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The Healing Fullness of the Wasteland

Parzival in the Waste Land (from Parsifal or the Legend of the Holy Grail, illustrated by Willy Pogany, print, United States, 1912)

Who will tell the stories if not You?

Who will tell the story if not Me?

Who will tell Our story if not Us?

My story begins in the 70’s. A time of dissolution.

I grew up in an environment haunted by nostalgia for the authentic energy of the 60’s, when everything was possible. Inadvertently, my dad’s longing for the past, for when he’d felt something magical and real, left me with the feeling that I’d been born into a time of wasteland.

The condition was archetypal.

Dad’s hunger swallowed the oxygen in our house so that my two sisters and I slipped into the strange underworld of his quest for “the blue diamonds.” Because Dad was on this quest, he pulled his children into the archetypal terrain of the great grail legends.

And it wasn’t just our family.

It was the culture of the 70’s, from those burning up in drugs and disco, who eventually flamed out, and those drowning, in the cults and spiritual by-passes manifested in obsessions with transcendental meditation, cults, India, gurus. Tune Out. Tune In.

Anywhere but here.

Anywhere but Home.

Shamans, Healers, Artists, Shysters, all of these mythological energies, literally populated my father’s dinner table. They should have been wise. But consistent with the condition of the wasteland that Joseph Campbell explores in Creative Mythology (Masks of God, volume IV), these characters were like the wounded grail king: invested with an inherited function in a role wherein they did not understand the spiritual function of the task at hand.

False Fathers…

Campbell was never a False Father.

He told me that I was like Telemechus, Odysseus’ son. And I grew up in a time that was something like the conditions of Ithaca Homer described: Kingless. Campbell gave me a mythological frame to understand that the curse of the world I’d been born into was really initiatory.

The 70’s, a time which was for me, un-parented, was an expression of a mythological theme, and a time that had happened before.  Campbell shows us how the great grail stories can be used as a map to a road through an existential condition.

This condition is not a problem.

It is the call to the hero’s journey.

The messy middle of the story we are born into is, through failure, personified in the Grail King and dramatized in Parzival’s first debacle at the Grail Castle.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Act II of the grail legend’s hero’s journey, curiously enough, shifts.

From Father and Son stories we move into the terrain of a Love Story. Think of Parzival’s Act II in Gawain and Orgeleuse.  Find Love Story again in Tristan and Isolde.

In failure, in love, we find individual authentic experiences with the potential to re-order us.

Together, these challenges shatter the  daylight world, dropping us into night.

Night serves a function.

The function isn’t for us to be disillusioned, to tune out, get high, or escape and remain disillusioned.

Burning up and drowning are initiatory

The function of these experiences is for us to move through, to the very bottom, like Dante, moving through hell, until we have reached the nadir, and then, begin the ascent.

Disillusion, of both the Grail Legends and of the 70’s, serves a mythological function.

If gone through without succumbing to the drama of the wound like the Grail King, we find, on the other side….Fullness.

Fullness as found in the path of our becoming.

Break down via Failure.

Break through via Love.

The very ordinary experiences of our lives, (who doesn’t fail? who doesn’t experience love?), reveal our living myth when we relate to them at the symbolic dimension of their meaning.

Campbell tells us that the question  of meaning, a question to be asked by the young hero of the Grail quest when he beholds the rites of the Grail Castle, is about “the release of the sufferer from his pain and the transfer of the role to the questioner.” At this moment, there is “an experience possible for which the hero’s arrival at the world axis and his readiness to learn, (as demonstrated by his question), have proven him eligible. Will he be able to support it?...The problem of the Grail hero will therefore be: to ask the question relieving the Maimed King in such a way as to inherit his role without the Wound” (Creative Mythology, 424).

What that means, as it plays itself out, is that a life looks a lot like the stories Campbell retells in Creative Mythology. We are Parzival. We are Tristan and Isolde. The two stories are merely two acts of our larger journey. Wasteland is about Failure, in the beginning and middle, but further, needs Love to find its way home to Fullness.

This is a constant leitmotif resounding through Campbell’s work and message. Through failure, love, suffering, woundedness, all experiences of night, we find our way to the mythological dimension of our lives.


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