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.