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Charles Williams’ Englishness is, among other things, something I would like to discuss before I tackle the daunting task of exegeting his Arthurian poetry. Like many Americans, I have something of a fantasy England tucked away somewhere in my heart. It is composed of bits and pieces of English high and popular culture that I have ingested over the years; a bit of Tolkien’s Shire, a bit of Lewis’ Oxford, landscapes from Gainsborough and Constable, screaming teenaged girls from A Hard Day’s Night, plenty of Downton Abbey, Chariots Of Fire, and Brideshead Revisted, both the Waugh novel and the Granada TV adaptation.
I was surprised at how well my American fantasy England weathered my exposure to the real article in the early 80s when I spent four months in the UK, visiting all four “nations” [Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England] in succession. What I experienced during my visit was more of a confirmation of my fantasy England, and an amplification and broadening of it, than it was a repudiation of it.
An English friend suggested to me that what I was experiencing was what the English themselves called “Deep England”. “Deep England” is part nostalgia for a simpler life more attuned to the natural rhythms of the English countryside, part fable about a vanishing face-to-face village life, part family oral history, and a large dollop of national self-deception. Nevertheless, it has a powerful pull on the national sentiment. “Deep England” could be classist, different things for different people. A retired slate miner would wax sentimental about the days when the mines were humming and one’s mates had plenty of energy for sport and plenty of money to spend in the pubs. An Anglican parish priest would sigh and remember a “time when the Church had more influence in people’s lives.” “Deep England” seemed to be something which you were always perpetually losing, something that was always just slipping away. For me, an outsider, the musical expressions of this “Deep England” will always be the austerely beautiful “Pastoral” Symphony #3 of Ralph Vaughan Williams, or a church choir performing that unsurpassably mad hymn by William Blake, “Jerusalem”.
As an American, it is hard to know what to make of this Englishness. Whatever it is, we don’t have it, although we speak a common language. Eight generations of republican life now separate us from the fountains of “Deep England”, and all that remains is the notion of an Anglo-Saxon Protestant as a kind of gold standard for white people. In a way, it is kind of a collective unconscious mythopoeia, a mythopoeia built up scrap by scrap from the raw material of language, climate, and a long tenancy on the land. From this mythopoeia, all of the particular myths forged by Englishmen down through the long years have their provenience.
Already I am thinking about what Williams’ Arthur poetry is most like. If it is idiosyncratic and difficult, it is idiosyncratic and difficult in a particularly English way. Like William Langland’s Piers Plowman, the prophetic work of William Blake, or the contemporary Gnosticism of David Lindsey’s A Voyage To Arcturus.
The title is from DH Lawrence – oh, the things you find on the Internet:
Some considerable time ago, I commented on something that I had gleaned from a reading of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods; that is, that America was a poor place for mythology, that we lacked the deep psychic topsoil that nourished our European forebears. I remember reading somewhere about a Finnish poet who lived in a house where his family had lived and farmed for the past 900 years. I can only the imagine the poetry that would emerge from such an intimate congress between soil and DNA.
America has poets, quite good ones, but the American story has yet to be told, really. Some works have come damned close: The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, The Magnificent Ambersons, On The Road, these spring to mind immediately as coming close to American mythopoeia. But DH Lawrence seems to intimate that we still have to atone for our sins:
When you are actually in America, America hurts, because it has a powerful disintegrative influence upon the white psyche. It is full of grinning, unappeased aboriginal demons, too, ghosts, and it persecutes the white men, like some Eumenides, until the white men give up their absolute whiteness. America is tense with latent violence and resistance. The very common sense of white Americans has a tinge of helplessness in it, and deep fear of what might be if they were not common-sensical.
[W]hen one comes to America, one finds that there is always a certain slightly devilish resistance in the American landscape, and a certain slightly bitter resistance in the white man’s heart. Hawthorne gives this. But Cooper glosses it over. The American landscape has never been at one with the white man. Never. And white men have probably never felt so bitter anywhere, as here in America, where the very landscape, in its very beauty, seems a bit devilish and grinning, opposed to us.
Moralists have always wondered helplessly why Poe’s ‘morbid’ tales need have been written. They need to be written because old things need to die and disintegrate, because the old white psyche has to be gradually broken down before anything else can come to pass.
So there you have it; the strength of the hills is not in us because they are not yet our hills, except by legal fiction [I use this term consciously]. America bestrides the earth like a colossus, and appears immeasurably strong – the last superpower and all of that, but the strength is the waning strength of modernism and abstraction. I fear this strength will fail in the crucible, that it will be a brittle strength.
I wonder how this strength compares with the imaginative fecundity of Latin American letters, where the fantastic and the real rub cheek to jowl (and not only imaginative fecundity – it doesn’t take any prescience to predict what are the comparative futures of two societies where the average age of one is 38 and increasing, and the average age of the other is 22 and dropping). The dominant myth of Iberian America is one of mixture and synthesis, whereas the predominant myth north of the Rio Grande is replacement and surveying.
Note – My knowledge of South African history is next to nil. I have been informed that when the first European settlers, the ancestors of the Voortrekkers, arrived in the Cape Colony, the land was empty. The Bantu had not yet arrived. Nobody took South Africa away from anybody. Everybody just collided, sort of. Steve, if you can add anything to this, I would be extremely grateful.
For an Orthodox Christian, I sometimes think I have altogether too much sympathy for other religious expressions, especially Taoism or Sufi’ism and others of that stripe which concentrate on the immanence of God. Pantheism is a continual temptation for me, so you can see where I would find neo-paganism attractive in the abstract; first, neo-paganism purports to be eco-friendly, venerating the biosphere, that Web of Exchange which is the living, breathing skein of our planet. Then, neo-paganism purports to honor Tradition and Ancestors, and I have always believed that anything built up by increments over millenia as a result of mostly unconscious impulses has to contain something of value, and anyway is always to be preferred to a system created by a group of Really Smart People using their brains to Figure Things Out. As an aside, Arturo Vasquez deftly captures something of what I want to say in a post of his, The Modern War Against Folk Religion. Take what he has to say to heart, all you people with the highly developed frontal lobes, the next time someone passes you on the highway with the Virgin of Guadalupe garishly splashed all over his back window, and remember the Wahabi.
However, on the ground, I am finding that “neo-paganism” is becoming a favorite feint of the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd, a means to continue their undiluted worship of their own reflections while avoiding the inevitable demands a god would make on them.
Now, Neil Gaiman strikes as close as any living writer I have read to the mythopoetic spirit of the Inklings (I haven’t yet read Tim Powers or Gene Scott). OK, so he’s a horror writer. To anybody who isn’t sufficiently anesthetized, our age must seem an unending horror. Indeed, I don’t think you could possibly write mythopoetic literature, have it accurately describe our present spiritual circumstances, and not descend into horror.
Nevertheless, Mr. Gaiman deftly dispenses with modern American Wicca/neo-paganism in this scene from American Gods. Please forgive the format. My daughter borrowed my copy and there obviously isn’t a soft-copy version of a best-selling current novel available for cutting and pasting. But thank God for books.google and FastStone Capture.
Mr. Gaiman, if you stumble across this insignificant blog, I invoke the Fair Use clause, and want to thank you for a fascinating and thought-provoking read.
Also, if you are a neo-pagan who has wandered in here and are offended, leave a message and let’s try to be friends.
On the coast they put up a few ramshackle huts
and slept uneasily. This, they claim, in the Riachuelo,
but that is a story dreamed up in Boca.
It was really a city block in my district – Palermo**.
Jose Luis Borges – The Mythical Foundation of Buenos Aires
Nothing is true or false until it is properly enstoried.
It can be handy to think of our hemisphere as three distinct ethnospheres; Euro-America consists of most of the US and Canada, and the Southern Cone of South America, which were relatively empty (or quickly emptied) and where the indigenous peoples were displaced by populations from Europe. Afro-America consists of the Caribbean basin, some parts of the old Confederacy in the United States, and the northern parts of Brazil, where the same vacuum was filled by slaves imported from Africa. Finally, Chthonic America consists of the heartlands of the old native American high cultures of Meso-America and the Andes, where the indigenous inhabitants were not eliminated so much as creolized, and where the underlying thought patterns are still very much Inca, or Maya, or Toltec.
The mythopoetic process, the digestion of Chthonic America, I believe, can be found in what is called the literature of “magical realism”, about which I know little, but at whose fountain I have tasted sweet waters and want to learn more. Miguel Angel Asturias, of Guatemala, whose master-work Men of Corn I have yet to read but the portions which I have read burn like lava.
Along the same line, the mythopoetic impulse in Euro-America, I believe, can be found in what I like to call “visionary realism”, except that the seminal works are not fiction, but non-fiction. Let me explain.
About 15 years ago, before moving to Miami, Florida, I read a book by a remarkable woman, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, The River Of Glass. Yesterday, I began another book by an equally remarkable woman, Mary Hunter Austin, The Land Of Little Rain. These two books are so similar they almost appear to have been written by the same mind. Certainly, they partake of the same spirit.
Both books were written by women of powerful character who, despite being early feminists and agitators for “women’s rights”, kept their husbands’ names. Both of them endured a rocky and tempestuous marriage that ended in divorce. Neither of them was native to the place she wrote about; Mrs. Douglas grew up in Minnesota, but moved to South Florida in 1915, and she lived there until 1998. Mrs. Austin moved to the Mojave Desert in 1890 and remained there for the next 17 years.
Mrs. Douglas wrote about the Florida Everglades, and Mrs. Austin about the Inyo valley on the leeward of the Sierra Nevada range, and both of their masterpieces share a common structure. Both begin with the geography and the flora of the region, then they discuss animal and bird life, noting peculiarities caused by the singular environments, overly wet in the case of the Everglades and overly arid in the case of the Inyo valley.
After this, they describe in considerable detail and with great sympathy the lives and customs of Native Americans that lived, and continue to live, in these areas. Only after all of this are the stories of white settlers introduced. At first they are the stories of solitary, furtive men, miners or trappers, who wander into the region hoping to find some kind of quick economic salvation from a region that at first sight has very little to offer.
Only towards the end of the books are the stories of “smart men” introduced, well-connected men, who can systematically exploit the scarce resources of the region efficiently. This then draws the region into the larger American narrative, dominated by a nearby large city; Miami in the case of the Everglades and Los Angeles in the case of the Inyo valley.
I think I would call the writing style of both The Everglades: River of Grass and The Land Of Little Rain “visionary non-fiction”. Think of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker Creek or Barry Lopez’ Arctic Dreams, both of which have been recommended to me and both of which I have tried to start. It is possible that I have an antipathy to Dillard and Lopez in the same way that I have an antipathy to the very derivative Tolkien imitators that so abound these days.
This visionary realism may just be the essential Euro-American way of mythopoesis. It attempts to “get inside” a place, to show how the contours and characteristics of the land work their way into the consciousness of its settlers, and how the consciousness of the human agents affects the land. Both River of Grass and Land Of Little Rain are spiritual histories of a particular place, at the margin of the easily habitable and easily “developed” parts of the country. Yet they are far from tedious.
Both Mrs. Douglas and Mrs. Austin accept a responsibility for their respective territory that leave you feeling as though they had become, through their artistry, almost a familiar spirit or a guiding genius. Mrs. Douglas, in particular, living in South Florida until her 108th year, was continually referred to in the press as a spokeswoman “for the Everglades”, or for “the cause of Everglades conservation”, whereas, truth be told, she felt every unnecessary subdivision and short-sighted, self-serving political decision impacting her beloved River of Grass as a personal affront. I heard that she didn’t die a happy woman.
It may very well be that the project for the Church for the next millenium will be to drop the Imperial Church one-size-fits-all fantasy and begin to develop what Father Stephen Freeman refers to as Orthodoxy Where You Live, what I would like to call the Orthodoxy of Right Here, Right Now, and what Mark Thomas Hoyer calls, following Mrs. Austin, Local Christianities.
To be certain, embracing sectarianism is not the idea. Each square inch of ground has to have a tutelary spirit, a guiding ideology. I want it to be Orthodoxy, the Faith Once Delivered, but it may very well be that an Orthodoxy lived out and developed in a particular place wouldn’t “work” 50 miles down the road.
Maybe we need to find out.
My son had a history assignment to take photos of a historical site. Most of his colleagues had chosen something closer by, but I decided to hijack him and take him to the site of the Andersonville prison, where 43,000 Union soldiers, among them my maternal grandmother’s maternal grandfather, were held captive during the American Civil War. 17,000 of these soldiers died while incarcerated under conditions so severe that they rivaled those of Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen or the Soviet Gulag
The site was about 26 acres in size, and completely devoid of any sign of the prison that had once held tens of thousands of prisoners of war on this tiny plot of Georgia soil. There were a few small reconstruction at the extreme north end of the field, and near the spot where the gate was located, but everything else was gone, just the open field with the sluggish gate stream still flowing through it, at one time the only source of water for all those sick, starving men.
Viewing the prison site from the vantage point of the Confederate commander’s post, I was meditating on the vast amount of human suffering that had transpired on this poor piece of ground, that of my ancestor mixed in amongst it. I felt moved, made the sign of the Cross over that empty field, and offered a brief prayer, asking the Lord to have mercy upon any souls who after 145 years, may have been bound to that area still by resentment and desire for revenge.
As soon as I finished, my son tugged at my sleeve. “Look up there, Dad!” He pointed to the sky. Above the field of the prison, an immature bald eagle was flying. We watched as he circled the field, then flew into the sun.
I remarked about this to one of the park workers. He confirmed to me that there was a family of bald eagles in the woods surrounding the park site. “They don’t come out very often, but they’re in there,” he said.
The above illustration is from that most excellent journal, Touchstone, and I have “borrowed” it from an essay by David Justice which was published there some time ago. The two gentlemen, since gone to their respective reward, are Malcolm Muggeridge and Francis Schaeffer, and both of them embody a different stance towards Christianity and her truth-claims.
The article is fascinating , and should be read in full. For the purposes of this post, though, let us just say that Schaeffer defended Christianity because he saw it as true, whereas Muggeridge defended it because it mattered. Indeed, reading through Muggeridge’s Christian writings, you come away with the idea that it doesn’t matter to him whether any of the events recorded on the pages of Scripture ever actually happened in the sense that, had you been present with a camcorder, you could have recorded it.
That was the central issue of the modernist/fundamentalist debate that raged on the Continent in the early 19th century, in England in the late 19th century, and in America in the early 20th century. The question was deceptively simple – “Is the Bible true, or not?” “Of course!”, the fundamentalists scream. “Of course not!”, equally empatically, reply the Modernists. To be honest, the Pyrrhic “victory” of the Fundamentalists, or their heirs, has been due more to the unwillingness of the grandchildren of the Modernists to remain in Modernist churches rather than a retaking of the levers of culture occupied by the Protestant Hegemony prior to the conflict.
To Owen Barfield, the whole debate suffered from a false assumption; that there was a continuity between the world as perceived by the Biblical writers and that perceived by the modern consciousness. “In the standard history of ideas, an ancient Greek and a postmodern American have very different ideas about the world, but both perceive the [same] world the same way – with the understanding that our ideas, informed by modern science, are closer to the truth. There’s no difference between the consciousness of the ancient Greek and ours, only between the concepts ‘inside’ it. When we open our eyes, we see the same world, the same rocks, seas, and meadows. It’s just that we have better ideas about it.”
For Barfield, nothing could have been further from the truth. Not only has our understanding of things changes, but out very perception of them has as well. “The kind of world ancient man saw – and our ancestors continued to see until fairly recent times – Barfield believes, was one in which human consciousness ‘participated’. At that stage of the evolution of consciousness, the distinction between ‘self’ and ‘the world’ was not as rigid as it is today. What Mueller misunderstood as metaphoric was early man’s ability to see the “inside” of things, just as we now are aware of our own ‘inside’-our minds.”
Marija Gimbutas (1921 – 1994) is a name all of you should know. Fleeing the Nazi occupation of her native Lithuania in 1944, she settled in Southern California, eventually becoming a full professor of anthropology at UCLA.
Dr. Gimbutas first attained prominence in the field of Indo-European studies by identifying a Neolithic culture of the Russian steppes, the Kurgan culture of appr. 4000 BC, as the speakers of Proto-Indo-European, the ancestral language of the majority of European and Indian languages spoken today. The Kurgans were a militaristic, patriarchal, and technologically obsessed society which, in various waves, dominated and submerged what she called “Old Europe”, a uniform (!?!?) Neolthic culture which was pacific, aesthetic, matriarchal, and meticulous about ecological relations to the natural world.
Dr. Gimbutas’ theory of Indo-European procedence is not entirely accepted by scholars in archeology or linguistics. It remains a “fruitful” hypothesis, meaning , I suppose, one that can be perennially invoked to apply for grants and to lend legitimacy to articles published in scholarly journals. The jury is still out as to whether the Kurgans were indeed the linguistic great-grandfathers of Homer, the writers of the Vedas, Virgil, and the bards of the Cattle Raid on Cooley.
Nevertheless, outside the more rigorous climes of official academe, her ideas took fruit in a series of novels written by one of her ex-students, Jean Auel, who had a good run of success with her “Earth’s Children” series, beginning with “The Clan of the Cave Bear”, which was made into a decent film starring Darryl Hannah.
The Earth’s Children series degenerated swiftly from the original book, which was quite good from both a literary and imaginative perspective, into a predictable set of romances between the protaganist Ayla and a series of broad-chested, long-haired, sensitive Neolithic swains who followed her across Old Europe in obedience to the Great Goddess, whom they worshipped and who Ayla symbolized.
I never finished the second book, although I have been meaning to. Whatever made the first book special is definitely lacking in the second. At any rate, Ms. Auel made Dr. Gimbutas’ speculations plausible to a host of moderns looking for a reason why their lives weren’t working so well.
Gimbutean fiction is quite a lively sub-genre these days, with plucky, Goddess-honoring heroines standing shoulder to shoulder with brave, shining-eyed, long-locked heroes against the awful Horse People and their ferocious, oppressive Sky-God.
The mythology is quite potent, which is why its not going to go away simply because it doesn’t have any basis in verifiable history. Christians, as usual, had their seismic triggers posted elsewhere and didn’t see Dr. Gimbutas coming up behind them.
Stolen from another Website, not the author’s own, alas. It is an excellent incantation to accompany the beginning of a journey into The Matter Of Britain, a place where legend emerges into archtype, the murmuring of Druids mingles with the proclamation of the Cross, and the bright geometry of Byzantium intersects the organic tangle of Brociliande
Taliesin to Brother Prayer
Speak, good brother, in your own rhythms,
in your internal music tuned to external cadences,
your stories of the princeling Arthur
weaning himself for battle with the dark
keening sorrow at youthful fault;
Speak, good Taleteller, in words
the commons use. You have no need to
share my iambs, borrow from my heritage of
metaphor–your voice is clear and sound and strong.
[Stronger now, in this flat world without poetic soul,
than mine–far-reaching, telling truth
as Story that reveals its larger Truth.]
Speak, good Friar, let your crafted words
echo across the continent and declare
another Arthur, another Avalon
in crystalline dreams. Let your modulating voice
Blend strains of red and white, green and brown,
white and black…create anew my Arthur
as your own, your Arthur to become
my own, our own to share with all the worlds.
Speak, good brother, who once mastered
song and now–through choice–elevates
pure speech to incorporate the living cadences
and rhythms of the deeper Song subsuming all.
© Michael R. Collings, 1996