Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Gods We Hold Dear

I recently read a snippet of something in the popular press where Carl Jung was quoted as saying that as one ages one should spend more of their time reading fairy tales, myths and legends. This makes sense to me as I tend to find this sort of reading increasingly appealing. (Indeed, I've been working my way through Grimm's Fairy Tales recently.) I don't really completely understand the appeal, though. The only theory that makes sense to me is that after a lifetime of experience people cease to surprise and instead end up as examples of a limited number of archetypes. (I find myself classifying people that way---such and such person reminds me of so-and-so from my youth, and so forth.) If you see people are following a limited number of patterns, perhaps it makes more sense to accept this and revel in the formal interactions afforded. Civilizations seem to be like this---as they age they become more stylized and formal.

So, to cut a long story short, I agree with Jung but would like to add some other observations through a particularly unfocused and rambling post.

Years ago I had a meditation teacher who said that he had gone to meet some exiled Tibetan monks who were staying in a friend's summer cottage. When he drove up to the place he was surprised to see a bunch of fellows in monkish robes sitting at a picnic table drinking beer and reading comic books. They explained to him that the beer reminded them of Tibetan tea and the comic books were like the stories of the Tibetan gods and goddesses.

At the time I found this very hard to believe. But I eventually got some Tibetan-style tea. Surprise, surprise, it is flavoured with roasted barley (it even includes the odd barley-corn that has popped like popcorn.) The strong barley flavour does remind one of the old-fashioned Canadian beer (which traditionally had very little corn in it---unlike American beer.)

While reading more mythology I have also come to understand the point about comic books too.

I started thinking about this after trying to analyze why it was that I was so interested in watching the movie "Ironman". Many of my friends simply cannot understand why someone like me would waste their time watching "junk" movies like this. I found it hard to justify myself until I came across that quotation from Jung and I thought back to that anecdote involving those Tibetan monks. Then it occurred to me that the comic book superheros are not just "like" the ancient Gods and Goddesses of Olympus and the Jade Emperor's court---they are those ancient Gods and they fill exactly the same role in our society.

What could that be?

As I see it, I do not think it is possible for people---especially intelligent ones---to live in a world without archetype and metaphor. If I might be a little obscurely recursive here and use a story from the modern gods and goddesses to illustrate the need for gods and goddesses, I hearken back to an episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation: "Darmok".

Two civilizations want to "make contact" with each other, but are having a terrible time understanding each other because the two cultures lack the set of common metaphors and archetypes that are needed to be able to understand each other. In pursuit of this, the alien engineers a situation where he and Picard (the human) have to live out the defining mythos of their civilization. After doing so, the humans and the aliens have the beginning from which to build communication from. The alien captain dies in the process but as he does so, Picard recites out loud the equivalent myth from humanity: the Story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. In the last encounter with the aliens, the first officer of the ship refers to Picard's encounter as being a new episode that they are using to build a new part of their language around. (Just as I am using the episode to try and articulate a very complex phenomenon to you, gentle reader, hence my comment about this example being recursive.)

If this all seems a bit far-fetched, I would draw people's attention to the experience of an old flame of mine. She had grown up in India where English was her first language. Yet when she immigrated to Canada she found it very hard to understand the people around her because the culture was so very different. For example, on the way to Canada her airplane had to do a stop-over in England and the airline gave everyone free restaurant meals. When she looked at the menu she said that she didn't recognize a single item on it except the "meatballs" part of "spaghetti and meatballs". She said that when it was presented to her she didn't have a clue about how to eat the pasta, so she ate the meatballs and went away hungry. (All her co-passengers were eating expensive steaks, because the meal was free.) Later, when she arrived in Toronto she joined some church youth groups to learn the culture, but she had a very hard time figuring out all the nuances of "cool", "groovy" and "out-of-sight". (It was the sixties.) (I have had other friends from places like Russia and Israel make similar comments.)

The similarities between the stories of ancient mythology and modern comic books hasn't been missed by the people who publish comics. Ancient Gods have been recycled as comic heros---such as Thor and Heracles.

The thing that people forget about the ancient myths is that these were not religious icons so much as popular literature. We forget this because the only exposure that most of us get to them happens in school, where people are supposed to bring a certian "respect" to the process and all the ribald humour is removed. But the myths were passed on in drinking halls and around hearths by men and women who were trying to pass the time in an era without electric lighting and when the "dark nights of winter" actually were dark, cold and very boring.

And because these stories were specifically popular in nature, they were not approached with the sort of reverence that scholars bring to Mount Olympus. (Those stories are still exist, but only as scientific cadavers preserved in formalin.) The myths are great not because they were written by brilliant, god-intoxicated seers but rather because they evolved through a process of endless retelling where bits that "spoke" to ordinary people were added and other parts that were no longer relevant were sloughed off. And the minute a society starts to "revere" a story, it dies because this evolutionary process ceases. That means that the minute a myth becomes recognized as being a "myth"---thereby warranting some sort of preservation process by either academic or ecclesiastic---it ceases to be a real myth and instead starts becoming a quaint fairy story.

So if we want to look for a real modern myth it will not exist in either the University or the Church. Instead, it will reside in the cheesiest of popular culture. And I would argue that one of the most important current gods is Iron Man Why? Well the obvious answer would be that he is the lead character in a very popular movie. But that begs the question of why it is so popular. And I think that this is because he is an archetypal figure who is dealing with very important issues that modern humanity has to deal with.

For those of you who do not know the Iron Man "myth", the man in the iron mask is (at least originally) a man named Tony Stark. Mr. Stark is a brilliant technical wizard who is very rich and very good looking (a combination of Bill Gates and George Clooney.) The only fly in the ointment is that Mr. Stark makes his money building weapons of war. One day he gets captured by the enemies of the USA (originally it was the Vietcong, but in the movie it is an Islamic extremist group.) He is wounded in the heart and the only way he can stay alive is through a piece of technology that replaces his heart/keeps his heart going (depending on the version of the myth.) This "new heart" is the creation of a fellow captive, who found Stark dying and saved his life through this piece of miracle medical tech.

This fellow captive is an interesting figure. He is a man from the third world, a small-time, background figure who remarks that he once met Stark at a conference. Tony says that he doesn't remember him. He says this is hardly surprising as Tony was very drunk. He said that he was amazed that someone so intoxicated could give such a brilliant lecture. Obviously, this is a man who is just as smart as Stark, but one who has never had his opportunities. Indeed, not only is he a "nobody", but it comes out that his entire family has been killed in the war that led to his imprisonment.

These two men are being held captive and ordered---on pain of death---to build new and terrible weapons for the enemies of the USA. Trapped, Stark decides to trick his captors by building a weapon that he will use to escape. This is how he builds his first suit of high-tech armor that he uses to escape. In the process, however, his friend---the one who built him a new heart---dies while buying Tony enough time to bring his plan to fruition.

After he escapes, Stark is a changed man. He has seen the carnage of war in front of his very face, knows what his weapons do to flesh and bone, and gains a new appreciation of personal responsibility because he owes his very life to the sacrifice of another man. This leads him to give up his life as an innocent playboy technical wiz, and instead become the "Invincible" Iron Man.

I put the word "Invincible" in scare quotes because Tony Stark is actually an incredibly vulnerable man. He is always one heart malfunction away from death, and in his world he is often thwarted by a low battery or a villain who has figured out how to use this Achilles heel against him. Moreover, Stark is vulnerable. Over many issues of the comic he has battled alcoholism---at one point he actually gives up his suit to another man and becomes a hopeless drunk. (This is referenced in the movie through his constant tippling. I suspect it will be a theme in the inevitable sequel.)

Both of these are important metaphors. Stark's problems are the same as those of the modern, Western world. Our weak hearts keep us from feeling the pain and misery that our actions inflict on others. This comes about because we are, quite literally, drunk with power.

So when you start to appreciate what is really going on in this story, it begins to look just like a story from the Germanic legends or the Mahabharata. A wealthy, foolish wizard is captured by his king's enemies and forced to create evil weapons of war. A good, yet poor wizard who is captured with him saves his live and gives him a new heart. Together they build a new body for the foolish wizard to use for his escape. But the good wizard sacrifices his life to save him. And afterwards the foolish wizard must learn to live with the consequences of having a new heart and a new body---both of which no longer belong to him but to the memory of the dead good wizard.

And for my part I think that this is a very important story for modern people. Insofar as we participate in the modern world of wonders, we are like those wizards. (At least anyone who is technically literate enough to be reading this blog.) And we have to constantly remind ourselves to not become drunk with the power that comes from this wizardry. We need to strengthen our hearts and rebuild our bodies (both physical and mental) in order to use this power for the betterment of the world around us. We do this not only in order because it is what we must but also because we have an obligation to the memory of all those others who are not able to fight on their own behalf. The privileges of wealth and education---the trappings of Tony Stark---only have value if we use them to become defenders of all the people in the past and present who have not been the recipients of such largess.


Bao Pu said...

Speaking for myself, Gods don't figure too much in my practice (although I'm not opposed to incorporating them at some point). But something that I think is very interesting about what you wrote here is that the point of Gods and mythology is not necessarily the belief we have in them as actually existing entities; what seems more important is that we "believe" in them as carriers of meaning and truth. I think it's a lack of imagination when our culture tends to think that anything having to do with gods must necessarily have to do with faith in a very narrow sense.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Bao Pu:

I think that the fixation that many Westerners have with religious "belief" is a localized phenomenon. My understanding of Religious Daoism is that the actual belief of the practitioner is irrelevant. What is important is the actual ritual. As for popular Chinese religion, what people call the "gods" can be understood as "reverence for ancestors". That would explain why there are pictures of Chou En Lai in some temples (or at least so I am told.) It would also explain the existence of actual historical figures---such as General Kwan---in the popular pantheon.

Bao Pu said...

Yes, that is also my understanding---practice and ritual seem more important than whether or not the one participating in the ritual has belief.

That's also an interesting point about ancestor veneration and gods---the line between the two is awfully thin (if not non-existant). I've often thought that even the term "god" is a very local phenomenon and doesn't entirely describe either the Hindu devas or the Daoist and Buddhist pantheons of China.

WS said...

Is belief simply the conscious awareness of a ritual? Conscious awareness of our desires tends to dilute the pregnancy of their effects, so I wonder if belief merely comes down to a conscious recognition of one's desired goals.

If anyone else remembers, in the story of Peter Pan, the way to kill his fairy, Tinkerbell was to say you didn't believe in fairies. I feel like this is analogous to the subject.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

WS: I'm not sure what you mean by "conscious". It strikes me that most of the people who make such a big fuss about beliefs are terribly conscious either. I suppose it's one of those things where wisdom comes in layers---like an onion or one of those Russian dolls.

A totally "unconscious" person may go through a religious ritual without even thinking about it. Another person may make a big deal about it actually being a communication with a really existing "God". Yet another person may go through the ritual and see it as an example of Confucian "li" aimed at holding society together without actually believing in the existence of literal Gods. Perhaps yet another person can transcend the need to justify what he does in either sociological or metaphysical terms and simply enjoy bowing, burning incense and ringing a bell.

As I see it, the reason why we go through these physical activities is because they are something that people with totally different viewpoints can all participate in at the same time. When Protestand Christianity threw out ritual, IMHO, they planted the seeds of their extreme sectarianism.