Sunday, January 25, 2009

Collective Catharsis

When will we finally emerge from the financial fog of the economic crisis?

Infectious Greed has posted this marvelously metaphoric photo of the city of Vancouver trapped in a temperature inversion. It reminds me of the "cloud-wrapped shores of Hades" encountered by Odysseus on his voyage to the Underworld. We currently find ourselves in a similar foggy hell, a seemingly unnavigable darkness, where "an endless deathful night is spread over its melancholy people." (The Odyssey, T.E. Lawrence)

As I noted in the introduction to my novel Night of the Furies, the dark voyage of Homer's hero is known as the Nekyia, the 'night sea journey.' The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung saw the Nekyia symbolically as a journey into the unconcious--the source of the creative and instinctual forces of life.

Mythologically, the night sea journey motif usually involves being swallowed by a dragon or sea monster. It is also represented by
imprisonment or crucifixion, dismemberment or abduction, experiences traditionally weathered by sun-gods and heroes: Gilgamesh, Osiris, Christ, Dante, Odysseus, Aeneas. In the language of the mystics it is the dark night of the soul.


All the night sea journey myths derive from the perceived behavior of the sun, which, in Jung's lyrical image, "sails over the sea like an immortal god who every evening is immersed in the maternal waters and is born anew in the morning. ["Symbols of the Mother and of Rebirth,"CW 5, par. 306.] The sun going down, analogous to the loss of energy in a depression, is the necessary prelude to rebirth. Cleansed in the healing waters (the unconscious), the sun (ego-consciousness) lives again. (NYAAP)
Perhaps our current economic 'depression' is a societal version of this cyclical descent. The economy collapses, business undergoes a painful dismemberment, forcing us all to 'sacrifice'--a collective crucifixion--all as a necessary prelude to rebirth.

In a fascinating essay in The Spectator, Tom Stacey speculates that we need the occasional war or economic collapse:

I perceive something in the collective soul of man which from time to time secretly needs the catharsis of economic collapse or war, or even both of those grievous things. And I also perceive that, as that secret need grows in the soul, so is it ineluctably met.

...One way or another we get the cathartic catastrophe, the ruthless purge of the shallow motives and inducements we had grown habituated to responding to, and their replacement by certain profounder, more basic incentives: staying alive, fending for those we love, and maybe fighting and even dying for a cause or a country and the half-forgotten principles that define it.

Being forced to face the looming abyss leads to a kind of deepening, a profound reconnection with fundamental truths. Hell may be the very thing we needed all along.

Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld, Jan Breughel, 1598 (click HERE to enlarge)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Odd Couple

I have been researching ancient Indian religion for the third novel in my Night Sea Trilogy. One of the religious concepts that emerged from the ancient Vedas was ahimsa, a Sanskrit term meaning 'do no harm.'

The foremost modern proponent of this tenet of non-violence is the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet. As my novel involves modern day Buddhists confronting the specter of terrorism, I was curious to come across this bit of news from the English-language Times of India:

NEW DELHI: The Dalai Lama, a lifelong champion of non-violence on Saturday candidly stated that terrorism cannot be tackled by applying the principle of ahimsa because the minds of terrorists are closed. "It is difficult to deal with terrorism through non-violence," the Tibetan spiritual leader said delivering the Madhavrao Scindia Memorial Lecture here.

He also termed terrorism as the worst kind of violence which is not carried by a few mad people but by those who are very brilliant and educated. "They (terrorists) are very brilliant and educated...but a strong ill feeling is bred in them. Their minds are closed," the Dalai Lama said. He said that the only way to tackle terrorism is through prevention.

The head of the Tibetan government-in-exile left the audience stunned when he said "I love President George W Bush." He went on to add how he and the US President instantly struck a chord in their first meeting unlike politicians who take a while to develop close ties.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Homer's Islands

A number of readers have asked where I came up with the name and the history of the fictional island in Night of the Furies. Like the story itself, the island is a mix of mythology and history.

The name of the island was borrowed from Homer. When the hero of the Odyssey is first introduced, he’s been imprisoned for seven years on an island called Ogygia, detained there by his lover, the nymph Calypso, who desires to make him her husband. Through the intervention of the gods, Odysseus is set free and eventually makes his way home to Ithaca.

In the narrative structure of the Odyssey, then, Ogygia forms a kind of fulcrum, a middle point, halfway between his adventures after setting sail from Troy and the final voyage that delivers him home. For this reason—and the obvious parallels of erotic possession—I thought it was the perfect island name for the middle novel of my 'Night Sea Trilogy.'

The actual history of Ogygia in Furies was based on the tragic history of Chios, a large Greek island off the coast of Turkey.

Chios was conquered by the Persians, the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Venetians, and for centuries was ruled by the Ottoman Turks. In 1822, during the Greek War of Independence, the Sultan decided to make an example of the island. 82,000 Greek islanders were hanged, butchered, starved or tortured to death. 50,000 Greeks were enslaved and another 23,000 were exiled. Fewer than 2,000 Greek islanders survived.

The Chios massacre outraged Europeans and inspired several paintings by the French artist Eugène Delacroix, including Le Massacre de Scio in 1824 (click HERE to enlarge):

The church and the monastery I described in Furies were based on the Néa Moní monastery on Chios. It’s actually true that, after sacking the place, the Turks slaughtered most of its 600 monks and set the 800-year-old monastery on fire.

Beyond that, there’s one more connection between the mythical Ogygia and the historical Chios: Chios is believed to be the birthplace of Homer.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Hofman gets Stoned

Veteran novelist Robert Stone has written an interesting piece ("Day Tripper") about Dr. Albert Hofman, the legendary research chemist who accidentally discovered LSD in the spring of 1943.

Hoffman, right, at Sandoz.

Working at the Sandoz pharmaceutical company in Basel, Switzerland, "Hofman specialized in the investigation of naturally occuring compounds that might make useful medicines. Among these was a rye fungus called ergot..." It was from ergot that he derived D-lysergic acid diethylamide tartrate, LSD.

Eventually his discovery led him into an exploration of the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries:

As a scientist he was fascinated by the ritual practiced by the ancient Greeks at Eleusis each fall. These rites, honoring the grain goddess Demeter, celebrated antiquity’s most profound mystery cult. Initiates described an intense life-changing experience in the course of the nighttime ceremonies. Hofmann believed that one of the components of the sacred kykeon, the potion distributed to adepts, was a barley extract containing ergot.

The fictional characters in my novel NIGHT OF THE FURIES use Hofman's ergot theories (recently re-published in The Road to Eleusis) to uncover a modern Dionysian cult descended from ancient Eleusis. In fact, Jack's brother Dan, the brainy, psychonaut grad student depicted in my book, has a mystical view of nature remarkably similar to Stone's description of Hofman:
He developed a personal mysticism involving nature, for which he had a lifelong passion. One thing this very tolerant man decried in the Western drive for facile satisfaction was an alienation from the outdoors. The use of LSD made him more and more conscious of it. In nature he saw “a miraculous, powerful, unfathomable reality.”
Read the whole article HERE.

Friday, January 2, 2009

American Mysteries

Guess what? The Eleusinian Mysteries are alive and well and celebrated annually in Washington state.

The Aquarian Tabernacle Church is running its 24th Spring Mysteries Festival, a reconstruction of the Eleusinian Mysteries of Greece, somewhere west of Seattle April 9-12. Registration is US $165+ for adults if received by February 1, higher thereafter. Info: http://www.aquatabch.org/spring-mysteries-festival