The Goddess as Active Listener (Part 4)
Editor’s Note: The full text of this work comes in ten parts, which we are releasing in three installments over three consecutive weeks. For Installment 1: Parts 1–3, click here. Below we present Installment 2: Part 4.
“Gnothi Seauton” or “Know Thyself”—attributed to Socrates
But also to Chilon of Sparta, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Solon of Athens, and Thales of Miletus. Juvenal, in his 11th Satire, claimed that the precept actually descended “de caelo”—directly out of heaven.
When I met Sue Castigliano, my speech teacher during senior year at Doherty Memorial High School, it was not at first apparent that she would one day change my life. I had never before had a teacher who had any sense of who I was, of the hole in my heart or the blockage in my psyche. She was from the Midwest, not obviously countercultural—I would find out otherwise—and her most noticeable virtues were such things as calmness, openness, acceptance, and curiosity. She dressed simply. She wore very little jewelry. She was not at all theatrical, and she certainly did not announce that our speech class would be about so many things other than speech. Gently pushing aside my defenses, she reached out and down through the soul to touch me on the most elemental level. Even now, looking back from a distance of more than 40 years, and far removed from the melodrama of that period, it is hard for me to imagine who, what, or where I would be if that meeting had never taken place. Again, I exhale a sigh of relief.
It is said that when the student is ready the teacher will appear. Luckily, the teacher may also choose to appear when the student is not at all ready. She drags him, if need be kicking and screaming, into a new, more direct, but also more paradoxical relationship with the self. Socrates’ injunction, “Gnothi Seauton” or “Know Thyself,” which, according to Pausanias, was inscribed on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, is far more demanding than it has any right to be. It is a simple statement, composed of only two small words. The injunction becomes more demanding, not less, as we attempt to translate our all-too-often inflated insights into action. Who, exactly, is doing the knowing? What is the nature of the self that presents itself to be known? Perhaps what we see is the illuminated crescent at the edge of an—almost—unimaginable sphere. As with the subtle but subversive presence of the teacher, this crescent becomes more visible as we are forced to grapple with the limits of our vision, until, quite suddenly perhaps, we are led into the dark. To begin to grasp the “what” of what we are, we must let go of the fixed version of the “who.”
Is the ego the knower of the self, or is the self the knower of the ego? Perhaps the soul is itself a mask, soon to morph into a different form with the astronomical rotation of the fashion industry. Although, as a matter of convenience, I use it here, I do not like the word “ego.” Over the past six years or so, I have tended to use it less and less. I have just as little use for or patience with the all too popular term “seeker.” I far prefer Picasso’s formulation. He states—somewhat arrogantly, perhaps—“I do not seek; I find.” The term “teacher” I like more, but this term, if casually used, has problems of its own. Too many students of famous gurus, for example, can’t seem to wait to give away all of their own intuitive authority to the teacher. It can be difficult for the teacher to be idolized, either spiritually or intellectually, and many are tempted to want to turn their students into small, submissive versions of themselves. This can be as true in a PhD program in archeology as in an ashram.
Clearly, good teachers are needed to transmit information, to help students to discover themselves, and to model certain skills. We cannot do without them. Even the most abstract of knowledge is not abstract; at least in the first stages, it must come attached to a living body. In this essay, however, it is the more primal concept of “teacher”—the teacher as spiritual catalyst—that I am attempting to explore. If such teachers are, in a different way, essential, they may sometimes tend to hold themselves to a lower standard than their students: They may stamp the void with their brand; they may speak highly of their total unimportance; in an energetic contest with Joe Average, they may judge themselves the victor; they may take themselves as seriously as their most obedient followers; they may believe that the light has more to teach them than the darkness; they may take as much as they give; they may have the power to catalytically intervene but be unwilling to let go.
It is not that such teachers lack the knowledge that they claim; they may very well possess it, but they do not give it freely. They do not prefer to overflow. Rather, they choose to portion this knowledge out, and, in the process, they can come to believe their own P.R. How easy it is for the once enlightened teacher—accidentally on purpose—to be sucked into the vortex of his own charisma! Power intoxicates, and the gods do like to drink. The student may then become sadomasochistically attached to his own childhood, to the deadness of his feet and the blockage in his spine. He will not make of his heart a meeting place or expect that his head will click open like an aperture. He will see his mind as an electrochemical databank, as an empty space to be filled up with the teacher’s big ideas. He will not learn how to leap from a great height, to move into and beyond death, or to hatch the universe from an egg. He will not dare to trust that his energy is a kind of self-existent vehicle.
I think that seekers often fixate on the “shattering of the ego” as a way to prove to themselves that they actually do exist; if they do not possess any breadth of cosmic vision, they are nonetheless experts in the role from which they are trying to escape. It is far more problematic for the seeker to accept that he is where he is supposed to be, even if he has no memory at all of when this choice was made. This is not to say that he should not speak truth to power, or take action against injustice, or withhold his empathy from a person in a dead-end situation because supposedly this person has “created his own reality”; no, I say only that he should challenge himself to grasp the larger shape of his life-story, to intuit how daimon and persona fit together. The real challenge is not to be elsewhere; it is to be, more fully, here. And that, of course, is the question: just what do we mean by here?
Once, we lived in a city that we loved, a city in which humans mixed freely with the gods. That city would seem to have long ago disappeared, and yet it calls to us from the depths of the horizon. Our hand rests on the doorknob of the house where we came of age. Driven by implanted memories, the human genome dreams of a real voyage to the stars.
It is 1971. And, as my hunt for occult wealth intensifies, I am attempting to round up my predecessors. I would determine, first of all, if there was ever anyone else like me who had existed on the Earth. Arrogance and Insecurity, my twin ravens, have returned with a few drops of mercury for my cup. I have set up Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Rimbaud, and Giorgio de Chirico as my makeshift Holy Trinity. At midnight, periodically, a black pyramid will descend to crush my skull. This is less fun than it sounds.
In a manuscript from 1913, Giorgio de Chirico writes
To live in the world as in an immense museum of strangeness, full of curious multi-colored toys which change their appearance, which, like little children, we sometimes break to see how they are made on the inside, and, disappointed, realize they are empty.1Giorgio de Chirico, “Manuscript from the Collection of Paul Eluard,” from Giorgio de Chirico, James Thrall Soby, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966, page 246
As if to prove that my potential genius is a toy, and indifferent to the scale of my embarrassment, not de Chirico but de Chirico’s daimon seems to reach inside my head, whose contents he then removes to view them from odd angles. O infinite extension of the Argonaut! The daimon’s arrogance is breathtaking. It is clear that he feels no obligation to put the original contents back, so that de Chirico, the 1913 version, from his squalid studio in the rue Compagne-Premiere, somehow stares out of my eyes. In the end, I can barely recognize my mother, who begins to look suspiciously like a manikin, so that I jump when she suddenly appears, with a plate of sardines, at my door.
“The first man must have seen auguries everywhere,” writes de Chirico, “He must have trembled at each step that he took.”2Giorgio de Chirico, “Manuscript from the Collection of Paul Eluard,” from Giorgio de Chirico, James Thrall Soby, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966, page 248 It is 1917. The end of the Vietnam War is at hand, and, disoriented that it is not his shrapnel wound but the flu that has carried off Apollinaire, I am recovering from a bout of nervous exhaustion in Ferrara. “Stone engineers, though silent,” I shout, “please WASH UP ON THE BEACH. Give praise to Hygenia, the Muse.” Depositing treasures, a wave lifts me, and I can hear my floorboards creak like tectonic plates. It is 1971, the year of the industrial-strength slaughter at Verdun, and I struggle to understand why I am hovering six feet above my body. My head looks fine, so why can’t I get in? Luckily, the luminous acorn of my genius is intact. Depositing treasures, a wave lifts me, and I can hear my floorboards creak like tectonic plates. When I turn, the door’s frame is the only thing that stands.
Between 1954, the year of my birth, and 1973, 4.6 million tons of explosives are dropped on North Vietnam. Eggs of jellied fire do not play favorites with the pawns of geopolitics. Napalm burns both actors and observers to the bone, and then keeps on burning, in the souls of US citizens as well. Agent Orange defoliates at least 11,969 square miles of the land that is said to be “beloved by snakes.” I am shocked by the infinitely ballooning shadow of my country, and yet, and yet, this shadow is familiar. At my feet, an abyss opens, and I stare into its depths. “How noble are your objectives!” a voice calls from below. “You have stamped your tiny foot against the Empire! You have raged against the war machine!” My innocence sticks in my throat, and I find that I cannot breathe.
Suitably chastened, I bit by bit withdraw my energies from the stage of social justice to refocus them on a more pragmatic goal, on my slapstick perfection of the role of poete maudit. My anger then prompts the transvaluation of all values. Revolution by night prompts the achievement of omnipotence, that is, of a hollow, toy-sized version thereof, which is nonetheless somewhat satisfying. Following in the sacred footsteps of Rimbaud, I do my best to practice the “systematic derangement of the senses”—as though my senses had not so far been adequately deranged, as though I had not lost some 98 percent of them at birth. I begin to wear a beret and smoke a historically-accurate clay pipe. The grand rhetorical gesture is supreme, as in this passage from A Season in Hell, in which Rimbaud reminisces that “Disaster was my god. I called to my executioners to let me bite the ends of their guns, as I died. Spring brought to me the idiot’s terrifying laughter.”3Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell, translated by Wallace Fowlie, The University of Chicago Press, 1966, page 173
“Je est un autre,” “I is an other.”4Letter to Paul Demeny, Charleville, 15 May 1871 As was specified by Breton, true beauty should be convulsive. Nietzsche is a better friend than Jesus, who had followers, who were Christians, who in their current versions are far less likeable than when they had volunteered to be martyrs. What a nerve to have chickened out on the Apocalypse, the one in 72 AD. An experience of the “Eternal Return” is triggered by the turning pedals of my bicycle. It is almost certain that, any day now, Parmenides will provide me with the key to perpetual motion. A dragonfly landing on a milkweed pod is somehow taken for a prophesy. Yogic breathing exercises will yet give birth to a race of cyborg Ubermenchen. Always, the entire visible world is about to pass out of existence.
If I, as “Brian George,” now exist in more than one location, you must place the blame squarely on the other one, the other Brian, who is dead. As the bird-chirps of the Underworld echo in my ears, I can feel the hand of a goddess still resting on my shoulder.
The process of self-discovery is a paradoxical one, as I have said, which for most of us demands the steady hand of a guide, of a living person who is fated to perform the role of the psychopomp. His or her magnetic power draws us into the orbit of the self. The teacher confronts us with an inexplicable presence, a presence which, as we torture our minds to demystify its movements, we understand less and less. There is no way to encircle the motives of such a presence in advance. They cannot be grasped from the outside in, or as a matter of theory. They are always more and other than they were. For each clear purpose, there is always an unmediated shadow, within which a far vaster purpose breathes. Given the importance of this role—the fact that billions of bits of information may not add up to real knowledge, and that knowledge, left to its own devices, is no substitute for vision—it is shocking that students can go from k-1 through grade 12 without ever meeting a teacher who might serve in this capacity. But then again, a public school is probably the last place that one should expect to find such guidance, and the tarred and feathered pyschopomp would most often be run out of town on a rail.
What would have happened to me if I had not met this particular teacher when I did, if she had travelled to some city other than Worcester from Ohio, if she had made use of the more typical “one-size-fits-all” approach, if the snakes from Minos had not wrapped around her arms? I might have eventually become more or less who or what I am—assuming that I did not slip and fall into psychosis—but I would lack a sense of trust in the origin of things, a sense of confidence equal to my desire for self-realization. As self-determined as I like to believe myself to be, so much of what and who I am is the result of the well-timed intervention of others, in this case Sue Castigliano, who so generously gave what I could not provide for myself.
Through the years of adolescent angst, I had grown away from childhood without making any progress towards adulthood. My parents had divorced when I was four years old, and my mother never quite recovered from the experience. From the time of their divorce until the day he died, my mother spoke less than a hundred words to my father. His name had gone into her black book of real and imagined wrongs. She did not forgive. It would not be taken out. As though out of nowhere, the happy nuclear family had exploded. I remember the shock of being evicted from the garden, at whose gate a fiery sword revolved. I remember how, in the short period before this, I would get into fistfights for no particular reason, from a sheer excess of energy, for the joy of it. I would wake up singing with the birds without even being aware that I was singing. How I treasure those few early years as an extrovert.
At the age of five, I had been unofficially appointed to serve as a kind of surrogate parent for my mother. As though she and not I were in need, I would sometimes rock her as she sobbed, uncontrollably, in my arms. I had to pretend to be strong enough for both of us.
I was left with an unacknowledged sense of abandonment. Distantly aware of being angry, perhaps a bit more aware of having lost my sense of trust, of the ache in my heart, I knew these emotions only through their symptoms. I did not choose to confront my reflection in the mirror, for fear of falling through. I no longer enjoyed getting into fistfights; it had become a chore, not a pleasure. Instead, I got into arguments, in which I would go to any lengths to prove the dolt-like nature of my opponents. Somewhat later, starting in my senior year of high school—at the same time, curiously, that I took my first literary baby steps—I would often be very hesitant to drift off into sleep, for fear that I would not know who I was when I woke up, of not being sane. Planets would taunt me with their superior musical ability. I could barely play the recorder. I went through a long period of being terrified of perspective. I saw distance as a threat. I would not allow my eyes to drift down the converging lines of Main Street, for fear that I might be sucked out of my skin, for fear that the horizon would eat me. I was careful to focus only on signs and objects in the foreground.
Black magic had turned the too conscientious child into a headless plastic doll. “What a stupid place the world is,” it thought. “Let me share my new-found freedom.” Where the self should be, there were atoms, clashing. There were voids inside of voids. Used to being around adults, I could camouflage my thoughts in articulate form. On a good day, I could pass for a responsible young revolutionary. In due course, my comrades would overthrow the government. The industrial age would spontaneously combust. Chants would levitate the Pentagon. An urban gorilla at 17, I could strip and reassemble my attitude like an AK 47. Bourgeois robots would creak and beg for oil on a forced march to the amber fields of grain. A part of me was still very much a child, hurt and confused, who had no desire to expose his vulnerabilities to others. I wanted to disappear into the branches of my favorite apple tree, to daydream for hours as the clouds changed shape, to feel the Earth darken as the afternoon wore on. I would watch in secret as smoke billowed from a factory, beneath whose stacks the ant-sized workers crawled.
I cannot say exactly how Sue Castigliano changed me. I can only say that through and because of her a change took place. Stepping from the cave-mouth of a dream, the Goddess of Active Listening took my hand. By the end of the year, my concept of strength had been dissolved and reconfigured. I was less afraid of fear. Without yet knowing how to access what I knew, I had begun to see my wounds as so much raw material, the dark matter with which an alchemist might one day create wealth. It is as though my teacher had said, “What you see before you is now yours for the asking. The world is no longer a vast and anonymous space. It is a book that waits to be opened. Here, open it, and read.”
|↑1||Giorgio de Chirico, “Manuscript from the Collection of Paul Eluard,” from Giorgio de Chirico, James Thrall Soby, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966, page 246|
|↑2||Giorgio de Chirico, “Manuscript from the Collection of Paul Eluard,” from Giorgio de Chirico, James Thrall Soby, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966, page 248|
|↑3||Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell, translated by Wallace Fowlie, The University of Chicago Press, 1966, page 173|
|↑4||Letter to Paul Demeny, Charleville, 15 May 1871|