Saturday, October 01, 2016

Head Full of Ghosts (Paul Tremblay)

I start too many blog posts with the phrase "it's been a long time," but the fact remains that I haven't blogged in a long time. In another month I will be officially finished with my doctorate, so perhaps I can get back to some more posting, and more book reviews in between academic papers, the novel I'm trying to publish, my day job, and my part-time job teaching 70 students and grading their papers. It will be a question of time management and energy.

I did manage to take some time to read Paul Tremblay's recent novel "Head Full of Ghosts." I haven't read Tremblay's previous novels, but this one came with two very separate and enthusiastic recommendations from a couple of Facebook friends; I know one of them from high school and met the other during John Foxx's tour in 2011. The synopsis of the book promised a psychological thriller written from different points of view, and I find this immediately intriguing. I love well-crafted psychological horror.

"Head Full of Ghosts" promised something involved and complex that left you uncertain about the reality of events, and it did not disappoint in any way. The story is told from the perspective of Meredith Barrett, know as "Merry." The story is about her family--her parents, John and Sarah, and her sister Marjorie. When Marjorie starts to exhibit strange psychological symptoms, she is first taken to a psychiatrist, but then her unemployed father, who has "found religion," asks a Catholic priest called Father Weatherly for advice, and we are then led to believe that Marjorie is possessed by a demon. The family is in desperate financial straits, and when they end up being approached about doing a reality TV show about Marjorie's "possession," they agree to do it. John wants us to believe that his motivation is to make Marjorie better; Sarah admits that she mainly agreed to it because of the money involved, though she wants to believe it will help. She does not believe her daughter is possessed. There is a twist ending that I won't reveal here--you only get hints throughout the novel that Merry is somehow the only one who has survived the reality TV ordeal.

I am teaching Mythology again this semester, and one of the points I stressed in my opening lectures was the importance of narrative, and the ways in which we run on a script, never aware of our own stories. Our only contact with the rich world of the collective unconscious is through dreams, fantasies, and crises--including psychological breakdowns or psychoses. The stories we are drawn to tell us something about our unconscious state. In the first part of Tremblay's novel, Marjorie tells stories to Merry. Marjorie writes and draws in Merry's Richard Scarry book, with its town of animals, even though Merry is too old for Richard Scarry at the age of eight. Merry likes the stories, because they always have happy endings. But then Marjorie begins to tell darker stories, and if you read a lot of Jung, you realize immediately that she is slipping into a kind of schizoid state. The first story is about a flood of molasses that leaves everyone in the town "stuck"; the second is about vines that grow up through the basement and take over the house. Primal consciousness is devouring the personality, and leaving Marjorie "stuck." Merry runs into Marjorie in the basement early in the filming process of the show. Marjorie confides in her that she is not demon-possessed, that she's just playing along. But then she says (and I'm paraphrasing) "I'm not possessed by a demon. I'm possessed by ideas." These are the voices she hears in her head. And I thought, BINGO. Beautifully written, and dead-on accurate. This is not a demon, this is being taken over by "elementary ideas"--the archetypes. There is something Dionysian about her dream of vines.

As the novel progresses, the reader is left uncertain about whether or not Marjorie really IS possessed, though the decided tone of Merry's narrative makes you skeptical of the whole operation. There is definitely a sexist element to the whole thing, as Marjorie "could not possibly" know certain things as a fourteen-year-old girl, things that she certainly could know if she applied herself. When they give their litany of evidence, Sarah tells them that of course Marjorie knows those things--she's smart, and she reads. There is a hat-tip to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper," which is explicitly mentioned in some places. The attempts of the men in the story to reign in Marjorie's intellect and strength just leads to more disaster.

By the end of the novel, the reader is questioning the sanity of all the characters--the parents, certainly, but also Merry. When I finished the book, I had some clues early on that she also might not be "quite right," and that the trauma she suffered with her family made an existing problem worse. I'll refrain from saying any more about the outcome; I encourage you to read the book yourself.

The style of the book reminds me of Danielewski's "House of Leaves", though not as chaotic. The narrative is told through interview with Merry, Merry's first person recollections, and Merry's horror movie blog which she writes under a pseudonym. The pieces of the narrative are fed slowly to the reader, as you jump from one perspective of the situation to another, and it's very well-crafted.

Friday, March 04, 2016

American Authoritarianism and the Shadow

Note: I generally try to avoid getting too political in posts. But I'm really bothered by what I see in the current politics of our country, and the professor in me wants to use this as a moment of reflection--and perhaps instruction.

I teach Classical Mythology from a Jungian perspective. Archetype theory isn’t fashionable with all branches of scholarship, but I have always found it the most useful way of organizing and understanding the symbolic language of myth. In my lectures on the underworld and on the trials of the hero, I always talk about the pseudo-archetype of the Shadow. The Shadow does not represent human evil; it represents those aspects of ourselves that are weaker or less understood. This can include “evil” inclinations; whatever you consciously present to the world, the opposite always has its potential in your psyche, in “shadow”. The key to dealing with the Shadow is confrontation—you have to take a good look at yourself and what you’re afraid of, ashamed of, horrified by, etc. Most of us don’t like to do this; it can be a real ego-downer, and the goal of Shadow work is not to make you depressed or afraid. It’s to make you aware that most of what you’re afraid of exists inside yourself. But again, it is not automatic human nature to do this; most of the time we see the Shadow through projection—it is as though we are in a hall of mirrors. What we see in others that we intensely like or dislike represents usually unconscious qualities in ourselves. It’s good to pay attention to those things, because they tell you a lot about you. We should also not diminish the influence of the Shadow; it can be much scarier than it sounds. The more you acknowledge it as part of you, the less influence it has over you. The more you believe the “devil” is not in you (especially if you think you’re “saved”), the more control the “devil” has over you.

When I discuss the Shadow with my students, I get varied reactions. I have no idea whether most of them “get” it or not. Jungian psychology is difficult for the 18-22 year-old set, unless they’ve had a number of life crises already. Jung himself admits that his psychology is really meant for those “at the middle of life”, which he roughly estimates as age 35. But that doesn’t mean his ideas aren’t relevant to other groups. When I give examples of collective Shadow projection in history, I usually get blank stares; students are removed from the emotional impact of historical catastrophes like the Holocaust. One might “get it” on a superficial level, or translate it to the idea “look at yourself before you blame others”. But now we have a real life example, and we need to pay attention. This is not a drill.

The current Presidential election campaigns have been nothing short of a circus, and most candidates have been acting like clowns. Ultimately, though, this is about the public and not specifically the candidates. There is collective astonishment that this campaign-turned-reality-show is tolerated by intelligent people. This is instructive as to the “Shadow” state of our society. I will point to Trump particularly because he has a segment of voters that demonstrate political extremes. Several articles have come out recently, with this one being the most comprehensive, on the ability to predict Donald Trump’s wins by the authoritarianism of his supporters. This, more than any other factor, has been correlated with his success. But what does it mean to be “authoritarian”? There is a discomfort with change, and a need to control the environment to maintain the status quo by any means necessary. It’s important to note (as the article above does) that supporting Trump doesn’t automatically make someone authoritarian. But one can have an authoritarian response to fear of change. You can look at the appeal of vigilante or “crazy cop” justice movies (Diehard, Lethal Weapon, Deathwish, etc.) or watch heroes killing off zombies with chainsaws to see the emotional response of “blowing away the bad guys”. But as it’s been pointed out, this a really a kind of anti-heroism—the hero goes out to battle, and nothing redeeming has been brought back. You just have a lot of dead (or deader) people. This is Virgil’s subtext in the last books of the Aeneid; unlike the Iliad, you see young boys, barely considered adults, going out to fight and being killed in a senseless bloodbath. War is not glorified in the Aeneid; Virgil writes this at the beginning of the Roman Empire, when Augustus represented a re-established Pax Romana (Roman Peace) after years of brutal civil war.

But even outside the context of war, the authoritarian tendency is one for gaining forceful control over an external event, and the central motivation is fear. Everyone has authoritarian traits, just as everyone has narcissistic traits. If you ask my co-workers, I can be very authoritarian when I feel my department is given the short end of the stick by those outside. When it comes to my own life, I can be very controlling. However, this doesn’t extend to others—everyone should be able to live the life they want, whether they agree with me or not. A couple of other examples—my father has a lot of traits that might be construted as authoritarian; he’s always been staunchly conservative Repbulican, and big on “blowing away the bad guys”. However, my father doesn’t like Trump at all, and when it comes down to it, he adapts to societal change fairly well—he is indifferent to things like gay marriage, for instance. By contrast my mother is someone who fears change, and yet that again applies only to herself and her family; when it comes to the outside world, she is quite liberal, even if she has a hard time accepting certain societal changes. So, while there may be “classic authoritarians”, the amount of authoritarianism displayed is directly related to one’s fear response to a threat. Completely non-authoritarian personalities can act in authoritarian ways. Like all other “Shadow” traits, this doesn’t make someone “evil” or even hateful.

So, how does all this relate? What we are afraid of is, by Jungian definition, ‘“in Shadow”. There is no “one right way” to deal with the Shadow; it depends on your own environment, culture, challenges, strengths, and weaknesses. Nonetheless, if we are going to live in a society that is able to flow with change and give real equality to all its citizens, we have to look at it—you can’t blame others, and there are no simplistic solutions. There are individual Shadows, and a country can have a collective Shadow. As Jung noted, “the brighter the light, the darker the shadow”, so one needs to be suspicious of efforts to “protect” the citizenry from the “evils” of a particular group or country. Those who have taken my classes know how I feel about the so-called “battle between good and evil”. There will always be conflict, always people with radically differing views. We live in a society that, while not perfectly pleasing everyone, allows everyone to have their views without punishment or censorship, at least by the law. There will always be a dynamic where one ideology may gain mainstream preference over another. This has for thousands of years been known as “the wheel of life”. The best place for you to be is in the center, not disoriented by the ups and downs. This is more difficult for us that it seems.

You can recognize the Shadow when you see scapegoating. If change makes you uncomfortable, if you feel a great threat from the outside, the natural thing to do is to put up a wall and blame an outside person, group, or ideology. But your fear of whatever it is—ISIS, gay marriage, atheists, the government—ultimately it’s not about any of those things. It’s about you. And that is what it means to confront the Shadow. What you are really afraid of is a loss of control and liberty to be and do what you want—and this is certainly credible. But it’s also a denial of how the world really is—there is always going to be suffering, conflict, and clashes. Most of the horrors we envision never happen. The question becomes—how to do we choose to deal with it? And does our choice help the problem, or only make it worse? And most importantly—how do we negotiate problems that are unsolvable? We may not be as lucky as Oresetes, who had Apollo and Athena rooting for him against the Furies when he was stuck in an impossible situation. Sometimes you have to negotiate things on a day to day basis.

In addition, we live in an era of too much information, and most of it questionable or useless. We often just want everything to go away, but we can’t help being bombarded by images unless we stay away from the Internet and all media. It is not surprising that we live in a society where younger people don’t want to be bothered with social and political questions, or with furthering their education; they have been bombarded since childhood, and just want to escape from it. But it is a part of growing up; you can’t stay in childhood forever, you have to develop resiliency. Most importantly, you have to not be afraid of the world, and when you do feel fear, don’t become immobilized. It’s your life to live, and you should not let the collective Shadow frighten you into betraying yourself. Regardless of who you support in this election, or what your personal response is to external crises, remember—most of what you are afraid of is within yourself, and most of it is what “could happen” rather than what “is”. Reflect on that, and treat others with the decency you’d want for yourself from them. Aggressiveness and bullying are not signs of leadership; they are signs of fear, weakness, and an inability to face realities. We all long for simple solutions, but take a deep breath and realize that not everything is simple, and if you can master your own fears, the others will fall from significance. Remember also that the great thing about America is your freedom to be who you are and what you want, and this necessarily means living with difference. There is no need to silence or disenfranchise those who are different from you; we’re all humans after all.

Lastly—go back and brush up on your world history. Our country is in panic mode in response to crises, some real, many imagined or invented by the media. There is much to be learned from what has happened in other places in the past. Expose yourself to viewpoints different from your own. Education is not a liability; it is power. And real discourse is important, not shouting down the opposition—if we can’t find common ground, we will be destroyed faster than a Florida community in a sinkhole. Demand this from your politicians, and don't be sucked in by cheap pandering.

You might say, "What do I have to do with it? Focusing on myself doesn't change anything else." Actually, yes it does. Societies are made up of individuals like yourself; if we don't change individually, nothing changes collectively.

Thursday, November 26, 2015


November has been a strange month. The first part of the month was amazing; the second part has made me want to pack my bags and move to an undisclosed cave. Rarely do I vacillate between such extremes. For the last week, I could tell you about all the negatives: my father is ill, certain co-workers are managing to get under my skin, and the inability of some of my students to read, write, or think in the most basic fashion makes me want to bang my head into a wall. I'm not in England, and that's where I'd prefer to be, but I still have things to do here before I can really think about going there to stay. And don't get me started on the state of the world: between Da'esh, terrorist threats, Donald Trump, and general American xenophobia, it's really hard to find things to be thankful for today, which is Thanksgiving Day. If we realize the roots of Thanksgiving Day, that's not such great shakes either for the Native Americans. Really, it's a depressing lot.

So, I woke up this morning and decided that I needed to make an effort to think about things I am thankful for. Here is the list:

1. I can own a house and pay my own way as a single woman in this miserable economy; my graduate education has been worth something economically.

2. I have a job that allows me ample vacation time, and I make enough to have the freedom to travel.

3. As of the second week of December, I will be ABD (All But Dissertation), and I have a straight A average.

4. I am on track to survive the last of 3 grueling semesters finishing up coursework, teaching about 70 students a semester, and working in an administrative job with a lot more responsibility than my previous job (but also more money).

5. I am already 1/4 of the way through my doctoral dissertation, and on track to finish that by Spring or early Summer.

6. My sane family members make a positive difference in my life, and I have really great nieces (including nieces-in-law) and nephews.

7. I still have both of my parents and they are still married.

8. I have fantastic friends. I looked at my Facebook page, and it lists 503 friends. I realize that I personally know or have at least met more than 2/3 of those.

Of those friends, some I have known for a very long time--between 30 and 40 years. Others I have worked with, met at conferences, met while traveling, met in school,are former students, know from the world of academia, know from the world of library science, know from various organizations I have belonged to (mostly of a spiritual nature), and know from my excursions to see certain bands like the Psychedelic Furs, Echo and the Bunnymen, and John Foxx. I wouldn't trade any of them for anything.

9. I have some annoying health issues, but all of them are surmountable.

10. I have finished an entire novel and it is likely it will be published in the next year.

11. I have basically been able to do what I want with my life--I have not fallen into the trap of "you can't do that, it doesn't make money" or "There aren't enough jobs, so don't bother."

12. Mr. Shiva, and pretty much every cat I've ever met. Dogs too.

13. I have excellent neighbors.

14. I have a reliable car.

15. I have coffee.

Note: these are in no particular order.

I think that's a pretty good list; I may even think of other things.

I hope you have some things to be thankful for today. I'm not particularly sentimental, but it's worth reflecting once in awhile.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Landmine of Classical Mythology

Several articles have been published recently about Columbia University students who complain that Classical Mythology needs to be taught “with more sensitivity”. Rape, incest, cannibalism and parricide/matricide are common themes of myth, and students who have survived traumas see them as “trigger” topics. If your professor ignores the horror of the scene and focuses on the beauty of the poetic meter or language, this is seen as insensitive.

Students may have a point from at least one perspective. I think of Carol Gilligan’s long-term study of girls entitled Joining the Resistance. She tells the story of Anji, a high school girl asked to write an essay on Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress”. Marvell is what we term a “carpe diem” poet, and the intent of the poem is seductive. We are supposed to be drawn in by the romantic, “live for today” atmosphere of the poem. However Anji did not see it that way; to her, this was a creepy old man speaking seductively, and this was frightening to her. It was not the kind of poem she would want to read before bedtime. When she discussed her understanding of the atmosphere of the poem, she was given a poor grade for incorrectly interpreting the theme. Gilligan has always made the point that women see things differently, and that modern education and psychology has often treated this difference as “immature” or “abnormal”. Who is to say that there is a “correct” interpretation of Marvell in that sense? If we agree that there is such a thing as fallacy of intent, then how can we make assertions about what the poet is “really” saying? But literary interpretation is a subject unto itself. The point is that a young girl is confronted with a piece of canonical literature, and is graded poorly for not seeing the poem according to the canon. Similarly, students who read stories of abduction, rape and incest in Classical Mythology may be horrified, especially if they’ve ever been a victim or known a victim of these crimes, and may receive poor grades for not interpreting the text in a manner appropriate to the Classics.

But now we need to take a step back. The great literatures of the world are not great because they deal with safe, pleasant topics. Sometimes literature is comical, but much of the literatures studied in the Humanities are about the problems of being human. Literature, art, and music are all ways in which we express things that are difficult, shocking, and even traumatizing. These arts don’t create human behavior, they mirror it. And it’s important to look in that mirror to try to understand ourselves.

I have taught Mythology for several years now, and one thing that is clear is that myth is the same as scripture—its truth isn’t in the literal reading, but in the metaphor. When my classes study Oedipus, one of my first questions is, “So, how many of you guys out there have wanted to kill your father and marry your mother?” This usually leads to laughter, because for the most part, the idea is absurd. According to Freud, all young men have Oedipal complexes (and women have something comparable, what Jung calls the “Electra Complex”), and yet it’s clear that no one literally feels this way about their parents. My cardinal rule when reading myth is this: if it’s absurd, repellent, shocking, or fascinating, then pay attention to it, because it tells you something about yourself. It doesn’t say something literal, but something about our core psychology, about what we’re afraid of, or what we’re drawn to—and this should make us examine why this is the case. In fact, all good literature should lead to self-examination; we relate to what we’re reading through our own experience. Life is a fundamentally uncomfortable subject in the broadest sense, because in order to live, something must die. We sustain ourselves by killing plants and animals, and both are living things. This is the real question that creation mythology looks at—it’s not about rebellion against the father (in Greek mythology) or about the weakness of woman (in Biblical mythology)—it’s about the conditions of living in space and time. Creation mythology talks about a time of essential unity that is broken apart, whether it’s being banished from Eden and away from Yahweh or whether it’s Cronos (Time) castrating his father Ouranos (Sky) so that his mother Ge (Earth) can bear her children. Adam and Eve eat the fruit and recognize difference—they are in the field of time. They can’t remain in the garden of Eden, because that’s not really being “alive”—Yahweh is in the zone of eternity. And if we think about what that means, there is a lot that is paradoxical, because the field of space and time is also a field of opposites. Everything that follows creation is about expanding creation, and about creating order out of disorder. Our flood mythologies talk about the need to start all over again through rebirth, something symbolized in baptism ceremonies. Even Odysseus (Ulysses) is belched from the water onto the island of the Phaeakians, naked and looking to Nausicaa (a young princess) for help. We struggle to make sense out of life, and every now and again everything falls apart and we have to pull ourselves up, start all over again. We could be suffering from depression, our comfortable career of many years may suddenly become obsolete, a loved one we have always been with may suddenly die. There are many situations that require us to start anew, and the associated difficulty cannot be underestimated.

Human beings are “storied” by nature; our lives run on a narrative. Bruno Bettelheim counseled young children through the reading of fairy tales. Children still live very much in the world of images—they have not been rationalized and concretized by our social and educational systems. The dilemmas of fairy tales help them solve real-life problems. For all of Richard Dawkins’ pleading, humans are not rational creatures—reason is secondary. It may not be good science to rely on “gut instinct” but most of us do that every day. We revert to whatever our “narrative” is to interpret situations, especially unexpected ones. Even Plato, that champion of Reason, made his points through metaphor and myth. Mythology tells us stories about the range of human experience, and provides something in the way of a guidepost. No myth can tell you how to live your life; it can only present you with the questions. Even reasonable adults have a narrative, and our desire for fiction books or movies allows us to explore narratives outside of our everyday experience—and even as something outside of ourselves, we can still find a way to relate to it.

Let’s go back to the question of “triggers”. I suggest that two main factors affect our discomfort with facing trauma: the explosion of available information, and our reluctance to allow risk in children. With regard to information, it’s not something our children value. There is no need to explore a subject in depth, or to learn anything except to achieve good grades. Students frequently brag to me (and to other professors) that they’ve “never read an entire book in their life”. When they don’t know something, they pull out their phones to look for the answer online, usually through Google or a similar search engine. Judging from most of the papers I receive, they are unable to separate authoritative, evidence-based information from the rest of the drek polluting our screens. They are incredulous at the idea of using the library, and if they do, they want to find the first semi-relevant thing and get out. Information should be available to them within seconds, and if it isn’t, they immediately lose interest.

I recall a book I read for one of my survey courses with the appetizing title The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg. The book is a study of the Inquisition trial of a merchant named Mennochio, and he is a puzzle to the Church authorities because he is obviously heretical, but they can’t pin down what brand of heresy he has espoused, or who taught it to him. Mennochio is literate, and has been fortunate to acquire a number of books. The number is not high by our standards—he had access to maybe 20 books. But he read every one multiple times, and spent much time thinking about them. As a result, he came up with his own independent view of the world, which was vastly different from official Church doctrine, and in fact critical of it. He did what we want our students to do—to read, re-read, think about what we’re reading, and connect it with other things we’ve read. We should come to some conclusion based on the evidence. In Mennochio’s time that was dangerous, and he was in fact found guilty of heresy and killed. There is an example of a society where information is not readily available, and among the literate there is a hunger to break out of the confines of what they are told to think and believe. We value this highly in secular culture; we have the right to think for ourselves, to draw our own conclusions. And yet—too much information is available, so it becomes overwhelming and chaotic. There is so much information coming at us every day, we can’t handle stopping and thinking about everything. We’re literally not equipped to do so—our brains can only handle so much information at one time.

The risk factor has been talked about recently, and it’s not a new problem. When I grew up, we would leave the house on our bikes on a Saturday morning, and reappear in time for lunch and dinner. We would go all kinds of places—over friends’ houses unannounced, into the woods, into broken down or unsafe structures—and this was normal. I remember the first time I heard the term “play date”—I thought “What the hell is THAT?” The playground at my elementary school lost its metal slide and jungle gym, and everything was replaced with much lower alternatives, which were of course made of plastic. Tires were cut up and put on the ground, to create a soft landing cushion if children fell. (They didn’t think about the horrible toxic odor those tires give off when it’s hot out, but that’s a different issue.) Children are not allowed to fall down or experience pain, and there’s no sense of adventure—good parents structure their children’s lives. There is no room for chaos, risk, or discovery, except perhaps in the virtual environment of video games. When I talk to friends who are parents they say, “Oh, but it’s not like when we were growing up—things are worse now.”

Are they really?

Concurrent with information overload is label overload. We now have labels for things that existed before, but because we have new labels and study behaviors under new labels, we decide there is “more of” something than there was in the past. Autism is a good example—are that many children really autistic? Are there more than there were before? Do there just seem to be more because we’ve tweaked the definition of the word? I don’t know the answer, but I’m suspicious when we think that human problems have changed in some fundamental way. It is more likely that we’ve just labeled and defined it differently. Sometimes this is good, because past problems that may have been ignored are now treated. But it can also lead to a zealous over-labeling of children engaged in normal developmental behavior. In short—I’m not convinced we are “worse off” now than before. The world stage changes all the time, but human nature is essentially unchanged—which is why mythology from 3,000 years ago is still relevant.

The point is that our society has made children “soft” and overwhelmed. They are pummeled with ridiculous learning goals and an obscene amount of standardized testing, and very little time is spent slowing down, thinking, and learning. We teach them that risk is bad. This is not necessarily the parents’ fault—our litigious society is hard on parents that don’t monitor their children every second. So I am not particularly surprised that these kids grow up unable to deal with environmental “triggers”—our society has made them that way.

Rather than soften the Classics, we need to talk more about what these myths say about ourselves. Jung noted that patients could be cured of neuroses when they realized they were not suffering alone—making the suffering mythical or universal helped patients feel that they were part of a larger system, and offered a sense of community and importance. Myth is a guide when we’re going through Hell, and unless you’re living inside a bubble (which is probably it’s own kind of Hell), you’re going to experience suffering. As Bucky Cat said in Get Fuzzy, “life ain’t all warm cream and dead rats”—if you’re life is on a smooth course with no problems, you’re probably not living your own life. Authentic existence requires making your own way, and that means facing your demons, not avoiding them. We don’t expand the world by hiding from it. We are naturally impatient for results, and balk at discipline, but the great irony of freedom and happiness is that it requires limitation and suffering.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

One Art : New Year's Eve

This morning I am up with the sunrise. It is probably good that I am waking up earlier and earlier, as I will have to do so for work next week. It will be some time before I can get up with the sun again, or even see it rise as I am driving to work early in the morning. It's also fortunate that I can see the sunrise--we've had several cloudy mornings that turned into beautiful days, but the early morning horizon was gray.

I am not entirely sure why I am up so early. I stayed up late reading last night, so I should still be tired. Part of it may be aches and pains--there is something wrong with my left side, and laying perfectly flat on my back hurts. I probably need a chiropractor. I've been doing yoga in the morning to help the problem, and so far it does help but it doesn't cure it. So, that may be one reason. But more than likely it is psychological--I have had really odd dreams for the last several nights, and I've awakened with a variety of thoughts and emotions in the morning. As a result, and perhaps because it is New Year's Eve, I am a bit reflective on the past year, and the events of the past year.

I found myself thinking about the poet Elizabeth Bishop. She lost her father when she wasn't even a year old, and then her mother was committed to an insane asylum. She was bounced between relatives, and spent her whole life moving from place to place. She traveled all over Europe, lived in Key West, lived in Brazil. She was never quite comfortable in New England. Her poetry has that observing distance--we see glimpses of feeling but never can be quite sure of the full story. She is very much unlike her friend Robert Lowell, a dramatically confessional poet, or like Sylvia Plath. Bishop is much more understated. It took her as long as 20 years to finish some of her poems, and she only produced about 100 of them. But every word is carefully chosen, and they make their impact without dragging in a lot of personal drama.

I think of Bishop now, and her poem One Art. The poem opens with the lines, "The art of losing isn't hard to master / so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster." In the past, I wasn't crazy about the poem and its villanelle style. Now, however, it probably is the defining poem of my life experience. At the end of the poem, Bishop writes "Even losing you (the joking voice a gesture / I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident / the art of losing isn't too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) disaster." That is the key--write it! Take the pieces of the broken structure, make some kind of art with it.

There is always loss--people, situations, things. Sometimes people physically die, sometimes you just break off your relationship with them. Stuff breaks. If I think about the past year, there have been 2 deaths in the immediate family, at least 1 friendship that I have completely ended, a newer car with a front bumper half-destroyed by walls of snow that were like concrete, a cell phone that finally broke in half, and a laptop that is so worn out, the battery won't stay locked in the warped bottom. All my black socks have holes in the heels, my favorite sweaters are starting to look ratty, and one of two pairs of "good" shoes that I own is now torn from wear on the top.

On the other hand--I've made new friends, gotten to know neighbors a little better, had much of my worn-out stuff replaced at Christmas, managed to finish a novel and get a chapter published, and I'm well on my way to finishing my doctorate. I'm fortunate enough that what I spend long and sometimes stressful hours doing is exactly what I enjoy doing. I will spend next semester doing a LOT of writing, and learning new techniques that I am excited about. I have lots of good friends, a few close family members, and students that I care about. There is a sense of being part of the world, not being shut away, in spite of the fact that my social time is limited during the semesters. There was a great trip to the Shetland Islands, where I made new friends, and discovered a beautiful new place. This coming year I intend to return to England, and hope to make it to France as well. Life is good--the world expands, there are new people and opportunities, there is a sense of meaning in life whether that meaning is "real" or that I simply believe it is real.

This, perhaps, is why loss is not a "disaster". The world is still here, when one thing ends, something else begins. Winter does eventually become spring again. I've made a vow to stop hating winter. The best sunrises and sunsets occur in the wintertime--there is a clarity in the sky that you don't get in the humid summers. There's something metaphorical about that, too--death and depression are occasions to stop and re-evaluate what is, and what is important. I'm not a believer in separating "good" and "evil"--everything has a function, everything is important in its own way, even if it doesn't give us pleasure. To try to eliminate one in favor of the other is to be imbalanced. "Good" and "evil" are also subjective terms--what's good for one may be evil for another, and vice versa. We forget how to look at the world without judgment, and recognize that loss is as necessary as gain.

So, I wish you a balanced new year. And to conclude, here is a clip of Elizabeth Bishop's poem, The Moose. Unfortunately it is not the whole poem, and is broken up by commentary, but it's still beautifully presented. I recommend reading the whole thing, which you can do here. The poem is about a journey West--really, towards "death", metaphorically--and the reassurances that occur on the journey into the unknown, culminating in the joy of seeing the moose.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Non-Fiction Souvenirs

The end of a back-breaking semester is always welcome; the coming of Christmas is as much for me about stopping and slowing down as it is about new beginnings, longer days, and celebrations. When the year comes to an end, I want to tidy up, finish up those last few things I'd wanted to get done, even though the timing is arbitrary. Who decided that January 1 has to be the beginning of anything? In reality, it is a day no different from any other. Yet, as a society, we've attached a meaning to this point of the calendar, which may at least have some sense if we consider our point in the wheel of the natural year.

So, here I am at home after months of taking classes, teaching classes, working full-time, leaving the house at 6:00 in the morning and returning at 10:00 at night. The cat still wakes me up at 3:45, and the longer I'm home, the more insistent he is that I get up at this time. It's as though he's reasserting his dominance over my schedule. But alas, that will not last long, as I will return to an even more grueling schedule in late January. And that means that any new blogging will probably become sporadic at best.

I have vowed not to take on any major house cleaning projects during this time; I spent several weeks this past summer re-arranging closets and dusting obscure corners. But there is still unfinished business; in particular, there is the pile of half-read library books sitting on my desk. Those of you who know me know that I work in a library, and have for many years. In fact, my first job ever was in a public library. I am now at a university library, weary of the changes in my profession, and the way in which it seems to be dooming itself inevitably. I hope that my fellow colleagues prove me wrong. But this is a digression.

The pile is relatively small; I have Denis Guenoun's book "On Europe : Philosophical Hypotheses", a collection of Lydia Davis short stories, Daniel Ogden's book on Necromancy, and some Italo Calvino essays. Mind you, I have received new books for Christmas, and others that I am anxious to begin, like Jake Stratton-Kent's "Testament of St. Cyprian the Mage". I find myself feeling some guilt and a sense of unfinished duty with regard to the other volumes. So, I have been working on finishing these before starting my new ones.

To my relief, this may not be as daunting of a task as it first appears. I finished the Davis book easily, and the Guenoun book only had about 70 pages to go. But I have another problem. When I read non-fiction, it is not enough to simply read the book and think, "Hunh! That was interesting", and send it back to the library circulation desk or put it back on the shelf. It's like visiting a new or foreign place; it's not enough to simply see it. Part of it has to come back with me. We might do this at a physical site by taking photos, or buying souvenirs (or picking one up from the site, shame shame). For me, this involves going back through the book and making notes. I can't write in a library book, so I usually have a TextEdit file or spiral notebook handy as I'm reading. If I don't do it as I go along, I have to go back and skim through everything again, making notes on key points, and pages with important quotes. If I feel the book is important material for my dissertation, I have to be even more meticulous about this process.

When I look back through my files, I find that this is not a new thing. I have pages and pages of notes from things I've read, or at least reflections on things I've read. To my surprise, I've been doing this since at least 1986--I've found makeshift folders made by stapling together pieces of colorful construction paper, and these are full of typescript pages that have lots of cross-outs and correction fluid. My mother had what I think was an old IBM Selectric, though it may have just been a clever reproduction. Not as fancy as the "memory" typewriters that were so useful for typing catalog cards, but better than the completely manual ones.

I made a lot of notes on philosophy and religion, which should not surprise anyone. It makes me recall an incident that occurred when I was in the 10th grade. I was sitting in the Children's Room of the Morris County Library. I'm not sure why I was there; it's possible that the main Reference Room was full. I was reading and making notes on Nietzsche's "The Birth of Tragedy and Genealogy of Morals". It was summertime, and no one had assigned this to me; I was simply curious. The pastor of my mother's church, Father Regis, walked in to the room. He recognized me and said hello. Under his arm was a children's book--I no longer remember which one it was. He told me he was preparing for Sunday's homily. He asked what I was reading, and I showed him. "Nietzsche! Heavy stuff for high school, isn't it?"

In retrospect, I think Father Regis was right. One can read great literature and great philosophy in high school and even as an undergraduate--one might even get "into" a particular poet, essayist, or philosopher. But the experience that enables you to understand what you're reading is lacking, for the most part.

Maybe I should take that back--it's not that there's no experience, but typically only one dimension of the writing will "click" or make sense. I often think about this when I'm teaching Jung to my mythology students. Jung is a writer for the later part of life--35 years old or older, in body or in spirit. It's obvious that my students aren't fully grasping the importance of archetype theory. They can understand it in a limited way, but most of what Jung speaks about hasn't happened to many of them. And if it's happening to them, they generally haven't had the space of a few years to reflect on it.

This was true of myself as well. In college I was in love with modern and "contemporary" poets like Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Ezra Pound, and Elizabeth Bishop. I'm not sure I could tell you at this point why they were important to me, but they spoke to some aspect of my experience. But after years of not reading poetry, I returned to them as a doctoral student, and was knocked over by them in an entirely different way--and with the full understanding of what "modernism" was and why it was so revolutionary. But I had another 20 years of context--I could now look back at those texts and say "aha"! No doubt in another 20 years, I will be convinced that I was an idiot during my 40s. And so on.

The point is not to disparage the lack of experience in youth; after all, it's no one's fault that they haven't lived for a period of time, and there is always someone younger or older than you in terms of experience. The point is that great literature needs to be read over and over again--what you understood in high school or as an undergrad will have an entirely new level of meaning when you are forty, and when you are sixty, and when you are eighty. The notes are helpful in making me understand what I got out of the text at the time, and I'm glad I bothered to take the time to do it. That doesn't mean I won't read the texts over again at some point, but it's useful to build on what you've already retained rather than digging a new foundation and starting all over again. In the world of writing, you never know what apparently unrelated bits of reading will become relevant to your current project.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Reflections on "Rex"

It is a rare July day; I have woken up to a chilly 55 degrees that is more characteristic of Fall than Summer. The cooler air tends to set my mind working, which is how I came to meditate on the notion of "Rex" over a cup of coffee at a country cafe this morning.

I have been reading Denis Guenoun's "About Europe", which discusses Europe not as a continent, but as a universal process of returning, and Europe is a process, not an origin. Guenoun defines universality also as a process of becoming--there is always an eternal return in which something is left behind or rejected, perhaps to be revisited in the next cycle. In a discussion of Europe's rather ambiguous borders and divisions, he talks about the word "rex", which is the Latin word for "king", and the notion of a "kingdom".

The word "rex" has its roots in "regere", which means "to trace out the limits". If we think of the word "ruler", it refers to an instrument used to measure things. Therefore, one who "rules" measures out the limits--the "rex" is the one who sets limits or boundaries. Guenoun quotes Beneviste: "Regere fines means literally 'trace out the limits by straight lines'. This is the operation carried out by the high priest before a temple or a town is built and it consists in the delimitation on a given terrain of a sacred plot of ground ... The tracing of these limits is carried out by the person invested with the highest powers, the rex" (Guenoun 63).

This immediately calls to mind the ancient role of the King in fertility rituals and cycles--he is wooed in the Spring, crowned in the Summer, cut down in the Fall. A new King is born in the Winter, and the process starts again. Besides the obvious relationship to the cycle of the sun, the seasons and the harvests, could this not also be a metaphor for tearing down boundaries by killing the boundary-maker? The Celts marked their new year on Samhain, which we now think of as Halloween. For them, it was the end of Fall and the beginning of Winter. So, not only is this the death of the King, it is the time when the boundaries between the worlds are thin, and the ancestors return. Does the boundary leave with the boundary-maker?

It may be possible to extend this metaphor to Christianity. The old "dying and resurrecting vegetation god", the old "King", is replaced by Christ, who is indeed a mythological "King", and is cut down and reborn. The liturgical cycle places the death of Christ at another boundary point--the beginning of Spring, close to Beltane. It is as though the Christ image mirrors that of the mythical Sun King. This is in many ways deliberate, as the new religion conquered the European continent by assimilation. Most Christian holidays and traditions are Christianized versions of earlier pagan ones. It is much easier to convert someone when you claim to believe the same thing, just with different names. And in many ways--for all the differences and divisions that Christianity has brought, it still has an element of the ancient world and its beliefs. These are archetypal, and do not go away with new ideologies or prophets. The pagan ways become a mirror "Shadow" of the God King.

This idea of "rex" as boundary-maker makes me think immediately of the Greek god Hermes, whose very nature is associated with boundaries. The rather graphic property markers used by the ancient Greeks, which consisted of a slab of stone with a male head carved at the top, and explicit genitals carved at the bottom, were known as "herma".

The Greek word for Hermes is Ἑρμῆς, and its etymology is unknown. The word "rex" is Indo-European in its roots, and bears similarities to the Gaulish rig and rix, and also to the Sanskrit raja. According to the OED, there is a second obscure definition of the word "rex" that is related to reaks, and it means to be capricious or to play pranks or tricks. This is striking, because cunning and trickery are also attributes of the god Hermes. This may be an etymological coincidence, but interesting nonetheless.

Hermes is also connected with the underworld, and frequently crosses the boundaries between the chthonic and the celestial. The King is one who is a keeper of boundaries, and this would likely include upholding tradition. However, if the King is thought of as the High Priest, then he is the one who has access to the sacred, and indeed in many cultures, is sacred himself. This would give him similar characteristics to the shaman, who is taboo to general society, but whose role is critical in the survival of the tribe. The shaman's chief characteristic is his ability to travel between this world and the "other" one, however that is defined. There is a common boundary in these roles between the sacred and the profane. I would argue that the King is more limited in his ability to cross these boundaries--he is there to uphold the "law", not abolish it.

For all that he has in common with the role of "Rex", Hermes is never seen in the role of a King. Hermes is the god of thieves and merchants. He identifies more with the common people. In this way, he may be a mirror image of the "Rex"--they are two sides of the same coin. Guenoun talks about the role of the sovereign state and the church in European history. It was often true that the Pope wanted to be King, and the King wanted to be Pope. In the development of a state with a King, there ends up being three divisions--the royal families and aristocracy (who hold political power), the Church and its officials (who are a spiritual mirror image of the State power), and then there is a third category--a blank space, the rest of society that has no influence on the theological-political sphere whatsoever. This is the general "society", and both the government and the church are generally removed from it. In such a system, the only way to gain anything is to know how to bend the rules without breaking them, or breaking them without being detected. This is the domain of Hermes.

Hermes is also a Trickster figure, so in this way he may be the mocking shadow of the King, more like the fool or court jester. Psychologically, it is the influence that breaks our internal boundaries--those life events that trash our five-year-plans and our sense of control over our environment. But, like the King and the Fool, they are likely two sides of the same coin, and the Trickster is internal rather than external. In the Tarot, the Fool has the number 0, which makes it nothing and absolute at the same time. The trump King in the deck is the Emperor, and he rests at the 4th trump position--between the Emperor and the Fool are the Magician, the High Priestess, and the Empress. The order is also something to reflect on, as both the Magician and the High Priestess are sacred boundary crossers themselves, and the Empress represents creative possibility. The Emperor is followed by the Hierophant or Pope, who represents the spiritual kingship of the Church. So, the Emperor has tradition over him, and risk and possibility beneath him. He takes control and draws the line.

I don't know that I have any particular place to "get" to with these reflections, except that they are another metaphorical way of looking at how ideas about social boundaries reflect psychological ones. Myth and metaphor are not one-dimensional, and they certainly aren't literal. They help express the structures and symbols that we have created for ourselves to interpret the world as we experience it.