Saturday, April 16, 2011

"From Bathos to Blood to Baby's Breath and Beyond the Pall" - Myth, the New Age and the Denial of Death

[New York City Mural at East 2nd & Lafayette Streets. Warren Falcon. Click on image to enlarge it. All photos in this essay are by Warren Falcon.]

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Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires...

Yet I am the necessary angel of the earth,
Since, in my sight, you see the earth again...

- Wallace Stevens


I have of late been rereading Joseph Campbell. While basking in the mystery-evoking images of ancient European and other cave art drawn by earliest human ancestors I feel compelled from these images to words, Campbell's and others, which both provide buffer yet accompany us further into the numinous, fraught world so powerfully depicted at least 20,000 or more years ago by unknown human hands; one artist left his/her hand imprint upon "canvas of stone," a signature hand we reach out to as do those hands depicted in Michaelangelo's classic painting reaching toward the proffered, beseeching other. These images continue to startle, to awe, to shock one into ancient sentiments of beauty and terror "like shining from shook foil" (G. Manley Hopkins). Knowing that I would soon be writing about "Myth, the New Age and the Denial of Death" I became overwhelmed because entire volumes could be written on the relation between myth, the denial of death, with perhaps a slim one or two paragraphs on the "New Age" movement which, with all its published Best Sellers, is more constructed of light bird bones, hollow hollow, for higher and higher and faster flight up and away (no insult to birds) with plenty of bright patterned plumage, attractive as the array is, but eventually very insubstantial moving a bit of air while calling attention to itself.


Or so I thought.


A shift in my attitude occurred as I pondered the ancient yet living images from the truly sacred caves. Campbell eloquently accounts how homo sapiens
awakened after thousands of years of brain evolution into self reflexive awareness by clear awareness of Death, how humanity's most bountiful harvest, consciousness (distinct from the rest of Nature and animal consciousness), with its questions and needed solutions thrust knowledge and techne forward into what we currently know now as human civilization. Death awareness birthed humans into a new kind of knowing, into verbal thought, and has ever sense troubled our sleep, our waking lives, as well as our logic. That dawning "I" of a unique self alive, awake and articulating its growing experience of learning in a living changing universe marked the beginning of the only New Age true. This
first and only New Age continues so long as birth and death continue. It appears that the Wheel of Existence will continue to inexorably turn as will the cogs and jogs of coagulate human thought in words and images both primal and abstract, its capacities for pastel sublimity of articulated, debated, and tested ideas in the midst of the unfolding constancy of red and (alle)gory incarnate existence; both grace and terror demark fluid edges such are hematomas courageously holding life's opposites which create human consciousness. We are of the opposites born. Our words buffer us from Nature but do not relieve us of the burden of being Nature.

A new age is begun with awareness of death, of endings, personally and collectively. "Death is" indeed "the mother of beauty", an awesome beauty, from bathos to blood to baby's breath and beyond, an eye blink inspiration in terms of infinity into deepening and expanding thought and direct experience in the here and now. The ancient and still ongoing struggle with images then words (repetitive shaped sounds), and words-as-images, and words-as-imaged (the various ways in which words were written/imaged), and the flood of impressions from the sensory world, was then and is an effort to somehow comprehend and relate to Being, existence, which began with "the people of the First Light", their reluctant but mandatory acknowledgment of Death in glyphed cave tints, in etched, carved bones, stone, and wood (Laurens van der Post's gives us this poetic appellation for our earliest ancestors, those of the "first light" meaning "first consciousness").


I recall the sense of place I felt as a young man reading for the first time Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West, an elegy really, of tremendous beauty, the writing still glorious even though many scholars have had at it and wrestled with, or tried, to refute Spengler's view that Western Civilization is in obvious decline (never happy news but for those who are not of the West). That his thesis was put to ill use by those of fascistic bent of mind is important to note but that is more the fault of ancient kinship systems of blood and dirt claiming for itself predominance over the local hill and the world entire. I believe that it can be fairly and honestly pointed out that many scholars the world over claim the same predominance. For me, Spengler articulated what I knew in my young and bitter gut to be true, that death, literally in A-bombs, H-bombs, and more, was only a missile away, and that the once living and vibrant container of Western religions had calcified, suffered an sclerosis of the heart from reification of once inspired ideas and actions into fascistic fundamentalists wielding scriptures to justify violence of all kinds against infidels.


Soon after Spengler I discovered the brilliant and equally eloquent Pulitzer prize-winning book by Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death. What Spengler did with history Becker did with psychology. Becker's thesis is that humanity, justly inflated due to its ability to be rational, to create and be like the gods, is always/already shocked that though we may be gods, indeed, "we are gods who shit," and we are gods who die. We can extend life but cannot prevent death which comes to us all, and to all sentient beings. To accommodate/adjust to the facticity of death, human character develops; character is an effective-enough defense around and against this fact of death, the vicissitudes of hard incarnate life, psyches/bodies shape and misshape around the assaults of incarnation. Such assaults are not only the obvious terrors and pains of life but also of the powerful drives and ecstasies which overwhelm as much as terrors "too great to name" (Rilke's apt phrase). Human character is without a doubt humanity's greatest artifice; I use this term purposefully as it conveys falsity or non-truth cleverly turned to deceive and trick. Character is camouflage more for ourselves against our awareness of death stalking us, so tickled by our masks.


Human character is also man's greatest ongoing work of authentic art, exquisite, variant, functional, rejecting nothing to be endeavored into meaningful conveyance, yet, says Becker, "it is a lie". But here I want to argue with him though I take his pungent and poignant descriptive point deeply to heart; I prefer, instead, to use several affirmative and reorienting phrases of poet Wallace Stevens and say that human character is "a necessary fiction," that human character is the "Imagination of Nature" active in human bodies and nervous systems in conjunction with prefrontal cortices artfully, aesthetically, forming and shape-shifting around Death-in-life as "we live in an old chaos of the sun (Wallace Stevens)." Again, Stevens speaks of "the Necessary Angel of the Imagination" for it is this "other realm" of human consciousness that is driven not only by facts and reason but by imagination which prepares and, in a very real sense, repairs the tearing fact of oblivion, of death. To further nuance this, Carl Jung says that the human psyche has an essentially religious function which is to discover or make meaning out of that old and present "chaos of the sun." It is this which is the fundamental drive beneath all human biological ones, the drive toward meaning, which is orientation. Inherent within the fabric of reality or not, it is still debated, we cannot dispute the fact of the drive toward meaning which is a meaningful and orienting statement itself. We are creatures who need not only sensory orientation of balance and dimension but, most significantly and uniquely human, our life blood is an "unthought known" primed by nature for conscious thought and willful action, that primary orientation/compulsion for the earth and meaning to be known by its creation. We crave this most of all.

This religious function of the psyche has been, since modernity, reduced to signs which is what so much modern scholarship does with living symbols of the psyche. This is an illness, says Jung, which he calls "nothing but-ism" where mind, if you will, attempts to reduce something mysterious and large, the psyche and it's contents, down to small known quantities, from resonant fecundating ideas/energies continually reverberating and expanding awareness condensed into manageable sound bytes, manipulable handfuls used mostly for one's own gain, a foothold in the swarming Lear-tides and snapping veils displaying mightily within and before one's very self witnessing it all. For well over two centuries now symbols have been reduced to "nothing but" signs; even physical symptoms which are symbols are reduced to "nothing but" diseases with no idea nor interest whatsoever in how psyche/soma produces such symbols indicating that something divine (archetypal) is present in our illnesses, something sacred (meaningful) needs to be made conscious, to be consciously related to; revelation is at hand, of nature as it is and as we are with un-willed dreams evoking, insisting beyond our egos toward "we know not what" but to which we give image and word, thought and action to. We tend psyche in tending ourselves and in good stewardship tend that nature which dreams in us forward.


Sir Arthur Eddington, scientist and mystic, somewhere said, "Something we know not what is doing we something we know not what." And so we make our images and words trying to herd that Something into meaningful presence, into "faces of the Face" (a Shi'ite Islamic term for images of God/the Face) by which we may know not only "the Face," our own and others, but the space we share and occupy in whispering cosmoi (plural of 'cosmos') seeking the teloi (plural of telos, which is Greek for 'purpose'), evident in all drives compelled by the primal "meaning" drive. Perhaps our cosmos is living entity expanding, driving compelled toward "meaning."

A subject for another essay, suffice it here to point out the destructive confusion of symbol and sign perpetuated not only our many sciences (especially psychology) but even "the Queen of all sciences", religion/theology, suffers this malady, once profound and dynamic symbol systems are now calcifying or are already calcified into sign systems alone.
It is clear that what drives addictions is a justified hunger beyond mere signs into living contact with symbols, archetypal realities, and that which they truly nurture within us.

It also follows logically that the opposite of "nothing but-ism" is "anything goes" which one finds most prominently today in the so-called "New Age" movement as well as in liberal theological groups no matter the original tenets. Almost any product of the imagination is uncritically accepted, goes unchallenged by reason and common sense. The basic deciding factor of "truth" is emotion, feeling. Religious pluralism is ideal, yes, allowing for openness and curiosity toward essentially mysterious matters. However, a naive "anything goes" approach is also a reduction, often to sentiments, thus sentimentality. This reduction depotentiates whatever "juice" there is to be found in symbols to caracatures, cartoons, denatured and adulterated into "lamby" "Religion/Spirituality LITE" serving up a tapas of "spiritual" delectables and finger food, saffron scented pinkies raised, at an A.D.D. banquet of NUMINOUS NEXTITTIES which titillate and distract airy "spiritual sensibilities" away from aerie life realities of toil, suffering and death. Rarely served up is the fat needed for greater, more authentic, substantial wholeness; the liver and other organ meats, the sweetbreads, the offal and the marrow of life are to be eaten, chewed, digested, assimilated (as best one can) as psyche in its religious function mandates no turning away from what is served. Somewhat comforting, the story of Jesus in Gethsemane on the night of his betrayal and passion, after a Passover meal mind you, tells us of his agony, knowing what lay ahead for him, he prayed, "Let this cup pass." And then he went to his gory destiny to become a meal for all in Eucharistic rites. We at least get to petition to turn away from the required mortal meal, then write our will in the face of the inexorable Will of God or Fate.


As terribly difficult and disturbing to egoic ideals of "spirituality" (almost all vertical in thrust away from the horizontal, creaturely, material plane) psyche does not shut out any part or plane of itself and requires the same from conscious beings such are humans. A profound explication of this from the history of religion comes from the Jewish Caballa regarding the triumphant banquet to be had at the end of time when the Messiah returns. The primal entree to be feasted upon is none other than the Leviathan, the creature of the deep whom God showed to Job revealing this creature to be the dark, shadow (yes, evil..."you know...evil?") side of God. Difficult to digest even reading this as it disturbs our notions of a perfect deity or plane of being where there is no darkness but only light, only good. Should I be invited to such a plane I'm betting on a serving of leviathan croquettes as the required meal. I'm bringing my bottle of chipotle sauce to flavor the dish. And pulling as many wishbones as I may in hope to sway some compensatory cotton candy deity my way. Tis about balance, yes? And antacids.

A parallel story to the Caballa one is to be found in Tibetan Buddhism. An aspiring young monk sincerely and desperately seeks after enlightenment. His prayers for this are heard for he soon hears a voice telling him that he will find enlightenment upon the shores of the ocean. He must thus undertake the long and arduous journey out of the remote mountains of Tibet into China and then hard trek to the far ocean shore. After many difficulties and ordeals the monk, whom I'll call "Steadfast", remains single pointed in the midst of terrible events. He wants enlightenment more than anything else. Finally the day arrives where he stands upon a hill and takes in the vast ocean just below filling up his eyes' horizon. Thankful and excited he rushes, in spite of his utter exhaustion from the journey, toward the shore where he will become enlightened. He approaches a group of fishermen who are cleaning their day's catch from thankfully full nets. The stench of raw fish is powerful. The pile of gilled and finned glinting offal teems with flies and maggots. The workers take little notice of the stench nor that of this unwashed foreign visitor. Steadfast is repulsed. Nausea wells up. He nearly swoons. Holding on to the side of boat he then hears the same voice that had required this journey for his enlightenment, "O pilgrim, now it is yours to eat the fish guts. In doing this you will be awakened." Steadfast, having sacrificed all for the journey toward his deepest hunger, enlightenment, obeyed. And he awakened. He is known in Tibetan Buddhism as a great Buddha, "the eater of fish guts."


A new age, any new age, is intrinsically connected to the first and only ongoing one of "People of the First Light"; it is an awareness, or is born of an awareness, of death, of endings and it is thus how the fluffy cartoon of the current "New Age LITE" movement is reconnected in my mind, relinked back, to the first and only New Age which is still echoing, reverberating out and in. This ongoing dawn consciousness is forever new as it takes into the overwhelming and powerfully real, contrasting knowledge of the eternal return of impending sunset and twilight. This ongoing creation of meaning is born of the impingement of death in earliest ancestors, just as egos of newborns are formed of the impingement of incarnate existence ex utero which neurologically, synaptically form neuro-nets which awaken into Billy and Beulah, and all us we with names and bodies inflecting, aware of death, denying away from death into life "for life," as Freud astutely points out, "wants more of life" yet is made all the more life by the impingement of death and death awareness, in the rising and falling of desires/hungers, of origination and cessation of drives. Earliest humans affirm with Jung that the primary drive over all is that drive toward meaning which thrusts us then and now into "the symbolic life."


Carlos Castaneda Births the New Age Movement
and Its Demise, the Sky is Not the Limit Afterall -
A Morality Play

It seems that authentic esotericism of religious traditions (not the non-critical unquestioning, "anything goes" mentality of many current New Agers) turns not away from Death but toward it. From Zoroaster to zen, from shamans to sufis and more, the mystics, those authentic ones who know from experience that ecstasy is not merely a state of manic excitement in dissociative pleasure where one is identified with that state but ecstasy aside one must spend most of their waking life cultivating awareness in the face of Death not as a quaint technical theory to manipulate feeling states but as a preparation, says don Juan to Carlos in Carlos Castaneda's "wheel turning" necessary fictions about apprenticeship with a Yaqui Indian sorcerer in the Northern Mexican desert, for that one moment that all of life prepares for, death, which is believed to be a portal into Infinity.

Nevermind for the moment (but let us not deny) the gory factual details of Castaneda's life post-don Juan and international celebrity as a guru to millions (still), the artifice, deceits and lies of of his private personal life (he like all of us is entitled to a private life, that is NOT the issue), teaching spiritual ideas/ideals/sorcerer techniques and fancy while concealing/living an all too human life of malignant narcissism and grandiosity brainwashing many sincere and gullible followers which led to the death of at least 5 women who were of his inner circle. Nevermind the truth about his actual death by normal mortal disease, prescription notes to prove it, and not the sorcerer's death he wrote of and imagined "via don Juan", and supposedly taught to some of his cult followers, a running fast enough in "tensegrity fashion," Tensegrity being a system of postures and movements supposedly designed by pre-Christian Yaqui sorcerers to prepare spiritual warriors who would jump, come time for Death, into Light through the veils into Nagual or Infinity.


Nevermind all that. Castaneda, for all his later megalomania, perhaps psychotropically induced insanity from his journeys with jimsonweed and other plant "alchemical choirs", was truly a genius, an artist who drew from and condensed anthropological research and accounts to articulate masterfully a Vulgate (popular) of indigenous teachings and techniques from cultures around the world. Castaneda was a "necessary angel of imagination" - let us not make the mistake of reading "angel" in Judeo-Christian light as "all good" servants of an "all good" god, the necessary angel of the earth includes good and evil and does not shut out any part of existence. Castaneda offered a death-obsessed culture with it's hubristic H-bombs and techne hastening death to not only the human species but to Gaia Herself, the living green planet of fertile waters and land, of seeded life, of blooded life, of oceanic life, of sky-ey life, which may, because of human hubris, prematurely, become a dried out airless rock, a rock with a history but without anyone or anything to remember this history, no one left to draw it on cave walls or canvas or tattoo it upon bodies to commemorate and stimulate precious miraculous life wanting more of life. Don Juan via Carlos, the character in Castaneda's "necessary fictions", makes available ancient dreaming in and around death which, one had hoped in the reading and rereading (many still do) would make infinity a real event for egos to survive death of the material body. So far in the evolution of human consciousness the collective has discerned that there are "fantastic" (fantasy + ecstatic) aspects to this consciousness, it's capacities to sort and sift and drift into sublimities of awareness, subtle, subtle, which include and, turns out, are dependent upon human bodies, their nervous systems, in, through and by which the flickers and flashes that hint of something like infinity pass through finite and porous beings with witnessing egos, gods if you will, who shit and who do indeed die.


I've no quarrel with infinity. How silly is that, but as creatures of consciousness we must quarrel with every aspect of existence and knowing, test it, play with the opposites, the mercurial nature of mind, show our behinds and sublime smoke rings to wrenching questions. And I have plenty of real fight left for finity (some things are just fun to say) and death. As I grow closer to my own oblivion I have come to all the more honor breath, nerves and, better, nerve endings which lend us universes of sensations. I have come to grumblingly accept even arthritic joints and other insults of body, merely nature being nature no matter the indignant cry of god-almighty egos. Western culture sees an aged man or woman and goes instantly into "denial of Death." This, of course, is karmic retribution as I have done this my whole life, and do it still - mea culpa, mea maxima culpa - see an aged person and immediately cop to puer realms within in order to deny the senex (old man/woman) reality that I truly am becoming all the more still. This, too, is an Eastern culture symptom viz the story of how 2500 years ago Siddhartha Gautama became a Buddha after the severing sights of illness, old age and death which led to the persevering perching in the face of undeniable oblivion opening up into Witness, enabling egos to scan inner and outer plays of nerve endings interpreted into sense and intense "kind king light of mind" (Allen Ginsberg) such are mentations foments and nostrums. Can we not see that all this plethora is what we bring to the table enabling what gods and cattle to step out of concrete into myriad manifestations?


It is hard to daily look at one's own impending death but what can be and should be taken from the esoteric traditions of the world is not a denial of death but that wise and necessary turn toward it in order to make one more present and alive, mentally and bodily, as much as creaking joint and drying orifice allow, dried fruit and lubricants near at hand to command movements of all kinds in the midst of the slowing wheel of life grinding grinding winding sinew by synapse all us we down to ground. Literally, ground, dirt, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, no matter the coffin or urn or the remnant silt be tossed and scattered by tearful friends and family. The purpose of myth is to open eyes wide, hearts wide to mystery even though we have names and faces and learn over and over that "Eternity is in love with the productions of time (things which die)" so why not love ourselves and the productions of time. We do so, importantly, for ourselves and in so doing we do it for Eternity/Infinity. We have all this no-time in mind, at least and last in our hands now to be in love which is all the more because of the "is" of its contingent opposite. Life is love is it not? and that love is friction and fraction in which human consciousness, a prism of dura matter and more, refracts fractyliciously infinity for eyes of surmise/surprise. Love beyond fluff. A fact. Even Death cannot (and probably cares not to) erase such and suchness.

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