium of opportunities, vistas of plunder and glory, curved images crooning on their rocks still wet with the sea and glistening in the moon: insatiable, greedy, gorgeously ripe. One sees Hermes blowing through Montaigne’s mind as he wrote; Emerson found him “wild and savory as sweet fern”; Saint-Beuve said of him, “you receive his ideas only in images … Any one of his pages seems like the most fertile and wild of prairies, a ‘free untamed field’: long ‘lusty’ grasses, perfumes underneath the thorn, a mosaic of flowers, singing insects, streams beneath, the whole thing teeming and rustling … Thought and image, with him, is all one.”  A massive yet gentle fecundity, using the same words we use to buy bananas at Publix or swear at traffic on the commute. When common words have wings, Hermes is near.

Yet though Hermes keeps these sentences springin’ along with intercoursing meters (don’t stop! don’t stop! they cry, like a babbling nympholet, like Virgil urging Dante through Hell), the meanings come only later, in the recessionals of bliss. The meanings proceed from a heavier distillation, a digestion of events through the melancholy broodings of a divintiy we call Saturn.

But more of that later ….

Hermes gets us to writing (or creating in some manner); he is that first cry that tore from our lips when the world pierced us with an almost agonized passion, nails which fixed us to the real, to physis, to our own bodies, sacrificing the golden child (or childhood) for the perplex and gorgeous agonies of adolescence. Have you noticed how the songs of your puberty still resonate loudest? For me that would be an aural sandwich of “Close to You” by the Carpenters on the tender side and “I Don’t Need (No Doctor)” by Mott the Hoople on the rough side  — the tender and the raw aspects of eros making of me at 14 years old this distended fruit heavy on the bough, filled with a juice so sweet there was no way to adequately taste it … and how that I suddenly thirsted for that juice in the tender shapes swimming around me in tenth grade, girls in miniskirts with big boots, hair like ironed honey, breasts suddenly heavy, filled with the same juice, a sweetness so loud and fulminate that the entire day was eclipsed, nothing else mattered, there was nothing else …

Though there was really nothing I could do, or felt myself free enough to do. I was terrified of daring the sexual threshold, whether due to the fundamentalist chastity belt that had been clamped round my head, or simply the child’s loathing of permanent thresholds … I ached with every pulsing fiber of my being to reach for and grab that forbidden fruit, but I paused, fingers just inches away. Observe boy and girl on a couch in a house where Mom’s off work, french kissing like there’s no tomorrow, “Can’t Live” by Harry Neilsson on the stereo, boy’s ID bracelet jangling on girl’s wrist as she strains to push boy’s hand away from the border of tshirt and jeans: god chases nymph; nymph flees; so does boy, refusing his own god’s call, hearing Mother’s voice somewhere too close by. He walks home for dinner, breath still ragged, heart pumped on an adrenaline which makes torn tissue of his innards, turns his lower nature a sullen swollen sore blue: pent up ecstasies which have swung from angelic to demonic, a baying of wolves in the ear, teeth gritted, cursing No and its nine circles of chastity, each to be transgressed at mortal peril, if not infinite ruin. The sun overhead fat and shaggy with heat, a soaring searing eros which will not let him go, ever, blackening so many inward walls with smoky hunger. When he gets home he goes into his room, shuts the door, cranks up Black Sabbath on WORJ, pulls out his pad and puts pen to paper, roaring, raging, glutting there all  he cannot yet dare. No adequate words back then so I drew: wrestlers and rockets mostly, testosterone-fuelled bicepage and phalli. Painting petroglyphs on walls which would become the archetypal page I would later fill with words. I couldn’t say the words then, but swore I would, believing that when I learned to speak those words, when figured out how to write Mephisto’s name, every black jot he has inked will animate to his aid. And deliver Gretchen in through my night-opened window, for that night and for ever.

* * *

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The aesthetic response to passion — Exuberance is Beauty, sublimely so — seems like an archetypal defense against archetypal eruption: the spirit which cures spirits. We are provided with a safe place to cool the hot blade Eros makes of us in his forge. Observe the struggling young person some years further into the narrative, miles beneath the weight of the unlived life, freshly 18, feeling the pressure of coming adulthood, with tasks they have yet to learn and know and master, at the same time struggling to bring out all that is inside, a multiverse of color and scent and gorgeous music. And then she arrives, the beloved, appearing out of some smoke-filled nook of the partysphere, just a woman, oh but infinitely more: the isolate soul’s passion incarnate, the exact luminous curvaceous willowy and roseate missing half of my self, the shape of all that I have ever desired, ever longed for.

Is this love, or is this poetry? Does passion awaken the heart or the art? I figure both. Certainly in my coming-of-age story an encounter like this is crucial, taking things from one world to an entirely new and other one: yet such awakening cannot happen without the creative, aesthetic story also getting spring in its steps. I saw her and my heart started singing!

James Hillman, from The Thought of the Heart: “Can we realize that we are each, in soul, children of Aphrodite, that the soul is a therapeutes, as was Psyche, in the temple of Venus — that is where it is in devotion. The soul is born in beauty and feeds on beauty, requires beauty for its life … psyche is the life of our aesthetic responses, that sense of taste in relation to things.” Beauty is what takes our breath away — the Greek word aisthesis means at root “taking in” and “breathing in” — a “gasp.” A wind. We are no longer solitary, can no longer exist without Beauty, without the beloved. The heart has been broken into halves which the creative then must heal, for better or worse.

Campbell once said that it was the erotic that broke medieval man out his slumber, but I’m going to venture that the erotic was purely aesthetic, or first of all so. We dared to speak of beauty and it rose, reawakened, from our lips, re-writing the name of God. The child became a man when he stepped out of his parent’s authority and to create his own world, go his own way.

The boy falls in love, love makes him (eventually) a man, sexually and spiritually. Eros – first as roaring lust, then as tender love — shouts youth out of his dazed prepubescent slumber like a lion awakening its cubs, piercing youth’s with a burning arrow, a bittersweet thorn of fire and its quenchings, moving, motivating, alchemizing the man out of his fantasies, his dream-work, his labors in hell as Psyche suffered the torments of Aphrodite trying to make herself worthy of Eros, her eventual husband.

Back to the story, what can the young man in love do but dive into that forest where it is thickest? There is no turning back; fear is finally eclipsed by the naked dripping beauty of what is there before his eyes — just a girl at a party, yes, but the Queen of every ocean as well, desire on the half shell staring back at him with a smile … So he pursues her, talks with her that night, gets her phone number, calls & makes a date with her the next day, takes her to lunch the day after, talking for hours in a restaurant that sits next to the falls of the Spokane River which, at that time in early spring, roars heavily with runoff from the Rockies to the east, a thundering hugeness which the young man cannot distinguish from the beating of his heart … They talk for hours, they walk down by the river feeling that massy flow under the bridge wash through them, they kiss in the miss and the howling and the angelic assent … That night they go to bed together, they coil and clasp and writhe and clench, shuddering as they his the names of their tuletary gods; they drift off with him still in her, sleeping deep … He dreams of rocking on a boat of a bed on halcyon still waters which may be the womb’s, or some distant inner sea, or simply the heart’s thirst dreamt in quench … They wake, yawn, scratch, screw, smoke cigarettes, talk, screw yet again (finally feeling the itch resolving into tender sore borders. They forage for food in the fridge, wander out into the day with hangovers, never quite solid or solitary again … For several weeks they are in the limbo of rapture, but slowly and inevitably the boundaries appear again, goddess ebbing away, mortal poking through the foam, revealing selfishness and petulance and scorn; while at the same time the bright god is fading from the man, revealing a boy, really, a needy young man with an pouty puerile pecker. The fights begin, sketching back in all the boundaries that had once appeared dissolved. In their bickering they name every shore of difference that moves them further apart. And eventually they break, going down over some moot  battleground — why we don’t have as much sex, why we never go out, why why why the other isn’t the Other — And then they aren’t a “we” anymore, she’s gone, her car trailing off the gravel driveway and then roaring off on a road that diminishes into a final and eternal silence …

And so it’s back to Me, welcome home, asshole, here’s to lonely days again, more lonely and isolate than ever. Like the drunk who experiences comfort and ease for about 15 minutes after the second drink and then spends the rest of the night becoming ever more uncomfortable and uneasy, passing through the stages of jocose to amorose to bellicose to comatose, only to waken the next day more bottled up than ever: So the lover is compulsively maddened by his or her own passions, ever seeking the perfect velvet glove to fit his or her own heart, convinced one is out there, somewhere, on some night … One swims upstream in this torrent of self-abnegation, howling out radar-pings of longing which are borderless and unwelcomed by the stars, never finding a reciprocal voice coming back, announcing a shore, harborage, hearth, home Of course, for all of that screaming, how can one hear what is simply always there …

All this is very poetic and grand, big night music, soul-operatics which sound great, puts a lot of oomph into the prose, hooves out interminably long sentences (running, no, galloping on), massing up tectonic paragraphs: but reality is woven of soberer stuff. If we care to live, we have to renounce a portion of the eternal. So the heartbroken lover wises up, the drunk picks up a white chip, the fantasist dries up; they all learn to themselves to the yoke of actual things and real work. That’s a great measure of growing up — letting go the dream — the most difficult perhaps. Failing to do so results in fools and madmen, some not to be allowed near firearms.  No writer loves to be edited, but far more for writing which overstays its welcome. (Touche.)

Hermes flits and flies hither and yon in his divine errand as messenger of the gods — his dream of love is ever afoot, fleet and fleeing; but his love-children Hermaphroditus and Priapus are monstrous, opus contra naturum, sexuality in teeming confusion or gothic profusion. A god fleet for  our Terrible Twenties becomes a bit of pain through our Dirty Thirties a real problem into our Warty Forties, ever keeping us on the road, drifting from liaison to liaison, dreaming of perfect love, ultimate sex, evanescent truths just over a forever-next hill up ahead.

Like naughty Cupid who grows up to husband Psyche as Eros, Hermes needs to be grounded, his adolescent whims disciplined, given direction and gravity. Every writer has a measure of juvenilia which is embarrassing in its lame borrowings and half-assed renderings; if this stuff hasn’t been chucked its buried deep in the file cabinet. They show the boy inside the man, the bridge to seriousness, the transformation of words that fell to ones that flew. An old god, both bastard and Wise Old Man fathers this work: mythic tradition calls him Saturn or Kronos. He comes from our Stone Age, cutting off his father’s genitals with a flint scythe (now that’s succession) and then tossing the family jewels into the sea, salting waters which later gave birth to Beauty, nude nature at her finest, Aphrodite with the Perfect Cheeks. Saturn jealously defended his appropriated throne, devouring his children as they emerged from his wife, all except an even-more crafty Jupiter/Zeus who went on to defeat the old man. Saturn was exiled to the Island of the Everliving where he rules on, brooding and cold and ancient; yet he is paradoxically a harvest god, font of the Wise Old Man. Cut off from his own sexuality, that vitality goes into the corn and his words; Saturn’s noodle is like the witch Cerridwen’s black cooking pot, bubbling for a year and a day to brew the three drops of wisdom. Saturn takes a long time getting it right, and suffers a deep melancholy as he digests his losses; but his melancholy is creatively fertile, his words a harvest, distilled over time into truth.

* * *

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One has a creative career, a history with their totem father and regnant muse. There is a conversation, a battle, sometimes filial and other times like the marriage of distant tribes. The bildungsroman gets second and third decks, proceeding from the first volume of How I Came to Write to What I Wrote About to Who Was Writing Me. We return again and again to those lost milky beds of enactment, trying to say better what we failed to say back then. We go after our fathers’ wives or swipe off our own genitals protecting our mothers’ names. Cold stone kings roam Dunsinane, wolves bray in the permafrost tundra everywhere outside; melusines croon from the rocks just offshore of the moon, their voices so sexually lyrical as to be wetter than the sea, deeper than any woman would ever go. I write the same poems over and over, the same themes haunt our prose, an idee fixee haunts every word. I get the haunting sense that there is a machine in the god in the machine which used to save us from our labyrinths, a metronome so precisely engineered that my thought tocks back and forth on the page in an iron stylus. Sometimes it seems I’m not learning anything new, that I’m just keep spinning out the same sentences, fitted with only slightly varying colors or lengths of feathers; other times it seems that whatever was said yesterday opens the door down to the next floor of a vast cathedral inside, itself the roof of Avebury, of Lascaux, of some occipital dome of a monkey praying for food 3 million years ago.

And most galling of all is that none of this may have anything to do with art at all, except in the way that  Lascaux was incidentally artistic, art for God’s sake. Is what we call art the ego’s appropriation of the creative, placing a personal stamp on its immortal press? There are many means which serve art, many arts which serve personal ends; and it’s very important here to distinguish the spirits.

I think the Jungian process known as “active imagination” is close to the creative function I have been addressing, that which heals through its wounds. In Healing Fiction, James Hillman warns us to be careful to distinguish active imagination — the creative — from its seems:

“1. Active imagination is not a spiritual discipline … one works with the images as they arise, not special ones chosen by a master or a code.

“2. “Active imagination is not an artistic endeavor, not a creative production of paintings and poems. One may aesthetically give form to the images — indeed one should try as best as one can aesthetically — though this is for the sake of the figures, in dedication to them and to realize their beauty, and not for the sake of art. The aesthetic work of active imagination is not to be confused with art for exhibition or publication.

“3. Active imagination aims not at silence but at speech, not at stillness but at story or theatre or conversation. It emphasizes the importance of the word, not the cancellation of the word, and thus the word becomes a way of ‘relating,’ an instrument of feeling.

“4. Thus it is not a mystical activity, performed for the sake of illumination, for reaching select states of consciousness (samadhi, satori, unity with all things). That would be imposing a spiritual intention upon a psychological activity, that would be a domination, of, or even a repression of, soul by spirit.

“5. Nor, however, does this last mean that active imagination is a psychological activity in only the personal sense — for the sake of curing symptoms, calming or abreacting terrors and greeds, bettering families, improving or developing personality. Such would be to demean the daimons into personal servants whose concern must then be with problem-solving those delusions we call realities because we have not seen through to their fantasies, their guiding images that project them along.

“6. Yet, active imagination is not a psychological activity in the transpersonal senser of theurgy (ritual magic), the attempt to work with images by and for the human will. From both sides of archetypal psychology’s tradition — Plotinus and Freud — we have been warned against opening floodgates to the ‘black tide of occultism.’ Active imagination becomes popularist superstitious theurgy when we: activate the images artificially (drugs), perform it routinely as a ritualism, foster special effects (synchronicities), further divinitory abilities (turning to inner voices to interpret dreams), use it to augment self-confidence in decisions (power). Each and all of these uses are no longer modes of self-knowledge but of self-aggrandizement, now covered by the innocent label ‘psychic growth.’ Faust still pervades, perverts, our Know Thyself, turning it into a drive beyond the limits which that maxim originally implied: ‘Know that you are but human, not divine.’ Active imagination as theurgic divination would work on the Gods rather than recognizing their workings in us.”

* * *

All of these arts — spiritual discipline, artistic endeavor, mystical activity, the psychology of Me, occultic knowledge — are not the art practiced through creative active imagination, though they are devilishly close. Each is a mask by which we can view the divine — but if we forget they are masks, and forget that the drama we are playing is not ours, but something as ephemeral yet true as a tragic love story, then we take our arts too seriously, too literally, and end up missing the point.

And the point? To dance with the eidelon, those images which arise in our imagination; to sing of them, tell their stories, give them a rapt audience, so that we are harrowed and hallowed in the telling. The creative has no real investment in us; we’re just the sounding board of an ancient music, walls reaching back to Lascaux, shells which the sea never stops singing in. A fresh crop is right behind us, picking up pens, taptaptapping away into the night, using Dreamweaver and Photoshop and god knows what new confabulating technology to fashion a new generation of images — holograms, virtual realities, video, flash animation, younameit — which are carrying Their work forward. The creative heals us because it joins us in the business of whole-making — shall I name a world, can I stop trying to name one? — A business that is meant to fail, cannot be realized, is death to be real yet demands that we die trying.

* * *

Dionysos.

As we heard in the tale of Mad Sweeney, it is death to mock a poet, to be a poet, to love a poet.  The warning is clearly not to let your children grow up to become a cowboy poet. Maybe that ole country song has roots all the way back to the third divinity in the creative triad I’m trying to envision, the one which somehow brings us back from the first two.

Dionysos is the true father of the divine drama, his crisis the event which allows us to sing forth the divine wilderness within. So there is Zeus, as per usual horny for a fresh snoot in the nectar, pursuing the moon-goddess Selene. He comes to her in disguise, concealing his divinity. They do the dance and become lovers. Eventually Selene asks to see the face of her lover but Zeus refuses. She nags and cajoles and begs him til he sighs Whatever and drops the mask, revealing the naked magma of his name. Selene is burnt to a crisp, cindered, immolated, bye-bye; Zeus rescues their child Dionysos from her womb and sews him in his thigh, bringing the infant to term as one twice-born, from fire into fire.

It is Dionysos whose ritual becomes the basis of Attic tragedy, the tale of the bull Iacchus, bellower of red pain, the goat-god Zagreus who is torn to pieces; the vine god of divine nature who lures the women of Thebes from the city walls to roam the countryside as rapturous, murderous maenads. Brother to Apollo, that most accomplished of all artists, the tale of Dionysos is far darker, wilder, tragic, both human and divine.  The ritual iterations of his tale — the “goat-song” — is the basis of drama, its vast rural backdrop, primal in intents which were only later articulated into art. His church became a playhouse; his mask the proscenium beyond which imagination was reality; the ritual become drama, enactments of humanity crossed by the divine.

Whenever we put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard or apply brush to canvas, literally or figuratively — whenever we let go and let ourselves flow with the images that arise in our mind, we enter the drama of Dionysos, letting our wounds cry forth melodious and malodorous, entering the round which redeems the spirit in a catharsis of imagined blood — ours.

Dionysos makes our wounds tolerable because we look upon them through his fictive mask, putting an as-if proscenium between actual and imagined horrors. We can say the unsayable because the words as metaphors can’t really burn us. We can go to Hell and back, like Dante, and get the girl in the end. We can write of the darkest things and go on with our normal, quiet and untroubled lives. Melville wrote to his friend Hawthorne after finishing Moby Dick, “I  have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as a lamb. It is not a piece of feminine Spitalfields silk — but it is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, & birds of prey hover over it.”  The mask of Dionysos allowed Melville that precious little distance between the real and imagined that allowed him, as Gaston Bachelard once put it, “to sing reality.”

“Creative mythology,” Joseph Campbell writes in his concluding volume of The Masks Of God, “springs not, like theology, from the dicta of authority, but from the insights, sentiments, though and vision of an adequate individual, loyal to his own experience and value. Thus it corrects the authority holding to the shell of forms produced and left behind by lives once lived. Reviewing the act of experience itself, it restores to existence the quality of adventure, at once shattering and reintegrating the fixed, already known, in the sacrificial creative fire of the becoming thing that is nothing but all of life, not as it will be nor as it should be, as it was or as it never will be, but as it is in depth, in process, here and now, inside and out.”

The creative is nothing less the the mythos of psyche — the story of how we came to love beauty, its beloved, and its God. It’s the tale of how we came to say Yes to life, and affirm it in its bewildering complexity, an affirmation which is daily renewed in new creative acts. The creative is bucket work — just that much infinity hauled up and poured out, all that my mouth can hold, all that my bewildered noodle can play with in the span of a post. I keep digging in dirt which is personal and collective, literary and archetypal, placing what I found there upon the altar which I here address. Shall I name a world? What are the words which equally serve heart and art? It was a woman, almost … a wave which ebbed and washed away and then returned, flooding from my pen, ejaculate with every name of God.

It can drive you crazy, without a rudder that’s as sure and real as 300 centuries of practice painting in the caves. And we’re supposed to get it right with our four years of higher education, our modernist notion of going into the ancient wood alone, boldly whistling a tune we think is our own?

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Filed under Culture, Greek mythology, Life, Literature, Myth and Archetype, Pyschology, The Sea

Venusia

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Venus is one of the way-stations, and she must get her due … But we pay her back best in the true coin of Aphrodite. To pay her in the guise of soul-indulgences cheats her of the real cost. It is more comforting to visit her house in the name of anima-development than it is to suffer the venereal evils, entanglements, perversions, revenges, furies, and soporofic pleasures for her sake alone.

— James Hillman, Anima

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Filed under Concsiousness, Greek mythology, Mind, Myth and Archetype, Pyschology

Big Wheel Churning in an Ever-Emptier Night

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It is perhaps not surprising to anyone (and maybe interesting to a very few) that the study of comparative religion and myth came to the human species at a time when their powers were perhaps dimmest, on the verge of extinction. It was either sublimate what was left of the gods or figure out what it meant to go godless, empty of that grand cathedral of meaning at the very time that astronomers were telling us that the heavens were vastly devoid of life.

Almost too late, scholars and artists traced back down the great dry streambed to find the waters which were once there almost between the lines of papyrus nearly become dust. A corpus of tales and enthrallments, besottings and gambols has become largely available to the population who cares about it the least.  Available in the mainstream yet largely invisible in daily life, myths are part of a rare and personally-inflected practice which bears the elements of traditions upheld for hundreds of centuries, evolving from first to last lights over the course of a single lifetime. I was in my 30s when I first read Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, my first introduction to the myths after a course in Christianity that lasted on a personal scale about the same duration in our culture — for my adolescence.

Now in my 50s — just 20 years later — I feel like I’ve soaked through the myths about as much as I care to, finding my readings ever-more truncated and rote, dutifully carrying on a work I don’t have much abiding interest in any more. If this forum is any indication, the conversation of myth has just about ended, with whatever fire myth engendered in the community burning out to the present cinder. Ragnarok, the Doom of the Gods in Norse mythology, came within us not with a bang but a whisper of a whimper.

Take the strange confluence of winter solstice and full moon last week, and event which hasn’t occurred for 340 years. In the age of Stonehenge, such an event would have been foretold for centuries by the cunning astrologers who used the wheel of trilithons and sarsens as a stone-bone computer of celestial events, with the solar and lunar calendars mutually aligned.  Such a unique event would have borne a portent which could have been seen as catastrophic or world-renewing; but all we have of that Bronze Age mythology now are the stones; we can only enter its myths from the outside, like describing a god’s heart from the girth of the ribcage found under a mounds of dirt.

Consciousness has changed so much that it’s hard to even grasp the former needs of traditional culture, so intent to understand the will of god through divination and astrology, oracles and epiphanies. For some years at the winter solstice I burned a candle all night, symbolic of the survival of the light through the darkest night of the year, and cast an I Ching oracle or fanned out a Tarot spread, asking, what’s the news for the new year? But I came to understand that such rituals are toys for the unconscious to do what it naturally does, augmenting and mystifying at the same time in the same manner of dreams. Any bone thrown to those inner deeps will come back up as Isis or Apollo or hairy Iron John or Saint Oran freshly interred from the grave. A hack of secular culture, I weave my meanings  as I will, willy-nilly, still placing value in those meaning while at the same time freezing their hallows with a growing aloofness.

You know? Been there, done that. The manifesto of the attention-disordering present.

But I can’t let go of that wheel yet, not fully, perhaps not ever. Even absence has its lucence; the Beloved Who Departed still ghosts the doors of departure with lascivious and yearning invitation. The passionate youth of the species does return, in horrible kaleidoscope in the digital-materialist-def culture subsuming Generation Y, but also in this personal psyche, in fits and starts, finding new enthusiasm in things to write about, in books to read, in myths to play with like Tarot Cards of the grand spread of my life. Page of Cups became Knight became King wed to Queen, dreaming of the Page’s gambols with spilt wine drooling from his sere lips.

It doesn’t end; it can’t end, though there is in the process of my life’s ending a Saturnal sense of fullness and harvest, corn turning to gold in the dark silos of dying. On the next night after the solstice, again outside at 3:30 a.m. to feed the strays as I always do before beginning my too-early-morning studies and meditations, the moon was back in full brilliance, showering my dark garden and neighborhood with that old odd quicksilver, at full amplitude of brightness though much removed from its former pull on the soul. (Paracelsus believed you could go crazy being exposed to too much moonlight, moon madness coming from wet-gremlin spiritual entities called Ens who swam in the beams of moonlight.)

No beseeching the moon at the edge of the sea as Lucius did in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, begging the moon goddess in Her every mythical aspect for respite from his magical torment (fascinated with the dark arts, he’d tried to turn himself into a shamanic bird, but got the words screwed up and became an ass instead, much to the derision of his peers). He sings:

Blessed Queen of Heaven, whether you are pleased to be known as Ceres, the original harvest mother who in joy at the finding of your lost daughter Proserpine abolished the rude acorn diet of our forefathers and gave them bread raised from the fertile soil of Eleusis; or whether as celestial Venus, now adored at sea-girt Paphos, who at the time of the first Creation coupled the sexes in mutual love and so contrived that man should continue to propagate his kind for ever; or whether as Artemis, the physician sister of Phoebus Apollo, reliever of the birth pangs of women, and now adored in the ancient shrine at Ephesus; or whether as dread Proserpine to whom the owl cries at night, whose triple face is potent against the malice of ghosts, keeping them imprisoned below earth; you who wander through many sacred groves and are propitiated with many different rites-you whose womanly light illumines the walls of every city, whose misty radiance nurses the happy seeds under the soil, you who control the wandering course of the sun and the very power of his rays-I beseech you, by whatever name, in whatever aspect, with whatever ceremonies you deign to be invoked, have mercy on me in my extreme distress, restore my shattered fortune, grant me repose and peace after this long sequence of miseries. End my sufferings and perils, rid me of this hateful four-footed disguise, return me to my family, make me Lucius once more. But if I have offended some god of unappeasable cruelty who is bent on making life impossible for me, at least grant me one sure gift, the gift of death.

No, I was just out there feeding the cats, admiring the cast of moonlight over the garden, reflecting how different the moonlight was when not obscured by the low corporeal body of the earth whose shadow turned the moon blood-red the night before.

Now, Apuleius wrote The Golden Ass in the second century AD, long, long after the time when the vital core of the Isis myth gripped Egyptian culture — a survival in the way second-rate Hellenistic culture proceeded from the golden Hellenic Age: Far enough away to work it into a Latin novel, the only surviving work of its kind, and an abridged one at that, the Greek version lost, the Latin original also lost, and most English translations have fig-leafed the original’s bawdy exuberance. His age is a lost one, paganism mostly drained of all vitality, Christianity yet to take hold: Apuleius’ yearning for a way to root back into the divine — he asks to be blessed with death, but instead he is initiated into the Mysteries of Isis. The epiphany of Isis at the ocean’s edge is a paean to a lost magnitude:

Her long thick hair fell in tapering ringlets on her lovely neck, and was crowned with an intricate chaplet in which was woven every kind of flower. Just above her brow shone a round disc, like a mirror, or like the bright face of the moon, which told me who she was. Vipers rising from the left-hand and right-hand partings of her hair supported this disc, with ears of corn bristling beside them. Her many-colored robe was of finest linen; part was glistening white, part crocus-yellow, part glowing red and along the entire hem a woven bordure of flowers and fruit clung swaying in the breeze. But what caught and held my eye more than anything else was the deep black luster of her mantle. She wore it slung across her body from the right hip to the left shoulder, where it was caught in a knot resembling the boss of a shield; but part of it hung in innumerable folds, the tasseled fringe quivering. It was embroidered with glittering stars on the hem and everywhere else, and in the middle beamed a full and fiery moon.

In her right hand she held a bronze rattle, of the sort used to frighten away the God of the Sirocco; its narrow rim was curved like a sword-kit and three little rods, which sang shrilly when she shook the handle, passed horizontally through it. A boat-shaped gold dish hung from her left hand, and along the upper surface of the handle writhed an asp with puffed throat and head raised ready to strike. On her divine feet were slippers of palm leaves, the emblem of victory.

All the perfumes of Arabia floated into my nostrils as the Goddess deigned to address me: ‘You see me here, Lucius, in answer to your prayer. I am Nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are. My nod governs the shining heights of Heaven, the wholesome sea-breezes the lamentable silences of the world below. Though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names, and propitiated with all manner of different rites, yet the whole round earth venerates me. The primeval Phrygians call me Pessinuntica, Mother of the gods; the Athenians, sprung from their own soil, call me Cecropian Artemis; for the islanders of Cyprus I am Paphian Aphrodite; for the archers of Crete I am Dictynna; for the trilingual Sicilians, Stygian Proserpine; and for the Eleusinians their ancient Mother of the Corn.

‘Some know me as Juno, some as Bellona of the Battles; others as Hecate, others again as Rhamnubia, but both races of Ethiopians, whose lands the morning sun first shines upon, and the Egyptians who excel in ancient learning and worship me with ceremonies proper to my godhead, call me by my true name, namely, Queen Isis. I have come in pity of your plight. I have come to favor and aid you. Weep no more, lament no longer; the hour of deliverance, shone over by my watchful light, is at hand! …’

No lamenting on my part over my failure to make magic out of myth — modernity birthed me into a rigorous acceptance that such attempts to control the outer world are infantile, that my maturity would consist in making my own sand cathedral by the shore and calling it what I would, putting no more faith in it that I do my laptop, though both are used to make meanings, meanings which I like and care for and know they come from the heart. The relation with the myths has been wholly internalized, devoured and sent down to the Gundestrup Cauldron in my belly, digesting the world, keeping what nourishment is still found there and pooping the rest.

The epiphany of Isis described above keeps the wire humming for me, for this while. A rich silver inheritance still turns up there, blasting the night skies away. What else to do but try to keep writing that music down, in emulation of a voice heard so very long ago, and last heard when a voice cried out, “Great Pan is dead!” Writing with the faultiest of rhetoric and poetics to bring this forth and leave in this ever-emptier room?

Entropy grips universals with its loosening fist –- the stars are speeding away. The moon is distancing from the earth, exerting an ever-less pull on oceans and hearts. Gods have ebbed, God is fled. As cyberspace grows, individuals become ever more distant, the mask of connectivity hiding the increasing isolation of our daily lives as we sit in thrall in front of ghostly mirrors (they’re called laptops). Love and life grow distant in increasing age, a fading resonance. Silence and stillness awaits us in the grave. I’m getting lost in this unread post.

Well, I’m not quitting my day job … but like a singing skull, I doubt I’ll ever shut up enough in this barren singing hut. Absence may prove more vital to us in our future than whatever presence still ghosts the night above in our present.

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Filed under Celestial events, Culture, Myth and Archetype, Pyschology, Writing

I Gotta Shine for Saturnalia

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(A thread from the Joseph Campbell Mythology Group, December 2010)

 

Brendan writes:

As the year dims and freezes down to solstice, I’m personally looking forward to the license of going upside down, Saturnalia-wise, for some duration of soul. The sane world could sure use some assbackwardness for a while.

Question is, where can such traditions be found in the digital whiteout? (Or any traditions.) If festival is a condition of soul, not culture, then it’s lodged somewhere in my neural ‘burbs, setting up a big top tent sponsored by a deposed Titan magnitude who leadenly and sullenly hues my melancholy with the blues and putting some hunger into my aging Sileni junk. Around the main tent go the peripheral manias, pavilions for a peek a the bearded lady Artemis, a gaudy gold but still relatively small tent for wolf-Apollo, god of famished consciousness, a hole in the ground for eviscerated Mysteries, a pup tent where Pan and Hermes and Dionysos are circle jerking around proud Callipygean Venus.(Booty calls!)

But that’s all sideshow, folks: The main show’s reserved for that big ole Gloomy Gus Saturn, resting on his scythe of harvest (reaping grain as well as his father Uranos’ manhood), ready to give up the Titan ghost but not before a Really Good Shew, as Ed Sullivan puts it, he being the Ringmaster Ned o’ the Dead. Let loose the monkey king! Have the top 1 percent of Americans who have 40 percent of the country’s wealth serve the homeless! Unzip Bravo’s matrons of DC, Atlanta and Hollywood! And let rip the psychotropically enslaved! Party like its 1999 BC, eve of the Bicameral Fall into myth, religion, fading stars and this damned thing called consciousness! Twelve nights of riot as physic for the cultural Alzheimer’s of the present. Shake it all like a Polaroid picture of the vast cold emptiness we are, star by winter-burning star forming a mythic constellation of the future — The Forgetter …

Both ends of the Yule log burning …

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Teresa R. replied:

Sounds like fun. Where do I sign up? Saturn wasn’t always so melancholy. He was the farmers’ God, and as such, the author of increase and abundance. In order for your desires to be manifest on the earth plane (here & now) they must be limited as to form. Hence I call old Saturn “the great manifester”, and conclude that He’s not such a bad guy after all. I discovered this quality about Him during my 2nd Saturn return. May you all discover such delightful things as you near your 1st, 2nd, or in some cases, even your 3rd Saturn return.

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Brendan replied,

A Saturn return, yes, like the second stage of life? Or second (third, fourth, etc) adolescence? I’ll take seconds … and thirds … hell, a fourth helping of the Manifest would go over well when I hit, say, 80 …

If you read Hillman, Saturn in archetypal psychology represents the senex side of the masculine, the wise, wizened, hoary, horny, abundantly manifested (eg old) one, paired with the puer eternus or eternally youth, dumb as The Fool, blithe, pure, narcisstic, latent one, so latent he has yet to touch the ground with his tippytoes. They’re really faces of the same tandem, looking in opposed directions. The trick is to grow a being which honors both.

I guess the New Year’s representation of Father and Baby Time are an image of the pair. (Puer as Cupid, the boy of desire yet to grow up into adult Eros).

And yes, I see Saturn as “the author of increase and abundance,” a harvest god who rules from the golden past. I’ll bet the eventual city folk made of Saturn a cut-off god (brilliant Olympian Zeus having overthrown his father and quelled the primordial rebellion of the Titans), bucolic and rustic and so Late Bronze Age, That there were rites of Saturn — celebrating his return, for a brief time — shows the ennui for a less conscious — or more collectively unconscious — age, pre-civilized age when time was much freer, not such a taskmaster … Oh for those good old old days again …

As I enter late middle age, I have much more to do with Saturn than Cupid. But as Eliot said, “Old men ought to be explorers,” — in Saturn’s domain yet honoring those cupidon wings and fins for passage.

And that scythe — quite a tool — harvest as filling the great golden horn or silo of plenty, that abundance bringing hunter-gatherers in from the cold to find duration and stability and increase in the new agrarian societies. It cleaved the ages, most succinctly in the emssculation of Uranos by Saturn – the first god’s junk thrown to the wave, where it gave birth to Aphrodite, fertile goddess, every ploughman’s charm … Fertile crescent, sickle moon, Astarte to Ishtar to Aprhodite, cleft for Thee … and me …

Sorry, I ramble. The great thing about Saturnalian fantasias is that they go endlessly back and round, owing to the greatest riches of Saturn – the million-year dreamtime of our past …

It takes a grand ole fella to harvest all of that …

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Teresa replied,

You’re the first person to talk knowledgeably about the Great Manifester. Usually they see Saturn as the great malefic. And to rhapsodize so nicely about Him, too. From my point of view, it is the Crone I see, the Wise Woman, retaining her wise blood, and giving others the benefit of her wealth of experience.

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Brendan replied,

“Retaining her wise blood,” yes, “and giving others the benefit of her wealth of experience” … Blood and experience are conjoined here in Saturn’s sickle, the curved blade, horned moon. Wisdom is a transformation of pain, isn’t it, harrows of loss become hallowed over time. What can the heart learn without loss? Where is there spiritual growth without the pain of surrender, sundering another bit of self-centeredness for god-centeredness, that odd I-Thou relation without which I’m vain, nasty, bitter, screwed?

Saturn’s slow harvest over time is a passage from youth into maturity, maturity into age, the cooking of lead in the hotter, engaged chakras until the golden corn is bursting on their stalks. And there is a time for mowing down the plants, swinging the scythe in the late-summer sun (or under the harvest moon) the cycle of physical growth most manifest, now ready for the graineries of winter, sustenance for the dead months, and the spiritual manifestations which grow toward the second harvest, as the scythe sunders us from this life, this earth, this plane, sent on to the next room of the dream …

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Teresa replied:

Ah, yes the blade. That blade which cuts so finely, until it cuts finally. You know, the last sheath of grain was dressed up and left in the field as an offering to the Goddess of the harvest. Corn dollies were also made, so that Brigid would have a shape to come into in February, the month of fevers. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. There is one rule about entering one’s 2nd childhood, or adolescence, and that is that you have to have left the first one. I’ve had my share of losses. In one summer I lost both my love and my father. To be both a widow and an adult orphan is perhaps the unkindest cut of all. It forces one to provide one’s own rudder for steering the boat of boat of one’s life or oneself through the world. Saturn provideth, and Saturn taketh away.

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Brendan replied:

“That blade which cuts so finely, until it cuts finally” — how perfectly put.

I do think it’s a second childhood that we aim for. Maybe we must cross the sword bridge of the second adolescence (with all of its silly midlife itches and mayhem) to get to the second childhood. And the severing of umbilicals it takes to reach that second childhood — ouch. I’m sorry for your losses. I’m of the age to see them too, all around — a younger brother who died a few years ago of heart attack, many peers dying of cancer. Both my parents and my wife’s parents are still alive – they’ll live forever, those goats.

That scything blade is always cruel and bloody, and yet can there be any transformation without sacrifice? Truly the ties sever, leaving holes – lacuna — emptiness in which something else slowly, in Saturn’s slow time, fills. Is any heart full that has not been broken first, which hasn’t grieved?

The notion of a blade sharpened by the contrary motions of a tempering stone –swiped this way, then that — also suggests that tandems like arrival and departure, fulfillment and loss, and joy and grief are sides of soul applied to that whetone, each required to attain that precision of spirit called wisdom which allows us to celebrate the whole, balancing heaven and earth, manifest and immanent, I and Thou, this mortal coil and the endless ocean of starlight, along a single shore, interface, isthmus between immensities. Takes a lot of honing, eh.

Hebridean islanders threw a portion of harvest to the wave, offering back what nature has given to the cold sea’s embrace. For with wisdom comes humility – giving credit where credit’s due. We are tempered by our seasons, ages, fertile and fallow times, in times of communion and others of solitude.

All so that Saturn’s blade may cut finely, til it cuts finally …

The small knowledge we have of that allows us to play on the shore with whattime remains, and sing along with the eternally crashing waves. A hell of a lot harder, the going, but also more of a hoot.

Thanks for the discussion. I’ve been too long away.

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Teresa replied:

Yes, thanks for the discussion. People like you remind me why I joined this group in the first place. Lately we had entirely too many discussions about the myths present in today’s TV shows. And not good ones, either. What myths are present in “The Jersey Shore” or “The Real Housewives of Orange County.” I never watch those shows, so how would I know? Why should I care? But this discussion has some real meat in it. Allusions to the old myths, that’s what I like, to strip away those illusions of the past and see that the old myths still hold true today.

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Brendan replied:

Thanks. “Jersey Shore” might be a masque performed at Saturnalia / Twelfth Night, excellent foolery where the clowns become kings and queens–of celebrity, at least.

Who made those masques into the foolishness of the present, taking all that ego-centric nonsense so seriously, paying top dollar for nothing? We’ve lost the framing device that yanks down our shorts from behind and places a banana peel in the middle of o-so-serious, golden dance.

Sigh. Double-dumb is what we’ve got, not knowing that we don’t know anything.

Saturn laughs at their expense, though. You can’t take any of that self-important bling across the threshold of the grave. We don’t get to keep any of it; naked we go. The harvest of what’s left — the manifest — is His. It’s dust to dust for us.

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Teresa replied:

Ah, yes, the masque, or fancy dress ball. Trust you to bring at up. In my Renaissance guild at Winter’s Feast, we have a Lord of Misrule who occupies the throne after the Queen descends to eat her victuals, and socialize with her court. You, Brendan, would find the Lord of Misrule of particular interest. He assigns silly forfeits yo people, all to be taken lightly as the tomfoolery of such egoboo as people make asses of themselves, being oh so self-important. One of the chief comedians plays the part of Henry, Lord Darnley, who will eventually marry the Queen. He does this for fun, understand. His day into night job is as nurse, helping doctors bring people from the brink of death into life. Whilst I’m on the topic of the Renaissance, strutting through the faire is the Dance of Death, a collection of characters clad in black and gray rags, painted as skeletons, chief among them, the Grim Reaper, to remind us that even though we may be in the midst of merriment, Death stalks us in more than a myriad of different forms, more gathering as we age. So yes, we can’t take it with us, but we can take our laughs with us. This is because the last joke is on us.

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Brendan replied:

Your Renaissance gig must be a hoot: we’re so much better playing at selves than being stuck in one. More fun, at least.

I’ve been re-reading Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will with an eye peering for the presence of Saturn, or Saturnalia. There is no actual reference to the Twelfth Night celebrations of Shakespeare’s age in the play, which is odd, unless you take the title to be that framing device I mentioned a before, a method to the madness of foolery which keeps everything in a sort of deranged motion of hilarity. The play’s been likened to a spinning top whose centrifuge is that no one is sane except for Feste, the professional fool (perhaps Shakespeare) who’s grown tired of the gig though he plays things through out of humane generosity — a quality lost on all the other love- or fame- or art-obsessed players.

Duke Orsino, Olivia, Maria, Viola, Malvolio, Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek — they are the cast of “Jersey Shore” tanked on erotic delusion, oddly Saturn’s greatest charm in his bag of tricks: nature’s sanguine embroilments make mooning ninnies out of everyone. It is Feste who says, “And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges” — a comeuppance which is Saturn’s, is it not, reaping the bitter harvest of what our fancies have sown?

And it is Feste who says to Count Orsino, that “high fantastical” warbling fool of love, a man obsessed with a woman who matches his tenacity with an equal reticence, more obsessed with the obsession of Love than any actual encounter with it (remember, is Orsino who says, “If music be the food of love, play on;/ Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken, and so die” — high poetry, but can a lover ever get enough of the real deal?) — it is Feste alone who sees the pall of archetype in the rosy-budded cheek of Orsino, and declares,

Now, the melancholy god protect thee, and the tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for thy mind is a very opal. I would have men of such constancy put to sea, that their business might be everything and their intent everywhere, for that’s it that always makes a good voyage of nothing. (II.iv)

In love with Love, Orsino would as much love Olivia as he would his own big toe,though that point is wholly lost on the Duke. Only Feste sees Thanatos as the third partner in this dance; the Reaper is invisible between the lover and his Beloved, ready to claim his bride at any moment (as Eurydice stepped on a poison asp on the day of her nuptial to Orpheus). Love is here and then gone; grief is the cold wake of Saturn’s blade, rudely and without mercy whispering in our ear that our fantasy of union is only that, a Twelfth Night revel. And for those in love with love, any love will do, and such people dump lovers for others faster than the “melancholy god” can say, “swish.”

But what a dance it is … and what a joy “Twelfth Night” is for spinning it so dizzily to its conclusion which, in comedies, is always a wedding, or a gaggle of them.

Back in the Renaissance, there were still ritual spaces for foolishness to thrive in a way that we could see our own. The Globe Theater had to fight Puritanism to stay open — Shakespeare’s modernity, his utter honesty about the human divorced from God — really pissed off the fundamentalists. “Twelfth Night” is a mirror held up to our modern nature at its most fertile, crazed, endearing and wild.

And the Grim Reaper was still in that image, just slightly in the background. Fast-forward and he’s gone, purged from the cathode rays which give the boob tube its fool candescence — but then, TVs aren’t mirrors of soul, are they, but projections of grand deathless post-Saturn self … without the masque, we think our masks are real, and live by them.

And suffer the revenges of time in utter astonishment …

While Saturn laughs, and Feste sings in epilogue, sending us on our way in a manner which makes us so thirsty for More,

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey,ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
Fro the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas, to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering I could never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still ‘had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.

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Teresa replied,

Ah, a man after my own heart … Are you married? Basically, Twelfth Night was an entertainment for the court. Only later was it shown at the Globe where the groundlings could see it. Yes, the fundamentalists were a problem even then, with their joyless ways spreading doom and gloom everywhere they went. They just didn’t get the purpose of the Saturnalia extravaganza, to take our minds off the grimness of life whilst winter’s grim hordes close us in. Some would not make it through the winter to greet the spring. In those latitudes especially, many would not make it through winter, the very young and the very old were especially vulnerable where there was no central heating available. Hogmanay was another attempt to squeeze some merriment out of cold grim winter. Back during the Renaissance among the nobility, a favorite pastime was the fancy dress ball, an attempt to slip into another self whilst winter’s cruel winds blew round the manse or castle. It did give a great many commoners employment, craftsmen to make the fancy dress costumes, and others to make and serve the feast. At least these folk would be fed and cosseted for a few days out of the winter.

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Brendan replied:

Sorry, this is just a meeting — not a mating — of the minds; the latter labor is my wife’s, for my better and her worse.

I was thinking about the winter element to Twelfth Night (and, of course, Winter’s Tale, plus the scene of Lear mad in the cold night of tempest) and how such entertainments could warm the soul almost enough. Twelfth Night is set in a vacation spot dimly far south — Illyria, so Mediterranean, Viola sunning topless on the deck her barque til it is shipwrecked; and all of that later moony lust heats the blood as well.

Almost enough. Is it cold where you are? Even Florida feels the bite of the dogs of winter today. Surely Saturn rules from the seat of deep winter, in that castle at the far end of harvest (Hamlet broods and is melancholy as is any Saturn, so maybe Saturn’s keep is Dunsinane … ) But what about Apollo, the wolf-god from the frozen land of the Hyperboreans, the ultima thule of furthest island to the north? What pairs Apollo’s shining artful eloquent intelligence with that former, predatory, dark, lupine, instinctual genius? Maybe he was the totem god of a Neanderthal tribe that came down from their frozen mountain haunts to live among the Homo Sapiens in the Gulf Oasis plain now beneath the Persian Gulf some 50,000 years ago.

Story: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/40605372/ns/technology_and_science-science/

Chilly tales for Southern nights … naw, Saturn revels in midsummery gambols on frozen nights, tanked on wassail and goose and figgy pudding.

No wonder the medievals tangibly felt the Grim Reaper walks among them. He did…

So much of that fear is lost in our insulated, heated, electrified and connected present. I’ve been reading some of Annie Proulx’s steely Wyoming Stories — yesterday “Them Old Cowboy Songs,” perhaps the bleakest and most honest account of daily life in Wyoming in 1885, before any of our contemporary buffers against Death were invented. In Wyoming of that day, the wilderness was the Reaper, so forbidding and harsh that survival was the miracle, not the rule. I don’t know why,but I found that story – as many others by Proulx, and Cormac McCarthy’s novels to boot (sort of Zane Grey on Faulknerian steriods) — to be incredibly nourishing, getting a breath of that air so inhabited by Saturn’s scythe. Ditto for Melville’s Moby Dick, though in my most recent re-reading I found the accounts of whale-harvest very difficult to endure, my sympathies for wild kingdom increasing the older I get.

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The castle of the Green Knight (in the story of Gawain and the Green Night) might be another locus of Saturn — found only at the winter’s solstice by Gawain after long questing, a year and a day after the Green Knight showed up at King Arthur’s court and requested a beheading – his own, after which he scooped up his head and bid any knight brave enough for the same trial come to HIS crib. Arriving there at the Green Chapel (I believe its called — maybe the Green Knight is a pagan Green Man too), there is first an erotic trial (the Green Knight’s Lady offers Gawain her protective green girdle in exchange for three kisses. And the real, Gawain putting his head on the block and allowing the Green Knight three swipes, the worst of which only grazes Gawain’s neck. Gawain is spared due to the favor of an otherwordly woman, though his courage — or foolishness — is his own. Still, Gawain considers himself a failure, and wears the green sash as token of his humility.

Winter winds blow through this area like so many hurled axes today: who doesn’t need a bit of sash to keep one’s head, so to speak, from being carried aloft?

Or something, I ramble.

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Teresa replied,

Aw shucks. You’re married. Well, that you should bring up the Green Knight is interesting. Illyria was an ancient kingdom on the Mediterranean, ruled by fabled queens born of Goddesses and their all too mortal consorts. Shakespeare is my favorite poet. Certainly he must have gotten the major myths when he went to school. He based so many of his plays upon them. It’s not necessary for you to retrace the entire history of our conversation, and it is couth to clip. It is rather cold, although ol’ Sol shines bravely through the clouds today like a widow smiling through her tears. I didn’t realize that Apollo came from the far north, or had connections with Wolf. Certainly the Grecian Gods are further removed from their totemic roots than Egypt, the black land which they would someday take, led by a Macedonian boy. Wyoming, a ruggedly beautiful land. I had thought to settle there someday, until I learned that it is almost all either fundamentalist Christian or Mormon, neither of which do I fancy as neighbors. Certainly that Jack o’ Diamonds lurks with the Ace of Spades in the drifts of snow that pile up whilst the men are inside playing Poker and Texas Hold ‘Em swilling down rye whiskey, the drink they think will warm them, but in reality is a ticket to cold death as soon as they step outside.

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Reading Lascaux

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Burger King announced last year that it would favor producers who treated their animals more humanely. This is welcome news for animal welfare advocates, but probably not of much import to the millions of animals we slaughter in order to feed our divine (or biological) appetite for meat. Hens will get extra water, wing-room and fresh air; pigs and cattle will get a mercy shock stunning before heading to the axe. The executioner will smile like Ronald MacDonald and good cheer will be felt by all as they queue up for our out-held dinner plates.

This vision of our rough mastery of the animal world seems quite far from Bambi and Tweety Bird their tribe, sweet-faced, almost childlike innocents we just want to cuddle and raise. It’s weird, that we have on the one hand we cherish animals, while on the other most of us devour their flesh with little afterthought. There’s a big disconnect between Babe and Sunday’s pork roast.

A disturbing disconnect. Sunday’s pork roast comes back, restless in my bowels, talking to me in my dreams, putting a face back on my meat. (I get it too with vegetables, I mean why not, we reap asparagus and lettuce and peppers and squash with a reaper’s hook, ignorant of their tiny bleating voices as they are busheled and bundled off to market…) If I am so afraid of being devoured by Death, who am I to be so blithe in devouring other lives?

The underworld of my dream is populated with animals, feral, hungry, totemic, familiars of magic and ritual and milky enactment. I am dogged by fear, driven by horse hooves, hang on for dear life to the flanks of a joyfully careening dolphin; I dig up a possum jaw in my garden and wonder if it really belongs to a sea-Nessie not seen for two hundred million years. Wolves spring at my throat and I drink from their breasts. Et cetera. My waking, suburban, 21st century, technologically immersed world may be far from them, but when I get home weary from work, there’s nothing like sitting out on the back porch feeding our outdoor cats, listening to their tiny mouths tear and chew at wet food — chicken, beef, fish — their small shapes perfect, furry, fine, as the day descends into night. Then I head inside to eat. The poet Wendell Berry prayed simply before eating: “Let me be worthy of my meat.”

Worthy: If I am to privilege my life over another, then I must somehow make myself worthy, a desire which is ritual, I believe. I earnestly want to make peace with the underbelly underworld of those I dispatched: so I find myself here, restating ancient equations and mantras, tapping out a ritual reenactment my ancient ancestors long practiced …

Something tells us we are at odds with ourselves when we kill and eat an animal. Survivor’s guilt, maybe, haunting the living. Our advantage convicts us, like a god accountable for the creation. Something in our biological nature told us we had right to anything desired by our appetite; that the world was ours to dominate and glut upon.

But something in our human nature placed the burden of our kills on our souls, requiring atonement. You would certainly get this impression in reading the cathedral paintings of the Paleolithic caves in Lascaux and Trois Freres. For some reason humans some 30 thousand years ago found it important to go underground and in the belly of the world paint the teeming hordes of appetite — whether to invoke the god of these animals to bring living representatives to them (so that life imitates art), or to “recall” their kills with commemorative imprints (thus art imitating life).

In the century since their discovery, scholars have been attempting to read the caves of Lascaux and its brethren, trying to figure out from these earliest examples of human culture what we make of existence.

It doesn’t look like much has changed in the depths of human psyche since then, if we accept the view of Andre Leroi-Gourham, director of the Musee de l’Homme in Paris, who wrote the following about Palelolithic ritual cave culture:

Clearly, the core of the system rests on the alternation, complementarity, or antagonism between male and female values, and one might think of a ‘fertility cult’ … There are few religions, primitive or evolved, that don’t somewhere involve a confrontation of the same values, whether divine couples such as Jupiter and Juno are concerned, or principles such as yang and yin.

There is little doubt that Paleolithic men were familiar with the division of the animal and human world into two opposite halves, or that they supposed the union of these two halves to govern the economy of living beings … Paleolithic people represented in the caves the two great categories of living creatures, the corresponding male and female symbols, and the symbols of death on which the hunters fed. In the central area of the cave, the system is expressed by groups of male symbols placed around the main female figures, whereas in other parts of the sanctuary, we find exclusively male representations, the complements, it seems, to the underground cavity itself.

So: The ground of existence, in the Paleolithic cultural mind, was defined by a big division, first between humans and animals; and, making that distinction, carried it further as the symbolic difference between men and women. Animals had sexual values and appear in different parts of the cave system according to the way participants in the cave mysteries interacted with them; at the center, a rich profusion of symbol; toward the peripheries, male symbols only, with the cave itself all the feminine representation required.

As man and world, so man and woman: here we see the second great symbolic division in human consciousness — and a second great disturbance which makes hard going in human existence. Man in heaven, woman on earth: Uranos begetting a titan tribe on the burdened and submissive sprawl of Gaia. As reapers of wombs, men prey on women the way they hunt animals: divinely appointed and yet guilty of outrage.

Do the problematics which created the cathedral caves of Lascaux 30,000 years ago still trouble us? We live in a day where where equality of the sexes should not only be assumed but rigorously enforced — not merely as a matter of policy but as an a priori, moral right — and yet, women are still getting short shrift in the workplace, in the family, in academia and cultural circles, across most populations. Many young girls are raped by men who think that virgin sheaths will heal their AIDs-infected member, or they are harvested from villages and sent to serve the burgeoning sex slave market (whose customers are 25 percent American males.) Male predators are everywhere — especially here, on the Internet, posing as lusty young young men in chat rooms, trying to lure girls to trysts. Uranos is still chasing Gaia, pent, hungry, aching, willing to break every law in order to satisfy his desire.

How can this be? Are we still someone where on a par with Mr. Ugh clobbering the Missus whenever it’s time for a little species propagation? How could things seem so stuck in a retrogressive groove, an ooze so old as to seem, well, Paleolithic.

It’s not for being painfully aware of the need to change out of the old cultural standards of species priority and intra-species sexism. Evidence the heat of outrage frequently expressed here. Double standards, misogyny, mythological sexism, patriarchalism, penis pride and prejudice, rage against patriarchal dominance, debate over the centrality of the Western canon: rational minds get pretty angry about this stuff, contentious and quite assertive. Yet these attitudes just seem to hunker down further into their old grooves.

If women don’t find a culturally equal footing with men, the men will probably be the death of us. Male-female population ratios are changing dangerously toward the former as couples use ultrasound to determine the sex of their fetuses and abort the girls. Male-dominated societies — called “mannerbunde” — are more apt to go to war and make women possessions to be fought over.
And we have to find balance again with the natural world. The darker implications of global warming is that the same prioritizing of the male over the female is inherent in the human species apart from the rest of the world it dominates. We master to the brink of extinction, claiming Biblical right to lordship over the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms. (Scary segment on “60 Minutes” last night down in Antarctica where entire penguin populations are disappearing because of melting sea ice which used to provide an environment for krill to flourish, which penguins feed on; with temperatures raising one degree a decade in Antarctica, it is quickly losing its ice mass. And where is all of that water going to go?)

Truly, history — past, present, and threatening future — is, as Joyce once wrote, a nightmare we must wake from. But how?

Much as we struggle against it, the very light by which I write this morning – human consciousness — o heck, let’s throw the Devil in, human ego consciousness — is the culprit. As a functioning organ, consciousness is a manipulator of reality, It’s looking for an edge, mojo, luck, tools, anything that provides and advantage in securing the basic necessities — food, shelter, fecundity, family or tribal success. It is in the work of manipulating this reality that time and space came into being, life and death, us and them, hunter and hunted. Every tool was fashioned along a binary decision process of bad/good or good/better; struggling to secure the best beef and babies, nonverbal emoticons slowly found verbal expression, where things were replace by names of things, concepts for states of being, narratives for lives. Our language is a symbolic balance of superior/inferior, greater/lesser, higher/lower, male/female, etc. etc. Its devices and articulations are modalities of efficient survival, some 3 million years’ of hominid experience which cried into being homo sapiens, “man the wise.” (Sorry gals, but the Latinates of taxonomy were penned by geeky dudes.)

Antagonism and ennui drive the system. Ego consciousness is painfully aware of its separateness, that names become occlusions of things. Once we’re born, there’s no way back, and once we’re weaned off the tit the warm uterine welcome we once felt becomes a colder reality. Whatever superior place males placed themselves in, the act made them desperate for some of that sweet inferior lactate. What I lack is what I desire; whatever treasures I have accumulated don’t mean half as much as those my fellow struts around wearing.

So: If mastery were enough, we would probably have killed ourselves off long ago in one long bloody joust. But the guilty shadow of mastery put a second side to every act, so that hunger and desire and greed have untold consequences on individual and tribal life. I believe that our symbols were articulated to get at the meaning of this mystery, wholes comprised of halves, complementary yet antagonistic binaries of Yes and No, Should and Should Not, I and Thou, Me and She, our human tribe and the rest of the (animal) world. symbols proved something different, because to get to the whole of a symbol you have to somehow embrace both sides of it.

Thus — perhaps — our cultural expressions emerged about 130,000 years into the development of Homo Sapiens (to our best reckoning; the signature of earlier culture has yet to be found, either because it was expressed in nonsurviving ways or simply didn’t exist yet) as the attempt to right the balance, to put the whole back into sync.

If we accept the notion that Paleolithic cave culture was ritual in intent, and the dualities and contraries which drive human thought and language are compellingly problematic, then the ritual itself must have been an attempt to transcend or go deeper into the apparent divisions and invoke an entire meaning; to grasp the whole mystery.

So whether the caves were primarily used for hunting magic — invoking the tuletary deity of soon-to-be or recently hunted animal — or for puberty rites where men became boys, initiated into the mysteries of the Earth mother, either ritual would attempt to offer passage out of the superior position into the fullness of the inferior yet somehow greater Other.

Culture continually repeats the imprint of Lascaux; the forms have changed, maybe become more sophisticated, practiced, are subject to the fashions of successive ages; but the symbolic matrix of art — that of a striving, heroic ego consciousness — has not changed a bit. As part of our history, these cave paintings are very old; but as mysteries, they are as fresh and vital as the latest staging of a Shakespearean rag. Art — the dream of our symbol-projecting brain — is timeless, as true as it was in the beginning as it appears to be toward our end.

If the symbols have changed little since we began articulating them, have we learned anything? If we’re so hard-wired to these paradigms, then what hope do we have of changing beyond them? Will men always be men and women always women? Will there always be heroes and mothers? Will men always peramble and wander and seek to forge that which women are intimate and at home with?

(Digressive question: Or are these elaborations of symbol merely the way the male-gender brain has seen reality? Is the very articulation of symbol a guy thing? Do we alone need to name the mystery, do only males have to posit their place, as if to know where one stands marks the navel of the world? Curious to hear about that …)

Every age requires a new confession, wrote Emerson, and ours is still trying to read Lascaux, or write it more adequately. Thirty thousand posts in this forum would make you think we’ve made a valiant attempt here over the past eight years.

But I wonder if the human tribe has bonked against the wall and, for all the talk, has little new to say about it. The caves were deserted somewhere around 10,000 BC, their peoples travelled on as the Ice Age receded, to the British Isles and perhaps even to America. Human culture spread quickly with the development of agriculture, trade, and city-states. The race for domination was on, as new metals were forged, iron and copper and bronze and steel, each more cruel and cunning and capable than the last. The great religions formed heirophantic empires of those old symbolic conumdrums. We hurried on to here.

If we have bonked — if mind has reached the end of its tether, if baseballs can’t be hit any further out of the park, if culture now says little new but endlessly recycles its tropes, if couples can’t bet any better at coupling, if words will always fail to get beyond their harsh antagonisms which forever separate I from Thou, lover from beloved, human nature from nature — then how to account for what appears to be dramatic change and advancement in the tools of civilization? Plato is just as smart as we are (probably smarter), the artesans of Lascaux are on a par with the painter of the Sistine Chapel, but the fire of Prometheus is now forging microchips so small that computers in a few years will be thousands of times faster than this 1998-vintage iMac, with its 333mhz processor and nearly-full 6 gigs of storage. What of the discoveries in subatomic physics and celestial astronomy, what of the medical miracles of our age (a pill for every ill, a scan for every fear)? What of the complex conversational soup in which we live and breathe and multitask, iPod in our ears, fingers flying on the keyboard, videos streaming while we write, cellphones ringing, everyone talking, selling, hammering away?

Is it technology and not culture which is rapidly evolving discourse, where in the past 100 years or so God has been largely displaced and man displaced from the seat to God’s right, replaced by a pluralsim of sexes and species, all with the right to exist and exalt in the creation it dreams? If we are stuck in the ooze of our first and only symbols, how then could such things be afoot?

There may not be adequate words for this, since language is itself a cultural relic, symbol-formation’s oldest buddy.

In the vat of the current technological revolution — that which brought us our medium of exchange, the Web — we chat and chatter and sign and signify, but I wonder how much is getting beneath the surface of so much self-expressive talk. I’ve seen Yahoo! groups that get over a 100 messages a day where none of them are replied to; while much is said of the Web’s possibility for collaborative thinking, it seems more a collective howl and potty bowl of desires, indulgences, rants and pouts. Like a massive daycare in bad need of parental discipline.

Maybe I know not of that which I speak — jury’s out on whether the Web is a birth-pang or death-throw of heroic consciousness — But such teeming wildness and diversity smacks of the unconscious to me, a pandemonium of images and souls and complexes which rage beneath the day in a cavernous cathedral choired by all that is lost and tossed and verboten. Are we growing out of consciousness its way, learning to go through the door marked “Heaven” which is a ways down from the door marked “Lecture on Heaven”, choosing instead to enter the dark fray, less frightened of the dark perhaps, enboldened by some knowledge of the dark within us?

If so, then perhaps there is a fresh way to read Lascaux, not as a ritual complex but as complexity itself, a multiverse where the symbols whirl and gavotte in a dance that is primally sexual, hungry, appetitive for enactment, embrace, propagation, sanction, reprieve, blessing, etc. all for one and one for all. And all of it happening in a distanced, incorporeal, phantasmagorial, cerebral or, better yet, more imaginally grounded manner than the ground itself.

Recent brain research shows that about 11 millions of data bits stream through the brain each second, with only 40 of them processed by the conscious brain and the rest left to the autonomic nervous system. Maybe it’s far smarter to think with the subconscious or unconscious mind than with the conscious. If only 4 percent of the universe is made of the stuff which you and me and this planet and the stars are made of, and the rest of it is “dark”, eg not knowable except by what it visibly influences, then maybe we need to use our conscious brains as volt-meters of the unconscious, thinking the unthinkable, working on that 10,999,960 bits of data that’s flowing through us though we don’t know it. If that’s the case, then we read Lascaux with the lights off, or with one singular flash, and let the darkness do the work.

I have written here before about a seeming change in the history of consciousness, where for a great length of time consciousness grew by excluding the darker elements of the unconsciousness, by building firmer walls, by bringing more light into the squared circle in which we reside. Such history parallels the first half of life, where ego consciousness grows from something fragile and small into a doer of feats and a builder of cities, the hero become king, an empire founded. Then something happens past the midpoint of life, both personally and collectively: the gambits and strategies of the first half lose their power. Other priorities emerge, other powers surge. It seems that we are stronger for what we let go of, a sort of renunciation of the light by which a growing consciousness must also learn to articulate. No longer fighting off the dark with its bright sword, consciousness yearns to merge with its other, to soak up uterine waters, to be reborn as something very opposite. Creativity — that which replicates its maker — subverts in order to fertilize. It’s the oldest ritual in the book.

Erich Neumann captures this perfectly in his article “On the Moon and Matriarchal Consciousness”:

It is not under the burning rays of the sun but in the cool, reflected light of the moon, when the darkness of unconsciousness is at the full, the the creative process fulfills itself; the night, not the day, is the time of procreation. It wants darkness and quiet, secrecy, muteness, and hiddenness. Therefore, the moon is lord of life and growth in opposition to the lethal, devouring sun. The moist night time is the time of sleep but also of healing and recovery. … It is the regenerating power of the unconscious that in nocturnal darkness or by the light of the moon it performs its task, a mysterium in a mysterium, working from out of itself, out of nature, and with no aid from the head-ego. This is why healing pills and herbs are ascribed to the moon and their secrets guarded by women or, better, by womanliness, which belongs to the moon.

Here is my difficult question though, on which the silence of the lambs firmly rests: Is all art by nature conservative, replicating the old symbolic matrix over an again? What is reborn but more of the same appetites and qualms?

It may not be art but technology which is freeing us from the rule of the old gods. It is modernity which is quickly destroying traditional cultures, throwing out the baby Jesus with the Baath water. It is in the most technologically advanced societies that norms are most challenged, that women are finding a wider berth in choosing the nature and arc of their lives, that animals are getting a bill of rights, that environments are experiencing triage through eco-friendly living.

Maybe Lascaux is the wall we bonked after 130,000 years of existence, our language and culture expressions of futility, articulating the awful and permanent distance between I and Thou. And we’ve been bonking ever since, growing ever more articulate in our despair. Without traditions, cultures die: Western culture seems to be falling in the drink like Atlantis, taking with it all of the noble and futile gestures of a tribe that tried to say what was inexpressible, to know what was unknowable. The symbols gave us an upper hand, but what lies behind them in the dark are what we really need — dark steps down into something beyond naming. I can’t help but think that technology is going to take us there very soon, hell in a handbasket or aflutter on a magic carpet.

It’s coming, and when it flashes across our collective mindscape, unbound, free even of our conscious brains, the dark universe we will finally see with naked eyes will put us in our place — either through self-extinction, or a roar of brilliant revelation which will sear our eyes with the true text of Lascaux, the one hidden beneath all of those beautiful and futile paintings.

Lots of implications here — as religions and cultures must die, must also myths, arts, language, meaning? How could we exist so nakedly, and how could we ever desire to? Always this jumping-off point where old comforts beckon — am I betrayed yet again by my archetypes when the thought crosses my mind that maybe it isn’t about changing human nature as re-imagining it, giving it another chance to redeem itself? We can treat our meat humanely, we can invest in green technology, we can we can legislate greater equality between the sexes, normalize the marginalized, raise the bar of existence not only for a global humanity but also for the globe’s teeming complexity.

Is there a metephor for civilization transforming culture? An empty cave, or a brilliant one within? Is there a myth for the hero who sacrifices himself for the world, stepping down from his throne in heaven to scatter his divinity among all things? (I mean, we are approaching Easter.) Is there a language which somehow stays in the raw middle, not quite neither or either, both You and I, a bedded I and Thou? Can heroic consciousness renounce his space/time box of reality and see the world afresh, reborn with the naked eye? Would that heal the divide between humans and animals? Would we then finish Lascaux for good?

I am as yet unsated with my topic, my appetite still gnawing short of the truth, its meat yet bounding away. Meaning eludes me; but I will keep trying here, sharpening these sentences, fitting puns onto shafts of desire, taking aim yet again at the herds of Lascaux with those serene, terrified, divine eyes.

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