Archive for December, 2016

Faulkner Nietzsche

Poets and physicists have tried to define it. Shamans and sci-fi heroes have tried to defy it. Probably the most mysterious dimension, yet we take it for granted as we move through it. Time, it measures our human experience, marking every beginning and every end. Einstein reminded us, a hundred years ago, how poorly we have misunderstood time, even if we could barely comprehend his profound theory of relativity. At the same time, novelists and philosophers like Frederich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and William Faulkner (1897-1962) were disseminating ideas every bit as radical and enigmatic as those of quantum physics, perhaps with even deeper insights into the human condition, if not the fabric of the universe.

Ahead of Einstein and Faulkner, Nietzsche posited his Myth of Eternal Return. In this famous philosophical conjecture, he suggests that time is cyclical, that all the things we say and do repeat themselves forever, into eternity. It’s easy to disagree with this proposition, when taken as a literal explanation of metaphysical reality, but figuratively speaking, it provides a very powerful metaphor for some aspects of the human experience.

At the risk of drastically oversimplifying, I believe the point of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return myth is that we must act in strict accordance with our own standards of right and wrong, what I would call our conscience (though Nietzsche might object to the term). We must live in a way that we would be happy to relive, again and again, because, in fact, we do relive everything in the revolving depths of our cavernous minds.

“What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you : ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine. ‘ If this thought gained power over you, as you are it would transform and possibly crush you; the question in each and every thing, ‘Do you want this again and innumerable times again?’ would lie on your actions as the heaviest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to long for no thing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”
(Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Aphorism #341, translated by Josefine Nauckhoff)

Regardless of the popular criteria or external consequences, we are all sentenced to endure the memory of our actions for the entirety of our natural lives. Long after the deed is done, the memories continue to haunt us, growing ever more powerful than the deed itself. Arguably the first modern psychologist, and possibly the best, Nietzsche recognizes the apperception by which a single moment lives on forever in the archive of the mind, and illustrates it with his myth.

Freud explores this phenomenon from another important angle, and tries to alleviate the anguish produced by persistent, suppressed impressions. The greatest novelists describe the same phenomenon, but subjectively, with as much accuracy and sensitivity as any psychologist. Dostoyevsky, who had no small influence on Freud, gives us the best-known examples, with incisive stories like “Crime and Punishment”. William Faulkner, however, though somewhat less renowned, and far more difficult to read, provides what I consider an even more penetrating illustration of the Eternal Return in action, in “The Sound and the Fury”.

Notorious for its incomprehensibility, “The Sound and the Fury” discards conventional narration and leaves linear time long behind, entering another dimension, to tell the story of one family’s decay and one young man’s inner disintegration and ultimate demise. On first reading, the novel truly is a story told by an idiot signifying nothing. To make any sense of Faulkner’s narrative, one must read the story again and again, an ironic example itself of Eternal Return. The following exchange between the author and a reporter captures this perfectly.

Interviewer: Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even after they read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them?
Faulkner: Read it four times.

I’ve had the audiobook playing on a continuous loop in my headphones for several years. After one time through the hardback and two revolutions of the audiobook, I felt no meaningful sense of understanding. But bits and pieces began to stand out, and gradually I felt a semblance of comprehension. I began to see connections between certain passages and other ideas that I’d come across elsewhere, in religion and philosophy.

The mystery of the continuous self, comprised of a patchwork of memories and personality traits, occurred to me often. The characters in the novel revealed themselves in much the same way, as a montage of garbled memories. We have to wonder just how reliable those memories are, and in turn, how well we truly know ourselves. Faulkner highlights this sense of unreliability and uncertainty best of all through his use of multiple narrators. “The Sound and the Fury” and “As I Lay Dying” both are distinctly characterized by their revolving series of first-person narrators. The subjectivity of human experience is indisputable.

Nietzsche, again: “We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge–and with good reason. We have never sought ourselves–how could it happen that we should ever find ourselves?” (On the Genealogy of Morals)

Gradually I became drawn to Part 2 of “The Sound and the Fury”, narrated by Quentin Compson, the brother who goes off to Harvard, laments his sister’s loss of virtue, and ends up throwing himself off a bridge. More than anyone else in the book, Quentin is a soul searcher, trying to fin himself, trying to justify his existence, trying to reconcile his own personal history. In doing so, his streams of consciousness—written with an absolute mastery, matched only, but never surpassed, by his contemporary James Joyce—move through time with all the fluidity of the Charles River, in which he would drown himself.

As the novel’s most sensitive character, Quentin also shows the most self-conscious awareness of the nebulous, back-and-forth progression of time. He makes comments like “It’s wet. I thought we’d jumped back in time,” or “it was between seven and eight o’ clock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch.”  The watch itself plays a vital role in this section of the novel.

“It was Grandfather’s [watch] and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”
(The Sound and the Fury, part 2)

Quentin is tormented by time, its passing, its recurrence. Despite his obsession with the watch, he’s not interested in setting it to the correct time of day. He exists primarily outside of time, with one foot in the past and the other planted firmly in eternity.

What then is it to live authentically? At some point we all are subjected to judgment by our future selves. But is there any way to foresee that reckoning, to avoid that which we might someday regret? With age we grow wiser, but no one, not even Nietzsche can live a life free of mistakes and regrets. We remember and we suffer. “A man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you’d think misfortune would get tired but then time is your misfortune.” (The Sound and the Fury, part 2)

If Quentin gives us the archetype of a man living outside of time, consumed by the emotional and the spiritual, then his bother Jason serves as the polar opposite. Jason is the model of absolute temporal attachment. Where Quentin obsesses over virtue and memory, his brother is concerned first and foremost with money, habitually following the stock market, lying to and stealing from his own family to get a leg up.

With this pair of diametrically opposed brothers, a motif seen a thousand times before in world mythology (Cain & Abel from Genesis, Balder & Hodur from the Eddas, Dostoyevsky’s Karamazovs, etc.), Faulkner depicts another philosophical conundrum, the mind-body problem. Briefly put, this is the question of how and to what extent an individual’s mind and body actually interact.

Quentin and Jason operate in separate arenas, and once again, time plays a pivotal role in distinguishing their two spheres of reality. Quentin, as I’ve been striving to illustrate, dwells primarily in a space outside of time, in a mental place made up of feelings and memories. His brother, the materialist, lives in the strict, concrete world of linear time, a world in which the the stock market can been clearly graphed with time on the x-axis and a dollar value on the y-axis.

Quentin is a slave to time, but not in the typical sense of those who measure their days on the time clock. It carries a much heavier burden for Quentin, which he is always trying to escape, or transcend. “Clocks slay time… time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.” (The Sound and the Fury, part 2)

Time acts in two ways, bringing physical decay, a wearing away of the material body, but also spiritual growth, for better or worse, and magnification. It is no accident that the novel—in its concrete, temporal aspect—takes place on the weekend spanning Good Friday and Easter. These are the Christian holy days commemorating Christ’s death and resurrection, his return from beyond the earthly grave and into the realm of the eternal.

The sense of smell is most closely linked with memory; Faulkner understands this and Quentin experiences it. The smell of honeysuckle constantly haunts him, stirring his memory, and goading his conscience. “Damn that honeysuckle I wish it would stop…” (The Sound and the Fury, part 2) But of course, the uneasy conscience is not so easily put to rest.

Father Time is Cronus, the god who swallowed his own children. And the more Quentin tries to outrun time, the more profoundly it consumes him. The ineluctable wheel of time devours us from without, as the ghosts of our past devour us from with.

Nietzsche is probably best-known for his rejection of conventional (Judeo-Christian) ethics, as defined by religion and society, in favor of more personal, privately-held standards of morality. He presents these ideas in early works like “The Genealogy of Morals” and “Beyond Good and Evil”, but it remains a common thread throughout his philosophical career. This absence of strict morality is exactly what he refers to in his infamous axiom, “God is dead.”

“…Every man is the arbiter of his own virtues but let no man prescribe for another man’s wellbeing…” This line is repeated twice, and is suggestive of “Beyond Good and Evil” as well as the Myth of Eternal Return.
(The Sound and the Fury, part 2)

Quentin is tormented by a stricter judge than any man sitting high on a bench. He is the subject of his own relentless conscience. What’s more, Quentin is not feeling the guilt and punishing himself for some wicked deed he has committed. Instead, he is distraught over what he has NOT done, for failing to defend his sister, Caddy, and preserve her virtue. As his father tells us, “Women are never virgins. Purity is a negative state and therefore contrary to nature. It’s nature is hurting you not Caddy.” (The Sound and the Fury, part 2)

Likewise, Quentin’s misdeed is a negative state, a failure to act. Society, or the criminal justice system, could never charge him with any wrongdoing, but his conscience is a stricter arbiter of virtue, and will not let his behavior go unpunished. Ultimately, we find it impossible to discern what actually happened, what Quentin actually did or did not do, but his punishment will be severe, and everlasting.

This aspect of the novel speaks to me more than any other. Though I may be innocent in the eyes of the law, my conscience tells me otherwise. I know I have failed to assert myself when it was necessary, in the name of virtue, or chivalry, or whatever it was that I failed to recognize in the moment. Now I live with dozens of shameful memories that play back like a broken record, and I wonder if I can stand to relive them forever in my mind, or if I might be better off feeding the fishes at the bottom of an ice-cold river. Ultimately, I realize that jumping off a bridge will bring no solution, so I am resolved to endure then torture that my own conscience continues to issue without abating.

Jason, again, embodies Quentin’s moral and polar opposite, a man who knows nothing of guilt. “I’m glad I haven’t got the sort of conscience I’ve got to nurse like a sick puppy all the time. If I’d ever be as careful over anything as he is to keep his little shirt tail full of business from making him more than eight percent.” (The Sound and the Fury, part 3) Monetary matters are the only thing keeping Jason awake at night, and his hours are measured strictly by the opening and closing times of the stock market.

Without a common and objective definition of right and wrong, the individual must bear the burden of upholding a robust standard of ethics. Before Nietzsche, God issued that standard. But after Nietzsche, and the death of God, the onus passed onto what Freud would call the Superego. Essentially, man has to answer to his own conscience, or suffer a sentence of interminable guilt, what the Middle Englishmen and James Joyce (whose seminal modernist fiction also took on the mystery of human consciousness) affectionately refer to as the Agenbite of Inwit.

Who among us has not suffered the pangs of remorse or the anguish of sleepless nights, never able to forgive ourselves for what pain or shame we may have brought to others who no longer speak to us, and whose pardon is no longer theirs to give?

Some punish themselves with floggings and flagellation, in the manner of old world zealots. Others pickle themselves with drink. And some of us subject ourselves to the painful pages of Joyce and Faulkner, whose torturous and impenetrable novels act as the taskmasters of our retribution, into those dark, restless nights of contrition and self loathing.


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 Joyce and Mann

A Comparative Exposition of Ulysses and The Magic Mountain 

Wading through the tempestuous waters of modern European literature, one may struggle to escape the rushing current of James Joyce or the tidal pull of Thomas Mann, like a veritable Scylla and Charybdis on the high seas of 20th century writing. But when navigated with due deference and gentle acquiescence, each of these authors’ masterworks, Ulysses and The Magic Mountain, will lead the patient initiate on a unique course over waves of heroism toward islands of mythic adventure and maelstroms of deep psychology. In the wake of Sir James Frazer’s “Golden Bough” (1890), Albert Einstein’s Relativity (1905) and Sigmund Freud’s pioneering work in psychoanalysis, Joyce and Mann seized upon a rich groundswell of scholarship to devise their own myths as suited to modern mankind. Drawing from the same deep well of world religions and archetypal heroes, each poet, with his own unmistakable set of literary devices, completes the titanic task of creating a modern mythology that incorporates the vital elements of human suffering, curiosity and discovery, ultimately uncovering the universal life-affirming elixir.

The Modern Novel

While they differ widely in style, it is impossible to overlook the thematic consistency between Joyce’s Ulysses and Mann’s Magic Mountain. Both works exemplify the very definition of the modern novel, written by national exiles hungry to explore man’s alienation while focusing on the psychological development of their otherwise very ordinary and unheroic characters. A product of its time, the modernist movement in the arts reflected a growing estrangement that resulted from (among other things) the cold steel of industrialization and the methodical advancements in warfare, both of which were being fully exploited in the first two decades of the 20th century. Meanwhile, new developments in physics and archaeology were systematically debunking major systems of belief regarding the origins of humanity and the universe itself. With these unprecedented challenges for civilization, coupled with a crisis of faith, the need to find a sense of purpose and meaning to life penetrated every segment of society and permeates every page of these two novels.

Also at this time, huge breakthroughs were being made in the relatively young field of psychology. Sigmund Freud had just begun laying the groundwork for psychoanalysis, and science was using new methods to examine how the human mind operates, how it yearns for meaning, and how it processes the stress and trauma of daily life. Gustav Flaubert and a few other authors dabbled in this area at least a half a century earlier, in novels like Madame Bovary, but Mann and especially Joyce elevated the interior monologue to new heights.

This psychological approach, more than anything else, distinguishes the modern novelists from their superficial predecessors. Rather than simply describing the events as they happen, Joyce relates each event indirectly, as it is perceived by the characters in his novel, so that nothing beyond the horizon of perception is seen with any certainty. Instead, the reader swims through the thoughts of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, taking in the novel’s events as the phenomenological experience of its lead actors. The slightest thing – the scent of a flower, a familiar voice, a passing bicycle – any are enough to launch Bloom’s imagination into a flurry of activity; and it’s these thoughts and ideas, not the flower, the voice, or the bicycle, that define the experience. In a lengthy stream of thought on Gerty MacDowell, Bloom recalls, “Her every effort would be to share his thoughts.” (p.358) There, in the folds of his grey matter, lies the treasure that no locksmith can reveal, that every hero recovers when his princess is rescued.

While this introspective method of storytelling can make the narrative challenging and at times downright unbearable, it does produce a far richer and more psychologically authentic experience. For the events that happen around an individual take on a secondary significance to how the individual sees and processes those events within the framework of his own consciousness.

We see the paramount importance of psychological reality trumping physical reality in The Magic Mountain as well. Although Mann refrains from using the pure stream of consciousness narration, Hans Castorp clearly spends a great deal of time lost in his own thoughts. And the thoughts themselves are what validate his outward observations. “For behind that brow were thoughts – or half-thoughts – which imparted to the visions their perilous sweetness.” (p.206)

The Mything Link

Despite their antithetical settings – Stephen Dedalus in the urban streets of pre-sovereign Dublin and Hans Castorp at the remote Swiss alpine retreat of Berghof – the paths of these heroes run a very similar course. Each follows the tale of a lonely neophyte, curious and eager to attain the meaning of life and humanity, which is ultimately an untenable mystery. Stephen wanders in constant search of his spiritual father, while Hans struggles to reconcile the disparity between Settembrini’s humanism and Naphta’s volatility, to resolve the Manichaean dialectic between body and spirit.

The parallels magnify as one delves deeper into the content of these epic novels, tracing the monumental journey of a young initiate in search of life’s answers. Stephen and Hans each typify the mythological tale of the hero’s quest, and both authors are profoundly aware of the fertile field of myth from which they draw. Joyce goes so far as to model the title and structure of his masterpiece after Homer’s “Odyssey”, and Mann continually evokes notions of Greek, Sumerian and Biblical mythology. Joyce’s heroic youth even bears the name of the Classical world’s greatest inventor, designer of the legendary labyrinth that housed the dreadful Minotaur. And Mann’s Hans Castorp recalls the Greek Castor, twin brother of Pollux, but tragically lacking that brother’s important quality of immortality.

Steeped with references to Moses, the great Magi, and the archetypal hero, Ulysses and The Magic Mountain both employ a peculiarly modern hero, in search of meaning in an increasingly anomic world, on the lookout for the San Grail amidst quotidian life’s most mundane obstacles. Joyce takes the notion of “daily” life to the literal extreme, tackling the events of a lifetime within the time span of a single day. Hans Castorp, meanwhile, battles the demons of ennui and meaninglessness over the course of seven years. For both heroes, the struggle is a lonely and intensely personal one. Advice is offered from numerous acquaintances, but one never knows whom to believe, and of course, the truest answers always lie within.

Early on in Ulysses, Stephen observes, “Where there is a reconciliation… there must first be a sundering.” (p.191) And again on the following page, he repeats for emphasis, “There can be no reconciliation if there has not been a sundering.” (p.192) In other words, there can be no redemption without transgression; or in Christianity, man must sin in order to be saved; or with Jung, one must follow the shadow to discover the light. And this lies at the very crux of the hero’s journey, the Hanged Man of the Tarot, who turns the world on its head and clears the way for rebirth. Joyce takes the reader to a funeral early in the novel, and returns to the maternity ward to witness a birth very near the end. Every page drips with metaphor, each more paradoxical than the last. Hans evokes the same inverted image on his journey to the mountain top.

At the sanitarium he discovers that true health can be achieved only after enduring a chapter of illness. Dr. Behrens lures the youth in and makes the diagnosis, whether genuine or imaged remains irrelevant, for this is the dream world of myth where every vessel holds a varied bouquet of meanings, each as real as every other. “What [Hans] comes to understand,” in Mann’s own words, “is that one must go through the deep experience of sickness and death to arrive at a higher sanity and health.” (Epilogue, pp.724-5)

As he wanders the streets of Dublin, Bloom also observes this paradox inherent in the quest for salvation. “Poisons the only cures. Remedy where you least expect it. Clever of nature.” (p.83) He later notes the same ironic solution with regard to a rotten black potato that dwells in the recesses of his trouser pocket.

A Hero and his Devices

Through their heavy reliance on the vast body of ancient mythology, Joyce and Mann succeed not only in evoking a wide pantheon of imagery, but even in establishing mythologies of their own. From the orphaned child in search of his roots, to the litany of Herculean ordeals, to the blinding moment of atonement, each recipe is complete. But the two creators go beyond the use of those standard ingredients to include a host of flavor enhancing spices and devices that effectively raise the reader to a state of catharsis.

Joyce’s prose acts as something of a hallucinogen all by itself, and like other psychoactive compounds, it can serve as both a poison and a cure, transporting the reader to a distant realm, far from his circle of comfort. Mann draws his followers into the dreamworld by more subtle means, most notably his manipulation of time. After taking almost 100 pages to cover Hans’s first three weeks in the high alpine resort, time begins racing along. Throughout the novel, the pace never quite settles, neither in the minds of the characters nor those of the readers. As narrator, Mann returns to this element of uncertainty again and again, so that the tediously repetitious life at Berghof always retains this mystical, dreamlike quality, a marriage of the sacred and the mundane.

The element of timelessness is crucial to both novels, but the two authors go about creating their “worlds outside of time” with nearly opposite techniques. While Mann strives to establish a sense of nunc sans, or an eternal now, over the course of several years, Joyce’s narrative emphasizes an endless pattern of repetition, which can be established in the hours of a single day. Mann interrupts the story on numerous occasions to point out the difficulty of describing the passage of time.

“Can one tell – that is to say, narrate – time, time itself, as such, for its own sake? That would surely be an absurd undertaking.” (p.541) He suggests that Hans Castorp’s adventure cannot be couched in the standard framework of time, that it eludes time and is universal.

Mann repeatedly points out how indistinguishable the seasons appear in the high mountain world of Berghof. Snow may fall in August, the sun beats down in February, there’s no telling what time of year it is by observing the weather. Each supper looks like every other supper, so that the days run together, and just like the alpine seasons are impossible to distinguish from one another.

Ulysses illustrates the same phenomenon with the converse approach. Instead of running through day after identical day, Joyce restricts his novel to a single day in June 1904, which he implicitly presents as the archetype of every other day since the dawn of time. (This theme is hammered home even harder in Joyce’s later novel, Finnegans Wake.) Just as the hero represents the struggle of any and every man, Joyce takes the metaphor a step further, so the ordinary day of June 16th embodies the ups and downs of all possible days.

On these mind altering journeys, Joyce and Mann, like any responsible shaman, offer their initiate readers an eclectic array of talismans – a Maria Mancini cigar, a black potato, a bar of lemon soap – to keep them rooted on the proper path. Joyce’s leitmotifs operate like holy charms in the cryptic myth of Stephen and Bloom, offering dependable access to the ways of the divine whenever the soul should stray too far, as it all too often does in the maze of Ulysses. Bloom’s recurring thoughts of gravity and bodies falling “thirty-two feet per second, per second” echo like a Gregorian chant, and their meaning seems equally elusive at first. But his obsession with the fall can be interpreted in a number of ways, including a recapitulation of Stephen’s conjecture that there can be no salvation without transgression, or a reference to the simple act of falling in love, or more likely both.

Stephen’s stream of consciousness brings him time and time again back to the complex notion of consubstantiality, as described in Catholic dogma, as illustrated by Hamlet’s ghost, and as ultimately seen between himself and Bloom. Accepting the idea that man and god can be made of the same substance leads to the conclusion that all men must be made of the same substance, that we are all divine and interconnected, a tenet that rests at the core of Blavatsky’s theosophy, which appears more than once, though very casually, amid the pages of Ulysses.

Not so far removed from Stephen’s pursuit of consubstantiality is Bloom’s inability to shake the term “metempsychosis” from his mind. His obsession mirrors Joyce’s own fascination with the concept of rebirth, or the transmigration of souls, which reappears in various costumes throughout the work. While waiting for lunch, Bloom wanders off in thought about the universal act of consumption, and stumbles into a kind of existential guilt. “One born every second somewhere. Other dying every second. Since I fed the birds five minutes. Three hundred kicked the bucket.” (p.162)

Later in the same episode, Bloom considers the philosophy of vegetarianism as a means of escaping the cycle of life and death. But there is no escape, and accepting the concomitant roles of consumer and victim in the great scheme of existence is crucial to every spiritual awakening. Every conscious being must come to terms with the fact that living and killing walk hand in hand. He must then transcend that guilt, or wind up in a self-destructive neurosis.

Elixirs of Life

From the development of their modern, lonely heroes in their timeless, murky waters, Mann and Joyce cover much the same territory. But the proof of any great quest resides in the treasure of the hero’s boon. How the Holy Grail is recovered and just what gold it contains provide the climax and reward of every mythic quest.

For Stephen and Bloom, the epiphany comes in a series of thunderbolts that punctuate the episode of Miss Bello’s brothel. Entirely out of their masculine, scholarly element, surrounded by women of easy virtue with the clock sounding midnight, Joyce’s duo undergo a magical transformation. While Bloom, under the spell of Homer’s Circe, experiences a literal awakening of is inner female anima, Stephen receives a visit from his mother’s ghost. Unlike the oft-invoked Hamlet, who cowers in response to the demands and accusations of his parental specter, Stephen takes a stand against his “beastly dead” mother to deliver his familiar mantra: non serviam, I will not serve. Just as Leopold Bloom seems to achieve a state of unity with his Self, in a bold step toward Jungian individuation, his young counterpart accomplishes the critical stage of separation.

Stumbling back to the Bloom house and climbing through the window (while conventional paths and means of entry no longer suffice), the two men gradually come to terms with one another, slowly beginning to see themselves in the other’s reflection. Stephen’s question of consubstantiality and Bloom’s mystery of metempsychosis are resolved at long last. Stephen, Bloom and possibly even God are all of the same substance, and will forever return as the simple cogs in the grandiose wheel of time, repeating with the hypnotic pace of a funeral march. After touching on nearly every flavor of world religion, this soulful conclusion bears a striking resemblance to the principles of Theosophy. “That Blavatsky woman started it,” J.J. O’Molloy reminds us. (p.139)

On the subject of this substance that he and Bloom share, i.e., the soul, Stephen says, “They tell me on the best authority it is a simple substance and therefore incorruptible.”  Bloom accepts this proposition – even as the sugar dissolves into their coffee – but questions Stephen’s use of the word “simple” and further asserts, “It’s a horse of quite another colour to say that you believe in the existence of a supernatural God.” (p.618) Bloom shares some of Naphta’s skepticism (from The Magic Mountain) and has little faith in what can’t be seen, even through telescopes or Röntgen rays, although he earlier admits, “I believe in that [soul] myself because it has been explained by competent men as the convolutions of grey matter.” (p.617)

Many of these same mythic, transformative elements also come to play with Hans Castorp as he wanders up the Schatzalp (“treasure mountain”) and loses himself in a sunset snow storm. Defying Berghof’s authority, Hans straps on his cross country skis and makes his way up the hill – the separation – on a journey within a journey: from his stay in the high sanatorium to a clandestine, twilight mission into the snow shrouded forest. (Another opportunity for intrepid scholarship arises here, to compare Hans’s “journey within a journey” to the odyssey within an odyssey conducted by a bar of soap  through the varied landscapes of Leopold Blooms’ numerous pockets.) Confronted by sheets of snow, Hans describes his vision of “nothingness, white, whirling nothingness” (p.483) The blinding moment of truth recalls the Buddhist state of emptiness that preludes Satori. Where Hans feels most disoriented, the breakthrough is made.

Exemplifying the need to go through sickness to arrive at health, Hans set himself down in the snow and accepts the inevitability of death. At this point, he launches into a most soulful dream, and awakens – literally and figuratively – with newfound reverence. “I will let death have no mercy over my thoughts. For therein lies goodness and love of mankind, and in nothing else.” (p.496) At last Hans returns to the sub-alpine “flatland,” and the promise of hope runs deep for “life’s delicate child,” even in the face of almost certain demise in the wretched trenches of World War I.

In Ulysses, Joyce assigns the voice of ultimate confirmation to Bloom’s wife Molly, the archetypal mother goddess, whose thoughts meander all over creation, finally arriving at the novel’s famous closing line. After the most cryptic and convoluted of all narratives, questioning all the world’s challenges, casting doubt on every form of faith or hope, Joyce concludes with the simplest affirmation of life: “yes I said yes I will yes.” (p.768)


The archetypal hero’s journey offers but one paradigm through which to read these novels, and this method of deciphering the texts is by no means complete, but a satisfactory reading could certainly not be achieved without a solid familiarity with the language of myth. The theme of Eternal Spring blossoms repeatedly through the timeless frame of both narratives. By the name of nunc sans, the eternal now, or the abiding now, the concept transcends language, and yet Mann and Joyce both tackle it with nimble precision. And the Eternal Return – perhaps the most pervasive theme in the voluminous annals of mythology – recurs through Ulysses and The Magic Mountain with all the resilience and tenacity of a fallen Christ figure, a disembodied hero on the Nile, or a harvested shaft of wheat.

Ultimately, both novels follow the course of myth to its source, to the same conclusion reached by Nietzsche, Freud and Jung, portraying religion as an internal phenomenon rather than the revelation of an external being, a psychological projection rather than an eschatological certainty. That inner treasure lies waiting in the soul of the reader, demanding its recovery, and Ulysses in particular, by virtue of its abstruce complexity, invites an interminable stream of interpretations, including an innumerable quantity of valid ones. The nature of this ineffable quality – what some call God – can never be fully grasped, no matter how many mythic metaphors are employed, so our best hope is to understand the relationship between man and “God,” the ways in which people experience God as a collective phenomenon. Therein lies the true challenge to any reader of these 20th century epics, or any seeker of undying truth.

(January 2009)


Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: The Modern Library, Inc., 1934.

Mann, Thomas. The Magic Mountain. Trans. H.T. Lowe-Porter. New York: Vintage Books, 1969.

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Most visitors will be content to gaze agog with jaw wide open at La Sagrada Familia, an architectural feat of unmatched ambition. But if you’re like me—and I’m sure you are—you will be forced to devote an inordinate amount of time reflecting on the theological implications of a church construction project that will quite possibly drag out for all of eternity. So that’s what I did, and I soon realized that Gaudi’s magnum opus was just swimming in religious undercurrents.

If at any point on your visit to this gargantuan House of God, you should happen to give any thought to the Old Testament, it would be hard to overlook the kinship between the 172.5-meter-high Sagrada Familia and the fabled Tower of Babel. The visionary architect Antonio Gaudi began designing the mammoth cathedral in 1872 and commenced construction in Barcelona a decade later.

In 1926, with the project approximately 15 percent finished, Gaudi was killed, as if by an act of God, when he was struck by a car on his way to church. This of course was not enough to stymie the project, but for the last 90 years, construction workers and vehicles have continued to scurry about the premises like so many frantic Babylonian builders.

When King Nimrod, in the Book of Genesis, schemed to build a tower that would reach past the sky and into the heavens, God saw fit to punish the king for having too much pride. He made sure that the Tower of Babel would never be completed, that heaven would not be touched. As with the quest for holy perfection, the devotee may work forever toward spiritual growth, always improving, but never reaching the finish line. The journey, as the Taoists say, is the reward.

The Greeks have their own story to illustrate such a never-ending task. Of course, I’m referring to the Myth of Sisyphus, in which Zeus punishes another conniving king, sentencing him to spend his eternal afterlife trying to roll a rock to the top of an insurmountable hill. Granted, construction of the actual cathedral might not truly last an eternity, but even if it is finished on schedule—how very unlikely—the project’s timetable will still rival those of the Great Wall of China and the Pyramid at Giza.

King Sisyphus is given a hellacious task, but like any epic undertaking, there is something noble about his efforts. He demonstrates for us the value of committing oneself to a project of immense scope. Like Gaudi and Nimrod, Sisyphus aims for immeasurable heights, strives to reach the unreachable. As a myth involving gods and the underworld, we have to recognize the divine nature of Sisyphus’s chore. He too is reaching for the realm of the heavens, striving for contact with the infinite being, the universal source, the ultimate connection with one and all.

The Old Testament offers one more, less familiar story, to convey the same message in still another way. The episode involves the transportation of the Ark of the Covenant. When an ox, pulling the ark of God, stumbles,  Uzzah reaches out with one hand to steady the ark. In His anger, the Lord strikes Uzzah dead on the spot for this irreverent act. (The scene, however brief, appears twice: 2 Samuel 6:1-7 and 1 Chronicles 13:9-12.)

The Jahweh of the Old Testament is truly ruthless and merciless (not much worse than the car that struck Gaudi dead in the street) but the passage ought to be read figuratively. In reaching out to touch the ark, Uzzah was violating a strict edict, the same law encountered by Nimrod, Sisyphus and Gaudi. The Word of God, contained in the ark, cannot be touched, not directly.

Through myths and stories, we can speak indirectly about the higher realms. But if we reach out to touch them, our efforts will only be in vein. Such things are ethereal, not of this earth. We can long for direct, divine experience—and we should—but we can never hold it in the palms of our hands. it. There is no tangible contact with the absolute, no direct knowledge of God. We can only approach it asymptotically.

Nineteenth century philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard emphasized this same principle in one his more interesting and provocative essays. Advocating for what he called a Leap of Faith, Kierkegaard explained that if God wanted us to have proof of His existence, he surely would have provided it. But instead the spiritual life is grounded not on proof, but on belief. It is a personal, spiritual process, not an absolute and objective terminus.

Now maybe you don’t buy into all this metaphysical mumbo jumbo. That’s fine. Who could blame you? But even even your mundane daily duties, you must have noticed that the satisfaction you get from completing a project of any magnitude—a little endorphin rush that last a few minutes, or maybe a whole day in the most extreme cases—still pales in comparison to the ongoing satisfaction you get from being involved in a project you find meaningful and worthwhile. So long as we are engaged, we enjoy that critical sense of meaning; but once our defining project is finished, the sense of purpose dissolves, and life sinks back into that state of inscrutability.  The journey, once again, outshines the destination.

In the end, I seem to have gotten more than I bargained for from my 18 euro admission into La Sagrada Famila. It gave me a lot to think about, though it brought me no closer to my destination. So in the meantime, I hope that all your tasks and toils may be deep and meaningful, bringing you ever nearer to that place of universal connectivity. Never stop reaching for the stars, but don’t be too disappointed if you fall short. And finally, be mindful of Gaudi’s response to his engineers when they told him that his grandiose idea would take centuries to complete. “No problem,” he said, “my client is not in a hurry.”

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Great Flood

The landscape of American political discourse increasingly faces a contingent of Sunday school graduates who are convinced that the Great Flood story told in the book of Genesis recalls a series of genuine historical facts. This pious population largely overlaps with another segment of society who discards every report of manmade climate change and rising sea levels as a myth and a hoax. A more perceptive observer might recognize the irony of maintaining this pair of attitudes towards these two global cataclysms. One might even think it pretty funny, were it not for the fact that the fate of our planet hangs in the balance.

Against this rising tide of reactionary rigidity, climate scientists throughout NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency are just about 40 days and 40 nights away from losing all their federal funding and returning to the parochial mindset of the late bronze age. Meanwhile, the consolidated super-minority maintains its strangle hold over scientific research, and its stifling monopoly of fossil fuel based energy production.

In the name of shameless profits, these captains of industry ignore the warnings of rising temperatures and sinking glaciers. It is inconceivable, to them—and more importantly, to their followers—that human activity could have any such significant impact on the planet. To their old-time way of thinking, such catastrophes are nothing less than acts of God, coming to earth as a form of punishment against man and his wicked ways.

This is the message of another prophet, Noah. When God delivers the flood to wipe out the planet and the race of man, He preserves Noah, for he is the only righteous man on earth, “blameless among the people of his time.” (Genesis 6:9)

The Flood of the Old Testament is unique in this sense. Elsewhere, in the Mesopotamia, for example, the flood is a random act of disaster. One man, Utnapishtim, survives, but because he is wise. He alone has access to the elusive elixir, the secret of eternal life.

Strict adherents of the Old Testament, proud descendants of America’s Bible Belt, reject this story, from the legend of Gilgamesh, in the much the same way that they reject the science of global warming. On the one hand, the science is not supported by their own mythology, which tells them they are God’s chosen people. God created this paradise for humans to flourish, and when the time of Judgment comes, nothing man-made has the power to hasten or delay it.

The story of Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim, on the other hand, is untenable because the secret of eternal life belongs to Christ alone. In their fundamentalist worldview, the more ancient flood story only provides historical support for the Biblical flood, which they accept as both genuine fact and divine retribution. If they could only expand their own consciousness, just a smidge, they might recognize not only the figurative and allegorical value of the Mesopotamian flood, but also the importance of an exhaustive historic record of ocean temperatures.

In the vocabulary of poetry and myth, a flood from the watery depths stands for a rising wave of energy from the subconscious. When the unconscious material confronts the conscious mind, it can be a frightening and perplexing event, as we have all experienced in our nightly dreams.

Historically, we can also trace this confrontation back to our earliest ancestors, when the dawn of consciousness brought us down from the trees and saw us gathering around the tribal campfire. No one can possibly pinpoint this mysterious leap that came to separate men from beasts, when our species was endowed with self-consciousness, and what we inscrutably refer to as the soul. But this could explain why the flood motif appears almost universally in world mythology.

In our personal lives, we might also encounter such an irruption of consciousness. There are memories from our childhood, or perhaps an even earlier time. There are truths that we know in the pits of our stomachs, but refuse to bring into our conscious minds for fear of what damage they might do to our fragile egos. It is powerful knowledge that brings a disruption. Like water, it works gently, yet it has the force to carve canyons out of mountains.

Could it be that the hard-to-swallow facts of climate change, rising sea levels and disappearing islands, bring a message which, for many, is simply too much to bear? To accept the unnerving knowledge and make the necessary changes means a lot of work, and a change of mindset. Instead, many prefer to tether themselves to an unshakable foundation of stone. Thou art Petro, and upon this rock I build my church.

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