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Love: medieval and modern in ‘Tristan and Isolde’

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Yet another essay from my BA. I highly recommend getting and reading a copy of Gottfried’s Tristan. It is available in Hatto’s great English translation in the Penguin classics series. It is very easy to read, especially for a work written in the 13th century!

ImageI am well aware that there have been many who have told the tale of Tristan; yet there have not been many who have read his tale aright. – Gottfried, Tristan (43)[1]

Emerging into literary history from the obscure oral culture of medieval Europe, the story of ‘Tristan and Isolde’[2] exists in a variety of retellings, some complete, many in fragments, in diverse languages, infused with particular understandings of medieval love: courtly, romantic, divine and human. In this essay, I will examine the versions of the ‘Tristan and Isolde’ story by Béroul, Gottfried, and Malory. Examining the broad stylistic traits of each, I shall focus upon the differing conceptions of love in each text and briefly expand on their impact through to modern day as these ideas have significance both within and outside a medievalist context.

The three texts I will be examining are all, in one way or another, incomplete.[3] The full story can be surmised by comparison with more complete versions, or by piecing together fragments by different authors. The central situation around which the romance revolves concerns a love triangle. The valiant young knight Tristan woos and wins the beautiful young princess Isolde of Ireland on behalf of his uncle King Mark of Cornwall. On the return voyage, Tristan and Isolde accidentally drink a magic love potion. Back in Cornwall, Isolde is married to King Mark but Tristan and Isolde are so passionately in love that they cannot resist continuing their illicit lovemaking behind Mark’s back. The majority of the tale concerns Mark’s increasing and decreasing suspicions and the lovers’ more or less successful attempts at subterfuge as they carry on their lovemaking. Eventually their relationship is discovered; the lovers are exiled, separated, and die tragically.[4]

In essence, the ‘Tristan’ narrative inevitably brings the idea of love into conflict with medieval concepts of marriage, feudal statesmanship, and honour. Consequently, the author of a ‘Tristan’ romance must navigate carefully the areas of love, lust, marriage, and sex. It is worth bearing in mind that the medieval punishments for adultery were draconian, often involving death, mutilation, scouraging, or, as in Béroul, burning.[5] Women were married young primarily for social, political or economic reasons, often to much older men.[6] All of this was ratified by a moralistic clergy, so much more powerful than they are today, who preached the existence of a literal fiery Hell for all sinners in the afterlife.[7] The manner in which Béroul, Gottfried, and Malory deal with the essential adultery and scandal of the Tristan legend is best exemplified by their respective literary styles.

Béroul’s retelling is the earliest of the three; it is dated to the late twelfth century[8] and is written in an early French.[9] Béroul conveys his narrative in the style of early French fabliaux.[10] The tale is told in a casual voice – he frequently addresses the ‘seigneurs (lords)’ directly, as if addressing a live audience.[11] This suggests a closeness to oral storytelling. He does not dwell on psychological motivation or subtleties of individual feelings. His tale is concerned not so much with love, but with vengeance, as it is revenge which motivates his swiftly-moving plot.[12] Béroul’s Tristran is also more malicious and comic.[13] King Marc is jealous and vengeful in this tale, even attempting to burn the lovers at the stake.

Hence we find that love in Béroul is primarily a sensationalist plot device, not to be taken too seriously. He does not engage in eloquent love poetry; the lovers are principally celebrated for their deviousness and temerity. “Listen to the cunning woman!” declares Béroul, clearly impressed, “She [Iseut] was the perfect deceiver” (519-520).[14] Our heroes are scandalous adulterers – frequently caught “lying completely naked” (594) – who play cat and mouse with the treacherous cuckold king and his evil henchmen – “never have you seen such evil men!” (582). This means that the lovers essentially operate on the same depraved level as the king and his henchmen,[15] except of course the narrator always sides with the lovers; exactly why is sometimes difficult to fathom.[16] Consequently, Béroul’s Tristran is “neither heroic as a knight nor tragic as a lover.”[17] The poem is an occasion for ‘naughty’ entertainment, rather in the spirit of primitive trickster myths, delighting in the absurd violation of cultural taboos.

Gottfried’s retelling is written in Middle High German and is dated to the early 13th century.[18] Gottfried bases his narrative on what he calls “the authentic version” (43) by Thomas of Britain.[19] Thomas was writing in French but his name suggests he was from England;[20] it is possible that Gottfried’s version contains traces of French, English and Germanic understandings of the tale. Thomas is distinctive for his psychological depth[21] – one fragment opens with a 235-line internal monologue in which Tristran agonises over whether he should abandon his true love and marry Yseut of the White Hands (1-235).[22] The passage is strikingly modern; but for the rhyming verse, it could almost be a passage from a nineteenth-century novel.

Gottfried retains much of this psychological focus but combines it with a complex symbolic and lyrical acuity.[23] The characterisation is much more complex and multi-dimensional than Béroul. King Mark is no longer a jealous, vengeful villain, but a conflicted, indecisive “waverer” (274), torn between his sense of honour, and his love for both lovers – his wife and his nephew.[24] This is achieved through the intricacy of motivation. For example, in Gottfried, Mark does not force Tristan to woo Isolde of his own accord. Instead, Mark is coerced into accepting marriage by his jealous barons, and, startlingly, even Tristan encourages the marriage to spare Mark trouble at court (154). In this way Tristan is seen to actively instigate both his courageous successes and his ignominious defeats throughout the tale. This instils a sense of fateful inevitability.

For love, in Gottfried, is an immense semi-mystic force, driving the lovers to their bliss and, inevitably, to their deaths. From the beginning, Gottfried speaks of love in oxymorons as “bitter-sweet”, and “dear sorrow” (42).[25] Love’s joy is always accompanied by an intense suffering. “He that never had sorrow of love,” Gottfried proclaims, “never had joy of it either!” (42). He also emphasises the individual nature of this love and its mutuality:[26] “The two lovers perceived that they had one heart, one mind, and but a single will between them” (200). Gottfried expresses this in reflexive oppositions: “Her anguish was his pain: his pain her anguish” (195); “A man, a woman; a woman, a man: / Tristan, Isolde; Isolde, Tristan” (43). Gottfried also purposely plays upon poetic properties of language, using symbolism and metaphor. Consider, for example, his frequent use of the metaphor of the bird trapped in quicklime:

When she [Isolde] recognised the lime that bewitching Love had spread and saw that she was deep in it, she endeavoured to reach dry ground, she strove to be out and away. But the lime kept clinging to her and drew her back and down. The lovely woman fought back with might and main, but stuck fast at every step. She was succumbing against her will. She made desperate attempts on many sides, she twisted and turned with hands and feet and immersed them ever deeper in the blind sweetness of Love, and of the man. Her limed senses failed to discover any path, bridge, or track that would advance them half a step, half a foot, without Love being there too. Whatever Isolde thought, whatever came uppermost in her mind, there was nothing there, of one sort or another, but Love, and Tristan. (196)

The source of this complex symbolic conception of love is something of a mystery. Joseph Campbell has suggested the symbology seems to derive from a fusion of Classical, Celtic, Germanic, and mystic (Orphic/Gnostic) backgrounds.[27] For example, the Germanic sense of internalised fate (the Anglo-Saxon wyrd), the progression of initiatory stages through sex and death as exemplified in the Roman mystery religions, the Celtic names and background to the narrative, and the mystic equating of myriad symbolic forms are all significant for Gottfried’s retelling.[28]

Many ‘Tristan’ authors, including Béroul, use the love potion as an excuse for the lovers’ scandalous behaviour. It was “‘because of the potion we drank at sea’” explains Iseut in Béroul (2207).[29] Such excuses are unacceptable for Gottfried. Instead, he ensures that Tristan and Isolde are in love well before they drink the potion. The potion still has a profound effect, but that effect seems to consist of properly recognising their love for each other, rather than causing that love:[30] “Now that their shyness was over they gloried and revelled in their intimacy, and this was wise and sensible” (204). Furthermore, Tristan is continually performing courageous deeds which not only spare Isolde much grief, but suggest, along with their shared passion for poetry and music, that Tristan is her rightful ‘other half’. It is he who shares an intimate personal connection with Isolde rather than King Mark, who has never met her. Gottfried’s picture of Mark as encapsulating bureaucratic honour without love is driven home when Mark unknowingly sleeps with Isolde’s cousin Brangane on his wedding night – and does not notice. “To him one woman was as another,” Gottfried wryly remarks (208).

Malory’s ‘Tristram’ in Le Morte Darthur is much later than Béroul and Gottfried, heralding from the fifteenth century. It is purportedly based on earlier French and English sources but Malory’s method of adaptation is apparently very selective.[31] It is important to acknowledge that Malory is incorporating the Tristan tale into a larger work which endeavours, at least theoretically, to form a coherent whole. The sheer amount of material seems to have necessitated a kind of homogenisation, a flattening of detail. King Mark is again a straightforward villain. The story is fragmented and interspersed with less relevant sub-plots, even divergent narratives. Several key events, such as the substitution of Brangane in Mark’s bed, are entirely missing, yet, incoherently, many of their consequences are not, such as the Brangane murder attempt. Malory provides generic, often identical, justifications for such fitfully resurrected events, drawing upon the jealousies of random, often unnamed minor characters or King Mark’s endless evil streak. Malory also seems to ‘rationalise’ the more fantastic incidents, for example, turning Tristan’s fight with the dragon into yet another knightly duel. All of this may be explained as part of Malory’s efforts to form a legendary English ‘history’ rather than a fabulous adventure or a mystic romance. His more worldly focus on masculine military action may reflect the contemporary Wars of the Roses.

In comparison to Béroul, Malory does not wink at the love scandal; he almost edits it out. Love, for Malory, seems to fit the courtly ideal; the lady is, primarily, the noble, vaguely platonic inspiration for chivalrous deeds, namely duels and tournaments. Malory has no time for internal monologues or reflective asides on the psychology of love, as per Thomas and Gottfried, but he barely even provides a straightforward description of it either. He speaks of love in brief, one sentence, stereotyped phrases: “The joy that La Belle Isode made of Sir Tristram there might no tongue tell, for of all men earthly she loved him best” (VIII, 23).[32] Tristram loves Isode because she is “the fairest lady and maiden of the world” (VIII, 9). The scandal is diluted by firmly establishing their love from the start and barely even mentioning the love potion.[33] The most explicit Malory gets is to suggest that the lovers were, at one point, caught “naked abed” (VIII, 34), but nothing more is said of this. As Edwards remarks, “[Malory] has deleted a very great deal of the eroticism of his sources.”[34] Unfortunately, Malory’s attempts to make erotic scenes platonic (or, as Benson suggests, even just comradely)[35] often make a nonsense of the story he is narrating. The love aspect is not merely reduced quantitatively in summary, the quality of that love is also downgraded. For instance, Tristram and Isode have other admirers before and after their meeting, suggesting that there is nothing particularly special about their love aside from its unexplained longevity. Malory repeatedly sends Tristram out on irrelevant quests, returning to Isode, one feels, in a perfunctory manner, as if Malory is clumsily attempting to merely maintain the continuity of the standard ‘Tristan’ story even as he fails to make it very meaningful.

On the face of it, Malory does not offer a very detailed picture of love at all – not even courtly love, which in Malory is arguably more of an excuse for being sexually reticent. He hardly expresses the detailed poetic sentiments of the 12th century troubadours.[36] Whereas Béroul seems to equate romantic passion with scandalous lust,[37] the conception of love in Gottfried is something else entirely. Joseph Campbell argues that Gottfried seems to exemplify a startlingly early exploration of our modern idea of romantic love: a love that is individual, mutual, passionate, and above economic and political concerns.[38] There is something astoundingly refreshing about Gottfried’s discourses on surveillance and trust: “A virtuous woman does not need to be guarded; she will guard herself, as they say. But if a man nevertheless sets a watch on her, believe me, she will hate him” (276). The opposite of this view is exemplified by the bartering of women as a means to form homosocial bonds, exemplified throughout Malory – at least in his reticent tone if not in his focus on masculine action throughout his narrative. In this respect, Malory’s clumsy picture of medieval love resembles the ideas of misguided, indiscriminate King Mark in Gottfried’s poem. As a comparison, Malory, in his famous passage asserting that love then was not as it is nowadays (XVIII, 25),[39] suggests that love was more constant and stable in the past and less either ‘lecherous’ or cold and brittle. Gottfried expresses similar sentiments against inconstancy but also deplores prudery and love as a political commodity:

Nowadays no one finds such steadfast affection, so ill do we prepare the soil… Shorn of all honour and dignity she [love] sneaks begging from house to house, shamefully lugging a patchwork sack in which she keeps what she can grab or steal and, denying it to her own mouth, hawks it in the streets… Love, mistress of all hearts, the noble, the incomparable, is for sale in the open market… False lovers and love-cheats as we are, how vainly our days slip by, seeing that we so seldom bring our suffering to a joyful consummation! How we dissipate our lives without either profit or pleasure!… Lovers who hide their feelings, having once revealed them, who set a watch on their modesty and so turn strangers in love, are robbers of themselves… This pair of lovers did not play the prude: they were free and familiar with looks and speech. (203-204)

Our contemporary familiarity with Gottfried-style romantic love can obscure its unique quality. The argument, put forward by C.S. Lewis and Morton Hunt for instance, that romantic love was ‘invented’ in the middle ages tends to be met with opposition.[40] However, this is because the concept of romantic love is not being properly discriminated. Nowhere in ancient literature – in the Bible, in Classical literature, in the Upanishads or Native American myths – do we conclusively find proof of this unique, individual, mutual, uneconomic sense of love. Psychologist James R. Averill argues that before the European middle ages “love was conceived largely in terms of sexual desire (eros), brotherly love (philia), tenderness (storge), or, in its purest form, an altruistic, God-like love (agape).”[41] Romantic love was a new socio-cultural construction, a “fusion of sensual and spiritual.”[42]

It is significant that Robert A. Johnson, a Jungian analyst, has used the ‘Tristan’ story to explore the psychology of Western romantic love, particularly in its dysfunctional aspects.[43] Johnson sees the story as a paradigmatic tale, a myth, a guidebook to romantic love’s modus operandi. In Johnson’s interpretation, the lovers are projecting a meaningful “god image” (their respective anima/animus archetypes) upon each other.[44] The essential tragedy is that the lovers are “in love, yet we wonder if it with each other.”[45] They are “in love with love.”[46] Tristan fails to moderate his passion to acknowledge the real human being. This real person is represented in the story by the deceptively simple and dull Iseut of the White Hands, whom Tristan marries but shuns in favour of his idealised, compulsive passion for Queen Iseut, who remains unattainable.[47] The essential tragedy, according to Johnson, is that Tristan fails to connect his passion with reality. This is the lesson which the tale encapsulates for modern lovers. Ironically, one could say, along with Gottfried, that Tristan is in love with death: as Brangane exclaims in reference to the love potion: “‘Ah, Tristan and Isolde, this draught will be your death!’” (195). (Wagner, in his 19th century ‘Tristan’ opera, seems aware of this when he has the lovers drink the love potion thinking it is poison rather than wine – their unrecognised love is so powerful that they want to die together, and instead have their passion awakened.)[48]

To conclude, we can see in the medieval ‘Tristan’ romances an emergence of the idea of romantic love from the generic, oral-inspired entertainments represented by Béroul, (where love, lust and scandal is part of the sensationalist milieu), through the courtly love superficially recollected in Malory, to the unique romantic variety brilliantly rendered in Gottfried. This brief survey also suggests something of the variety of styles in the romance oeuvre. Béroul reveals the comic, Gottfried the tragic, while Malory seems to encapsulate a medievalism already stereotyped, homogenised and sanitised as a sort of national ‘history’. Not only have we inherited these stories as cultural capital but they anticipate the modern myth of romantic love, which, as Gottfried reveals, both exhilarates and ensnares, such that reality can disappoint.[49] Johnson shows us that to resolve the ‘Tristan’ story and discover a way out of its tragic conclusion, we must discover another, fourth kind of love.[50] This is a human love with its acknowledgement of both reality and passion – an interpretation of reality as meaningful, poetic, even symbolic. As encapsulated in the ‘Tristan’ story, this problem of human versus romantic love is fundamentally a problem of hermeneutics, as expressed through medieval and medievalist literature.

Bibliography

Averill, James R. and Elma P. Nunley. Voyages of the Heart: Living an Emotionally Creative Life. New York: The Free Press, 1992.

Benson, C. David. “The Ending of the Morte Darthur.” In A Companion to Malory, edited by Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards, 221-240. 1996. Reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

Béroul. The Romance of Tristran. Edited & translated by Norris J. Lacy. New York & London: Garland, 1989.

Campbell, Joseph. Creative Mythology. 1968. Reprint, London: Souvenir Press, 2001.

Chinca, Mark. Gottfried von Strassburg Tristan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Cooper, Helen. “The Book of Sir Tristram de Lyones.” In A Companion to Malory, edited by Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards, 183-202. 1996. Reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

Edwards, Elizabeth. “The Place of Women in the Morte Darthur.” In A Companion to Malory, edited by Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards, 37-54. 1996. Reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

Ferrante, Joan M. The Conflict of Love and Honor: The Medieval Tristan Legend in France, Germany and Italy. The Hague & Paris: Mouton, 1973.

Gottfried. Tristan. Translated by A. T. Hatto. 1960. Reprint, London: Penguin Classics, 2004.

Gregory, Stewart. Introduction to Tristran, by Thomas of Britain, ix-xxii. New York & London: Garland, 1991.

Hatto, A. T. Introduction to Tristan, by Gottfried, 7-36. 1960; reprint, London: Penguin Classics, 2004.

Johnson, Robert A. We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love. New York: HarperCollins, 1983.

Lacy, Norris J. Introduction to The Romance of Tristran, by Béroul, ix-xix. New York & London: Garland, 1989.

Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript. Edited by Helen Cooper. 1998. Reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

McCarthy, Terence. “Malory and His Sources.” In A Companion to Malory, edited by Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards, 75-96. 1996. Reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

McCarthy, Terence. Reading the Morte Darthur. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1988.

Rocher, Daniel. “Between Epic and Lyric Poetry: The Originality of Gottfried’s Tristan.” In A Companion to Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, edited by Will Hasty, 205-222. New York: Camden House, 2003.

Thomas of Britain. Tristran. Translated by Stewart Gregory. New York & London: Garland, 1991.

Thomas, Neil. Tristan in the Underworld: A Study of Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan together with the Tristran of Thomas. Lewiston, Queenston & Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.


[1] Sadly, I was unable to locate a critical edition with line numbers for Gottfried. Consequently, I have referenced the page numbers from the highly acclaimed modern English translation by A. T. Hatto in the following edition: Gottfried, Tristan, trans. A. T. Hatto (1960; reprint, London: Penguin Classics, 2004).

[2] Character names will be as they appear in the relevant text under discussion. When the discussion is general, as here, or collective, I will use the spellings as in Gottfried. Similarly, I use inverted commas to designate the title of the ‘Tristan’ story, but italics to designate the title of a particular text.

[3] As we shall see, Malory’s retelling, though complete in itself, only tells the story briefly, in the fashion of a cursory plot summary.

[4] Note that it is not clear that the story in Béroul ends this way, but it may have done so.

[5] Neil Thomas, Tristan in the Underworld: A Study of Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan together with the Tristran of Thomas (Lewiston, Queenston & Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991), 76.

[6] Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology (1968; reprint, London: Souvenir Press, 2001), 53.

[7] A. T. Hatto, introduction to Tristan, by Gottfried (1960; reprint, London: Penguin Classics, 2004), 7; Campbell, Creative Mythology, 53.

[8] Norris J. Lacy, introduction to The Romance of Tristran, by Béroul (New York & London: Garland, 1989), ix.

[9] Lacy, introduction to Tristran, ix.

[10] Ibid., xiii.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Joan M. Ferrante, The Conflict of Love and Honor: The Medieval Tristan Legend in France, Germany and Italy (The Hague & Paris: Mouton, 1973), 51.

[13] Lacy, introduction to Tristran, xiv.

[14] Line numbers and quotations are from Béroul, The Romance of Tristran, ed. & trans., Norris J. Lacy (New York & London: Garland, 1989).

[15] Ferrante, Conflict of Love and Honor, 62.

[16] Lacy, introduction to Tristran, xv.

[17] Ferrante, Conflict of Love and Honor, 18.

[18] Mark Chinca, Gottfried von Strassburg Tristan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 9.

[19] Ferrante, Conflict of Love and Honor, 87.

[20] Stewart Gregory, introduction to Tristran, by Thomas of Britain (New York & London: Garland, 1991), xi.

[21] Thomas, Tristan in the Underworld, 84.

[22] Line numbers are from Thomas of Britain, Tristran, trans. Stewart Gregory (New York & London: Garland, 1991).

[23] Daniel Rocher, “Between Epic and Lyric Poetry: The Originality of Gottfried’s Tristan” in A Companion to Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, ed. Will Hasty (New York: Camden House, 2003), 209.

[24] Ferrante, Conflict of Love and Honor, 47.

[25] Ibid., 96.

[26] Ibid., 41.

[27] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 84-171.

[28] Ibid., 121, 152.

[29] Lacy, introduction to Tristran, xv; Ferrante, Conflict of Love and Honor, 40.

[30] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 232: Campbell makes the point that this would probably not be considered ‘repressed’ love though, as per Wagner’s more modern interpretation in his ‘Tristan’ opera.

[31] Terence McCarthy, “Malory and His Sources”, in A Companion to Malory, eds. Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards (1996; reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000), 77-78; Helen Cooper, “The Book of Sir Tristram de Lyones”, in A Companion to Malory, eds. Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards (1996; reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000), 186-187.

[32] Quotations are from Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript, ed. Helen Cooper (1998; reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). The references are in the form of book and chapter numbers (based on Caxton) throughout Cooper’s text.

[33] Terence McCarthy, Reading the Morte Darthur (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1988), 54.

[34] Elizabeth Edwards, “The Place of Women in the Morte Darthur,” in A Companion to Malory, eds. Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards (1996; reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000), 51; McCarthy, “Malory and His Sources”, 77.

[35] C. David Benson, “The Ending of the Morte Darthur,” in A Companion to Malory, eds. Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards (1996; reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000), 228; Edwards, “Women in Morte Darthur,” 51.

[36] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 176-184.

[37] After the love potion abates, Iseut confesses to the hermit that Tristran is “entirely free of any carnal desire for me” (2329) suggesting that this wasn’t the case while the love potion was in operation.

[38] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 178.

[39] Edwards, “Women in Morte Darthur,” 51.

[40] James R. Averill and Elma P. Nunley, Voyages of the Heart: Living an Emotionally Creative Life (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 21.

[41] Averill and Nunley, Voyages of the Heart, 21. Campbell, Creative Mythology, elaborates further on this: 175-186.

[42] Hatto, introduction to Tristan, 17.

[43] Robert A. Johnson, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love (New York: HarperCollins, 1983).

[44] Johnson, We, 62-63.

[45] Ibid., 51.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid., 135-137.

[48] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 79.

[49] Cf. the modern divorce rate.

[50] This is found in the work of Gottfried’s contemporary Wolfram von Eschenbach, who makes this ‘human love’ a theme of his mystic Parzival, concerning the knight who rode forth to ultimately heal the wound of the Grail King, caused, in Wolfram’s work, by the tragic collision of honour and love (Campbell, Creative Mythology, 405-570).

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Written by tomtomrant

19 January 2014 at 12:03 pm

Against ‘Reason’

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Some weeks ago, a couple of my readers asked me to explain what I meant by this Facebook status update:Screen shot 2013-11-16 at 7.31.38 PM

So here goes.

What is wrong with philosophy?

First, my story: My background is film, theatre, and storytelling – these were my adolescent passions. These led me to mythology, which I explored to discover how the world’s myths could help improve my writing. In the process, I discovered essentially how the world’s myths could enrich my life – that is, in exploring the fundamental concerns of fulfillment, mortality, passion, love and life-meaning.

Now, you might notice an apparent overlap here with a popular understanding of philosophy’s aims (as expressed on Wikipedia):

“Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.”

My gripe with philosophy is really about the extremely important fundamentals this definition seems to have left out. Consider again: “reality, existence, knowledge, values, mind, and language” – where on Earth has emotion, culture, art, and, well, fun got to? Might these be just as if not more important for exploring the fundamentals of human existence?

I chose to pursue philosophy in my Bachelor of Arts because I had not noticed this oversight. The philosophers I had encountered in my studies of myth seemed wise and meaningful. I soon discovered that these philosophers were either sidelined or misconstrued by the university philosophy department. My problem with philosophy is that it is unclear about what it means by ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’, and when it is clear, it is next to useless.

The Consolations of PhilosophyTo illustrate I thought about dredging up some dense incomprehensible philosophical texts like anything by Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl; just about any philosopher studied at university, but I thought this would be a little too hard to elucidate, and a little too easy to criticize. I have turned instead to a popular, easy to understand work – The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton. It’s available in the Popular Penguins series – those cheap books with the blank orange cover – so it is easy to obtain. In it, Alain De Botton briefly explores the ideas of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in easy prose (with pictures!).

I do not dispute the interesting, sometimes insightful findings of these philosophers nor the manner in which De Botton illuminates them – with one exception. I disagree with De Botton whenever he says something like this:

“The validity of an argument or action is determined … by whether it obeys the rules of logic.” (42)

“Anger results … from a basic … error of reasoning” (82)

“It is for reason to make the distinction.” (109)

What is reason? Most philosophers bandy the word around but do not go into detail as to what exactly they mean by it. De Botton outlines the Socratic method (24-25): one must take a statement purporting to be true, search for situations in which the statement would not be true, and use this to either modify the statement or declare it false. This sounds to most of us like good common sense. “Rationality … refers to the conformity of one’s beliefs with one’s reasons to believe, or of one’s actions with one’s reasons for action.” Basically, to be rational and reasonable, we must have reasons for doing or believing things. By implication, we must have reasons which have been examined under some more vigorous standard, which, in the case of philosophy, is, again, never specifically elucidated. Why is “because I want to” not a viable reason? This is never explained. The reason why philosophers are so vague in this area, I argue, is because there is no ‘rational’ or ‘reasoned’ standard for assessing philosophical veracity.

What about the principles of empiricism and logic? Might these form a foundation, a measure against which our rational reasoning can be measured? Unfortunately, both of these ideas are inappropriate for philosophical purposes. “Empiricism … states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience.” When we say something is empirically true, we mean it has been tested in the external physical world. Human knowledge, values, and mind let alone subjective feelings and life-meaning cannot be empirically examined in the external world – they are mostly internal to us and their external manifestations are open to multifarious interpretation. Hence philosophy cannot be employing empirical reasoning.[1] Logic is a rigorous system whereby lucid, consistent, precisely delineated statements are juxtaposed to determine and corroborate a conclusion. Once again, human knowledge, values, and mind cannot be delineated using lucid, consistent, precise statements – we are examining the idiosyncratic human mind not building a bridge. The words you use to express qualities of mind are all imprecise, they are metaphors for our internal experience of consciousness: words like ‘truth’, ‘right’, ‘just’, ‘anger’, ‘trust’, ‘joy’. Logic treats these concepts as if they were physical things or forces. Just try to find a precise definition for ‘happiness’ among any group of individuals and you will see what I mean.[2]

So ‘rational reasoning’ cannot, for the purposes of philosophy, be founded in empiricism or logic. By ‘rational reasoning’, I suggest that the philosophers mean at a basic level, ‘examined thought’ or ‘careful reflection’, at a more profound level they actually mean ‘creative thought,’ that is, thought that considers the broad and multifarious areas of human experience and understanding, and attempts to make startling connections to reveal insights into the human condition. The distressing thing is that the philosophers, and particularly university philosophy lecturers, do not appear to know this. That their philosophical conclusions are ‘more rational’ is simply an opinion or prejudice. It just means, ‘I find them more sensible’ or ‘I’ve thought about them lots.’ Their ideas may be more appealing than many popular or religious ideas, but they are more practical, meaningful, compassionate, idealistic, ‘realistic’, straightforward or exciting than these ideas, not more ‘rational’.

As an example of how pointless and inappropriate reasoning based on logic is for philosophical purposes, we only need examine the thinking of Socrates. Socrates questions everything – the nature of courage, the purpose of work, the reasons for marriage – but he entirely fails to come up with any answers. (He is, in this respect, as useless and ‘amoral’ as the post-modern deconstructionists discussed here.) Now, I agree that ‘questioning everything’ frees up the mind, enlivens our thinking, staves off blind obedience to conventional views, and has led to the development of empirical science, but Socrates insists he is doing none of these things – he is (most ambiguously) ‘seeking truth’. He seeks to do this by following the dictum: “A statement is true if it cannot be disproved” (24), that is, if all reasons provided for it cannot be contradicted. Socrates seems to have forgotten to question his own method here. It is true that a lack of satisfactory reasons behind a statement may indicate that it is not true, but has he not conceived of truths that may be extremely difficult or impossible to explain in words? We cannot completely explain in terse consistent ‘logical’ statements why we feel emotionally moved by a poem, or why we love our spouse, or why a sunset is beautiful. Does this mean such ideas are false or just inexplicable? Socrates seems to have overlooked the non-rational, emotional basis of the human mind which is a very great pity considering the human mind is what philosophy is supposed to be about!

Fortunately, many of the philosophers that followed Socrates took up his ‘rational’ ‘reasoned’ ‘logical’ terminology, but nicely failed to apply his methods. Epicurus expresses his reasons for valuing friendship – solidarity, intimacy, compassion, happiness – in purely emotional terms which he can call ‘rational’ only nominally. Seneca wisely suggests our frustrations are tempered by what we can ‘rationally’ understand, even though what he really means is what we have emotionally experienced. Montaigne says we should accept and celebrate our ‘irrational’ bodily functions – when he means ‘involuntary’. Fortunately, all the rubbish about ‘rationality’ here does not get in the way of these philosophers speaking their impassioned, meaningful, creative, intuitive ideas, which are either not rational or ‘rational’ in an unconventional rather meaningless sense of the word (roughly approximating ‘well thought about’). They do not limit their thinking to mere contradiction and ‘deconstruction’, as Socrates appears to do.

However, there are a number of highly unfortunate consequences of speaking about intuitive, emotionally-satisfying ideas as based on ‘reason’. To begin with, the ideas appear to be somehow literally factually true – like the conclusions of empirical science. The philosopher does not proffer his idea as a more fulfilling way of seeing the world but as somehow the ‘right’ or ‘more accurate’ way in which the world actually is. Notice how this ironically sounds just a little bit like the absolute certainty of some extremist religious positions? ‘Reason’ in this area has become an Enlightenment superstition. Compare: when a new idea or insight emerged, the ancient thinker was more than likely to attribute such a breakthrough to ‘the grace of God’. For the philosopher, ancient or modern, he is likely to attribute it to his ‘reason’ – it is a more ‘rational’ solution to an existential question. ‘Reason’ in the second example had as much to do with it as ‘God’ in the first.

The second problem is that of expression. Most philosophers, labouring under the mis-impression that they are being ‘logical’ and ‘reasonable’ and ‘factually accurate’, write their intuitive, emotional-meaningful, interesting, inspiring ideas in a formal, stiff, pompous, academic writing style, which is wholly inappropriate to the subject matter. The result is that their ideas are often incomprehensible. I like sometimes to compare this to its opposite, as if, say, someone wrote out their tax return in lines of abstract Romantic poetry. Doing this would not only be strange, but would not serve the purpose of writing. Describing one’s earnings this quarter as “vindictively corpulent” makes as much sense as describing human value as a “categorical imperative”.[3] Montaigne is on my side here: “An incomprehensible prose-style is likely to have resulted more from laziness than cleverness.” Not to mention the pretentious self-importance involved in writing in such a way.

The issue of expression is not a slight inconvenience in terms of effective philosophy. Socrates is particular about setting philosophy apart from rhetoric, which is the art of persuasive speaking. Put this way, it seems that Socrates’ goal was to be right rather than convincing. Socrates seems to be trying to emulate the physical sciences where, for example, if I have done the appropriate calculations, it does not matter how I express them, they will still be correct. However, there is a major problem with this when applied to philosophy’s concerns. The way you describe elements of the mind is intimately connected to what you are describing. Consider for example the equivalence of the following terms: “glass” = “tumbler”; “rain” = “shower”; “wind” = “breeze”. Since these refer to external things or properties, we can always refer outwardly to clarify a difference in terminology or a bad description of something. Since elements of mind are abstract ideas, if you describe them inaccurately, the reader is likely to grab hold of a completely different idea, mistaking, for example, ‘freedom’ for ‘licentiousness’, ‘love’ for ‘lust’, ‘beauty’ for ‘prettiness’ etc. There is no external reality to grab hold of to clarify. The ‘rational’ philosopher either ends up describing something other than what he intends to, or nothing at all comprehensible.

A much better more appropriate way of approaching matters of mind would be poetry, art or metaphor. These methods seek not only to describe but to express the sense, the feeling, of that which they indicate. Metaphor is, I argue, the clearest and most powerful method of expressing philosophy. One does not try to inappropriately describe values, feelings, and mind using ‘logical’ or ‘empirical’ language, one gives an example, an ‘as if’, suggesting situations in which the feeling arose or that the values imply, using ordinary everyday language to conjure up a clear impression of what one is talking about. Seneca understood this, which is one of the reasons why his philosophy is unusually clear. He suggests the metaphor of the goddess of Fortune; she represents our exposure to accident. The goddess of Fortune inflicts harm with the moral blindness of a hurricane (another metaphor). Frustratingly, when De Botton discusses this, he notes that the image of the goddess here is distinctly “unphilosophical” (92) and that Seneca introduces her only to aid the memory.

The views expressed in poetry, literature, art, and particularly myth (or, more precisely, philosophical exegeses of myth) are far clearer, more meaningful and insightful than most of those expressed by the philosophers, mostly because the philosophers are incomprehensible to most readers. Actually, the difference between philosophy and literature frequently appears extremely arbitrary, influenced by whether the author in question is using the inappropriate language of ‘rationality’ or not. I am not sure exactly how a T. S. Eliot or George Orwell or Walt Whitman or Thoreau is not in their own way a philosopher, at least, in comparison to the less ‘rationally’ obsessed ‘official’ philosophers such as Montaigne (who seems to be writing pure sociology) or Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, Sartre or Merleau-Ponty (who were also littérateurs).

The third and most troubling problem with the use of ‘reason’ in philosophy is that it makes all philosophies, properly considered, wrong or deeply wanting. It does not take much to apply real logical and empirical reasoning to their arguments and find them wanting in the pointless, deconstructive manner of Socrates. This is what university philosophy lecturers do. So not only is most philosophy expressed in an incomprehensible manner, but the intuitive, meaningful ideas hidden beneath the surface are generally extracted by philosophy lecturers in order to be demolished as not ‘rational’ enough. These philosophies are hopelessly tainted by the opinions of the author – and this a bad thing, a weakness. Yet these same philosophy lecturers can only contradict. They proffer no solutions. Why is this? Because empirical/logical reasoning will not yield any answers to the nature of mind because these are the wrong tools for the job. Instead, all such criticism produces is deconstruction, meaninglessness, and nihilism.

To conclude, I want to make it clear that I am not denying that the discoveries of reason have advanced the empirical sciences particularly affecting the areas of technology and health. My argument is that the great philosophers do not employ reason at all, but say they do. The universities, taking things very literally of course, predicate their entire philosophy program around the use of reason, and in the process:

  • misinterpret and ridicule the arguments of philosophers who have something meaningful to tell us about our lives and
  • endorse the useless arguments of philosophers who have next to nothing meaningful to say, but are actually rational.

Recent discoveries in neurology have emphasized the importance of emotion in ‘reasoning’. In particular, people who have brain damage affecting a particular type of emotional processing can still reason hypothetically, but not in a useful, practical manner. Thus we learn that feeling and reason are not opposites. The distinction that is made between what the philosophers call ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ is the distinction made, in their day, between emotionally meaningful ideas and those which are not. The idea of a reasonable ethics founded on maximizing the greatest happiness for the greatest number is similarly based upon an emotionally satisfying idea – all the more so for being more practically realizable for the first time in history – but it is not based upon a greater ‘reason’. To claim such is to state an untruth, to cloud the issue with an incomprehensible writing style, and, most destructively, to open your idea to logical contradiction. So enough of these ‘rationalisations’! Tell it like it is! Such an idea is more inspiring, humane, compassionate, dynamic, etc. not more ‘rational’.


[1] I leave out of this discussion the empirical observation of brain science (neurology) and the statistical basis of modern psychology as philosophy clearly attempts to separate itself from these methods.

[2] I have had people counter this argument of mine by, essentially, choosing one of these definitions and insisting on it, but this is never arrived at through any explicitly logical process.

[3] For those well-versed in Kantian terminology, I suggest that you understand this term because you have found a way of connecting this sterile language to an intuitive emotional sense of meaning within yourself. It is definitely is not the ‘mathematical principle’ that Kant’s inappropriate and obscure language makes it resemble.

Written by tomtomrant

16 November 2013 at 7:47 pm

A Christmas Eucharist

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Pardon my impertinence, O Lord, as I rewriteth the Christmas Eucharist I all but slept through… (See the afterword for details.)


HYMN

Silent night, holy night:

All is calm, all is bright

Round the virgin mother and child,

Holy infant so tender and mild,

Sleep in heavenly peace,

Sleep in heavenly peace.

Etc.

OPENING SENTENCE

Lay Minister: Today you may know that the Lord is born to bring new life and wonder.

Priest: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

All: Amen.

Priest: The Lord be with you.

All: And also with you.

Priest welcomes everyone.

LIGHTING OF THE ADVENT CANDLE

(The four Advent candles have been lit already from subsequent Eucharists.)

Priest: God our Mystery, today the Christ is born and from darkness comes a great light. We have lit the candles of the left and the right, the north and south, the east and the west and we now light the tiny flame of Christ, the centre. As the tiny spark of new life, he is born out of the abyss of chaos, the star shining in the night – he is unexpected but, once born, seems always to have been known, anticipated, here with us always; Jesus Christ, the light, the generative power of the Spirit.

(The white Christmas candle is lit.)

All: Lord Jesus Christ, Light of Light,

You have come within us.

Help us feel and remember your light

To shine as light in our own lives.

Wonder to God in the highest.

THE BLESSING OF THE CRIB

Priest: Let us pray:

God our Mystery, on this day your Son Jesus Christ is born of the Virgin Mary for our wonder and enlightenment.

See here this crib and around it the ass and the ox – those great enemy brothers of Egypt, Set and Osiris, and yet they are gathered here in peace with the Christ child. And see also the three wise men of the god Mithra, come with treasures for the Christ child; the old principle deferring to the New Principle of Christ, born mysteriously of the Virgin in the lowly and unlooked for place.

For the stable is also a cave, as Christ is the new light shining in darkness. It is a cave and it is a womb of new and glorious beginnings beyond all imagination. It is the womb and it is the universe, darkness, denseness, chaos and fire then light! And energy! And expanding growth! It is the universe and the dark chamber of the human heart where the light of the divine is first engendered, beyond hope and unlooked for.

Proceed now, those who are able, into the darkness of the sanctum of Christ and behold the promise of the Holy Spirit.

(Those who are able proceed to the altar and crawl beneath it, emerging into the light before the Cross on the far side.)

Lay Minister: Jesus, the light of the world has come to dispel the darkness of our hearts. In his light let us recall our human imperfections and avow them to God the Mystery of All.

Pause for reflection (for at least 1 minute).

Lay Minister: The Virgin Mary accepts the call of God and is the mother of Jesus.

All: Accept and touch us also.

Lay Minister: Your Son the Christ accepts the call of God and is God himself.

All: Accept and touch us also.

GLORIA IN EXCELSIS (Stand)

All: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to all people. Lord God, King of Ourselves, we remind ourselves of your presence in all. Jesus Christ, Son of God, Lamb of God, you suffer from love: your magic is within us to call on the Father and the Holy Spirit of life. Amen.


OPENING PRAYER

Priest: Let us pray,

Eternal God, in the stillness of this night you sent your almighty Word to pierce the world’s darkness with the light of wonder: unlooked for he comes, a seed planted from the tree, hidden in leaf-litter unseen; the Christ child grows as but a green stem, then a shrub to grow upward to the Rood of the cross and, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, as one in God.

All: Amen.


LITURGY OF THE WORD

GOSPEL (Matthew 2: 1-16)

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for it is so written by the prophet…” Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.

This is the Gospel of the Lord.

All: Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ

HOMILY (Sit)

Priest: Meister Eckhart said, “It is more worth to God his being brought forth ghostly in the individual virgin or good soul than that he was born of Mary bodily.” What did he mean? He is saying that the Virgin birth, I think, has nothing to do with biological wonders. We know from science that it is not possible to give birth as a virgin. Unless, that is, the message is not one of biological birth. “It is more worth to God his being brought forth ghostly in the individual virgin or good soul than that he was born of Mary bodily.” What can this mean? It is not a biological birth, it is a spiritual birth. Christ is born of the heart and if we ignore the call of Christ, then we become lost.

“Dread the Passage of Jesus, For He Will Not Return” was a line repeated by Monks in the middle ages. The cost is great in our lives when we do not acknowledge the compassion, the love, the passion of Christ; when we do not heed the call of our life goals, what our bodies and souls require of us. We become mechanical monsters, we become like King Herod, seeking to hold on to the ego, to the apparent power of self-interest and greed. And we commit the massacre of the innocents in miniature every day when we ignore our destinies, our feelings, give the world the cold shoulder and hide in the cave, trying vainly to extinguish the light that can inspire us. The children needn’t die for the Christ child; the Christ child will prosper all the same. When we hide from our fears, our inspirations and make no time to heed and develop the balance of the heart we massacre the children of our own lands, in our hearts. We batter ourselves upon the rocks, we strangle our own souls and their promise. The Christ needs only be acknowledged, like the shepherds did. We need only direct ourselves to his crib and stand to. He is born here in our hearts if we would but look for him.

“It is more worth to God his being brought forth ghostly in the individual virgin or good soul than that he was born of Mary bodily.”

PROFESSION OF LIFE (Stand)

All: We see the Mystery that is God. We feel the Mystery that is God. We are the Mystery that is God. I am the Mystery that is God.

We see the Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, of one being with the Father, through him all things are. In wonder he appears from within, is Incarnate of the Holy Spirit of God and the Virgin Mary, and becomes human in me. For all life he is crucified, suffers death, is buried and rises once more, at one with the Father. He it is who loves the living and the dead, his kingdom has no end.

We see the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son and yet is the Father and the Son.

We see the holy Church of the soul. We acknowledge baptism for the inspiration of life. We carry the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world within.

Amen.


THE GREETING OF PEACE

Priest: We are the body of Christ.

All: His spirit is with us.

Priest: The peace of the Christ be always with you.

All: And also with you.

All may exchange the greet of peace, “Peace be with you,” among all of the people.


EUCHARISTIC PRAYER

Priest: The Lord be with you.

All: And also with you.

Priest: Life up your hearts.

All: We lift them up to the Lord.

Priest: Let us give thanks to God.

All: Thanks to the mystery of God.

(All kneel.)

Priest: Lord God, through Christ accept our sacrifice of praise; and, by the power of your Word and Holy Spirit, sanctify this bread and wine, that we who share in this holy sacrament may be partakers of Christ’s body and blood and become one as He.

Christ, when his hour comes, the night before he goes up to the cross to unite with the glorious imperfections of the world, offers for all his sacrifice of himself, takes bread and gives you thanks; he breaks it and gives it to his disciples, saying:

TAKE, EAT; THIS IS MY BODY

WHICH IS GIVEN FOR YOU;

DO THIS OF ME.

In the same way, after supper, he takes the cup and gives you thanks; he gives it to us, saying,

DRINK THIS;

THIS IS MY BLOOD

WHICH IS SHED FOR YOU

AND FOR MANY

FOR THE FLORISHING OF LIFE.

DO THIS OF ME.

Priest: Let us proclaim the mystery of life.

All: Christ is dead,

Christ is risen;

Christ comes again.

Priest: Through Christ grant that we who eat and drink these holy gifts may, by your Holy Spirit, be one body with Christ, to serve in unity and balance…

In your love and compassion, bring to us to realise eternal life. May we praise all in union, ourselves with ourselves through your Son Jesus Christ.

All: Blessing and honour and wonder be yours for all time. Amen.


COMMUNION RITE

The Priest introduces the Lord’s Prayer

All: Our Father in the heavens inside, hallowed be your name, your kingdom is here, your will is done, on earth as in heaven. Take we today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us to balance and deliver us from fear and desire.

Priest: We who are many are one body in Christ.

All: For all share in the one Bread.

The Priest then breaks the Bread during the Agnus Dei.

All: Lamb of God, you suffer from love: nourish all life.

Lamb of God, you suffer from love: nourish all life.

Lamb of God, you suffer from love: grant us peace.

The Priest then invites the people to Communion with the words:

Priest: This is the Lamb of God who suffers from love, who dies from love. Happy are those who are called to his supper.

All: We come to live on his life.

Those who are to receive Holy Communion or a blessing come forward.


CONCLUDING RITE (Stand)

Lay Minister: The Word of God becomes human; we see his glory.

Priest: Let us pray:

Father, the child born today is the Saviour of our world. He makes us your children. May he welcome us into your kingdom of eternal life.

All: Amen.

All: Father, we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice, as the Christ our Lord. Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work as Christs on earth. Amen.

Lay Minister: Go in the peace of Christ.

All: Thanks be to God.

AFTERWORD

So I returned to Christ Church Essendon for Christmas Eve’s carols and Eucharist. The ceremony was largely the same as last time (see earlier blog update under week 3) except this time it was dark outside (so the candles glowed all around), the weather was rather hot (so it got sticky and irksome), and I’d seen it all before. This time around the ritual was still correct but admittedly overlong and the concretized and backward historical nature of the text was really annoying me. It occurred to me that maybe the ideal transformation the Church requires is simply to fully adapt and explore the texts. As much as worship has changed in the schizophrenic splintering that has occurred since the Reformation, the essential words of the Bible itself have not changed. This is the biggest hurdle for the modern church. Modernising ye olde English is but a surface prettifier – the backward, extremism and historicizing is still radically out of step with our Western European sense of Self. I have attempted above to adapt the words of the Eucharist I attended on Christmas Eve into the sort of Eucharist I would love to hear and which means something to me. I have followed the order of proceedings all the way and there are in fact some sections where I was surprised to find very little change was necessary. The main points of change were the following:

1. Removal of sleep-inducing repetition. This nearly always occurred in passage of worship and adoration. “Holy and gracious God, all creation rightly gives you praise.” “It is indeed right… at all times and in all places to give you thanks and praise.” The mystery of God should definitely inspire submission and deference – the idea is of the conscious ego bowing down to the whole completeness of the Self – but to constantly carry on with worship for Jesus or the little boy laying down “his sweet head” in worship smacks of idolatry. Idolatry is getting caught on the material thing or personality; Jesus becomes a kind of supernatural superstar and the reference to ourselves, the mysterious light of inspiration, is lost. This occurs with any insistence upon history, personality cult or actual event. There is, in my opinion, too much of this in the Eucharist so I have trimmed some of this out (but suspect there might still be too much of it).

2. I attempted to selectively edit or reinterpret the Old Testament readings but I ended up with barely one line of them left. No point. The Old Testament, full of extremism and a vengeful God, does not belong in a modern Christian church – indeed the Christian God himself bears little resemblance to Yahweh or Elohim of the Old Testament. Read metaphorically, the images and stories may still have meaning, but the words in which they are described are so backward and the readings required are to be so stretched and contorted in order to avoid nonsense or worse that it is better and easier to have done with them altogether. (Inserting a reading from a Hindu or Zen Buddhist or American Indian text or indeed any other religion would be more enlightening and meaningful here.)

3. Finally, there are simple substitutions that can even be made ‘on the fly’ when reading texts in church. Convert any reference that refers to another time – that is, the past or the future – to now. For example, “For us he came down from heaven, was Incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human,” becomes, “For us he comes down from heaven, is Incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and becomes truly human.” Any references to “for ever” becomes “in eternity” (eternity being the opposite of time not actually a long period of time). Salvation and sin should be read as enlightenment and imbalance. References to another place, whether this is Israel, Nazareth or particularly heaven or hell, should refer to inside. (Generally the other world should be read as the inner world.) Heaven is not “up there” (space is up there) but is “within”.

Once again, my readings of Jung and Joseph Campbell have helped me in my thinking here.

Written by tomtomrant

26 December 2010 at 12:13 pm

‘The God Allusion’: 1. METAPHOR

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Does God exist or not?

Many of us don’t much care, of course. Aren’t there more important things, such as friendship, or love, or leisure?

In this book I want to demonstrate how myth[1] and the gods can inspire a healthy life.

These ideas are not new; sages of the past may have read the great myths in a similar way, but this is not a history book. How certain ideas developed can only be the subject of speculation; I am neither an anthropologist nor a historian. Nor am I proposing conspiracy theories – no political intrigues or Da Vinci codes. I am interested in living myth, here in the present.

It is obvious that mythology is not logical. It is not science. Mythology engages with science as much as, say, music does. You can analyse the auditory receptiveness of the human ear, but this won’t help you write a symphony. Scientific reasoning is what science is for.

And myth is not history. Myth engages with history as much as, say, painting does. To paint a picture of Napoleon, the artist is concerned with the painting – the framing of the form, the colours used, the texture, the style. The artist might need to research the customs of the period, but history isn’t the chief concern. History is the material; the inspiration and the arrangement of this on the canvas is the craft. So mythology can make use of historical forms, but not as a record of past events and times. That is what history is for.

It is easy to dismiss mythology on grounds of science or history – surprisingly easy considering all the debate, even bloodshed. Mythology is concerned with mythological thought. And mythological thought is concerned with metaphor.

What is a metaphor?

A metaphor is a figure of speech; a resemblance is suggested between two things that are not literally the same. For example, ‘All the world’s a stage’. This is not to be confused with a simile, which is worded in a more ‘rational’ way: ‘The world is like a stage.’ There is nothing unusual about a simile – even scientists use them to explain complex theory.

But the more complex the metaphor, the harder it is to convert back into a simile and understand it with a basic ‘equals’ sign (e.g., the world = a stage).

My sister is good at swimming.

Simile: ‘My sister swims like a fish.’

Metaphor: ‘My sister is a fish.’ (You might say, “My sister is such a fish, you know.”)

It is easy to prove that my sister is not a fish; she does not have scaly skin or gills. Mythologies are lies in the same way that the world is not actually a stage, and my sister is a not a fish. This is all very clever and not untrue, but foolishly missing the point of the metaphor in the first place.

Furthermore, if ‘my sister is such a fish’, do you believe in the fish? This is just as ridiculous. The fish is a metaphor, and the simplest kind, based on the pattern, ‘Something IS (represented by) something else.’ Metaphors can get much deeper than this:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…

Much of Shakespeare’s power comes from his apt and expressive metaphors; here the stage-world metaphor is extended to include the actors-people metaphor too. You might say this makes his metaphor ‘more true.’

This is what is meant by religious or spiritual truth. Not the truth of a mathematical formula or a logical syllogism, but the truth of a Bach fugue or a Shakespearean sonnet.

The simplest metaphoric narrative is an allegory, where, for example, in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the pigs clearly represent Communist leaders (who are ‘more equal than others’) and the animals of the farm yard are the repressed multitudes of society. This sort of metaphor is simple because it is obvious what the metaphors are referring to; the whole book is easily reduced to an essay about the dangers of Communism. There is also the fable, where the Big Bad Wolf may represent, but more obscurely and mysteriously, the nature of Gluttony.

When a metaphor refers to something very mysterious and even contradictory, it edges toward myth. In Douglas Adams’ novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Ford Prefect says he will show us how the universe will end. He says to imagine that his wine glass represents the temporal universe – then he smashes it. (This is also a good example of the merrily insane spirit of myth.)

Another example: my sister is a fish because she swims a lot. My uncle is a fisherman because he is attracted to scantily-clad female swimmers and would like to ‘catch’ one. One day, my uncle goes ‘fishing’. He sits by the pool and casts his line out into the water, hoping to catch a juicy fish. Suddenly, a shark grabs his line and pulls him into the river. He is almost drowned, but happens to grab hold of a log and floats downstream. He is washed up on the shores of an uninhabited island. What does this story mean when we translate it back into its references?

Casting his line in the river might represent sitting by the pool and winking at female swimmers, but what does the shark represent? What does it mean to say he was almost drowned? Perhaps here is his comeuppance for being such a lecherous old womanizer. But what ‘is’ the log that saves him (it could be any number of possibilities)? And the uninhabited island is even more mysterious…

Similarly, what does it mean that Mary gave birth without having sexual intercourse? Or that Jesus was not born of woman? How can you have a virgin birth? The answer isn’t found by examining the human reproductive system. This is a metaphor. What kind of birth is not a physical one? That would be a spiritual birth of some kind. The metaphors point toward mystery.

And vaguely pointing to a mystery is all a myth can do. Mythic metaphors can’t force conclusions, at least not like fables, allegories, similes or logical syllogisms. Mythological symbols can only ‘point the way’, after which we are on our own with our troubled thoughts. (This may be why they are often misinterpreted; seen as the “cause” of war or psychosis – they are psychological dynamite.) Myths, experienced and lived, promote a special type of thought – a possession of mind – that may hold the key to existence. The mythological realm is the jumping off space, the Way Between, the departure gate to the Great Unknown, a mysterious journey into night and back again into day.

“THE GOD ALLUSION” is a unique response to Richard Dawkins’ best-seller “The God Delusion”, but that isn’t all. It lucidly explores what myths ‘mean’, shedding some light on their mystery and purpose, relating them directly to our modern lives. Myth concerns the deeply personal as well as the universals that make us human. Unlike other works on this subject, the book doesn’t set out to divide but to unite the world in a game of life. This is explored through drama, music, sport, dance, drawing from blockbuster movies, evolution, Shakespeare, psychology, even advertising. God is not a fact and God is not a lie, God is an allusion, a word we use to indicate a personal and enticingly-meaningful mystery beyond all words and forms that inspires a powerful, exhilarating experience of being truly alive.

Written by tomtomrant

12 August 2010 at 10:37 pm

Posted in myth, religion

Tagged with , , ,

The Magical Sci-Fi Vortex of Power

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Magic is just for children, apparently. Except no. Feel free to read on.

First, an often overlooked scientific fact: We cannot know what any thing really is. The scientific method systematically experiments with phenomena. Doubt is part of this method. The proven theory is given credence only until the exception or contradiction is discovered. Any theory begins, “Given that” – and these “givens” are not total absolute facts, only, for the moment, proven facts, within certain specific conditions.

The case in point: what is wood? What is the chair you are sitting on? It is made of wood, or plastic, or some hideous new moulded fibreglass-like substance bought from Ikea and made cheap to look appealing but will probably fall to bits in less than a decade. We think we know what wood is. It comes from trees. But what is this apparently hard, grainy, fibrous substance hiding beneath the bark of trees? What IS this – in itself?

As we deconstruct our world, into the microscopic domain – and beyond – science, that reliable, staid, dependable source of knowledge, becomes shall-we-say, a little abstract. We are taught at school that an atom has a nucleus – protons neutrons and electrons and all that. And yet, “As our mental eye penetrates into smaller and smaller distances and shorter and shorter times, we find nature behaving so entirely differently from what we observe in visible and palpable bodies of our surroundings that NO model shaped after our large-scale experiments can ever be ‘true’… The … shapes displayed in these pictures are not anything that could be directly observed in real atoms. The pictures are only a mental help, a tool of thought, an intermediary means… Notice that we prefer to say ADEQUATE, not TRUE. For in order that a description be CAPABLE of being true, it must be capable of being compared DIRECTLY with actual facts. That is usually not the case with our [atomic] models.” (Erwin Schrodinger)

In other words, we may form hypothetical models of what any thing is on the most basic level, but we cannot know for sure. “A completely satisfactory model of this type is not only practically inaccessible, but not even thinkable,” writes Schrodinger. “Or, to be precise, we can, of course, think it, but however we think it, it is wrong…” Every thing is made of miniscule cells, atoms, particles that behave in a way that is not solidly conceivable or knowable in ‘big world’ terms that have a clear meaning for us.

We are all connected to the outside world by our senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch – but that is all. This is so obvious, we easily overlook the idea. The desk-top feels hard because our sense of touch tells us so (and because the cells in our hands will not penetrate the atoms of the desktop). When in perfect health, we may feel the wind on our face, hear the sounds of a busy street, make eye-contact with a friend, taste that burger and smell the oily grease but our senses constrain as well as free us. They free us to experience the world but they constrain us within their limitations.

We can invent devices that will monitor levels outside the range of our perception. Dogs can hear a higher pitch of sound. There are birds that can see into the ultraviolet spectrum which humans cannot see. All these instances give us a hint as to how broad and deep the spectrum of ‘ultimate reality’ really is, abstracted from the ‘limited range’ of our senses, outside the grey-edged box in which our senses imprison us.

But what is this ‘ultimate reality’ which is all around us and in which we unknowingly reside? What guides the planets and causes iron filings to move about inside a magnetic field (whatever that really ‘is’)? Is it even possible (or meaningful) that an objective absolute reality really exists without someone to conceive and experience it? We have here left the bounds of science. For science can only deliver knowledge and cannot comment on experience.

We will now ask, what is it that is looking out, what is making use of these senses? Who is it that looks out of your eyes and who is it that returns your gaze from across the room out of similarly-formed eyes? Who is looking out of the portals? Well, of course, it’s you and your attractive other. Yes, you can’t know what in fact you are either.

“I am the knower of my body, therefore I am not my body.” Then: “I know my thoughts, therefore I am not my thoughts.” Next: “I know my feelings, therefore I am not my feelings.” And then the Buddha comes along and adds, “You are not the witness of these things either. There is no witness.” So where are you now?

This is not a proof of your nothingness. This is a line of thought in aid of awe – the world around you, as seen through your senses, is not quite as inert and clearly-defined as our consciousness – our knowledge – would have us believe. In fact, the world is suffused from the inside out with mysterious powers that rival the magical powers of the wizard’s staff, the nixie’s wand or the science-fiction space-traveller’s ‘force fields’ in wondrous inexplicability.

What makes an experience – something alive – different from a theoretical model of something alive? What makes the model of an atom different from an actual atom? This comes down to the problem of what any thing actually is once more. For looking at a thing and being a thing are very different experiences.

Being inside our bodies has conditioned us to experience the world using the senses. Likewise, the species has developed to attribute significance to certain qualities that can be seen, heard, tasted, smelt or touched. The atoms are not experienced in themselves. Hence their meaning is cut off from us, like the theoretical hypotheses that Schrodinger has described.

But, taking this a step further, what ‘attributes significance’? Makes our ‘big world’ mean something to us? The ‘real’ world outside of us seems to have an underlying structure that can be guessed at, that we can produce hypothetical models for, but which we cannot intuit clearly – like the atom. Yet this mysterious microscopic world supports everything ‘big’ which we see and which we are.

‘Inside’ matter, that is, inside our bodies, there is a similar layer of mysterious supporting powers. These are experienced ‘inside our heads’ as emotional reactions. It is these reactions, when linked to the world we see with our senses, that ‘attribute significance’, that is, make the world mean something to us. But from where do these emotional reactions come from?

Once again, there is not a clear answer to this because we cannot conceive of where (presumably somewhere in the brain) nor can we guess what these things are – but neither can we be sure what my cup of coffee ‘is’. In other words, the internal world (inside our minds) is just as mysteriously inexplicable as the outside world.

Yet, and here I am approaching the point of this essay, we do no consider emotional power in quite the same way we do magnetism or atomic power. This is only natural. Science is constantly ‘verifying’ the natural powers but rarely comments on the inner powers. This is not to say they don’t exist (we can see any time we are frustrated or happy or sad or in love that they DO exist), but they are mostly beyond the scope of science because these powers are inside. We can barely locate what we are to measure let alone how.

CG Jung suggested in one of his essays that these two types of powers may possibly be the same. That is, what we know as magnetism or gravity or even wind may be the same sort of power as anger or depression or hilarity – it is only that we examine and hypothesize about the former and are inside the latter. Or, if this is stretching the conceit, at least that what we see as instincts in animals certainly have some marked similarity to the emotional reactions in a human being.

What are the ‘atoms’ of emotional energy? Jung called these hypothetical sources ‘archetypes’. These are structures of our consciousness that are ‘built in’ to the organism that we are. What they are, we cannot say – but they are the basis of a structure, as the atom is the basis of the larger structure of a slither wood. The archetypes act upon our consciousness in the same way that a magnet acts upon iron filings. They are a force to be reckoned with.

Knowing about magnetism can help explain some of the bizarre behaviours of natural phenomena – we can compensate for an expected magnetic force – and we can put this power to use for developing technology. Similarly, knowing about the power of the archetypes can help us to understand ourselves and to compensate for a strong archetypal force (emotional reaction) rather than blindly denying these powers even as they have us in their grip. In fact, their denial leads to a perceived increase in their power.

But because these powers come from inside us, they are not quite so apparently settled or predictable as natural outside-world powers. That is not to say they are flighty and entirely unpredictable – the archetypal forces all come from the same basic blueprint in different individuals; they are patterns of the species – but the particular formation of the archetypes is differently realised in each separate person because each of us has had slightly different childhood conditioning patterns and deviations to the basic blueprint of the physical body (rather like how we all have noses but they are not all exactly the same nose). For example, our sense of smell is affected by the shape of our nose at birth, and what happens to our nose as we grow up – if our nose is sliced off due to an unfortunate accident for instance. Both these qualities affect the structuring patterns of our archetypal powers – (1) our capacity at birth and (2) how this capacity has been repressed, moderately developed or fully developed by our personal histories.

Jung proposes there are certain set types of archetypes that we are all likely to have – such as a mother archetype and a father archetype. Conditioning tells us we are all likely to have a mother and a father (even if through accidents of history we may not know them) and an emotional (archetypal) reaction to these figures. This is not to say that our bodies ‘know’ what our mother or father look like – in fact, it is impossible to have a set picture of any archetype – only that the archetypal powers tend to gather around, latch onto and structure themselves through the apparent image of a mother and father form.

It makes evolutionary sense that the emotional powers should do this. The infant is entirely reliant upon the parents for the first 13 or more years of its development. It both cannot help and needs to feel something towards these figures. Likewise, there are archetypes that latch onto certain conditioned sexual imagery – which means we find someone attractive; they match like key and lock the archetypal structures in our minds.

Now to science fiction, the harbinger of this discussion. If we can have a laser rifle such that when we pull the trigger, a great force or power sends a projectile in a certain direction, then there really is nothing inherently fantastical about firing some magical ‘love ray’ or ‘anger missile’ in a fantasy or science fiction story. There is nothing inherently ridiculous about this in the sense that the concept is not entirely without real-world correspondents; it is not an escapist delusion.

For the real world is full of objects brimming with emotional power – that is, our archetypal powers are released by encounters with people and symbols that activate our personally configured archetypes. In other words, love, attraction, revulsion, happiness, elation, expectation, irritation – anything we feel – are REAL powers. Cupid’s love arrow is therefore a representation of an energetic force just as Einstein’s E=MC squared is a representation of another form of energetic force.

So the apparently ridiculous and ludicrous ‘magic’ of a ‘love potion’ in story is not to be scoffed at, provided it is presented consistently and as sensitively as a representation of a special kind of inner force should be. In this way, all that fascinates in science fiction, fantasy, myth and even religion may not be quite so stupid or impossible as first thought. Closing your mind to inner forces may be as foolish as denying the outer forces, perhaps even more so – for it is your own inner sense of meaning, your own inner emotional connection to the outside world, that is, by so doing, being ‘unplugged’ and denied, and dammed up power will build up to a destructive explosion.

Written by tomtomrant

22 May 2010 at 10:36 pm