Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mythical Living Through - Shudder & Gasp! - Pop Culture

In the hallowed psychological halls of academia at the Institute where I eke out graduate level study of Mythology, and all that might mean, whispers circle at the edges. Furtive glances precede, sussing out those who might be listening, making sure only friendly voices are near when a certain topic is mentioned. This is not Depth Psychology, nor C. G. Jung. It is not ritual of which I speak, nor of the Eastern road to enlightenment. Jesus? No. Not religion at all. Barely mythological, if certain are listened to. Of what do I speak, true believer?

Pop culture. There - the heavens have rattled, the mind has felt tremors from deep within - but the skies and our bodies still stand. In the ongoing battle of high brow vs. low brow, art vs. - well what do They say is the opposite of art? - crap? Popular culture, the offering of these United States to the World.

Our entertainment is saturated with myth and psychological depth, but often ignored with the academic snort, a wave of the hand, a derisive comment, but mostly, with an ignorance claiming worthlessness to the whole part and parcel of the stories we live in. By focusing on religion, fine art and analysis, the actual mythical living this abundantly rich and mythical pop culture bathes us in - and sometimes cleanses us with - can be utterly ignored by the academy I am part of unless it can be linked to, as above, religion, fine art and analytical models that enable.... something. I don't quite know.

What I do believe though, is: read or embodied (embodied here meaning lived, because a story told that one finds enabling is often useful to then enact, somehow proving useful to one's lived life) - myth surrounds us. James Hillman - for all his output on patient analysis by relating our pathologies to Greek myths in order to see through and understand them, allowing ourselves to move beyond those pathologies - has a major idea that seems to be mostly ignored for what it implies, for what it imagines. He stresses that mythically living is the aim.

We need to see the stories that surround us at all times, the possibilities that those stories offer us. If we are in need, the stories that have gone before us can offer insights and ways to help us. But what of those who are relatively free of pathology? Myth still surrounds us. The idea of mythically living still offers us a rich, and deep, embodied way of life, a way to see the world and our world in more satisfying and meaningful ways.

To remain stuck in pathology turns the screws on ourselves, ferreting out deep insidious problems where there may only be a lack of ability to see the wonder and the awe. Why settle for problems when you can be awed? This is not to say there are not deep and disturbing problems that some of us have real troubles with. But without that, why not aim for awe?

And religion in our society has proven mostly incapable of providing awe. It seems harder and harder to maintain a story - a mythical life - that is capable of explaining everything in one system. The more stories we have, the more stories that provide that wonder and awe as example, the easier it is to mythically live. Thus, the American idea of the melting pot can be seen as that cauldron of story that Tolkien wrote about. And then, Enter - pop culture.

Our master mythologists today are our storytellers. The ideas run thick and deep in film, literature, comics, music and every other style and genre of art. Some is crap. Some provides wonder and awe; wonder and awe that provide stories to enable us to be in that rarefied space known as mythical living. Simple as that. Can pop culture do that for us? Surely no, the academy shouts loudly.

But of course, it can. This post was originally going to be a fun musing on paranormal investigators, an archetype that I was drawn to even as a child. Scooby Doo and his people investigated mysteries. One favorite show for me as a child was "Kolchak the Night Stalker", a Chicago newspaper reporter who found a new monster every week to investigate. A bit unbelievable that he was able to do that led to an early demise for that show. And recently - Hellboy, Mike Mignola's masterful empire of comics, animation and film about what seems to me to be the ultimate in paranormal investigation. All pop culture. All fun. But utterly mythical - providing stories that allow us to view the world through mythical eyes and re-see what is actually there.

I'll give only one example. In "Hellboy II - The Golden Army", after two viewings, I was still somewhat unsure of exactly why Hellboy and friends quit the B.P.R.D. at the end of the movie. Sure, it seemed wrong that the elf prince had to die. He was on the side against humans, but his cause seemed somehow just. And the princesses death certainly underscored how unfair it was. But this is what they do - fight the occult evils of the world. Why quit over this one?

And it now occured to me how powerful an earlier scene had been - a scene invoking landscape and a way to see mythical living in our world. It did not evoke pathology, but conveyed an actual way to see life anew. In that scene, Hellboy deafeats and kills a nature elemental, a giant flowerlike plant spirit that raged over the concrete streets and in its demise left a green paradise, plants and flowers, another world of beauty that could only be seen through after the nature spirit died.
This dreamlike scene, in which the human looking Liz meanders through a spray of falling seed and watches greenery sprout and spread instantaneously, is pop culture at its best. It offers images and narratives not only for the filmed story, but also for us and our lives. Here is pop culture myth powerful enough to hold its own with classical myths, showing us a possibility, one possible way, to live our lives. Hellboy quits because he sees through his life to the larger universal. Mythical living.

"Hey, that red devil is from a comic book!" They rant and rave.
I say - Throw back the curtains and open the doors. Emerge into the world and breathe. Deeply.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The soul is the same in all living creatures, although the body of each is different. ~ Hippocrates

Disturbingly, I heard a bird's last death cry yesterday - a sparrow, presumably clipped, while flying, by a passing car . I heard it scream, while circling in the air once - before quickly expiring in the street.

Three hours later, almost in the same spot as when I witnessed the bird, I spotted a furry little thing laying alongside my building. Because of all the autumn yellow leaves scattered around it, I couldn't tell if it was some sort of women's accessory, or a mouse. I carefully touched it with the tip of my shoe - and a little pink mouth opened. It's fur was black, spotted with silvery white hairs - it was a bat. I don't know bats from beans, but I thought it was probably dying.

I left it alone, further disturbed on my corner of little deaths.

Hope lives on though - the bat had managed to crawl up the wall a few hours later. Was it just hibernating? Cold?

It was gone this morning.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Musing on Landscape

The striking aspect of the amazing "Where the Wild Things Are" film, for me, is the use of landscape, the seemingly inevitable focus on nature as the place we go to work things out, to level ourselves. So often art shows the ways in which that landscape mirrors our interior landscape.

There is no denying the power of the cinematograpy of this film, because there is no denying the power of the landscape that enfolds it at every turn.

In myth, we come up against history, religion, psychology. Greek myth is used as the base tool for depth psychology, relating our Western lives to urbane gods that influenced a rationalizing society. But other myths rise from elesewhere, including the lands they are part of. There are the Celtic myths, with their forests without which they would be impossible to imagine. There are Norse myths, from frozen lands where harsh actions, with and against the landscape, were necessary for survival. Then there is The Kalevala, the Finnish song cycle portraying the Finnish landscape of lake and snow, sled and ice, as it influences every nuanced turn of every tale.

In our concrete landscape, we are able to separate ourselves from the world. All peoples at all times dared to take what they needed from the landscape, striving to make life easier and more fulfilling. However, there used to be less people, less sweeping change, less destructive human activity. The planet is overrun with people now, and too many of us are too far away from any natural lands. Are we disciplined enough to pull back, to need less and to get closer to the rest of the planet? Can we halt the concrete and find the land we need to maintain our real humanity?

Max uses the land and the Wild Things to not only release wild frustrations, but also to rejuvenate, to slow his mind down to be able to think thoughts, rather than simply process and release reactions. No greater tools exist for us to consider and reconsider landscape than myth and fantasy.

I saw a production of Peter S. Beagle's "The Last Unicorn" this weekend. It was remarkable, and part of the credit goes to the amazing production design, the landscape of the play. In a small space, a simple wooden fence became the world of the entire drama, evoking every background and space needed. If you have read this book, you might agree that a live production would be difficult. But this show transported us to a world in which magic and possibility existed. Interesting that culture at its very best in our concrete cities often means escape to a created landscape in the darkness of a theater. Film, drama, music; whatever artistic venture we attend, we go to experience the creation of a new world, or a look back at an older world. It is often simpler, yet more nuanced than our own. we seek a world made up out of fantasy, a landscape we seek to inhabit when the landscape around us is not enough. Or is perhaps too much.

Simplicity is a key idea in our dramas and fictions. Even in film, that most real of arts, we really know everything is created, everything is simpler than in reality.

It seems time to reconsider how to make reality itself simpler.