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The Healing Integrity of Love

Parcival arrives at the Grail Castle, to be greeted by the Fisher King. From a 1330 manuscript of Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes. Artist unknown. Public Domain.

Our featured volume this month in the MythBlast Series is Joseph Campbell’s Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth. There is much to like about this lovely volume as it contains, to quote Zorba the Greek, “everything. The full catastrophe.” But for now, I’m mostly curious to look at the way suffering and healing is treated in the Arthurian Romances and, by extension, in mythology in general.  

The Arthurian Romances aren’t merely legends or literary works; taken as a whole, they form an entire chivalric age. This age seems increasingly distant or fanciful to contemporary readers, an epic period in which honor and nobility, truthfulness and fidelity, call forth a wondrous, enchanted world. It teems with extravagantly impossible challenges which are, in the end, made possible. Contradiction and confusion are baked into the Grail legends; they operate in this literature much in the same way consciousness itself operates, teaching the reader that what is omitted, what is left out or repressed, always returns to unsettle every settled interpretation, no matter how monolithic it may at first seem.

Initial failure is a necessary feature of the grail quest, and that’s why the Grail hero is inevitably a callow, naïve, inexperienced youth; a beginner in over his head. The beginner’s mind is of the utmost importance because for a beginner there are a multitude of possibilities, while for an expert, there are few. Because beginners often fail, they must remain open to constant questioning, improvisation, and revision—qualities that are indispensable when dealing with phenomena that can never be fully known or adequately represented by human—all-too-human—beings. Professor Campbell puts it this way: 

“The goal of the Grail hero is to heal that wound, but he is to do so without knowing how he is to do so. He is to be a perfect innocent, not to know the rules of the quest, and he is to ask spontaneously, ‘What is the matter?’”Romance of the Grail, 26

The quest begins in earnest only after the hero has failed in his first, unintentional visit to the Grail Castle and commits to returning to it once again in order to, as Jessie Weston puts it, fulfill “the conditions which shall qualify him to obtain a full knowledge of the marvels he has beheld.” (The Quest of the Holy Grail, 45) Epistemological narcissism, unreflected certainty, and dogma snuffs out innocence and provokes the Grail Castle to disappear even farther into the metaphysical mists. 

Fully immersed in the initiatory situation, the innocent quester is progressively introduced to suffering, his own and that of others. Suffering is among the most important symbols in the Grail Romances. Arthurian Romances and mythology in general are not very prescriptive when it comes to disease and physical suffering. Rather, myth largely focuses on learning to see through our physical suffering to the spiritual malaise that afflicts us. When the soul suffers, the body cries out.  

The Grail King suffers from a parmi les cuisses, and his suffering is directly related to the wasting away of all that he oversees. This phrase, parmi les cuisses (literally meaning among the thighs), is a euphemism for a wound to the genitals. This association has its roots in a belief, shared by many cultures in antiquity, that semen was produced in several places in the body, including the marrow of the thigh bone, and the thigh’s proximity to the testicles resulted in a close association between thighs and the male genitalia. It is, however, crucial to remember that there are always two orders or levels to consider when reading myth: the lower order deals with the more literal aspects of material existence, the creative principles of fertility and generation, choice and action, and physical birth and death. The higher order deals with the mysteries of spiritual renewal and revivification, and spiritual death and rebirth. A wound to the genitalia is, from this perspective, very different from the cringe-inducing image of a physical wound. 

For example, both Odysseus and Captain Ahab suffer from parmi les cuisses. Odysseus has a scar on his thigh where he was gored by a boar when he was a boy and in his later life, it revealed his identity. Odysseus’ scarred-over wound symbolically constellates the defenselessness, disarray, and destruction of his home and property by the bivouacked hungry suitors. The thigh scar presages his twenty-year disappearance, the lonely confinement of his wife, and the self-doubting son deprived of a father's instruction. And Ahab didn’t merely lose his leg to Moby Dick; Ishmael tells us:

“For it had not been very long prior to the Pequod’s sailing from Nantucket, that he had been found one night lying prone upon the ground, and insensible; by some unknown, and seemingly inexplicable, unimaginable casualty, his ivory limb having been so violently displaced, that it had stake-wise smitten, and all but pierced his groin.” Moby Dick, Chapter 106 

In Moby Dick, Ahab’s wound is tied to the scarcity of whale sightings, the frequent tide overs, the onboard mishaps, his own emotional and physical isolation from his young wife, their new child, his crew, and the emptiness of his own heart. Physical wounding in myth is a symbol of spiritual suffering.

Compassion is what heals such a wound—not diagnosis, prescriptions for medication, or surgery. The suffering is relieved by asking, in all innocence, a question, the answer to which cannot be known by the questioner: “Uncle, what ails thee?” This healing question is the therapeutic move, the healing application of compassion: You tell me what is wrong because I can’t know, and when you tell me, I will stand in that suffering with you until you discover that you can bear it. Joseph Campbell writes that it is through Parzival’s “integrity in love that he finally becomes the Grail King and heals Anfortas and the land.” (Romance of the Grail 50) What better way to describe compassion than integrity in love? 

Epistemic certainty defenestrates compassion and throws one out of, not only the mystery of life, but out of relationship as well, because both compassion and relationship require wonder, openness, curiosity, and humanity. If we are to “finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds” as well as heal ourselves, “Compassion alone is the key...,” (90) Campbell writes, and compassion alone unlocks the door to healing—and bliss.


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