myths

Clap your hands, Blue Jay

Eskimo medicine man, Alaska, exorcising evil spirits from a sick boy (The Library of Congress)

Eskimo medicine man, Alaska, exorcising evil spirits from a sick boy

 

Native American myths and legends often deal with death, and I often wonder how today’s children would like them. When I was little, my mother thought that H. C. Andersen’s or Grimm brothers’ fairy tales were too cruel, so she’d change the endings as she read them to me. She feared I was too sensitive. I don’t think so; I would have just probably pestered her with questions she wasn’t sure how to deal with. I remember finding a collection of Inuit stories in my parents’ large library and being absolutely terrified and yet drawn to their stark universe, in which life and death coexisted, not peacefully, but not at polar opposites either. Last night I read the story (not Inuit; this one’s from the Pacific Northwest) of Blue Jay and his sister Ioi, who married a ghost. Blue Jay went to visit her in the land of the dead, where he had a grand time switching skeletons’ bones, ripping them off, and being generally wicked. The story ends thus:

Eventually, the ghost people complained about Blue Jay’s tricks, and Ioi’s husband told her to send him home. At first he didn’t want to go, but he finally left. On his way, he came to a prairie that was ablaze, and Blue Jay burned to death. Then he went back to the land of the ghosts. His sister met him at the river and went over to him in her husband’s canoe. . . . When they came to the village, the people were playing games and singing. Blue Jay shouted at them, trying to get them to fall into piles of bones, but the people just laughed at him. He kept pestering them to no avail until finally his sister told him that he was dead, too. And then he became quiet. (72)

I like how there is justice and there is logic to the story, but also this soft transition from the living to the dead, the consciousness of illusion, and the life that goes on, regardless of death.


Interestingly enough, the day after writing skeptically about “the power of storytelling” and feeling terribly bold about it, I read a 2010 BOMB Magazine interview with Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst and essayist I’d just discovered. Here is a passage that made me prick up my ears :

SP: One of the things that most resonates for me in “On Balance” is your writing on the dissonant, disjunctive, essentially random nature of existence. My last question concerns this state of incoherence. A word that is bandied around a lot at the moment is storytelling. It’s applied to branding, marketing, everything. In its wide, popular usage, the word is becoming increasingly incoherent. I literally don’t know what it means anymore. Could you talk a little bit about that?

AP: You can see the issue in a current debate in psychoanalysis. One version of psychoanalysis will say that the definition of mental health would be the capacity to tell a coherent narrative. From another psychoanalytic point of view, that would be precisely the problem. I think both things are true. People who have suffered ruptured, violated lives need and want some narrative coherence, but narrative coherence quickly can be a problem when it becomes a refuge from thinking. I agree that the idealization of narrative coherence is a bizarre cultural development. The problem is finding forms of incoherence that are listenable to. . . .  Somebody’s got to find a way of making a form of incoherence extremely revealing and alluring. It’s a really interesting cultural task—not that we should become better storytellers, because that’s the most boring thing on earth, but let’s become better antistorytellers. There is more to life than the stories we can tell about it. . . .

People need to be educated into believing that evocation is more important than information. If we could bear listening to people, without trying to understand what they’re saying, we would get more from them. Effectively, psychoanalysis listens for the incoherencies that are saying more, or something other, than the coherences. It’s got something to do with the musicality of people’s voices and intonations; it’s a form of listening that’s less hypnotized and distracted by their coherences.

There is something about this idea that makes my heart beat faster. Maybe it’s because I have tricked myself into believing my own story, and playing the character I imagined I was with laughable zeal and conviction. It’s true that words have a life of their own. The ease with which they come to me is deceitful, because it also signals that I am always up for one hell of a ride. Fiction writers often describe how, in the middle of the book, characters seem to take a life of their own and, at some point, almost hijack the story and dictate it back to the writer. I think this might be true in life as well. I wish I could meet Blue Jay and see if, when he claps his hands, I’d really turn into a pile of bones? Or not yet? 

Lastly, Phillips’ statement that “there is more to life than the stories we tell” and his call for incoherence of narratives reminded me of this brilliant documentary by Sarah Polley. You can watch it here. It is so worth it.

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Silver spring

The participatory photo exhibit went well. I was kind of relieved to see a small group attending and I am happy to move on to other things. I got to ask a couple of people involved in film making how to proceed with the documentary, now it’s up to me to make it happen. I have all it takes – except the microphone, but it’s on the way. I’m stoked again. What I needed.

I’ve finished the full engagement bible and, again, it is implementation time. The toughest and the most desired.

Yesterday, in the Metro, a black boy sitting next to me was reading Krishnamurti on his iPhone, in French

As for me, I think I’ve had enough self-help for the moment (mind you, I might change my mind again tomorrow). Right now I’m treating myself to two books: Handbook of Native American Mythology” by Dawn E. Bastian and Judy K. Mitchell, and “The Illustrated Guide to Native South American Myths and Legends: Tales from the Aztec, Maya, Inca, and Amazon Peoples,” compiled by Geraldine Carter.

I have been fascinated by Native Americans ever since, as a kid, I discovered suitably themed adventure novels (in Polish, many of them by Polish authors). I soon realized that no happy ending ever came to stories of noble warriors and their tribes. They were always tragic. I remember that it made me sad and angry at the white man’s, my, destructive civilization. I think I never quite got over that anger.

I’ve often wondered how it is possible that, as kids, we are taught very clearly what is right and wrong by so many books and films: we learn that greed and war and destroying nature is evil – we all do! And then we grow up, rationalizing that, after all, grades, productivity, efficiency, jobs and economy and this thing called “progress” are the most important. We need to make more money, people! Screw the forests, we need to build highways; fuck the mountains, there’s precious stones inside them! And stinky liquid under the ocean floor! And gases trapped in the Earth’s belly! We’ll have fuel and fighter jets and space shuttles and no oxygen! Won’t it be grand. And so we deride the same values we should have absorbed and followed through, calling them “idealistic,” or “utopian,” or “unrealistic.” Is this a naive rant? Oh yes, very. And very, very true. And everybody and their gut knows this to be true. But there’s no happy ending for us either, I’m afraid.

This is what makes me wonder about the value of stories and “storytelling” as such. It’s one of the words used so much today, and it’s been commonly accepted that it’s good and important because hey, that’s how we think, that’s how we understand the world, right? True, no doubt. But, as Krishnamurti points out, if we look at our model of knowledge critically, including the storytelling part, we see that accumulation of facts and narratives did not make us a better humanity. It is actually this greedy, agglutinating paradigm that makes us continue in our suicidal ways. Maybe we don’t need more stories, you know? Maybe we need to really listen to some old stories, and really learn them, and live them through, in silence. Again, I realize I am contradicting myself here, because I carry on with this blog, and I have plans of writing this, and filming that, but really, I think I want to do all that mostly to validate my existence. To show that I have something to offer. I feel forced to show, to prove, to be deserving. I wish I could just sit down, shut up, and be, and I wish that were enough. But I’m not ready to be homeless.

I’m clearly oversaturated with language and verbalized thought processes. So why do I read Native American stories? I think it’s the mystery that attracts me. Elements that will never be known or explained; sequences that escape my logic; unfathomable, and yet strangely relatable, gods and goddesses with as much to lose as us humans. Just listen to this Aztec myth:

ITZPAPALOTL

Itzpapalotl, the horrible “obsidian-knife butterfly” is a supernatural being who combines attributes of the butterfly, or soul, with the knife of sacrifice. The butterfly in many mythologies is the ghost of the dead, and in this ghostly creature it is associated with the horror of the altars of blood. She is one of the Tzitzimime – “the demons of darkness.” Her dreadful face is tricked out with the cosmetics of the Mexican court ladies – rubber patches and white chalk. Her claws are borrowed from a jaguar, and sometimes she is represented as having a skull instead of a face.

The Expulsion of Itzpapalotl from Heaven

Itzpapalotl was expelled from heaven because, as she pulled up some roses in a garden of great delight, the tree suddenly snapped and blood streamed from it. As a consequence of this action she was deprived of that place of enjoyment and was cast into the world. (36)

Simple, almost familiar, and yet so foreign. The above excerpt comes from the “Guide to South American Myths,” indeed beautifully illustrated. It’s the first time I’ve actually taken a close look at Diego Rivera’s murals. Genius.

All in all, fascinating as these stories are, the language used to transmit them in the books seems inadequate. Maybe it’s the oral tradition that dies in the writing. There is definitely a big SOMETHING lost in translation. Something eludes me, like a beautiful fish I see swimming in shallow water and cannot name, even though I Know it. Actually, I’ve decided, I don’t even want to know its name any more. Seeing is enough. The “Handbook” is on to something when it explains that

Long before Newton, Kant, Einstein, or Minkowski, ancient cultures around the world understood that there was a relationship between time and space. They understood that an event happening right here, right now could be imbued with a sacredness that not only set the event apart from the mundane, but also set apart the time and the place where it occurred. In the remembering of the event, whether by telling and hearing oral narratives, or by participating in or viewing various ceremonies, people were able to transcend the present and become part of the sacred. . . .

Native American people believe that time is cyclical and dynamic, and that this cyclical time functions not only in the spiritual realm, but in the day-today existence of all living things. One Hopi scholar has called this relationship “mythic reality.” In other words, the truth of this present, physical world exists simultaneously with that of the mythic, spiritual world. (36)

The past and the future coexist with the present. There was no bing bang. There is just this constant growth and death and overlap. And we within it. And I am just beginning to feel this pulse.

Malinche by Diego Rivera

Malinche by Diego Rivera