Monday, December 27, 2010

Memory, myth and holiday spirit...

In a post below ("Progress...") written in February, I quoted Rilke's short poem of the same name. It appears in the middle of his important collection The Book of Images (trans. Edward Snow. North Point, 1991). To this reader, "Progress" crowns a series of nine poems in the middle of the book centered on themes that define the poet's style. As the translator notes, they are 'the poems that tend to epitomize what it means to characterize something--a mood, a stance, a cadence, a quality of voice, a way of looking--as "Rilkean."'

The "Rilkean" style is redolent of memory and steeped in history and mythology. It is lyrical, laden with gravitas yet capable of imaginative flight and metaphysical leap. It is poetry that vibrates sympathetically with its sisters music, painting and sculpture. It is art that is psychologically penetrating: it is emotionally open and spiritually engaged (thus equally subject to criticism for being overly precious &/or affected).

I have been reading Rilke closely for 15 years and his lyrical verse has never resonated more deeply with my being than now. Anyone who has embarked on the journey of a life of meaning can identify with the opening of "Memory" (Erinnerung):

And you wait, await the one thing
that will infinitely increase your life;
the gigantic, the stupendous,
the awakening of stones,
depths turned round towards you.

As I have attempted to embrace (rather than avoid or deny) the inexorable progression into midlife, I have been drawn all year to myth and its strange (fantastic, even magical) powers. Mythology is one of several threads that connect the fabric of these posts. References from it have appeared consistently throughout this year that is almost over. Myth is one of the great sources "that will infinitely increase your life" and connecting to the timeless stories of the ancient world is like "the awakening of stones." To (re-)read these tales and hear their voices speak afresh (startling as "out of the burning bush" or gentle as "the still, small voice") is to recognize the "depths turned round towards you."

The sea has a power that is literal and figurative and elemental. To watch the waves crash against and over the rocks along the shore is endlessly fascinating. It is an even stronger experience in a blizzard. This I now know from the experience of a few moments yesterday as the snow whipped and spiraled around in the wind and the waves surged with animated tidal force. I went back inside, as animated by the cold as by the elements, and pulled down my Norton anthology of Classical Literature (ed. Bernard Knox. Norton, 1993). Inspired by nature's timeless vividness, I reread the ancient Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.E-A.D. 17).

It is a shame that we are not more widely encouraged to discover (and taught to discern) the commonalities between classical mythology and the creation stories in which the vast majority of our Judeo-Christian culture is steeped. Actually, it is a shame that we are not actually taught how to read with creative imagination and critical intelligence. Such close reading opens up worlds, and like Alice down the rabbit hole, life is simply not the same after the experience.

Here's a brief example I came upon in my reading yesterday. In Classical Literature (an excellent "one-stop-shopping" volume for mythology), Knox points out that Ovid's account of the great Flood is based on a Greek version of Noah's Flood. Ovid's Metamorphoses are tales of transformation, shape-shifting and figurative evolution; many of these 250-some stories remain unsurpassed. He is one of those ancient writers whose stories you know--even if you don't know you know.

In "The Flood" the surviving couple, Deucalion and Pyrrha are charged with propagating the human race anew. After consulting an oracle, they are instructed to throw their mother's bones behind them. Deucalion addresses "mother earth" (and I can't help but wince that she'd be in better shape now if we had retained Ovid's imagery and kept his tales as close as we have other stories of our origins...)

...The earth is our great mother,
And I suppose those bones the goddess mentions
Are the stones of earth; the order means to throw them,
The stones, behind us.

This they do, and the stones miraculously metamorphose into life. This imagery will resonate with Rilke 1900 years later as it evokes the creative act of the artist shaping clay or sculpting stone, "images half blocked out." The story parallels the miracle of creation as described in the Bible and other sacred tracts, none of which were intended to be taken literally. These were stories for reading and telling intended to convey a richer, deeper meaning through symbol and metaphor. "Of life came into being, generated/Out of the earth." Such poetry would fit into Genesis as well as it does the Metamorphoses.

I was particularly struck by the relevance of this image near the end of Ovid's creation account:

The stones the man had thrown turned into men,
The stones the woman threw turned into women,
Such being the will of God. Hence we derive
The hardness that we have, and our endurance
Gives proof of what we have come from.

In one image is contained a double mirror for humanity: the "hard-heartedness" that has plagued us throughout our existence, and the indomitable resilience that characterizes our best intentions and aspirations. I am so grateful to have a rekindled interest in these rich stories. I remember the misguided (even if well-intended) teaching I learned in Sunday school about idols and "worshipping false gods" which in effect threw the babies of these stories out with their mythological bathwater. They are but different versions of the same story. Different elements containing the same energy.

...Fire may fight with water,
But heat and moisture generate all things,
Their discord being productive.

Discord is productive. If you know what to do with it. Or are at least comfortable enough to sit with it and listen for what it might have to say. Our paralyzing (immature and ultimately futile) craving for security (control, resolution, etc) is paradoxically dangerous. We turn "God" into an idol whenever we equate certainty with truth. That goes for the exceptionalism of Country, Political Party, Church and any "right answer" to which we cling and grasp. To be possessed of something is one thing, to be possessed by it is quite another. It is the latter that leads to fundamentalism or fanaticism, which leads to ideology and is a common denominator in institutionalized evil throughout human history.

Somehow I stepped into the pulpit again. We were rediscovering (recovering?) myth and its relevance and power today. James Hollis, in whose thrall I have healthfully found myself of late connects mythology to depth psychology and illuminates its insights for consciousness and the human condition. The purpose of myth, according to Hollis, is "to link ourselves up again with the timeless zones of the soul (Tracking the Gods: The Place of Myth in Modern Life. Inner City, 1995).

He quotes the gnostic gospel of Thomas, "if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." He reminds us that the root of the word education is educe, "to lead out from within." Now why would such a gospel have been suppressed from the canon?!? That's another discussion. Anyone who has witnessed the shadows of our being--call them demons, devils, the unconscious, the "dark side," neuroses, addictions, "issues," etc--knows the gnostic proverb resonates with the force of truth. It is imagery--poetry--carrying an energy that has the power to move us.

Rilke's poems often contain direct messages. Ostensibly, the voice of the poem speaks directly to the poet. And therefore to us. Recent posts referencing his work have centered on the Duino Elegies and the prominence of Angels in those densely packed treasure chests of imagery. Hollis reminds us of more etymology where angels are concerned. The Greek word angelos means messenger. He enjoins us "to attend the better angels of our nature." No arguing with that. Nor with the "Turning Point" in Rilke's poem of the same name where he bids us "go and do heart-work/on all of the images." We must bring forth what is within us. Transformation is great, difficult and essential work. Every art requires the science of technique and the discipline of practice. And every discipline, every science needs the creative spirit of inspiration to animate it into being.

Homer prays at the beginning of the granddaddy of all tales, The Odyssey:

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story...

Of these adventures,...
tell us in our time, lift the great song again.

This musing began with Rilke's poem, "Memory." Its fulcrum is a moment of vision, a flash of insight, a sympathetic vibration that resonates and inspires. It is one of the ways we become possessed of the soulfulness that enriches life by helping us plumb its depths. The shadows can be frightening. The unknown intimidating. Mystery may not be grasped, but it can be embraced.

And then all at once you know: that was it.
You rise, and there stands before you
the fear and prayer and shape
of a vanished year.

Why let another one unconsciously slip away? Could not the "holiday spirit" catch fire with the animation of our souls?

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