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  • The Ripening Outcast

    Although famous for stressing the psychological and metaphysical dimensions of myth, Joseph Campbell also had a grasp of myth’s historic foundations, including its sociological and ethnological inflexions in specific environments. When discussing Hinduism, for instance, Campbell is quite aware of the basic material conditions reflected in mythic archetypes such as that of Manu, the Hindu prototype of the Primordial Man, the First Man and progenitor of humanity. As an image of the archetypal Self, Manu is at once an individual and a symbol of real collective power in the world. It constitutes a certain spirit or “mentality” which is both a literal force and an ideology exercising its domination over the social body. In his beautiful exploration of Indian mythology, Campbell shows us that myth is “real” in the sense of being an ideological structure that interweaves the political and socio-economic fabric of society. That is why real myth never needs to be literally “believed in” by individuals, for it is like the very air we breathe, the unquestioned reality of our social existence. On the other hand, when myth becomes an explicit object for us, an object called “myth,” it is already dead, having become a historical phenomenon. Living myth is, by definition, a collective manifestation of the archetypal psyche; it is not simply a metaphor for the reflection of my private experience. The latter is “myth” in the sense of fantasy or an aesthetic plaything but not in the sense of an existential commitment to the truth of our lives. Rather than being a specific object in the world, therefore, true myth constitutes our very sense of actual reality. That is why it is so hard to see it, not because it lies buried in some deep cavern of the soul, but because it is so close to us, so familiar, so taken-for-granted — like the very end of our nose that we never see and yet follow religiously! As Campbell turns his discussion of Hinduism to the ‘Spirit’ or mentality of Manu, the harshest aspects of true myth come to the surface: I have discussed the Indian law books, the so-called Laws of Manu. Manu is a word related to our word man, also mentality. Manu is the sort of primordial man image of India. The Laws of Manu say in one passage that I remember reading with amazement, that if a śūdra hears the recitation of the Vedas, even by accident, he shall have boiling lead poured into his ears. The Vedas are power, in both senses of the word; they are like atomic secrets. They are the powers by which the brahmins direct the energies of the universe, and this power must not be leaked to the subject people. (Myths of Light, 107) Now, what a śūdra or shudra is in the context of the caste system may need some clarification for those not familiar with it. For the symbolic order of Manu constitutes a mythology of its own, wherein each caste of the system is assigned a function analogous to the various functions of the human body. The brahmins constitute the head of the social body; they are the intellectual and religious elite, preoccupied with sacred texts and esoteric research. Then we have the kshatriyas who are represented by the arms and thighs; they are the “doers” who constitute the political class, the rulers and administrators of the state, also known as the “warrior cast.” The merchant class, vaisya, are the “providers” who are aptly represented by the belly. Then the fourth and lowest caste, the shudra, are the feet of the society, a class of servants or working poor which do all the manual labor. Lastly, we have to name the nameless class, the literal out-casts of the caste system: the dalit — a term more literally translated as “divided, broken, or scattered.” This is the class of people infamously labeled “untouchables,” the lowest strata of society, who effectively occupy the position of being “part of no part,” lacking any generally defining characteristic as a social group or caste. They are nevertheless tasked as a group with the removal of human feces, dead animals, and the like, and, for that reason, they are deemed to be spiritually and biologically “contaminated” and therefore “inferior.” This kind of viralquality associated with the dalit is also shared by the shudras, as Campbell describes it: Why may the brahmin not accept water from these lower śūdra? Because he would become contaminated. These people, the śūdras, are regarded not only as socially but also as spiritually low. It is as though they were diseased and to touch the unclean śūdra, that is to say those from whom one cannot take water, is to contaminate yourself with a spiritual infection. The ruthless avoidance of these people, what is, from our standpoint, the horror of their lives, is a function of the belief that they are infectious, like lepers; they are spiritual plague bearers.Myths of Light, 107 The equation of horrible social oppression with the functioning of a myth that sanctifies it should not escape our eye. It is a kind of transcendent union of physical and metaphysical violence which has been produced by a fierce antagonism that has raged in the collective unconscious from time immemorial. Violence is constitutional of any nation state; rather than being some kind of glitch in the system, such violence underpins its very functioning, the capacity to produce and reproduce itself and its relations of power. As ruling ideology, therefore, real myth casts and recasts the heart of a society, throwing its deep historical shadow into the darkness of human existence.

  • Leaky Transcendence

    Joseph Campbell thought a lot about the differences between Eastern and Western mythologies, and one of the key distinctions he identified lies in the degree to which the absolute truths that condition, guide, and can inform our lives, are transcendent – and there are some wrinkles in the way the West defines transcendence. “In Occidental theology, the word transcendent is used to mean outside of the world. In the East, it means outside of thought.” (Myths of Light, 6) Let’s start with the West. In Myths of Light Campbell recalls an illuminating exchange with Martin Buber who had just finished a lecture on the ineffability and transcendence of the Judeo-Christian God. After the lecture Campbell asked Buber,  “I don’t know what you mean by God. You’re telling us that God has hidden his face. Now, I’m just back from India, where people are experiencing and beholding God all the time.” This caused some commotion. Buber apparently “…backed away and then, acting as though it were an inconsequential matter, he said, ‘Everyone must come out of his exile in his own way.’” (Myths of Light, 2) Buber finds us wandering in eternal exile, separated from God, from the ground of our spiritual existence. Normally, one might think, religion does the job of bridging this chasm — but no. Campbell was fond of quoting Carl Jung’s observation to the effect that: “the purpose of religion is to keep us from having religious experiences.” In the West, direct experience of God is kept safely locked away from spiritual pilgrims by the fortress walls of divine transcendence. The Gospel of John, which identifies Jesus with the transcendent figure of God the Father, was preferred to the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, which suggests that “the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the world, but men do not see it.” This stark transcendence shows up most famously, perhaps, in Exodus. Moses wanted to see God. God explains, patiently, that no one can look at His face and live (Exodus 33:20). Moses insists and then almost dies from getting a glimpse of God’s backside (Exodus 33:22). These are examples of the “official” version. God lies beyond understanding and experience. We are only given a taste of this transcendence through the intermediaries of a sacred text, an assortment of prophets, and the communion wafer. All of these establish a relation to, rather than a possible identification with, the infinite — and with our own spiritual authenticity. We are always in exile — always wandering towards, never quite being with. But there’s a problem here. If transcendence were truly transcendent, how could we know about it at all? If God lies beyond the possibility of thought or understanding, then how can we think about this transcendent G.O.D. at all? Answer: transcendence leaks. By contrast, under most Eastern mythologies — consider Hinduism, Daoism, and Buddhism — we can follow a trail of breadcrumbs toward what we have not yet, but eventually may, experience. These experiences are transcendent to our normal understanding, but only at first. Eventually, with sufficient practice, diligence, and luck, we can come to identify with and experience realities that transcend our mundane, and less authentic, selves. Why? Because transcendence leaks. In the West this is a problem. In the East it’s a feature. It’s a problem in the West because, the way transcendence has been defined prevents mythology from performing one of its primary functions: “…to present an image of the universe that connects the transcendent to the world of everyday experience.” (Myths of Light, 5) In the West this connection is still funneled through religious institutions, and anyone who stepped around these officially sanctioned relationships, typically as a result of mystical and direct experience of the divine, wound up in great personal danger. One of my teachers liked to note that whenever the Church ran into a real mystic, they either turned them into a saint or burned them at the stake. This officially sanctioned definition of transcendence has permeated our culture in the West and, to that degree, cuts people off from making a personal, spiritual quest. It also puts that power in the hands of religious institutions. But people manage to pursue and experience transcendence anyway. How? Because transcendence leaks. Campbell quotes Schopenhauer who referred to the paradox of leaky transcendence as the “world knot” noting that “If we could understand that, we would understand all, but it cannot be understood.” (Myths of Light, 38) It’s a knotty knot for sure, but I want to call it a naughty knot because of the tantric implications of kundalini, and because it embodies a kind of flirtation between the infinite and the finite characteristic of the experience. This Gordian Knot is at the heart of how the transcendent and the immanent are intertwined, symbolized by the interlaced upward and downward pointing triangles we find in the west, or in the interlaced arms and legs of Shiva and Shakti in yab yum. Such a knot cannot be untangled but only cut through by experience yoked to raja yoga in the case of kundalini, or to bhakti yoga in the case of, let’s say, praying the Rosary. So, for those of us raised under Western mythological frameworks, how are we supposed to experience transcendent truths when the official definition says we can’t? All we have to do is follow the footsteps of the Buddha — or Jesus, or Mohammed — and quit worrying about definitions. Our feet are already soaking wet with transcendence. Thanks for musing along.

  • Amor Fati – Love Your Fate

    This is a very strange time we find ourselves in. Many mythologists are taking on the myths and meaning behind our sudden isolation and how it has driven us into our homes and away from the things of the world. I had just moved from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree and was struggling to adjust to my new environment when the pandemic took hold. I was already feeling isolated out here in the desert, its vast expanses so different from the crowded concrete world of the city. Strangely, the pandemic has made me feel far less isolated and more connected than ever. I am now able to attend events in LA through Zoom. I was elated at first by my new-found ability to reconnect with the life I had, until this week when I came face to face with my fate. I was participating in an event called Myth Salon, which I often attended monthly when I lived in Los Angeles. However, they’ve moved online due to our current circumstances, allowing me to attend from the comfort of my new home. This week, one of my myth colleagues was presenting on the mythology of our isolation. He and the panelists were brilliant, weaving story and emotion into the conversation. Yet, even with this brilliance before me, I felt myself sinking deeper and deeper into despair. I wondered why this presentation on what I love — mythology — had me feeling so dark. I had discovered myth through Joseph Campbell’s conversation  with Bill Moyers in “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth” so long ago. While watching the PBS series on TV, I experienced that “aha!” moment; I found a spark of the divine that would carry me far, including years of studying Campbell’s works, and finally to a graduate program at Pacifica Graduate Institute. So what was different now? I had lost that spark, that bliss that had carried me so far. I turned inside, and I also turned to Campbell’s work to see if I could rediscover my bliss. Can we simply summon up that feeling of awe? I wasn’t feeling it at all. However, synchronously, at this moment my closest friend, who is isolating with family in Montana, happened to be watching the Power of Myth for the first time. She texted the word “nihilism” and that Campbell said we must embrace all of life, the good and the bad. I had just turned to page 88 in Myths of Light, where Campbell mentions “this glorious approach to life,” Nietzsche’s “amor fati.” Quoting Seneca, Campbell says, “‘He who goes with fate the fates lead; he who resists fate the fates pull’ [...] In coming into this world at this time, you wanted it at this time. It’s a big, great thing you decided to do – don’t lose your nerve. Go through and play the game.” Amor fati. Love your fate. This concept has come up several times over the last two weeks: first in a blog I follow, then in a friend’s presentation to a group in India, and now here it was again. It appears as though fate is intervening in my life, reminding me to embrace my own fate, my circumstances. It is a Buddhist concept as well: to be happy even with your struggles, for you are strong and becoming stronger. In Myths of Light, Campbell describes Jiva, and viva, “the living force that keeps putting bodies on,” the being who reincarnates to experience and learn (45). He says, “if you will realize that this (life here and now) is nirvana, you will lose that will to get loose and you will be loose while alive.” Nirvana, bliss, awe, rapture, the sublime; Campbell has used all these words to describe the indescribable. Mythology helps us to connect with the mystery behind all of life, “to help us realize that that being which is transcendent of definition is our own being.” (71) For me, the experience of this is that “aha” moment when consciousness dissolves into the mystery. Last year at this time, I witnessed the defense of a dissertation by Devon Deimler, entitled "Ultraviolet Concrete: Dionysos and the Ecstatic Play of Aesthetic Experience." I highly recommend it.  It is about this ecstasy, this Dionysian experience of being beyond the conscious world. I FELT this throughout her defense. Talking about it IS my bliss. And while it may seem a frivolous endeavor during unstable times like these, I would encourage you to find that which moves you in that deep, indescribable way and bring it into the world, for it may be the most worthy endeavor of your life. Campbell states, “There is not a power in the world greater than a fulfilled, noble human being.” (19) Give that gift to the world and let that spread like a virus, so that we all may stand in awe of our existence on this planet, no matter what life brings.

  • The Tiger King

    Joseph Campbell often told a story that he recounts near the end of his book, Myths of Light. In the fable, a baby tiger’s mother is killed while hunting goats. The young tiger is raised by the goats his mother was hunting, and he never realized that he was different from his bleating peers. Eventually, the child meets an adult tiger who makes numerous attempts to show the little one what he really is. He shows the tiny tiger his reflection in a quiet pond and explains that he’s a tiger, not a goat. Finally, the elder tiger shoves the flesh of a gazelle at the younger, who after initially claiming to be a vegetarian, gags on the meat as he swallows it. Campbell tells us that the young tiger begins to feel a buzz inside him — something he had never felt before. All of the sudden, without even knowing it, the child lets loose with something that is not quite a roar, but enough so that the older tiger, who knew roars, recognized it as a possibility. (Myths of Light, 138-140) Our initial inclination with the story is to examine ourselves in terms of the baby tiger. We might consider our own awakening. We might recount the gagging we experienced when we first tasted the food that was right for us. While this story holds a number of lenses that we can benefit from, perhaps one of the more underappreciated aspects of the tale is the persistence of the elder tiger. Putting ourselves in that character’s noble position is a bit harder to romanticize. Being the elder tiger in the story requires patience, maturity, and the ability to see something in someone else that they may not see in themselves. It requires being willing to watch the younger tiger choke on the food that you know to be delicious, and then preparing a second course. Being the elder tiger requires vision. It requires humility. It requires an advanced death of the ego that many of us never achieve. The younger tiger experiences the excitement of transformation and often gets all the publicity and acclaim. The elder tiger must watch from behind with a smile, recognizing their role that was played in the transformation, even when no one else is aware. Netflix had a hit series a few months ago called Tiger King. It centered on a gargantuan battle of egos. The natural swagger of the animals featured throughout the series seemed to reflect the hubris of the human characters in the story. It’s no coincidence that the animals present in Campbell’s story are tigers, either. The insights required to unpack the ego-related issues in the symbolism of the tiger give the narrative rich layers. While often awarded the title of “king” in various corners of culture, lions live together in prides, whereas tigers prefer to be alone. An investment in someone else becomes an even greater challenge for the symbolically solitary tiger. It requires a greater deflation of the ego — something the characters in Tiger King never seem to fully grasp. All of us can point to elder tigers that have been formative in our lives. They are those who offered well-timed words of wisdom. They are those who introduced us to new food, food which we might have initially rejected, but later came to love. They are those who helped us see who we really were and returned to remind us when we began to lose sight of it. One of the unintended ironies of Campbell telling this story, of course, is that he has served as the elder tiger for so many. Scores of seekers have come to understand who they are a result of his words. I never got the opportunity to meet Joseph Campbell in person, though he has influenced me greatly. I have been fortunate enough to meet people who knew him, and who have dedicated themselves to seeing his work sustained. One of those men has invested in me over the past year. He has been that elder tiger — a Tiger King of sorts — more interested in my maturation than his own ego. He has seen things in me that I was unable to see in myself, and I am forever grateful. He knows who he is, and I am confident he will read this. I’ve tried to take every opportunity I can to let him know about my appreciation of his investment because we live in a world where people tend to hear plenty about what others dislike about them and far too little about what they do. It’s crucial that we honor our elder tigers, and that eventually we, too, take the time to guide younger cubs that we encounter to that quiet lake and invite them to see who they really are.

  • You Are It And It Is Nothing

    “Can you make no use of nothing, Nuncle?” (Shakespeare, King Lear, 1.4.658) Lear may not have been able to make use of nothing, but Joseph Campbell certainly did. In Campbell’s book, Myths of Light: Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal, the idea of nothingness—nothing, no-thingness—is one of the important concepts to grasp: What can we say of this strange thing that happens between here and here, so that here there is nothing? You cannot say a thing either is or is not. The things are no things, there is nothing there. (Myths of Light, 73) Nothing is a difficult notion to work with; it is antithetical to the sort of materialistic, dualistic thinking to which most of us are accustomed. The nothingness that Campbell refers to is not merely the negation of being, but rather it is the ground of everything, the ground of grounds, “since it throws all beings into their limits.” (Martin Heidegger, The Principles of Reason) In this volume Campbell tells a delightful story about a young student who is stymied in his attempt to see his guru who lives on the other side of an overflowing, flooded river. The student says, “My teacher is the vehicle of truth to me, he is my god, he is my oracle, I will think about my teacher and I’ll walk across the water, and so I did. I thought, Guru, guru, guru,” and he successfully walked across the flooded river atop its engorged waters. Well, the guru was a bit gob smacked by his student’s disclosure, and Campbell tells us: When the student goes, the teacher thinks this was in him. He says, “I’ll go to try this thing. I’ve got to see how this works.” So he looks around to see if anybody’s watching. When he is sure he is alone, he goes down to the water and looks at the rushing torrent. He thinks, I’m going to do it. He thinks, I, I, I. He steps out onto the river. . .and he sinks like a stone.The only reason one can walk across water is that there is nobody there; one is pure spirit, spiritus, wind. In Sanskrit, this is pråna. That teacher in the student’s mind was a communicator of truth. In his own mind, he was an “I,” and an “I” has weight and sinks. (Myths of Light, 113-114) The “I,” the ego, can be a problematic psychic organ largely because it is so intransigently subjective and not particularly prone to mindful reflection. Ego psychologists tended to describe ego as the subjective experience we have of ourselves, which is certainly the idea of ego that generally permeates the West, certainly the U.S. Generally speaking, one’s ego provides a way of thinking of oneself as a being in the world and holding a general perspective of life—a sense of self-familiarity, continuity, and individuality. As Campbell puts it, “an ‘I’ has weight and sinks.” It is as if one’s being is a precipitate that falls into the world. Martin Heidegger had doubts about the efficacy of the concept of ego, pointing out that, contra Descartes, there are more ways of being than simply thinking. The idea of ego wasn’t enough for Heidegger, it didn’t adequately capture the totality of the being that experiences the world. Therefore, he used the word Dasein, which literally means “there-being.” Dasein is “that entity in its Being which we know of as human life; […] the entity that we each ourselves are, which each of us finds in the fundamental assertion: I am.” (The Concept of Time, 6/112) Heidegger describes Dasein as accompanied by a sense of “Throwness,” of being thrown into the world regardless of whether we want to be in the world or not. It’s rather like Campbell’s guru sinking like a stone; it’s what happened to guru, and was going to happen to him, despite his fondest wishes. From where do we sink? From where are we thrown? Campbell says that Being is a great mystery, “beyond which you cannot look.” (Myths of Light, 135) At least for me, this is very similar to Heidegger’s nothingness, which is the ground of everything; everything is contained in It, and It projects Being or Dasein into the world whether we want to be in the world or not. No-thingness, as Campbell’s guru will attest, is not something we can master, we only respond to it. For Heidegger, Dasein is not, in itself, an actuality but is rather the disclosure of no-thingness. As Campbell put it, You are it and it is nothing. It is a very difficult thing to tell anyone about because the words themselves suggest that there is a meaning here, but the thing is just to get it, and that is why you can’t communicate or teach [it]: you can only bring a person up to it. (Myths of Light, 135) Asian mythologies are remarkably compatible with Heidegger’s philosophy. In each, Nothing and no-thingness are not negations, but the language they use is often hard to grasp. But it is “awfully easy,” Campbell says, “to sympathize with and go with because anything you are doing is it […] and you realize that the whole mystery and void is shining through at you, you are there.” (136) Thanks for reading,

  • The Air We Breathe

    As I write, the globe remains in the grip of the pandemic. There is so much that is unknown about the novel coronavirus––and what is unknown breeds fear. Within that bubble of uncertainty events continue to morph so fast we hardly have time to catch our breath; an apt metaphor, as the one thing we do know about Covid-19 is that it steals your breath away. The first principle of life is the breath: Greek pneuma, Sanskrit prana, Latin spiritus––what God breathed into Adam to give him life . . . (Joseph Campbell, Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: Joseph Campbell on the Art of James Joyce, 152) Life outside the womb for every human begins with that first breath. Every breath thereafter marks our existence as a separate, individual being growing into our own conscious awareness of the world around us. The association of breath to spirit is reflected in our language. The Hebrew word for soul in Genesis is naphesh: “a breathing creature.” Corresponding terms in Indo-European tongues parallel this derivation: in Latin, for example, anima means “breath” and “soul” (etymologically then, an animal is a being “having a soul,” or “a being which breathes”). Similarly, atman, in Sanskrit––often translated “soul” or the “divine Self”—comes from the root an (“to breathe”), and is related to the German Atmen (“breath”) and the English atmosphere. The Greek terms pneuma (spirit) and psyche (soul, mind) are also related to wind or breath; similarly, prana, chi, and ki are, respectively, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Japanese terms for the subtle breath, spirit, or energy that infuses the universe. In English we find the term spirit itself embedded in respiration, inspiration, expiration, and other breath-related terms; clearly a common thread, no matter the language or culture. But the metaphor of breath extends beyond the individual to the world we share. Earth’s atmosphere provides the context for all life. The air we breathe is the same air our fellow creatures breathe. Even the plants and trees mirror this dance, breathing out as we breathe in. Air, Wind, and Breath are subtle expressions of a universal archetype common not just to preliterate cultures, but a source of imagery found across all mythologies. It’s no surprise that Creation Myths often open with the wind stirring the waters. In Genesis 1:2 we read that “the Wind [or “Spirit”: ruach, in Hebrew] of God moved across the face of the waters”; among the Dine’ (or Navaho), n’ilch’i—the Holy Wind—existed first; in Babylonian myth Anu begets the four winds on the surface waters of Tiamat, disturbing this Dragon Goddess of Chaos whose Being forms the substance of all that is; and, Joseph Campbell often points to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, which likens the forms of the phenomenal world (as experienced through the senses and the organ of mind) to the surface of a pond rippled by the breeze. This is an essential image. The wind is air, the highest holy power of the universe, Brahman, the life-force of the world; for the wind persists in its blowing when all the other powers of the body of the universe have temporarily ceased to exist . . . (Heinrich Zimmer, Myths & Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, ed. Joseph Campbell, 171) Covid-19 kills by blocking an individual’s ability to take in the oxygen needed to survive, focusing the whole world’s attention on the importance of breath. Beneath waking world concerns––infection rates, PPE shortages, stay at home orders, death counts, efforts to “flatten the curve,” re-opening the economy, and so much more––this core mythic image simmers in the collective psyche. But there is another unanticipated consequence to this pandemic: the economies of China, India, Europe, the United States and, indeed, the whole industrial world, have been offline for months. Factories, automobiles, jet planes, cruise ships and more have taken a break from spewing hydrocarbons into the atmosphere––and the whole world has noticed. Skies have cleared, long murky waters now sparkle, and, whether they want to or not, every nation has been meeting its carbon reduction targets. By the beginning of April, Los Angeles, legendary for its pollution, ranked number two on the World Air Quality Index, enjoying its longest stretch of clean air in a quarter of a century. And residents of Jalandhar, in India, have discovered the snow-capped Himalayas, over 200 kilometers away, visible for the first time in decades (many have lived their whole lives without ever before catching sight of the mountain range from their own homes). Epiphany! Is there a resonance between what Covid-19 does to our lungs and what human activity is doing to the atmosphere? Metaphorically, the answer would seem to be yes––and now the entire population of Earth has together witnessed that impact with their own eyes. There are several takeaways here related to that other global existential crisis, climate change. One is that it really is possible to reverse course. Already we are learning that society can change; as we power back up, we have the opportunity, and the means, to consciously and intentionally embrace new approaches to the ways we travel, work, and live. Another realization, brought to my attention by a friend, mythologist Catherine Svehla, Ph.D., is that it does not take long for the Earth to heal when given the chance. And then we are learning that individual action, multiplied a billion times over, can make a difference. These realizations come at a high human cost––which is why it’s important we not waste this mythogenetic moment. Could this be the boon we bring back from our collective death-and-rebirth experience on this worldwide Hero’s Journey? Only time will tell.

  • Our Global Movement

    There is no doubt: we have entered unprecedented times as a global community, brought together by an ingenious virus which, biologically speaking, does not like to discriminate among race, class, or gender, although it has a marked preference for people suffering from respiratory problems and the elderly. There is no doubt this is a vicious and malignant virus, an “invisible enemy,” bearing all the mythic contours of a crowned hero hot from the underworld. But what if we’re wrong to demonise the virus so? What if Mother Nature is not angry at us or raging against the system; what if She is simply expressing her love for her microbial son, a creature which she perhaps had long neglected? In an atheistic cosmology, where humanity holds no special position or ontological priority, there is no reason to believe that Mother Nature would care for us more than her viral baby—not to mention the biosphere as a whole, which is definitely benefitting from the cessation of human industry. Living and working in Los Angeles, I can safely report a dramatic improvement in air quality. Who could deny the virus’ salubrious effect upon our natural environment? Nevertheless, such ostensive “mythological” approaches to our present crisis fail to articulate the deep foundations of what is happening; they are nowhere near the latent archetypal background of the collective psyche as it manifests itself in our own times. Of course the “power of myth” is not dead, it’s just not where we expect to find it. For the true power of myth always speaks with the power of truth, and this is radically different from spinning subjective fancies “into the blue.” As a form of mytho-historic consciousness, true myth speaks with the power of the Real in our lives; it does not need to be “believed in” in order to function as such. You may call this power of the Real and its existential rub “God,” if you’d like, for it is a mythic expression of the truth that transforms our lives—for better or worse. Such is the ruthlessness of the living God as Job’s testimony shows in the Bible. But in contrast to the logic of “make-believe” and wishful thinking, Jungian thinkers like Wolfgang Giegerich have put the definition of myth in the categorical terms of a human actuality rather than a system of belief or subjective fancy: Real myth is the simple expression of truth, of the truth. The Greek word mythos = ‘word’ ( as opposed to other Greek words for ‘word,’ e.g., logos) means ‘the true word,’ the word that did not need to be proven inasmuch as it carried its truth within itself; it came as unquestionable truth.(W.F. Otto, with Kerényi concurring. Cf. Vico: “similarly, mythos came to be defined for us as vera narratio, or true speech…”) (The Soul’s Logical Life, 171) This is the real depth of myth as vera narratio where the fundamental “mystical” function, as Campbell understands it, aims to make “a connection between our waking consciousness and the whole mystery of the universe.” (Thou Art That, 103) Nature is on the side of this mystery of the unknown, both in her real material concretion as in her resistance to being known by man. “That is its cosmological function,” Campbell continues, which “allows us to see ourselves in relationship to nature, as when we speak of Father Sky and Mother Earth.” (103) Given that knowing the world is this fundamental mode of human relationship, the latter cosmological function of myth coincides with our scientific picture of the world—a world of human cognition that is literally the realization of Campbell’s dream of “symbols without meaning.” Just as Jung often talked of the “just-so” nature of psychic facts, science is also part of our existential destiny as a species. Why is this the case? We don’t know; it is just so. Because the virus is a cosmic phenomenon on its own right, in order to understand the present pandemic in its true mytho-historic light we must begin with a thorough cognitive mapping of the situation, its microbiology and epidemiological ramifications, etc. But it would not be long before our inquiry would also run into the nature of our human institutions, their power structures and hierarchies, an awareness of their historic conditions and class structures, together with the deconstruction of ideological fantasies that sustain the status quo—even as it implodes before our very eyes and noses. In the face of such destruction, we should not be deceived by appearances to the contrary: a mythless empirical understanding of COVID-19 is the first step we must take along the road of true depth as vera narratio, that is, to the extent that we can embody the truth of the collective psyche in our lives. The healing power of truth by no means excludes understanding of fact and reason, but quite the contrary: it constitutes that Higher Power which encompassess both truth and fact in the synthesis of matter and spirit. For under certain conditions, there is nothing more divine than to stress the obvious facts. It is precisely such “divine intervention” of human reason which is now needed to counteract and eventually beat this virus in reality—not just in the celebrations of myth and symbol, artistic and philosophical representations which can only come afterwards as a series of fundamental reflections. Over against campaigns of disinformation coming from the highest office as well as  from the lowest regions of the internet, true myth stands against the proliferation of conspiracy theories and their dangerous false mythologies and “fake news.” The true power of myth, on the other hand, threatens the dominion of death with a renewed sense of reality and truth as well as social justice. Accordingly, our journey must begin with a firm grasp of the factual situation, on the one hand, and on the other, with a rehabilitation of the concept of truth and reality —both encompassing and going beyond the order of objective cognition. For it is only an actual —not just metaphorical—understanding of the current crisis that can save lives and heal millions. This is the magic of human science and its empirical attitude. This is only the beginning, though. The truth is that we are all called upon an unprecedented hero’s journey, challenged to dig ever deeper into our inner resources, both as an individual as well as the exponents of the collective psyche—otherwise known as being citizens of a country. Our epic journey through this pandemic is only beginning to unfold. But now that civil unrest unites with the deadly force of the virus, we do have a fuller picture of this first chapter of 2020 by COVID-19. In the crucible of myth and history, the intersection of race, class, and gender can no longer be ignored if we wish to arrive at an actual understanding of our present situation and how to respond to it. We must get hold of truth in the light of nature on the ground of factual information. Before succumbing to the temptations of Fate or the perspective of the Final Judgement, we must do all we can to prevent further catastrophes. But only time will tell the truth we are now too blind to hear even as it speaks in images before our very eyes.

  • The Secret Cause

    Each month, we explore a theme through weekly MythBlasts, curated works, quotations, etc. This month's theme is Our Global Community. It’s hard to ignore the fact that human life on this planet has been changed by COVID-19, but of course we all know it is not for the first time, nor is it the last. In a January 27th, 1920 letter to Oskar Pfister, Sigmund Freud wrote: “This afternoon we received the news that our sweet Sophie in Hamburg had been snatched away by influenza pneumonia, snatched away in the midst of glowing health, from a full and active life as a competent mother and loving wife, all in four or five days, as though she had never existed.” Freud went on to say that even though they had been worried about Sophie, “it is so difficult to judge from a distance. And this distance must remain distance; we were not able to travel at once, as we had intended, after the first alarming news; there was no train, not even for an emergency. The undisguised brutality of our time is weighing heavily upon us.” What compassion and sympathy Freud’s words evoke in me, not just for Freud, but for those of us experiencing similar losses in the present. In his book, Thou Art That, Joseph Campbell writes, “What is central to our considerations is found at that level that rises above that of mere self-preservation. There arises the awakening of compassion, the opening of the human quality in our relationships with both friends and strangers.” (21) Compassion is among the most important resources we have right now. Campbell invokes the Waste Land of the “hideously wounded” Grail King to speak to the circumstances of living that inspire compassion: “The Waste Land is that territory of wounded people—that is, of people living inauthentic lives, broken lives, who have never found the basic energy for living, and they live, therefore, in this blighted landscape.” (23) The virus-blighted landscapes of contemporary life present us with a powerful invitation to explore our own inauthentic, broken, or desperate lives as our sources of distraction and entertainment are curtailed and while our illusions of safety and invincibility are shattered by a global pandemic. I am reminded of the line in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland: “A crowd flowed over the London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many.” Moving on, getting back to normal, opening up the economy, recovery, are diversions that avoid the scarcely answerable existential and philosophical questions raised by terror and loss. We want answers, we want to understand the causality at work, we want to find the expressway leading away from the Waste Land. We want to deal with the instrumental causes of the pandemic because we are too shaken, too appalled, to accept its secret cause. We say the cause of the threat to humans is the novel coronavirus, infected bats or pangolins in Wuhan, the pneumonia it causes, or underlying health conditions in its victims; these are certainly instrumental causes, but Campbell advocated for exploring the “secret cause” of things. Articulating his thoughts on this, Campbell suggests that terror “is the emotion that arrests the mind before whatsoever is grave and constant in human suffering and unites it with the secret cause. What does that mean? That is the key to the whole thing: the secret cause.” (Thou Art That, 31) So, what then, is the secret cause? Campbell goes on to explain that The secret cause of your death is your destiny. Every life has a limitation, and in challenging the limit you are bringing the limit closer to you, and the heroes are the ones who initiate their actions no matter what destiny may result. What happens is, therefore, a function of what the person does. This is true of life all the way through. Here is revealed the secret cause: your own life course is the secret cause of your death.(Thou Art That, 35) Death is really a secondary matter to Campbell, primarily because we all are destined to die and how we die is not as important as how we live. When you decide to say yes to your life, yes to everything that animates you, yes to what you’re passionate about, yes to what drives you and makes your life significant, when you say yes to all that, careless of how much resistance or push-back you get from the world, you’re following your bliss. Campbell isn’t suggesting that one be reckless, ignore accepted science, or court danger needlessly; he is simply acknowledging that following one’s bliss necessarily exposes one to some sort of suffering. It’s not really that complicated: no suffering, no bliss. In fact, Aeschylus teaches us about the relationship between pathos and mathos, suffering and learning, and tells us that we must “suffer, suffer into truth.” (Agamemnon, 98) When we accept life’s invitation to live this way, walking the pathway to bliss, Campbell convincingly declares that death “is understood as a fulfillment of our life’s direction and purpose.” (Thou Art That, 35) Perhaps it’s not the virus that frightens us; perhaps it’s the chilling realization that we could die having never really lived that terrifies us. And if so, it’s an important realization to have because it’s never too late to heed the call to adventure, especially those adventures awaiting us within. It’s a question of “do I dare?” Like the J. Alfred Prufrock of another T.S. Eliot poem, do I dare disturb the Universe?

  • Searching For The Pimander In The Midst Of Coronavirus: Redefining Relationships in This Dark Night

    The myths of the Sámi people speak of Beaivi, a sun goddess that brings healing to those whose mental and psychological health has been damaged by the long winter season of darkness. She brings light not only to the physical world, but also to the minds and hearts of the Sámi people with her arrival. Many of us have spent more time in our homes over the past months than we ever thought imaginable. Understandably, for many, a darkness has set in. This darkness has brought depression to some, and feelings of hopelessness to others. In this dark, dark night, we wait for our own Beaivi. We long for an end to the darkness both outside our homes and within our innermost selves. Many of us may also be looking for a pimander. Joseph Campbell mentions the term in Mythic Worlds, Modern Words, his collected thoughts on the art of James Joyce (152-153). While examining the appearance of Mananaun MacLir, an Irish sea god, in Ulysses, Campbell unpacks MacLir’s mention of the word “pimander.” The term is often translated as a title one achieves—Shepherd of Men—and comes from one of the most influential texts of the Corpus Hermeticum, known as The Pymander of Hermes Trismegistus. Of course, shepherds not only care for their flock, they also guide with force when one under their care has gone astray. Campbell goes on to explain that “The Pimander, translated for Cosimo de’ Medici in 1463 by Marsilio Ficino, became a veritable Bible for the poets and painters of the Renaissance.” (153) The artists of that time found a figurative “bringer of the light,” a shepherd, in the pimander. Though the text attributed to Trismegistus only briefly describes this figure, it is clear that the shepherd is a guide through dark times. Death and darkness have become part of our own story. However, we have also always been, and continue to be, part of a much grander story. Storytellers have known for millennia that a key element of every great narrative is a moment where it seems all hope is lost. The individuals facing the impending darkness experience a moment that St. John of the Cross described as the dark night of the soul. It is a moment where our pimanders seem all but lost. It is in this moment those individuals in such circumstances remember who they are. They remember why they are here. The absence of the pimander becomes the ultimate lesson the shepherd has to offer. Amidst the darkness and absence of pimanders, I’ve been thinking about time. Some days, there seems an overabundance of hours. Other days, it feels as though the moments get lost and days begin to mesh together into new, long, messy units of demarcation. Many of us have become deeply acquainted with the dark and mysterious relationship between time and loneliness in the age of social distancing. In a video clip called Life in the Field of Time (which can be found on JCF’s Instagram account), Campbell offers some perspective about time. He says “Where there is time, there is inevitably birth and death. Where there is time, there is inevitably sorrow. The loss of what was valued. And it’s always in terms of pairs of opposites. In the field of time, everything is experienced in terms of opposites. Good and evil, male and female, man and God. That’s a mode of experience.” As we experience time, disrupted by Covid-19, that inevitable sorrow that Campbell mentions has been amplified. The loss of graduation ceremonies, anticipated gatherings, and even an afternoon drink at one’s favorite watering hole has been felt. What we value has become central to our discussions and actions, our thoughts and our plans. Perhaps the darkness we are surrounded by is the pimander we seek. This pimander of this moment has been shepherding me, causing me to redefine key relationships in my life. It has caused me to redefine my relationship with comfort. From toilet paper to my favorite local coffee shop, our creature comforts are not a given. Everything is a privilege. It has caused me to redefine my relationship with control and the present. Our lives, this year, were completely disrupted at a moment’s notice. Our best efforts could not prevent the destruction the virus has inflicted. It has caused me to redefine my relationship with creativity. I was finally granted the time to work on projects I wanted to get to for years – and found I was unable to approach many of them in this moment. Perhaps creativity has less relationship to the time we have to act on it than we had assumed. Finally, it has caused me to redefine gratitude. So many things I previously took for granted, I never will again. For these lessons, and those I am unaware of, I am grateful. To read more about the myths of the Sámi people, see Neil Kent’s The Sámi Peoples of the North.

  • Forsaking the Easy for the Harder Pleasures

    In his book, The Ecstasy of Being: Mythology and Dance, Joseph Campbell discusses artists who have had monumental impacts on the world of dance. To a person, these artists unflinchingly blazed new trails in their art; they were passionately committed to their visions, determined to follow the inner inducements of their daemons, oblivious to the judgements of the wider world. They are examples of people bold enough to entertain ecstasy and courageous enough to follow their bliss. The English word, ecstasy, is derived from the Greek word, ekstasis, which literally means to be standing outside of oneself, carried beyond individual, rational thought to a psychosomatic state in which rationality and personal volition are suspended. It creates a transcendent state, an experience of the world—the universe, even—as unified, timeless, unbounded, and harmonious. This is, I think, close to what Campbell called bliss. But the word bliss has some etymological problems, descending as it does from Old English and Old Saxon words with meanings like merriment, happiness, grace, and gentleness. These kinds of innocent experiences of earthly happiness are not what Campbell had in mind when he spoke of bliss, or even in his treatment of beauty in The Ecstasy of Being. The familiar anecdote comes to mind in which Campbell remarks, “I should have said, ‘Follow your blisters.’” Ecstasy, bliss, and beauty are not the easy pleasures that our common use of these words suggest, and the way Campbell describes beauty in this volume can help us unpack this issue. Campbell notes that the “effective element” in all proper art is, as James Joyce called it, “the rhythm of beauty” (The Ecstasy of Being, 99) in which each piece of the art is in harmonious relationship to each other piece, as well as each piece to the Whole. That is the challenge for the individual as well, the harmonious relationship to other individuals and each to the Whole, which is not achieved without real suffering in some form. Continuing in this line of thought, Campbell quotes W.B. Yeats who suggested that the ideal dramaturgical model “would synthesize the ‘pulse of life’ with the ‘stillness of death.’” Campbell goes on to write that such “synthesis of opposites is the function of both art and mythology.” (106-107) The action of synthesizing the pulse of life with the stillness of death necessarily exposes one to existential terrors lying outside the more naïve or innocent realms of ecstasy, beauty, and bliss. Perhaps it is helpful to think about what Campbell is pointing to as the sublime (even though the sublime is subject to some of the same naïve linguistic problems as bliss, ecstasy, and beauty). A particular problem is that these words commonly convey an added moral dimension. Think of Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn in which he asserts that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” and perhaps you can sense the moral goodness or virtue adhering to the word beauty. In fact, the words beauty, bliss, ecstasy and sublime are commonly understood as rewards for virtue and morality, and nothing negative may be associated with them. But there is a wealth of generally learned and philosophical literature on beauty’s problematic sibling, the sublime, that helps one understand what’s really in play for one who undertakes to follow one’s bliss. There are three thinkers, Pseudo Longinus, Edmund Burke, and Immanuel Kant who, taken together, have largely articulated the depths and breadth of the sublime. Burke convincingly insists that terror opens one to the sublime, but he doesn’t really demonstrate why the experience of terror is sublime and, like Longinus, he relegates the sublime to the external, natural world. Kant describes the experience of the sublime as more of an inner experience, much closer to what Campbell called bliss: “Thus, instead of the object, it is rather the cast of mind appreciating it that we have to estimate as sublime.” (The Critique of Judgment. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952) For Kant, the sublime has two main dimensions: first, one of power and second, one of magnitude. Sublime encounters are overwhelmingly powerful, and facing them we are compelled to feel our existential fragility and terror and, additionally, the sublime is of a magnitude so vast that we simply cannot wrap our minds around it. But yet, at some point in the confrontation with the sublime we recognize that we are a part of It and this “mental movement,” to use Kant’s phrase, begins to lend comprehension to the incomprehensible. It’s as if, in an attempt to understand it, we reach into the sublime and it likewise reaches into us. Through this mental movement knowledge is generated and we begin to identify with and partake of the power of the sublime object, transcending our terror and sensing that we are ourselves the origin of the power we face. Campbell has elsewhere described this as making oneself transparent to the transcendent, and this is what following your bliss is really about. And following your bliss, as Shelly observed regarding the function of the sublime, persuades us to forsake the easy for the harder pleasures. Thanks for reading,

  • The Grateful Dead, Adult Entertainment, and Native Tongues

    Recently, I engaged in verbal combat with a friend over whether Joseph Campbell would have liked the TV show Game of Thrones. Imagining great thinkers interacting with the cultural phenomena of contemporary life is not simply a fantasy; such moments have actually occurred in history. Campbell famously attended a Grateful Dead concert near the end of his life and commented about being reminded of Dionysian festivals. These are the historical anecdotes that make conversations about the mythologist dissecting Games of Thrones so fun. Campbell was a man not completely uninterested in what we sometimes term entertainment, but he did always seem to be asking more from art than a mindless baptism. The word entertainment has come to encompass a great number of varied activities. There are a few differing theories as to the etymology of the word. One favorite is that it derives from a combination of Old French and Latin words and loosely translates to “to hold together.” From Doctor Faustus to Dr. Dre, from Hesiod to Harry Potter, from Theseus to The Bachelor – people have been held together by common resonance with characters, narratives, poems, and images for thousands of years. In The Ecstasy of Being, Campbell gives a brief overview of the development of the theatrical arts. Specifically, he traces the movement up through the nineteenth century away from a theatrical interest in mythology and legend towards a historical and biographical interest, and the significant losses that resulted. “The experience and understanding of myth as the language of man’s spiritual life had, in fact, been lost,” Campbell asserts. Campbell then offers a rather curious comment, referring to the common worldview of this myth-less era. He says, “Truly serious theater should deal with existential agonies; adult entertainment, with erotic spectacles and comedies; while the inward, spiritual life was something to be attended to in churches, having to do (it was supposed), not with mythology, but with a true history of incredible (hence spiritual) events, as reported (by God himself) in the Bible.” (The Ecstasy of Being, 92) Campbell goes on to celebrate the return of the import of myth toward the opening of the twentieth century and the impact it had on poets and artists of every stripe. In the twentieth century, theater continued to deal with “existential agonies.” There was no shortage of “erotic spectacles and comedies” even after myth-inspired work again experienced a revival. In short, the “adult entertainment” that Campbell referred to had not disappeared. Instead it had been integrated with the mythological. The theatrical world again embraced that inward spiritual life which had been left to the clergy. Erotic spectacles and comedies were not, and are not, outside the realm of the meaningful. However, those devoid of mythological underpinnings produce momentary titillation, but lack the sort of inner evocative movement which, as those who’ve experienced it know, can be difficult to articulate. Of course, most entertainment is subjective, and as the old saying goes, one person’s trash is another’s treasure. What speaks mythologically to one of us may not speak at all to the next. What may be one person’s “adult entertainment,” however you choose to define that term, is another’s transcendent art. Even today, many are surprised that Campbell resonated with the work of the Grateful Dead. For anyone who has taken the time to explore their lyrics, there is little surprise, of course. Despite having become so associated with Star Wars, Campbell seemingly had little interest in pop culture or popular entertainment. On the other hand, a significant amount of his work centered on art created by others –Joyce, Goethe, and Martha Graham all received attention from Campbell’s pen. The difference was whether the entertainment created by the artist was crafted on the invisible mythological framework Campbell spent so much of his life trying to describe. This is true entertainment — that activity which brings us back to the original intentions of the word. It holds us together. If Campbell was correct and myth is the language of our spiritual lives, when we hear it through stories in any medium, be it in rock music or print or streaming video, we are being spoken to in our most native tongue. We are being brought together – held together – through the narratives and images that have made us one since the beginning.

  • The Ancient Craft of the Beautiful

    In his book The Ecstasy of Being: Mythology and Dance, Joseph Campbell demonstrates not only his insatiable curiosity and wide-ranging, omnivorous mind, but also, in his exploration of mythology and dance, I am reminded that mythology itself was once a thought of as a primary subject, “a master field of the first importance.” (Feldman and Richardson, The Rise of Modern Mythology: 1680-1860, xxi) The study of myth was undertaken because it was seen as a key to the proper understanding of not only religion, but of language, history, philosophy, and art (including dance). Identifying mythology as a master discipline was a very different understanding than the contemporary assumption which places mythology within the subset of other disciplines. But the power of myth is still robust; myth is read into just about any subject as a way to support or discredit. This plasticity of myth, coupled with its ubiquity, creates a peculiar sort of double vision that studies the fact that myth exists, but it also has more than a little to say about the human psyche that creates such extraordinary and unusual ideas. The ubiquity, plasticity, and power of myth are rooted in its use of metaphor. Hannah Arendt wrote that “Since Homer the metaphor has borne that element of the poetic which conveys cognition; its use establishes the correspondences between physically most remote things […] Metaphors are the means by which the oneness of the world is poetically brought about.” (Illuminations: Walter Benjamin Essays and Reflections, p. 14) In TheEcstasy of Being, Campbell spends some time on Isadora Duncan and emphasizes her revelation regarding the way in which the Parthenon reflects some fundamental idea of nature itself, “Not in imitation of the outside forms of nature, but in understanding of nature’s great, secret rules.” (110) Metaphor, meaning to transfer, “enables us to give material form to the invisible…and thus to render it capable of being experienced.” (Arendt) This, experiencing the invisible, is a fine way to define ecstasy. Similarly, the philosopher to whom I am most affectionately disposed, Emil Cioran, wrote that ecstasy’s “object is a god without attributes, an essence of god” (The New Gods, 7), and somehow Isadora managed to spend surprisingly large portions of her life in such a state. In the March 1, 1936 issue of Esquire magazine, nine years after her death, John Dos Passos published an essay (one which I have loved for a very long time) called, Art and Isadora, in which he captures the “divine dancer as a figure of earth leading a flight from materialism in a flutter of Greek robes and unpaid bills.” Consciously or not Dos Passos, in describing Isadora as a figure of earth, affirms her insistence that great art is not an imitation of nature, but is itself Natura expressing in a material form. At some level Dos Passos understood this and remarked, “Art was whatever Isadora did.” In Athens Isadora stood, day after day, awe-struck before the Parthenon and: “…as I stood there my body was as nothing and my soul was scattered; but gradually called by the great inner voice of the Temple, came back the parts of myself to worship it […] and I did not dare move, for I realized that of all the movements my body had made none was worthy to be mad before a Doric Temple. And as I stood thus I realized that I must find a dance whose effort was to be worthy of this Temple—or never dance again” (The Ecstasy of Being, 110). When the daimon seizes one in this manner, one has no choice but to surrender to it or become deadened to life—one’s own and the life of the collective—and suffer an emotional and mental demise which consigns one to the vestibule of hell alongside those others who refused to commit to something more than themselves. But simply committing or surrendering to one’s daimon doesn’t ensure happiness or security, and certainly Isadora was such an example. She and her family were often broke, and Dos Passos notes, “They were never more than one jump ahead of the sheriff, they were always wheedling the tradespeople out of bills, jumping the rent, getting handouts from rich Philistines for art.” Isadora drank too much, she didn’t even try to control her sexual appetites, her relationships generally imploded, and she had more than her share of tragedy and loss. But the beatings we receive from life are often a part of the price we pay for bliss, and no matter how hard she fell she remained, as Campbell put it, “a living image of enraptured spontaneity, Greek in it’s inspiration, earthly and physical in its beauty.” (The Ecstasy of Being, 116) Art was whatever Isadora did, including dying. At the age of 50 she found a handsome, young—of course—mechanic with a sporty car, and one day she artfully threw her long scarf around her neck and bid her friends goodbye saying, “Adieu mes amis je vais à la glorie!” Farewell my friends, I go to glory! They sped away, and Dos Passos describes Isadora’s “heavy trailing scarf caught in a wheel, wound tight. Her head was wrenched against the side of the car. The car stopped instantly, her neck was broken, her nose crushed, Isadora was dead.” Merci d'avoir lu ceci,

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