Archive for May 2011
570 years ago today, on May 30, 1437, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake at the age of 19.
First loved and feared, then condemned, then canonized, the 14-year-old Joan of Arc professed to be inspired by divine visions that directed her to lead the French against the English during the Hundred Years’ War. Possessing no military training, she persuaded Charles VII to grant her leadership of the French reserves, which she led against the English at the besieged city of Orléans. In nine days the troops under her direction successfully turned the tide against the English, winning the city, and ultimately the war.
Joan was captured by the Burgundians and ransomed to the English, at whose hands she was tried, condemned, and executed. Trial transcripts show her to be intelligent and thoughtful. Medieval Sourcebook hosts the full transcript in The Trial of Joan of Arc here.
Her life story has inspired great works of art for centuries. Carl Theodor Dreyer based his highly-praised film La passion de Jeanne d’Arc on her trial transcripts. Roger Ebert describes the film as indispensable to understanding film history in his review, and notes that Pauline Kael described its central performance as perhaps the finest performance ever captured on film. Ironically, the only known negative was destroyed in a fire, and the film was believed lost until a new negative was discovered in pristine condition in 1984. It can be viewed on YouTube beginning here, and is available on Netflix instant streaming.
George Bernard Shaw based his play Saint Joan on the trial transcripts.
Leonard Cohen’s beautiful ballad “Joan of Arc” was recorded for his album Songs of Love and Hate.
The kurgarra sprinkled the food of life on the corpse.
The galatur sprinkled the water of life on the corpse.
It was around the time that I first saw Wagner’s Ring cycle that I decided in earnest to undertake a systematic, if necessarily cursory, comparative study of the major trends of history and culture in the world, with special attention to religious and mythological traditions. Wagner’s gargantuan and unparalleled dramatic imersion in the great mind of myth was a natural gateway to that journey.
Claude Levi-Strauss, the founder of structural anthropology, observed that “If one must see in Wagner the unimpeachable father of the structural analysis of myths … then it is highly revealing to note that such analysis was first made in music.” Like music, myth organizes and expresses non-rational energies and images of the unconscious in an expressive and emotional manner. Like music, myth has the power to transport one outside of one’s self.
The case of Wagner also warns of the dangerous possibilities of sailing the seas of the unconscious, as his troubling biography aptly testifies. Journeying outside the intellect leaves one vulnerable to the psyche, which holds the possibility of violence and darkness alongside the seeds of transformation and liberation.
However, positive and negative potentialities exist within the human mind whether they’re explored or not, and ignoring the irrational is no less dangerous. On the contrary, ignoring the nighttime within increases the possibility that one will be unwittingly directed by the shadow one excludes. In this sense, the exploration of the depths of the soul is a journey into darkness, with the hope that one may then return with the seeds of light. This is the unanimous testimony of the world’s rich heritage of myth, and it accords deeply with my own experience.
That this journey is fraught with peril is made clear by every myth we know, extending back to the earliest recorded stories set down in clay tablets in Sumer. From the myths of ancient Mesopotamia we learn of Inanna, the goddess of the Morning Star, who descends into the underworld, passing through seven gates. At each gate she is stripped of an ornament or garment, every token of her personality, until she arrives in the Land of the Dead, naked. There she is greeted and slain by her sister and double, Ereshkigal.
As so many have found, the loss of personal identity, which seems like the final crisis, instead became Inanna’s point of contact with the greatest of mysteries, that life extends beyond the individual ego. Through her resurrection, Inanna found that her persona is but a shadow of the true life she embodies, and out of the darkness Inanna finds new life.
Through this poem we achieve a sign that self-luminous being re-expresses itself through her new aspect in the patterns of her new identity, and the mind responds, for the deeper part of the self finds its own reflection in these stories. So in I Corinthians: “Behold, I shew you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
Inanna’s descent was occasioned by her wish to console her sister Ereshkigal, whose husband, the Bull of Heaven, was slain by the hero Gilgamesh. The slain bull god and his consort have been the central signs of the resurrection for as far back as we can reckon. We find it in the Anatolian city of Çatal Höyük in the eighth millennium BCE, where death and rebirth are associated with the bull god whose horns are the crescent moon. This moon-bull-god of the Taurus mountains may well have its ultimate origin in the Lower Paleolithic, and is transmitted down to this present day, as Inanna gradually transforms into Ishtar, Isis, Astarte, Aphrodite, and the Virgin Mary.
While I was studying the literature of the Old Testament I learned that the Hebrew words of my name, Bar-nabe, meaning “son of a prophet,” were probably derived from an Akkadian root, the high literary language of ancient Babylon. I had a vertiginous sense of personal connection to that ancient and marvelous culture, mediated by a frozen artifact of language, transmitted over thousands of years in a lineage of speech linking me to the authors of the epic of Gilgamesh.
Language carries meanings over great expanses of time, and so too with religious symbols. They are the outer sign of an inner meaning, preserved in fixed structures as the details are altered over their long lives. The life of the spirit is fixed within them like an insect trapped in amber.
That life can speak to us from out of frozen forms and archaic stories precisely because they echo the inner life, and outward gradually leads inward, to the dark places of the self, the quiet resources where the immortal light shines.
From Rilke’s Book of Hours:
I love the dark hours of my being.
My mind deepens into them.
There I can find, as in old letters,
the days of my life, already lived,
and held like a legend, and understood.
Then the knowing comes: I can open
to another life that’s wide and timeless.
So I am sometimes like a tree
rustling over a gravesite
and making real the dream
of the one its living roots embrace:
a dream once lost
among sorrows and songs.
Last Friday was my last day as a product engineer for a small company where I have (mostly) worked for the last eleven years. During that time I used every free hour I could squeeze out of the place to do the work that I really wanted to be doing.
When I think of my former professional life, the image that comes vividly to mind is a plain desk, tucked into the corner of a concrete office piled with metal, wire, and whirring machines. The fluorescent lights were broken by a single frosted window. I remember my boss wordlessly installing a new server station immediately adjacent to my desk, further eclipsing the thin natural light with a rack stuffed with blinking devices, constantly emitting the loud rushing sound of mechanically-driven air.
After 11 years, I still earned two weeks of vacation time per year. I used what vacation and leaves of absence I could gather to throw myself into the world of culture, history, and the human spirit that I love. I spent days, then weeks, then months, in long meditation retreats. I traveled around the state and then the country to attend academic conferences. I attended lectures and visited museums, and enrolled in courses in psychology, Japanese, and German. I traveled up and down the west coast to hear opera and symphony. And always, I read voraciously, spending years in a self-directed study of cultural, intellectual, and religious history ranging from the Lower Paleolothic to the present day.
It has been increasingly obvious as the years have gone on that the work I was doing supporting a small company’s line of professional audiovisual technology was out of step with my heart’s basic rhythms. So, without a clear sense of what is next, I left.
In times of historic uncertainty, it feels risky to set out on an unclear path, but I believe that I will find a way forward by which I can live from a deeper center, where my gaze will not always be out the window.
To mark that departure Rebecca and I traveled to Pacific Grove and stayed near the sea. We spent many hours walking up and down the shore talking, watching, and especially, deeply listening. As we walked and talked and listened I contemplated my various perennial interests and imagined ways to participate in the world that would leave positive ripples, ways to contribute, to bring forth warmth and light. The waves came on and on, “the sea that is always counting.”
As I listened, I thought of an Eskimo shaman named Najagneq, who said :
[I believe in] a power that we call Sila, one that cannot be explained in so many words. A strong spirit, the upholder of the universe, of the weather, in fact all life on earth — so mighty that his speech to man comes not through ordinary words, but through storms, snowfall, rain showers, the tempests of the sea, through all the forces that man fears, or through sunshine, calm seas or small, innocent, playing children who understand nothing. (1)
I do not know if the creative patterns by which the universe self-organizes in coherent expression is characterized by what we could meaningfully call intelligence or awareness. But I do take comfort in the thought that in Alaska long ago, as in Tierra del Fuego, Siberia, and Australia, as among the mammoth hunters of the great Aurignacian horizon in Europe, as in the speculation of Robert Oppenheimer in the desert southwest, men and women have long done what I do now. We have walked by the shores of the sea and strained to hear its voice, with the hope that in so doing we might learn something of our own hearts, something that can help us to find a way and a light, and to bring it forth into the world.
1. Ostermann H. The Alaskan Eskimos. Nordisk Forlag, 1951. ; quoted in: Cambpell J. Primitive Mythology, Penguin Books, 1969. pg. 51