something terrific on Innate Awareness

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something terrific on Innate Awareness

Postby The Madame X » Sun Oct 28, 2007 6:08 am

The Recovery of Myth and the Sensus Communis

Myths are revealed truth. The makers of myths did not make them
up, they heard them or saw them. Philosophy, if it is to say
anything true or profound, must have an intimate relation with myth.
Philosophy cannot stand alone and generate truth. It must look backward
to the source of the first truths of humanity. In myth we find
primordial truths (archai) revealed in a form that is “naive” in the
sense of being un-self-conscious or pre-reflective.
But exactly how do we achieve this intimate relation to myth?
The major part of this paper is devoted to examining the answers
Donald Phillip Verene gives to this issue, and responding to them.
Before I go into this, however, I shall present a brief account of what
I take to be the tenets of Verene’s philosophy relevant to my case.
Most philosophers believe that they are using reason or rational
thought to make progress toward better and better answers to questions
about the nature of reality and the nature of man. They believe
that they are progressing away from religion, myth, superstition, and
popular opinion. Verene believes that reason in the sense of reflective
understanding is limited. Reason employed in this way analyzes.
To analyze something means to break it apart or break it down. Reason
can be used to tear apart bad arguments and it can be used to
apply universal principles to particular cases. But reason as an instrument
of analysis on its own is uncreative. It is not an instrument
of creativity or discovery. Reason can apply universal principles but
it cannot discover them.

There are, of course, different kinds of principles. Some might be
arrived at through induction, but others seem so fundamental that they
could not have been got through experience. Not all the principles we
think of as fundamental can be called originary principles. These are the
ultimate ideas or truths underlying the human experience of the real.
If one asks what is wrong with our world, Verene’s answer, essentially,
is that we have forgotten these originary principles. Verene calls
them archai. He calls Vico’s philosophy a “science of recollective
universals,” and he sees the principle task of true philosophy as getting
us back to the archai. Vico’s New Science, according to Verene,
is a theatre of memory. Renaissance theatres of memory, such as that
of Giulio Camillo, were intended to give one a synoptic vision of the
whole. Within Camillo’s theatre of memory one found, arrayed on
all sides, images and symbols designed to remind one of the archai,
of the basic human truths. Verene also interprets Hegel’s Phenomenology
of Spirit and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake as theatres of memory
presented in literary form.
The rationalist will ask, inevitably, “where do archai come from?”
Verene’s answer will not satisfy him. Verene states in Hegel’s Recollection:
“Archai come from nowhere. They come when needed and
they come from nowhere. They are drawn forth from consciousness
suddenly and without method. . . . This drawing forth of archai is . . .
recollecting in its primordial sense.”1 Archai just are. There just are
certain truths that have been revealed to human beings. Verene is
essentially a Platonist: truth is objective and we all have it, but in a
dim, forgotten way. We have truth only, as Jakob Böhme says, as a
“dark and veiled story held in memory [eine dunkele und verdeckte
Geschichte im Gedaechtnis behalten].”

All our efforts to know the world—whether in philosophy, science,
religion, art, or poetry—are efforts to recall this truth, in our
own imperfect, human way. They are aiming at wisdom, at knowledge
of the whole. Only philosophy is the deliberate, self-conscious effort
to achieve this perspective. But philosophy cannot stand alone. From
pure reason comes nothing. Philosophy must draw from the perennial
resource of archai. It is our dim recollection of the archai that makes
possible the inspirations that move our philosophical speculations.
In the joints of our dialectic, in the transitions from category to category,
or premise to premise, or premise to conclusion, the archai lie
hidden. Because we have this resource within us, inchoate, each person
must go inside himself in order to get it. As Verene points out, Hegel’s
Er-Innerung or “recollection” is a going deeply inside one’s self.

The rationalist will ask if it is rational to think that these truths,
these archai “just are” and that there is no explanation for them, no
reasoning why. The answer is yes. It is rational to think that there is
no why or wherefore, if, in fact, there is no why or wherefore.
Philosophy is an inward journey that follows the pattern of all
mythic adventures: first a separation from the familiar (Plato’s emergence
from the cave, Descartes’ methodical doubt, Hegel’s science
that starts with nothing, Husserl’s epoche, etc.), then a journey off
into uncharted territory to acquire some treasure (in this case, wisdom)
involving many trials and tribulations (Hegel’s Via Dolorosa),
and finally a return. In the case of true philosophy, the return is not a
return to the society of ordinary human beings, but a return to humanity
itself, a peering into the primordial human truths within what
Verene, following Vico, calls sensus communis. Philosophy is not
just reading about this process in a book, philosophy is doing it. Verene
agrees with Vico’s view that each reader must “make the science for
himself.” He also connects this to Stephen Dedalus’s intention “to forge
in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”2
The above omits many important details of Verene’s Vichian philosophy,
such as his theory of rhetoric, the theory of the imaginative
universal, and his analysis of modern “barbarism.” But I have presented
the essentials relevant to the case I shall make. I differ
specifically with Verene in how he proposes to recover the archai.
His conception of a theatre of memory is brilliant, but does not go
far enough. I have been inside the theatres of Vico, Hegel, and Joyce,
and I came out as the same modern person I was when I went in.
What, then, is to be done?


First, we must radically reconsider our conception of myth. The first
book to have a major intellectual influence on Verene was Ernst
Cassirer’s Language and Myth. He later studied Cassirer’s Philosophy
of Symbolic Forms—the second volume of which is titled
Mythical Thought—and wrote a dissertation on Cassirer. But this is
an aspect of Verene’s philosophy that puzzles me, for Cassirer’s approach
to myth, while it contains many profundities, is essentially
condescending. Cassirer basically treats myth as a primitive form of
thought. Like Vico, he thinks that myth springs from a mentality
held in common by ancient primitives, contemporary savages, peasants,
and children, a view developed in the eighteenth century.

A far better understanding of myth—and of the men who made
myth—is to be found in the works of Julius Evola (1898–1974), especially
his Revolt Against the Modern World (Rivolta contra il mondo
moderno).3 Evola’s approach, in brief, is to suggest that the men who
made myth were not primitives, but more advanced in every significant
way, than ourselves. History is a history not of evolution or
progress but of devolution. The ways in which we are more advanced
than our forebears are purely material: we are materially better off
than they were; our ability to manipulate matter (to create technology,
“improve” upon nature, cure disease, etc.) is superior. But that is all.
Spiritually and intellectually we are savages compared to the ancients.
At least some of the time both Vico and Verene seem to agree
that we are spiritually and intellectually inferior to the ancients. One
of Vico’s most widely known teachings is his doctrine of three ages:
the age of gods, heroes, and men. History exhibits this cyclical pattern.
Vico’s three ages can be compared to the four ages of Hinduism,
which was Evola’s idée fixe. One could also draw a comparison to
Hesiod’s ages. We can map Vico’s ages onto those of Hesiod and the
Vedas, as follows:
Vico Hesiod Vedism
Gods Gold Satya-Yuga
Silver Treta-Yuga
Bronze } Dvapara-Yuga
Heroes Heroes
Men Iron Kali-Yuga
In all, there is the idea that, to quote Yeats, “things fall apart”;
there is devolution. In the Kali Yuga, to quote Yeats further,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I don’t know if anyone has pointed this out before, but Vico’s ages
are parallel also to the three “soul types” of Plato (which are also his
parts of the Kallipolis). The Age of Gods is an age ruled by logos, by
the mind of the universe. The Age of Heroes is an age ruled by the
Spirit (Thumos) of the Warriors. The Age of Men is an age of Appetite.
It is not as if Logos and Spirit disappear in the Age of Men (our
present age); it is that they are deposed from their rightful place:
they become devalued and, to some extent, cheapened, corrupted,
and debased. Our historical devolution is specifically one of Mind
and Spirit. As appetite evolves—as we become more and more efficient
at satisfying and creating appetite—everything else decays.
Reason, at one time in tune with the transcendent and perennial, becomes
“the barbarism of reflection.” Spirit, at one time in the service
of transcendent ideals, now finds itself in the service of technology,
business, and managerial procedures.

Perhaps I have misunderstood something in the attitudes of Vico,
Cassirer, and Verene toward myth, but I do not see how we square
such a historical conception with the condescension implied in the
idea that myth springs from a mentality held in common by ancient
primitives, savages, peasants, and children. What Vico and others do
not seem to realize is that their conception of myth is itself a product
of modern “barbaric” reflection.

Our ancestors knew the archai. They received the archai. Yet
instead of trying in some way to recover something of this original
mentality, so that we may also know these primal truths, Vico and
Cassirer analyze the mythic experience (the experience of the gods),
theorize it, and thus cut us off from it. If modern rationalism has
separated us from truth, how do Vico and Cassirer think that their
analytical approach to myth can bring us back to it?

We see the modern in ourselves whenever—with all good intentions—
we attempt to explain myth, or to explain what the gods are, or
to explain the experience of the gods. Such efforts at explanation are
bound up with the modern tendency to insist that everything be explicable.
But the gods and the myths which tell of them are precisely that
outer edge of the real beyond which explanation cannot go. They
define the boundaries of the real, only within which is explanation
possible. Our ancestors who believed in the gods had no explanation
for their experience of them. To think in terms of explaining the experience of the gods is to have already adopted a critical distance
from that experience.

Vico treats Jove as the first universale fantastico (imaginative
universal). The first men heard the sound of thunder and scattered,
crying “Jove!” and the first god was born. This theory is implicitly
atheistic. Vico has simply assumed in advance that there are no such
things as gods, and, anticipating the great (but extremely wrongheaded)
nineteenth-century Indologist Max Mueller, he reads the gods
as an anthropomorphization of nature. Vico believes that his standpoint
is superior to that of his distant ancestors. He believes that he
has seen through their superstitious devotion to Jove. This is a thoroughly
modern attitude, which makes recovery of primal openness
to truth impossible.

To transcend modern barbarism and recover the standpoint from
which we may again see originary truth unveiled, we must abandon
all attempts to explain what the gods of the myths are. All such attempts
are implicitly atheistic. They assume that the gods must really
be something else. Via analysis or reduction or dream interpretation,
the gods are explained as being something other than the gods, as
what they are not. The direction we must go in is not just to recollect
myth but to recover the intellectual standpoint necessary to receive
myth in the first place.

I believe that wisdom was literally revealed to our ancestors in
the distant past. We do not know or understand the mechanism of
this revelation, nor could we, since modern rationalism and its attendant
corruptions make this mechanism almost impossible to
understand. This wisdom was a knowledge of the whole, of the fundamental nature of reality. It was the sum total of Verene’s archai. I
am saying, further, that we have forgotten these truths, and that the
doxa of the present age seems akin to a diabolical creation designed
to insure that they remain forgotten. No amount of academic analysis
of myth and religion will help us remember. This is part of the
diabolical creation, it seems: the more we study myth the farther we
remove ourselves from it. The only hope, therefore, is somehow to
devise a way to slip out from under modern categories and prejudices,
and recover the primal mindset which allowed wisdom to be
heard. I shall call this primal mindset “openness.” I believe that this
primal openness is the natural standpoint of mankind, and thus latent
in all of us, ready to be awakened.

The openness I have described must be an openness to a universe
in which such things as the gods may exist as a brute fact, inexplicable
to the analytical mind. This is not irrationalism. As mentioned above,
it is not irrational to believe that some things cannot be analyzed,
reduced, or explained, if, indeed, they cannot. True rationality and
enlightenment must consist not only in recognizing facts as facts,
but in recognizing that ultimately there may be no answer to why
they are, or why they are the way they are.

Does this mean that we should try believing in the gods or the
myths on a naive literal level? For instance, should we believe that
Valhalla is an actual, physical place, or that Thor’s hammer is an
actual, physical object? Not exactly. I do not mean to deny that there
are levels of understanding in religion. But we must realize that if
we are to come again into possession of what Evola calls Tradition,
of the mindset of our ancestors, we cannot begin at the highest level.
This is not what our ancestors did. They began their individual lives
as children, believing in the literal reality of the gods, and then they
penetrated deeper into this reality. In other words, you cannot begin
with the Upanishads. You must begin with the Vedas. We do this first
through achieving an openness to the divine as such, eschewing all
preconceived notions or theories about what the gods really are. We
must reconnect with Tradition in the same way a child learns its native
language: not through conscious intention or rote memorization, but
through a kind of naive and non-reflective openness, and through
total immersion.

But openness to the divine begins with a much more fundamental
openness: an openness simply to the being of things. To be open
to the being of beings means “to let beings be,” as Heidegger put it.
It is to let beings show us what they are, instead of forcing some
being or some meaning onto them. This openness is fundamentally
at odds with modernity. There is no magic formula for reactivating
this opening. Openness to the being of things is not an achievement,
per se, but the natural standpoint of mankind. Closedness is what has
been achieved. The way may be cleared for re-opening by unlearning
closedness. This unlearning must begin with a ruthless critique
of the ideology and standpoint of post-Christian modernity. Verene
has in large measure carried this out in his Philosophy and the Return
to Self-Knowledge and other works. The works of Julius Evola,
and Evola’s mentor Rene Guenon, are also very helpful here, as are
the writings of such thinkers as Nietzsche, Spengler, D. H. Lawrence,
Aldous Huxley, and Heidegger.

It is through being awestruck by the power and sublimity of nature
that man was forced into openness to the being of that which he
did not create. In this regard, Vico, with his thunderclap, is correct.
This openness to the being of the natural world facilitates openness
to the supernatural world, the world of spirits and of Ideas, which
also precedes and surpasses the being of man. In closing oneself to
the first, one gradually becomes closed to the second. Post-Christian
man has shut himself to the natural world, and this has led to his
being shut off from his own nature—for the uniqueness of man among
the animals consists precisely in his openness to the higher. It has
also led to his becoming shut off from other men—as city life makes
so plain. Without an openness to the trans-human, beginning in a
openness to nature, we are shut off from a knowledge of the good.
Hence the notorious inhumanity of civilized, urban humans.
When modern man looks at nature only as matter onto which he
can impose a form of his devising, then he declares, in effect, that
nature has no form, no being of its own. To cancel the otherness of
nature is to abolish the distinction between us and it. The modern
accepts no limitations on his ability to penetrate and control. His is
simultaneously a Titanic will toward divine omnipotence and a will
toward a state of infantile autism in which there is no boundary between
subject and object.

This dual will of modern man was perfectly expressed by another
of Verene’s four thinkers: Hegel. Hegel wrote that the aim of
his lectures on the Philosophy of Nature was “to convey an image of
nature, in order to subdue this Proteus: to find in this externality
only the mirror of ourselves, to see in nature a free reflection of
spirit.”4 “An out-and-out other simply does not exist for Spirit [i.e.,
for mankind],” Hegel says. And “what seems to happen outside of
[the self], to be an activity directed against it, is really its own doing,
and substance shows itself to be essentially subject.”5 Hegel argues
that when modern man transforms the world according to his will,
when he seeks to cancel the otherness of the other, he is moved by a
desire to absolutize himself, to remove that which resists and frustrates
his will or his mind, in other words, a desire to be left totally
alone. Thus, we can see that humanism is equal to nihilism, a conclusion
Hegel himself did not draw.

This mentality not only cuts us off from the being of beings, and
from the gods, but from ourselves. As Jakob Böhme put it: “Nothing
can be revealed to itself without opposition: For if there is nothing
that opposes it, then it always goes out of itself and never returns to
itself again. If it does not return into itself, as into that from which it
originated, then it knows nothing of its origin.”6 Without an other
that opposes and resists the self, against which the self discovers its
boundaries, no self-knowledge is possible. Is it any surprise, then,
that so many modern people need to “find themselves?” When we
take the world of human ideas, constructions, aspirations, projects,
prejudices, contrivances, and conveniences as the only world, and cut
ourselves off from the being of the world we did not create, should it
surprise us if we find ourselves experiencing a feeling of unreality?
When everything is open to our will, open to change and revision and
fine-tuning, when everything can be “new and improved” including
ourselves, is it any wonder that modern people seem simply to drift?
As soon as man admits that there are limits to his powers to penetrate
and transform, a space is made for the gods in human life.
However, the whole drift of modern thought is toward the cancellation
of all limits on man, and thus the exaltation of man to the status
of Supreme Being. But as soon as it is admitted that there are limits
to what we may change and, especially, that there is an ineluctable
hiddenness to things, then human will is checked, and openness opens
again, at least to some extent.

To admit limits is to grant the world being. It is to admit that
there are certain inescapable and unchangeable eidetic realities—the
natures of things, the patterns and principles of order—which are
brute, unalterable facts. The recognition that the world is simply one
way and not another is the recognition of a brute facticity that must
be, to all reflective persons, an inexplicable mystery.

It is not monotheism that is suggested here, but polytheism. The
world is a Bacchanalian revel of forms, a multiverse of beings and
powers. It is the gods who account for and embody the chief features
of this world. And the gods are, at least in some sense, in the world,
like the things or powers they govern.

Openness may be achieved only by the cancellation of what closes
us. Thus we must critique all of our modern ideas, intellectual tendencies,
and ways of living in the world, and thoroughly know their
lineage. Such a radical critique is itself a feature of modernity, but
here we may be able to use one of the weapons of modernity against
it. We must begin by recognizing that no matter how critical we may
be of modernity, we ourselves are products of it. It is useless to rail
against “people today” if our goal is a recovery of a more authentic
way of being. Our critique must begin with ourselves.

We must also abandon all efforts to explain what might be called
“the place of religion in human life.” In other words, we must banish
from our thinking all propositions which begin: “Religion is important
because”; or, “For our ancestors, religion served to”; or, “the
function of religion is.” Such an attitude is not religious, it is a reflective,
critical attitude toward religion.

But how else, it might be asked, can we moderns find a way back
into primal religious openness to the gods and the archai, except by
discovering what religion does, or what it provided our ancestors?
The problem with this approach is that it assumes that religion is
merely one of the many things human beings do or engage in, along
with, for example, making war, writing poetry, building dwellings,
and starting a family. In short, it assumes that religion is an attribute
of human beings. In fact, it is their essence.

Religion—by which I mean simply openness to divine or transcendent
being—is human nature. I do not mean by this that it is
natural for human beings to be religious. I mean that human nature
just is religion. What distinguishes human beings from other creatures
is that they are more than just will to self-aggrandizement, they
are also openness—openness to that which is higher. If this state of
openness or living in openness is religion, then human nature is religion.
In short, the being of man is constituted in and through his
relation to the divine. There is no such thing as “human nature” to
which religion must be related. There is no such thing as a human
being who can be human with or without religion. One is only truly
human through openness, through relatedness to the transcendent.
This is the ultimate reason why modernity, the age of men, the age
of human will, cuts us off not only from nature but from our own
nature. Modernity is the willful destruction of human nature. Modern
man, Nietzsche’s “Last Man,” is no man at all, but wholly inhuman.
Human nature is openness toward being, and toward divine being.
But to be open is possible only if there is, in effect, a space within the
human being; only if the human being is not, in some sense, whole or
complete. Human nature is a vector, a towardness, a relationship. A
relationship requires two terms, which must ever remain distinct from
one another if the relationship is to persist. The directedness of the
human being toward the divine can never be satisfied, in the sense
that one can never have or reach or comprehend the divine. But some
objects, in the yearning for them, can improve and elevate one. Man’s
incompleteness is never overcome, but through it he is raised up.
Other objects, of course, only make the incompleteness and emptiness
intolerable. The tragedy of modern man is that he has become
turned away from his proper object. He is still incomplete, but his
yearnings, his needs, have become turned toward objects which can
never improve or satisfy him.

In sum, the recovery of openness to the divine must begin with
an unlearning of closedness. It must begin with a thoroughgoing,
radical critique of the modern way of being, especially as it shows
up in oneself. Openness to the gods presupposes a more basic openness
simply to the being of things, and principally to the being of
things humans did not create. It is through this openness that openness
to the gods happened for our ancestors. Thus, it is through such
an openness that we might know the gods again, and may again
achieve the standpoint through which the archai may be known.


Where do we go from here? How do we achieve this openness that
has been lost? Some suggestions are implicit in Verene, in Vico, and
in Joyce.
In Vico’s Science of Imagination, Verene defines sensus communis
as “the sensibilities, feelings, metaphors, and memories upon
which human culture rests.”7 And “the ultimate context within which
any piece of conceptual reasoning is meaningful.”8 Verene, following
Vico, believes that the beginning of philosophical thought originates
from the sensus communis. He writes, further: “The sensus communis
is created not by logic but by original, archaic human speech
which bursts forth from the human condition itself.”9 We may ask
whether sensus communis is something universal, or whether it is
specific to a certain people. The answer is that it is both. Each people
has its sensus communis, but the sensus communis differs from group
to group. This is my position, but I think it is also Vico’s. Verene
writes that sensus communis is “the common way of experiencing
the world present in the life of a people. . . . The sensus communis of
a people is rooted in a common way of feeling, speaking, and symbolizing
meaning in the world.”10

“People” means an ethnically distinct group. It means “nation”
only where there is ethnic homogeneity. Americans, for example,
are neither a true nation nor a true people. Consider again the words
from Joyce’s A Portrait: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the
reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the
uncreated conscience of my race. 27 April: Old father, old artificer,
stand me now and ever in good stead.”11 “Old father, old artificer”
refers to the artificer-artist hero Daedalus, but it may also refer to
Woden (Odin, Wotan), among whose many names was “Alfather.”
Joyce does not mean that he is immediately recollecting the “collective
unconscious” of the entire human race. Recapturing primal
openness in this fashion would be like trying to love all of humanity
before one has learned to love one’s own family. We must begin with
familiar. When Joyce the Irishman goes into himself, there is Woden,
whom his ancestors worshipped.12

To each people there is a sensus communis. Authors like Joseph
Campbell and Mircea Eliade are correct to see universal, crosscultural
mythic thought patterns. But we lose a lot when we abstract
away all difference to get to identity. The myths and traditions of
each people represents its attempt to express the truth about man and
the cosmos. But some peoples have achieved this expression more
adequately than others; some traditions are richer and more powerful
than others.

The first step toward cancelling modern barbarism and recovering
primal openness is to begin with one’s own sensus communis.
What we must do is immerse ourselves in the sensus communis of
our people by internalizing their myths and traditions, by practicing
their customs and rituals, and, in general, trying to live as much as
possible as they did. The chief obstacles to this are the modern ways
of thought and being that have already been imprinted on us. As a
first step toward overcoming this obstacle we may ask how we recognize
our people’s sensus communis in ourselves. It is through what
I shall call the particularity of myth, that we may find a way into the
sensus communis.

There is an Irish myth that Dermot of the Fianna and three comrades,
after an all-day hunt, sought refuge one night in a hut. Occupying
the hut were an old man, a girl, a sheep, and a cat. As they sat down to
dinner, the sheep kept hopping up on the table. Try as they might, the
warriors, to their shame, could not remove it. Finally, the cat led it off
the table and fastened it up. The old man then revealed to them that
the sheep was the World, and the cat was Death, the only power that
could destroy the world.13
This myth requires no interpretation, for it includes an interpretation
within itself. (The myth goes on to explain what the girl represents
as well.) Other myths do not actually provide an interpretation, but
might as well. For instance, anyone can see that the myth of Icarus
and Daedalus is intended to warn of the consequences of hubris.
This has led some to believe that myth is an earlier form of philosophy,
and that different sorts of myth perform the functions of the
different parts of philosophy. Some myths perform a metaphysical
or cosmological function, telling us where we came from and what
the primal things are. Some perform an ethical function, telling us
how we should behave, and warning us away from vice. Others perform
a political function, telling us how society should be structured
or governed.

One can believe that myth actually does perform these functions
without necessarily believing that it does so only because a culture
has not yet “progressed” to philosophy! In fact, one can take the
position that myth is superior to philosophy at performing these functions.
Finally, one can believe that myth does all these things, without
being committed to the position that human beings simply “made
up” the myths with these functions in mind.
Other myths, however, do not lend themselves so readily to interpretation.
In another Irish legend, the hero Oisin is borne off to
the Land of Youth by the fairy maiden Niam. Entering this enchanted
land, Oisin sees three images: a doe without horns being chased by a
white hound with one red ear, a young girl riding on a brown horse
holding a golden apple, and a young man on a white horse wearing a
purple robe and carrying a gold-hilted sword.14 One gets the same
feeling here that comes from reading alchemical literature: these
images have probably been carefully chosen and are intended to convey
a precise meaning.

However, there are still other myths which defy interpretation,
but which do not strike us as being deliberately “symbolic.” Consider
the imagery of Norse mythology. Why, for example, is Ygdrassil
an ash tree? Why is it Tyr’s right hand that is bitten off by the Fenris
wolf? Why is it specifically eleven rivers that flow from the spring in
Niflheimr? Why are the first man and woman born from Ymir’s armpit,
rather than some other part of his body? And why his left armpit?
Why is a hawk perched on the brow of the eagle perched at the top of
Ygdrassil? Why is red the color of Thor? Why is everything in threes:
three wells, three roots, three Norns, three brothers (Odin, Vili, and
Ve), three regions, etc.? One could multiply such examples endlessly,
and find them in Greek and Roman mythology, Indian myth, Celtic
myth, etc.

But what are they examples of? I could be wrong, of course, in
thinking that there is no deliberate, conscious symbolism here. This is
not the same thing as claiming that these images or ideas have no meaning.

I am simply saying that one gets a strong intuition from certain
myths, or mythological elements, that no meaning is consciously calculated.

That is why philosophical interpretation cannot exhaust myth.
There are myths which have a readily apparent meaning-content, which
philosophers can skim off and state baldly. But there is another element
to myth, a “sensuous component.” This is the situatedness or
groundedness of myth in the particular, and in the individual, the unique.
It is an element of seemingly arbitrary particularity, which arrests us
just in and by means of its particularity.

The sensuous component of myth is striking to us. It would be
wrong to say that it seems inevitable. When a twist in a story or a
conclusion to a musical theme is called inevitable that usually means
that it seems somehow logically necessary. There is nothing logically
necessary about Ymir’s left armpit.

At the same time, if we approach myth with an attitude of respect
and openness, we do not respond to this sensuous component as merely
arbitrary. Indeed, we may feel stirring within us some deeply buried
response, some intuition that there is a revelation here. By revelation I
mean simply a revealing: a revealing of the being of things. One might
be tempted to speak instead of a revealing of the truth of things, but
truth is just precisely this revealing or uncovering of the being of things.
True words are words that show things as they are.

Modern people have the philosophical tendency to think of truth
as a statement, formula, or idea. Thus, when one speaks of the sensuous
component in myth as a truth, the tendency is to think that it
must be a symbol which we could dispense with once we put the
meaning of the symbol into words. Instead, I have in mind a truth
which is irreducibly sensuous and can never be exhausted by words.
“Weird” seems an appropriate term to use to describe this sensuous
component. “Weird” is a word we use to describe not just the
different, but the disturbingly different, the uncanny. The weird is
the arrestingly different for which we have no other adequate name.
The word weird ultimately derives from the Old Norse verb vertha.

In Norse myth, Verthandi is one of the three Norns, and she is generally
understood to represent “becoming” or “coming to be” (in the
sense of the now, the happening now). Verthandi cannot be understood
in isolation, but only in relationship to her two sisters, Urth
and Skuld. Urth- derives from vertha, and figures in both the preterite
plural and the past participle. Urth thus somehow governs or
embodies pastness, a pastness that has been derived from (or tied to) a
becoming. Skuld is the past participle of skula, which is perhaps best
rendered as “shall.” But “shall” here connotes not so much futurity as
binding necessity or duty, as in “thou shalt” or “so it shall be done.”
What comes to be in the hands of Verthandi passes away and into
the hands of Urth, and ultimately into her well. The well of Urth
contains all that was, as well as what “was” in the sense of being the
first and most primal of things: the örlog. The örlog is the pattern or
law of all. The örlog, and the events of the past, govern what comes
to be in the present. But no man may fathom the depths of Urth’s
well. (Odin gave up an eye to drink from Mimir’s well of wisdom—
and some have argued that this well is equivalent to that of Urth.)15
This means that although we may have understood something of how
the world works, of why and from where things come to be, the why
and wherefore of things is never fully transparent to us. The world
remains a mystery, and will continually face us with the uncanny
and the weird. The weird is what has come from the Norn sisters and
their unfathomable well.

In later times it seems that “weird” comes to stand for all three
of the Norns, and the Norns themselves become witches. In one of
the Irish legends, Finn and his men, out hunting one day as usual,
come upon the mouth of a cavern where three hideous hags are spinning
yarn. The men become entangled in this enchanted yarn and are
almost killed by the witches before being saved by Goll mac Morna.16
In Macbeth the three witches are described by Shakespeare as the
“three weird sisters.”17

When myth strikes us as weird it shows itself as something from
out of the depths. It comes from some hidden source and its very
weirdness is a clue to its truth. When myth makes us shudder, or
invades our dreams, or causes the hair to stand up on the back of our
necks, we see the truth of it. It is a feeling of recognition.

The experience of the weird is more than just the sense of a myth’s
strangeness. Many myths, particularly those of alien cultures, will
strike one as strange. Take, for example, the Akkadian creation myth.
Out of the primordial waters comes the first couple, Apsu and Tiamat.
They give birth to Anu, God of the Sky, and Ea. Apsu decides to kill
these young gods because they disturb his sleep. Ea, however, uses
his magic powers to put Apsu to sleep, steals his “brightness,” and
then kills him. Having become God of the Waters, Ea retires to the
depths of the ocean where, in the Sanctuary of the Archetypes, his
wife Damkina gives birth to Marduk. Anu meanwhile attacks Tiamat,
who retaliates by sending a monster called Kingu to make war on him.
Tiamat affixes to Kingu’s chest the Tablet of Destinies, and so on.
There are several elements here that are strange and that fire the
imagination, such as the primordial waters (a perennial theme), the
disturbance of Apsu’s sleep, the theft of Apsu’s brightness, the Sanctuary
of the Archetypes, and the Tablet of Destinies. But it is an alien
strangeness. There is no sense of an uncanny recognition, no sense
of a connection to the time and place of the myth. My suggestion is
that this is due to the fact that the time and place, and especially, the
people this myth belonged to, are so remote from us. When a mythic
tradition is the tradition of one’s own people (or near to it), then the
encounter with mythic strangeness is experienced as a weird familiarity.
It is recollective. It is a cousin to the “divine pleasure” that
Vico claims we will experience when we have found wisdom.

C. S. Lewis describes in his autobiography the kind of experience
I am talking about:
I had become fond of Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf: fond of it
in a casual, shallow way for its story and its vigorous rhythm. But
then, and quite different from such pleasures, and like a voice from
far more different regions, there came a moment when I idly turned
the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of
Tegner’s Drapa and read
I heard a voice that cried
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead—
I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge
regions of northern sky, I desired with sickening intensity something
never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe,
pale, and remote).18

As a way into the topic of the ethnic and regional character of
myth, let us examine the adjectives Lewis uses to describe his experience.
At least four of Lewis’s adjectives could also refer to the people
who inhabit his landscape: cold, severe, pale, and remote. What he
depicts is a space. He gives a description, in its essentials, of Northern
space. It is a space without human beings, and with few features.
It is like a stage without props, actors, or scenery; a setting for some
action. Within this landscape Lewis’s ancestors first encountered the
gods. Lewis, and everyone of Northern European descent, carry this
landscape around with them. When he reads stories of Northern gods
and heroes they enter this landscape and play out the stories like
actors on a stage. The gods appear only where there is openness, in a
space uncluttered by human things, i.e., not in cities, and they appear
only to an open mind, uncluttered by human contrivance and
arrogance. This landscape is the open space in which the Northern
gods first appeared; it is carried around in Northern souls as the open
channel through which they may again encounter the gods.
The Egyptian gods, with their dog heads and hawk heads, and
the Sumerian images of bug-eyed, wooly-bearded gods strike me, as
someone of Northern European descent, as strange. They do not have
the pull of the familiar or produce in me a shock of recognition because
I do not carry inside myself the Near-Eastern space within
which such gods could be reanimated.

The gods are always gods of a land. People either take in on
themselves, or are told by their gods to make their space sacred and
declare it the center of the world. Myth or experience of the gods
occurs in a land, to the people of that land. The people and the land
belong together in a mysterious bond. Different cultures require different
gods and different lands.


I have argued that myth is in part characterized by a sensuous component,
the meaning of which exhausts all philosophic attempts to
express it. I have characterized this sensuous component as weird,
and the weird as the uncanny familiar, which disturbs us with the
sense of a recognition of some primal truth. This experience of weirdness
is a function of our blood ties to the people who have expressed
a mythic tradition. Through the experience of the weird we are transported
to the mythic space and time of our ancestors. This is a “race
memory” of the original land in which our ancestors first had an experience
of the gods, and in which the myths “happened.” I have argued
that the mythic world is opened only to a people who have a land.
I have said that what we must do is immerse ourselves in the
sensus communis of our people by internalizing their myths and traditions,
and, in general, trying as much as possible to live as they
did. In this way, we make our entire lives a theatre of memory. We
create a situation which makes it more likely that we will recollect
the archai, if we are open in the way I have described.

1. Donald Phillip Verene, Hegel’s Recollection (Albany: State University
of New York Press, 1985), 24.
2. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Harmondsworth,
Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1960), 243–53.
3. Julius Evola. Revolt Against the Modern World, trans. Guido Stucco
(Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 1995). See my review of this book in New
Vico Studies 16 (1998): 115–17.
4. G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Nature, trans. J. M. Petry, 3 vols. (London:
Allen and Unwin, 1970), vol. 3, 213.
5. G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1977), 28.
6. Jakob Böhme, Der Weg zu Christo, Sixth Book, “Von Göttlicher
Beschaulichkeit,” in Sämtliche Schriften, vol. 4, ch. 1, sec. 8.
7. Donald Phillip Verene, Vico’s Science of Imagination (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1981), 40.
8. Ibid., 41.
9. Ibid., 52–53.
10. Ibid., 53.
11. Joyce, 243–53.
12. Woden is Anglo-Saxon. The Celtic equivalent of Woden may have
been Lugh.
13. T. W. Rolleston, Celtic Myths and Legends (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover,
1990; 1917), 291–92.
14. Ibid., 272.
15. Paul C. Bauschatz, The Well and the Tree (Amherst: University of
Massachusetts Press, 1982), 21–23.
16. Rolleston, 276–78.
17. In Throne of Blood (1957), Akira Kurosawa’s film version of Macbeth,
he reduces the three witches to one and sets her at a spinning wheel rather
than a cauldron.
18. Quoted in Colin Wilson, Mysteries (New York: Putnam, 1978), 591–92.
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Re: something terrific on Innate Awareness

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