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.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Soldier and the Seer (Rutgers University, June 23 2014)

(Warning: this is a REALLY long post.)

My friend Phil sent me a private Facebook message a couple of weeks ago, with an event on the O.T.O. calendar and the message, "Are you going to this?" "This" was a colloquium entitled "The Soldier and the Seer : J.F.C. Fuller, Aleister Crowley, and the British Occult Revival." It was being held at none other than Rutgers University, New Brunswick. The colloquium was being held of in relation to an exhibition entitled "Unheard of Curiosities : An Exhibition of Rare Books on the Occult and Esoteric Sciences." I could not pass up an event so close to home. So, this past Monday, I took the route that I used to take on Wednesday evenings to teach Cataloging and Classification at what was then the School of Communication, Information, and Library Studies. The event was in Alexander Library's Pane Room, and I reflected that this would be much more interesting than the usual NJLA workshop commonly held in that same room.

I was surprised to learn that Rutgers had the papers of J.F.C. Fuller, a British military man who was more commonly known for being a sort of godfather of tank warfare. I was aware of the Crowley/Fuller connection, as Crowley made Fuller a Chancellor of the A.A., an organization meant to succeed the esoteric Order of the Golden Dawn, and that has some overlap with the Ordo Templi Orientis. In fact, it was Academia Ordo Templi Orientis that was co-sponsoring the event. There was an amazing list of speakers, and I was very much looking forward to the event. I was not disappointed.

Associate University Archivist Erika Gorder spoke about the exhibition and the collections, noting that the occult books came largely (if not entirely) from the collection of Clement Fairweather, a scholar who lived in Metuchen, and was more known for his work on humor, though he was also a scholar of horror literature, in particular the work of H.P. Lovecraft. It was William Sloane who contacted Fuller about acquiring his papers, and received them because he did not think anyone else would want them.

Gordan Djurdjevic was the first speaker, who gave an overview of Academia Ordo Templi Orientis and its mission. It is made up of O.T.O. initiate members, and currently membership is by invitation only. The group was formed in 2011, and is dedicated to interdisciplinary scholarship with respect to Western Esotericism, Thelema, and Crowley, as studying all aspects of esotericism helps to illuminate O.T.O. teachings. He noted the need to separate scholarship from practice, as the theoretical study of subjects related to magic would not include one's personal practical experiences--these would be difficult to write about in a scholarly context. He also addressed the question of "objectivity" from "insiders", which is a basic consideration in Religious Studies. It is often argued that "insiders" lack objectivity on the subject, but as Gordan noted, an agenda-less objective view is a construct itself. The American Academy of Religion approves both inside and outside approaches. Certainly in the field of Religious Studies, there is much academic work in the field of Christian theology by believers. There is really no reason that Thelemites can't write about esotericism.

The next speaker was Henrik Bogdan, who gave an introduction to the study of Western Esotericism, to put the Fuller/Crowley relationship into context, and to address the question of why we should study Crowley. Esoteric beliefs tend to share the idea of a Godhead manifest in the natural world, a microcosm/macrocosm construct, though their correspondences differ significantly. Western Esotericism is a comparatively recent field; there was not much scholarship prior to Francis Yates' work on the subject. He noted that historians of religion tended to view esoteric views as "heresies", and therefore not part of theology, and therefore not studied by theologians. On the continuum between Christian doctrine and pure rationality, Western Esotericism lies somewhere in between, resisting the dogmatism of both approaches. Esotericism stresses the experience of gnosis, that experience of the one true Self, or one's ground of being. There was always a link between science and esotericism, until rational, modern science distanced itself from any kind of "metaphysical" thinking. Antoine Faivre was probably the first scholar to try to come up with a single definition of esotericism that applied to various groups, and he suggested that these groups share a family resemblance--they are a form of thought that includes the idea of correspondences, the idea of living nature, the use of imagination and meditations, the experience of transmutation, and the praxis of concordances, among other elements. Wouter J. Hanegraaff and Kocku Von Stuckrad altered this definition, as Faivre's view tended to view esotericism and its literature as something static, referring only to older sources. Hanegraaff and Von Stuckrad both suggest that esotericism is dynamic and changes over time. It tends to consist of rejected or polemic knowledge, a kind of "mirror image" of the prevalent culture. Understanding Western Esotericism is fundamental to the history of Western culture, and indeed will cause aspects of it to be rewritten. It also helps scholars with issues of identity, identifying and confronting scholarly prejudice. Crowley in particular is important because he is a "religious synthesist". Rather than being a regression to the Middle Ages, magical study and practice was in fact a harbinger of modernity. It looked to science and philosophy rather than Biblical inerrancy, and could be summed up in Crowley's motto for the A.A., "The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion". Crowley felt that both religious and scientific approaches were limited, and failed to answer their own questions--magick was the "third way" that synthesized both. Crowley and his influence provides us, in Henrik's words, "a window on the dialectics of Christianity, rationalism, and modernism." J.F.C. Fuller had a revolt against Christianity in common with Crowley, and for Fuller this lead to agnosticism. Crowley and Fuller met when Fuller ended up being the only contestant in an essay contest on Crowley's works, and resulted in the publication of Fuller's "The Star in the West". Fuller brought his friend Victor Neubig into the A.A., and oversaw many A.A. probationers. He broke with Crowley after a scandal involving George Cecil Jones, when Crowley would not take the stand in his libel suit against "The Looking Glass".

Gordan Djurdjevic spoke again, this time on Buddhism and Yoga presented as "The Temple of Solomon the King" in the Equinox, volume 4. He spoke about the practice of concordance and the translation of cultures, as well as the "Easternization of the West" in esoteric practices. The Order of the Golden Dawn incorporated no Eastern practices except for tattva. The A.A. and the O.T.O. both incorporate Eastern practices. Much can be credited to Crowley's involvement with Alan Bennett, who taught Buddhism based on reason rather than on fate. Crowley's "BERASHITH" was intended to be a "sangha of the West", and based more on mathematical rather than mystical comments. Gordan suggests that Crowley did not significantly change his ontology after receiving Liber AL vel Legis in 1904. Crowley was distrustful of monism, because it was rooted in the concept of illusion, and he believed that empirical reality was factual. He rejected any kind of absolutism, suggesting that the only "absolute" thing was zero.

Crowley's Buddhism may have prepared him mentally for the receiving of the the Book of the Law (Liber AL vel Legis), although he had an aversion to specific passages, specifically the idea in the second book that "existence is pure joy". Eventually Crowley abandoned Buddhism, thinking that the Buddhist precepts were really a joke, as they could never really be fulfilled. He believed that the Atman was capable of change, the "Self" dynamic and fluid. While Crowley instead embraced the idea of "Love is the Law, Love Under Will", his ontological views did not substantially change.

Richard Kaczynski spoke about J.F.C. Fuller's continued interest in the occult after his break with Crowley in 1911. He gave a visual review of Fuller's publications, from the Agnostic Journal in 1904 to his works on yoga and the Qabalah in the 1920s and 1930s. He wrote many articles for the Occult Review. In spite of his break with Crowley, it was clear that Fuller still read his works and collected them. Of note was his article "The Black Arts" in the Occult Review of January 1926 (illustrated by Austin Osman Spare), which may have influenced Gerald Gardner's conception of Wicca. While it is known that Gardner paraphrased much from Crowley, some of Fuller's made-up incantations in this article appear in Gardner's Samhain ritual. While not a central remark to the presentation, I found it interesting that Robert Lowell felt that Fuller was as good at what he did as Bertrand Russell was in philosophy. I had not seen a reference to this in Lowell's interviews and letters, but I also wasn't looking for it at the time I reviewed them.

Chris Giudice spoke about Fuller's connection to the Fascist movement, and his relationship with Hitler and the Nazi party. Anti-democratic feeling was an accompaniment to modernism--there was a rebellion against progressive/Marxist ideology, and Fascism was as much a system of thought as it was a political idea. Italy was the first to embrace this rebellion, and in Germany, National Socialism was a reaction against French Revolution values--discipline, law, and order were hailed. The onset of the Great Depression also did much to facilitate the spread of fascism. Fuller was an intellectual, and like many others, he was attracted to both mysticism and fascism--Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and W.B. Yeats are examples of others with similar interest. Fuller's ideas on the military, particularly on tank warfare, were not well received in Britain, but elicited great interest in Europe. He was called upon to advise Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco in their military operations. One wonders how things might have been different if his home country had taken him seriously, as his military writings gave Germany in particular a great advantage in World War II. Fuller did appear to hold some anti-Semitic views, though he ultimately wrote that anti-Semitism should not have a place in the British state, in his writings for Mosley's British Fascist group. It is notable that Fuller and his wife attended Hitler's 50th birthday party, and they were the English minority at that event. It is not held that Fuller was a traitor, and I do wonder how he felt after viewing the aftermath of World War II, especially in Germany.

Bob Stein gave the next lecture on Crowley, Alphabets, and Liber 231. Liber 231 is a technical treatise on the Tarot, and presented by Fuller in the Equinox Volume 1. Bob noted that there were no numbers on the original Tarot decks, and no particular sequence. The Sefer Yetzirah was later tied to the numbering order of the cards, as well as the zodiac. The alphabet comes from Eliphas Levi, though there was an earlier version of this alphabet.

The sequence of cards was changeable from the time of the Marseilles Tarot. The Fool originally had no number, and adding the zero shifted the numbers of the other cards up by one. He notes that Justice came before Strength, which is out of sequence in terms of the zodiac (putting Libra before Leo). Crowley's work 777 points out both the Qabalistic and zodiacal correspondences, and was written prior to the Book of the Law. Bob spoke about the definition of a "Class A" publication of the A.A., and its authoritative value. Much of Crowley's writings on the Tarot are from Class A, except for Liber CDXVIII (The Vision and the Voice, 1st Aethyr), which is both A and B.

The correspondence of the Hebrew letter "Tzaddi" in the Tarot was explored in the Book of the Law (e.g., "Tzaddi is not the Star"), and Crowley makes some comment on this in the extenuation commentary (available in "The Law is for All"). Tzaddi ends up being the letter and number of the Emperor (IV), and in Liber VII (Lapis Lazuli), Crowley has the line, "only the fish-hook can draw me out", another reference to Tzaddi. Liber 231 itself switches Heh and Vav in the chart relating to the genii of Mercurii and the Qlipoth. Here Strength and Justice are put in their correct zodical order, Ra Hoor Khuit is associated with the Emperor, and Tzaddi is associated with the Star.

Bob made reference to Liber 27 (vel Trigrammaton), which tried to apply the English alphabet to the Tarot sequence--it did not work. By the time of the Vision and the Voice, the Tarot sequence was established and consistent. He made some other comments on the attribution of Tzaddi in the Book of Thoth, and suggests that the Vision and the Voice, 1st Aethyr, resolves Tarot questions. Bob did not attempt to interpret the meaning of any of these correspondences; he merely put them out for Thelemites to ponder.

The last presentation was by William Breeze, and it was on the O.T.O. Archives. He mentioned Hans "Hansi" Hammond (who shows up as the character Dionysus in Crowley's "Diary of a Drug Fiend"), and connects him with Rutgers University and the acquisition of the Fuller papers. I may have misunderstood him, but I believe he said that Hammond was actually University Librarian at Rutgers (I haven't been able to verify this independently as of yet.). If I heard that correctly, that is quite a startling connection between Crowley and Rutgers--Hammond was the son of Leah Hirsig, and William showed scans of newspaper articles about Hammond and Crowley when Hammond was a child. He then discussed Crowley scholarship up to 1974, mentioning Ellic Howe's "Magicians of the Golden Dawn" and "Eliphas Levi and the Occult Revival", as well as James Webb's "Flight From Reason". He stressed that archival evidence is key to Western Esoteric study, and mentioned Marco Pasi and Henrik Bogdan as particularly working with the O.T.O. He then gave a list of Crowley archives around the world at various universities, and mentioned several Masters and Doctoral Theses on Crowley (including the one by my friend Philip Jensen at UT Austin in 2000). Graduate programs in Western Esotericism have come about in Europe, and Religious Studies departments in the United States and elsewhere are starting to expand to include esoteric currents.

William then went on to tell the story of how Liber AL vel Legis was lost twice--first by Crowley (later found with some skis at Boleskine House in storage--William theorizes that the shape of the box with the book, which was on a large roll in a rectangular box, was probably stored with the skis by his servants, as they were about the same length and shape as the box). The second time was after the death of Karl Germer in California. After Karl's death, robbers broke into the house where Sascha Germer was still living, and stole many items related to the O.T.O. When Grady Louis McMurtry went through the house after Sascha's death, he could not find Liber AL vel Legis, and assumed it was stolen. Somehow it ended up in the basement of a house in Oakland, California in 1984, which had been purchased by a bibliophile who saw the work, and realized its value. After consulting with a friend (who happened to be in the O.T.O.) and Israel Regardie, he asked about donating it to the O.T.O. Regardie responded with the understatement, "That would be a nice thing to do."

There was a discussion of the alleged "title page" of Liber AL vel Legis, which William does not think was a title page at all. He also discussed Liber 231, looking at Rutgers' copy, which has the genii illustrations, but no Hebrew lettering. An infrared scan of the original shows where the Hebrew letters had been penciled in and erased. It is an example of how primary source material helps interpretation.

After this there was a brief panel discussion, in which it was noted that the proceedings to this conference would be published. When asked about the future of Esoteric and Crowley studies and what they would like to see, William Breeze suggested that he would like to see a Chair of Crowley Studies (a suggestion made to Marco Pasi, who held a postdoc position at the Warburg Institute--Pasi responded, "That will never happen."). A question on fascism and Thelema led to Chris Giudice's recommendation of the book "Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics". William Breeze also noted that Liber OZ represents the political platform of the O.T.O.

This was the end of a long and interesting day, and I haven't even mentioned the exhibition itself. If you are in New Jersey, this is the last week to see it, so try to drop by Alexander Library at Rutgers before July 3. There are many fascinating esoteric works on display, as well as some of Fuller's letters, original Crowley and Fuller works, and some creative exhibitions that incorporate pop culture works on the occult along with classic volumes.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

"Slender Man" and the Psychology of Stories

As someone whose primary interest is myth, religion and folklore, I was naturally interested in the bizarre stabbing this week that took place in Wisconsin. Two girls tried to murder a third to appease something called "Slender Man", an Internet meme that was apparently created as part of a contest to create a "paranormal" creature. There is a Blair-Witch style backstory, and even a video that supposedly tells the origins of "Slender Man", a Chthulu-like figure that lives in the forest. Many people are fans of this story in the same way one might be a fan of Lovecraft and his monsters.

Slender Man is described as a meme in some places, and as an urban legend in others. Urban legends are a version of local folklore--someone tells a story that they swear is true from a "friend of a friend", and it gets spread with even more variations. They may potentially have a grain of truth to them, though they are not necessarily "true". I question whether or not this is an urban legend per se; however, the more relevant question might be, can Internet memes become urban legends? As noted, there is a "clear paper trail" for this tale--it is not one of those stories told many times over and the origins get lost, like stories of "Resurrection Mary". It was clearly intended as fiction.

Why would two girls believe this is true? And do they really believe it is true, or is this just a way of getting out of murder prosecution? All the details on the girls, their background, and their relationship to the third girl are still unknown. This is hardly the typical response to a fictional story, even if you want to believe it.

Part of me wants to look at the story and ignore it, as I'm sure there will be a thousand half-baked theories as to what is going on, and people don't necessarily need to hear mine. I don't claim to understand the reason at all. But as the same Jezebel article noted, the potential for this to turn into something like the "Satanic Panic" of the 1980s is pretty darn good. So, for better or for worse, I feel a need to step back and look at what is going on here. That's what I'm paid to do in at least part of my life.

So--first--this is one type of illustration of what Jung meant when he said that "imagination is a fact". Slender Man is clearly fiction, and yet the impact he has is very real. He takes on a psychological reality manifest in the actions of the girls. Now, I anticipate two reactions--one says that Slender Man is still not REAL, the girls are just deluded at best and crazy at worst. The other will try to compare it to religion, but religion arises out of a natural need to negotiate the unknown. While Slender Man may have represented something to the individual psyches of the girls, I do not think you can convincingly compare him to a "deity". This is an isolated incident; there are no mass gatherings of Slender Man worshippers. That would be a different situation entirely.

If Slender Man resembles Chthulu in some respect, it may be worth considering the symbolism of that monster, and other Lovecraftian monsters. Lovecraft, as I've said before, was a hardcore materialist. He had no knowledge of the occult, and did not believe in souls, life after death, or religion. In fact, his monsters represent the blind forces of the universe. They will trample you in a moment, because they have no interest in you, and you are nothing compared to them. As Robert Price once pointed out, "the Devil at least takes an interest in your soul." These monsters do not. It might be fitting that new monsters in our mechanical/automatic worldview are as indifferent as Chthulu. At least its a switch from zombies.

This brings to mind another fictional phenomenon that people believe is real--Lovecraft's Necronomicon. Supposedly it is an ancient work written by Abdul Al-Hazra that reveals ancient incantations for bringing these Titanic monsters into the world. This is entirely fictional, but occult bookstore owners have probably lost count of the number of times they've been asked for the "real" Necronomicon. Even my ex-husband believed it was real; and actually tried some of the rituals, to some effect (according to him). It's very difficult to convince people it's fiction once they've decided it is real; this is true about false ideas in the world as well. Example: the notion that vaccinations cause autism. That has been debunked long ago, but many still believe it.

So, we've seen how we can transform fictional things into "real" things in our minds. The Satanic Panic was another example. Real Satanists have no interest in stealing children or in human sacrifice, or in torturing children. Like "Slender Man" it is a "mythical" manifestation of a different issue. When I say "mythical", I don't mean false. I mean it is a metaphorical story that may tell us something about the point of view in question. Myth is either fascinating, repellent, or indifferent. In the latter case, the myth is obsolete, or at least useless to the indifferent individual. In the two former cases, it says something about the neurotic, conflicted, or potentially psychotic nature of the fascinated or repelled individual (or group). If we don't relate to the story in some fashion, it has no meaning for us. Fears of Slender Man, Satan, or any other frightening being are symptomatic of a personal or social fear that we don't want to confront.

Which brings us to the reality of the story itself. Even fictional stories may be metaphorical of some collective fear or desire--that's what makes them popular. I have always argued against things like scriptural literalism, because I feel people are doing exactly what these girls are doing--taking something symbolic (or potentially symbolic) to be a reality. Years ago, one of my professors likened it to believing in Santa Claus--we believe literally as children, we don't believe as adults, but we still appreciate the symbolism and perhaps the tradition. Literal belief does occur among children, and it's not a bad thing, it's a state of development. Usually the beliefs are acted out in play, which is again entirely appropriate. Acting things out is a good preparation for being faced with adult situations, as fairy tales often attempt to solve difficult real world problems in fantastic ways. (See Bruno Bettelheim's "Uses of Enchantment" for some good examples of this.)

In this case, as they say, "sh*t got real". This is not two girls pretending that Slender Man is real--they are taking very disturbing action in the belief that he is literally real. This suggests an inability to draw lines between what is psychological and what is material. That could be an indication of something like schizophrenia (very unlikely, I think), or it could be a continuation of a worldview that assumes that for something to be "real" it has to be a "fact". As it was once said by another wise professor, "Facticity does not equal truth".

So, some of that is the ironic fallout of the scientific worldview. While the notion of Biblical inerrancy predated the rational era, to a certain extent it is the product of rational thinking about the Bible. The underlying notion is that for the Bible to be true, it must all be factual. It's not--and in fact, the Bible stands up much better as "truth" if it is read metaphorically, and in the context of the time when it was written. The need to make something that fascinates us "real" in a material sense may suggest that in order for our feelings to be validated in terms of the idea, it has to be made manifest. We want to see "material proof", the only thing we accept as evidence, even when dealing with the non-material. This can be good--if an inventor dreams of a particular kind of machine and then builds it, that is a positive. In this case, making Slender Man real by murdering someone is a decided negative.

What does any of this prove? It proves that the psyche is like fire--it can create or destroy, yet it is neither good or bad in and of itself. This is not an argument for rigidly controlling the psyche, because that is impossible--the more you try to do that, the less control you actually have. It's a bit like trying not to think of pink elephants--as soon as you decide that, you can think of nothing but pink elephants. It is also not an argument for "controlling" what children are exposed to--these girls were 12, which is really more adolescence than childhood. The best you can do is to allow children and adolescents to express themselves without judgment--especially with adolescents. You can't tell them what to do meaningfully, so it's better to say, "Yeah, I get what you're saying--but did you also think about this?" Teaching how to balance what is felt with what is reasonable behavior goes a long way.

Of course, this could all be a lot of BS. We don't know all the circumstances surrounding this case. But I would still say it is prudent to not take an individual case and turn it into a nationwide epidemic. There is more going on here than meets the eye, and it is best to reserve judgment until all facts are known. Slender Man is no more responsible for deaths than heavy metal music, Chthulu, Satan, or anything else deemed monstrous or rebellious. If Slender Man is symbolic of anything in this case, it is fear of the future and the unknown. Work on improving that instead of trying to suppress or eliminate fictional, mythical, or religious characters.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Value of the Negative

I've been seeing a lot lately about the value of "positive thinking", and the destructive and painful influence of hate and negative thoughts. This is hardly a new idea; books like "The Power of Positive Thinking" and "You Can't Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought" are classics of self-help literature. "The Secret" and its discussion of the "law of attraction" certainly correlates to this idea, by suggesting that what you affirm comes to you. If you think positively about an outcome, that outcome will happen. In general, I have no disagreement with this approach. It's healthy to see loss and setback as opportunity for positive change, and a positive outlook on life generally makes you happier.

However, there are some difficulties with this approach. First--life is not all "positive" experiences. We tend to define positive experiences as those that make us emotionally happy, or at least as those experiences that do not harm us. Negative experiences are seen as traumatizing and harmful. While there are probably some black-and-white examples, these terms are often subjective. As my guru has said, "A rash of deaths in a town may be bad for the families but good for the undertaker." A lot of it has to do with perspective.

A little side note about myself--I am extremely emotionally sensitive. This might surprise you if you know me, because I don't come across that way a lot of the time. I often take my father's approach to tragedy--I say "Hmm, that's too bad" and go back to whatever I was doing. Some people therefore assume that I am uncaring. In fact, the opposite is true--I'm in danger of caring too much. Some people have defined me as "empathic", and that could be true. I am like the house on the hurricane-battered coast; in order to defend my house, I build a wall around it. I take a somewhat stoic view of life, because I am intellectually aware that life is paradoxical in that it always brings death, whether I like it or not. But I do listen to others, and I am genuinely interested when students or friends come to me with issues, either to have someone help or just to have someone to listen. I am very wary of those who I feel manipulate and take advantage of my good nature--that is the fast track to being on my permanent sh*tlist.

One thing I don't share about myself often to the wide world is that I read Tarot. I have read Tarot since about 1986, and the reason has to do with what it tells me about the unconscious. It is a psychological tool. Jung believed that Tarot worked through the principle of synchronicity--the order of cards is technically meaningless, yet in looking at them, they seem to give a message about something that has bothered me, or gives me a sense of where I'm at when I feel at a loss. In this way, they work the same as dream symbols--they are something to be interpreted that tells us about what the archetypes are doing in our lives. There are Jungian therapists who use Tarot in this way. If they tell you about the future, it is also through the synchronicity principle, as accessing the collective unconscious means accessing something not bound by space and time.

I almost never do public readings, and I've never really done them for money. One exception was a charity event where a friend asked if I would read, and donate the proceeds to the charity. I agreed to do it, and I was stunned by the long lines of people who wanted me to read for them. They were all people hurting terribly--suffering with cancer, having lost close family members, etc. By the time we were closing up I was STILL finishing readings. I went home that night feeling dizzy, and spent much of the next morning throwing up. I absorb people's grief like a sponge. This is also why I don't watch many movies--anything that hits my senses directly is like a raw hit in the gut, even if others can laugh it off. It's never been easy for me to do that. Academia and analytic thinking has served as a barrier for me against raw emotion. I think of it as a balancing act. Some rational distance from emotion is a good thing, just as having a small creek or pond is nice, as opposed to be threatened by ocean waves at your front door.

This is also the main quarrel between my mother and I. My mother is another one who feels grief deeply, but she does not put up barriers, and it is destroying her physically, if not psychologically. And the reason leads to my next point--she feels guilty, as though she is a compassionless person by putting up boundaries.

We are not martyrs, and have a right not to experience painful things all the time. We all develop coping mechanisms. But part of the problem as a society is that our mythology tells us that having negative or bad thoughts is, well, "bad". In religious terms, it is "sinful". In my mother's case, she was raised by a Catholic Church that told her that God read all her thoughts and counted the bad ones against her. She is not alone in this kind of upbringing, though I can't say that was entirely my upbringing. What I say is--YES, you have negative thoughts, and YES it is perfectly fine to have them. The best place to operate from is the Center, and in the Center neither good nor bad thoughts prevail--it just IS. But our lives tend to swing from one side to the other, and that is OK--in a certain sense, we are all trying to achieve Hegelian synthesis, or use what Jung calls "the transcendent function". It is better to integrate the experience rather than to repress it or get hopelessly lost in it.

What we define as "negative" can also vary depending on our upbringing. For instance, some people think that lustful or rebellious thoughts are "bad". It is those thoughts in particular, as well as our genuine emotional expressions when we feel hurt, that I am referring to when I say it's OK to have negative thoughts.

Carl Jung stated that "the brighter the light, the darker the shadow". I am moderately suspicious of people who are positive/happy/loving all the time. If your light is very bright, I sincerely hope that you are addressing your shadow, and not trying to externalize it, offload it, or make it go away. There is only one kind of mythical creature without a shadow, and that is a vampire. All of us feel what is "negative" and what is dark. Why else is Grumpy Cat so popular, the sweet kitty who tells you to go jump off a cliff? Why do undergraduate females in particular love the rage and angst of Sylvia Plath's "Ariel" poems? Why do we love the cynical, dark humor of Dorothy Parker? Because deep down, we all rebel against a world that is a mask of positivity. Like the Christmas truce of the troops in World War I, occasionally we like to play ball with the "bad guys" (who, by the way, are not necessarily "bad"). The deep psychological split between what is "good" and what is "evil" has convinced us that every thought outside of what we deem "good" is something about which we should feel guilty and ashamed. This is a problem.

The "problem" lies in the simple phenomena of psychological projection. If you do not own your own "badness" and feel OK with it, then you only see it in others and never in yourself. This leads to self-righteousness (I'm so good, and that other person is a creep), and sometimes outright persecution of others. In the worst cases, it leads to genocide--exterminating a people because they are full of so-called "negative" characteristics that might taint the "pure" ones. I don't need to tell you how that worked out in World War II Germany. And though many fundamentalists would never commit genocide or murder, there is the sense of avoiding "sinful" people unless you are trying to "save" them. Being the "good" one (or ones) while everyone else is "bad" is a problem, and it comes from not owning your own badness. "God" may be inside of you, but so is the "Devil", and they're not as separate as you would think. If Satan tests Job with God's approval, that tells you something about the nature of that relationship. The "devil" or "trickster" appears in your life to make you uncomfortable, and usually it's for your own benefit, if you have decided that living complacently with something harmful to you is better than confronting it. If one hasn't wrestled with life and suffering to some degree, they haven't lived it.

Alan Watts said in his eulogy at Carl Jung's death that he admired Jung "because Jung knew that he was a villain, and didn't have guilt about it." If you can't embrace your own darkness, then you will judge others, not forgive them. You will not recognize that you too are capable of "bad" things, not realize that someone's hurtful mistake could just as easily be your own.

In this sense, I am against being "positive" all the time, because we need to admit when we're not positive without shame. As I said to someone recently, this doesn't mean that we direct our anger, hatred, and hurt to others in harmful ways. You can be angry at your ex without chucking a brick through his or her window, even if you feel like it. Both ignoring our feelings and getting obsessed with them long term is not helpful. Balance is important.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Inversions, and the Idea of Meaning

I have never been one for light reading, for the most part. My Sunday morning breakfast reading is Burt Alpert's "Inversions". If you've never heard of it, don't be surprised. It is a 464-page, typewritten book that was self-published by Alpert in 1973. I heard of it in a 1970s librarian "zine" called the "U*N*A*B*A*S*H*E*D Librarian". It was typewritten and mimeographed on colored paper, and I recall that even the first public library I worked for in the 1980s had copies of this zine. I came across a copy from 1975 in university periodicals one day, and happened upon a review of this book. It was described as "mind-blowing". It made me interested enough to see if I could find a copy. Sure enough, Amazon had one for about 5 bucks.

I believe I have mentioned this book before, as I have started it many times, and have been waylaid by other distractions. I am still in the first section, and there is enough in it to supply multiple blog postings. But one thing that has interested me is Alpert's notion of the heroic. In Mythology, we think of the heroic as part of a journey towards full maturity, or towards being a full integrated or individuated human being, in Jungian terms. Alpert sees heroism as self-sacrifice, and views it as a "cop-out". He thinks of the notion of sacrificing one's life for a cause, even for a resistance. To quote:

Most people regard this exchange as being unreasonable, and those who call for it self-serving fanatics. Having rejected an ethic of oppression which has sanctified self-sacrifice, people are not about to accept self-sacrifice as part of an ethic of resistance. If immolation of the self is the meaning of total commitment to struggle, then they would rather make what little life they can have within the cracks. Even when they sense this is no longer possible in an era of total commitment, still, dying the creeping death of acquiescence seems preferable to committing oneself to the instant death of heroism. (p. 8)

By "total commitment" he means the idea that one should be entirely devoted to a job, or to a cause, that involves giving up one's own self. Today we can see this in corporate jobs that demand well over 40 hours a week, and destroy any semblance of a personal life for the individual. This reminds me of Joseph Campbell's urging towards finding one's "authentic self"--the quest for the Holy Grail, figuratively speaking. Usually this is a quest made on your own, on untrodden ground, as it was with Arthur's knights. There is a certain isolation in the quest, as your family and/or the society around you may not support you on your path.

Living authentically is difficult, to say the least, and Alpert addresses this conundrum. He speaks about the idea of revolution, and cites Abbie Hoffman's phrase, "Revolution for the hell of it!" as being more sensible. "The revolution must be born of joy, and not of sacrifice" (p. 10). He mentions the failure of both religion and psychology to deal with the conflict between the authentic self and society. He cites R.D. Laing's lament that "being out of your mind" is the normal condition for humans in our society. Not much has changed since 1973. There is a deeply felt sickness in humans--a sense that the self is lost in the demands of society.

Alpert's solution to this conundrum is to make one's work meaningful--no matter what it is. Our attempts to make our own creative mark on the world and to do things with awareness of meaning for the rest of the world can possibly change things a little at a time, individual by individual. Put more simply, one lives authentically by living according to their passion. We are trained to believe that our life's goal is to make money, to choose an education that fits a potentially lucrative career, and to aspire to certain material goals and standards. There's nothing wrong with having material goals, but as Joseph Campbell has said, "If you get off the bar to make money, then you've given up your life." I am constantly irritated by articles about "which majors make the most money". Money is useful and necessary, but if you hate your job and are stuck with it, money won't make you feel much better.

My neighbor cleans houses for a living, and she frequently likes to regale me with stories of her very rich clients. Most of them are slobs, and won't even clean up when the dog pisses on their bathroom floor, because "the cleaning lady will take care of that". These are people who buy all kinds of insanely expensive things and then carelessly leave them to be destroyed, or who invest in massive personal training, botox, and other things to make them appear younger, "because no one wants to look at an older woman in business." It's all about image and having things, and it reaches a maddening level of absurdity, and a complete alienation from others. If you get everything you want and can't figure out how to do a single thing for yourself, how do you get on in the real world with real people? How do you have any compassion for those who don't have enough? If the only interest is in the external, what happens to the internal? Maybe it's just me, but this sounds like a pretty horrid existence. There doesn't seem to be much meaning in a life that is just about appearing a certain way for others, and the constant acquisition of "stuff".

On the other hand, the idea of "purpose" or "meaning" is a curious one. What is the purpose of life? We all do things to give our lives meaning, but does it have a cosmic importance? Joseph Campbell once asked, "What is the meaning of a flower? What is the meaning of a flea?" Life is not so much about "purpose" as it is about having an experience of being alive. Alan Watts spoke about a Japanese Zen master who spoke before an audience in New York. He said, "The first thing about Zen is that life has no purpose. If you drop a fart, you drop a fart. You do not say, 'At 9:00 I am going to drop a fart.' It just happens to you." (Naturally his pious Western audience struggled not to laugh at this.)

I think we fill ourselves with the idea of "purpose" because we like to attach some importance to what we do. Humans are storytellers by nature, and we are always weaving a narrative. If we don't weave our own narrative, we get interested in someone else's narrative, or a fictional narrative. There is nothing wrong with creating our own narratives. But it's a bit like the writer who forces themselves to write something they think will sell, or will impress people--it usually falls flat in the end. The best narratives are spontaneous, and arise out of an unfettered imagination. This is the importance of play. When we live our lives according to what we're passionate about, it takes away the idea of "work". I remember our former Religion department chairman where I work telling me that he got his Ph.D., came to work at the university "and never worked a day in my life since." His work was so enjoyable, it ceased to be work. This is why I'm willing to work full-time AND teach part-time while working on my own doctorate--I'm passionate about all of it, so it's not really "work". (OK, maybe some of it is. But not most of it.)

As I'm writing this my cat, Mr. Shiva, has selected a toy from his box and has dropped it at my feet, wanting me to throw it. I throw it for him and he dutifully brings it back once, and then leaves it the second time. But he comes running back and rubs against my leg, happy that I have stopped doing this "serious" thing long enough to play with him. We don't give animals enough credit for their intelligence.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Other Side of the Hedge

Lately it would not be Saturday if I was not changing bedsheets, sorting laundry, cleaning the upstairs rooms, and listening to Alan Watts on YouTube. I've heard most of his lectures, but the one today wasn't quite familiar. It had been previously billed as something like "Sense and Nonsense", but was given the title "Coincidence of Opposites" on YouTube. If you're interested, you can listen to it here.

One of the things Watts addresses in this lecture is the Hindu notion of lila, or "play". The lecture is about "purpose", as we all are greatly concerned with our "purpose" in life and if we're fulfilling it. He ponders the meaning of "purpose", and indeed it is a very Christian idea to the modern world, coming from the notion of the "purpose of God". The idea of a Divine Plan is used to keep order in a worldview that assumes that life is good. When evil occurs, we feel it must be the mysterious part of a "Divine Plan" that we don't understand. And of course some are suspicious that the Divine is not necessarily so good, or perhaps that it doesn't exist at all. But all of this is part of our search for meaning, whether from a "divine" perspective or not.

The notion of divine "lila" is both baffling and makes complete sense at the same time. In the Hindu cosmology, the queen of the Three Worlds is Sri Lalita Devi, and the root of her name implies "lila" or "play". The Three Worlds are the Heavens, the Earth, and the Hells. If you read stories of the Hindu gods, they are strange to a Westerner. Why would Shiva grant a boon to a demon? Why would a demon try to engage in strict religious practices? The interactions between the gods and demons (devas and asuras) is bizarre from an ethical standpoint. We are so used to the idea of doing good and avoiding evil, that we miss the point entirely. The entire set of mythological interactions in Hinduism could easily be metaphors for the kinds of psychological conflicts and conundrums that we frequently face as we go through life. It is almost never a flat choice between what is "good" and what is "evil"--life is much more complex than that. It is more like the strategy of a game--we play until someone wins a round, and then we start over again. But it is the process of playing that (should be) enjoyable. Sometimes, as it would be in physical sports, the game can be painful. But it is the process, negotiating what comes next, that makes games and play akin to life. Children learn life skills from playing and creating imaginary worlds; it is not a "waste of time." They also learn to bring new ideas and things into the world; play generates creativity.

Life in and of itself is a baffling paradox from the ethical point of view. What kind of system requires death to have life? You participate in killing every day, when you eat. Even if you are a vegetarian, you have to kill plants to eat. You may not do this killing yourself, but it is required somewhere along the line. Western myth handles this by declaring the whole process evil, even while (ironically) they are great "defenders of life". If they didn't see the process as evil, there would be no need for a "savior" to save you from the world. To view the world as corrupt, and humans as dominant over nature, has created a deep mythological problem. Many scratch their heads at climate change denial, but if you realize how this myth about nature is deeply embedded, at least since the 7th or 6th century B.C., it would make sense. Mythological thinking is entirely unconscious--we don't consciously think in terms of the myth, but the effects are there.

This entire prelude is relevant to one of the stories I've read this week, "The Other Side of the Hedge", by E.M. Forester. The story is told in the first person, and the narrator is running a race along a dry dirt road. He stops because he is tired, and the people he knows keep encouraging him to keep running. But he lays down by a hedge, and wonders what is on the other side. With some effort, he manages to get through the hedge, and promptly falls into a moat. He hears someone laughing at him, and it turns out to be an old man, who pulls him out of the moat. The narrator is increasingly disturbed by this place, where everyone is at leisure and has nowhere to go. The place is beautiful, and he is told that this is the place "where mankind really belongs". But he wants no part of it--he wants to get back onto the road and keep running, even though the road looks desolate and lifeless from the view on the other side of the hedge.

This story is very mythological. Falling into the water and being pulled out by an old man (the Jungian Senex archetype) represents a sort of rebirth into Wisdom. The Wisdom is ultimately rejected in this story, as Forester is trying to show us how we bring much of our suffering, our need to "achieve" something, do the "next" thing, is brought on by ourselves. That race is a game we participate in willingly. But often it is a chore, and we question our suffering. We could view life as it is from the other side of the hedge--a great play with no particular place to go, something simply to be enjoyed in the moment.

Watts points out in his lecture that this notion of the world as play is in the Hebrew Old Testament, in descriptions of holy Wisdom ("Sophia" in the Greek), who was present at the creation of the world, and delighted in God's creation--and expresses in several books (Proverbs, Wisdom, Sirach) the idea that those who remember "wisdom" will have happy lives. Forester is suggesting that there is a wisdom in NOT running the race, there is an abundance in staying in the moment, and not trying to go anywhere or do anything "important". This is conveyed not only in the Biblical verses, but is the basis of Eastern doctrine. Buddhist meditation is very much about being in the "present". If one lives in the present and operates from the center of their being (the archetype of the Self, which is a quiet space), then life is not quite so serious. The "race" is put into context. The game is a very good metaphor, as we can get caught up in the idea of winning and competing, rather than in just playing to enjoy ourselves.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Looking Glass

This winter has been difficult. For me, it seems that January is the cruelest month. I guess if I was to be fair, it's not been a total disaster, and probably better on the whole than last January. Some good things did happen--I got a second teaching job, furnace issues may have been finally sorted out, and even our big snows this month have been light and powdery--no heavy shoveling. But it has been so cold--unnaturally cold for us. My sister tells me that this was like winters she remembers as a child in the 1960s--subzero temperatures, lots of snow.

I feel like a shut-in, and the cold and snow makes Spring seem very far away. Some nights I am unable to sleep; I have many irrational fears about the furnace going out, or the power going out. Both things have happened, so maybe it's not totally irrational. I would just like for the extreme cold to go away, and stop draining our resources. I know that places like Canada deal with this kind of cold routinely, but I also think that they are better equipped to deal with it. Just as states like Florida have heat pumps as a regular feature in their homes to save on cooling costs, I'm sure that those in colder climates have found a way to efficiently heat their homes without heavy reliance on tenuous resources.

So, this is one of many mornings where I am up, maybe not so early, with wool blankets tacked over both doors to the outside to help keep the cold out, a cup of hot green tea, and a vague sense of being overwhelmed by everything I have to do. The cat crawls under a blanket on the sofa and snores. I wish I could do that so easily.

I received word last night that my mother's sister died, succumbing to lung cancer. It seems very natural in this winter setting; death is everywhere. Yet with the death is a hope of release from suffering. I am mostly sad for my mother and her other sister, as well as my uncle, and my cousin's family. In some cases with those mentioned there was a great reliance on my aunt, and the transition to life without her is going to be difficult. Years ago her first husband died, also of lung cancer--it was at least 30 years ago. Shortly after his death one of my sisters, and possibly my brother, saw him walking down the street in my parents' neighborhood. My sister called out to him questioningly, and he just looked at her and smiled, and walked off. They didn't see him again. After reading this recent article on NDE's, it made me wonder if my uncle, or whatever remains of his personality, met my aunt when she passed. I guess we'll never know.

In my insomniac moments, I like to read. One of the stories I read in the last couple of days was Walter De La Mare's "The Looking Glass". The story centers around Alice, a sickly girl who has a persistent cough. Much is made of the line between freedom and imprisonment; she likes to visit the garden outside her house in the afternoons. She is free of those around her, and yet that freedom of being alone in nature made her a little frightened. A local old woman, described as "slovenly ponderous" and "arrogant" seems to know that Alice will be visiting the garden at this time, and always manages to be there. Alice doesn't like the woman, who is called Sarah, but her sense of aloneness there makes her welcome Sarah's appearances.

Sarah, who is an archetypal witch figure in this story, spins her "lore" about the haunted garden. At first she says "the house", and rather sharply corrects Sarah when she says the house is haunted--she MEANT the garden. The implication is that if Alice comes dressed as a bride on May Day, she will have a vision of the garden's secrets, and what is implied is that she will see a young man, a lover-figure. Alice questions Sarah endlessly about this, until Sarah is weary. Alice notices, as Sarah seems to, that the garden shimmers "like a looking glass". There is a certain clarity of the "other side". However, Sarah does not seem to be enamored of the garden; she talks about taking out the birds with a blunderbuss, and when pressed about what is "on the other side" (because Sarah has surely seen it), she says it is nothing but "death".

Alice makes her way back, and makes the telling statement that it is she herself that haunts the garden. She makes preparations for the May Day ritual, and is anxious for it. Ultimately, however, she does not go through with it, and in the end she is "done with looking glasses" and spends her time worrying about the practical domestic things of life.

Archetypally, this story is loaded with meaning. The secret, imaginative world of childhood, where fairies and Santa Claus are real, is replaced by adolescence, where we fall into the dreamy world of the anima or animus. An interest in boys or girls replaces childhood play, though that sense of the "other" world hasn't entirely gone away. Then we become adults, and it all falls away. Between education, heartbreak, and issues of survival, we step into a life that was not what we would have expected in our dreams. So, we settle into our routines, get jobs, pay bills, become "practical", and forget about the "nonsense" of childhood. In short, we trade one illusion for another.

"The Looking Glass" mentioned in the story is what shows us the other side of our consciousness--the seemingly unreal world of the Collective. We have direct access to this as children. I remember watching the documentary "My Amityville Horror" about Danny Lutz, one of the children in the house at the time of its demonic activity. He told his story, and at the end, the filmmaker brought in a psychologist who basically wrote him off as being in a "childhood fantasy". I was very angry that the filmmaker did that. Danny's childhood experience and his account of it is more real than the gibberings of some idiot psychologist. The psychologist no longer has access; the psychologist doesn't know. Danny was reluctant to tell his story for that very reason.

In a documentary on the belief in fairies in Iceland, a police officer tells the filmmakers about his childhood. He walks among rocks, and says that they had doors that opened when he was a child, and he would play with the elves that came out. Then he said what was translated as "my testicles came down" (i.e., he entered puberty) and "the doors were closed and I never saw them again."

I have often thought about what that means. Jung has said that imagination is a fact; everything we have, all our technologies, had to come from someone's imagination. We are a race of storytellers, and stories shape our lives. Illusions shape our lives. The illusion we create for ourselves as adults is called "business" and "economy". Now, it does take a certain amount of cooperation and work to make a society "go round". But our systems are artificial. We have rocks and paper that are assigned a value, and we spend our adult lives trying to accumulate those pieces of paper. They only stand for wealth; they are not really anything. As Alan Watts pointed out, money is no more wealth than the words on a menu are food. But this is an illusion that we all participate in, and it is so accepted by society that it is "real". It is the game adults play, and a difficult one to not participate in.

When illusions vaporize or are shattered, we become "disillusioned". As a result, we cease to trust ourselves. As children, we were magical; as adults, we cannot believe that we can control our destinies. It just seems "illogical". We have been taught that the rational mind is the only reliable thing--never trust your inner self, your gut feelings and intuitions. This is not really helped by a mythical view that says we are all machines, or like machines.

This is why people hang onto religions, and onto so-called "irrational beliefs"--the paranormal, supernatural, etc. We question that imaginative reality all the time, but we don't question the one we accept as "real". The "reality" is that one is not necessarily more "real" than the other. The Hindus have a concept called "maya"--illusion, and they say that this is what the visible world is--the real world is that of undifferentiated consciousness. You can choose to distrust everything as a result, but I have always hoped that this means that I can write my own illusory story instead of accepting everyone else's. If I don't like the picture, I want to be able to paint another one.

That might sound crazy, but once again I think of Iceland. When their economy collapsed due to bad banking practices, they threw the bankers in jail and forgave loans. Their recovery has been remarkable. Thinking differently about our illusions might not be so "crazy" after all.

Thursday, January 02, 2014


On my long holiday vacation that has now been extended due to snow, I've been cleaning out a lot of files to make room for more research material. In the process, I handle a lot of paper. On pulling out one stack, I gave myself a paper cut, and my first instinct was to put my bloodied finger in my mouth. I realized that in our germophobic society, I would have been advised against doing such a thing; after all, the mouth is so disgusting with germs, even a dog's mouth is cleaner.

I then started thinking about all the "gross" things that kids do (or did)--eating mud pies, picking their noses and eating it, handing all manners of creepy things out in nature, and sometimes putting those in their mouth as well. Little babies, while going through their "oral" phase, will put anything in their mouth, including things that have just been in the toilet or have come out of the dog or cat's dish. I can almost see you shuddering as you read this.

However, it also occurred to me that kids who did all these "gross" things are probably healthier than the kid who didn't. When you encounter germs and bacteria, you are better able to naturally adjust your immune system to their presence. Kids get all kinds of weird diseases because they are building up their immune systems, and their exposure to other children and to Nature allows them to do this. All those disgusting things are probably going to guarantee that you live longer.

This is not to say that people shouldn't be hygienic. Of course you should wash your hands after using the bathroom, you should bathe and change your clothes every day. If you get a cut, you should probably treat it with iodine. If you are in a hospital environment, you should take even more precautions. It is interesting how in hospitals the greatest risk is of secondary infection, not the thing a person came in to the hospital for originally. Secondary infections are nasty--MRSA and other staph-like infections abound in such sterile environments. Basic hygiene helps you avoid these things.

But we live in society that is beyond basic hygiene. We have "antibacterial" everything, we take ourselves (and our kids if we have them) to the doctor at the slightest sign of a cold and demand antibiotics. Colds don't respond to antibiotics--they're viral, not bacterial. But I often hear that people take antibiotics anyway, "just in case". And they wonder why they are always sick, and so are their kids. Antibiotics are sometimes necessary, but often doctors will prescribe very high-powered antibiotics for illnesses that would do just fine with good old amoxicillin. If I get an upper respiratory infection that is actually bacterial, I always request amoxicillin. I don't need Bactrim or Cipro.

Our uber antibacterial culture is a reflection of our psychological culture. I see a lot in schools these days about anti-bullying policies. When I read accounts of bullying, I'm not sure if some of them are exaggerated, but I'm surprised 1. at how much more aggressive bullying has become when it happens, and 2. how fragile children are when dealing with it. I hear a lot more about suicides from bullying. Maybe it's just the Internet and an increase in information; maybe things like this have always happened. But I've started to see a trend in both physical and psychological health that might be summed up this way: When you fight against life and nature, it will fight back aggressively.

Many of you probably experienced some form of bullying growing up. I know I did. I put up with two years of intense bullying before I switched schools. No one enjoys being bullied, no one likes to hear about it happening to kids, and no parent wants to see their kid go through it. But a certain amount of bullying, especially in adolescence, is normal. Children are naturally defiant, and testing their boundaries. They are in the painful process of becoming adults. Lacking any kind of real transformational rituals, they are only transformed by traipsing off in the woods by themselves, or making a wrong turn in a dark alley and meeting a gang of hostile teenagers. If we don't come into conflict or face danger, we never learn to deal with it. You don't grow as a person or as a citizen of your society if you are sheltered from everything. This is why the very rich can't understand the poor. If you've never struggled to make ends meet, it is very easy for you to say that those requiring assistance are just "freeloaders". Of course, I have known people who have struggled in this life, and say, "why should they get assistance if I worked hard?" Both points of view suffer from the delusion that everyone else is "just like us", has the same opportunities and the same challenges. It didn't happen to me, why should it happen to you?

In ancient tribal societies, a young boy was often forcefully taken from his mother at a young age, and put through vicious initiations and scarification rituals, to make him one of the "men" of the tribe. We don't do things like that in "conscious" civilizations. (I tend to think of tribal cultures as "pre-conscious", because they are so immersed in nature, there is no split in their psychology. That said, there isn't rational consciousness like ours, either.) But that external adolescence ritual now takes place in the atmosphere of junior high school cliques and bullies. And it is vicious, because the process of growing up is vicious, both psychologically and physiologically.

Both parents and schools have become protective of kids to the point that most kids today don't have normal growing-up experiences. Everything is pre-scheduled and arranged. They have their own stresses, but they are different. They are not really free to be themselves. Which is why I often get students in college who really can't be bothered with things like class attendance, proper formatting, deadlines, and such. For some of them, the rebellion process is beginning at 18 rather than at 11 or 12.

Occasionally we see backlashes against movies that depict violence or death to children, and there has even been a questioning of reading fairy tales to children. Sometimes the objection to fairy tales is that they are frightening; other times, it is because they encourage "irrationality" in children, and belief in monsters. This is because we are so cut off from our inner life, we really believe that it doesn't exist. We are told that we are only rational machines. But that doesn't change the fact that the inner life is there. In Bruno Bettelheim's classic work on fairy tales and psychology, he says the following:

In order to master the psychological problems of growing up--overcoming narcissistic disappointments, oedipal dilemmas, sibling rivalries; becoming able to relinquish childhood dependencies; gaining a feeling of selfhood and of self-worth, and a sense of moral obligation--a child needs to understand what is going on within his conscious self so that he can also cope with that which goes on in his unconscious. He can achieve this understanding, and with it the ability to cope, not through rational comprehension of the nature and content of his unconscious, but by becoming familiar with it by spinning out daydreams--ruminating, rearranging, and fantasizing about suitable story elements in response to unconscious pressures. ... It is here that fairy tales have unequaled value, because they offer new dimensions to the child's imagination which would be impossible for him to discover as truly on his own. (Bruno Bettelheim. The Uses of Enchantment. Vintage Books, 1989: 6-7).

Social media doesn't really help. I am an avid Facebook user, I admit. But often, online relationships take the place of real ones. We text rather than have phone conversations. This is not all bad; if I just need to ask you what time you're coming to visit, I don't need to get into a conversation, I just need a text confirmation. When friends and family are far away and busy with their lives, this may be the only viable way to keep in touch. However, there is the other extreme as well. I hear about families where the kid is sitting in his room, and texts his mother in the kitchen two doors down about what's for dinner. Having taught both online and in-person, I was rather surprised to find that my online students were more interactive than my in-person ones. If I ask a question in a regular classroom, I often get an uncomfortable silence. Online, some brave soul will speak up. He or she is not facing their peers, so it is easier to interact. But if all of our conversations are electronic ones, we don't become fully human. You can't be fully human until you interact with humans, and have some empathy for them. You haven't lived life if you haven't been hurt and traumatized. You don't learn if you don't make mistakes. It's part of the package deal, and is not something to be eliminated. When learning to walk, we frequently fall down. Should we give up after the first time we fall?

I am a fan of Jungian psychology because Carl Jung is the one who pointed out this polarity in our consciousness. If you are good, you are also evil. If you are happy, you are also capable of being depressed. If you can love, you can also hate. And if you encounter God, you will also encounter the Devil. This is his concept of the "Shadow"--the part of ourselves that is weaker, and that we'd rather pretend we didn't have. In our "good vs. evil" society, we seem to feel we must eliminate one, and the other must triumph. But we don't "choose" one over the other. We need to integrate all of these factors and experiences into our lives, because that's what life IS. This is what the Genesis creation story is actually about. Eve HAD to eat the forbidden fruit in order for life to happen. Adam and Eve should not have remained in the garden for all eternity. Being one with God may be wonderful, but it's not conscious living. Once the fruit was eaten, they came into the field of time, which is the field of opposites--dark and light, good and bad, male and female, etc., etc. They noticed difference. And they now experience suffering, because being in the temporal world IS suffering. Life is like a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces are ripped apart, and regain their meaning as they are put back together. Our lives are about putting the pieces together--our opposites. But it's the process of figuring out and putting together that is important; the journey and not the destination. For better or for worse, we need to suffer, we need to encounter others, take risks, and occasionally fail. Otherwise, we are nothing but the walking dead; or, as Joseph Campbell said, we may be living someone else's life, not our own. "Perfect" means "finished"--we are not finished. The only way to move towards being finished is to experience ALL facets of life, not just the ones we prefer. You can't sanitize yourself against life.