The Stories People Tell
The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to keep alive. That is why we put these stories in each other's memory. This is how people care for themselves. One day you will be good storytellers. Never forget these obligations.
CROW AND WEASEL came in as we were all sitting around brooding about Psyche and Eros, It is a little book, well, short but not really little, and probably the first book, by one Barry Lopez, published at the North Point Press in San Francisco. It has luscious illustrations by Tom Pohrt. It is pricier than it ought to be, but what book isn't these days? Nor is it exactly a great book, although it certainly isn't a bad one. Nevertheless, we think you ought to read it. There is a strange and wonderful promise in it.
The little passage quoted above is so obviously important to this book that the writer of the jacket copy quoted it, or most of it, before we did. Those are the words of Badger, a wise old woman who gives shelter to Crow and Weasel on the difficult journey home, and we found them astonishing. You'll see why when you read this issue's Psyche paper, which happens to be given to a consideration of stories and storytelling.
The author seems to be a man who knows much about American Indian lore and ways of living and thinking. If you could have of him some inside information, this is what we would like to know: Did he create Badger's speech himself, or is it a version or paraphrase of what somebody else said? If the former, then we have high hopes for the future works of Barry Lopez, and if the latter, then we mingle with those hopes a deep regret for the sad diminution of the culture out of which they came.
Crow and Weasel is the story of two young men, hardly more than boys, who make a long and perilous journey to the North, where no member of their tribe has gone before. They remind us of Gilgamesh and Enkiddu journeying to the Cedar Mountain to wrest lumber from Humbaba, who guards the forest.
But they are better than Gilgamesh and Enkiddu, because their journey is more moral, neither for gain nor battle, but for the intriguing purpose, as Mountain Lion tells them, of "carrying our way of life with you, for everyone to see."
Their way of life can be described with only one word, used in a very old sense--piety. Sophocles or Plato would have called them exactly that--pious.
Theirs is a piety that has nothing to do with the public displays of religiosity and the strident claims of righteousness that have brought the word "pious" into disfavor among us, It is something like that condition in the Greeks which Demeratus tried, in vain, to explain to Xerxes, when that potent emperor said that the Greeks were leaderless and thus easy to beat. No, said Demeratus, they do have a leader. Their leader is the Law. (The capital L is important.)
Crow and Weasel do live, although with occasional lapses, especially in the case of Weasel, by the Law. Lost in the forest, they ask the trees for guidance. (In their case, the trees answer; we would probably not be so fortunate, but who can say that we would not be better for the asking?) They thank the bird who leads them. They thank and revere the very animals that they must kill to live. The Law is obviously a law of connections, an idea about something like the family of all that is, It is a precept of the Law that nothing is meaningless, nothing is insignificant, no deed disappears without consequence. It is a very large form of the idea that We Are All in This Together, including, as it does, not only all that lives, but all that is, the clouds and the rocks and whatever. It is not a contemptible notion, and to live by it might well be called a way of Religion with a capital R, and without the demerits that seem to come with a religion and its articles, rules, and organizational devices.
Now here is what we wonder: How would Crow and Weasel fare in school?
It would be perfect for children. Its English and clear and simple and often lovely. Its story is intriguing, and its characters are few and sympathetic. It heroes are young. It promotes, or at least gives a teacher a chance to promote, certain now popular "awarenesses," like environmentalism and intercultural appreciation. (Crow and Weasel go far enough north to meet a hunting party of Inuits with whom, most improbably for us but not for little children, they turn out to share the same language.) A teacher could even call this "minority literature." But we suspect that none of these merits will win it a place in school.
Crow and Weasel are not in any way oppressed, not victims, except, occasionally, of themselves, Even the hunger that almost kills them is, they know, their own fault. And they are thoughtful enough to learn, young as they are, that self-esteem is a dangerous illusion. This makes them politically useless.
The book is simply too--well, the only word is "spiritual." Its spirituality is decent and restrained, there is nothing of New Age gaga about it, and that makes it even less acceptable. School people love gaga. Crow and Weasel do think about, and even call upon, the Ones Above, but the Ones Above seem not to have promulgated any dogma or ordained any clergy. They haven't even boasted about themselves and their stupendous powers. The young heroes seem to think of them more as family, although far away. (Mountain Lion did tell them, "When you are tempted to give up, think of your relatives.") Their concern for the land, the animals, the people they meet, and for each other, seems to be as natural to them as eating and sleeping, and the result neither of obedience to some supposed commandment nor of social programming.
In short, they live in the good life utterly without the aid of any of those programs and devices by which the schoolers promise us that they will teach our children how to live in the good life, Worst of all, the goodness of life in them arises from something which, while it has nothing to do with any of the professional goodness businesses we can name, simply has to be called religion, some apprehension of the truth that all things are "tied together," just as the word says.
Strangely enough, all the same qualities should make it impossible for Crow and Weasel to win acceptance in the other schools, the ones that call themselves religious. For them, religion is their religion, and not about tying together but about separating, thank you.
Too bad. Crow and Weasel is a story that would take good care of children.
One Last Time
As to the disorder of political correctness in curriculum, we will have nothing more to say. We have read, and urge you all to read, a piece called "Illiberalisms" in the New Yorker of May 20 1991. It is a review by Louis Menard of Illiberal Education, by Dinesh D'Souza. This is the book that brought the great political correctness flap out of Academe and into the popular press and its op-ed page.
Louis Menard, whoever he is, and we wish we knew, is exactly what he should be--a card-carrying member of neither warring faction, He discerns and understands the nonsense on both sides of No Man's Land. His book review has the remarkable effect, therefore, of hitting D'Souza right where he should be hit, and hurt, but without giving aid and comfort to the sillies in whose ludicrous sottises D'Souza has found such easy and entertaining targets.
But what we like best about Menard is his superb grasp of grammar. Here he is on the truly important concern hidden by the political correctness mess:
"Having sensibly decided that we were wrong in believing that a person's race and sex are the least important things about him or her, we have now apparently concluded that they must be the only important things. Words that ought to be adjectives--black, white, female, male, homosexual, heterosexual--have been made into substantives." Now there you can see the truest practice of good grammar, pure and undefiled.
The Grammar Buff's Corner
There used to be a useful little definition of "grammar." It said simply that a language's grammar was a collection of all those little changes through which its words can go. The ‘s' on the end of plural nouns, and that other ‘s' on the end of verbs in the third person singular were grammar. And ditto for the change of man into men. Grammar is not hard at all; there is no one who doesn't use it.
English has very little grammar. Its verbs, which really have only two tenses, are easy to conjugate, and it lacks one of the things that makes so many other languages at once harder to learn and easier to construe--the agreement between modifiers and what they modify. It's unfortunate. With just a few little changes in our grammar, we could make thoughtfulness and understanding easier to come by, and life easier to live.
We have recently discovered, quite by accident, an amazing fact of Russian grammar. Russian, like many other languages, awards its nouns the remarkable distinction of gender along with the more comprehensible and excusable distinctions of case and number. But it goes even further. In some cases, the endings of nouns, and therefore of the adjectives that would modify them, depend upon whether or not the nouns name inanimate objects or animate creatures. That seems to us astounding and provocative. It is a clear case of true grammar, and we could use more such.
Consider this dilemma, on whose horns some of our fellow citizens are just now uncomfortably impaled.
The desert war is now sort of over, but some of the issues it raised still stand. In the days before the war, there was biting of nails and wringing of hands. It was a grand time for professional ethicists and clergy, countless of whom enjoyed brief days in the sun of talk-shows and op-ed pages debating the question of The Just War. And why not? Where else can the professional news-gatherers and informers of the public go in times of moral uncertainty but to those who are experts on goodness and God?
Unfortunately, however, the desert war broke out before the moral experts could reach agreement, or even define their terms. Worse yet, the whole thing came to an end without having provided enough deaths and dismemberments to produce a verdict as to its justice. The goodness professionals, like all the other social scientists, prefer large databases.
Well, no matter. Luckily, the moral sensibilities of the nation may yet be informed and edified. The goodness pros have in fact discovered a large data base in the hapless Iraqis. Let's be grateful.
"We still don't know the full extent of either civilian or military casualties, and there could be a cholera epidemic, plus the deaths to come in the civil war."
Ah yes, the deaths to come. Now that is a data base. Omnes exeunt. Walzer, his dire forebodings notwithstanding, is one of the moderates on the justice of the war. He pronounces the war "just but dangerous" and approves the "discrimination" made possible by smart bombing; but he warns that we must now become much more critical of "nondiscrimination" in bombing, lest a just war suddenly become unjust (and thus more dangerous?) when the destruction of parked aircraft takes place on visitor's day, no doubt. Accidents will happen.
He is joined in moderation by a pair of Roman Catholic justice experts, one Father Langen, who pronounces it "an imperfectly just war," and a certain Father Hehit, who deems it "just but unwise." What remarkable ideas. Wisdom and justice in discord. The astonishing thought of the imperfectly just, which must be very much like the partially pregnant. Well, there is one great reward to him who utters the meaningless; he can never be proved wrong.
Still, even those moderates sound just a teeny bit uncomfortable, as though they would have been much happier with more destruction. And there are, it appears, some who will not give even a qualified certificate of justice. They are waiting for the final count. In the New York Times of March 17, where we found all this neat stuff, there are two subheads. One reads: "Many of the moralists' apocalyptic scenarios did not come to pass." Pity. Well, it's nothing new. Jonah suffered a like disappointment. For moralists now sharing his chagrin, there is still hope. Nineveh will be destroyed, if not today, then maybe tomorrow.
The other subhead reads: "Moral equations are hard to balance when the number of dead Iraqis is unknown." Now that's the one we like. It appears not to be a direct quotation from any one of the cited moralists, but rather an editorial summation of some last remaining hope in them all. So far they have, for all their searchings of hearts other than their own, not come up with the definitive answer. After all, what do we pay these people for? If they're going to be goodness experts, let them put up or shut up. When you ask the fishmonger, Is this fish fresh? you don't want qualifications and quibbles. And when we ask our moral experts whether a war is just or not, we have the right, considering the Authority which so many of them claim, to expect that they will be mindful of the Apostle's command: Let thy Yea be Yea, and thy Nay, Nay; for the double-minded man is uncertain in all his ways.
But, before we fire the whole lot of them, or, even better, decide to stop asking them, let's give them a chance to do a little math. After all, what sort of decision can they make while the number of dead Iraqis remains unknown? What do you say? Let's give them exactly twenty-four hours from that moment, the moment in which the count is concluded. All they need, apparently, is the magic number. And wouldn't it be interesting to discover that. Just imagine! There is some number of dead Iraquis, x, which will show the war just. What a relief! And there is some other number, x + 1, which will show the war unjust. Wow. Now that's the sort of ethicism that we would be delighted to pay for. It would prove that our professionals of goodness and God areas good as our fishmongers.
If you are wondering what all this has to do with Russian adjectives, you're just not thinking. When counsel is darkened by words without meaning, flee to the comfort of grammar. Let us make a few simple changes in our language. And, taking our clue from the admirable distinction that Russian makes between the animate and the inanimate, let us consider the importance of an even more admirable distinction, to wit, between the person and the non-person.
What a pity we don't have the endings. Wouldn't it be a remarkable and useful grammar that provided us with continual reminders that roses don't love sunshine, but they we only pretend that they do for the sake of the song. Nor does that last rose of summer grieve, although we take pleasure in saying that it does, or perhaps, more accurately, in playing that it does.
There are certain acts that only a person can commit, certain conditions that only a person can achieve. The stars can neither rejoice nor repent. The Chrysler corporation can't lie; Lee Iacoca would have to do that. Earth herself can not be wise, but you might. You, or you, or even you, can be just or unjust, but a volcanic eruption can't, Neither can a war. Where justice and injustice are assigned, always be sure to ask for names.
All we need to keep our minds in order in matters of ethics and morality is some little grammatical convention, an ending, perhaps, attached to any word that is person-specific, something whose absence would make a nasty clunk in whomsoever hears it, as a split infinitive is said to do, or a double negative.
Now that would be an important grammar, a grammar with import, quite unlike the grammar with which we vex ourselves in schools. When a little boy says, "I ain't seen no dog," it's not important. He is neither a liar nor a charlatan. Nor is he unjust. But when the professionals of goodness blab on about the "justice" of war, the case is otherwise.
Reading the Real Truth
Psyche Papers--Number Two
PHAEDRUS: Tell me, Socrates, isn't it somewhere about here that they say Boreas seized Orithyia from the river?
SOCRATES: Yes, that is the story.
PHAEDRUS: Was this the actual spot? Certainly the water looks charmingly pure and clear: it's just the place for girls to be playing beside the stream.
SOCRATES: No, it was about a quarter of a mile lower down, where you cross to the sanctuary of Agra; there is, I believe, an altar dedicated to Boreas close by.
PHAEDRUS: I have never really noticed it, but pray tell me, Socrates, do you believe that story to be true?
SOCRATES: I should be quite in fashion if I disbelieved it, as the men of science do. I might proceed to give a scientific account of how the maiden, while at play with Pharmacia, was blown by a gust of Boreas down from the rocks hard by, and having thus met her death was said to have been seized by Boreas, though it may have happened on the Areopagus, according to another version of the occurrence. For my part, Phaedrus, I regard such theories as no doubt attractive, but as the invention of clever, industrious people who are not exactly to be envied, for the simple reason that they must then go on and tell us the real truth about the appearance of centaurs and the Chimera, not to mention a whole host of other such creatures, Gorgons and Pegasuses and countless other remarkable monsters of legend flocking in on them. If our skeptic, with his somewhat crude science, means to reduce every one of them to the standard of probability, he'll need a deal of time for it. I myself have no time for the business, and I'll tell you why, my friend. I can't as yet "know myself," as the inscription at Delphi enjoins, and so long as that ignorance remains it seems to me ridiculous to enquire into extraneous matters. Consequently I don't bother about such things, but accept the current beliefs about them, and direct my inquiries, as I have just said, rather to myself, to discover whether I really am a more complex creature and more puffed up with pride than Typhon, or a simpler, gentler being whom heaven has blessed with a quiet, un-Typhonic nature.
Somewhere far away and long ago, we may have gone wrong. Our most ancient ancestors were, they had to be, and in the truest sense of the word, educated. They made art. They must have known how to consider and search out meaning, and how to make sense, how to gather from reaction the fruits of reflection, and how at least to pursue the distinction between the better and the worse. In other words, and also in what should be the truest sense of this word, they did know how to "read." We seem not to know.
Their reading, of course, would not have been what is so easy now to so many of us, the receiving of what is on the page, but rather the reading that has now become so hard for us, the reading of one who looks up from the page in wondering and reflection. Like us, they had no end of "reading material," but, unlike us, they had not convinced themselves that the receiving was also the knowing. Their library, just like ours, was a literature, that which was written; but, unlike ours, it was a literature in which no one could be sure of holding an advanced degree.
When we survey our past, we see a continuous upward climb. Those old ones long gone had, by our standards, almost nothing. And, in that sense of the word now most common, we must account them entirely without education. We presume an absolutely essential relationship between education and literature. Education's history begins, for us, with the coming of writing. Before that, there was nothing but such sub-literary forms as myth, and legend, and fairy-tale, all of them naive, confused, and inconsistent, however colorful and charming. When we do find worth in such primitive forms, we deem it a worth that only we, but not the hearers of the tales, could have found, and that, only by virtue of our reading in psychology or sociology or some such discipline. Thus we conclude that the wisdom and insight which we enlightened ones may sometimes take from the ancient story was not in fact available to those who told and heard it. We will allow that Sophocles, of course, was literate and subtle, and thus could seek out the "deeper meanings" of the tale of the miserable king, but of those who told and contemplated the tale long, long before Sophocles, what can we suppose, except that their understanding, if any, must have been childish and primitive, and that their indubitable interest in the tale must have been due only to what was in them but utterly invisible to them, since they had not the advantage of the explications which the more literate of their descendants have by now provided. But for them, alas, too late. We must leave them behind in darkness, and without hope of the light, like the useful idiots who bring in and die for the revolution whose fruit will never ripen in their time.
Thus we see our mind's history. First there was darkness and confusion, the ignorance out which grows what we call, as though it were the work of the mouth alone, the "oral tradition." Then comes the faintest glimmer of dawn, the coming of writing and the reading of writing. Now there can be Literature, ever growing and improving, moving always from the worse to the better. And we too, can always be moving upward with it, always measuring the powers of our understanding by the number of books we have read, and thinking ourselves "educated" in proportion with the number of "facts" that we remember and cite. And Literature itself we now know to be only the great messenger sent before the face of the greater to come, Criticism. Books of course are good, but they are only the beginning of the understanding that comes from books about books. As some poor chap asks in Acts, "How can I learn, except there be a teacher?" And "How indeed?" replies the teacher, and the teacher of the teacher. And so it is that schooling is practiced mostly by teachers carefully positioning themselves directly between their students and the light.
Plato's Phaedrus is a remarkably iconoclastic little piece. Besides the dismissal of literary criticism cited above, it contains also that story in which the Egyptian god Thoth devises for humanity the gift of literacy and proudly presents it to the king of Egypt. The king is not pleased. This invention, he says, is not a path to understanding but to remembering. It will bring us not into considering but into reciting. It will not bring knowledge and understanding, but only information, the illusion of knowledge and understanding, and, with that, to the endless discomfort of all humanity, a pack of pests who, having read much, imagine that they are wise.
To the king's misgivings, Socrates adds others. He reminds Phaedrus that books, like statues and paintings, are beautiful but dumb. If you ask them questions, they do not answer. They are like speechless infants, who can neither defend nor explain themselves, who can say only what they have said, and can give no further account of it without their parent standing by. They are also, he says, and to our tastes most shockingly, indiscriminate as to their victims. They can be read by anyone who picks them up, young or old, wise or foolish, and with potentially disastrous consequences. They always speak as though they knew they were right, and never consider, as a wise person would, what is the right thing to say at this time to this listener. In effect, they always do exactly what Socrates says elsewhere what no thoughtful person seeking the good would ever do--they speak at random.
It is interesting but maddening to speculate as to how things might have turned out had the king been able spare us forever the gift of literacy. We would surely now lack much that we think necessary, but we might also not ever have come to think them necessary. We would lack a great collection that we now have, but we might also not need it. It is easy to speculate, of course, as to what we might have lost; the harder task, but also the more important one, is to discover what we might have kept.
Joseph Campbell, somewhere in the middle of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, makes a provocative assertion, that a great light came into the world with Galileo, but that, at the same time, another great light went out of it. It may be that Campbell sets the date far too late. Socrates would have chosen an earlier one. But the date is not as important as the question: Is this worth worrying about at all? Does Campbell, out of some sentimental archaism of the sort that always thinks the old days were better, assert what is simply preposterous?
Socrates would like to consider that question, I think. In a way, he has considered it in the passage cited above, when he says that in thinking about a story he would rather not think about the story but about himself. Leaving aside for now the probable modern reaction to this idea as selfish and anti-social, it will still be disapproved as a rejection of two of our most popular and powerful generators of what we call light--science and literary criticism. Where myth is concerned, those two have become the closest of collaborators.
Myth is most often understood among us as the feeble attempt of the primitive mind to answer the sort of question that we have learned to answer through science. That is also to say that myth, while it may be entertaining, is a failure which we have replaced with a success. We tell schoolchildren, if we do still tell them anything about myth, that Persephone's half-year stay in the Underworld is meant to account for the perpetual return of the cold weather when nothing grows. It is the same kind of "explanation" that Socrates finds useless in the case--and a very common case it is--of the maiden spirited away by a lecherous wind. There is no story which cannot be subjected to like treatment, so that it is possible, out of nothing more than sufficient cleverness, to account in equal fashion for the fact that it was a swineherd and not a cowherd who was the only witness to Persephone's abduction. And all the same is possible, of course, in the case of our heroine. Psyche, too, is spirited away (and here the word "spirited" is used in its best sense) by a wind. There are, in fact, many such stories from countless cultures, so many, indeed, that we have to conclude, if we want to be perfectly scientific, that the early death of some pretty girl because of wind was far more common in preliterate times than it is now.
But the story of Persephone was never intended to "explain" the cycle of the seasons. It may even have been meant the other way around, suggesting that the meaning of our condition is the shadow of something greater. The sheer brute facts of life do not call for explanation until after the coming of science. If science wants to answer the question What is the world? which may be not entirely a falsification of science, then the making of myth can perhaps be understood as the attempt not exactly to answer but at least to contemplate a very different question: What does it mean that the world is what it is?
When Socrates tells of his studies in physics, he pronounces them fascinating but of little use. They taught him, for instance, what the moon does, but gave him no clue at all about the question that interested him: Why is it right that the moon does what it does? And, about the story of the moon as told by physics, he would probably have found another question to ask, one similar to the question he asks about the story of the wind that it named Typhon: Can I learn to be like the moon, always in my place, always doing what I should do? Obviously, where there are such questions, it is not some imaginable better physics that would serve. Something else entirely is needed.
The "answers" to such questions, furthermore, are not at all what science means by answers. They do not relate to the questions as solutions relate to problems. They are not, as Socrates makes clear to Phaedrus, questions about the world out there, but questions about the world in here, in the self. This is the tremendous difference between our sort of "education" and the education that I am ready to think possible not only in the most ancient of our forbears but also in the least schooled and lettered of any human being anywhere and at any time. It is an education in and about the self, and, a leading forth out of self, ignorance. In our time, when all of our devices and desires, all of our social, political, and technological endeavors, are aimed at the world out there, when all our fondest dreams of the good life drive us mightily to labor for the improvement of other people, the idea of an education devoted to the nurture of self-knowledge seems not only preposterous but even a little bit wicked.
Consider this passage from The Book of Thomas, a gospel that was rejected by the Christian establishment. In it, Jesus speaks thus to Thomas:
"Since it is said that you are my twin and my true friend, examine yourself and understand who you are, how you live, and what will become of you. Since you are called my brother, you should not be ignorant about yourself....While you are walking with me, though you are ignorant of other things, already you have obtained knowledge, and you will be described as one who knows self. For whoever does not know self does not know anything, but whoever knows self already has acquired knowledge about the depth of the universe. So, my brother, you have seen what is hidden from other people, what they stumble over in their ignorance."*
This Jesus sounds like Socrates, although Socrates, moderate, of course, in all things, would never have been quite so assertive. He may well have believed, but surely would never have said, that who knows self knows "about the depth of the universe," and that who is ignorant of self knows nothing, nothing at all. But it was exactly about the depth of the universe, and not merely about the universe itself, that Socrates wanted to know when he studied physics.
The Golden Ass, which frames our story of Psyche, and which may be not much more than a pretext for telling that story, is nevertheless also a story about self-knowledge. Lucius, when we first meet him, has no self-knowledge and no interest in self-knowledge. This is true of almost any young person, and, although it isn't, it ought to be the first truth on which any school is built. His interest is in the world out there, and, most especially in whatever is bizarre and titillating in the world out there. He is hypnotized by sex and magic. The lure of sex is easy to understand, but his fascination with magic should be thought about. It is not myth, but magic, that is the true pre-scientific counterpart of science. Magic is about the physical world, the universe itself as opposed to the depth of the universe that Socrates wanted to understand. Lucius, just like any budding young scientist, wants to make things happen out there in the world. He will learn at the last to make things happen within himself.
But he resists any learning that points inward. In his cousin's house he beholds the sculptured group of Diana and her hounds, in which even the face of Acteon is seen peeking out between the leaves. The hunter is already beginning to turn into a beast. He examines the group "with delighted curiosity."
"Delighted curiosity" is exactly the phrase with which to describe the very best of scientific enterprises. It is, if I remember correctly, the most captivating and perhaps even the happiest of all the conditions of childhood. The world out there is full of wonders and marvels, each containing its own neverending regressions of more wonders and marvels. Scientists play exciting games.
Lucius' cousin Byrrhaena finds him admiring the statuary and says a strange thing: "Cousin, this is all for you." But Lucius can not "read" what she says, any more than he can read the sculpture with the reading that Socrates commends to Phaedrus.
The sculpture is a story, and a very famous one. Lucius, of course, "knows" the story, as we would say, making no important distinction between knowledge and information, but he can not read it, he can not look up from the page and wonder. If he could, he would, to be sure, wonder what of Acteon he might have hidden in himself, but he might go even further. He might wonder about his own houndness, that animal nature in him that might well turn and tear its master to pieces. And he might ask, too, whether there is in him something of Diana herself, or, as the Greeks told the tale, of Artemis, the strangely ambivalent protector of the beasts as well as their hunter. And he might consider her famous and unshakeable virginity, asking what is chastity, after all. Can it perhaps be understood in some terms larger than those of creaturely sexuality. Is there in him some purity, violated and outraged even now by his own Acteon?
But no. He is bewitched already, and held in the spell of "delighted curiosity." Which is to say, he is not free. And that is to say that he is not educated, not yet led forth out of captivity.
This is one of the most striking facts about all of us. We are born in captivity and poverty. We have nothing. We must obey every order of our bodies, and we must absorb entirely and only those influences and ideas into whose midst we are delivered. And yet, sometimes, some of us can have glimpses of the bars of the cage. And these glimpses always arise from stories, either the stories that we tell silently in the mind, and that we call our "life," or the stories that are told for us to hear. An entire education, of the sort that leads out of captivity as distinct from a training, which by itself leads only into another captivity, can come from the contemplation of stories. But it does take contemplation and attention to the nature of the self, for which Lucius is not ready. His metamorphosis into an ass is an elegant literary device, and an important part of the pleasure we take in the story, but inwardly he is already a perfect ass, a serviceable beast who has been loaded with burdens by others. When his transformation comes, he does not truly become a man again; he becomes a man at last, now educatus, set free.
And it is, of course, as an ass that Lucius hears--really overhears--the story of Psyche and Eros.
"I stood close by the girl prisoner listening to this beautiful story, and though it was told by a drunken and half-demented old woman, I regretted that I had no means of committing it to writing."
Well, perhaps he is not entirely an ass. He can see that the story is beautiful. And, just like a man, he wants to write it down, that is, he wants to make of it literature. He is not content, as the girl prisoner probably is, with a ritual telling, a secret, as it were, passed on from a drunken and half-demented old woman to a weeping maiden. Well, how can he be? He, the ass, hasn't been given any of the sacramental chicken soup the old lady is brewing.
That may be a large part of the trouble we have in finding what there is to be found in myth. We receive it as literature, and apply to it automatically all that we have soaked up from our reading or movie-going or television-watching about canons of literature. We have certain expectations, even the most naive of us, about such things as plot development and the relationship of character to action. We expect some logical progression of events, and some reasonable probability that there will be some order in what happens. Much of what we read as myth does provide these things, but that is because it has been turned into literature. The plays of Sophocles will surely hang together much better than the ancient stories that lie behind them. And, could we hear those ancient stories, we would certainly, I think, prefer Sophocles. We would say, of course, that he has done them better, but by that we would mean that he has made them into our kind of thing, into literature, and "rescued" them from their crude and primitive prototypes, which, we assume, and probably correctly, were far less coherent and logical.
This should have been a problem for Lucius Apuleius. He has to put this story into the mouth of a "drunken and half-demented old woman," who can not be supposed literate in any sense of the word. But she sounds as though she is. Her telling of the story has nothing at all in common with, for instance, anthropologists' transcriptions of stories told the shamans of the Lapps or the curanderos of South America. We have here, really, nothing but literature.
We will have to read it, therefore, with the reading of Socrates, and not as we are inclined to read a novel of Dreiser or of Dickens, pretending, perhaps, that it is a story we have heard, not read, and that we could, in our own way and in our own words, tell to others. We have to read and tell it in pure selfishness. It is not about the world out there; it is about the world in here. You must read and hear it as though it is about you.
Indeed, this is true of all stories, for there is nothing else for them to be about but what is general and continual in human persons. The raw material out there in the world is the set on which the drama of every human life is played, and the general and continual conditions of persons are the theme. It is only from us and because of us that we can make meaning, just as it is only out of you and you alone that your dreams can be "written" and played out on the set suggested by the world as mysteriously altered by you.
We must go a bit farther than Socrates goes. He, in brief and casual conversation, mentions only Typhon, and concludes that he has been granted a less tempestuous character. But the maiden Orithyia is also "about" him. Had we been able to hear him talk about that, he might have given us some interesting hints as to how to understand Psyche and the wind that blew her away. Winds do blow in us, in all of us.
Looking for yourself is a good way to read all stories, not just myths and fairy tales. It is also the way to "read" all art, which is the name for all those creations that tie together the outer and inner worlds. The painting on the wall of the cave, just as much as a song of Schubert, tells us all about what is human in us all. While such a reading provides nourishment to self-knowledge, however, it provides also strange difficulties.
Consider that you are Psyche, a soul in the world. If her story is truthful, it will tell you much about yourself. But our gentle and beautiful heroine is also the murderer of her sisters. It is true that Eros says that he will "very soon be avenged upon them," but it is the forlorn Psyche who visits them in turn and sends them to their deaths by enticing them into leaping off the cliff when "another wind altogether was blowing." In our literatures, of course, such an event might come to pass, but certainly not in the case of a heroine who is ultimately to be redeemed and rewarded.
We have certain ideas about "morality"--which Socrates and Plato had as well--which lead us to decide that some things are not suitable to be shown to children. While our practice is not in keeping with these ideas, we hold and propound them nevertheless, and often conclude, especially in the schools, that impressionable children should not hear a story in which Jack kills a giant, lest they go forth and kill. Myth is especially rich in the objectionable: violence, rape, murder, dismemberment, infanticide, treachery--the list is probably complete, but the harm that it does to children (or to us?) is at least debatable.
But it needs no debating if you read as Socrates reads. You are the sisters. If a Psyche must kill them, what must you kill that is also you? This is why murder and death are so common in myths and all sorts of stories left over to us from an earlier time. Our ancestors apparently believed that there might be some things in us that we ought not to put up with. The slaying of monsters and dragons, which we tend to applaud, becomes somewhat more a threat--although truly no less a triumph--if we are mindful of the monsters into which all of us are capable of turning, and have in fact turned, more than once. And if we are especially fond of our monsters, as fond as we might be of sisters, are they any less monsters to be destroyed?
The concrete worldly elements of myth and fairy-tale, which look to us like mountains or monsters or cruel mothers, are in fact a kind of poetry, metaphor treated as though it were fact. We imagine, because we are "advanced," that preliterate people told so many stories about the change of one kind of creature into some other because they must have believed that such things could happen. Of such an event, the transformation of a girl into a bird, for instance, how much experience could they have had? Did it happen often, or only occasionally? Obviously, it did not happen at all, and even our most primitive forbears could not possibly have believed that it did. They were not fools or madmen. They lived what they would surely call "well," and they made art.
If the stories they have handed on to us are rich in metamorphoses, it must be that they could "read" human behavior in a way that is not customary among us. And some of us, perhaps, can still read as they read. Any little child among us knows that he is neither mistaken nor lying when he tells himself, at night, that his father turned into a monster.
Such a statement is the real truth, not the "real truth" which must of necessity be continuously concocted by the clever and industrious explicators to whom Socrates refers, and to whom the real truth needs the support of some fact, even if we have to imagine that fact, but simply the real truth. Fathers do turn into monsters. And men, not a few of them, turn into asses. Every day.
An inability to read the metaphoric poetry of the real truth causes great trouble in the world. Believers and nonbelievers will fight forever--but not to the finish, alas--because they can not read that poetry. For the theist, the poetry of metaphor must be fact; for the slightly more sophisticated atheist, the poetry of metaphor may be lovely indeed, but it is still a lie.
Northrop Frye, in The Great Code, describes, although not intending to, just what the reading of Socrates means. Of truth and lie, of correctness and incorrectness, he says nothing. He speaks rather of two modes of narrative: the one intends to tell you what you would have seen had you been there; the other tells you what you should have seen had you been there. The forms of myth are intended to help us to fulfill the obligation implied by that word--should.
Second Great Picnic Looms
THE Second Great Grammarian Picnic will be held on Saturday, August 3, starting at 9AM and going on until whenever. All are invited, along with family, friends, or cahoots of any sort. Dogs are especially welcome, both by the park people and our staff (we may bring one or two big ones), but they do have to wear their collars and leashes.
The park's rules are unchanged: four bucks for car and driver, fifty cents per passenger, dogs free.
This year, we have taken the Pavilion, which has tables, benches, and grills. Also a roof. It will be useful in case of rain, but it sits between meadow and woodland, so there will be plenty of open space in which to lie down and contemplate.
If you get lost, you can call the park office at 302-571-3545. If you just know that you are going to get lost, you can call us at 609-589-6477. We will advise you to cultivate that moderate and cheerful demeanor without which no one can hope to be happy, young or old, rich or poor.
Last year we had a problem with name tags. There weren't any. And that seemed to all of us entirely appropriate for such an odd bunch. But we did keep forgetting who was who. Awkward. There must be some solution. Think.
The area shown by the map probably has America's highest concentration of lovely countryside and beauties to visit, gardens, parks, and museums. If you just happen to be touristing about anyway, you might do well to spend a few days hereabouts. Just don't price the real estate.
Please come if you can. We'd love to see you, and you'll meets lots of very interesting people.
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Neither can his mind be thought to
be in tune, whose words do jarre;
* You can find the rest of this in The
Secret Teachings of Jesus, Random House, 1984, translated by Marvin
W. Meyer. The short-lived relationship between early Christianity and
the dying mystery religions is chronicled and weighed by Rudolf
Steiner in Christianity as Mystical Fact, a strange but intriguing
book, first published in 1912 and now available in the second English
edition of 1972 from the Rudolf Steiner Press, London. Steiner was something
of a crank, no doubt, but one whose time may yet come. He was, among other
things, the founder of the Waldorf School movement, which just now is
enjoying a renaissance.
Years and years ago we ran a piece about some schoolish revision of "Jack and the Beanstalk." It was concocted by a lady educationist who changed the ending and had Jack and the giant sitting at the conference table working out their differences by rapping and relating to each other. She expected that this would stop war and other forms of violence. Just now, no one around here can remember the name of the piece, but if you still have it this would be a good time to reread it. back
C. S. Lewis, in his wonderful version of this story, does not allow Psyche to murder her sisters. What he does instead is interesting and beautiful, but it still may be true that he has given in to "morality." But that is nor to disparage his book. It is called Till We Have Faces, and if you haven't read it you should go and do so. To compare it, point by point with "Psyche and Eros" brings both delight and light. back