Winter Storytelling festival on Friday 3rd and Saturday 4th February 2012 at The South Devon Steiner School.
Hey, something great is coming up. A winter storytelling festival, partially a benefit for the WOOD SISTERS - feisty souled storytelling women from down here in the Westcountry. And what a line up: possibly England's most happening poet Alice Oswald, storytelling laureate Katrice Horsley, Chris Salisbury, Tarte Noir, Rebecca Smart, Sarah Hurley, Clive Fairweather, and many other wonderful storytelling, dancing, meditating wonders to be discovered. I am lucky enough to know many of the storytellers on the fliers list (get to see these woman asap) and i say huzzah and right on to the sisters in their enormous effort to construct a red tent for all kinds of spiritual and earthy concerns that i can only guess at. So, a perfect reviver in this dog end of winter. The School of Myth will take a night out from our 'Tasting the Milk of Eagles' weekend to come down on the saturday night where i will be telling the story that helped inspire their good works.
So, in honour and praise of the sisters, some new writing on the sometimes sticky business of the feminine in story - and how far one goes in taking on old ideas of what those phrases masculine and feminine are really about. This is just a tiny segment and so leaves most of that question untouched - it really is just a taster.
The story begins with a king to the east sending a courtier to a women in the west to request a possible marriage....
THE APPLE HEAVY WEST
In many myths there is a woman far to the west, or a woman that lives at the very edge of the world. She is beyond the set up of the sovereigns kingdom, she is an untamed, ecstatic being, but also has a Queenly bearing – her standing outside of the normal boundaries make her appear wild, but her relationship to the mysteries ensures that her crown also carries moon silver and goldenish licks from the Sun Dragon. She is a match. Just the knowledge that a woman like that exists will send the normally staid king utterly crazy with longing.
So the King sends the courtier west. The sovereign within us sets the intention and we, with all our frailties, follow the impulse. The woman is not always about a physical, earthy relationship – much of the emergent 12th century beliefs of courtly love were that they actually needed to stay at a slight distance – it was distance, not erotic fulfilment – that transfigured the attraction up into delirious states of heavenly spirituality. The woman at the edge of the world, what they called ‘the far distant lady’, was a portal to elevated consciousness. A honing of eros into amor.
Equality did not come into it. The woman had to be of a superior rank to the adorer, and so a husband could not cut it. As it was, the marriage already represented an economic and pragmatic situation as so was hardly the ideal setting for the highly charged, adulterous spiritual reckoning that was the longed for pleasure. Certainly in rural France there was still occasional accounts of worship of forest goddesses, and their images lived on in the oral line of storytelling. These ‘far distant ladies’ were not as sexless as the image of Mary, but none the less, served a tricky negotiation between spiritual figure and flesh and blood woman. For many courtly liasons this remained a tense game of poetics and manners, whilst others of course took it a little further, with discreet meetings in hay barns and loving abandon under the willow tree.
A problem for many of us in the notion of ‘the far distant lady’ is passivity; does she sit immobile, valued only for external beauty, whilst all the real adventure is had by the men beating a track to their door? There is a kind of dishing out of roles and expectations that no longer feel appropriate to either women or men. And beauty as the sole source of power? That is a swift route to misery for any women, and just what most main stream media bleats daily. At the same time, is not Elfida’s very receptivity and stillness a vastly needed energy in the world now?
There were of course the Trobaritz, female troubadours scattered over the south. Although there were only a few of them, their poems are earthy, gossipy, imaginative and defiant. Seeing the School of Love through their words paints a rather more dynamic, less celestial scene. Recall Garsenda De Forcalquier;
You’re so well-suited as a lover,
I wish you wouldn’t be so hesitant;
But I’m glad my love makes you the penitent,
Otherwise I’d be the one to suffer.
They seem to watching their backs rather well, and are not the mummified archetypes of male fantasy, but real women enjoying the intrigues and intensities of the role. But still, the role seems confined to those of a youthful and pretty visage.
Whilst a celebration of an aspect of the feminine is be praised over a blanket repression, the feeling none the less remains that maybe that very image itself is inauthentic to a woman’s wider personality. Luckily myth is poly rather than mono, and the search is on for a wider remit of image. It could be dangerous to regard the feminine as ‘other’, just another trick by beardy saboteurs to ostracise and exoticise the experience of being a woman. A woman would have to feel deep into her own nature to get a sense of the truth in that. I know women that seem exhausted, utterly closed to the natural world, rage filled, finger wagging, statistic obsessed - what is the archetype for their disposition? Or the many men in a very similar position, weighed down with a kind of Hercules complex. Of course, both indicate a falling away from psychic health, a disconnect from the renewal that myth and wilderness can offer.
Of course, the language of the sensitive male ‘discovering his feminine side’, is everywhere, and a prime technique for attempting to convincing a woman that you are worthy candidate for sex. Many men are now wonderfully adept at expressing emotion entirely from what they envisage is the ‘feminine side’. This is sometimes a combination of seduction technique and a stunted repression around male emotion that we are all familiar with. If you haven’t witnessed it (mature male feeling), then how do you model it? I recall leading a workshop in Ithaca, New York, with the poet Jay Leeming, as a man claimed that his testicles were really little ‘wombs’. The women present were appalled at this handing over his last remaining shred of maleness, and my own response is not appropriate for the confines of this book.
Who say’s what is an ‘inner-feminine or masculine?’ Is there even a particle of energy left in such a phrase? Why is a man drawing on the feminine if he want to sit quietly in a forest? As a writer you are always looking for where energy crests in language and where it dips, but there appears to be a simple flatline around this. I will occasionally use something approaching that thinking, but I would hope it comes from a sense of life experience not linguistic redundancy.
Rigid clinging to beliefs about men and women’s nature is dangerous, even from the guru Jung himself – a genius with some weak spots in this area. The whole area is far more mutable than it appeared fifty years ago. That said, as a lover of the old stories I suggest that they know things that we do not. They were not all devised in the nineteenth century as devices to imprison and control. Some images, especially troubling ones, are there to convey in image things we may rather not want to look at. To much reliance on myth criticism pushes us to far into analysis and history rather than the lively wisdom’s of the story itself. That we try and constantly interpret the story from the human politics of the history it first arrived in rather than witnessing its changing evolution. So we tread carefully, don’t make too many assumptions but enjoying entertaining possibilities.
To psychologise an experience is to potentially un-lock or see through it, to reduce its hysteria and to give it clarity. To mythologise it is to suggest radiant, un-human energies stand behind that experience as well. The Fates loiter nearby, not just the absent father and difficult childhood. Both are useful at different times. Mythology would suggest that there are certain biological, ontological and supernatural factors within what we call masculine and feminine, as well as possible social instruction, terror of otherness, just plain old patriarchy?
Two thoughts arise at this point:
1. That the call to a deeper life that this woman embodies is becoming a rarer and rarer phenomenon. That many do not travel west, or to the edge of the world, or inwards under a summering oak to mingle with the sensual life she awakens. Sensual does not have to mean sexual. In a world of increased brutality, overwork and ever present distractions, we can be made to believe that the only place for sensuality is in the bedroom. Porn wrecks the emotional infrastructure that is sensitised to an electrical storm, or the flank of a horse, or the pert mounds of an Irish hillside. It wrecks the poet.
So these troubadour links to the sufferings of longing having a religious sensibility tied up with the body of a woman, are a very subtle frequency for most of us these days. So much of the psyche is in exile that we lack the heightened inner-vocabulary to make the journey west.
2. That the image of the woman herself could feel one dimensional, contrived. Where are the hoofed, foul breathed, bad tempered, bloodied thigh dimensions of this character? We know that we don’t have to go far within mythology to meet the terrifying characters of Kali and Yaga, who have no wan young men with lutes serenading them at dusk, rather a bone-pile of clumsy humans surrounding them in steamy piles. The phrase ‘juicy’ that is often used for characters like these is very naïve. Loaded, potent, vast, terrible, maybe better.
The woman at the edge of the world is not really about a human women, and that very lack of roundedness is what makes this a myth, not a novel. Roundedness is what they call ‘characterisation’. It’s what makes certain folks relatable. The myth teller has to walk a line between sensing who within a story holds that roundedness, and who is almost elemental in nature. Elfrida is a radiance, a woman of flowers, some say the soul itself. It would be a good discipline for both men and women reading mythology to not try and cram every scene and character into the human experience. It is a way in – as this book illustrates – but contains many shaded areas that are really for the inhabiting of the invisible world. The stories are not just for us.
I have met many women recently who have simply given up on second hand Jungian archetypes, or inherited notions from books about who or what defines these impulses that move through them. They have chosen a more experiential route. The labour of a craft, relationship to wilderness, handling a business, raising red faced and troubled kids, attention to dreams, delight in making clothes, unconventional lovers, bizarre and un-harmonious opinions, suddenly leaving the idyllic country for a big city.
In other words, they don’t rely on the passivity of received opinion but let the energies that want to speak in their lives arise and be witnessed. The longing for the symbolic world, to reach out towards the curling wave and the lovers call in the nightingale’s song is not a patriarchal trap: it is a call to being a full human being. The key is to find the true resonance of this symbolic world, not just vague platitudes. A life without it can be opening a door to dis-connection, cynicism, even despair.
The emergence of a healthier, more visible, femininity is, unfortunately, a very recent event. I would imagine several decades of feeling our way into an embodied rather than an entirely conceptual sense of feminine and masculine is the right order of things. I know many younger women who are going deeper into their own mysteries, and men also. But their eyes are open: they are neither swallowing wholesale mainstream or cultish dictates about what defines them. They, like the characters in these stories, are on a journey, and will pick up the signs and boons as they go. They may well settle deep into the part of themselves that is indeed in love with distance, ecstasies, the moon – that is indeed a cosmos, indeed connected to the Woman at the Edge of The World, but the thread they hold comes belly deep, from the knowing that comes with the journey.
Copyright Martin Shaw 2012