Monday, 24 November 2008

Boxing with Barthes: The Village Brain

I'm sitting with a mug of tea wishing it would snow as myself and Cara keep getting reports of great swathes of the stuff over in Norfolk and Lincolnshire-respective family seats for the ol'folks of the family.In the meantime i'm working on a essay-partially to do with the relationship between the oral tradition and literature and also a host of other things-it's placing the schools relationship with myth up against other voices-namely Roland Barthes and Sean Kane. I'll drop fragments of this in over time-it's too much monkey business for one blog.I would say that Barthes holds the 'Village' perspective of myth, Kane the 'Forest'. Today it's mostly Barthes turn. Much of this debating lacks poetry, but it can be useful to skip through.

It can be seen that to discriminate among mythical objects according to substance would be entirely illusionary: since myth is a kind of speech,everything can be a myth provided it is conveyed by a discourse. Myth is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way it utters the message: there are formal limits to myth, there are no ‘substantial’ ones. (1) Roland Barthes, Mythologies, Vintage Press, 1957, p.109.

mythtelling assumes that the stories already exist in nature, waiting to be heard by humans who will listen for them. Such stories have a semi-wild existence; they are just barely domesticated and so are free to enact the patterns of the natural world.(2) Sean Kane, Wisdom of the Mythtellers, Broadview press, 1994, p. 35

We see here Barthes and Kane, writers with profoundly different perspectives tugging at something porous and malliable in story, something that indicates a kind of spell language but also openess to more than the grinding muscles of human inventiveness. Kane also says;

History has been brutal to nature and therefore brutal to myth,
Which it has defined by the Latin equivilant of the Greek word
Fabula, a persistent lie…the assumption of human power we loosely call anthropocentrism. As far as mythtelling is concerned,
The term implies a shift from the authority of plants and animals,
each the spirit-children of supernatural progenitors, to the authority
of man, considered to be god like at the center of the world he
contructs for himself. Once this anthropocentrism settles in the
outlook of a people who have learned to domesticate animals, the
animals stop talking in myth.
(3) p.34

In 'A Branch From the Lightning Tree' I call this the movement between the Rhizomic and the Olympian universe.

Coyote is riding a different vibration from those of us dependent on alarm clocks and years planners. He favours the rhizomic universe.The rhizome is a plant root system that grows by accretion rather than any seperate or oppositional means.There is no defined center to the structure, it doesn't relate to any generative model.
We see that the rhizome is de-territorial, that it stands apart from the tree structure that fixes an order, based on radiancy and binary opposition. Trees are organized with universal principles of heirachy and reproduction. We could say that the tree contains the classical,village,Olympian,solar organised model from which we define most of our stage, language and society.The anthropological fixation on world trees as immovable centers in which the Shaman/Coyote ascends or descends to
objectifed territories is actually a blurred picture. This tree, seen through the eyes of an initiate is actually a vast rhizome, pierced through with a million branches and rootes; not stratified realms but alternating degrees of intensity experienced as plateux, interconnected, riddled with gateways. So Coyote or Enkidu as strange heroes are not pulled into dogmatic gestures of the glittering prize.

(4) A Branch From The Lightning Tree, 2009, p125.

I'm a believer in the knotty crossroads between Village and Forest. How do we live in the luminosity of Asgard whilst holding the fractured posture of Coyote? Well it may be worth remembering that Asgard had a Coyote in the form of Loki. When Zeus incubated Dionysus in his own thigh the two universes drank from each other.It's the business of living to exist in this paradox.

Wandering around in the foliage Kane is bored with Olympia and longs for the cackling plateuxs of myths pre-history rather than the affairs of the Feasting Hall.
He's longing for the earth itself to sing, rather than these pompous dieties with the face of men and women. Barthes seems firmly village bound, sipping a frapacinno and feeling pleased with himself:

The meaning of the myth has its own meaning, it belongs to a history..a signification is already built, and could very well be self-sufficient if myth did not take hold of it and did not suddenly turn it into an empty, parasitical form…when it becomes form the meaning leaves its contingency behind; it empties itself, it becomes impoverished, history evapourates, only the letter remains. (6) p. 117

From a rather literal perspective Barthes is writing well here; the oars of his word-boat are causing all kind of linguistic splashes and intellectual tremors, but one suspects he is not such an accomplished diver into the psyche. There is a frantic quality in his arguments that makes us suspect he would do well to jump overboard- allow himself to drown and wake up as a shoe or hawk, rather than an overworked and rather self-conscious brain. What Barthes seems to be associating with myth is what we would today call ‘spin’; the amplification of an image or idea for the manipulation of the Spell maker. He then bemoans the lack of the ‘true’, historic legacy of what that object originally was. We are back to Kanes Fabula, and a fundamental sticking point in approaching myth. Barthes perception, through valuable, is in the role of myth as distortion, un-truth, sly emptier of wholeness.
This is hugely anthropocentric as it places the machinations of human ambition at the center of the myth-world; that the stories are attempts to steer all the cattle into the collective coral, eating the same withered grass.All is horizontal; the metaphorical implications and holy chinks to the Otherworld don’t figure.

'(myth is) abnormal regression from meaning to form, from the linguistic sign to the mythical signifier' (11)Barthes,p 117.

To answer Barthes here: A sign is something that has literal significance placed upon it, a symbol has a far wider web of connotation. A sign denotes, a symbol connotes.When images from the unconscious or from myth are seen as signs only, they have their legs cut from underneath them; their use as psychic guides is redundant. It can only point towards a breakdown of imagination when we intepret a symbol as a sign.

Barthes concretized attack on myth is only effective on a podium in the market square. He criticizes the waves with no idea of the energies that move in their depths. His critique of what he calls myth has a kind of smug intelligence in it, but in my opinion is misguided, even dangerous. Above all it negates the 'web of connotation' into something frozen and manipulative. This points to a cultural misaphrehension; an oddly fundamentalist monologue.
Mythic understanding is subterranean; it lives underneath. A woman who is really a seal, a Dragon obese with conquest, a bridge that is a razored sword; it is inane to suggest these doorways are thin falsehoods; they provide a poetical space for the imagination to flood into. Rather than frozen they are vast-collapsing and refiguring with every consciousness that encounters them.

Barthes states;
What I claim is to live to the full contradiction of my time, which may
well make sarcasm the condition of truth.
(9) Barthes, p. 12

By committing to live in ‘the full contradiction of my time’, he makes his mistake. All storytellers know that two types of time exist. One Barthes knows well-the 24 hours. The shave, the cafĂ©, the deadline; but numinous time is outside the grumblings of the everyday. Myth in its fullness is numinous time pin-pricking through the horizontal, honouring the currency of the shape-shifter generation after generation. Shape-shifer in the sense of its willingness to crumble and reshape to the complex terrain of that generation or individuals consciousness. It doesn’t negate the 24 hours but renegociates its rhymthn; offers a sacrality. It takes us to ‘once upon a time’;the illud tempus, the timeless eternity.Barthes intelligence is rallying against a distorted picture, the best a purely ‘village’ perspective can muster.True mythic influx carries eternity with it.Suddenly we‘have time’-we are nourished.To live in Barthes universe is to walk in irritable boots sheltering under a hungry roof of one-sided intelligencia. It is a joyless language that lacks cock, breast, heart or tail.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

TED HUGHES: Gifts from a Kestrel God


I love Hughes. His face is an offering from some Kestrel God, his shoulders mossy enough for the pony of his sorrow to lie down on.If you'd put him in a shopping mall all the lights would blow at once, the cash tills releasing ground antler-bone in widdershins spirals to all the unmortgaged lunatics. You know what i'm getting at.
He feels a little ungainly, raw and brilliant-like at some point in his adolescence he had a deep experience that none of us are privy to, but sense in his hands and his sticky out hair.
They can be tough though: sometimes his poems feels like atmospheres rather than highly individual from each other (of course there are exceptions.)But that's also what gives the work its real sha-man energy: like unwieldy buckets of sound charging up from the Otherworld. He is reluctant to dandy-fy them too much for the human public, they lack chocolaty hooks but pull us forward into heavy weather rather than settle us back down in the armchair with an easy sigh of consensual recognition.It's interesting to look for younger poets who carry some of that-any names? Please send them over.The energy may have moved disciplines- be living near a painter or in a wolfish street person.
So I'm struggling with 'Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being', Hughes mega-thesis, simply because of my lack of knowledge of the intricacys of the Bards plays. Like 'The White Goddess'(see below) Hughes takes big risks, and applies the kind of leaps his poetry embodies into his ideas. The prose is grounded and juicy;

'in the many examples of the shamanic flight recorded in literature and folklore, the prize can be almost anything-the tongue that cannot lie, a hair from the sun gods beard...but almost always the success is mediated by a woman,who either guides him, or is herself the keeper of the treasure,or is herself the treasure, and returns with him...the problem lies in bringing the prize back into the world. It is as if the prize, the object, the woman,were some image of that Complete Being.When he re-enters the world, human life cannot accept what he brings-his own waking consciouness cannot accept it.'

For anyone studying 'Ivan the Bear's Son' with me at the moment that should be
significant-especially around the betrayal of the three false brothers.I will keep
going with the book, try and tighten up my scant Shakespearian knowledge and will eventually attempt to say something vaguely coherant about his ideas. He is lashing much mythological ruminations around the plays and their development.I don't care if it's true, it's certaintly exciting. Anyone out there read it?

wild nature words:
'All night i rose and fell, as if in water, grappling with a luminous doom. By morning i had vanished at least a dozen times into something better' Mary Oliver;
another great poet; 'i thought the earth remembered me, she took me back so tenderly, arranging her dark skirts, her pockets full of lichen and seeds. I slept as never before, a stone on the riverbed, nothing between me and the white fire of the stars but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths among the branches of the
perfect trees'.


Over here at the School we are celebrating the success of one of our allies, the poet Jay Leeming picking up some poetry enormo-award in the U. S. We are dancing on stumpy tables and shaking bricks of word-sugar into each others tea. Well done Jay, for all those endless hours of ruminating that only the red-shinned hawk sees.

Sometimes when eating an apple
i bite too far
and open the little room
the lovers have prepared,
and the seeds fall
onto the kitchen floor
and i see
that they are tear-shaped.

This is just a taster; he can be panoramic, intimate or just plain witty-he is one of our great jugglers- there are lots of rooms in Leemings Hut.

Run to and buy his book today!


The young men reading Krishnamurti say no
to womanly joys, orioles, wagtails, mud,
Rancid songs, the hair of drowning persons,
Bare ankles, the brandy-breath lost in the cold,
All the glee bandits feel by the ocean.
That's all right, but it's not the whole story.
Krishnamurti himself loved orioles and wagtails,
As well as handsome women and flooded fields.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Tawny Clouds of Thunderous Honey

Well, the school is launched. Thirty of us braved the moorish embrace of Samhain weekend to gather in the old way: to wrestle with the tusks and flowers of the mythworld, sleep under fluttering canvas and by a blazing burner, to see Artemis and Parseval flare up in the startling faces of our fellow companions.'How can i be with you if i am not sad?' ask the Irish and we stayed loyal but not bound to that-much laughter seemed to circle the campfire and catch each teardrop. Thank you to the crew of the camp-Jonny, David, Del, Scott and William-and Joe for being the Ash-Man of the burner.

So i guess this blog (the least sexy and unmythic name i have ever heard)is to hopefully be of use for anyone with an interest in myth, poetry, wild nature and rites-of-passage, whether they are at the School or not they are most welcome.
First up is books for the school bag. Further down is a big list for the real lunatics but here is a tiny condensed one. Off the top of my head and a drop in the ocean-

Laying the Ground:
THE CLASSIC FAIRY TALES Edited by Maria Tatar.
I found it on a rain swept farm in Oregon-Robin Williamson swears by it too. Old school (19th Century)-carries some of the word magic of the traditional storytellers in its linguistic patterns.
GODS/GODDESSES IN EVERY WOMAN/MAN (two separate books) Jean Shinoda Bolen
Essential reading on rites-of-passage; really lifts it from a tribal ritual into the shape of the experience in both our concious and unconcious lives.
CROSSROADS: The Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage
Edited Mahdi, Christopher,Meade
BETWIXT AND BETWEEN: Patterns of Masculine and Feminine Initiation
Edited Mahdi, Foster and Little.
Both full of useful essays and threads to other writers.


THE OTHER WITHIN: the Genius of Deformity in Myth, Culture and Pysche
Daniel Deardorff
Some of you know Danny, he's a long distance faculty member of the school. THE OTHER WITHIN is one of the deepest and most distilled commentaries on 'Trickster Wisdom' that we have. Trickster in its widest context, rather than a commentary on Native American stories.It's a book of great generosity-it contains dozens and dozens of examples of both stories and poetical threads to follow. For my money it also amplifies a train of thought that moves through Eliade, Bringhurst and Bly-namely
'the feral intelligence of the wyrd road'. He tackles this issue well:
'it must be established, therefore, beyond all doubt,that deviance,cunning, trickery, in and of itself, is not enough; for the real fruits and blessings of our cursed asynchrony are the undifferentiated, unprecedented, and hierophanous generations of liminality'.Trickster is no by-word for rip off: it needs a sacred context to flourish.
It is a hard read but offers great rewards-you will come back to it again and again-and benefits from note taking. Hopefully we can get this great scholar and wonderful
human being to come back to teach next year.
As a coherent introduction to the Celtic world this is problematic.It is a thicket of speculation and obscure opinons about things most of us have never thought about.In the introduction he actively encourages you not to read it.THE WHITE GODDESS
is a horse that has escaped from the corrall, a candle lit in a chapel no one visits, a horny wolf in the lecture theatre. It has been attacked by acadamics since its release. However, if you enjoy wildness to actually exist in language and ideas, if you value a writer who's hands are stained with berry juice and cold welsh streams (i.e. he means it), if you arn't going to attempt to turn it into some 12 step easy plan to a 'wild and creative' then you may want to check it out.I think poets are almost always the best writers on myth and i celebrate Graves allowing his 'luna'tic opinions to live in this doomed, resolutely arcane shape. It feels like time in the Magicians hut; as he cuts the air into strange constellations,lots of half successful spells, mice becoming pens, the road home to the rational turning into a small buggy of wanton nuns singing boozy madrigals.

Michael Taussing
Great work on when the shadow and power of the west hits the brujo jungle.

On my own bed table right now is:
PARZIVAL Wolfram Von Eschenbach
DIONYSOS: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life Carl Kerenyi
BASQUIAT: A quick killing in Art Pheobe Hoban
GARY SNYDER: The Real Work-Interviews and Talks 64-79 Edited Scott Maclean
ON THE ROAD Jack Kerouac
Robert Bly's own copy-he left it in my study by accident.
At 81 he was reading it for the first time.After being rude about Kerouac for 40 years he said it was feckin brilliant.

and i am waiting for....

Out of print and coming from Uni of Plymouth.I am predicting wild, unruly brilliance from a great hero of mine.

I just got off the phone with Robin Williamson-he has graciously agreed to teach at the school -on the evening of Feb 27th and all day 28th- 'Tales From the Tuatha de Danann' This will be a serious jump into the Celtic underworld from one of the worlds finest storytellers.More to come..
After a summer of insane levels of work (i just taught 14 days straight in the U.S.) i am settling into an autumn of writing, walking with the girls and trying to do a better job of mopping the kitchen floor. The chicken stew i'm cooking is looking promising though, even if i do say so myself.Time to open a bottle...
I'm revising 'A Branch from the Lightning Tree: Wilderness, Myth and the Life not yet Lived' to include an entirely new final section on longing-drawing ideas from Siberian,Irish and Romanian Gypsy stories.Longing feels so undervalued but so crucial-the working title is 'The Currency of Longing and the Malignancy of Disappointment'.

Signing off with something from the new translations of Olav H. Hauge, 'The Dreams We Carry'

Orion has arrived now in the west, hunting, hunting-
he has not come any farther than i have.
The cherry tree outside my window is naked and black.
the sky is a bell, dizzingly blue, where the hard
fingernail of the new moon is making scratches.

Martin x