Cycles, Gyres, and Yugas, Part 2 – Why Do We Fight?

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again; and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. – T.S. Eliot

In the previous post, I discussed the current “dark time,” or Kali Yuga, from the view of time as a series of ascending and descending ages, without beginning or end. The post ended with video clip from Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, where a young man asks, during a brutal civil war, “If the times are hopeless, why do we fight?”

Past critical turning points in history, involving the rise and fall of nations and empires, often hinged on battles. “Why” may have been the central question then, but now, as climate change marks an inflection point for the whole planet, we also face the questions of “Who (or what) do we fight?” and “How?” For us, these may be even more difficult than why, although that is the issue I will consider first.

As a college freshman, working my way through The Iliad, I had to get a handle on the concept of arete, meaning virtue or honor. Because this was the epic of a decade long war, in The Iliad, arete meant martial courage and prowess. The Vietnam war was raging then, and arete sounded too much like the prattle of those politicians who wrapped themselves in the flag to drum up dwindling support for a war that was a horrible mistake.

Now I understand arete from a wider perspective. The word meant “‘excellence of any kind.’ The term may also mean ‘moral virtue.’ In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential..” 

Arete means seeking to do what is right in every circumstance.
Continue reading

Cycles, Gyres, and Yugas, Part 1

Turning and turning in widening gyres

Over the last year, I’ve thought a lot about the idea of cyclical time, time without beginning or end, as opposed to the view time as linear, which implies a start and an ending.

Time as a never ending series of cycles is a core feature of eastern cosmology, but has also shown up in the west.  The Greek deity, Aion, representing “unbounded” time, was associated with the Hellenistic mystery religions.

Time without beginning or end is also feature of more recent western esoteric groups, such as The Golden Dawn, a secret society founded in the 19th century, that sought to restore the knowledge and practice of western mystery traditions. W.B. Yeats was an initiate, and his visionary poem, The Second Coming, (1919) gives a vivid picture of time as a rising and falling series of spirals, or “gyres:”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The tone of The Second Coming is consistent with all sources, eastern and western, that deal with time cycles. They are unanimous in saying this is the dark time, the Iron Age, the Kali Yuga, and in Buddhist terms, the time of “Five Degenerations.” Continue reading

James Hillman on Educating the Imagination

It’s no surprise to discover that the roots of our current national tribulations have deep roots. James Hillman died in 2011. I am unable to find a date for this talk, but he references the administration of George W. Bush, so I’m guessing at least a decade.

It is just as true or more so today. Please listen – it will be a most valuable half hour!

Stories…again.

Pre-Columbian, Mexico. At Art Institute of Chicago. Public Domain.

Yesterday, at the monthly breakfast meeting of the Sacramento Branch of the California Writer’s Club, someone asked what I blog about – an excellent question. Though it might not be obvious looking at eight years worth of posts here, it took only a moment to answer.

The constant thread running through almost all the posts here was stated like this by 20th century poet, Muriel Rukeyser: “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”

One area of fascination for me is the way both modern physics and ancient Buddhist tenets agree that our seemingly solid and stable world is anything but. “Out there” we have only complex patterns of swirling light and energy. It’s the same “in here.” Our limited physical senses give us an illusory experience of a solid world, and we make up stories about it. Many of them deal with simple survival: red means stop and green means go; every part of the oleander is poisonous; if you face the rising sun, north is left and south is right.

Of far greater interest are the stories individuals and cultures tell themselves about who they are, where they are, and what they are doing there. That’s where we get into trouble, by and large, as a glance at any newspaper will confirm.

I’ve never forgotten the account of a young boy, a fan of The Six-Million Dollar Man, a TV show in the late 70’s, that told of an astronaut, badly injured in a crash, who received bionic implants during surgery, which gave him super-powers. The boy decided to jump off the roof of his home, thinking that if he hurt himself badly enough, he might get super powers. He lived, but spent a long time in traction.

Stories have many different levels, literal and symbolic. Get that wrong and they can kill  individuals, cultures, and as we are coming to see, entire species.

*****

Last night the sun, through a brown haze, was red when it set. This morning, through a brown haze, the sun was red when it rose. When we left the house at 7:15 to take the dogs for a walk, there was fine dusting of ash on the cars. Though Redding is 170 miles north, and Yosemite almost 200 miles south, there is no way to forget that California and much of the west is burning in what has become a year round fire season.

The northern California fire chief said fires of this intensity are new, and sadly, appear to be a “new normal.” During a summer of worldwide weather extremes, the scientific community is united in saying climate change is not in the future – it’s here. At the same time several pastors have said that God is angry because California tolerates gay people.

Let me repeat what I said earlier: stories have many different levels, literal and symbolic. Get that wrong and stories can kill individuals, cultures, and maybe our entire species.

If they could talk, what would the lead lemmings tell their comrades when the edge of the cliff came into view?

Truth will out, murder will out – The Two Sisters

“Binnoire,” by John D. Batten, for “English Fairy Tales,” 1898

Our theme, over the next few posts, is folklore and ballads that feature the theme of, “truth will out,”  We begin with a popular Childe Ballad, “The Two Sisters,” that has been covered, under various names, by Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Pentangle, Tom Waits, Loreena McKinnett, Clannad, Steeleye Span, Gillian Welch, and others.

“The Twa Sisters,” Childe ballad #10, was published as a broadside in Northumbria in 1656. A girl is drowned by her sister over love of the same man. Finding her body, a minstrel makes a harp of her breastbone and golden hair that will only play the tale of the murder. The theme is echoed in Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic ballads. There are 21 variants in the British isles, with names that include, “The Miller and the King’s Daughter,” “Binnoire,” “The Cruel Sister,” “The Wind and Rain,” “The Dreadful Wind and Rain,” and “The Bonny Swans.” (1)

Here’s my favorite version, from Jerry Garcia and Dave Grisman at the Warfield Theater in 1992:

From: The Twa Sisters,” Childe Ballads #10C

10C.22 He made a harp of her breast-bone,
Whose sounds would melt a heart of stone.
10C.23 The strings he framed of her yellow hair,
Whose notes made sad the listening ear.
10C.24 He brought it to her father’s hall,
And there was the court assembled all.
10C.25 He laid this harp upon a stone,
And straight it began to play alone.
10C.26 ‘O yonder sits my father, the king,
And yonder sits my mother, the queen.
10C.27 ‘And yonder stands my brother Hugh,
And by him my William, sweet and true.’
10C.28 But the last tune that the harp playd then,
Was ‘Woe to my sister, false Helen!

*****

In the east, we have the concept of karma. In the west we have a comforting theme in folklore, that behind even the most dire events and appearances, there’s a harmony, a natural order that tries to assert itself, the way our bodies, if conditions are right, will push out infection.

Now that our body politic is infected by an American president who would destroy the basic concept of Truth and Fact for his own ends, I find it refreshing to dwell on such tales. Weeds break through concrete. In the end, truth will break through lies and corruption.

The Goat Speaks

A wise goat indeed!  Such great news in a season where that has grown rare.

witchlike

white-goat-pd

Oh, you silly, silly humans. Why all the nail biting, my dears? Clearly, at the beginning of this World Series, I promised you I would lift the curse.  I signed the agreement with my hoof print, did I not?

Now, a goat such as myself may possess a good deal of deceptive qualities. But one thing I guarantee is my sincerity!  A promise is a promise and I, Murphy the Billy Goat, namesake of the Billy Goat Tavern and former pet of Mr. William Sianis, am as good as my word.

The question of the Cubs winning was never in doubt.

What’s that you say? The rain? Yes, of course I sent the rain! And with it I brought a seventeen minute game delay.

rainout

There was a method to this madness, for it allowed the players to contemplate their fate. They regained their bearings and therefore could more fully…

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The Devil’s Sooty Brothers

Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, 1855. Painting by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann

Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, 1855. Painting by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann

“People think stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way round.” – Terry Pratchett

“The Devil’s Sooty Brother” is the catchiest name among a group of tales from the Brothers Grimm about career soldiers who are discharged when they are wounded, or peace breaks out, or for no given reason. They find themselves on the road, with a loaf of bread and a few coins if they’re lucky, and no clear path to making their way in the world.

Most of the best known Grimm tales feature young people – a lad or a maiden, just starting out in the world. In contrast, we imagine these soldiers as middle aged career men, whose services are no longer needed. I thought of these stories when I heard that Oreo, “America’s favorite cookie,” will now be produced in Mexico, where Nabisco expects to save $130 million a year. Six hundred people join the hundreds of thousands before them whose working lives have been disrupted by technical, financial, and social changes that continue to accelerate in speed.

Do the old stories have anything practical to say to 21st century people when the world turns upside down?  Maybe…

These stories have elements in common:

  1. The protagonists are combat veterans. They’ve been around the block.
  2. They take up with shady, trickster-like characters, who take them underground, into the darkness, or other trials.
  3. They either are, or must learn to be, trickier than their tricky benefactors. In modern terms, they need to think outside the box, and there, if anywhere, is the relevance for us now. Circumstances may change, but the value of seeing the world afresh, free from habit and preconception, is probably even more vital now than in the “simpler” times when these tales emerged.

I will consider two of the tales of discharged soldiers that depend on wit. I’ll skip several others that hinge more on religious piety and luck. Piety and luck may pay off in real life, but they aren’t satisfying story elements.

German mercenary pikeman. Wikimedia Commons

German mercenary pikeman. Wikimedia Commons

In our title story, The Devil’s Sooty Brother, (Grimm Tale #100), Hans, a hungry and penniless out of work soldier, meets the Devil in the woods. This Devil is a dark trickster and initiator rather than a personification of evil. If the soldier agrees to the terms of a seven-year contract, he’ll be set for life.  If he violates the terms, he will die, and presumably, be stuck in hell. Continue reading

Where did this come from?

notebook

A few days ago, looking for a piece of scratch paper, I picked up a 5″ x 8″ spiral notebook from a desk in the back room. I flipped it open to some curious notes on fairytales – and I cannot remember where they came from. Not from any book I possess, nor from any lecture I remember. Did they come from a blog post? And if so, why did I take the time to jot down two pages of notes without bookmarking the post?

The words were those of a writer who said, “I am eager to show what fairytale techniques have done for my writing and what they can do for yours.”  This is curious, because most of what followed – the “four elements of traditional fairytales” that he or she discussed violate the usual advice given in writing books and seminars.  Here the four elements as I recorded them.

1) Flatness – flat characters (no psychological depth), which allows depth in the reader’s response. Eg., the child who escapes monsters does not grow up to be a neurotic adult. Also, few fairytale characters are named.

2) Abstract –  Few details given. Fairytales tell, they seldom show.

3) Intuitive logic –  “nonsensical sense”  This happened then that. Causality not shown. Events may not be connected except by narrative proximity. But inside that disconnect resides a story that enters and haunts you deeply. Details of fairytales exist apart from “plot” and are a “violation of the rule that things must make sense.” Dreamlike.

4) Normalized magic:  breaks the notion that the more realistic a story element, the more valuable.

All four of these points are accurate statements of fairytale characteristics. The idea that they hook the listener’s imagination to “fill in the blanks” may help explain why fairytales make far better oral narratives than literary fiction.

At the same time, I can’t think of any published fiction that follows such a structure, least of all modern fairytale retellings. For one thing, since the 19th century, psychologizing has been a favorite pastime for almost all lovers of folklore.

The unknown author of these notes made a few more statements I wrote down:

“Every since I was a child, I have been happiest living in the sphere of story.”  ( me too!!!)

“Trickery is the instinct to know when something is wrong.”

“I will end by saying that story is what makes us human.”

Whoever the unknown author is, you have my thanks (a second time) for your most stimulating thoughts on a genre I love!