The Way of Art and Two-Way Roads
Each month, we explore a theme through weekly MythBlasts, curated works, quotations, etc. This month's theme is Thresholds.
Art, among other things, is image-making. As a teacher of creative writing, I often emphasize the power of images due to their effectiveness in rendering experiences in our readers. Concrete language, which communicates to (and through) the senses, is what drives the written image. Concrete language is direct, visceral, and needs no explanation to work its magic. Abstract language, on the other hand, is conceptual. Like the image, it too renders experience, though in a different way. I ask, then: Is the experience-rendering value of abstract language any less potent or significant due to this difference? And even more to the point, is not abstract language, in its own way, concrete? After all, a concept or emotion or experience is, in fact, something. And by “something” I mean to say some thing.
This idea is applicable not just to creative writing but to all genres of art whose works extend into this kind of subtler “stuff.” This MythBlast aims to highlight the experience-numinosity connection by attending to the attributes of our experiences—be they emotions, sensations, or insights—as concrete or material phenomena, each unique and wholly its own.
Continue Reading the Mythblast
In the third chapter of his Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Joseph Campbell opens with a wonderful quote from his wife, Jean Erdman, whose art (and profession) was dance. She says, “The way of the mystic and the way of the artist are related, except that the mystic doesn’t have a craft” (89). Indeed. Whereas the artist attends more to making, the mystic’s focus attends more to matters of experience. And where the artist produces a tangible work, the mystic produces an experience that is (in our approach) very much less tangible. Nonetheless, the world of the artist and the world of the mystic both lean into that numinous, mysterious realm that we thinkers circumambulate with terms like Source, the Transcendent, God, etc.
But if we apply our concrete approach, we could say that the mystic does in fact work with and upon “stuff.” In the supplies cache of the artist we find clay, paint, and so on—all overtly substantial. Ask a mystic what he’s packing and, if we’re lucky, he’ll pull out a few of those less-substantial things for display: “Well, here’s a mantra, that thing there’s a breathing technique. Oh, and here’s a twenty-eight-day fast I picked up at a shop in one of my visions.” So, along this scale of substantiality, the dancer’s body spills into movement, the musician’s instrument sheds its sound waves, and the meagre wisps of the poet’s ink seep into meaning. Each of these evoke experiences of particular flavors—i.e., attributes—depending on the art and on the consciousness of the observer.
For all the known reasons I could suggest (and even moreso, for all the unknown reasons I cannot!), the works of the artist and mystic reach into the numinous–but I think they also invite it. In our approach, we see that both have their “objects” of transmission—“stuff” with attributes. Whether it’s the cold depth of a statue’s empty gaze or the beaming crescendos of those van Gogh sunflowers, radiant and riotous like a choir of—well, sunflowers!—the experience pours through and saturates the psyche with (in this case) warmth, vitality, and celebration through paint, whose attributes are colors, whose attributes are pleasant, whose attributes are a kind of experience.
That’s one direction. The other direction is simply that the numinosity infuses all of these stages with, uh, itself. Whether we approach the direction from left to right or right to left, inner to outer or outer to inner, the substance of the attributes–regardless of where they fall on our materiality scale–both transmit and buffer the numinous force, which in its undiluted status must be, from the perspective of an embodied human, annihilatory in either a very good or very bad way.
Campbell addresses this dynamic when he refers to the many characters in Ovid’s Metamorphoses who were “unfavorably transformed by encounters with divinities, the full blast of whose light they were unready to absorb.” And he later writes that “in contrast, the mystic deliberately offers himself to the blast.” (91) The divinities of mythology are archetypal (which we perceive and experience as attributes of forms that are nearer to the numinous, or more infused by it). Like a work of art or a mystic’s subtle medium, they take on this ambiguous function of pipelining numinous energy through their form. Or, with their form, they preserve us from the blast.
Speaking of blasts, even if this MythBlast is naught but guesswork, there may be some accurate content herein—or, at least, some moments where the guesswork brushes shoulders with truth. And if so, then it is encouraging to me to reflect on the business of engaging art as creations of our own making, and of our own being, that roam the frontier of the numinous, transmitting and receiving, to and fro, the missives of human to Source and of Source to human, composed in a language for which there can be no name.
The mythogenetic zone today is the individual in contact with his own interior life, communicating through his art with those “out there.” But to this end communicative signs must be employed: words, images, motions, colors, and perfumes, sensations of all kinds, which, however, come to the creative artist from without and inevitably bear associations not only colored by the past but also relevant to the commerce of the day.
Inner Reaches of Outer Space, The
Developed from a memorable series of lectures delivered in San Francisco, which included a legendary symposium at the Palace of Fine Arts with astronaut Rusty Schweickart, this book–the last Campbell completed in his lifetime–explores the space age. Campbell posits that the newly discovered laws of outer space are actually at work within human beings as well and that a new mythology is implicit in this realization. He examines the new mythology and other questions in these essays.
“The Trickster’s divine disruptions turn the status quo inside out. In Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World, we’ll meet this multifaceted archetype’s many hungers, deceptions, and creations…”
– Joanna Gardner, PhD
Editorial Advisory Group,
Joseph Campbell Foundation
The Symbol without Meaning (Esingle)
Our gift to you this month is eSingle. Access this download for free until the end of the month.
“When the symbol is functioning for engagement, the cognitive faculties are held fascinated by and bound to the symbol itself, and are thus simultaneously informed by and protected from the unknown. But when the symbol is functioning for disengagement, transport, and metamorphosis, it becomes a catapult to be left behind.” — Joseph Campbell
Campbell’s famous, mind-expanding essay explores the fundamental connection between myth, symbol, and human culture. In it, he looks at the origins of western culture’s myths and symbols, and asks whether these are still relevant in the modern era. This piece, along with classics such as “Mythogenesis,” “Bios and Mythos” and Campbell’s foreword to Grimms’ Fairy Tales, was published as part of the collection The Flight of the Wild Gander (re-issued by New World Library in 2002). This digital edition has been published by Joseph Campbell Foundation.
News & Updates
Lent for the Eastern Orthodox Church begins March 16. Also today, and for the next five, Zoroastrians honor the creation of souls and their passing from this earth.
The Higan-e ceremony on March 17 heralds a week-long contemplation of Pure Land Buddhism’s “other shore.” Concurrently, St. Patrick’s Day brings out reverence and revelry in equal measure.
Spiritual renewal fills the hearts of the Wiccan community as the goddess returns on Ostara, March 20; the Shinto community celebrates Vernal Equinox Day or Shunbun-no-hi.
II.5.4.1 - Outer Space and Inner Space(audio clip source)
On Becoming an Adult
New Exhibit From Devendra Banhart Inspired by Mythology(learn more)