Moth to the Flame

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As a novelist I’m an entertainer. As a scholar I’m, well, a scholar; which is to say a learner. Not a teacher, per se, because, after all, most scholars eschew teaching unless it’s the only thing that will pay the bills. Ought I, then, with propriety in mind, keep my mouth shut regarding current events? Reflecting upon my own attitude towards authors or actors or musicians who find it necessary to spout their views on things, I struggle with the idea of espousing mine. One risks, otherwise, attracting all the wrong kinds of attention, namely, unhindered zealotry on behalf of those with opposing, let’s say alternative interpretations. Meanwhile, what is my point, my goal, my intention? To persuade? To influence? To change things? Or merely to rant and rave, to divide, aggravate and pester? To win. Win what? I don’t know, exactly. I do know that I feel fraught and impatient (my personal curse) and while I can tolerate conflict as an expression of conviction I can’t seem to very well tolerate conflict when it mutates into battles between opposing forces of, say, tyranny. Why can’t we all get along? Well, it’s part of human nature not to – read your history and your mythology – but there’s something called the Golden Rule that in my interpretation transcends any particular mythology: do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

I study mythology, of course, and within it, the idea of mythologization. I’ve mentioned my outline for The World as Personal & Cultural Mythology (an oblique nod to Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation) within the DOP. There will be at least a chapter devoted to what it means for something (including someone) to become mythologized. Briefly, it has to do with anything that transforms from pedestrian everyday-ness, practical utility, intimate familiarity and unassuming psychological and physical proximity to that of something invoking, evoking, expressing and otherwise symbolizing something divine, or other. A person, place or thing becomes more than a noun; rather it is transformed into metaphor, into an unforeseen third thing which emerges with a potential greater, more affecting, more potent than the disparate imagery of the parts – the whole or gestalt is greater than the sum of a metaphor’s parts.

How so? Well, recall the four functions of mythology:

  • Awe
  • Cosmology
  • Sociology
  • Pedagogical psychology

Any religion, being a subset of mythology, will possess these functions more or less successfully and, most importantly, more or less functionally. That is, a mythology is fully functional – it works, firing on all cylinders within cultural and personal contexts – it is dysfunctional (broken and ineffective or at best historicized), or it operates somewhere within the shabby middle, neither fully functional, vital and engaging nor entirely forgotten, exiled, or relegated to the intellectual purgatory of embellishment and falsehood.

Likewise, the idea of a pandemic can become mythologized, evolving into an unforeseen third thing, or Third Thing, empowered by the passions, mysterious intuitions, aspirations, ignorance, misunderstandings, ambitions and, at worst, the fears of its creators. (The Third Thing, by the way, is a vital, authentic, essential aspect of mythology and it deserves its own chapter within The World as Personal & Cultural Mythology, you heard it here first!).

Mythologization is a coalescing of all these energies, within us and outside of us. Hence, mythologization becomes a recipe for divinity in the best sense – namely, an otherwise sublime expression of humanity – or, conversely, one of disaster. Remember that all things are encompassed by and expressed within myth or it isn’t one – the good, the bad and the ugly reside within it, the play-of-opposites that we experience as the predicament of living is exactly part of it and this is the authenticity of mythology, its grounding, centering, sustaining power in our lives.

The virus, then? Once again, address the functions. Does the idea of the virus now possess versions of all four?

  • Awe: Certainly. The idea of the virus strikes fear, deathly fear, within the hearts of many. Fear that transcends, as it must when an idea becomes myth, the biological, otherwise scientific facts. (For my purpose here, I will set aside discussion upon the philosophy of science, namely, what constitutes science and the so-called scientific method, etcetera). The perceived risk of the virus has transcended, over these six months or so, any reasonable, factual or for that matter historical evaluation of statistical risk.
  • Cosmology: Yes, a cosmology surrounds this idea of the virus that supports the sense of awe that it invokes and evokes. That is, ask a person living in fear of the virus to describe their interpretation of the events and conditions of this world, of the universe for that matter, and they will proceed to regal you with any number of falsities, misinformed theories, fake news, beliefs, interpretations, stories (usually by way of the media). Things, they may say, will never be the same….
  • Sociology: Certainly, and we only need to, once again, address the ceaseless dialogue that has engendered the legislative adjudications – the exalting of this or that voice and the repression of others. The establishment of the new right and wrong – thou shalt and thou shalt not – the wealth bestowed and the poverty inflicted, the power, corruption and lies, the sanctions and the terror wielded against all who seek balance or openness or merely a different opinion, a contrary point of view. No, it is said, thou shalt wear a mask, thou shalt close thy business, thou shalt not stand closer to thy brethren than six feet… and so on. Read your history and none of this can be seen as new, let alone “unprecedented,” scare quotes intended.
  • Pedagogical psychology: More accurately, as Campbell implies, a pedagogical supporting psychology – that overt epistemology (knowledge), acquired learnedness, sense of available wisdom and sustaining internal (personal and individual) resonance with the imagery surrounding the virus, say, that allows for a reliable personal perspective, an intuitive support in the form of one’s day-to-day hermeneutical resources, the psychological tools one has access to in their struggle or success in influencing the world of action or merely coping with its vicissitudes, with our sense of predicament, or not.

The power of myth, then, is to be regarded as the power of the sublime, of Mystery intentionally capitalized, implying its divine aspect, in all its aspects, including, besides that of divine grace, the energies of the shadow; of the dark, the contrary and the negative. Compelling myth is a compelling mash-up of beauty and horror, love and hate, gain and loss, joy and tears, humor and menace, veracity and falsity, compassion and heartlessness, humanity and inhumanity, pleasantness and loathsomeness, creation and annihilation, atonement and exile. Life and death. The list of opposites is limited only by our imagination. I often point to the image of the Hindu Kali as a preternaturally effective and affecting expression of this idea and of course we can have fun with it too (recall that humor and fun are always present within classic, fully functional myth), so that Kali makes her appearance within Time Crime!

An aspect of myth or mythologization that I have been pondering more so lately has to be its virulence. Myth somehow mimics a virus in the sense that it creeps it and takes up residence, very often permanent residence. It can become so entrenched within us, in a weird psycho-biological manner, as it were, that nothing short of one’s death can end the occupation. And even then…. Entrenched myth, in other words, has a power, among its other impressive powers, to resist assault of any type. In fact it tends to effectively muster its own army, large or small, personal or cultural in defense of what a particular mythology symbolizes. Holy war, in the worst examples. In less global contexts it can be merely sub-cultural or personal. When the mythological libertarians, so to say, match up against the mythological ideologues all hell breaks loose. Metaphorical lynching takes place. Ask any number of academics, for example, when one of them with a bright new idea tries to take on the establishment. To say nothing of reinterpreting the historical facts, should there be any, associated with either a rock star or a saint. I have lectured about the mythologization of The Beatles. So-called Beatlemania and all that. Hordes of screaming, out of their minds youngsters willing to do just about anything to connect with their symbols of… what? Well, that’s another book.

As another example, consider that of Jeff Kripal’s experience after having written his excellent Kali’s Child some decades ago now.

https://smile.amazon.com/Kalis-Child-Mystical-Teachings-Ramakrishna/dp/0226453774/ref=sr_1_1?crid=19MU2KIT69YGT&dchild=1&keywords=kali%27s+child&qid=1594749202&s=books&sprefix=kali%27s+child%2Cstripbooks%2C179&sr=1-1

Kripal, whom I’ve mentioned often in the DOP and with whom I’ve corresponded, is a professor of comparative religion, let’s just keep it simply described, at Rice University and an author of all things super natural (the space between the words is intended). Anyway, his dissertation at the University of Chicago which became this, his first book, happened to focus on the homoeroticism present within Ramakrishna’s spiritual life – the compelling Tantric qualities which is to say the spiritual eroticism expressed within some of Ramakrishna’s experiences. Hey, recall my post “A Whole Lotta Rosie” as a lighthearted discussion of the power of sex, to put it bluntly, within mysticism. Sexuality is powerful energy and whenever you have powerful energy flowing, you’ve got mythology, oftentimes Hindu mythology.

But to my point: Kripal was and is to this day is excoriated (though now perhaps with less heedless vitriol) by Indian scholars after his book was published, so viciously (including death threats) that, after years of trying to defend his scholarship at risk to his own physical and psychological health he essentially surrendered and chose to focus on his other, related interests in the field. Here, then, is a man who wholeheartedly studied a mythologized being (Ramakrishna is, after all, regarded as a saint and there he is at the beginning of this post, residing in marble at the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission in Belur Math) rendered his interpretation of the facts of the man’s life and the nature of his spirituality, for indeed he was a real person who lived and died in Bengal in the nineteenth century, and instead of receiving scholarly engagement, which would naturally include scholarly criticism, he was himself interpreted as something of an anti-Christ (Ramakrishna, essentially a Hindu, in fact endorsed many tenants of not only Christianity but other religions – he was keen to pursue what he experienced as spiritual truth wherever he found it, let’s put it that way). Kripal was interpreted by some Indians as having sought to de-canonize, as it were, the revered mystic.

Why such a violent, some may say virulently viral reaction to a legitimate study? And in what sense is Ramakrishna revered as a saint or otherwise? Well, consider the interpretation, the hermeneutical rendering of the legacy of Ramakrishna by the renown Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote a poem about him:

Diverse courses of worship from varied springs of fulfillment have mingled in your meditation.

The manifold revelation of the joy of the Infinite has given form to a shrine of unity in your life

where from far and near arrive salutations to which I join my own.

Furthermore, “during the 1937 Parliament of Religions, which was held at the Ramakrishna Mission in Calcutta, Tagore acknowledged Ramakrishna as a great saint because”:

[T]he largeness of his spirit could comprehend seemingly antagonistic modes of sadhana, and because the simplicity of his soul shames for all time the pomp and pedantry of pontiffs and pundits.[1]

Myth, then, as I’ve said (and Mr. Z. says), will start a war. A schizoid mythology (any disoriented, uncentered, ungrounded hence dysfunctional mythology) is an ideology. And what is this virus nonsense at this point besides a war, always of ideologies. So that the power of myth and mythology disintegrates into ideology, into mandate and adjudication and the polarization – the us versus them – of righteousness. Mythology isn’t free of this darkness, however, a fully functional mythology, one that is oriented and grounding, both personally and culturally will, I believe, tip towards the good, the positive and the freedom within and without all of us.

Ah, to post or not post, that is the question. On the one hand I’ve tried to hold to my ideal of speaking my mind, otherwise why speak, or write at all? Who needs sugar-coated rhetoric? Passion begets passion, zeal begets zeal. I’m a big fan of zeal because mythology is made of it. But when zeal becomes zealotry all the energy bleeds away, all the power dissipates into the news of the day and the eternal quality, the quality of eternity, the eternal wisdom of myth is poisoned with opinion and temporality hinged to ethics and morality, all of which is in flux. Zealotry amounts, if we’re being as honest and mindful as possible, to fear. Fear aggression. Versus valor. Which is always a defense of truth. Myth expresses it all but the lasting imagery must communicate poise, the affecting image must be one of equanimity, of stillness within storm, of order within chaos – we must be made privy by way of the image to what matters most: the tincture of humanity that pervades all things, the good in truth that tips the balance of our influence, on a good day, for the betterment of all.

Mythology means too much to me, then, to risk tarnishing it by way of grasping at posting a saucy blog, one that blogs, spews rhetoric and otherwise seeks attention. I want to succeed in my writing, I want to be read, I want to engage with my tribe but not at all costs. My opinion on the virus and masks and such, then, will remain in the DOP, tucked away in the journal as my way of writing through it, as it always has been. Intrepid readers will know that I’ve been posting DOP1 excerpts but now, having tapped out the first volume from 2011-12, I’m loath to move on to posting DOP2 for it contains probably far too much rant, too much polemic, too much me.

Good luck, then, bucko, getting anybody to read your higher minded discursiveness. Who cares? What are you trying to prove? There is pedagogy and then there is pedantry; there is revealing narrative and mere confession. I don’t know for sure what I’m doing except my best to communicate what’s in my heart and mind together, as I “see” it, in so many words. So many words, exactly, that’s all it is. In a hundred years who would find my thoughts on current affairs at all compelling? Nobody. No one ever finds anyone’s thoughts or jokes or editorials on current events compelling. But when the writing (or any form of art-craft) throws a window open to myth, to the mythic, well then one is onto something; something lasting and special and disturbing and moving and transforming. Or at least interesting to folks like me. The mysterium tremendum, as it’s called, is there. And that’s where I want to be, like a moth to the flame, come what may.

[1] Wikipedia.org, “Ramakrishna,” retrieved 7.14.2020. The quotation is further cited by wiki as from Kathleen M O’Connell, Utsav-Celebration: Tagore’s Approach to Cultivating the Human Spirit and the Study of Religion

https://www.parabaas.com/rabindranath/articles/pKathleen_Utsav.html