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Posts Tagged ‘myth’

The story of the Fisher King is best known as a fragment of the Arthurian Grail myth. It comes to us from various sources, the earliest being Celtic paganism. Later versions are more Christianized and somewhat opaque to analysis – at least for me. But essentially, the story speaks of the wasteland of the world, and a malaise we feel unable to heal. I’ve been confused by its various tellings, and am therefore grateful to Robert Johnson’s book, “The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden”, for stripping away the layers of literary flourish, romanticism, and religiosity, and for helping me to get to grips with the mythical core of it.

We each react to life in different ways, depending on our personality type. In Jungian typology there are four functions: Thinking, Intuiting, Sensing and Feeling. Thinking, we weigh the facts, but in doing so our thoughts attach no particular value to themselves. Sensing, we take the world in through our senses, but again our senses themselves pass no judgment on those sensations. Intuiting, we leap the gaps in logic, but we intuit no value to our intuitions. Only the feeling function adds life-value, adds meaning to the world we perceive but, sadly, most of us are underdeveloped in the feeling function. Life therefore lacks meaning, and we compensate by chasing it through the other functions: thinking, and seeking ever more sensual experience, but this is fruitless; only feeling can bring meaning back into our lives. Only feeling can restore the full richness to a world that is on the one hand technologically advanced, but on the other emotionally bankrupt.

This is what the story of the Fisher King is about – our loss of feeling, the reasons why, and, like all myths, having lost it (because as humans we always lose it) how we get it back.

So, the story goes, we find ourselves in a barren land, night coming on amid an endless forest and, just as we think we are lost, we discover a lake. On the lake there is a boat, and in the boat there is a man, fishing. We are looking for shelter, for nourishment, for safety, so ask directions. The man tells us there is no dwelling, no nourishment, no place of safety within thirty miles, but if we go down the road we’re on, just a little way, then turn left, we will find a castle. If we cross the drawbridge and enter, we will be received and welcomed.

So, here’s a contradiction: there is no place of safety for many miles, yet, just down the way a little, turn left, and there’s a castle, the ultimate symbol of fortified safety. But this is no ordinary castle. This is the Grail castle, place of legend – the Grail being any one of various symbolic maguffins, depending on which version of the story you read. Later Christian versions have it as the cup of Christ, earlier versions as a Celtic cauldron, the source of all life, still others as a stone that fell from the heavens. However you choose to represent it, and whatever the nature of your malaise, the important thing to remember about the Grail is that its mere proximity can bring healing.

All of this is mythical, metaphorical – not literal – so the castle does not exist anywhere but in the imagination. That’s what the mysterious fishing man means – no dwelling within thirty miles, nothing in the material world will bring us safety. So carry on a bit – do as you were doing before – but turn left, symbolic of the way of the inner life. To find safety therefore, we must cross a liminal zone, cross the castle moat, the drawbridge. There we find ourselves in a special place, the infinite ground of being, the collective unconscious, the underworld, the world of the Fey, the place where myth plays out.

Every night there is a ceremony at the castle, just as every night we dream. The castle is the inner self. Every night, the Grail is paraded, and each participant is invited to partake of it. Everyone does so, except for the one man who cannot. This is the man we encountered earlier, the fisherman. But it turns out he’s also the king, the keeper of the Grail, and he’s a sick man, too ill to live, yet unable to die. Another contradiction! Could it be, we are describing ourselves here, and the condition of the modern man?

What’s wrong with him? Well, there are various explanations, but most stories have it, he was shot through the groin by an arrow that cannot be pulled out. The wound has left him infertile. He’s unable to rule effectively, so his kingdom ails, as he ails. It has become a wasteland. The only thing that gives him temporary respite is fishing on the lake, symbolic of our dabbling with anything that connects us with the unconscious, no matter how tenuous.

He might be cured of his ills, but only by an innocent stranger attending the ceremony of the Grail, and asking a specific question. Are we that innocent stranger? And what is the question? Don’t worry about the answer, the answer will be given. Just asking the right question is sufficient to unlock the puzzle, and cure the king.

All the characters in the myth, as in our dreams, are aspects of ourselves, so we are both the innocent traveller, and the king. We also possess the healing properties of the grail, but are unable to partake of it. To understand why, we need to know more about how the king was wounded, how we were wounded. To be wounded in the groin is symbolic – obviously boding ill for our ability to be fertile, to create. So, it’s bad for the man, and bad for the future of his generations. So our kingdom stagnates. How did things come to such a dreadful pass? Well, it all began with a fish, but not just any fish: the King of fish, the Salmon.

The Salmon harks back to the Celtic roots of the story, it having echoes in the Salmon of Knowledge, from the Irish, Fenian Myth cycle. There, the Salmon gains all the wisdom in the world by eating the hazelnuts that fell into the Well of Wisdom from the trees that encircle it. To catch the Salmon and eat it would therefore bestow the wisdom of the world upon the eater. At this point the stories diverge significantly. In the Celtic, the eating of the salmon indeed brings wisdom, but not to the man intended. In the English and continental European versions, the knowledge is so fierce it burns the eater, and results in his dreadful wounding.

Being all-knowing robs us of a sense of the value and meaning of life. Only contact with the Grail can temper such hardness and help us back on the path. But the wounded fisher is, ironically, too weakened by his wisdom to partake of it, even though he is charged also with being the holder and protector of his own salvation. It requires a return to a certain unaffected innocence, and reminding ourselves of the question:

What question? “Whom does the Grail serve?”

And the reply: “It serves the King.”

By the King, here, is meant something bigger than ourselves. We can call it service to God(s), to the awakening universe, or All that Is, either by seeking direct communion with it, or indirectly through selfless service to others. The story of the Fisher King teaches us that, by the acquisition of knowledge alone, we serve only a part of our selves. We facilitate our technological development, our civilization, but all of this comes at the price of our ultimate development, our evolutionary destiny, as a species.

We are far more technologically advanced now than we were in the Middle Ages, but are no more psychologically evolved, which makes us only the more dangerous to our selves, as our technology outstrips our ability to use it wisely. Without humility and the sense of serving something greater, the world will always lack meaning. And without that sense of meaning, we can never realize our potential, no matter how powerful a gift, the gift of the Salmon of Wisdom.

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dragon

Robert L. Moore (1942-2016) was a Jungian analyst and professor of psychology, psychoanalysis and spirituality, also a champion of Kohutian “self analysis”. Self analysis is a school of psychoanalysis which seeks understanding of the nature of the unconscious “self”. We might think we know our “selves”, but mostly what we think we know is a collection of memories that makes up our life-story. What actually motivates us, whilst shaped in part by that story, is largely unconscious, and the unconscious part of us is so complex, so bewilderingly vast, it’s taken a century of psychoanalysis to even scratch the surface of it. Meanwhile, this lack of understanding of our selves, both individually, and as a species, threatens to overwhelm us as we are assailed by forces entirely of our own making, but which we seem no longer able to control.

The unconscious engages us in dreams and reveries, in a language of emotionally charged images. It shows us something in the imagination, but its meaning is never literal. So we dream of a dragon, but the dragon is a metaphor for something else. Dragons feature large in myths and stories all over the world. A myth is a story that’s been pared down, sometimes over the millennia so it contains only its most potent and reactive essence. We read a mythical story, and even if we do not immediately understand it, we react to it, and it holds our attention like nothing else can.

Myths are a shorthand way our ancestors found of passing on the secrets gleaned from their own times, secrets of how to live properly, how to live in harmony with others who might appear superficially different to our selves. Thus, we avoid the worst in human nature, which has a pathological tendency towards murder. In order to do this, we have to live mythically, while at the same time renewing the myth for the times we are living in, so the story remains relevant for each passing generation.

The problem with our own culture is we have lost our way with myths. We have dismissed them as belonging to a more primitive, pre-literate, pre-technological era. Yet we look around at the world, and we see that it is filled with so many poisons, all of them entirely the result of pathological thinking, and we struggle to begin to analyse it. So we’re not actually as smart as we think we are.

The human race is very old, and in all that time it’s been telling stories, weaving myths, so whatever the situation we are in, there’s a good chance there’s already a myth that defines it, already a story told by someone who has been this way before. But the difficulty is, it’s often impossible to identify the myth we’re in, just as an eye cannot see itself.

In “Facing the Dragon”, Moore boils down the world’s ills into a dragon myth. Dragons have two aspects. One side of them is evil and chaotic. They fly about breathing fire and razing our civilized structures to the ground. It takes only a small metaphorical step then to identify our world, our civilization, now, as besieged by rapacious dragons. But remember, these are not literal dragons. It is us who does the dragon’s work, killing, lying, and razing cities with fire. The other side of the dragon, the positive side is its potent wisdom and its creative energy. So, like with Saint George, there are rewards to be gained from facing the darker aspects of the dragon, and slaying it.

Psychologically speaking, Moore equates the dragon to the human propensity for self-inflation or grandiosity. We think we’re perfect, or we’re the centre of the universe, or if only people would listen to us everything would be all right. Then reality hits, and we feel small, we react badly, we feel jealousy, resentment, hatred, indeed the whole gamut of Evil’s play-book. Moore is very much concerned here with the nature of evil as it works through the collective human experience, and how we can identify it both in ourselves and in world affairs. Spotting the dragon at work is crucial because that’s the thing with dragons: if you deny their existence, they get bigger.

One of the most striking Dragon motifs Moore identifies, and which resonated with me was :

The chief tactic of evil is to present the human individual and community with a false, deceptive representation of reality. In short, it lies.

This is not so much a self-help book as an attempt to encapsulate our collective pathology in a myth that underlies the nature of our times. It is based partly on edited transcripts of lectures Moore gave to, among others, the C.G Jung Institute of Chicago, and the Parliament of the World’s Religions but, although it is intended primarily for the psycho-analytical and the theological community, as an interested layman I found it both accessible and enlightening. First published nearly twenty years ago, the book has proved prescient in many ways, and reveals us as an increasingly benighted people living a dragon myth, yet blinded by the fact we no longer believe in dragons.

No wonder contemporary world events leave us feeling so bewildered.

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surface-hands-ellerbeck-abt-1913

If you and I traced our ancestors back, say a couple of thousand years, we’d find we were related. But that’s the thing with family trees. The further back you go, the branches widen, sweeping up more and more of us. Even a couple of hundred years is enough to ensure you’ll score some landed gentry among your lot. There’s likely the occasional murderer, too. But you’re only one in tens of thousands of souls, all related in the same vague way, so it doesn’t mean anything, does it?

I used to think there was nothing worse than some ardent genealogist banging on about his family tree. On and on they’d go, like you could be interested. I mean, what did it matter that so and so married so and so a hundred years ago? But then you get the bug yourself and you begin to see things differently. You begin to understand the fascination.

First, you simply want to honour your family by getting all their names in order, names you heard as a child but never met because they were long dead. Or maybe they’d branched off a few generations ago and gone to live on the other side of the world. So now you want to get them straight in your head. You want them with the right spouse, the right children. You want to pass them on to your own kids, a neat little package of heritage – like your own kids could be bothered. But then you tap into something else, you experience a “wow” moment,  and you realize there’s much more going on here.

Tracing your family history is like sketching out a story, and stories are powerful things. Suddenly, they can transform those dimly remembered names into heroes, into characters of mythological status, and myths are strange things. Once we tap into them our lives change, because that’s what myths do. They come from our deepest past, and they energise our present.

My Irish grandfather, Michael, came to Lancashire to work the quarries as a farrier. Whilst here, he had a fling with a mill-girl called Lizzie. Then he lost his job and went back to his parents’ farm in County Mayo, leaving Lizzie behind. But Lizzie discovered she was with child. So, urgent letters were exchanged and Michael returned to a hasty marriage.

He settled in a village on the edge of the Western Pennines, raised a family of four, one of them my mother. If he’d been a different kind of guy, I wouldn’t be here to tell the story. I imagine a hard-working, happy-go-lucky character, a bit of a charmer, and full of stories, not all of them true, but when things got serious, he’d always do the right thing.

That mill-girl had a brother called Richard. He married another mill-girl called Annie. Then he got swept up in the Great War, and died of fever in Mesopotamia, never saw home again. Annie struggled for years on a war-widow’s pension, then left for Australia on the promise of a better life. There, she married Fred, a German guy – at a time when German guys were still unpopular. I’ve not followed him up yet, but I’m thinking Fred must have been something special. Anyway, the two of them went on to pioneer land near Pingaring, and they seemed to make a go of it. That’s where her story peters out for me, them living a cowboy and cowgirl kind of life in the vastness of Western Australia.

This is not to say my family is any more or less fascinating than yours. We can all find the archetypal stories if we look. It’s not about the bloodline. Blood means nothing unless there’s money involved. Annie’s not a blood relative, but I think about her story a lot. Romance, tragedy, courage, adventure and triumph over adversity. It’s got everything and I find it inspiring. Even across time, something about her story, played out a century ago influences the way I think today.

But there’s more. I’ve researched the life of an obscure Victorian man of letters. He’s no relation at all, yet I ended up living his story as intensely as if it were a part of my own. So it doesn’t need to be even a vague family connection either. It runs much deeper than genealogy. It transcends blood and kin. It reaches back to the collective from which all stories rise.

If by some magic we were able to meet those people for real, there’s a chance we might not like them very much. We would find them too human, rather than the perfected heroes and heroines of our imagination. What we’re doing then is projecting parts of our psyche upon a bare structure of names, dates and events. What we tap into are latent energies that seek passage into consciousness, and they take powerful form as stories.

As we unearth these stories, we’re not uncovering the literal truth of a past life. Rather, we are exploring pieces of our own selves. Doing so, we grant new life to the mythical foundations of the past, all our pasts because the thing with myths is they seek renewal for each generation who stumbles upon them. And they reward us with fresh meaning and direction.

I’ve discovered no celebrities, no toffs, no great statesmen, in my family tree, at least not between here and the early Victorian period. Any further than that, who knows?  Four generations seems plenty for keeping it real. Four generations, and the stories are still plentiful, still of sufficient resolution for one’s imagination to get to grips with.

The best stories do not need kings and queens to act them out. We find them in the ordinary. That’s why they’re of such universal appeal. Colliers, labourers, crofters, weavers, quarrymen, farriers, domestics, pioneers and conscripted soldiers. That’s my lot. Plus of course life, love and adversity,… the stuff of stories and the bedrock of existence.

It turns out, genealogy isn’t boring after all.

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blake-newtonIn attempting to understand the world’s ills it’s all too easy to fall foul of low-level egoic thinking. In the olden days a writer might have addressed waspish letters to the Times on whatever issue vexed him. Now he’ll keep a blog and thus similarly satisfy his need to shout at whatever devil enrages him. But to do so is to overlook the fact the forces at work in the world we rub up against are the result of whatever myth the human race is living at the time, and are generally impervious to the individual will.

The left shouts at the right and vice versa. Meanwhile the world moves inexorably in a particular direction, one dictated by the myth of infinite growth, a story in which the ego must for ever feed itself in a frenzied attempt to maintain its relevance, its dominance in the daunting void of the universe.

One way or another, we are all invested in this idea, but since we live on a planet of finite size and resource, it’s clearly impossible we should continue to grow, to consume, to expand for ever. There is a point at which the earth will be stripped bare of its resources, the seas turgid with our trash, and the atmosphere choked with the smoke of our fires. It’s irrational then we should continue in this vein, but we are not dealing with the rational, more a tide of mythic being emanating from the collective psyche, and we are powerless to subvert it. Unless we can renew this myth, the story must play out, and us with it.

I’m all too guilty recently of sniping in my blog, and in my fiction at who I see as the villains of the piece. My ego is infected by the fever of a righteous anger and this weakens my ability to think in more feminine terms, to see beyond the material, to see through the witch’s scrying-glass, into the realms of the psyche where the myth-making begins.

The dreams of the individual dictate our conscience, our actions and our speech as we each live out our story, but since that personal myth is not shared by everyone we can have little effect at large and would do better to mind our own development, prevent our own devils from becoming manifest and troublesome to ourselves, yet thereby also learn something of the troubles of the world, for as the old Hermetic adage goes: as above, so below.

Most of us struggle with the concept of a collective dimension to the inner psyche since it implies a supernatural ground to our being, and this is not fashionable in a world built on rational thinking. We struggle also with its early theoreticians, like Carl Jung, because these were not one dimensional thinkers, and were often flawed in themselves, as are all men. But, at its simplest, the direction of travel is for the unconscious in man, to become conscious, thus there is nothing we do or say or think that does not first have its origins in our unknown depths. What each man then discovers in himself becomes his life’s work, and in a similar vein what humanity discovers in its collective dreaming becomes its destiny, one to which all of us are tied.

Thinking psychologically then, we see reflected in the current state of world affairs the kind of strife the individual inflicts upon himself by an unhealthy domination of the psyche by the Ego. Our affairs stagnate and the unconscious sends monsters to torment us, not because that is its nature but because, by our actions and our faulty thinking, we have invited them. The remedy is the oldest story in the world, this being the Hero’s quest, told in many ways across many and diverse cultures, but essentially a metaphor for renewing the myth of our moribund times.

In this light we see the current somewhat sinister jokers at large on the world’s stage less as individuals and more as manifestations of the trickster archetype. The trickster has two faces, one jocular and provocative, the other malign and destructive, though both presage the disruption of the status quo. They appear at a point in the world-myth when the old ideas have run their course, their function being to usher in chaos, from which new psychical structures, new ways of being, both collective and individual, can emerge.

This is not to say these figures see themselves as embodying that role – indeed who knows if they even see themselves at all, beyond their own will to power. It’s more that we, inspired by the great dream of life, and our despair at its apparent end-game state, project that archetype upon them. And if it’s true, it tells us we are close to a transition between myths, one in which the hero journeys out at last to bring home the wisdom of renewal, and the secret of a new way of being. That’s the good news. The bad news is the tricksters foreshadow a collapse before any transition is possible, so while there may be a silver lining, there is a lot of darkness yet to come, and the question is shall the hero return in time to usher in that new dawn, or will we by then have already extinguished the sun?

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the night sky
Night sky, Panasonic Lumix LX100 F1.7, 1 sec, 1600 ASA
It was probably winter when my father first showed me the bear. I would have been about nine, confused already, dazed by the world and feeling secure only in his company. I remember a winter sky, cold and black, the stars iced-white and my breath fogging the eyepieces of the Russian 8×24’s that were his pride and joy – though cheap as chips back then, the poor old Soviets already selling their souls for dollars amid a collapsing economy.

Prior to that his night-sky explorations had been aided by a pair of British-army cast-offs, circa 1912. I still have them, the stout leather case still smelling like new, but they were only marginally better than the naked eye. I don’t know what happened to those Russian bins. I think they got dropped, the prisms dislodged to produce a disconcerting double vision, and then my father died, and the night-sky didn’t seem important any more, not for a long time.

“You see that star there,” he said. “That’s Mizar. It forms a double with another star called Alcor. Do you see them both?”

Yes, I could indeed see both in those days, but that was half a century ago, fresh eyes, fresh mind, fresh soul.

“The Arabs used to say if you can see both,” he said, “if you can separate them, you have the gift of perfect eyesight.”

Really? That cheered me. I don’t think he realised how much. In father-son relationships, the smallest things can mean the most.

Nowadays, even with spectacles, and the optician assuring me I’m 20-20 when I’m wearing them, I can’t separate Alcor and Mizar any more. Eyesight is more than perfect lenses. It has to do with the mind as much as matter, and there’s something about that old Blakean thing about seeing through, not with the eye as well. But I do remember their names: Alcor and Mizar.

Now I’m sitting out in the back garden of my home in the rural north west of England, on a crazily warm, late September night. It must be twenty degrees still, and the sky is a soft midnight-blue, the air infinitely more inviting than those freezing stargazing nights with my father, back in the sixties. I am resting on a bench in shirt-sleeves, after a long day in the sun, and as the stars come out, I am thinking about him.

There’s a bright star directly overhead. I wonder what it is, point my phone at it and, via the Star Walk app, I learn it is Vega. Just like that! Marvellous isn’t it? I’ve heard of Vega, but try as I might it does not fit into the patterns I have fixed in my mind, patterns like the Bear and Cassiopea, and the Square of Pegasus and from Pegasus that simple route-map to Andromeda which still astonishes – that softly defined spiral that grows as the eye adjusts to darkness until it seems to fill half the sky and you wonder how on earth did I miss that: another whole galaxy, so many stars it blows the mind, and surely also so many lives,… out there.

No, try as I might I cannot separate Alcor from Mizar any more, except through binoculars – not those 1912 vintage things, though I suppose they would do, but a pair of Chinese 10×42’s off Ebay, product of another era, another quirk of the global economy. Such a long time since the British made binoculars. Such a long time since we actually made anything.

The Rider, that’s what he called Alcor,… the Rider. One star riding upon another, as a man rides upon a horse,…

My father was an autodidact, self taught to a prodigious degree and in many disciplines, a collector of disparate technical knowledge, everything from electronics to geology to archaeology and ancient astronomy. His energy and enthusiasm had carried him from the coal face of the NCB to colliery deputy, about as far as a working man could aspire in those days, and much further than it would carry him now. But more than that, it always impressed me that other boy’s fathers did not know the names of stars, indeed barely ever glanced upwards on a clear night and wondered. But when my father saw the stars, he did not see them as an astronomer, aching to have the next comet named after him, but more as an early human might at the dawn of our most fundamental awakening, and simply wondering at his place in the world.

Betelgeuse – that’s the reddish star in the shoulder of Orion. Orion isn’t up tonight – he’s a winter constellation in western Europe, frosty nights and all that, and the deeper into winter you go he’s trailing the bright sparkly dog-star, Sirius – more names my father gave me, names with vivid pictures; the magic of myth. How neatly, how perfectly it all fits the contours of the mind. I still look for those names in the night sky, gain my bearings from them, my place in time.

Vega, was it? That star up there. So the app said, but it comes without a story, slips free from memory. I could look for it tomorrow but I’ve already forgotten its place in the sky. Technology advances, grants such a narrow window on the marvellous, but without the human element, the imagination, the story, these are dead things.

My garden is a wonderful place at night, spacious, lush green lawn, and unlike the place where I grew up, not overlooked, no neighbours wondering what the hell we were up to, lurking about in the dark with binoculars. He would have loved it here, my father. He would have built a shed in it with an articulating roof to house a reflecting telescope. I smile when I imagine it. In its place I have a cabin where I sometimes write and explore the stars another way. But not tonight. Tonight I have lanterns hung out on hooks to stretch out this last gasp of summer, an Indian summer’s night, and since I am otherwise alone, I have the company of my father.

We’re not far from the equinox, he reminds me. That’s where the ecliptic plane intersects the horizon due east and west, spring and autumn, the line on which the Sun and the Moon and now the planets are strung out one by one and sink west, into tomorrow. Due west for me is an old oak tree, across the meadow that backs onto the garden. It was probably just a sapling when Newton was a lad. So much learning since then. It was his laws of motions that navigated men to the moon, and by that time the tree was old. I don’t know what it means, if anything.

There’s a star or something, just about to dip behind the tree.

“Neptune,” says my father.

Well, I don’t know. It might be. It’s a planet, that’s all I can say for sure, and I know that because he taught me you can resolve planets to a disk through binoculars, while stars are so far away – at least they were back in the sixties – that you could only make twinkly points of light of them even through the most powerful optics known to man.

I point my phone at it. “Yea, Neptune.”

“That’s amazing,” he says.

“Not really,” I tell him. “You used to explain it a lot better, tell it as a story, then it actually meant something.”

Tonight I’m no longer much, much older than he was when he told me these things. I’m not a man with a house and grown children, and forty years of work behind me, years of my life he never knew about. I’m just a kid, staring up at the night sky as it deepens and the stars twinkle softly, and I am looking at the Bear once more, with my father.

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man strolling in a wooded landscape - detail - A A MillsThis life’s dim windows of the soul,
Distort the heavens from pole to pole,
And leads you to believe a lie,
When you see with, not through the eye.

The Eternal Gospel – Blake.

A man enters the forest to cut wood. He hears music, discovers a beautiful woman dancing. She invites him to join her, and he has the time of his life, returns, stars still in his eyes, to find decades have passed, that all who knew him are gone, and he no longer has a place in the world. It’s a classic encounter with the Faery, and the meaning of it – for there is always a meaning – suggests that having once experienced the limitless bliss of the other-world, you have to find a way of forgetting it, or you cannot live in this one.

Or it might have happened the other way around, because there’s always an inverse to these things. A man enters the forest, encounters the dancing woman who lures him into an eternal life of merriment, romance and where all is wonderful. Decades pass before he tires of it – for humans will always tire of endless pleasure – and he craves a return to life, craves its imperfections, even the time bound nature of the human condition. He’s thinking all who knew him will surely be gone by now but, on his return, he discovers no time has lapsed at all and he merely picks up where he left off. The story here might be telling us the world will always find a place for those who grasp that crucial insight regarding the value of limitation in human affairs.

I’m not sure where these ideas come from, but they’re nagging me to attempt a contemporary story along similar lines, and I’m resisting it. But the more I resist, the more they nag and intrigue. I’d thought they were from Irish Faery lore, but in the main it’s mortal women and children the Celtic Faery are fond of kidnapping, suggestive of a different kind of moral altogether.

Then again it may have been something imagined or dreamed, and it’s a beguiling concept, that such ideas are eternal and floating about, waiting to be picked up by the passing mind, and it’s helpful if you can understand them. All myths come from an archetypal substrate and speak to us in a symbolic language, apparently seeking influence over human affairs.

The Faery were once understood as daemonic entities, not literally existing, but still real, visible only through the inner eye, as Blake once put it, a vision overlaid with the filter of imagination. It takes a kind of madness then, seeing fairies – indeed Wordsworth did say Blake was mad and he may have right – but not all daemonic expression is mad in a bad way. It can also be visionary. On the downside though, daemonic rumblings can spread like wildfire, leading to a dangerous shift in the Zeitgeist, to orgies of rage, to mindless persecution of the “other”, and to killing.

We needn’t look very far to find evidence of the daemonic at work in the contemporary world and have only to listen to the voices coming at us from formerly sane quarters, voices of unreason that can both pedal and believe in lies, even knowing them to be lies. For just as one half of the daemonic possess a heavenly form and fey, courtly manners, the other half knows no bounds to its depths of depravity, duplicity and ugliness. An obvious place to find it is in the comments of any social media, for once we discover the cloak of invisibility, it is the darker daemons that speak through us, and their language is foul.

This ambivalence of the daemonic is perplexing, and not something we can control nor every wholly trust in. When the genie is out of the bottle the story never ends well, except in Disneyland, because humans are outwitted with ease by the daemonic mind. Better then to ram the cork back in, cast the bottle into the sea and hope no one else finds it. Except it is the genii, the daemons themselves that seek us. And we just can’t help falling under their spell.

They require far more circumspection than we possess, especially at times of crisis, for they are the crisis, as if the daemons have gone to war with themselves, and it’s only when the Godly win out do we find peace again. But it’s never lasting, more cyclical, and I fear every other generation must learn these lessons anew.

So my guy goes into the forest, dallies only for a moment with fey beauty, because it’s infinitely preferable to the ugliness of the world he’s living in. But the world he returns to, decades later, is even worse, a world where voices threaten murder at every turn, and he witnesses a population cowering in fear and paranoia. But what’s the lesson in that, when there seems no solution to it? Are we merely to lay down and submit to such a fate, while the daemons rage war in our heads?

If we only knew them better, might we find a way to petition for a more lasting peace? But they’ve been with us since the beginning of time and if we don’t know them by now, will we ever? Or did we once, but in the rush to embrace reason, we have forgotten the Daemonic within us all, and thereby offended them?

I’m ill equipped to understand where any of this is going, lacking both the Blakean vision to see what I’m talking about, and the language to express it. And I fear in the end it doesn’t matter, because wherever the daemons lead, we follow, even if it’s off a cliff edge, and it’s really no comfort to be able say you had the eye on them all the time, and that you saw it coming.

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man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885I’ve been getting a sudden flurry of comments on Wattpad. They’re all roughly the same, telling me I’ve won Premier Membership but if you click the link it simply takes you to a story that “cannot be found”. It’s some sort of scam then, the purpose of which eludes me, but more of that later.

Wattpad is one of many self-publishing platforms now. I’ve been on there for ages, with mixed results. The Seaview Cafe topped out at around 4000 reads, which was great, but other stuff hasn’t been read at all. This is probably because I don’t game it. It’s a social network you see, and as with all such things you have to spend time building it up, virtual schmoozing and following others in order to get the clicks. But I’m socially inept, and prefer just to write.

Wattpad sells advertising. Writers use it as a vehicle for self expression, while readers read their stuff for free, and as we go along we all get served these adverts. Adverts are annoying, but so long as you can forgive them Wattpad’s maybe worth a look if you’re starting out, and you’re the chatty type, but best not taken too seriously because a writer needs to be careful they don’t lose their way.

The Wattpad model has changed recently, a kind of ‘premium membership’ being rolled out, a select group of writers testing a “paid” model. Also, if the rest of us agree to a subscription, they’ll spare us the adverts. Payment to writers is based on donations – we buy virtual coins which we toss into the writer’s hat if we like their stuff. I don’t know who those writers are, so I suppose they’ll have to be promoted in some way – sexy mugshots and all that, no English teeth, and no one over thirty five?

But this is beginning to sound like conventional publishing – about half a dozen chosen ones awarded most of the budget, and the rest dividing the pennies between them. According to the blurb, all writers will be able to join the paid ranks eventually, and that’s alluring if you’re chasing the idea of writing for a living, but unless you have millions of readers, you’ll be lucky if you make the price of a cup of coffee. And with the money of course will come the scammers, because they always find a way, and I suppose those spurious comments I’m getting now are the first exploratory wave of that.

But if Wattpad changes, or stays the same, it’s irrelevant to those of us writing the stories, because the important thing is always the story, I mean as it’s being written and experienced by you the writer, also in future years, when you’re revising and reliving the adventure, when maybe you start to wonder what the hell you were on about back then, or you realise how much your outlook’s changed, and which bits you thought were profoundly insightful turn out to have been merely stupid. Thus, in part, the story always serves you first. That’s your reward. There may also be a greater purpose, but that’s complicated and mysterious and, it may not be true, but here goes:

Most writers who’ve been at it for a decade or more already know the chances of making an actual living by it are zero, so you wonder why you’re still in the game, and that’ll take some time, maybe even another decade, and in the mean time, with luck, you’ll still be writing. My own vague conclusion at the end of this process is that writers, known or not, are explorers of the possibilities of imagination, and exploration is typically a human thing to do. And some of us can’t help it.

But more than that, all stories are based on a set of myths that rise from the deep unconscious, and there aren’t that many of them. We saw them first played out in stories from all those ancient civilisations – like the Mesopotamians, the Greeks, and the Egyptians – but they’ve been re-told in an infinite number of ways since, because times change and the myths need re-imagining for each generation. We writers needn’t be aware of this process, but if we analyse our own stories enough and dig deeply into myth we’ll find similarities. We’ll realise we’re basically saying the same thing.

And then there’s this theory that without an ongoing process of mythical renewal, the Gods might get the impression we’re no longer listening to them, so they’ll start stirring things up by unleashing troublesome daemons among us, hastening our decent into barbarism, so something fresh can rise from the ruins. So, creative types on this side of the divide try to avoid the ruination by placating the Gods, the Daemons, the Muses, or whatever by taking notes, by refashioning the myths to keep them fresh in people’s heads.

Well that’s fine, you say, but no publisher’s interested, so you stick your damned story online where you’re lucky if half a dozen people see it. What’s the point in that? Well, that’s not your problem. You’ve done your bit, and it may be that if only a dozen people see it, then maybe they’re the only ones it needed to speak to. And yes, all right, that’s romantic, and wishful, and a somewhat daring thing to say in the wrong company, but it has a certain mythical charm to it, and I like to believe in it.

But the main thing is writers on social media should be wary of getting hung up on the clicks, or the coins, or the comments, or whatever, because it’ll kill your craft, and they don’t mean a damn to your primary purpose anyway, which is simply to keep going, deep into the woods, every day.

 

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souls-codeDr James Hillman (1926-2011) was a renowned post-Jungian analyst, depth psychologist and latter day guru of the human development movement. His books offer ideas that draw on early Western (Greek) philosophy and mythology. If we want to understand, to accommodate and direct the forces of the psyche, says Hillman, then we do well to think on what the Greeks wrote about their gods.

I find him difficult, but if one perseveres bits of him stick. In the Soul’s Code he tells us about Plato’s myth of Er, part of his magnum opus, The Republic, in which we are acquainted with the idea of a personal Daemon, an internal, psychical companion who carries the map of our lives, according to a plan laid down before our birth.  Our future then, according to this myth, is not determined so much by the environment we are born into as by a kernel of potential, like an acorn, that will grow into what it was meant to be regardless of any adversity we face in life, or possibly even because of it.

Our task in life is to live out the potential of the acorn, to allow it to grow down from the fertile earth of the deep psyche into the blossom of material realisation through the physical entity that we are. But the Daemon also has the power to bend and shape events to suit the attainment of its ambition for us. So,… we miss the bus, the car gets a flat tyre, we miss the crucial meeting, we lose our job; seen from the Ego’s perspective as personal disasters, such upsets can now be re-interpreted as part of a grander plan, releasing us to pursue another path, one closer to what the Daemon has intended for us. It’s a catch-all – so even the bad hand we are dealt can be greeted with a philosophical acquiescence. It was simply meant to be.

But we can also resist the daemon, resist the call, run capriciously and contrary to the Daemon’s aim. When this happens though, we will at some point feel resistance, feel a gnawing dissatisfaction with our lives and our tireless wants. Persist long enough in a contrary direction and the Daemon will make us ill, or even kill us off altogether, write us off as a bad job, and start afresh.

To realise the Daemon’s plan is to live the life we were intended. The challenge though is divining what it is the Daemon wants for us, and knowing if we’re on the path or not. Personal happiness is not the key, for many who have lived Daemon haunted lives do not end their lives well. Their achievements may stand out, make history, save lives, bring comfort to millions, while their own lives end in apparent ruin and ignominy.

What I find confusing about The Soul’s Code is Hillman’s use of remarkable lives as illustrations of the Daemon at work. He does this, he says, to magnify the phenomenon, to render it visible to analysis but, though he tells us the Daemon is at work in all our lives, the temptation at a first reading is to conclude only those names lit up by fame have listened well enough, and the rest of us are losers.

I’m sure this isn’t what Hillman is saying, or maybe it is. I find much in him that’s contradictory, elusive, beguilingly and beautifully poetic, rather like the psyche itself: alluring, intangible, ambiguous, shape-shifting. There are no firm handles, no answers, nothing to gain purchase, nothing one can test by putting into practice, no ten step plan for contacting your Daemon and realising your full potential. He is the dream to be interpreted, and like the all dreams perhaps not taken too literally.

I’m not unsympathetic to the idea of a personal Daemon. Indeed I think I met mine once, during a brief, spontaneous moment of transcendence, when I recognised myself as being interconnected with everything. Everywhere I looked, there I was. And the Daemon was there, felt, rather than seen, a formless presence reminding me, wordlessly, that as remarkable and unlikely as this vision of seemed, I had always known it to be the truth, but had forgotten it. I had drunk, as Hillman might have quoted, from Greek Myth, from the waters of the Lethe.

But the puzzle for all of us is what I feel Hillman did not address in any depth, and I’d hoped he would – this being the sense of our own importance, our own mission, which is at complete odds with the reality of a small speck of life played out in an infinite, cold and unfeeling universe. In company with our Daemon we feel how interconnected we are with world, that man and world cannot not be said to exist at all in isolation from the other. But in my case, my awareness underlined how much this was, my universe, my journey, that the Daemon and I are alone in working towards our purpose, no matter how insignificant a thing that might appear to be on paper. The Daemon is the captain of my vessel, while my ego-self, the thing I think of as me, is more the sole deckhand, as we sail the tempestuous seas of fate and mischance.

But where does this leave you?

In the working out of my journey are you merely the personification of my own fate and mischance, to be used by my captain as an object lesson – friends, lovers, family,… ill or well met, the whole damned lot of you? And how about the man who talks to himself on the bus, and whom I’d rather avoid? Is he a God in disguise, come to test my own godliness, my own compassion? Are you all merely the humours and the godlings come to test and steer, as in those old Greek stories.

Are you not really there at all?

Perhaps I should have listened more to those Greek myths as a child, for as Hillman teaches, there’s probably many a metaphorical clue in there I’ve missed that would be of help to me now. But the Greeks, like Hillman are not exactly an easy read, and diligence seems rewarded with only more questions, while the answers, far from clear, seem lacking altogether.

Or I could just leave it to the Daemon, and hope I’m on the right path anyway. Then none of it matters and the acorn of my life will, out in spite of all my protestations to the contrary.

I leave you with a taste of the late great, Dr James Hillman (1926-2011):

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lizardThe Internet has given us all a much wider view of the world than we used to have. Once upon a time, the TV and radio news broadcasts, and the newspapers were all we had. But events are treated so superficially by these media it’s impossible to know exactly what the underlying reasons are for a thing. Every headline is merely the tip of an iceberg of events, the details of which we never learn about in any depth. And it is always in the deeper understanding of events we find the truth, never the headline itself.

Control of such a limited bandwidth media renders it, and us, notoriously vulnerable to manipulation – the camera pointing in a certain direction, while ignoring others that may be inconvenient, embarrassing or decidedly off-message to powerful, controlling interests. Nowadays of course we have a much wider source of information and current affairs, courtesy of the plethora of online news and opinion. Indeed now you might say there are cameras pointing everywhere, and from every conceivable angle. There are facts a plenty for those willing to seek them out, but in seeking them we discover we also have fictions presented as facts, lies as truths, dreams as realities, indeed such a confused mish-mash of “content” we are still no more able to identify the underlying truth of a thing than we were before.

While controlled media has the potential to make us believe whatever the controller of that media wants us to believe, the Internet merely reflects back whatever it is we want to believe in the first place; it hides the truth in plain sight. The Internet grants the freedom to dream, to believe what we want, but what kind of freedom is that exactly when we are unable to tell the genuine article from the false? What we want to believe may well be the truth, but unless we bear it witness, personally, we will never know for sure, because for every story that says a thing is true, there are many others that say it’s not.

Let’s say I believed the world’s elite were descended from a race of lizards. Why would I believe such a preposterous thing? Because it’s what I heard; it’s what someone I respect told me was true, therefore I am inclined to believe in it as well, and there are plenty of Internet sources to support this particular belief. Or how about a global conspiracy to keep us all docile by spraying chemicals in the atmosphere? Sure,… I heard it said, and there’s plenty of stuff online to support that belief also. Ditto UFO’s, that the earth is flat, or the moon is made of blue cheese.

Whatever we want to believe, we will find convincingly corroborating sources online, and these will lend comfort to our beliefs. Whether this stuff is true or not is never clear for media of any kind does not constitute proof, and relies instead on our credulous support to render it a viable myth and myths are not truths. Myths are myths.

The same thing applies to world affairs. If we turn to You Tube, we get snippets of current affairs spinning at us from so many directions and angles now it’s impossible to know which is correct. In short, the Internet solves nothing, because from a medium of endless choice, we merely select those stories that suit our beliefs and allow our prejudice to reject the ones that don’t. Worse, the Internet tailors our searches to give us more of what it thinks we want, based on our previous searches, tending only to reinforce and narrow, rather than widen our views.

We need a fair arbiter of the truth, a voice that tells us which of the stories of the world are worth listening to. But how do we find such a trustworthy arbiter when any bloody fool can be a pundit on their own Internet news channel? Have we really arrived at the situation where we can trust no one’s judgement other than our own? But how can we even trust ourselves? How do I know I am not deluded in my beliefs, or that the person who passed on these beliefs to me was not himself deluded, ignorant, bigoted, racist, sexist, or just plain stupid?

There are those who know they don’t know a thing, and for them something might be done. It’s called education. But for those who don’t know they don’t know a thing, or worse don’t know a thing when they think they know all about it, education is of little use and most likely will be rejected anyway as a conspiracy to brainwash them of the truth. This is the way it’s always been, and the result is called the human race. And the human race, equipped with the Internet, is the human race as we once knew it but on steroids. It is a collective at the mercy of its own increasingly vicious, ignorant, unconscious maelstrom of thought and emotion.

Only education points the way to truth. Armed with a wide, general and impartial knowledge of the world, and an experience of life, you might eventually ask how likely is the truth of a thing, and thereby come to some sort of approximation of it, but even this is no guarantee, for there are many highly educated people who are also fools, lending their foolish opinions to the world of thought.

I’ve heard it said there’s no such thing as the truth anyway. It was probably one of those half baked puffball quotations you get from a self-styled self-help guru’s website, one that thinks it knows a thing when it doesn’t. But in an altercation between two individuals one of them clearly hits the other first. There is a definite truth to it, but when both cry foul, and in the absence of impartial witness, there’s no knowing who started it, no actual “knowing” the truth of their story at all. At school, in the days of corporal punishment, both would have their backsides tanned, both truth and falsehood winding up with smarting asses, the truth resentful at not being believed, the falsehood smug at having truth concealed.

So how do we get at the truth? Beats me. Age doesn’t help – the older one gets the wider only one’s view of the sea of untruth. This doesn’t aid navigation much; it results only in a gradual becalming, so progress turns in on itself, becomes contemplative and philosophical, rather than desiring to bring about change in the world, for without foundation all things crumble into dust, so where is one to begin? It’s tempting to believe all humans are mad, incapable of either telling or perceiving the truth any more, and that the only philosophy worth a damn, whether it’s true or not, is one that tries to stop us inflicting suffering on each other, or on ourselves, because, well, pain hurts, and it makes sense to stop it. But that’s life in general. You begin thinking you know everything about it, and wind up realising you don’t know anything at all.

And that’s the truth.

Dammit.

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pygmalion cycleThere was an article on the radio this morning saying that girls as young as 14 are now having cosmetic surgery in order to boost their self esteem. I find myself wondering about what model of so called bodily perfection they are comparing themselves with at so young an age but I suspect I need look no further than the nearest glossy magazine, or a pop video on you-tube. I’m also wondering if us guys are at fault for having too narrow a definition of what the ideal female should look like, and being too immature in our regurgitation of that stereotype across these various media. It’s more complex than that of course, as the editors of magazines read by young women tend to be themselves young women, but there’s definitely something in the machine that’s driven by the myth of male desire.

I keep returning to the story of Pygmalion – not the musical thing with Rex Harrison, but the original myth of the sculptor who ignored women as they really were, in favour of chiseling out his ideal in the shape of his muse, the heavenly Galatea. In some versions of this myth, Pygmalion falls in love with his creation, and the goddess, Aphrodite, taking pity on the guy, has Galatea come to life and fall in love with him. Thus the myth concludes, Hollywood fashion, in happy-ever-after style. But myths have layers to them, and the myth of Pygmalion can be peeled back to reveal something much darker and which I think helps to shine some light on the calamitous objectification of women.

In the darker myth, Pygmalion is a fool in thrall to the idealised form of his own soul-image, to the extent that he rejects the human reality – reality being the natural variety in the form of the human female, and he rejects it because he finds it imperfect. There’s nothing innocent about this foolishness. Pygmalion knows exactly what he’s doing, and what he wants; he’s a material man, imposing his misguided rules of measure upon the female body. With his rule, he measures out the proportions, and with his chisel he gives form to the awesomely beautiful creature, Galatea. But that Aphrodite then grants Pygmalion his wish, that Galatea should come alive, is not a blessing – it is Aphrodite’s curse, and her most severe punishment for Pygmalion’s stupidity.

Aphrodite, being goddess of love, beauty and procreation, knows a thing or two about relationships; she can see where Pygmalion is heading, and is offended by his rejection of her sisters in flesh, so she gives him a good shove to get him going in the direction of his misguided desires. The shape of physical womanhood that comes to life in Galatea may conform to the mythical ideal, but her expression is disturbingly blank because she has no soul. And she has no soul because she lacks the thing Pygmalion is least interested in: her humanness. Aphrodite has set him up with a robot.

Pygmalion may think he knows what he wants, shunning the awkward fleshly diversity of the human female in favour of the statuesque Galatea, but his quest has led him into an empty place, one of soulless, mechanical rumpy pumpy, a place where you just know he’s going to die a lonely and unfulfilled old man.

The Pre Raphaelite artist Burne Jones captures this story in a series of paintings which hang in the Birmingham city gallery, images that have haunted me for a long time. Looking at his depiction of Galatea we are also reminded of how much the “ideal” in feminine proportion has changed. The “hot babe” of the Victorian era was apparently smaller chested and fuller hipped than she would be allowed get away with now. She’s also significantly more “nude” without her modern splattering of tattoos. She would not pass muster in the lad mags of today, except as an unfortunate example of that most appalling fashion faux-pas: the wrongly proportioned woman.

The latter day Pygmalion, sculptor of the female form, lives on in the machinery of “emotive images” – the print media, the movie industry, and that black-sheep, rarely talked about in polite circles, but of tremendous influence: the porn industry. These are the sculptors responsible for dictating the shape of the women that men are supposed to want to have sex with, all in spite of the protestations of Aphrodite. This works both ways then; the damage of faulty thinking is inflicted not only on women but on men too. Pygmalion, in modern guise, is telling women that unless they fit the mythical contemporary pattern of size, shape and weight, men will not find them attractive, and is telling men that unless they achieve the prize of congress with that Galatean robot, he’s a worthless loser with the street credibility of a squashed gnat.

How do we stop the girls from making themselves ill, worrying over their weight, and the size of their boobs? And how do we convince the guys they may just be passing up on the perfect relationship by not even second glancing a woman, because she looks nothing like what he’s seen on the cover of a glossy magazine? It’s a complex business, one that plumbs the depths of the human psyche, and of course there are no easy answers. But at some point a guy has to wake up and realise the look in a woman’s eye when she looks at him is of far more significance than her cup size. And a girl has to realise that a guy who pulls a face at her muffin-top really isn’t the sort of guy worth hanging around with. It’s just a pity the machinery of image has become so dumb, so all pervasive, and there’s something in us that renders all of us so vulnerable to it.

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