Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Libation at the Knotted Temples of the Wild, Old Gods that Live in the Brightening Darkness of Our Curious Chests

Bly has been asking for thoughts about authentic leadership in anticipation of this september's telling of IRON JOHN with Daniel Deardorff, Robert and myself. Luckily tucked away in 'Lightning Tree' is a lengthy chapter on just that issue-so i enclose a small section of the chapter here.

In the myth world Apollo is a example of a young leader society could still just about swallow. Seen in Greece as the God of the Sun, he strides about, instructing us; "Nothing in excess." His name has associations of brightness, purity, the whiteness of swan’s wings, advancement of medicines and the laying down of laws. He also rides the approval of his father Zeus, he is the favourite son. A player of the Lyre, his music was perceived to calm the most ferocious beast, to transform wildness into a passive and benign state. Every botched business decision, ecological crisis, messy break up he experiences is viewed from a cryptic distance, his feathers never get caught in the tricky glue of emotion. He is corporate man, par excellence; lacking the terrifying swings of Zeus’s temperament he remains in control, early to bed, early to rise. His love of logic and clarity are presented to us as soon as we enter nursery or primary education as a defining way of being in the world. Universities, media and industry are fuelled by a hundred million little versions of this energy field. When you imagine his face, what can you see? I see a kind of glowing and cheekbones.
When we think about Jung’s words; "Man doesn't become enlightened by imagining figures of light but by making the darkness conscious" we become grateful there are other gods in the Greek pantheon. That our psyche is more free ranging and obtuse than just this one model. The problem is though, has anyone told society at large? The characteristics of a person under the thrall of Hermes will almost always be perceived as muddy, unclear and morally to the impersonal rays of Apollo. Like a kind of mythic robocop they are enforcers of a senatorial consciousness received from their fathers. Firmly in the Descartian camp (as much as a god can be!) they can make decisions of ecological havoc. Some gods originate from beneath the soil, but not this one.
Culturally we like to see our artists (from a distance) as disciples of a very different god, Dionysus. What do we know of this character, and why is he associated with the creative spirit? Dionysus is another son of Zeus, but is cantering through rain washed valleys whilst Apollo flies overhead. At first glance, he seems almost diametrically opposed to Apollo. He is associated with the inebriation of wine, the rupture of mystical experience, the timelessness of lovemaking and spasmodic, crazed, passionate outbursts. We know at the point of his mother Selebe's death, Zeus tore Dionysus from her womb and sewed him into his own thigh, where he grew till birth. This strange, auspicious incubation points to a kind of unexpected nurture on the part of Zeus, as if such a bizarre thunderbolt could not be born in a natural way. A fascinating thought is that the name Dionysus may mean 'Zeus Limp'-his wounded aspect manifested in this particular son.
Unlike Apollo he is non-competitive, and in his world travels leads a trail associated with both murder and ecstasy. He feels dangerous, conflicted, sexy and loose. Whilst uninterested in the clear path of responsibility, his personality allows him to access deeply odd emotional pathways, to have a psychic life, to create music, ritual, art, and even to break new ground in these mediums. This relationship to the muse can offer fame as a side dish.
The titillation of such a personality for mainstream society is for them to act out all the barely accessed desirous inclinations of our hidden selves. We are thrilled/horrified by their behavior, the lack of boundaries, the outlandish music, the two fingered salute to convention. If talent is recognized and success arrives, the individual can incinerate quickly. We walk past an apartment party and see Joplin, Cobain and Dean sharing Brandy Schnapps as the block burns.
So, two extremes. From a negative perspective Apollo seems rigid, one dimensional, uneasy with anything fluid or subtle. On the other hand, Dionysus can appear like a lunatic dervish, chaotic and lacking form.
Hidden in the folds of Apollo’s wings we find a key. For three months a year, at his temple in Thebes, Apollo would turn it over to the worship of Dionysus. Astoundingly, these two seemingly opposite, right brain/left brain forces were honored in the same vicinity.

We know we aren’t gods but could we be a temple?

James Hillman enjoys the phrase "Divine influxes" , to describe the winged forces that sweep through us but are not purely contained by us. We need to identify the gods and goddesses visiting and build an appropriate container for their appearences. It is a very contemporary arrogance that you can pick and choose them. In the case of these two there seems to be a mutual recognition of the benefit of the other. In fact in this discussion about age and leadership we see that to aspire to both longevity and creativity then both have to be present. Without Apollo’s focus and long term direction then the purely Dionysian individual risks addiction and early death. Without Dionysus, one can feel distant from the pulsing heart of life, successful but dry.

We note that artists famed for their wild bursts of inspiration often served steady apprenticeships as draftsman or illustrators for years- Willem De Kooning and Franze Kline amongst them. To break from form they first had to explicitly understand it. It feels appropriate to also be looking at characters that have allowed Apollo’s discipline to sustain their vocation for decades, honing and amplifying it. A very different model from the late twenties burn out.
Antoni Tapies and Cy Twombly, to name but two, are turning out the most vibrant work of their career in their seventies and eighties. Their temples appear to have been built slowly, with both granite foundations and delicate little chambers ready to accommodate any peculiar bird song they may awake to. To brand them purely as Dionysus’s children is too sweeping. The kind of wildness they present, that an elder presents, is not the crazy sweeps of a double-headed axe but the lyrical steps of the capowera dancer.
It is the repetitive handling of strong energies and abiding in the thrumming, dichotomous tensions the two headed temple creates that is the very backbone that guides you through the decades. Age is partially defined by limits, by accountability, but we should not bend the back so far that we can't see the stars.

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