Thursday, September 06, 2007

Cuchulain--Part 3

On the topic of forgetting the meaning of notes I have made after falling a few weeks behind in transcribing them to the blog, I had marked a very pedestrian section in the book where Cuchulain is on his sick-bed receiving visitors which when I wrote the second part of this report I could not imagine what the devil had been the point of it. Then the next afternoon, when I was on a dispatch to the basement to look for sheet rock screws, it came to me that it had been meant as a reference to a Pogues' song ("The Sick-Bed of Cuchulain").

I cannot let it pass without observation that all kinds of women openly beckon Cuchulain to give his carnal love to them throughout the book, with no expectation of any further commitment. From the relish with which she tackles these sections, one suspects Lady Gregory would have been at the head of the line if she had only been around.

pp.254-5: "With that he threw his spear at him, and it went through his head, and through the heads of the nine men that were behind him..." I know it is not intended to be understood literally. However, any person with an underdeveloped mythological imagination will not be able to conceive the scene except as it written, which makes it somewhat humorous.

The catalogue of heads which Cuchulain's friend Conall, after the hero has finally met his end in battle, collected on a rampage of revenge and spread on the lawn of a castle where he has gone to repose after the fight, gives an account of when asked about the identities of their former owners, is a charming note on which to wind down the book. After this he digs a grave for Cuchulain and his wife--who, though apparently enjoying excellent health when the warriors set out, manages to die in the interval during the digging--and lays them in it.

Lady Gregory tourist sites are conveniently concentrated in county Galway, which also has several sites associated with her pal Yeats. She was born in the manor house of the parish(?) of Roxborough, which is also conveniently the house's name. My impression is that the house is still standing, though I am not certain. The Kiltartan Museum and Millenium Park claims to be largely dedicated to the life and works of Lady Gregory and posts some approving testimonials from distinguished visitors such as ex-Irish president Mary Robinson on its website. Lady Gregory's former home, Coole Park, was for some reason torn down in the 1940s, though the grounds remain intact and are now a park. Yeats used the site as a setting for the poem "The Swans at Coole" which is often anthologized. She was buried at the new cemetery in Bohermore, which is also in Galway.

Cuchulain's home was Dun Dealgan, which appears to be no longer identifiable as a place by so much as a stake in the earth, though it was near present-day Dundalk in the county of Louth. There was, and I presume still is, a famous statue of the hero in the General Post Office in Dublin, a building famous for, among other things, being the main scene of action in the Easter Uprising of 1916. The statue has been referenced in several modern literary works, Beckett's Murphy being one that comes immediately to mind.

Having written this report, I could not avoid the nagging feeling that, even if the book was bad-- and I think it probably was--I had still not read and understood it well enough; that is to say, I had not been able to pick up whatever was fundamentally valuable or of interest in the legend. I do not have any books at home that deal specifically with Celtic mythology, which has never been one of my main areas of interest, and being by nature as well as training distrustful of most recent scholarship until I can be confident enough time has passed that the author's personal agendas, vanities, antagonisms, prejudices etc, which never seem to be in sympathy with my own, are really not more substantial than his ideas, I hesitate to put much stock in anything that might be currently circulating on the internet or the shelves at Borders. I happen to own a copy of Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which devotes 8 of its 391 pages to the Cuchulain story. Campbell's interpretations are florid with the sort of language that nowadays arouses such unexpected outbursts of hostility towards him from thinkers of a certain kind of hyper-masculine spatial-linear bent of brain: "vivid cosmic energies", "the occasion of his full self-manifestation", "broke out of the depths of his being", "the unique, invisible path which was opened to the hero", "Cuchulain's hero-journey exhibits with extraordinary simplicity and clarity all the essential elements of the classic accomplishment of the impossible task". I do not know how right Campbell is in his evaluations of these stories, but I do think that he has genuinely done something which is very difficult for a modern intellectual to do, that is tap into a way of reading and inhabiting the myths so as to be capable of believing them real. This is why many middle Americans who may once have thought they desired to lead a more serious life find reading Campbell's books, or watching him on television, so enjoyable. He allows one to feel he is being let in on, rather than shut out of, a conversation with an intelligent and learned man on important matters. In becoming a cultish figure however, even in a relatively small way, he inevitably invites scrutiny from people who have little use for cosmic energies and secret harmonies in intellectual discourse, even if something of the sort seems plausibly necessary to understand the stories in the spirit out of which they originated; and anyone stupid enough to be taken in by anything Campbell wrote or said becomes fair game for ridicule.

If one pokes around a little in what might be called magazines and websites of ideas, it is not hard to find these detractors. Just last week there was a review of a novel in the New York Times where the reviewer rather emoted out of the blue that the author "apparently confused Joseph Conrad, who was a genius, with Joseph Campbell, who wasn't." Personally I not sure why Joseph Conrad would be considered a genius either; while he is enigmatic and more than usually attuned to the manifestation of human strength/will as a monstrous rather than benign occurrence, he does not so much give one a wholly singular and stimulating way of looking at life so much as sharpen one's already prevalent tendencies if they lean in that direction. This is hardly an insult. One could speak similarly about Tolstoy, and that does not disqualify him from being perhaps the greatest novelist of all time. But to get back to my main point. Why throw in a gratuitous dig at Joseph Campbell in a review of a novel about the Vietnam War where the necessity of bringing him up is not made clear? As I say, this is not the first writer I have come across that felt the need to clear the air, when it did not appear to be particularly smoky, about his position regarding Campbell. Why?

It has to be the TV show, right? A longtime professor of mythology who published among many other things the first reader's guide to Finnegan's Wake, Campbell was the subject of a popular series of interviews on PBS with Bill Moyers, a journalist reviled by the political right as a gullible, mush-headed middlebrow who enjoys getting cuddly with communists and other charlatans plugging dubious ideas that he lacks the intellect to understand properly. I admit I would almost certainly not have the interest in him, and his detractors, that I do if I had not seen the shows, which were very engaging. The signature moment of the series is probably the part where Campbell exhorts the audience, and the general run of mankind, to "follow your bliss", a statement containing a not-foolish and indeed rather sensible idea that he had probably considered and come to over a period of many years, which unfortunately was simplistically interpreted both by his supporters and denouncers as a variety of new age tripe. Campbell also was strongly influenced in his myth interpreting by the work of Freud and other advocates of psychoanalysis, belief in the validity of which has weakened in recent years, and has been especially vociferously dismissed by the science/technology/economic progress contingent of society. However, once again I think he (as well as Freud) was onto something, however much he may have carried things too far at times: psychoanalysis, dream interpretation, the idea of the subconscious, if they cannot be proven to explain anything in individual contemporary cases, nonetheless create an approach and a language for investigating ancient myths, which have come down to us as hard facts that are at the same time fantastical and seem to be rooted in a significant manner in a different sort of society and mental cosmos than that which we take for granted. It is one of the unfortunate facts of life that so many highly intelligent people feel the need to spend so much of their lives insisting that other obviously intelligent people, even if they are proven to be wrong in certain of their judgements, are in fact morons. I do not know a lot about Joseph Campbell but certainly the impression one gets is that he was not like this, that he would have made an effort to understand the point of view of a rival or someone in opposition to him, which he could do because his own thoughts were on a solid enough foundation that they were unlikely to be leveled by any strong first assault. Our society is in as much need--probably more dire need--of people like this than of more brilliant but cold, arrogant, disengaged professionals. I being more and more convinced of this all the time.

The last chapter of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, titled "The Hero Today", expresses some ideas of the sort that I think educated people ought to be aware of the existence of, and often appear not to be, whether they find anything of value in them or not. There is always a strong sense in active day-to-day life that there is not any realistic alternative to the way we live and understand the world, that things must be as they are, or as we, or at least everyone else around us, perceives them to be. Campbell writes: "...there is no such society any more as the gods once supported. The social unit is not a carrier of religious content, but an economic-political organization. Its ideals are not those of the hieratic pantomine, making visible on earth the forms of heaven...Then all meaning was in the group, in the great anonymous forms, none in the self-expressive individual; today no meaning is in the group--none in the world: all is in the individual...One does not know toward what one moves. One does not know by what one is propelled. The lines of communication between the conscious and the unconscious zones of the human psyche have all been cut, and we have been split in two...the problem is...making it possible for men and women to come to full human maturity through the conditions of contemporary life." These are not statements of genius, and perhaps they not profound either, but they are statements of awareness--of a certain wisdom, if you will, about one's actual place in the realm of existence. On numerous occasions I have come to this book after reading some methodical demolition of the Joseph Campbell cult determined not to be taken in by it, to see starkly for myself its essential banality, but it is very odd, that whenever I take it up I always soon find myself being soothed, talked down from the ledge as it were, and brought back to some region of the mind where I might even be able to conceive of myself having a productive cultural role as a human being in a human society.

So I must confess for now that I still find Campbell many times over a more useful and valuable contributor to the national vault of ideas than nearly all of those who sneer at him.

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