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Monday, February 27, 2023

Seeking to discern myths through mythical imagining...with a thanks to Hillman!

 Over coffee in the then Empire Hotel (North Bay) dining room on McIntyre Street, Early Birney discussed his poem, David, in which two young sixteen-year-olds were mountain climbing, only to witness a slipping by one and then a deeply pathetic  ask from him to ‘push me over’. It had been brought to Birney’s attention that another Canadian Poet, Margaret Avison, was reportedly convinced that Birney was referring to a specific event, from news reports in which a similar act became part of the public record, at about the same time as the poem was written. ‘Why would I ever even think about writing a poem in which I killed my friend?’ was the question Birney asked. Decades later, why would one Canadian poet consider it feasible to inquire about another poet’s account of a homicide for which he was alleged to be guilty? The question as to whether the reader believed, trusted and even entered the tragic tale is the one the poem is written to answer. And for this reader, the answer is, “Absolutely!”

The evocative poem, intimately and provocatively depicts an adventure of brotherhood which ended, metaphorically, imaginatively, poignantly and memorably, tragically. No reader can come away from reading the poem without being drawn into both the climbing companionship and the shared tragedy. Their shared and intimate knowledge of the flora and the skills necessary for their adventure resonates decades later, after a first and multiple readings.

The paradigm of the intersection of language of the literal and the metaphoric in our culture is another of the inescapable and interminable tensions of all of our lives. When is one speaking, writing, thinking, praying, sermonizing, imagining or even dreaming in and through literal language and meaning and when is one engaged in metaphor, poetry, legend, fantasy, myth? And how to discern the sometimes nuanced and at other times the glaring gap between the two?

Pedagogy and parenting, as well as all forms of moralizing, legalizing, accounting and scientific experimentation rely almost exclusively on the literal. Do this, not that. Read this, calculate this. Clean this, complete that…..Put this chemical into this test tube and heat to this degree and observe the change. Believe this rule, do not commit this act/sin/lie/theft/deception.

There is a black/white kind of clarity to literalism while there is also a considerable degree of ambiguity, numinosity, abstraction, interpretation, fluidity and uncertainty in and through the lens of poetry. When we put a name on a ‘thing’ (whether than thing is a disease, or a social condition, or a membership in a religion or group, or an identity with a race, a language, or a geographic region et cetera), we are claiming a degree of ‘knowledge’ and awareness, consciousness and sensate and intellectual cognizance of that ‘thing’. Most of our discourse in everyday interactions uses the literal meaning of words. Business, medicine, law, accounting, teaching, preaching and legislating are all dependent on a common understanding and deployment of words in their literal meaning. And the people engaged in various cultures, coming as they do from similar backgrounds, have a common understanding of the meaning and definition and purpose of those words in the contexts of their respective professional practice. As Frye puts it, ‘this is the language of practical sense’. And this language seeks to divide, for the purpose of clarity. Frye also reminds us, however, ‘figurative language seeks to unite through the devices of metaphor and simile and personification through which one thing becomes another. “He is a bull in a china shop!” is a mundane example.

Each of the various historic time periods, with all of their respective ‘thought leaders’ has recorded spoken and written words that seek to convey the essential kernel(s) of their perspective. And we have come to call such perspectives a “world view” as a way of encompassing the gestalt of that individual’s contribution to the world’s knowledge, and indeed its perspective.

One’s lens: the eyes, ears, imagination, intellect, culture and experience, through which one experiences one’s reality, surroundings, relationships, curiosities, tragedies, dreams, fantasies, and even essential ‘concepts’ like purpose, meaning, identity, hopes, are all both the product of and generate new notions of whatever it is that the individual is ‘feeling, thinking, imagining, believing, experiencing.

In the vernacular, we tend to throw around words about things and concepts as if they were all considered to be so well understood and comprehended and grasped and integrated into our brain receptors/perceptors/integrators/interpreters, that we need not explain if and when we might be consciously or unconsciously shifting from one mode of using words to another. This general use of and encounter with words, from a variety of persons, in a variety of situations, can and does, almost inevitably and certainly predictably, generate multiple opportunities for confusion, irritability, conflict and even withdrawal. And the boundaries, situations, expectations and familiarities we each have individually as to the meaning and intent of the words we both use and hear/read, as well as those we share with others, have become so porous that we can justifiably be experiencing a melting-pot of words, ideas, meanings, purposes and innuendoes the precise import we ‘take’ or ‘get’ may well be distanced from the original intent and meaning of the speaker/writer.

Not only are there differences in the meanings/purposes/overtones of words, there are also significant differences in the way we pronounce words, not only from a cultural perspective as in dialects, but also from the perspective of our ‘emotional intent. We have the capacity to tilt our words in a tonal expression that conveys a positive emotion, a negative emotion, a flat and cold affect, or even a highly combative, militaristic tone. Like notes and phrases on a musical manuscript, our verbiage comes in complex, nuanced and coloured dimensions, and those dynamics, while they are able to be curated into a curriculum, that curriculum is not one that has received universal or even modest dissemination.

While poetry, novels, plays, short stories and essays comprise the core of language curricula, and in the course of those explorations, students are expected to write and speak their thoughts and feelings in a variety of different situations with different ‘audiences’. Like the gaps in many curricula for adolescents that fails to address the important and fundamental concepts of relationship development, financial management, how to ‘speak’ to create and deliver various nuanced forms of rhetoric, not merely the kind that attempts to market/sell/propagandize/persuade, seems to be still missing from many educational institutions. How to write and deliver a homily, while taught and practiced in seminary, where the theoretical, s theological, and qualities of cogency, coherence, unity and an attempt to ‘connect’ with the audience, the choice of words, their contextual meanings, their nuances and colours, tones, appropriateness and even the ambiguity that might be part of their unique ‘freight’ is, or at least was, never mentioned. Presumably, those ‘in the weeds’ aspects of language were considered far too obvious, and beneath the ‘standards’ of the various levels of formal education.

Failure to pay attention to the colour and tone and context of a word, including the intended meaning of the initiator, is not merely a social and political and intellectual blindness. It is also a foundational base for how important, valued, treasured and even elevated is language. We love to name things, in an almost unconscious acknowledgement that because we know the name of something; we understand that something, and we grasp its full meaning and import; we expect and even require that our audience also understands and grasps the full meaning of that word when we use it.

Let’s take a look at the word myth, for example.

Merriam-webster.com defines myth this way: a usually traditional story of historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people of explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon; an unfounded or false notion; a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence (e.g. Superman, unicorn). One application of myth….int he phrase urban myth is quite new. Curiously, an urban myth does not usually have anything to do with the city; it is simply ‘a story about an unusual event or occurrence that many people believe is true but that is not true. (e.g. Elvis Presley still lives decades after his death.) Merriam-webster continues with this, under the title Kids Definition of myth: a story often describing the adventures of superhuman beings that attempts to describe the origin of a people’s customs or beliefs or to explain mysterious events (e.g. the changing of the seasons); a person or thing that exists only in the imagination (e.g. the dragon is a myth); a popular belief that is false or unsupported.

From Britannica.com, we read myth, a symbolic narrative, usually of unknown origin and at least partly traditional, that ostensibly relates actual events and that is especially associated with religious belief. It is distinguished from symbolic behaviour (cult, ritual) and symbolic places or objects (temples, icons) Myths are specific accounts of gods or superhuman beings involved in extraordinary events or circumstances in a time that is unspecified but which is understood as existing apart from ordinary human experience. The term mythology denotes both the study of myth and the body of myths belonging to a particular religious tradition. As with all religious symbolism, there is not attempt to justify mythic narratives or even to render them plausible. Every myth presents itself as an authoritative, factual account, no matter how much the narrated events are at variance with natural law or ordinary experience. By extension from this primary relig9ious meaning, the word myth may also be used more loosely to refer to an ideological belief when that belief is the object of a quasi-religious faith; an examples would be the Marxist eschatological myth of the withering away of the state. While the outline of myths from a part period or from a society other than one’s own can usually be seen quite clearly, to recognize the myths that are dominant in one’s own time and society is always difficult. This is hardly surprising, because a myth has its authority not by proving itself but by presenting itself. In this sense the authority of a myth indeed, ‘goes without saying,’ and the myth can be outlined in detail only when its authority is not longer unquestioned but has been rejected or overcome in some manner by another, more comprehensive myth. The word myth derives from the Greek Mythos, which has a range of meanings from ‘word,’ through ‘saying,’ and ‘story,’ to ‘fiction,; the unquestioned validity of mythos can be contrasted with logos, the word whose validity or truth can be argued and demonstrated. Because myths narrate fantastic events with no attempt at proof, it is sometimes assumed that they are simply stories with no factual basis, and the word has become a synonym for falsehood or, at best, misconception…..Myth has existed in every society. Indeed, it would seem to be a basic constituent of human culture. (I)t is clear that in their general characteristics and in their details a people’s myths reflect, express, and explore the people’s self-image. The study of  myth is thus of central importance in the study both of individual societies and of human culture as a whole.

Why all this clomping through the underbrush of the word myth?

James Hillman, in and through his articulation of archetypal psychology, seeks to draw out from situations of human ‘pivotal and arresting moments and decision’ the relevant voice of a myth or god or goddess, as a way of re-considering the moment of the crisis. Rather than labelling it a sickness, or a criminal act or decision, first, he admonishes us to seek to find a different way of seeing the drama. In Revisioning Psychology, Hillman writes:

(T)he task of referring the soul’s syndromes to specific myths is complex and fraught with dangers. IT must meet the philosophical and theological arguments against remythologizing, arguments which would see our approach as a backward step into magical thinking, a new daemonology, unscientific, un-Christian, and unsound. It must meet as well its own inherent pitfalls, such as those we find in Philip Slater’s work, The Glory of Hera. Though he indeed recognizes that mythology must be related to psychology for myths to remain vital, his connection between psychological syndromes and myths puts things the wrong way round. He performs a wrong pathologizing upon mythology by explaining Greek Myths through social culture and family relations. His is the sociological fallacy; i.e. one Reads Greek myths for allegories of sociology. I would read sociology as an enactment of myths….But the chief danger lies in taking myths literally even as we aim at taking syndromes mythically. For if we go about reversion as a simple act of matching, setting out with the practical intellect of the therapist to equate mythemes with syndromes, we have reduced archetypes to allegories of disease; we have merely coined a new sign language, a new nominalism. The Gods become merely a new (or old) grid of classificatory terms. Instead of imagining psychopathology as a mythical enactment, we would, horribile dictu, have lost the sense of myth through using it to label syndromes. This is the diagnostic perspective rather than the mythical, and we are looking not for a new way to classify psychopathology but for a new way of experiencing it….So we must take care, remembering that mythical thinking is not direct, practical thinking. Mythical metaphors are not etiologies, casual explanations, or name tags. They are perspectives toward events which shift the experience of events; but they are not events themselves. They are likenesses to happenings, making them intelligible, but they do not themselves happen. They give an account of the archetypal story in the case history, the myth in the mess. Reversion also provides a new access to myths: if they are directly connected to our complexes, they may be insighted through our afflictions. They are no longer stories in an illustrated book. We are those stories, and we illustrate them with our lives. (Hillman, op. cit. pps. 101-102)

This dynamic perspective presents, not only a fresh way of perceiving our unique crises but also a way for the whole of humanity, irrespective of its unique cultural and historical myths, to be integrated back into a shared human species.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Questionnaire for men on critical moments in your life....

 As men, we have all faced critical moments, when we felt and experienced a turning point, when we decided to do, or to withdraw, or to engage, or to fight, or to commit to some adventure. And, while we might not have been conscious of the voices, stories, epithets, adages, proverbs, or even the penetrating lines from a parent, a coach, a clergy or a mentor that seemed to take on a prominence in our decision-making, nevertheless, on reflection, such voices were active in our imaginations, in our mind’s eye, and in our bodies, if we experienced them physically.

Not all of our decisions turned out as we expected; indeed, some likely turned out far worse than we had imagined, while others turned out far better than we could have imagined. As Kierkegaard reminds us,

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

In the interest of attempting to collect, curate, interpret, apply and make sense of many of the decisions/turning points and their guiding voices men have made, this is an opportunity for as many as feel moved to tell your story, (in fewer than 100 words) to begin some anecdotal research-gathering, as part of the further investigation of Hillman’s Archetypal Psychology in real lives.

Some examples of such voices:

“Men of my generation did not leave their spouse, believing that such an act was immoral.”

“I simply did not believe that the situation was ever going to change.”

“We had completely different ideas about what a ………(carrier, marriage, divorce, promotion, geographic move, significant purchase, parenting strategy, etc. should, could, must be.”

“I believed that my vocation justified my complete involvement, even if it meant my family had to sacrifice.”

She followed “Apollo” while I was more comfortable with “Dionysos”

(Apollo, god of divine distance, who made men aware of their own guilt and purified them of it. Dionysos was god of wine, vegetation, pleasure, festivity, madness and wild frenzy.)

“The voice of Venus/Aphrodite (goddess of love, beauty, prosperity, fertility and victory) was in tension with the voice of Hera, goddess of marriage, a deep and high-minded commitment to the civilization in my marriage.”

Ares, the god of manliness and manly qualities: men are fighters, most of a man’s emotions should not be public, a man is responsible for and to others seemed to be in tension/friction/conflict with the was always present in my mind, to the exclusion of other voices, including those of the goddess of women, marriage and profound and mutual love.

Respectfully, we ask that, after some thought, and without using your name or location (your age and gender would be very helpful), you consider responding to the following inquiry, the results of which will be gathered and reported back to readers of this space.

This is not a site for therapy, for coaching, for mentoring or for any form of professional counsel. It is a blog that seeks to explore masculinities, and to reflect on how those masculinities came to be, what implications they have generated and whether or not a different perspective of and by men, of their/our masculinity is either feasible or warranted.

The message space at the bottom of this page will provide adequate space for your considered responses.


Looking backwards at my life, I believe that I made this decision:


while hearing and paying attention to the voices/ideas/words/example/mentorship of________________________________________________________________.

In a similar situation today, I would make a different decision, _________________________________________________________________

For the following reason(s)___________________________________________________________

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Taming the gods of war...another tilting at windmills?

 We often hear the adage, cliché, maxim that in order to continue to function, humans have to reconcile both the ‘good-and-the-bad’ as if to say that, regardless of what happens, both will continue to provide intractable tension and conflict..So, we must not only get used to the turbulence, for it is inevitable, and also adjust your expectations and perceptions that war might be eliminated from the planet. It wont ever disappear.

And literally ship-loads of ink have been poured into the study of, the details of, the motivations for and the probable outcomes of all wars. The humanitarians among us, cannot be anything but dismayed at the carnage in lost lives, twisted limbs, fractured and crumpled apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, and the dismantled infrastructure for heat, water and electricity that is both visible and inexcusable in Ukraine.

Regardless of whatever percentage of Russian people support the war in Ukraine, the rest of the world, including both China and India one would hope, have or will take the position that ‘unprovoked and illegitimate invasions’ of national boundaries is a proposition that has to be etherized from the geopolitical lexicon. Note, however, that elimination of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, while attempted through various treaties and agreements, remains unfulfilled, incomplete and still a blight on the human psyche. Indeed, there is still evidence, or at least the perception that some of the most dangerous operatives/leaders/nations either have or strive to acquire lethal instruments and agents, as a matter of ‘self-protection’.

Indeed, the American ‘war budget’ is, at least publicly, based on the clear and unequivocal premise that it is essential for the ‘protection’ of the American people and nation state. Defensive posture, as opposed to offensive posture, however, in a world in which straight talk has gone the way of thousands of dead and obliterated species over the last few decades, has taken on the characterization of mere political rhetoric, having neither truth nor legitimacy. Like laws conceived, drafted, debated and passed, in order to ‘prevent’ heinous acts of the abuse of power, only to seed, to nurture, to grow and to inflate whatever state apparatus that has then been given ‘power’, there is a predictable, and seemingly inevitable over-reach among those charged with such ‘protection’.

The over-reach is so significant that one has to be either or both sceptical and/or cynical about the cultural roots of the need for such protection.
Rooted in the history of the human race, is the seed of fear. The ancient Greeks had a god named “Phobus” who represented panic, flight and rout, as well as a god names Deimos who represented terror and dread. Both were sons of Ares, the god of war and Aphrodite, the goddess of love. It can never be overlooked, too, that in Slavic mythology, Perun, was the “thunder god of the ancient pagan Slavs, a fructifier, purifier, and overseer of right and order. ‘He is representative of the destructive masculine force of nature.’(symbolikon.com). His actions are perceived by the senses: seen in the thunderbolt, heard in the rattle of stones, the bellow of the bull, or the bleat of the he-goat (thunder), and felt in the touch of an axe blade.” (Britannica.com) In China, too, Guandi, also called Guan Gong, or Wudi,

(is) the Chinese god of war whose immense popularity with the common people rests on the firm belief that his control over evil spirits is so great that even actors who play his part in dramas share his power over demons. Guandi is not only a natural favourite of soldiers but has been chosen patron of numerous trades and professions. This is because Guan Yu, the mortal who became Guandi after death, is said by tradition to have been a peddler of bean curd  early in life. (Britannica.com)

Some contemporary thinking and theorizing about the force and dark side of masculine force and power would shine a light on the deep roots of the abusive force in the lives of contemporary women. It is not surprising, too, that “Eirene, the ancient Greek goddess of peace, is less well known than the god of war, Ares, who in his Roman guise of Mars was an ubiquitous deity invoked by men who went to war.” (greekreporter.com)

Considerable contemporary chatter would have it that, if the world today were ruled by women, there would be no war, or at least far fewer wars and they would be far less lethal and brutal. In a piece entitled,” Women challenging war; a feminist lens on patriarchy and conflict,” (atlanticfellows.org) we read:

In our globalized world, violence permeates all spheres of life. From sexual and gender-based violence, to racialized violence, to larger structural and systemic violence, to economic inequality and disparity, all violence is interconnected. A feminist analysis of war allows us to see how all these systems of violence are interconnected. In contexts of violent conflict, gender is produced and maintained as an extension of the violence manifested within society, politics, the economy, culture and family structures. Dominant hierarchical systems of oppression maintain power relations such that gender roles not only persist, but intensify the divide between women and men. In such contexts of exaggerated masculinity and exaggerated femininity, and the normalization of militarism and daily insecurity in all spheres of life, it is immensely difficult to fight against harmful gender norms, stereotypes and patriarchal values….(A) critical feminist lens shows the extent to which war, violence and weapons are significant factors in the construction and maintenance of masculine identity and crucial for the continued functioning of  patriarchy-a system in which women are at best devalued and at worst, eliminated. If women are to enter military institutions and contribute to the perpetuation of war, their role will be merely to support masculine ways of being for the benefit of a patriarchy that will continue to oppress both women and men.

It is both risky and potentially reductive for a male scribe to take on destructive masculine models, like Putin, for example, or the American Pentagon, or the Chinese government, and even to ask politely and respectfully, for a critical re-think of the underlying fears, anxieties, and even the demons that lurk in the imaginations of too many men in positions of leadership. It is neither rocket-science, nor especially prophetic, to note that the pursuit of power, status, honour, legacy and authority has been a constant drive among men forever. What is not so obvious is that such pursuit, motivation, obsession and compulsion, however, is also a significant and irrefutable signal of an underlying insecurity. Indeed, much has been written and researched about the link between insecurity and the abuse of power among men.

The masculine stereotype of ‘alpha male’ is so deeply embedded in the culture of western and most likely also eastern political attitudes, that media too have come to reinforce the model as the epitome of good leadership. Biden “ordered the Pentagon to shoot down the Chinese balloon” when it would cause the least damage to human life. Decisive and forceful images of power, especially for leaders like Biden whose Achilles heel, in the eyes of the Republican opposition, is described in words like “too soft” and “too weak”…Some would even argue that Biden’s reticence, foot-dragging, cautious and protracted release of tanks, missiles and those to-be-hoped-for fighter jets, to Ukraine, indicates his spineless approach to the Russian invasion.

On the Kremlin side, the alpha-male, Putin, while beating drums of threats should German tanks enter the war, champions the alpha-male leadership model in a one-man-ruled-state.

Depicting this Russian invasion of Ukraine in terms of the military (masculine) and the humanitarian (feminine) stereotypes, does little to tear down the psychic (and thereby the political, military, economic and nationalist) architecture/infrastructure/archetypes of past and current conflicts. Men are not only fully engaged as warriors on the battlefield; they are also fully engaged in the humanitarian effort. Women, too, while not specifically recruited by the Ukrainian forces, play a pivotal role in the effort to keep life-sustaining resources flowing to survivors.

One of the more notable aspects of the pursuit of power is the embedded perception that power has to have empirical evidence of acquisition. Epaulets stars, titles, a hierarchical structure of command, numbers of tanks, missiles, recruits, and, of course, territory. Deeply embedded in this last, territory, of course, is the disputed concept that many who live in Ukraine are in fact Russian in origin, in language and in cultural preference. That thread is one to which Putin clings, in his blind, hubristic and alpha-male pursuit of acclaim, honour and status in the history books. His unveiling a statue of Stalin just this week is another piece of information that indicates his dream, in emulation of the heinous Russian tyrant.

While there are those who argue with justification that such issues as LGBTQ rights, and both racial and gender equality are among the perceived cultural demons from Putin’s perspective (as well as from the perspective of American far-right Republican voices), hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children have died, and many thousands more will likely follow before this war ends.

Pleading for peace, for the institution of war crimes legal charges in the courts, and for the maintenance of adequate food and oil and water for Ukrainians and for all Europeans, while legitimate, will likely leave but a small dent on the Putin breastplate of hubris. Indeed, such pleas might well serve to enhance his motivation to complete his scorched-earth approach to Ukraine. The Cuban missile  crisis was de-escalated through tough, armed and credible diplomacy. Such diplomacy depended on both the willingness of Khrushchev to climb down from his hubristic perch of installing those missiles in Cuba and the sensitive and calculated and sophisticated decision of the Kennedy administration to leave the Russian leader room to withdraw without losing face completely.

Those conditions, in their gestalt and in their intimate detail, are absent here and now. Putin is no Khrushchev, and neither Biden nor Lloyd Austin replicate Kennedy and McNamara. The conditions, too, at the political, economic, technological and international levels, today are far different from those in 1961. American credibility, international trust and reliability have all been undermined by the forces of conspiracy theories, a former president who bought into and supported those conspiracy theories, and a large segment of the American population who have drunk the same Kool-aid.

We are collectively in the throes of such a tectonic and rapid shift in language and culture, at home and around the world, where words have been both weaponized and stripped of their meaning and value, in imitation of Orwell’s newspeak, that, it is not a stretch to imagine that no leader is about to trust the words of another leader, especially leaders, like Zelensky, whose nation’s fight for survival is still not fully embraced as the fight for the free, democratic and rights-based governance. Depicting Xi Jinping and Putin, and Orban and…and…as demonic tyrants, while generating considerable public support, will only enable their strongest and most dramatic moves, potentially in league. And no god of war encased in whatever supersonic, high-tech weapon, even unconsciously embraced by any or all alpha-males is likely to be subdued, restrained and brought to peace and/or justice in the foreseeable future.

Just as we have faces on our demons, so too Putin et al have faces on their demons. And for each side to be the demon of the other neglects the inner demons and the inner daemons among all sides. Is it too much to speculate that Putin might come to a conscious perception that his war is destroying the very land and people he seeks to include in Russia? Can Putin be expected to detach from the Russian obsession with military conflict, perhaps as a role model for the rest of the world, thereby ensuring Russia of a place of honour at the world’s tables of power? Can the American military behemoth start to reflect on just how inflated, exaggerated and over-propagandized it has become among the American populace, and start to see the legitimate limits of its power?

Masculinity, in its raw unleashed deployment is a sabotage not only for the specific purpose it has been deployed, but also for all of the men on the planet. And, only in and through a significant transformation of perceptions of both legitimacy and collaboration, in a world of finite resources, will our children and grandchildren even survive. And it will not matter whether those grandchildren bear the names of Biden, Putin, Xi Jinping, or Zelensky.