Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Following the Yellow Brick Road, Part II

I recently read this great book by Patrick Harpur called The Philosophers' Secret Fire: A History of the Imagination. The author, as an Amazon reader stated quite well, "revisits 'the Otherworld,' a realm of imagination—of mythology and folklore, metaphor and analogy, spirit and soul. It is a world celebrated by Plato and
neo-Platonists; by shamans and soothsayers; by alchemists and magi; by mystics (Jacob Boehme and St. John of the Cross); by Romantic poets (William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and W. B. Yeats); and by the psychologist C. G. Jung. [Yet] the burden of Harpur's message is that modern man has lost his soul. The spiritual hubris of his literalism, materialism, rationalism, and scientism has separated him not only from his own "soul, but also from Nature and from the 'World Soul,' which permeates the cosmos and which, in a pantheistic sense, is the cosmos." I would add that "modern man" in this context specifically refers to "Western man," given that the more "primitive" cultures remain ever in touch with "the Otherworld." While this tells you what The Philosophers' Secret Fire is about, it doesn't tell you how wonderfully written and what a pure joy it was to read. Honestly, it was one of the best, most delightful and most thought-provoking reads I've stumbled upon in recent years, so I really took notice when Harpur quoted some material from The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnas. Harpur generously commented that although he doesn't agree with everything Tarnas has to say, his work is worth reading. I duly noted that.

Meanwhile, during a mid-day break from my corporate life-sucking job, I spent some moments browsing the new titles section at Cody's Books on Union Square. One hefty volume caught my eye, a book entitled Cosmos and Psyche. The cover art was engaging, and the jacket marketing did its job. I scribbled the title down without making the connection between the author, Richard Tarnas, and the other book I'd recently added to my "to be read" list.

The connection might never have been made if it wasn't for an event notification that came to my inbox. Fields Book Store was announcing an upcoming reading by Richard Tarnas, who would be promoting his new book Cosmos and Psyche. The advertisement featured a big cover image, and I immediately recognized it as the book I'd picked up at Cody's. It was then that I also realized he was the same guy Harpur had mentioned. Owing to this series of "coincidences," I felt I had to go, so I marked my calendar and counted down the days.

Once there, I felt a sense of anticipation and wariness. I carefully scanned all the other people attending, I made eye contact with Tarnas himself during the reading, and I was prepared for something monumental to happen. Either something monumental did happen or, in my zealousness, it snuck past while my attention was diverted. I will say that Tarnas was a very good speaker, with an obvious following. I found his work to be tremendously appealing even if sometimes the sheer magnanimity of it was daunting, and despite the fact that I, like Harpur, wasn't totally convinced of Tarnas's main conclusion, which is that the next step of human evolution is upon us. (I know I haven't drawn that out in this or the previous post, but a google on Tarnas will yield all kinds of info). The only thing I can say is that given the subject matter, I expected some kind of synchronicity to propel me in new directions. Instead, I felt only a tiny little intuition that made no immediate sense.

The intution said to send my resume to Tarnas and to the book store. I have done neither. I don't know if I will comply or not. It feels a little foolish. Yet, I am a person who doesn't believe in coincidences as meaningless events. I am fairly convinced that in that sense, there is no such thing as a coincidence. This does not make me a fatalist per se, but I regard such moments as messages and like any message you can fail to answer the phone when it rings or hit delete without even looking at the email message. Without a doubt, the "intuition" in itself was a meaningful message, but I'm not sure if I want to open that envelope because even if I do, I might be unable to put the contents in meaningful context. Or they may require more of me that I may or may not be prepared to do. Or the envelope could be empty, which would be a disappointment. So for now, the tracks stop here.

Except for this one other thing: Most interesting of all is the fact that I'd never before received a mailing from Fields. I don't recall signing up for their announcement list and to be honest, I have never again received anything from them. I don't really know how to explan that one. So maybe I will send that resume. Can't hurt, I guess.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Quoting The Philosophers' Secret Fire

On the Seal-Woman's Skin (The Princess and the Deer)

"Animals are also the ancestors ... humans and animals are interchangeable."

On St. Patrick's Purgatory (Plato's Cave)

"[There was a] Greek notion that we have two different kinds of souls. Thymos is warm, emotional and red-blooded; while psyche is colder, deeper and more impersonal. From thymos' point of view, the Otherworld is the cold, grey, unsubstantial Hades.... From psyche's perspective, it is our robust, red-blooded world which is unreal, while Hades who was called Pluton (Pluto), the Rich One, holds all the treasures of the imagination. ... Thymos has been assimilated into the robust ego-consciousness of Western man who believes in no reality other than his own. From the deeper psychic viewpoint, however, ego-consciousness is - as the Neoplatonists noticed - a kind of unconsciousness. We are unaware of reality, claim the Romantics, except in moments of imaginative vision. The Otherworld lies all about us, an earthly paradies - if we would but cleanse 'the doors of perception,' as Blake put it, and see the world as it is, 'infinite.'"

On The Soul of the World

"One of the distinctive innovations of Western thought has been to turn the Otherworld into an intellectual abstraction. It has been formulated in three main ways: as the Soul of the World; as imagination; and as the collective unconscious. The latter two models of the Otherworld have the added eccentricity of locating it within us.

Historically, all three models have been largely ignored or outcast by Western orthodoxy, whether Christian theology or modern rationalism. But wherever they have as it were broken the surface and emerged from their 'esoteric' or even 'occult' underworld, they have been accompanied by extraordinary efflorescences of creative life. In Renaissance Florence, and again, among the German and English Romantics three hundred years later, imagination was exalted not only as the most important human faculty, but as the very ground of reality."

On Matter and Spirits

"What Western culture claims as the increasing triumph of rationalism and the progress of science, the daimonic tradition reads as the perpetual striving of the daimons to restore the true ambiguity and equilibrium of reality, either by countering one ideology with demonized opponent, or by subverting it from within."

On The Daimon's Tales (The Structure of Myth)

"As Rodney Needham reminds us, myth 'reflects history, provides a social charter, embodies a metaphysics, responds to natural phenomena, expressed perennial verities, copes with historical change, and so on almost endlessly...', but no theory of myth comes close to explaining all myths. The reason for this is simple: theories about myth are themselves further variants of the myth, re-tellings in the language of the day, even if it is unpalatable psychological jargon. Myth, like Nature, kindly provides 'evidence' for the truth of any theory we care to hold; but that theory will in the end flow back into the source stories that circle the earth like great ocean streams.

What myths most resemble, I suppose, are dreams."

On The Hero and the Virgin

"It was a movement from below, from the people, which forced the papacy to create two articles of dogma which have no biblical justification. The first was the Immaculate Conception which effectively makes Mary a goddess by asserting that she was born without sin; the second, made about a hundred years later, in 1950, was the Assumption - which asserts that Mary did not die but was lifted bodily up into Heaven. Roman Catholic orthodoxy ratified the myth thrown up by the popular imagination.

The myths are clear expressions of the traditional tension between human and divine, mortal and immortal, masculine and feminine. In a pagan society variants of the Christ story would go on proliferating, as if attempting to resolve these contradictions by constantly transposing them into other terms and on other levels. But Christianity does not do this. It does not offer us a mythology. Potentially it did, because there were powerful variants which said that Jesus could not have been crucified - as God, he was pure spirit and therefore only his apparition hung on the cross. Conversely, there was a variant which held that Jesus was not a God, but a man - albeit an outstandingly good man. But these myths were called heresies and banned. However, their spontaneous appearance meant that the main body of the Church had to sit down and define exactly what Jesus was. At the Council of Nicaea, they came up with the official myth: that a man, Jesus of Nazareth, was also the Christ, meaning the Anointed One. He was both man and God. The only myth he was officially permitted to mirror was the myth of Adam. Just as Adam was a god-like man who, through a sin 'fell' from an earthly paradies into the human condition, so Jesus was a man-like God who, through a sacrifice, 'raised' mankind up to a heavenly paradise.


The paradox as the heart of Christianity is what made it so offensive to the Jews, so ridiculous to the Greeks and so awe-inspiring to the Christians."

On The Animals Who Stared Darwin in the Face

"[Mother Nature] is not the fixed entity that scientists, who view her through literalistic spectacles, would have us believe. She is a sea of metaphors which reflect back at us the face we show her. We characterize her by whatever perspective we look at her through - as an implacable enemy, for instance, or as a vast harmonious rhythm; as a wild creature who must be tamed, or as a nymph who must be left unspoilt or as a violent animal, red in tooth and claw. As Darwin quails in the face of a dizzying Nature, and fends her off, so she comes back at him, hostile and sickening. By the time he is fifty he will write, shockingly: 'the sight of a feather in a peacock's tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick.'"

On The Transmutation of Species (The Scientific Priesthood)

"'Everything possible to be believ'd,' asserted Blake, 'is an image of truth.' Evolutionists are guilty of idolatry, not because they worship false images, but because they worship a single image falsely, fixing the wealth of Nature's metaphors in a single rigid mode and so obstructing the fluid, oceanic play of imagination, so appalling to Darwin, yet so essential for the soul's health."

On The Transmutation of Spirits (Genes as Daimons)

"The daimon is our imaginative blueprint. It lays down the personal myth we enact in the course of our lives; it is the voice that calls us to our vocation. All daimonic men and women are aware of personal daimons and their paradoxes. Both Yeats and Jung spoke of having daimons who drove them ruthlessly - often, it seemed, against their will - towards self-fulfilment; who gave freedom in return for hard service. The same language of ruthless driving and bruth necessity, but without the concomitant meaning and freedom, is used by biologists to describe genes.

Genes are literalized daimons. I am not of course claiming that they do not exist.... They are shadowy, borderline, elusive, ambiguous entities - to judge by the amount of disagreement [amongst sociobiologists] about them - and as such, they satisfy the daimonic criteria.

They greatly exercise Richard Dawkins, a leading proponent of evolutionism. In language remarkable for its primitive anthropomorphism, he avers that genes 'create form,' 'mould matter,' 'choose,' and even engage in 'evolutionary arms races.' Like demons, the 'selfish' genes 'possess us.' The are 'the immortals.' We are 'lumbering robots' whose genes 'created us body and mind.' This, surely, reminds us more of the sermon than of science. It certainly demonstrates the ubiquity of daimons, even (especially) when literalization prevents them from being recognized as such. Traditionally, our bodies have been seen as the vehicles of our personal daimon, our soul or 'higher self.' Now, by an amusing inversion, we are simply asked to believe that our most treasured attributes are simply pressed into the service of genes.... Given such an extreme ideology, it is no wonder that sociobiologists want to believe that genetic engineering will solve everything from cancer to drug-addiction to unemployment."

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Following the Yellow Brick Road, Pt. I

Today I went down Fields Book Store to see and hear Richard Tarnas, who was there to promote his new book, Cosmos and Psyche. I haven't read the book, so I can only recount what transpired when, in front of me and 24 other avid listeners, he espounded on his life's work in psychological astrology. I can also explain what I was doing there in the first place.

First Tarnas: He got his start in the 1970s, studying at the Esalen Institute near Big Sur along with other people who would become reknowned such as "mythologist" Joseph Campbell and religous scholar Houston Smith. Now a widely respected scholar who teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), Tarnas's forays into archetypal astrology reveal the existence of a consistent correlation between the movements of the planets and the expression and development of human history. He clarified painstakingly that this coincidence of meaning a.k.a. synchronicity, is reflective not casual and that the study of overall patterns can only be used to make archetypal predictions of future events. They merely point to a direction that things may go. He used the example of a clock, stating that just like the hands on a clock don't cause it to be a certain time, say 7:30 PM, planetary positions don't cause particular happenings, but they do reflect something about "the cosmic state of the archetypal forces" in effect at a given moment.

These comments necessitated a brief definition of archetypes, and Tarnas noted that their said existence has been a topic of debate since the days of Plato and Aristotle. His own definition of an archetype is "a universal principle or force that affects--impels, structures, permeates--the human psyche and human behavior" in all facets of life and that can be expressed "as impulses and images from the interior psyche, yet also as events and situations in the external world." Hero, Healer, Villian, Teacher, and Mother are common examples of these ancient patterns of consciousness. (For an extensive overview, see A Gallery of Archetypes as compiled by Carolyn Myss.)

From there, Tarnas explained his view of astrology as a tool for enhancing free-will rather than enforcing an unflexibly destiny or sense of fate. He believes that as individuals we have the best chance of knowing our own authentic nature when we're conscious of the patterns of meaning held within our birth charts. The greater one's understanding of the archetypal forces influencing one's own life, the greater is the opportunity to make decisions uncircumscribed by unconscious motivations. Tarnas told us that as he delved deeper into the subject, he noticed that "the constant coincidence between planetary positions and human lives exists as a kind of universal code for the human mind to unravel," and it's from that point of view that he wrote first the 1991 tome The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View and then this year's 592-page sequel, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View. In both books, Tarnas has applied his understanding of archetypal dynamics to birth and transit charts of the soul of the collective, with a particular emphasis on planets (archetypal forces) and aspects (the angular relationship between planets, which are said to reflect the nature of interaction between archetypal forces).

My limited understanding of the science of astrology prevents me from commenting more thoroughly about the rest of the discussion. However, it wasn't difficult to grasp that the result of this work is the discovery that a multitude of seemingly disparate historical and cultural moments and events arise and have arisen under the same star influences. Take the French Revolution of 1789, and the mutiny on the "Bounty" during the same year: from these Tarnas denotes "the synchronous emergence of parallel events totally isolated from each other yet reflecting the same archetypal complexes." Temporal proximity can be as widely divergent as geographical proximity as evidenced by the parallels he draws between the revolutionary mood of France in 1790 and shudders of evolution experienced worldwide during the 1960s. In his work he also tracks the rise of certain individuals (e.g. Madonna's career trajectory or Hitler's) and developments in art or science, juxtaposing them against various astrological configurations and periods.

Overall I found his commentary to be quite compelling. A robust Q&A followed, with most of the audience seeming to be extremely familiar with his work and deeply knowledgeable about psychology, astrology, transformation studies, etc. I was a bit out of my league, so I left. Which brings me to how or why I ended up there in the first place.

To be continued.