Archive for the ‘Literary Commentary’ Category

Fifty years ago this summer, the Sgt. Pepper’s LP from the Beatles was taking the world by stereophonic storm. The album defined one generation, and left its massive kaleidoscopic footprint on those to follow. It continues to capture my imagination, and in the spirit of Joseph Campbell, I see and hear undercurrents of the hero’s journey written all over it. No wonder it’s appeal has proven timeless, if not universal. Like a Mesopotamian legend or a German fairy tale, the Beatles spin a tale that resonates deeply in the human psyche.

The album opens with great fanfare and mock bombast, announcing a performance of exceptional proportions, presaging a bona fide epic of the most self-conscious variety. At the end of this quick and rowdy Sgt. Pepper preamble, the band introduces the body of the opus, and day breaks—for the first time—on a perfectly ordinary character. Ringo gives voice to a sanguine but unenlightened optimist who gets by (and high) with a little help from his friends. Like the rest of us, he just wants somebody to love. Here we have the archetypal everyman, the quintessential fool, on the cusp of a hero’s journey. He has been chosen, and so he accepts the call.

Track three opens with a mesmerizing melody on the organ, and we immediately sense a shift from the ordinary to the surreal. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, like a hot dose of LSD, opens up a whole new world of “plasticine porters and looking glass ties.” One pill makes you larger, one pill makes you small, and down the rabbit hole we go. “Head in the clouds, and he’s gone.” We have crossed the point of no return and the hero is well on his way, to follow that quest, wherever it may lead.

From there, a burst of bright guitar chops launches us into the next level of optimism, where things truly are “Getting Better” all the time. No more angry young man, no more “hiding me head in the sand”, it’s time to for a complete change of scene and a total psychological overhaul. We have turned a corner, and the upward spiral continues. The hero charges onward, with the proverbial treasure fixed in his crosshairs.

The hero’s and the listeners’ eyes and ears are wide open now. The rabbit hole is the new normal, and we are ready for anything. Cue the harpsichords! Time to fix that hole and “keep my mind from wandering.” The imagination runs wild and “a number of things that weren’t important yesterday” come to the fore. Here the unconscious self breaks through the surface and the old habits are cast away. Indeed, the hole cannot be fixed, and so the mind is flooded with new perspectives and revelatory ideas.

With these fresh insights, both psychic and psychedelic, the old paradigm is no longer tenable. The hero resorts to drastic measures, and “at 5 o’clock as the day begins” and the harp strums softly in the background, we turn away finally from family and tradition. “She’s Leaving Home” and she’s not looking back. McCartney recounts her exodus in excruciating, tear-jerking detail. It’s a story as old as the pentatonic scale, of a young woman yearning to be free, and her parents—concerned but distant—who have absolutely no idea how it happened. “What did we do that was wrong?”

Side one draws to a close and we are off, with our frisky young runaway, to where else, but the circus. “For the benefit of Mr. Kite, there will be a show tonight.” Meanwhile, the multitrack recording performs its own dizzying array of acrobatics. Up and down, backward and forward, and hats off to the maestro producer, engineer and ringmaster, George Martin, aka the Fifth Beatle, for “their production will be second to none.” And after an all-out three ring circus of lyrical imagery and orchestral gymnastics, the record needle drifts obliviously into the vinyl’s inner groove.

Flipping the disc to side two, we ascend even greater heights. No more simple adolescent rebellion and horses dancing the waltz. The time has come for a spiritual awakening. Look into the void and let Harrison’s hypnotizing sitar carry you into that space where all things are one and separation is utter illusion. One of only two songs to clock in over five minutes, “Within You and Without You” transports all those with eyes to see and ears to hear to a realm beyond this mundane material place. To the frustration of Lennon and McCartney perhaps, it is under George’s aegis that the most precious kernel of enlightenment truly crystallizes. Here, among a rich, mysterious tapestry of exotic scales and eastern rhythms, the hero finds his treasure and discovers “a love [that] can change the world. . . If they only knew!”

When the victor returns from this ethereal dominion, he is greeted by a cheerful clarinet, Paul’s soothing voice, and a newfound willingness to accept old age and mortality. Will you still be there with me, “When I’m sixty-four”? The earlier optimism presses on, but now it carries the wisdom and foresight that was absent before. Knitting sweaters and Sunday drives: the promise of life’s simple pleasures rings as true as Ringo’s mighty cowbell.

The hero has captured the gold, and now it’s time to rescue the princess. Or is it the princess who will rescue him? What difference does it make when we are all one and life goes on within us and without us? The princess after all, is none other than “Lovely Rita”, a lowly meter maid on the outside, but a goddess and savior on the inside, worthy of John’s howling praise and panting paeans. She even picks up the bill after dinner.

“Nothing has changed, it’s still the same,” and yet everything has changed when the quest is complete and the hero returns, amidst sizzling guitar riffs, crashing cymbals and a riot of barnyard animals who greet the day. For at least the third or forth time, our epic protagonist wakes up and bids “Good Morning” to the world. But now he looks on the world with a fresh pair of eyes. He has come full circle, and the world looks to him for answers. And it’s the same solution we’ve heard a hundred times before: there is “Nothing to do. It’s up to you. Nothing to say, but it’s ok.”

Finally, as the dogs, cats, lions and roosters stir up a commotion, and a horse gallops into the distance, Sgt. Pepper’s band returns with a reprise of their introductory anthem. Thanks are issued, and the audience roars with applause. The saga closes, save for the cataclysmic coda, “A Day in the Life”, in which we return to the mundane, witness the tragic, and wake up one last time. “Woke up, got out of bed…” and barely made it to work on time. But then, amidst the monotony, the death and the decay, we “slip into a dream”. The orchestra rises to climatic heights, then crashes and fades slowly back into the void.

The day is done and the cycle is complete. From birth, to death, to rebirth; from acceptance, to rejection, to acceptance; we are all one. And life goes on, always revolving, ever forward, sometimes back. And that’s the news today. Oh boy.


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Happy Bloomsday, 16 June 2017. If you’ve ever tried to read James Joyce’s Ulysses, but had trouble getting through it, you may find this series of Limericks helpful, even illuminating. Or if you read it all the way through, and even enjoyed it, you might actually find this series entertaining.


There once was an artist called Stephen
With Homer he tried to get even
So Bloom and he walk
Around Dublin and talk
And reflect upon what they believe in


Telemachus (episode 1)
It starts with a portion of prose
From “Portrait” our character rose
A maker of mazes
His thoughts take us places
Like the Liffey his monologue flows


Nestor (episode 2)
At school young Stephen is teaching
And into the past he is reaching
By his’try they’re bound
To a king and his crown
And a Pope who’s incessantly preaching


Proteus (episode 3)
Introducing the Protean mind
Streaming with thoughts of all kind
The king can change shapes
As our hero escapes
On a quest for a woman who’s kind


Calypso (episode 4)
Calypso is leading a life of seduction
As Leopold seldom attempts reproduction
Their home goes to Blazes
While Bloom simply gazes
At maidens who gaily portend his destruction


Lotus Eaters (episode 5)
Naughty Miss Martha she beckoned
For Henry was lonely she reckoned
But when she comes calling
He can’t help from falling
Some thirty-two Bloom feet per second


Hades (episode 6)
In Hades his thoughts grow nightmarish
On the losses of loved ones we cherish
Of Rudy’s young face
And father’s disgrace
Each day umpteen thousand more perish


Aeolus (episode 7)
There’s a paper where men shoot the breeze
Blowing steam over Mad Cow’s Disease
Home Rule is one topic
On which they’re myopic
For our heroes have both lost their keys


Lestrygonians (episode 8)
There was an old Hebrew in search of a bite
In the lunchroom he witnessed a sickening sight
With the animals feeding
He felt like excreting
But a sandwich he managed to eat with delight


Scylla & Charybdis (episode 9)
Now Stephen’s reasons seem so circumstantial
Prince Hamlet distracts him from problems financial
In a sharp dialectic
And a voice apoplectic
He maintains that the actors are all consubstantial


Wandering Rocks (episode 10)
Inverts and adverts and throwaway sheets
The minions meander through mazes and streets
A priest on parade
A state cavalcade
The double-edged spoon from which Ireland eats


Sirens (episode 11)
A hero hears voices out over the oceans
While sirens fill glasses with succulent potions
His eardrum it pounds
With sonorous sounds
And somewhere a street girl seductively motions


Cyclops (episode 12)
I once knew a man who was prone to eruption
Lashing about at the eye of destruction
Exalting his land
Libation in hand
Then blinded by no man with no introduction


Nausicaa (episode 13)
O’er the sea sinks the sun with contrition
To be watching alone is the human condition
Like a rock on the sand
Honeymoon in the hand
Sowing seeds with no chance of fruition


Oxen of the Sun (episode 14)
There was a commotion in yon House of Horne
By three days of labor a mother was torn
While gentlemen waiting
Delivered words so degrading
The god-possibled soul of a new boy was born


Circe #1 (episode 15)
A vision at midnight by magic affected
But Bloom’s black potato is bound to correct it
Like a morsel of moly
To reverse the unholy
The remedy found where you least would expect it


Circe #2
Our pig-headed heroes wind up at Miss Bello’s
One of the district’s most fetching bordellos
Where spirits might render
Delusions of splendor
Finally conjoining these two wayward fellows


Circe #3
Stubbornly Stephen’s extending his nerve
“Non Serviam” he will duly observe
While Bloom takes a bow
Like a suckling sow
The artist announces that he will not serve


Eumaeus (episode 16)
In the wee early hours their congress occurs
Perfectly sober Bloom sorely infers
That Stephen’s been euchered
Forsaken and suckered
And therefore he (Bloom) at this treason demurs


Ithaca (episode 17)
How shall this hero extinguish his passion?
With questions all posed in fastidious fashion
Then where does he head?
But straight for the bed
Right back to the womb and the voice of compassion


Penelope (episode 18)
They’re fleshing things out at their Eccles address
Erupting with feelings she needs to express
She wonders half sleeping
Is Poldy worth keeping?
And answers in estrous emphatically Yes


Poetry students are said to be sissies
They wander through life like a string of ellipses
Other vocations
Achieve higher stations
But all of it’s useless unless it’s Ulysses



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James Joyce’s most celebrated novel, Ulysses, has been described—by Joyce himself, or perhaps it was Robert Anton Wilson—as either a religion disguised as a joke or a joke disguised as a religion. In either case, the author’s efforts to probe the depths for secret subtle wisdom were profound indeed, but equally important, his revelations were consistently made with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. From Moses to Shakespeare to Aquinas, none was immune to the sarcastic lampooning of Joyce’s rapier wit.

A useful religion, like a good joke, requires a great deal of cognitive blending, examining words, concepts and narratives from a number of simultaneous perspectives. Fairy tales, holy scripture and great novels all employ the language of myth, which is the dialect of metaphor. Potent language brims with signs and symbols, draws us in with a simple enough story, then engages clever devices to direct our imaginations upwards, to higher levels of meaning. A good joke sets up certain expectations, then swings the helm and points us in a different, unexpected direction with joyful results. Either way, when we surrender ourselves to the charms of a good narrator, we also appoint him to the role of navigator, allowing our imaginations and our unconscious to be guided far afield into uncharted waters.

Rarely if ever has anyone grasped the full power of language and known how to harness it the way Joyce did. Each word is selected with the utmost care, and pregnant with meaning and potential. Every sentence is constructed with as much deliberation and precision as a seven layer wedding cake being delivered to the surface of Mars. It may not make for light reading, but it can provide a lifetime’s worth of study for the assiduous reader.

Like Biblical scripture, his books can be read time and time again, with additional layers of meaning gleaned from each and every subsequent reading, while accumulating a greater and greater general knowledge as necessary to draw increasingly meaningful interpretations. Ulysses, in fact, is the kind of book that one could study with the same sort of devotion and exclusivity that fundamentalists apply to the Bible or the Koran. Once you have thoroughly understood this masterpiece, then you will have grasped a complete understanding of human history and the world. Like holding William Blake’s infinity in the palm of your hand, Joyce’s microcosm of Dublin contains—however obliquely disguised or ironically revealed—an all inclusive metaphysical system and a comprehensive roadmap of the human soul.

Committing oneself to the literary output of James Joyce may confer great intellectual and spiritual benefits, but the material disadvantages are hard to overlook. I’m reminded of Lynch’s words to Stephen in the aesthetic theory section of A Portrait of the Artist. “Damn you and damn everything. I want a job at five hundred a year. You can’t get me one.”

No, the remunerative opportunities for the full-time Joyce enthusiast are limited indeed. For the aficionado of fine literature, this may come as a somewhat disheartening realization, for what it says about our society and what is valued and what is not. But I as gave this fact a more thought, I came to see that Joyce is not the profitless diversion, but it’s money that is the vulgar distraction. True enough, we live in a society where money is the measure of all things and what cannot be monetized is discarded and disdained.

Joyce, however, was a staunch advocate of art for art’s sake. By virtue of the the fact that these profound works remain untarnished by greed, profiteering or other commercial influence, they retain a special place in our society, or more accurately, outside of our society. Somehow this joke disguised as a religion, untainted by man’s foulest devices, is elevated to an even higher, sacred plane. Its study is relegated to the mystical and esoteric circles, where the ideas and intentions remain most pure, detached from earthly pursuits. Go forth then into that otherworldly realm of wisdom and mystery, and rejoice, for the remedy you seek cannot be bought or sold.

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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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I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about the value of resistance and the importance of breaking with tradition. In the process of maturation, every individual must go through a phase of rebellion in order to define his or her own personality. It can be a turbulent business, as dramatized by a thousand coming-of-age stories, dating back as far as the oldest fairy tales right up to latest holiday blockbusters. The chivalrous knight slays the mean old dragon who stands in his way, as in the legend of St. George. Luke and Leia take up arms against the evil empire, in the science-fiction movie that delivered the defining mythology of my generation. Even Oedipus struck down his own father to defy prophecy and flout authority.

Some rebellions prove more successful than others. Some uprisings result in growth, progress and maturation. While other cases of subversion—driven by pride, arrogance and self-interest—serve only to inflate the ego. With no capacity for self-reflection, the ruthless and unscrupulous iconoclast tears down the old hierarchy and with it every standard of moral decency, without regard for truth or integrity. Such is the tragic fate of the indecorous anti-hero, unable to discern between the subtle gradations of good and evil, unable to embrace real human values.

I have dredged the annals of world mythology to find the quintessential super villain, to serve as a model of our new President, who has promised to shake things up, bring down the old establishment, and sell the earth and the sky up the river without a second’s hesitation. I considered the Joker, terrorizing Gotham with his brightly colored hair, and the Pharaoh, who stood proud before Moses and unmoved in the face of frogs, locusts and a river of blood. Finally I found him, staring back at me from the profound depths of Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, the archetype of reckless defiance, the unmistakable face of Satan.

In the first two books of this epic 17th century poem, Milton has Satan seduce the reader with his confident oratory. He takes a bold stance against God, the status quo, and the old world order. He goes so far as accuse God of ruling the earth only according to might makes right, in what he calls “the tyranny of heaven” (Book 1, line 124).

Satan, in all his smooth and silver-tongued rhetoric, would have the reader believe that God rules by virtue of his omnipotent strength, rather than admit that God’s omnipotence goes hand-in-hand with his unbounded virtue. “Who overcomes by force,” says Satan, “hath overcome but half his foe.” (Book 1, line 648-9). The powers that be, he suggests, have no right to rule, when they rule only by force. Assuming authority by means of enterprise and zeal is a far more respectable endeavor, chasing the American dream by hook or by crook, in other words.

A widely held opinion in America says that the government has fooled the people into believing that it is here to help us, when in fact its laws and regulations are really little more than an abuse of power. It is high time, in their minds, to dismantle this sprawling and bloated behemoth, and to restore order to those who have demonstrated their own superior merit. The demonstration of merit however, is all too often nothing more than a little flash of wealth and avarice, and a lot of rhetorical obfuscation.

Bold gestures of anti-establishmentarianism, however well intended, do not a comprehensive, normative and forward looking body of value-based public policy make. And it’s overblown sentences like that that can easily lead an all-too-easily-led faction of dissidents into a state of whipped-up anti-social fanaticism. Which is where our country seemingly stands today.

Like a smooth-talking defense attorney, the blindingly successful Trump campaign wielded a lot of cross-eyed double talk and half-baked obscurantism, with the cheap aim of simply causing confusion and raising a shadow of doubt, as his social media presence did with mind-numbing results. Satan himself couldn’t have asked for a better outcome. What sounds good in a six-word headline finally carries more weight than what is factually true.

“Our cure, to be no more; sad cure!” So goes Satan’s lamentation in Book 2 of “Paradise Lost”, when God has banished the devil and his cohorts to the fiery lake of Hell. Ignoring the darker instincts, suppressing the shadow element—to put in Jungian terms—is no solution, only the postponement of inevitable disruption. But this interjection could just as easily refer to Satan’s strategy to topple God from heaven’s throne, or the Republican remedy to drain the swamp, and then the lake, and the ocean, and the ice caps. The cure might very well prove worse than the disease.

With the valuable aid of Mammon, his most loyal accomplice, the billionaire narcissist persuaded the curious American electorate to take a bite from the forbidden fruit, turning their backs on more than 200 years of law and order. And now the country savors the sweet taste of knowledge, knowing that it has defied everything righteous and reasonable, in favor of unruly dissent and glorious freewill.

It won’t be long before the new administration moves in to the White House, and if they keep their promises, they’ll ransack the place like a gang of reckless, self-centered teenagers who have been waiting months for their parents to leave town for a weekend. Everyone and his kid brother will be invited to the party, so long as they can be trusted not to speak a word of it to mom and dad. There’ll be kegs in the back yard, coke on the coffee tables, and barf in the bathroom sink. It’s the highest form of disobedience and self-expression they can think of at this adolescent stage of development, and don’t expect them to clean up after themselves.

Who will prevail in this cosmic struggle, between order and chaos? In “Paradise Lost”, even a pyrrhic victory was enough of a victory for Satan. “Better to reign in Hell,” he says, “than to serve in Heaven” (Book 1, Line 263). For the Donald, too, the campaign was a costly one. He allowed himself to be blasted and lambasted, made to look like a fool and an ogre. But no price was too high for the title of ‘most powerful man in the world’.

Yet the struggle has only just begun. Even if you skipped Milton, you probably recall the events of Genesis. Satan pulled off his dirty trick by seducing and deceiving Eve, and God levied His cruel punishment against the human race. It is we who had to pay the price. Men were made to labor in the fields and women were made to suffer the pains of childbirth. (Gen. 3:16-18)

And this is how Paradise was lost for humankind. But will the new President relieve the suffering of the women who feared him and ease the burden of the working class that supported him? Or will we undergo another spate of divine retribution for opting to sympathize with the devil? I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.

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Poetic Goethe and the German Dialectic

The Germans have a rich and colorful history of dualistic philosophies and philosophers, pitting opposing forces against one another and cogitating their way towards some resolution or reconciliation. The quintessential and all-encompassing example comes from G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) who famously described the dialectical process in thesis, antithesis and synthesis, which purports to explain how a popularly accepted idea is challenged by a new and revolutionary idea, leading finally to a synthesis of the two earlier ideas into a third idea, superior to the first two.

But we could cite many more examples from the annals of Teutonic literature. Friederich Nietzsche explored the struggle between rational Apollonian and passionate Dionysian energies in his early work The Birth of Tragedy. Karl Marx gave us the unforgettable and historically inevitable showdown between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

Hermann Hesse presented us with many such allegories of intra-psychic drama, perhaps most memorably in Demian, but also with Narcissus and Goldmund, whose title characters typified the rivalry of the ascetic and the sensuous. Thomas Mann portrayed a similar dynamic in A Death In Venice. And who can forget the war of wits waged in his monumental Magic Mountain, between Settembrini with his rational humanism and Naphta with his radical zealotry, as each tries to win over the heart and mind of the languidly ambivalent Hans Castorp?

Hesse, in Demian, and finally Carl Jung, in much of his seminal work, especially the later and more esoteric explorations, forge their paths toward resolving the long legacy of duality, striving to demonstrate how the pairs of opposites actually spin together in a sacred dance, not unlike the Rod of Hermes or the double helix DNA molecule.

Out of this profound tradition, one the earliest examples of philosophical duality comes from Germany’s most beloved man of letters, J.W. Goethe (1749-1832), specifically his two poems “Prometheus” and “Ganymed”. Like so many of his fellow countrymen, Goethe calls upon Greek myth and its archetypal patterns that possess our thoughts and ideas in order to clarify his own message about man’s conflicting tendencies and sensibilities. Indeed, what the ancient Greeks already understood about human nature and were able to illustrate through the drama of mythology cannot possibly be overstated.

But whereas other novelists and polemicists might explore or emphasize the dichotomy of personality traits, such as the rational and the passionate or the civilized and the primeval, this pair of poems from Goethe probes deep into man’s enigmatic relationship with and attitude towards the divine.

Prometheus personifies the spirit of defiance and mischief, stealing fire from the gods to provide mankind with a spark of creativity and ingenuity. So determined was he to share this divine power with humanity, that he was willing to suffer the wrath of Zeus, an interminable punishment, and exposure to the elements. Above all else, Prometheus prizes man for his curiosity and imagination. In Zeus, ruler of Mount Olympus, he sees little more than a spiteful and capricious god who will deny mankind the fire simply out of cruel whimsy, “like the boy who beheads thistles”.

In a world so fraught with evil and anguish, how can anyone accept the notion of divine order and a benevolent, omnipotent ruler? Man can only rely on his own perseverance, endurance and imagination, to make matters more tolerable if he can, and to attribute some meaning to his suffering if he cannot.

And so Prometheus remains undaunted, not to be discouraged by Zeus and his merciless Schadenfreude. “Do you somehow imagine I should hate life, flee to the desert, because not every flowering dream may bloom?” No, instead he presses onward, embracing life with all its sorrows and injustices, indefatigable even in the face of a pitiless master. Not only that, but Prometheus will also see to it that humankind learns to follow his example, to flout divine authority and “to mock you—as I do!”

As a counterpoint to this poetic treatise on misotheism, Goethe gives us the story of Ganymede, with whom Zeus is so smitten that the highest of gods abducts the beautiful young boy, and the boy, showered with love and adoration, succumbs willingly to Zeus’ irresistible seduction. Ganymede embodies obedience and acquiescence, happy to do as he’s told and honor the wishes of his master. In return, the compliant personality experiences life as a smooth ride, and the world a place adorned with welcome mats and doors that swing wide upon, where his gaze is met always with smiles and admiration.

For a golden boy like Ganymede there is no hostility inherent in his surroundings. The handsome youth smiles, and the world smiles back. He is ever eager to please, and in return the world pleases him. “There calls the nightingale lovingly for me from the misty vale. I come, I come! Whither, ah whither?” What is ordained by the gods shall not be questioned. Ganymede will heed the command and trust that he will never be led towards anything other than the true and the beautiful.

Perhaps it’s his unblemished optimism, his own good attitude and radiant disposition, that produce the wonderful conditions that he continuously finds himself in. He is blessed with a positive outlook, blithe and cooperative, and the circumstances simply conform to his expectations. On the other hand, maybe it’s his unblemished good looks and magnetic charm that bring him so much good fortune, a stroke of good luck and an accident of birth, to be favored with such a charmed life.

Regardless of whether the attitude leads to the circumstances, or the other way around, Ganymede clearly brims with love for the gods and for his own destiny. The idea that any German philosopher could ever relate to Ganymede’s Panglossian optimism is utterly laughable (with the possible exception of Leibniz, who served as the real-life model for Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss). The parallels with Prometheus, however, are uncannily striking, as if he were the prototypical existentialist. Like Nietzsche, the bringer of fire subscribes to a morality that goes Beyond Good and Evil; like Paul Tillich, he acknowledges the unfairness and absurdity of life but maintains the Courage To Be.

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