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.
Arizona mass murderer Jared Laughner and a photo from a his MySpace page, showing a pistol laid upon a U.S. history textbook.
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 …
A self-portrait of Seung-Hu Cho and the aftermath of his bloody rampage.
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.
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.
* * *
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.’”
* * *
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?
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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?