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Archive for the ‘Mything in Action’ Category

What is the relationship between matter and spirit? What is the relation between the will to self-preservation and the will toward sacred atonement? Here’s an answer, where you may or may not expect it.

Jesus at the Home of Martha and Mary

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

Here we have one of the best known and most frequently cited anecdotes from the New Testament. Typically, the story is read as a lesson in discernment, in distinguishing the righteous from the unrighteous, the holy from the impious. But the passage is not without controversy, and interpretations vary widely. For the line that separates the wicked from the virtuous is hardly as clear as the distinction between Martha and Mary. Indeed, the very subtlety of that distinction is the crux around which this fable revolves.

It should come as no surprise that Mary, who stoops down low, by Jesus’ feet, should be exalted higher and presented as the sister with greater virtue and sublimity. Variations on this theme recur throughout the Gospels, most notably in the parable of the Prodigal Son and the story of the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume.

What fewer interpretations appreciate however, in their need to draw a strict line between right and wrong, between heaven and earth, is the importance of Martha and Mary being sisters and living together. Like the sets of brothers who star in so many ancient legends and myths, the housemates here do not represent separate and distinct characters, but the divergent aspects of a single individual.

Differentiating between good people and bad people is one thing, but the more important task is to recognize and acknowledge the sacred and the vulgar impulses within ourselves. Martha and Mary occupy the same house, just as their characteristics co-exist in a single personality. Maintaining a healthy household and a harmonious family, allegorically speaking, means tending a healthy psyche and balancing the circle of inner forces.

Martha tries to shame Mary for neglecting the cooking and cleaning, the daily duties of earthly living. Meanwhile, Jesus criticizes Martha for failing to attend to the “one thing needed,” the eternal matters of singular importance. In fact, genuine health requires both; we must be mindful of our material needs, but we must also remember the questions of ultimate importance.

For Jesus, the paragon of holy perfection, it’s easy to look down on those who bother themselves with the mundane duties and household chores. But for the rest of us, we would wallow in filth and starve if we simply ignored the housework and shrugged off our basic material needs. All too often though, we end up getting lost in the daily routine, consumed by worldly matters. And once our earthly pursuits have crowded out and supplanted our spiritual endeavors, then we have gone astray. As it’s been said, we cannot serve two masters.

What then is the genuine master? What is that “one thing needed,” which Mary looks after and Martha neglects, the one thing which cannot be named? That of course is the great question, and it must remain forever the question, because every time we name it, we think we own it. But we we do not. And so it slips a bit further from our grasp.

For one, that article of singular importance may be wisdom, or love. For another it may be justice, or motherhood. For the Greeks, these ideals had titles, like Hera, Athena, Aphrodite. These were their gods, which is another way of saying that these were the things that gave meaning and depth to their otherwise ordinary lives. These ideals were portrayed as  living and dynamic, capricious and ephemeral. And I think the Greeks were on to something here.

But Jesus was emphatic on this point, that Mary had made the right choice by directing her attention to the holy and the eternal, as personified in this text by Jesus himself. By the same token, he insisted that Martha, distracted by so many menial things, was missing out on the one thing she could not lose. And in order to understand and identify that singular thing, we must look deeply within ourselves.

Unless we take time to nourish the soul, the daily duties become mere motions, sterile and meaningless. Still, if we try to dwell exclusively in the astral and the eternal, we cannot expect to thrive or even survive in this world of objects. We can model ourselves after the great sages, but ultimately we cannot live like Alyosha Karamazov, always on that higher plain but never without a clean shirt and a fresh bite to eat in his hand. Concerning ourselves exclusively with the otherworldly, we are more likely to suffer the tragic fate of Prince Myshkin, to borrow another page from Dostoyevsky.

It’s not that Martha is up to no good. She’s not dabbling in witchcraft, she’s not obsessing over monetary gain or collecting trophies, and she’s certainly not acting out of selfishness or malice. She’s simply seeing that the kitchen is in good order and that a good lunch is properly prepared. These are hardly the actions of an audacious sinner. But these material concerns are respectfully inferior to Mary’s interest in the kingdom of god, in entering that realm where all things are connected as one.

To lead a healthy life, Mary and Martha each have their roles to play. We should invoke the spirit of both sisters, so that the two aspects can function together. But in order to be effective, we must render unto Martha what is Martha’s and render unto Mary what is Mary’s. When we are working in practical areas, we need to focus on doing that work properly. And when we strive to reach a higher plane of spiritual connectivity, our attention must be concentrated like Mary’s, and our minds must be free from the clutter and those ongoing to-do lists, the many things diverting Martha’s attention.

The house of Martha and Mary serves as the model for right mindfulness, right action, and proper balance. It’s critical to remain mindful of Martha, to tend the hearth, take out the garbage, and file your taxes. Grand ideas give us meaning and purpose, but they rarely put food on the table or shoes on your feet. At the same time, we ought to remember Maslov’s pyramid of needs. Once the basics have been provided for, we can—and should—move onward and upward. To give our lives real meaning, we must embark on that spiritual journey, humble ourselves before the vast and mysterious, and devote our attention to the highest ideals, that which cannot be touched or taken away.

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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)

Conclusion

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)


WORKS CITED

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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sagrada-familia

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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new-dogma-tof

Exalt the New Dogma

For the last few hundred years, advances in hard science have slowly but surely rendered faith and religion more and more obsolete, at least in the minds of many casual onlookers. Recent breakthroughs in genetics, cosmology and elsewhere, have made the belief in a supernatural divinity untenable for almost any rational thinking person. Reason and research have opened our eyes to vast new vistas, and closed the doors on those myths and ideologies that had served mankind for millennia.

The Age of Enlightenment taught us to trust in material facts and to look for explanations that stand up to robust analysis, but in the process we’ve extinguished the flame of a different kind of thinking, no less valuable for being irrational. Carl Jung famously said that anyone who thinks that religion and science are incompatible must not have a proper understanding of either. Sometimes you need one, sometimes you rely on their other, but they both have their utility. Science works great for curing diseases and putting rockets in the air, but another way of thinking is needed to cure the sense of meaninglessness which has become the plague of modernity.

You might say that the dark wine of religion and mysticism has been turned into the transparent H2O of scientific certainty. Or, if you’re not so keen on the New Testament imagery, consider instead an analogy from Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). He compared the myth and lore of religion to a vase full of water. The decorative vase serves like the “lies” that we see on the surface. But on the inside, it actually carries something precious, an ineffable truth, which, like water, cannot otherwise be grasped.

As the metaphysical truths are too abstract to be spoken in common language, we must resort to a vocabulary of images and allegories to convey the esoteric wisdom. The point is to be discerning. When we are thirsty for the truth, we cannot derive genuine nourishment from the man-made vessel, the way fundamentalists mistake illustrative myth for actual history. Equally important, we must not cast out the holy water with the vase, just because the ceramic pitcher doesn’t match the Pyrex beakers of the laboratory.  Every narrative has its explanatory powers, but the strictly objective makes a poor and costly substitute for the intuitive.

I leave you with the words of Sophocles: “Nothing vast enters the lives of mortals without a curse.”

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milton-satan

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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dung-heap

In times of grief and anguish, many of us turn for solace to the pages of holy texts and sacred teachings. Every tradition abounds with tales of sorrow and suffering in which the great reward is recovered from deep down in the darkest recesses of the soul. The hero may fall to the bottom of a well, or wander into a dark and terrifying cave, or be swallowed and carried deep into the sea by a giant fish. But in the end, the hero learns to face the shadow and uncover the treasure that’s been hidden in the depths.

Looking around at the faces and facebook posts of my fellow Americans, now seems to be one of those times when we need to revisit some of those myths and legends and reconsider their valuable meanings. These stories remind us that the line that separates good from evil does not divide one group of people from another. Rather, this line runs down the center of every human heart.

Consider a lesson from the ancient Greeks. To face the wickedness and defeat it, we must look into our selves, in the same way that Perseus is able to slay the gorgon Medusa only by holding up a mirror and espying her reflection. When we point fingers and try always to project and externalize every form of evil, we overlook our own shadow, and end up spending too much time distracted by the defects of others. And so long as we maintain that perspective, we become paralyzed, just like Medusa’s direct gaze turns her enemies into stone.

Some blame the Mexicans, and others blame the racists. Some blame the ignorant, while others blame the elite. Some blame the dark-skinned terrorists, others blame the economic policies that have left massive segments of the global population without hope or opportunity. Still others blame bi-partisanship, and a small handful of us point to the fallacy of confirmation bias. People find relief when they are able to shift the blame onto someone or something else, but this solution is not only futile, but perilous.

To conquer the forces of darkness, we must look into our own hearts, and as a nation, we must take a good long look at the monster in the mirror. The country is not under siege from outside forces, but it is crumbling from within. It has become the victim of its own rampant corruption and endemic vice. And now we must brace ourselves for a very long night’s journey of the soul.

America, like a person lost and depressed, is treading a path of self-destruction. These self-destructive tendencies are visible everywhere: among individuals, throughout society, and in the Democratic Party which worked against Bernie Sanders, the only candidate this year with any shred of integrity.

So now we are left in the place we never wanted to be, trapped in the dungeon with nothing to look at but our shadows. We have entered the heart of darkness, the belly of the beast, and our only hope is to face the lies, the false pride and the self-delusion that have inflated our national ego into the monstrous absurdity it is today.

It’s time, at last, we owned up to our flaws and foibles, our prejudices, and our sense of self-righteousness. Time to cut the monsters down to size and start afresh. It’s time to come to terms with our past mistakes, time to turn to someone we love and admit that we need their help. There’s no more sense in pretending that we can still stay up late every night and swing like we used to and fit into those skinny jeans we were wearing back in the 50s when we were all young and high on the fumes of cheap labor and post-war consumerism.

But now that the nation is mired in excrement, it’s worthwhile to recall old Sterquilinus, the Roman god of feces and manure. All joking aside, there a reason agrarian societies honored their turds. Through a seemingly magical process of transformation, the steaming heaps of solid waste produced by cattle and horses is turned into essential nutrients for the life-giving crops. From out of the filth, a delicious bounty of fruits, grains and vegetables will emerge.

This retrieval of vital energy from out of the dungheap illustrates a crucial step—both literally and figuratively—in the great cycle of life, death and rebirth. It should not be ignored. I am reminded, finally, of a line from James Joyce’s Ulysses, in which Leopold Bloom is dwelling on the subject of curatives and medicines: “Remedy where you least expect it,” he says.

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