“It is not far from here, and it is not a pleasant spot…”

There’s a metaphor that’s stuck with me from Beowulf – that of the “pool of bubbling blood filled with writhing sea monsters” that was the gateway to the monster Grendel’s lair – a place so fearsome that “even the hunted stag had chosen to die on the shore rather than dive down into the murky waters”. 

The lake is a metaphor for the darkest parts of my psyche – from the person who makes the insensitive remark at dinner to the guy who’s capable of breaking someone’s heart, and everything in between.  And as I’d mentioned before, the act of my accepting the parts of myself which are reprehensible to me, to fully engaging with them and giving them the status they deserve, I see as an essential part of creating the kind of life I want to lead.

This process of self-discovery, the dive into the murky waters, got me thinking about pre-literate societies – about how these groups dealt with the darkness in each individual – and how they dealt with the destructive effects of just being alive, the random acts of barbarity delivered by the world without reason or question.  The ability to deal with these things internally, emotionally, in a way that actually benefits you and benefits your life is a skill that we’re all required to learn but one we’re given very little guidance on.   These elder systems provided that guidance.

In these tribal societies the creation of a self-sustaining emotional collective was paramount.  The idea of people pulling together, community helping community, is an extension of this kind of thinking – that the destruction of the world can be mitigated on some level by collective response to emotional disasters.  Part of the reason for the creation of ritual, of symbol, of mythology and ultimately of religion was based on a premise of allowing groups of people to create self-sustaining emotional collectives that could ultimately perform better than other species.  The ability to emotionally self-manage is ultimately an evolutionary advantage.

The point of these systems was to allow individuals to understand the greater meaning in events, to help process their own darkness and the darkness of the world so they could remain functional within society and ultimately follow whatever destiny was of benefit to the community. Among other functions, these systems mitigated lonliness, feelings of individual persecution and gave some kind of structure to the chaos of the world.  With my generation of humans being one of the first since the middle ages to be without any real structure of organized collective emotional management – neither tribes nor organized religion – what tools do we have to face the world on our own?

Take into account the fact that this process seems to be actually speeding up with each passing year, what are we as individuals, set adrift from traditional collective systems of emotional understanding, actually doing to fill the void, to learn how to emotionally self-manage on an individual basis?  In other words, what are we doing to become better self-sustaining emotional organisms? 

From my point of view, there seems to be a very head-in-the-sand “everything’s fine” approach to this massive shift among my peers, and I think it’s because there’s such a massive, blank canvas in front of us that it’s tough to know where to even start, or if to start at all.  But start we must:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.


In the middle of the road of my life
I awoke in the dark wood 
where the true way was wholly lost

(Dante’s The Divine Comedy)

This moment is coming for all of us, if it has not already arrived.  Thankfully, part of the answer to this challenge can be found in the text that preceeds this tercet – it’s a damn good book.  As Joseph Campbell said “Artists are magical helpers. Evoking symbols and motifs that connect us to our deeper selves, they can help us along the journey of our own lives.”  Yeats packed his poetry in this same  “ancient salt” for very good reason.

To me the closest and most easily accessible approximation of the ancient shamanistic tradition, that of the use of symbols, metaphor and collective experience is art.  Music’s the form I most clearly understand but storytelling, creative expression and experience in any form is what we have left collectively – as a species – and it’s something we can access now, thank goodness, individually.

I suppose the point of this whole post is this:  it seems peoples obsession with art/expression/storytelling etc, it’s creation and consumption, should be increasing in direct proporation to the speed with which we’re moving away from the elder systems which were once so vital to our evolution and survival.  It doesn’t seem that it is. 

Again, why is that?  I suppose another reason is because it’s not easy, and it’s bloody terrifying.  The tools of art, of understanding, assimilation and expression of yourself are the tools that will guide you through that dark wood, through the depths of the pool that faced Beowulf. 

But what’s down there, what you’re facing, is your very own version of the monster.  And these days for many of us, there’s no collective, no community, no tribe who can help arm us to defeat her.

Is it any wonder we’re reluctant to dive?

“It is not far from here, and it is not a pleasant spot…”

2 thoughts on ““It is not far from here, and it is not a pleasant spot…”

  1. Interesting take — probably not the one that would have immediately occurred to me, but of course there’s no right or wrong answers in this type of idea hackeysack.I totally believe that religion was invented by humanity, again and again in many different ways, as a coping mechanism for the kind of worries that you’re talking about. Immediately before your post popped up in Google Reader I saw this quote <a href="http://tumblr.mlarson.org/post/18765505115/conspiracy-theories-and-the-occult-comfort-us">on Mark Larson’s blog</a>: <em>Conspiracy theories and the occult comfort us because they present models of the world that more easily make sense than the world itself, and, regardless of how dark or threatening, are inherently less frightening.</em> (Side note: that coincidental adjacency of ideas is why I still love reading blogs: sometimes two completely separate things happen to clack against each other and create a nice little spark.)Anyway, I pretty much agree with that quote. That’s where religion comes from, I think. That’s the only reason it exists, to mask the blinding terror of the fact that we’re mortals [insert terrified smiley here]. Maybe I’m just conditioned by my environment to think that — after all it’s really only possible that someone from my tiny demographic in the totality of all humanity, EVER (that is: moderately-educated, western, late-20th century) could believe that. But I also happen to believe that we’re on the cusp of <a href="http://booktwo.org/notebook/cern/">a technology-driven understanding of big things</a>, coming from the same drive that has changed the world more in the last 100 years that ever before. It’s been nudging us along so far, but we’re not sure where to. How new our little computers are! What amazing places they might bring us or things they might reveal to us! I guess that’s why I’m so interested in technology: it’s the key to my religion.I’m not going to sit here and explain to you that the bots who follow you on Twitter or that asshole on Facebook who gave you a fat lip in secondary school are your new tribe: they are not. But I do think that the internet, that us now basically living as cyborgs with weak but ever-growing powers of <a href="http://spoiledmilk.dk/blog/why-all-designs-are-compensations-for-not-having-telepathy-and-teleportation">telepathy and teleportation</a> is the start of something. That’s the pool of bubbling that I want to dive into.I loved an idea in <a href="http://www.wired.com/magazine/2012/02/ff_dysonqa/all/1">this George Dyson interview</a> where he explains the growth of digital information as an organism that began life with the first computer: <em>The moment the electricity was turned on for the first time in the summer of 1951, computers started generating new numbers, and those numbers generated more numbers, and the cycle hasn’t stopped since.</em>That was all a little rambling, but I guess my meta-point is this: all of the links that I posted are just from things that I read on the internet in the last week. This mad, frothy bubbling cauldron of ideas is the pool that I love to dive into, it’s the creative experience that I personally draw on in the same way you draw on music. And it’s one that invites me to partake in the random inspection and dot-connecting that I just allowed myself to indulge in here. It’s not emotional monster-slaying stuff, but the thought that the universe of ideas is so vast and glorious is enough of a comfort blanket for me that I wouldn’t trade it away for the (to me) false security of blind faith.Okay, one last word from one of my favourite philosophers: http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_l5sj7qtFqu1qzzfkyo1_500.jpg

  2. Nick Fitzsimons says:

    I think my take on this has changed even over the week or so since I posted it – it’s evolved somewhat into something else, and was echoed in the passages I posted from The Hero With A Thousand Faces.I like your idea of religion as a comfort – as a balm for the chaos of the world – and I agree with that quote too.Comfort in ideas is a common theme for me, just as you describe – the wonder of the hundreds of possible ideas, the lovely "clack" they make when they hit together in conversation, in blogs & comments. It’s immensely satisfying and certainly has elements of the comfort that religion/mythology once brought: – that you weren’t alone, you had community and within that community there were people who’d not only thought the things you did, but had taken them to other interesting places and conclusions and could subsequently allow you to swing further along on a path to understanding yourself. It’s something I love to do as well.But it’s the limitations to this approach that are really bothering me right now.I realise the bubbling pool I’m referring to here – the one that can be accessed through storytelling, symbols and art in general, is not an "ideas" place. It is a place based entirely on emotion – on the understanding of yourself, the person, on an emotional level and all of the MONSTER slaying that requires – the discomfort, the grief, the anger, the jealousy, the bitterness can all be "waylayed" by engaging in conversation, in literature, in discussion – you can be comforted.But I think there’s so much more to be had if I move "past" that loop of (thought – discussion – insight – possible creation of something on the basis of that insight.) The insight, or feeling of belonging, is not an end in and of itself. Ultimately the intellect – the deduction of circumstances, the consideration of arguments and ideas to further advance understanding of the world – is only part of the equation. This intellectual process seems to be the shell which shields the self from probing the soft viscera that exists under that surface, deep down among the monsters and Grendel’s cave. It’s the mental equivalent of looking good in a mirror but having no idea of how fucked up your insides are and *more importantly* the enormous benefits that can be derived from engaging with that fucked-up-ness no matter how scary it might be.Intellect will not let you down into that cave, the crackle of conversation, the zip of super-fast particles and wondering at the journey of Voyager 1 will not let you down there. The unconcious self, bolstered by the concious self, is the only warrior capable of the feat. The wonderful thing about art, however, is that the right art hints at that unconcious self – it lets you see that viscera like a CAT scan, like the flash of someone you think you know as they pass you on the street. It’s also why art can be so damn unsettling, uncomfortable and can actually piss you off.Ultimately the only truly unique thing that’s left undiscovered in the world exists in that cave. And that’s what I’m interested in going after.

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