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Ego, Irony, and the Goddess

"Goddess with Flares" from the portfolio "On Fire", by Judy Chicago, 1972. Printed 2013. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment.

This month the MythBlast Series is focusing on Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine which is, I think, a tremendously important contribution to the Campbell oeuvre edited by the gifted Safron Rossi (who is also a contributor to the MythBlast Series). This is a text that seems infinitely rewarding in its breadth, its depth, in its treatment of ego and, less explicitly, irony. In her introduction, Dr. Rossi writes of the Campbell lectures that constitute the text:

These lectures are investigations of the symbolic, mythological, and archetypal themes of the feminine divine in and of herself, and for Campbell her main themes are initiation into the mysteries of immanence experienced through time and space and the eternal; transformation of life and death; and the energy consciousness that informs and enlivens all life.(ix-x)

The reason that this text is so illuminating in its treatment of these three main themes is to be found (and this is true of mythology in general) in its exploration of reality, both material and immaterial, through the use of metaphoric irony. Ironic metaphor is pleasingly effective because it intensifies and subverts reality through resemblance and sharpens the perception, comprehension, and significance of the events and experiences that constitute the human condition. It results in “a sense of reality keen enough to be in excess of the normal sense of reality [and] creates a reality of its own.” (Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and Imagination, 79)

As for the ego, its relationship to reality is tenuous. The ego seeks to find itself reflected everywhere, and insists that that reflected ego is itself reality. Additionally, it’s problematic that the ego oscillates between fear and desire, and “reality” is perceived largely within that dialectic:

The fear of death is the fear of death to your ego, and the desire that the ego should enjoy the goods that it is interested in—these are what keep you from realizing your immortality. Fear and desire are the clashing rocks that exclude us from the intuition of our own immortal character. Joseph Campbell, Goddesses, 189

The ego’s insistence that its own reflection is really reality is made more complicated by the fact that, simply put, we do not know ourselves. But ignorance of one’s self is a hard thought for the ego to bear, and subsequently the ego finds it too painful to live in the gap between what it wants reality to be and what reality is. Metaphor and irony compellingly explore that gap which, when we more closely examine it, reveals itself to be a seam or a scar that knits together that which we think we know and that which we don't (or can't) know. Living in and exploring the gap necessarily diminishes and distresses the ego, which is forced to become a witness to, rather than the creator of, phenomenality. Because the ego expects to find its own reflection everywhere, the failure to decenter the ego results in reducing myth to an amusement, an inconsequential role-playing diversion whose object is merely to match qualities to archetypes while entirely ignoring the reality, and especially the force, of the archetypal.

So how does one “get around” the ego? How can the ego be decentered? One way, and I think it’s an exceptionally effective way, is to cultivate a sense of the ironic. Irony is the pin that pops the ego’s inflation, calms its desires and fears, and allows one to live more enthusiastically, more gallantly, more genuinely, amidst what Wordsworth called “the still, sad, music of life.” Soren Kierkegaard put it this way:

Irony is a disciplinarian feared only by those who do not know it, but cherished by those who do. He who does not understand irony and has no ear for its whispering lacks eo ipso what might be called the absolute beginning of the personal life. He lacks what at moments is indispensable for the personal life, lacks both the regeneration and rejuvenation, the cleaning baptism of irony that redeems the soul from having its life in finitude though living boldly and energetically in finitude.Kierkegaard’s Writings, II, Volume II: The Concept of Irony

Irony turns things inside out and upside down; it upends and reverses things; irony deconstructs and overthrows, it draws attention to the discrepancy between literal meaning and essential meaning. Myth, properly read, is always ironic. While the ego fears its decentering as a literal death, from the perspective of metaphysical irony, Campbell tells us that the death of the ego heralds the experience of the transcendent.

In many traditions the great Goddesses are often found in relationship to darkness and the depths—the telesterions of life where one is exposed to sorrows and fear, even to tragedy. In those dark manifestations She is the Initiatrix who cleanses the doors of perception which open to the transformation of consciousness and the transcendent. But the benefit of those experiences—experiences that "normal," daylight consciousness always fails to understand and would rather pathologize—is that the ego cannot extend itself fully into these dark depths so it is there, in darkness and uncertainty, disabused of the comfort of the ego’s pleasing illusions, that we are confronted with who and what we really are. She, with her dark materials, pushes us along toward individuation and wholeness. “The rapture of the tragedy is the rapture of seeing the form broken for a flowing through of the radiance of the transcendent light.” (Joseph Campbell, Goddesses, 217)

Irony is the indispensable attitude for engaging the goddess in her depths and darkness—darkness that places the radiance of transcendence in bold relief. Irony is life’s language; it grants one multiple points of view, it lets one see oneself seeing oneself, and mercifully, irony saves us from sarcasm, cynicism, and desuetude, the demoralized manifestations of broken hearts. 

Perhaps you’ve looked around and noticed how unforgiving and thoughtless culture is becoming; aesthetic sensibilities wane as we flirt with the neo-brutalism that encroaches upon so many aspects of contemporary life. Is it possible that irony may free us from the conventional constraining literalism of existence? Through irony might we see more deeply into the metaphor that is life, and in so seeing grow wiser, more joyful, humbler, and indeed, more compassionate?

Thanks for reading.


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