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REVIEW: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings

Saturday, March 25th, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Image result for the felowship the inklings book

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip Zaleski & Carol Zaleski

“….it is plain that Tolkien has unleashed a mythic awakening and Lewis a Christian awakening”

“….these clubs offered grand things: escape from domesticity, a base for intellectual exploration, an arena for clashing wits, an outlet for enthusiasms, a socially acceptable replacement for the thrills and dangers of war, and in the aftermath of World War I, a surviving remnant to mourn and honor the fallen”

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings is a book outside my usual wheelhouse, being concerned deeply with the intellectual interplay among the Inklings impacted their literary works and legacies and more fundamentally, the central role played in the former by Christianity and anthroposophy. I was drawn to this book primarily by virtue of being a radical J.R.R. Tolkien fan, but the center of gravity of The Fellowship is C.S. Lewis, the pivotal figure with whom the other Inklings related; even if Lewis was not always the dominant persona, he was frequently a catalyst or a foil for his fellow Inklings. While the Inklings could survive the untimely death of Charles Williams, whose intellectual brilliance and influence over other writers always surpassed his own literary fame, when C.S. Lewis passed from the scene, the Inklings as an active literary society did as well.

What were the Inklings?

This is a question the authors struggle to answer, despite haven woven four strong biographical essays into one. To call them merely an informal discussion club of Oxford and Cambridge scholars is to miss the mark and greatly underrate their influence. To call the Inklings a “movement” or a “school” – either for promoting Norse mythic or Christian revival – imparts a pedantic formality and air of proselytizing that simply never happened.  The Inklings were always particular about admitting new faces to their pub meetings and stubbornly refused to include women, even Dorothy Sayers , a gifted author whom many of the Inklings admired, respected and befriended. Some of the Inklings were not scholars either, not in the academic sense, being editors, lawyers, poets and religious bohemians of a literary bent.

Largely, the authors struggle because while the Inklings have written or admitted how much their meetings or particular members influenced their thinking, their writings or in Lewis’ case, his faith – there is very little record of the meetings themselves. Much of what happened has to be inferred beyond specific incidents like Hugo Dyson’s repeated taunting of J.R.R. Tolkien (“…not more fucking elves!”) or taken from extant correspondence of prolific letter writers like Lewis or diarists like his brother, Warnie (who despite his raging alcoholism, managed to become later in life, an impressive historian of the France of Louis XIV).

The Fellowship though leaves little doubt  that the meetings of the Inklings at the Eagle and Child (“the bird and baby”) or C.S. Lewis’ rooms at Magdalene College at Cambridge were a chief intellectual and social support for the Inklings and an escape from possible loneliness. While Tolkien enjoyed a busy family life with his wife Edith and four children, Lewis’ long endured (which is the correct word) for much of his life, a bizarrely dysfunctional relationship with a much older woman whom he never married, Mrs. Jane Moore, the mother of a close friend who had been killed serving on the Western Front. Other Inklings were bachelors or had unhappy, austere, marriages, making the cerebral debate and late night amusements of the Inklings a welcome refuge.

One of the aspects of the Inklings that comes across in the book – their fellowship of male camaraderie – is nearly extinct in the 21st century and has a distinctly antiquarian air. Such associations were once commonplace. Not merely in academic circles or exclusive clubs of the wealthy, but every small town and hamlet had its charitable societies, Masonic orders, veteran’s organizations, Knights of Columbus and humble bowling leagues that formed and strengthened male social networks among friends, neighbors and their larger community from the 18th century onward. By the time women began demanding entry (or abolition) in the early 70’s these groups were already well into dying off, victims of mass society and suburbanization.

As the Zaleskis convey in The Fellowship, for an informal club of sorts lacking the aesthetic pretensions of the Bloomsbury group, the range of Inkling scholarship, literary and religious influence remains to this day, staggering. Aside from the scholarly accomplishments of its members, other writers drawn into their orbit, at least for periods of time, included T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dorothy Sayers, Saul Bellow, G.K. Chesterton, John Wain and Roy Campbell; and also several generations of fantasy authors were inspired by the tales of Narnia and Middle-Earth, including by his own admission, the immensely popular George R.R. Martin. The effect of Lewis’ Christian apologetics, especially The Screwtape Letters, may be equally large – and this was the largest source of friction for Tolkien, whose deeply pious, pre-Vatican II traditional Catholicism left him with scant patience for C.S. Lewis’ “amateur” theology and even less for his dear friend’s residual Ulster Protestant cultural prejudices.

In The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings, Philip and Carol Zaleski have crafted a deeply researched and complex group biography of impressive depth and reach. Strongly recommended.

US and Israel, a double ouroboros

Saturday, January 21st, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — Netanyahu, Trump, and their interchangeable ambassadorships? — also fake news and truth ]
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Two versions of two serpents biting each others’ tails to form a loop

On the left, we have a western, alchemical version of the two-serpent ourobouros, and on the right an “Infinite Wealth Sacred Buang Nak Bat Amulet” from Thailand. The accompanying text on the Billionmore Rare Thai Buddhist amulets and Talismans site reads:

Naga is the great snake of wealth in Buddhist belief when two Naga connect into a circle, it means wealth will never end..

That’s right, infinite wealth is yours for only $26.90.

**

In today’s New Yorker, we see the same secondary form of the ouroboros: two serpents, biting each others’ tails, to form a loop:

In recent years, ascendant political currents in America and Israel had already begun to merge. We have now reached the point where envoys from one country to the other could almost switch places: the Israeli Ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, who grew up in Florida, could just as easily be the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, while Donald Trump’s Ambassador-designate to Israel, David Friedman, who has intimate ties to the Israeli settler movement, would make a fine Ambassador in Washington for the pro-settler government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

As you may know, I’m generally disinclined to support one side in a conflict when it appears to me that conflict itself is the basic conundrum we should be examining. Accordingly, it’s the form here — the two serpents, the two ambassadorships working together as an integrated system, that I’d call your attention to.

**

While we’re on the subject of twin serpents…

Sometime back in the last century I suggested the utility of a Tarot-like pack of cards showing the great archetypal images that have populated the imaginations of so many cuotures across the globe and centuries.

Thus both the caduceus of western medicine and the kundalini of eastern yoga show twinned serpents spiraling up a central pole – and if Linus Pauling had seen that double serpent image when he was chasing the structure of DNA, he might have spent less time on the triple and more time on the double helix, and beaten Crick and Watson to the punch.


Left, an image of the kundalini; right, the caduceus or rod of Aesculapius — see also the two linked wikipedia pages for a flaw in this portion of my argument

A similar case can be made for Kekule’s realization that the form of the benzene molecule was a ring, supposedly triggered by a reverie of the ouroboros or serpent biting it’s tail.


diagram of ouroboros and benzene molecule from ChemDoodle

It’s worth noting, however, that this appears to be an old wives’ tale, perhaps fashioned by Kekule himself, as detailed by JH Wotiz and S Rudofsky in Kekulé’s dream: Fact or fiction?” Chemistry in Britain, 20, 720–723 (1954).

Now, are the debunking stories better stories than their respective archetypal insight stories? And what’s the truth in story, in any case? In the psyche, story and fact are both story, tiny molecular weavings of the imagination.

And how does this tie in with “news” — fake and true?

Dylan’s 1980 apocalyptic

Thursday, October 13th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — delighted at his Nobel — with a quick note on antinomianism ]
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So Bob Dylan has at last won the Nobel Prize, which has been — forgive me — a slow train coming.

David Remnick of the New Yorker suggests we “Celebrate Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature the obvious way: by listening” — and among his suggested selections I found this apocalyptic jewel:

It contains quite a bit of low-key Daniel and Revelation. Dylan recalls being booed for suggesting that Russia would intervene in the Middle East just a few months before Russia invaded Afghanistan.

I read the Bible a lot, you know, it just happens I do, and .. so it says certain things in the Bible that I wasn’t really aware of until just recently.. anyway, in the Bible it tells you specific things. In the books iof Daniel and in the Book of Revelation which just might apply to these times here, and is says there are certain wars that are soon, about to happen, I can’t say exactly when, you know, but.. pretty soon anyway..

He goes on to mention two countries, which he identifies as Russia and China, and with regard to Russia, says:

So anyway, I was telling this story to these people. I shouldn’t have been telling it to them, I just got carried away. I mentioned to them “well you know, watch now, because Russia is going to come down and attack the Middle East. It says this in the Bible. .. These things in the Bible, they seem to uplift me and tell me the truth. I said “Russia’s gpoing to attack the Middle East” and they just booed. They couldn’t hear that, they didn’t believe it. And a month later, Russia moved their troops into Afghanistan it was, and that whole situation changed, you know. And I’m not saying this to tell you they were wrong and I was right or anything like that, but these things that it mentions in the Bible I pay mighty close attention to.

This is pretty much straightforward from a Hal Lindsey era Dispensationalist point of view, though the bit about Russia interfering in the Middle East fits Russia’s campaign in Syria today, thirty-seven years later, better than its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan did back then.

Dylan then follows up with a discussion of the Antichrist, mentions Jim Jones and Hitler along the way.. and closes with a rendition of his gospel song, Slow Train Coming.

**

So just one technical note here on that apocalyptic aspect.

Antinomianism is the name given to a common feature of apocalyptic rhetoric — the doctrine that the law (to include the moral law) no longer applies — so that both theft from the rich and sexual anarchism are permitted to “the pure”. Norman Cohn documents this doctrine extensively in The Pursuit of the Millennium, see particularly his chapters VII and VIII on “An Élite of Amoral Supermen” — ie the 12th century “heresy of the Free Spirit“.

Listening to Dylan’s Slow Train with that in mind, these lyrics take on a new significance:

Man’s ego is inflated, his laws are outdated, they don’t apply no more
You can’t rely no more to be standin’ around waitin’

**

To end on a lighter note..

Some critics of the Nobel award seem to feel that “song” is not a category that sits easily within the scope of “literature”. To put it bluntly:

If only he’d thrown away that damn guitar, written his stuff down, and read it out loud as poetry, we might have given Orpheus the prize sooner..

Destructive Witnesses: JW, IS, Saudis, Brits, Byzantines

Thursday, June 30th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — religions taking other religions apart, stone by stone, image by image, song by song ]
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Some recently converted Jehovah’s Witnesses appear to have destroyed the altars of indigenous Otomi people in Mexico, an anthopologist has stated:

Assailants have damaged an ancient Otomi Indian religious site in Mexico, toppling stone structures used as altars, breaking carved stones and scattering offerings of flowers, fruit and paintings at the remote mountain shrine known as Mayonihka or Mexico Chiquito. [ .. ]

“I don’t know what religion they belong to, but they destroyed several images that were there,” said Daniel Garcia, the municipal secretary of the nearby township of San Bartolo Tutotepec. “The thing is, there are some religions that don’t believe in using idols.”

Luis Perez Lugo, a professor at the University of Chapingo, visited the site in May and talked to residents of a nearby hamlet, El Pinal, whose residents said they had carried out the attack.

“I was there, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses said they had done it,” Perez Lugo said, noting some were recent converts to the religion who used to go to the site for Otomi ceremonies.

See upper panel, below:

JWs and IS destroy sacred sites

In the lower panel, above, we see a detail from a National Geographic listing of sites attacked by the Islamic State. Three quick notes:

  • the JWs, if they were JWs, were recent converts; converts often have a zeal all their own
  • the IS, like the Taliban at Bamiyan, destroys ancient religious sites even if no longer in use
  • see Saudi Arabia Bulldozes Over Its Heritage for threats to Muhammad‘s birthplace & tomb
  • **

    Why?

    You already know this, but for the record — because Scripture:

    DQ 600 Graven Images

    In the upper panel, Jewish and Christian scriptures — from the Jewish Ten Commandments in Exodus, and St Paul‘s address to the Athenians, as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles.

    In the lower panel — a hard-line contemporary Islamic commentary, citing two ahadith.

    **

    So it’s Jehovah’s Witnesses and hard-line Muslim literalists who approve of the destruction of monuments to false gods, is that what this means?

    They are not alone. In the upper panel, below, recent news of the Chinese — avowed atheists — continuing their attacks on Tibetan Buddhism, this time by mandating the dismantling of Buddhism’s largest monastic university at Larung Gar:

    DQ 600 Larung Gar Glastonbury

    In the lower panel, above, we see some of what remains of the great Abbey of Glastonbury, torn down during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII.

    Glastonbury has strong associations with Arthurian and Christian traditions:

    William Blake’s dramatic poem ‘Jerusalem’ familiar nowadays as an inspirational hymn, draws on the myth that Christ himself may have visited Glastonbury with Joseph of Arimathea and ‘walked on England’s mountains green’.

    The Gospels record that Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy follower of Christ who buried Christ’s body in his own tomb after the Crucifixion.

    In the Middle Ages Joseph became connected with the Arthurian romances of Britain. He first features in Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathie, written in the twelfth century, as the Keeper of the Holy Grail. He receives the Grail (the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper) from an apparition of Jesus and sends it with his followers to Britain.

    Later Arthurian legends elaborated this story and introduced the idea that Joseph himself travelled to Britain, bringing the Holy Grail with him and then burying it in a secret place, said to have been just below the Tor at the entrance to the underworld. The spring at what is known as Chalice Well is believed to flow from there. In their quests King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table searched for the Grail.

    Glastonbury retains its place in English hearts to this day, albeit in contemporary guise — it is the Yasgur’s Farm of England’s ongoing Woodstock — mud, sex, drugs, rock and all — the yearly Glastonbury Festival

    It is also — in the form of Blake‘s hymn “And did those feet in ancient time” — a part of such ceremonial events as the Last Night of the Proms — and Royal Weddings:

    But more on Blake’s poem — known as Jerusalem, and taken from his preface to Milton a Poem — in an upcoming post, Creek willing.

    **

    Finally, what an exceptionally lovely early DoubleQUote is this, returning us to the topic of sacred places and images and their destruction:

    Clasm_Chludov

    What we have here is a page from the Chludov Psalter — ask Wikipedia for that what means, I only just ran across it in the course of writing this piece — but it’s a 9th century Byzantine prayer book, illuminated with illustrations attacking the iconoclasts — those Christians who wanted to destroy icons and other Christian images for reasons not dissimilar ton those of the Taliban.

    Wikipedia, Chludov Psalter:

    In the illustration to the right, the miniaturist illustrated the line “They gave me gall to eat; and when I was thirsty they gave me vinegar to drink” with a picture of a soldier offering Christ vinegar on a sponge attached to a pole. Below is a picture of the last Iconoclast Patriarch of Constantinople, John the Grammarian rubbing out a painting of Christ with a similar sponge attached to a pole.

    Let’s take a closer look:

    Clasm_Chludov_detail_9th_century

    Both verbally and visually, then, we have a direct comparison of the Roman soldier mocking the dying Christ, and the icon-hating Patriarch erasing Christ’s image from a wall.. And they call him the Grammarian!

    But let’s proceed:

    John is caricatured, here as on other pages, with untidy straight hair sticking out in all directions, which was considered ridiculous by the elegant Byzantines.

    No punks, apparently, these Byzantines!

    And the coup de grâce? House the sacred book in a state museum..

    Nikodim Kondakov hypothesized that the psalter was created in the famous monastery of St John the Studite in Constantinople. Other scholars believe that the liturgical responses it contains were only used in Hagia Sophia, and that it was therefore a product of the Imperial workshops in Constantinople, soon after the return of the Iconophiles to power in 843.

    It was kept at Mount Athos until 1847, when a Russian scholar brought it to Moscow. The psalter was then acquired by Aleksey Khludov, whose name it bears today. It passed as part of the Khludov bequest to the Nikolsky Old Believer Monastery and then to the State Historical Museum.

    No monks will sing from it there..

    **

    Sources:

  • The Guardian, Jehovah’s Witnesses accused of damaging Otomi religious site in Mexico
  • National Geographic, Here Are the Ancient Sites ISIS Has Damaged and Destroyed
  • The American Muslim, Saudi Destruction of Muslim Historical Sites
  • Islam Question and Answer, Obligation to destroy idols
  • Lion’s Roar, China to displace 5,000 Tibetan Buddhist monastics
  • Apocalpyse, not!

    Friday, June 24th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — in using the word apocalyptic to describe mundane (or zombied) disturbances such as Brexit, we lose sight of the beauty and mystery it conceals & reveals ]
    .

    In fact, not so much as a whiff of fresh napalm in the morning.

    Tim Furnish has been on a mini-crusade recently against the misuse of the word apocalypse, tweeting examples along with this meme-image:

    Furnish Apocalypse N0

    **

    Here are two examples of the genre. which Tim featured last night because each comments on Brexit in apocalyptic terms:

    Apocalypse No

    Sources:

  • Financial Post, Trump, Clinton and Brexit — the three horses of democracy’s Apocalypse
  • Japan Times, Brexit: The Apocalypse … or not
  • **

    Tim is right.

    The word apocalypse properly refers the vision John, the seer of Patmos, had, tearing away of the veil which so often hides the divine glory from mortal eyes: the Greek word apokalypsis is appropriately translated revelation, and the first verse of the book called The Apocalypse by Catholics and The Revelation of John in the King James Version runs as follows:

    The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John.

    **

    Consider the beauty — and the otherworldiness — of this image from Albrecht Durer. illustrating the “woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” of Revelation 12.1

    :Virgin-Sitting-In-Crescent-Moon

    **

    The imagery of this final book of the Bible does not show us the usual world of our senses, but a realm of great symbolic beauty, far beyond the reach of unaided eye or camera — as the great literary critic Northrop Frye notes, when he calls the book “a fairy tale about a damsel in distress, a hero killing dragons, a wicked witch, and a wonderful city glittering with jewels” in his Anatomy of Criticism, p 108.

    Like the works of the English visionary William Blake, Revelation is more poetic than literal, visionary in the best sense — and it is hardly surprising that Blake is among its foremost illustrators:

    The_Four_and_Twenty_Elders_(William_Blake)
    Blake, Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne, The Tate Gallery

    Brexit simply cannot match the darkness of Revelation’s Babylon in its final throes, nor the “new heaven and new earth” that succeed it — “for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away”.


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