Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Art of Walking (2 November 2014)


"In its mixture of direct physical engagement and relaxed, aesthetic awareness, the walk serves as an ideal vehicle for the poet who wishes to evoke the world in both its seductive beauty and its obstinate solidity.’ (20)
‑ Roger Gilbert Walks in the World (1991)
As I walker I saunter in my thinking and think when I am out and about on two feet.  Never mind the four-wheeled conveyances; when I can walk-about, I do.  And it never ceases to amaze me how many people do not know how to walk.

Walking is not just a matter of ‘getting somewhere.’  Of course you can use your two legs to do that; go places on your two feet as an alternative to taking a car, bus or plane.  But the art of walking involves much more than that; it embraces, first of all, a spirit of openness to the way and then, simultaneously, a resolve to let the saunter itself be worthwhile.  The art of walking is about experiencing yourself in the context that opens up around you as you are going on your way, however chosen.

A true walk need have no destination; though a ‘place to go’ doesn’t necessarily ruin a good walk, well taken.  Getting up to go somewhere interesting; perhaps out to the duck blind by the lake or down to the dam at the back end of a local park, a walk often begins with a desire simply ‘to go’ – and not just for some merely useful reason.  I can walk to the store, and I can walk to work, and enjoy both—but a good walk is one where there is hope of something interesting; either along the way or at the desired end-point—whether or not one reaches that end!

The urge to ‘get up and go’ is the initiation of most genuine walks, though you can find yourself on a good walk for other reasons.  There are many ways to find oneself “gone rambling,” as one old rune puts it.  Sometimes a needed errand takes you to a place where a potential walk presents itself; a saunter off on a trail nearby or down a lonesome road—just to see what might be there.  At other times, going out for exercise (i.e., taking yourself for a walk rather than your pet) leads on to an excursion that was unplanned and unexpected in its direction, leading to bodily and mental pleasures unanticipated and even undreamt of – at least before you found yourself up and walking off hither or thither.

The Art of Walking is a spiritual discipline, in that it empowers us to slough off the burdens of the day, the week, or the condition in which we presently find ourselves, and open actual, physical vistas that metaphor the varied possibilities that are always presenting themselves at our doorstep; if we could but ‘see’ them_ and realize their potential indicators.  To walk well is to be able to just go; not irresponsibly (i.e., not abandoning what needs done or what we must do) but with a deep sense of opening to the world and thus to ourselves as manifestations of the world on the way.

We exercise too much; we ‘go for walks’ to lower our cholesterol and get in shape, but we do not let ourselves really walk.  We are on a leash that is self-imposed and that we are unwilling to relinquish, at least most of the time. 

To nurture the art of walking is to allow ourselves time to just saunter; to amble about and ramble here and there, preferably beyond the bounds of our usual daily rounds.  If we learn this art, we may get ‘in shape’ as the fitness gurus would call it; but we will reap a much richer reward than we will if we are just taking ourselves out for a walk around the block.  “Well, I’ve got to go out and do my steps, now,” I’ve heard people say.  And then they dutifully go for their ‘walk,’ often coming back feeling drained or tired or just bored; ready to do ‘something else’—anything else.  At best, they feel they have ‘done their duty’ for the day!  _And how sad is that?

If you walk well, though, and practice walking as a spiritual discipline, you will learn to love the ramble and the amble; the occasional jaunt that was unplanned and unexpected, as well as the regular walk taken to heighten the senses and unburden yourself of stress and the needless fixation on daily obsessions.  Good walking un-stresses the body and promotes healthy breathing.  It encourages a natural rhythm and ‘gets the blood flowing.’  And if you walk well, you will probably have more experiences worth remembering than if you just ‘take your body out for a walk.’

Good walking promotes devout thinking as well.  I cannot count the times when, out for a walk, trying to overcome the lethargy that stems from too much work or being too busy, my mind has suddenly ‘come on’ (or so it seemed) and an interesting idea occurred to me that I then thought actively about as I continued my walk.  Good walking and good philosophy go hand in hand.  Philosophers have often been walkers; to walk meditatively stimulates the mind and frees it of its ordinary channels.

The art of walking is also conducive to the writing of poetry, as the rhythm of the walk can inspire the cadence of lines that then may be crafted into verse and become a poem.  A good number of my best poems have been conceived and worked out while out on a particularly inspiring walk.

A walk is also a good time for thoughtful talks, working out problems and discussing our spiritual directions with another devoted saunterer.  The movement of the walk – when well taken – seems to inspire in people an existential kind of movement.  Whereas we can become like a blocked waterway when sitting or working, walking opens the watercourses of the soul, launching us into flux & flow, wherein we may find it easier to work though conundrums and problems, our thoughts becoming mobile within the movement of the walk, our emotions bathed and comforted by experiencing the scenes through which we pass as we amble on.  The movement and the sensory impressions can often inspire new insights into our dilemmas and new possibilities of interpretation.

As we move into late Autumn – that season called by the Celts “An dudlach” (The Gloom), walk as you will, freely as you may, and nurture in yourself the delight in ambling about that can liberate the earthen soul from what oppresses it.  Walk responsibly; walk creatively.  Walk often; and you will get the exercise you need; but also much more.  The Earth is a House of Wonders; even still—if you know where to look, and make the time to go ambling there.  I urge you to learn the freedom that the body and mind can find in the way of disciplined wandering.

“The most beautiful thing in the world is, of course, the world itself.”
‑ Wallace Stevens  Adagia (1957)

Friday, October 31, 2014

Re-Treading the Lonesome Way (31 October 2014)

[31 October 2014]
Wandering the Lonesome Way
with trees, birds and Goddess_
I find the paths within that stir
my heathen fur, and break stress
down the back_ opening into Fay
the Mind that lists and will sway
at Her revelations_  I halt!

Standing in open wood stations
near the Cromlech of the Self_
imbibing revelations as I play
In the sandbox of Becoming_
there on the lonesome track,
standing
like an Elf in the quay, where
abandonment proceeds joy …  I wait!

She-Who-Is strides on ahead,
Her feet leaving tracks for us
to follow_
I can smell her perfumed hair
and so, desiring Art, I forge onward—
into the Future – Her Time –
seeking the scented sequins
that are the signs of Her
having just been Here!       _I revel!

Pathing along the Riverbed Way
With swans, snakes and deer_
I have lost Her within the signs
of the Wellworn Path
where She now tarries_
talking with the Faeries who sing
to bring Her my supper supplication_
And I swoon.

Journeying toward Her Hidden Lair
I gasp in the breaking air_
Poetic magick taking me down the lane
where by broken cane
She will soon repair
all that I have hastily forsaken.
Time is the Oath in which I stride,
with a new spiritual mead
to imbibe_ I soar!
Nema!

[An imaginary encounter in the vestibule  of Samhain; a poetic communion with Goddess and self; a playful imagining at the turnstiles of vocation and aesthetic devotion.  So mote it be]

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Naturalist’s Nemeton (15 October 2014)



“To assign attributes to Mystery is to disenchant it, to take away its luminance.” (12)
“Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe.” (13)
“Life can be explained by its underlying chemistry, just as chemistry can be explained by its underlying physics.” (28)
- Ursula Goodenough The Sacred Depths of Nature (1998)

I have been out in the woods this afternoon, walking up trails and down in the multi-coloured, multi-faceted world of Autumn, taking a break after work before coming home.  Sojourning at a bird blind near a local lake, I fell into meditation, struck – nearly stunned – by the sudden beauty of the broad scenes and vivid particular scenarios all around me that had impressed themselves on me as I sauntered, paganing along in mused mind.

At the blind, listening to the geese and ducks landing and taking off, skimming; virtually 'skiing' – across the mist covered lake, I fell into meditation and found myself reflecting intensely on the poetics of Nature; thinking about how our meaning-generating consciousness facilitates our engagement with the natural world, as well as how our imagination enhances and deepens our experiences, aiding in our interpretation of the natural world.

The bird blind – a small single room on stilts at the edge of the lake, intended to aid in bird-watching – is like a nemeton to me; a 'scenario' with spiritual and philosophical implications, where I stop and meditate, center myself, and then think in devout ways—along paths of the mind tending toward potentially revelatory vistas.  Sitting there this afternoon, secluded yet out in the openness of the woods, hearing the sound of the lake grasses rustling just outside the little structure, I felt myself to be at the center of a vista that spoke clearly of the relationship between poetics and Nature, between the imagined and the empirical; the 'Given.'

We are meaning generating animals, as I have said before_

Much of the content of what is called spirituality is concerned with assembling the icons, symbols, stories, metaphors and insights that will allow the spiritual practitioner to experience meaning in the context where they 'wake up' and find themselves.  ['Awakening' seems to me one of the primal themes of any genuine spirituality]  As a naturalist and a poet who is attempting to live a 'spiritual' life, I experience myself as a part of the universe, a resident of a particular planet, and as dwelling—sojourning—living in a specific ecosystem; i.e., western Pennsylvania, on the Allegheny Plateau.  As such, it is here that I gather my symbols, icons, and so forth—bringing them together into a pattern that suggests a humane practice of life; living life to the fullest—taking life by the shanks and giving it a good shake (as one of my characters once put it).

Nature is the house of dwelling.  All human culture subsists within Nature and requires Nature for its continuance.  _This is a basic truth that is substantiated by science.  As Goodenough says, Nature is “a strange, but wondrous given.” (12).   We know that if the natural world perishes, so will we; for we are part of it, and there is no way to live "outside of Nature," as so many 'un-earthing' religions have convinced their adherents to believe.  Rather, we subsist and thrive to the extent that the planetary ecosystems in which our species has evolved continue to exist.  If the Earth changes too much, we may find ourselves living much less well, struggling much more for basic subsistence, and possibly even going extinct.

It is always with this in mind that I attempt to wax poetic about Nature and natural vistas, scenes and experiences; especially those that drive me toward joy, ecstasy and self-transcendence.  As the Earth's climate changes and as our population continues to grow, putting even more pressure on the ecosystems on which we depend, our environments will no doubt become less 'friendly.'  Thus, when I find myself basking in the warmth of the day or reveling in the beauteous views that I imbibe as I walk, meditatively and with a passion for discovery and understanding, through the woods—I am both thankful that we are still living well enough and also saddened that this "comfort zone" in which we have thrived for the last few tens of thousands of years may be disappearing.

It is at a place like the bird blind – a Naturalist's Nemeton – that I can reflect most powerfully on this conundrum.  There, I sit in a structure created by human hands and craft, hidden – by the color of its exterior walls – in amongst honeysuckle bushes and cattails, experiencing both an interface with the natural environment as well as a modest comfort zone in which I am somewhat shielded from the elements.  I can go there in rain and snow and wind, as well as on more 'pleasant' days (though, for a naturalist, rain and snow and wind, etc., are not deterrents to a walk in the woods; we are not fair-weather lovers of Nature).

The bird blind as a nemeton makes me wonder_

Is it possible that we in the West can pull back, and dwell less intrusively in Nature—before it’s too late?  Can we think of Nature more as our Home, than as someplace to 'colonize,' 'take over,' 'develop,' and thus 'eradicate?'  Can we develop a spirituality – a naturalistic, earthen praxis – in which Nature is the source of our awe and the touchstone of our sensed meaning?  If we can't, perhaps our species is more or less doomed; we will so ruin our environment – if we haven't already done so – that our survival in the future will become much more harsh if not impossible to maintain.  But if we can, then perhaps we will leave room for those in the world who are still living in poverty to establish a standard of living that will be sustainable for centuries to come—and life, for us all, might get better over time.  If it's not already too late already.

We need a sustainable way of life on this planet; for everyone and not just for those of us in the West.  Meditating at Natural Nemetons like the bird blind is helping me to reflect on what that lifestyle might be like.  Perhaps finding a place like this might help you, too, to reflect on our place in Nature.

"Where is the literature which gives expression to Nature?"
- Henry David Thoreau Walden (1854)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Ham-Farir: “In Consequence of Haunted Lives” (21 September 2014)

"Whenever I think that the time for horror and terror has passed; and that I should write no more—I reflect back on those stories we were told about the Dier, and I tremble."
-        Daniel Westforth Whittier (from the Preface to The Faring, 2008)

Autumn has always been a time, for me, of poetic experience and the telling of strange tales.  Hauntings, stories of the macabre and the grotesque, ghosts and vampires and – more recently – zombies, seem to come to life for me especially in the autumn of the year, when the growing season is passing, the leaves are turning and we are heading into the darkening days that lead us on to the trailhead of winter.  Over the years I’ve brought forth some of my own stories of hauntings, ghosts and monsters--one can hardly help it when the weather is right and the mood is misted, sullen and shadow-shrouded!  As I said in blogs last year dealing with the work of Stephen King and H. P. Lovecraft, I have always been enamored of horror.

Over the years my own haunted tales came together in narrative orbit around a family I came to call “The Dier.”  Their story was finally brought forth in a novel – Ham-Farir: The Faring of Matthew Thorin Dier (AuthorHouse, 2008); a 'big' story in which I was able to range over three human generations and encompass the experiences of three main groups of characters, each of which was engaged with strange experiences and mysteries surrounding "The Dier," and that eventually came together for a final 'event.'

There are a lot of characters in this story and a whole fictional world in which they live and breathe and have their being-in-becoming.  I love stories about family history, history in general, and especially the interaction of characters with different approaches to life.  The characters in this novel are writers, musicians, gamers (RPG and board game enthusiasts) and historians.  There are Naturalists with a literary approach to life, Witches and Celtic Christians all interacting with one another.  Bringing all of these people together and having them cooperate to tell a big story about experiences they have shared is part of what made the novel interesting for me to write. 

The novel is a series of stories told by those who have undergone an ordeal.  It is not – except in the middle volume – a story told in present time.  It is not an action/gorefest.  It is a reflective set of stories attempting to render out the meaning of strange events.  The present time of the story as told is a year earlier than the telling.

The novel deals with the consequences of extraordinary and extreme experiences; something that I don't find many horror, terror or weird tales doing; which mostly tend to end after the climax of the 'action'--leaving the survivors to deal with what they have experienced; as if there is no more story to be told about them.  But real people have to deal with the consequences of traumatic, destructive and life-changing events.  In Ham-Farir, the characters are attempting to handle loss, tragedy and strangeness by coming to some understanding of the history, fate and nature of the Dier.  They do this by telling their stories to a horror novelist.

The novel – published in 3 volumes – records the storytelling sessions at Whispering Eaves -- the home of the novelist Daniel Westforth Whittier in June and July of 2004.  In Volume I[i] participants tell their stories of what had happened to draw each of the three groups of friends into the sphere of influence of the family known as "the Dier." Volume II[ii] relates what happened at a house in Milvale, PA in 1989 and is called "The Strange Haunting of Mary Igraine Whittier."  It ends with an account of events that took place on or around Deer Hill in the 1990’s that the storytellers link to the haunting in 1989 and also to the fate of the Dier.  In Volume III,[iii] the survivors of their experience in a town called Smithton, PA relate what happened to them leading up to the final extra-ordinary event at an old abandoned farmhouse in October 2003.
  
The whole novel occurs because of what happened “in consequence of haunted lives,” as Daniel Westforth Whittier put it in his own novel describing the events (The Faring, 2008). As I love telling stories about the Dier and the Whittiers -- the central family in my poetic geography of Ross County, PA -- and as we are in the eaves of the Autumnwood; I am inspired to outline the general 'facts' behind the novel.  I used to tell the stories of the Dier to friends, and tonight this blog is going to substitute for sitting around a fire, a stone circle or an old well or ruined rustic house and telling my tales to friends!  Would you be my audience for a few minutes?  Perhaps I may entice you into reading the novel!

So, let me begin_

Back in the summer of 2004, three groups of friends got together to share their experiences of an ordeal that had changed their lives forever. Their intent was to tell what had happened to them to a horror novelist – Daniel Westforth Whittier[iv] – and see if he could help them make sense of what they had gone through.

Why choose a horror novelist? Because the things they had experienced went well beyond the generally accepted limits of ordinary experience, and took them into a realm where they became more and more unsure of the reality behind their experiences.  "Do we really know what happened to us?" they would ask one another after long evenings of trying to make sense of it!

What they had experienced took place over the summer and into the autumn of 2003, culminating in an extra-ordinary event on 9 October 2003 at an abandoned farmhouse in the woods NE of Tannersville, PA.[v]  The events leading up to that final experience had unfolded in such a way as to divide two of the groups of friends and put them more or less at odds.

The three groups of friends came together at Whispering Eaves; the home of Daniel Westforth Whittier and his family—on Deer Hill, a “prominent hogback” south of Wickersfeld, PA.  The storytelling was arranged by Geoffrey Whittier[vi] as a series of sessions in which different groups of people or individuals would tell parts of the overall story over the course of several days.  It would take weeks to finish the telling!  The participants had been getting together with Geoffrey for months, laying out the ‘plot’ of the story as they understood it, which would take them back to the 1880’s, when the family called “The Dier” (“pronounced just like ‘deer’ but spelled D-I-E-R,” as Charlie MacClanahan was fond of saying) first came to Ross County.

The Dier had dwelt in Ross County for a decade and later came to play a major role in local folklore.  Stories were told especially about Matthew and “Mad Mary,” his wife; any strange event would be attributed to them—even long after they would have certainly been dead.

In the mid 1890's, the Whittiers built a house on Deer Hill, on the very property where the farmhouse in which the Dier had lived had stood.  The house belonging to the Dier had burned to the ground in 1890 and the Whittiers, wanting to move to more modest and rustic housing (they had lived for half a century in a mansion their predecessors had built in the early 19th century), chose Deer Hill as an ‘idyllic’ location where they might re-settle themselves and also “redeem the land” around which so many tragic events seem to have swirled.  The family known as the Dier had been at the center of controversy surrounding a number of murders, thefts and fires which had plagued the area for a decade.

The Whittiers lived on Deer Hill for 50 years, until their own house burned in a fire in October of 1949.  Those who grew up there had all heard stories of the ‘infamous’ Dier and especially of “Matthew and Mad Mary.”  Matthew Dier’s remains had not been found in the burned out house in 1889.  His wife Mary had fled into the woods a couple of years earlier, and gone mad, never being reunited with her family.  No one ever knew what finally happened to her, though for years she was sighted here and there around the Wickersfeld area, “feral in the woods,” as Jonathan Whittier once lamented of her.  She was never captured, and after the fire in 1890; local superstition presumed that Matthew had gone to ‘live’ with his mad wife in the woods.  Hence the stories of “Matthew and Mad Mary.”

All of this was just local folklore and century old local history until the events of 2003, which re-opened the questions “Who were the Dier?” “Where did they come from?” and “What happened to them?”  The last question had kept many people guessing over the course of a century.

The Whittiers returned to Dier Hill in the 1980’s.  At the beginning of their “Reunion,” Geoffrey began collecting stories about life at the first Whittier House from those still surviving who had grown up and dwelt there.  As he did so, he began hearing about ‘the Dier” as well.  He collected all of the family remembrances – excepting the tales of the Dier – into a family history, and also wrote a series of stories centering upon the Thirteen Days of Yule; a calendar for which the Whittiers are famous.  Over the years that followed, he mulled over the stories of the Dier, becoming fascinated with them.  Who were they?  What happened to them?

Then, in 1989, Geoffrey, his cousin Edward and two of their friends from Wickersfeld College got involved in what came to be known as “The Strange Haunting of Mary Igraine Whittier.”  The events of that summer revolved around a couple of trunks that had belonged to the Dier and that had been in the possession of the Whittiers since 1890.  They had survived the conflagration that destroyed the Dier House, and Jonathan Whittier thought that they should be preserved, “in case any member of the family should still be found to exist.”  No Dier ever turned up to claim them.  The trunks passed down in the family until they came into Mary Igraine's keeping.

After the events of October 2003, the groups involved in the ordeal naturally turned to Geoffrey – the official historian/storyteller of the Whittier family – to help them sort out and make sense of what had happened to them.  It was his suggestion that perhaps they should all tell their stories to Daniel Westforth, the horror novelist.

When Daniel was approached about hearing the stories Geoffrey and his friends had to tell, he was intrigued because, growing up at the original Whittier House in the 1940’s before the fire, he'd heard many weird tales about the family known as the Dier.   He also knew that some members of his own family had had strange encounters in the early 20th century somehow connected to the unfortunate family and that a couple – including his cousin Mary Igraine – had long seemed haunted by tales of the Dier.  He also knew that Geoffrey and Edward had had some kind of ‘encounter’ at Mary Igraine’s house in 1989 “involving those darned trunks” and had always wondered what had happened over there in Milvale.

Consequently, in June of 2004 Daniel and his wife Rosalind hosted the storytelling sessions that unfolded and laid bare, once and for all, the history, nature and fate of the Dier.  Want to know more?  This is the story told in my novel, Ham-Farir: The Faring of Matthew Thorin Dier (Authorhouse, 2008).

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A First Principle of Naturalism (21 June 2014)


“The wildness we all need to live, grow and define ourselves is alive and well, and its glorious laws are all around.” (8)

-        Robert B. Laughlin
A Different Universe (2005)

“We have all grown out of the geological landscape, and perhaps unconsciously we still relate to it.” (367)
-        Richard Fortey
Earth: An Intimate History (2004)

Hiking along one of the rails-to-trails projects recently, my mind came alert and I found myself engaged in an internal conversation with myself as I walked along.

At first, as my mind 'woke up' (becoming unshackled from the torpor of the ordinary round of daily affairs), I was simply reveling in the luxuriant beauty of the season, as we move into High Summer; the leaves waxing a darker green and the Hawkweeds, Common Mullein and Black Snakeroots coming into bloom.  Then, however, my mind waxed toward the love of wisdom, and I heard an internal interlocutor – as I imagined him – asking about where any well thought-out ‘spiritual’ approach to Naturalism begins – i.e., with what 'presuppositions' it starts.  I then ‘heard’ him proposing that “a ‘spiritual’ Naturalism must begin with the denial of supernaturalism, right?”

I was struck by this and immediately realized that this is not the first tenet of a spiritual Naturalism!  A naturalist – as I imagine him or her – strives to start out with as few presuppositions as possible; not coloring their experience and study of Nature with an assumption that is not only not provable but also – and this is just as important – the equivalent of putting on blinders.

A Naturalist studies Nature, loves Nature, and is engaged with Nature
on a number of levels.

You don't want to cloud that experience with a presupposition like "there is nothing supernatural."

Rather, I would urge anyone interested in developing a spiritual approach to Naturalism to begin by clearing their minds of as many presuppositions as possible.  _And this can be begun in a bold immediate step, accomplished through introspection and honest reflection over the course of several days—perhaps via a listing of one’s beliefs and assumptions about Nature and self at the moment.  It then becomes part of the process of becoming a more realized version of oneself; unfolding over a period of years through the study of Nature coupled with experiences in Nature—presuppositions are let go of, and more grounded beliefs begin to form.   The revelations that come from this two-pronged mode of discovery will aid in the untangling of presuppositions from valid hypotheses about Nature and our place in it!  An assumption like "there is nothing supernatural" sets one up to always be in opposition with those who believe there is something supernatural.  It's a negative stance.
           
Start from a different trailhead, and you will most likely end in a different place.

Let the first ‘principle’ of a ‘spiritual’ Naturalism be that “we should seek to be grounded in Nature; to have a deep understanding of Nature—for we are Nature.”  This implies that to be on the way to wisdom, we must study and experience Nature; which would seem to sum up the primary praxis guiding any practicing Naturalist.  We must experience Nature, and not be armchair enthusiasts.  We must study Nature, scientifically—as the sciences reveal Nature to us in the most objective way; showing us what is Given—at both the most fundamental levels as well as on the grandest cosmological scales.  And then we must allow for the aesthetic experience of the natural world as well as the phenomenological and narrative exploration of Nature as known via science to embellish our understanding of life.

I would think that to have a positive spiritual thrust in one’s Naturalism is essential to a life-affirming philosophy and poetics.  I have tried over the last three decades to construct positive, life affirming, poetic spiritualities that a wide range of people could participate in, as I believe such constructs are on a much broader footing and can take a person much deeper into the nature of reality and our own existence than a platform that can be nothing more than a stance against something else!  While my earlier attempts at constructive spiritualities were rooted in religious and mythological traditions, I am now attempting to live out a ‘spiritual’ approach to life grounded in science, and the spirituality I am constructing I call Spiritual Naturalism or Earthen Mysticism, as well as Poetic Naturalism.

           A first positive 'tenet' of a spiritual approach to Naturalism might be that "we must ground ourselves in both the experience of Nature and the study of Nature."  This is not a presupposition; but rather a praxis.  It opens the way towards sustainable knowledge.  It opens the practitioner to Nature in a complex way; going out and experiencing Nature as well as devoutly studying Nature; that is—learning what science has revealed to us about the Earth, ourselves and the Universe.

The initial motivation for undertaking and embracing this praxis may be thoroughly aesthetic; as it was for me—or it might be the result of a rational drive to understand Nature and ourselves.  Whether a spiritual Naturalism arises out of our sensual, aesthetic, intuitive love-of-Nature, or out of a desire for knowledge—experiencing and studying Nature would seem to be the two most logical tools at our disposal for bringing our 'love' to fruition. 

Now, Naturalism anchored in a 'first principle' such as this may, in the end, lead to the conclusion that “there is nothing supernatural.”  But this is very different from the kind of stance where, from the get-go, a ‘Spiritual Naturalist’ considers themselves to be an anti-supernaturalist!  The position “there is nothing supernatural” – taken as a starting point – is a metaphysical assumption.  _At worst, it is ideology.  Turned around, however, the conclusion that “there is nothing supernatural” – coming as the result of many years of life lived via a naturalist praxis (experience elucidated by study; study deepened by experience) is a profound climax; a realization that changes everything.

I have, in fact, had this realization—and it has changed everything.

Nothing I ever experienced in all of the years I was religious – whether as a Christian, Pagan or Celtic mystic – turned out to be unexplainable in naturalistic terms.  And I am referring here to ‘mystical’ experiences, (imaginative-poetic) ‘visions,’ revelations (actually powerful intuitions), deep experiences of communion in prayer, etc., all of which I thought were genuine and which my spiritual mentors and guides thought to be genuine as well.  Now I see that whatever is, is part of Nature.  There is nothing supernatural.  But this I still provisional.  I remain open to the possibility of the supernatural, and would embrace it were evidence for it ever found or demonstrated.  Perhaps the definition of what were once considered to be ‘supernatural’ events and experiences needs to be updated in light of cognitive science, religious psychology and that species propensity we have for transcendent experience?  Be that as it may_

The point of this “1st Principle of Naturalism” being about the praxis of Study and Experience of Nature is to keep Naturalism – Practical, Poetic, Spiritual – open to reality; to the What-Is beyond our subjective worldings and pre-critical intersubjective agreements.  The conclusion “there is nothing supernatural” is best arrived at as the fruit of the ongoing journey of discovery, in awe and wonder.

So mote it be.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

From Soulless to En-Souled: Tony Stark and Roger Thornhill (1 June 2014)



[A spiritual interpretation of the Iron Man  films and North by Northwest]
[Warning: This blog contains spoilers]

This week we’ve been watching the George Clooney IRON MAN films.  I’ve been looking forward to seeing them, as I’ve heard a lot about them.  I wasn’t sure what I would think; they are often cited as ‘high testosterone,’ ‘techy’ and ‘male chauvinist.’  While I found the first two counts accurate (which I like), I found them less guilty on the last count (which was refreshing).  Yes, they are certainly geared to men who like ‘gadgets, fast cars and hot women;’ they remind me of the early James Bond films.  But I don’t see them evincing anywhere near the degree of sexism as early James Bond films.  Quite to my surprise, Tony Stark (Clooney’s character) undergoes a transformation that I would construe as an awakening; a recovery of ‘potential’ and his ‘humanity;’ in spiritual terms, a degree of ‘soul-recovery.’[1]
Tony Stark begins as a bold, self-assured military industrialist who manufactures weapons that he thinks are just what American needs to keep the peace (by blowing up its enemies; ‘strength through superior force’).  Stark is a wealthy genius who outshines everyone else in his field.  Yet he seems superficial (though he passes as self-assured), emotionally disengaged with the consequences of his weapons manufacturing, and in so many other ways ‘soulless.’  But his life is about to change.  He gets abducted in the Middle East and held hostage.  He sees the US soldiers travelling with him killed by weapons he designed and devloped, and then sees his company’s weapons in the hands of ‘terrorists.’
Tony engineers (literally: he builds the first Iron Man suit in the terrorist camp) his escape and when he gets back home, declares that he is going to take his company in a new direction.  He is disillusioned with the weapons industry.  He goes into retreat from the world and starts creating the Iron Man suits that will eventually enable him to become the best ‘deterrent’ since nuclear weapons.   However, in the meantime, Tony experiences a second blow; he has been betrayed by his father-figure/mentor Obadiah Stane, who had him abducted and is opposed to Tony’s new ‘turn.’   I would argue that these two events – his abduction and his betrayal – force him toward an existential crisis that eventually pushes him into a recovery of his ‘soul.’  But not before he undergoes more betrayal and opposition.
By the 2nd film, Tony is an international superhero/celebrity on his way to bringing about world peace—and his success has heightened his hubris and put it on a new footing.  But then more problems arise.  Other people are developing ‘Iron Man’ suits and his own government wants to militarize the suit as a weapon.   At this point a new threat from his past emerges.  The son of a man who used to work with Tony’s father has created his own version of a suit and comes back for revenge on the man who seems to have ruined his father’s career (or rejected his work?).  Tony is forced deeper into existential crisis and his hubris – which is so apparent at the beginning of Iron Man 2 – gets undermined decisively.
Also in the second film Tony’s promotes his long time professional assistant, secretary et. al. – Pepper Potts -- to CEO of Stark Industries!  And she is no puppet CEO.  Far from being a male chauvinistic character put in the movie simply to be ogled by male viewers and pandered after by the ‘hero’ and other men, Pepper is an intelligent, competent, professional, a businesswoman whose promotion to CEO is refreshing and in the end believable.  She is savvy and an equal match for the equally intelligent Tony, though she has to get used to the reins of power she has just been thrust into.  There is some of the ‘Pepper has to be saved by men’ stuff going on in the 2nd and 3rd films, but she is no screaming, demure, sex kitten!  In the 3rd film she even acquires super-powers and does a moderate share of ass kicking! _Over which she actually experiences appropriate remorse; showing that she has soul.   There are plenty of beautiful women in the film, but rarely are the women characters (those who play a role in the plot) reduced to being ‘objects.’
By the end of the 3rd film, I would argue that Tony has gone through a redemptive transformation.  He is no longer the genius weapons manufacturer with a naïve male businessman’s ego about how to bring peace to the world through war.  He has learned something about the complexity and subtlety of evil in the world and has been awakened to a deeper sense of what justice, peace and power might mean.   He has learned to care for people near to him who have suffered through the ordeals brought on by his earlier hubris, and he has learned compassion.  He has seen the effects of violence much closer to home, and has also seen the victims of war in their own homeland.  He has been awakened through these experiences_ and in so doing has begun to recover from his soullostness.
Tony was empty but brilliant at the beginning of the first movie, but by the end of this ‘trilogy’ of films he has opened to depth, complexity and compassion.  He is being humanized.  He has given up his ‘fast living’ – though he still loves tech and cars and women – and is apparently in a committed relationship with Pepper Potts (!); the CEO of his corporation.  He is apparently neither afraid of women with power, nor does he need to engage in competitive nonsense with them to maintain his manhood.  In this film he is faced with an international terrorist – Mandarin – who turns out (it was a nice surprise twist in the plot) to be a puppet of yet another genius whom Tony brushed off and insulted years earlier.  (Again, his hubris is catching up with him!)  Here again, the consequences of action are again dealt with; and Tony – after brashly and perhaps not all too wisely makes a public threat against Mandarin – has to fight to save Pepper and others when the villain comes and destroys his home.[2]  I would say these films show a ]soulless American male’ living in the ‘fast lane’ becoming more human through personal and social crises.  He is tried and tempted and undergoes loss and threat, coming through the experience a better person than he was at the beginning of the series.  He starts off naïve and self-serving and ends up committed to those around him – both male and female (note his relationship with both Colonel James Rhodes and Happy Hogan) – and to the betterment of society and perhaps even the world (if he can overcome his sentimental patriotism).  The ‘soulless American male’ – i.e., a functioning cog in society, often well socialized and well-groomed, carrying on relationships at the superficial level, looking out for the illusory ‘Number 1’ and being obsessed with success, prestige, money and gadgets, but who is ultimately superficial, hollow and soulless—here becomes a human being.

These films and their theme remind me of another film – NORTH BY NORTHEST (1959) in which a ‘hapless’ advertising executive (played by Cary Grant) has his mundane life upset when he is mistaken for a government agent, is abducted, framed for murder, and is then pursued across the country by spies who want him dead.
There is much to ponder in this the old Hitchcock film.  What I see today is that this “hapless advertising exec” is another example of the “soulless American male”[3] who experiences an awakening though the course of events into which he is plunged by being mistaken for the (actually non-existent) American agent George Kaplan.  At the start of the film he is shown to be vain, self-serving and egotistic.  Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant’s character) is concerned about whether his suit makes him look fat, he has his secretary send flowers to his mother with a note in his name, and he jumps a cab – taking it away from another potential fare – telling him the story (a lie) that the woman with him needs to get to the hospital, or some such thing.  This, he explains to his secretary once they are in the cab, will make the person he hijacked the cab from feel good about themselves, because they’ve done a good deed.  (!?!)
But then he gets mistaken for a spy by foreign agents, he is abducted, his life is threatened, and then he escapes_ by nothing but sheer luck.  He tries in his bumbling way to figure out what’s going on, goes to the UN to find the man in whose house he was being held, and ends up being framed for the man’s murder.  He runs, gets on a train, and meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), with whom he gets romantically involved.  It turns out she’s a double-agent.  She is pretending to work for the foreign spies, but is really trying to get information about their smuggling ring for the US Secret Service.  Over the course of his adventure Roger now begins to really care for someone (for perhaps the first time in his life) and ends up attempting to save Eve Kendall from the fate into which the US Secret Service has thrust her!  He risks his life to get Miss Kendall away from the foreign spies once he realizes they are onto her and are going to kill her (by dropping her into the ocean once their plane takes off).  In the process, Roger Thornhill becomes a superhero of sorts (i.e., climbing around on ledges of buildings and dangling off the front of Mount Rushmore)!  At each stage in the story, I would argue, this advertising exec is thrown ever deeper into an existential crisis.  By the end of his adventure, his former world has been shattered, and he is on the verge of new life possibilities.
You could see the film as ending with Roger and Eve married and going back to NYC, where they might stay happily married for six months or so, after which she will become another cast-off in the soulless life of Roger Thornhill, advertising exec.  But I always see a potential at the end of the film for something else.  I think it possible that Roger has begun to under an awakening – via the ordeal he has gone through – and that, by rescuing Eve Kendall from certain death, he has come to a point of genuine compassion and even love.  He has recovered his ‘soul.’  He has become a human being.
Roger Thornhill – even more than Tony Stark – represents that ‘soulless American male’ who is nothing but a functionary in the system; a momentary blip in the wheel of business; not a fully-fledged individual.  He has no real depth; he is self-centered and does not understand the nuances and complexities of life outside his proscribed formal public world (which becomes apparent through his dealing with the police and the foreign spies).  He appears to be a drone; going to work and performing his duties with the appropriate level of decorum, finesse and in total conformity to the ideal of male selfhood perpetrated on him by his sexist society.  But Roger Thornhill has no soul at the beginning of the film; when we first see him he is empty and ‘hapless.’
By the end of the film, he is on the cusps of potential change.  Will he go back to NYC and become the superficial ad exec he was before, or will his awakening to compassion lead to a transformation of character and humanization of his professional life?  We might well see him continuing to be an advertising exec after the end of the film.   There’s no reason he shouldn’t.  Might he treat those around him – his peers and others in his professional circles – with more compassion and genuine concern that before?  His experiences might even lead to a different attitude toward advertising and the whole business in which he is involved.  While we have no “NbyNW 2” or “NbyNW 3” to show what happened to Roger, as we do for Tony, I’ve always thought this kind of positive scenario possible.  Like Tony Stark, Roger Thornhill has been re-ensouled by his life-threatening experiences.    Sometimes the foundations of a person’s life have to be shaken before they are able to wake up.

[I hope I have not gotten any of the details of the stories wrong; but I think the overall story does allow for the kind of interpretation I have put forth here.]


[1] I am using ‘soul’ here in the sense of “the whole of being; genuine in becoming.”  I do not simply mean a flitty counter[part of the self that goes somewhere after death.  I.e., nephesh in the old Hebrew sense, not an Orphic sense of ‘soul.’

[2]  The ‘home destruction scene was one of the more over the top sequences in this has film, but it doesn’t come close to the totally unbelievable, unrealistic action sequences in last year’s Star Trek: Into Darkness and the two Hobbit films (esp. the Goblin fight scene in Hobbit I and the Smaug sequence at the end of Hobbit II.  Iron Man 3 seems to have been temped in that direction, but reigned in the action nonsense that so plagues so many films right now.  I could stomach this sequence -- and the battle scene late in the film -- but only because the rest of the film was so good.

[3] I’m not picking on men, ok?  There are plenty of soulless women walking around in the world and plenty of people in other countries who have lost their soulfulness.  But as I’m male and an American, the ‘soulless American male’ is a glyph for me; an anti-icon--reflecting on these characters helps keep me from becoming them.  At least_ that’s my hope.