When things are clear as mud and the future uncertain, I find a book off my father's shelf. Alan Watts' appropriately illustrated "Myth and Ritual in Christianity", with its beautiful green cloth cover, fits the bill as the earth turns toward bare-treed November and the time to 'hold fast to the center.' This is a book which emphasizes the Christian mythos in keeping with a Perennial Philosophy that people all around the world and in all time come up with in the forms of myth. There is an emphasis not on the Greek, Roman, Western system of thought, of history and theological classifications and metaphysics that aren't all that metaphysical. Our methods bring the problems of God and mystery down to our own egotistical frame of mind. But here, the emphasis, for Watts, is on poetry and myth, on understandings that live a lively life in the present moment without being weighted down with all that terminology of the modern professional life. Let the poetry and myth of a good story stand as it is, without having to drag it into history and the dry thought of the news and the reaction to it.
If Ishmael, of Moby Dick, is feeling that cold grey November of the soul, he's probably not the only one. And to the remedy, a good myth. Melville took to the sea for a creative backdrop. He let the sea and the people who made it their profession serve as an open meditation of many voices. There's Ahab, trying to make sense of it all, not unlike the way we do living as adult professionals. There is Queequeg, who is happy with his own little idols and myths.
Myths, they don't make it on to the daily news. But there is one that's stuck with me since childhood.
The basics of it are this: Dionysos is hanging out on some cliffs above the sea, and a ship of pirates goes by; 'he must be some rich prince, so let's take him hostage,' they say, which they do; they bind their young prince to the mast, and he doesn't seem particularly bothered; in fact, not long afterward strange things begin to happen on the ship; grape vines grow, up the mast, and all throughout the rigging; the young man is now unfettered, relaxed, his bindings evaporated; and then it gets scary for the pirates; water vessels turn to overflowing wine, and a lion appears on the ship; all the while the old helmsman has been in disagreement with the pirates; the pirates, terrified, jump into the ocean; in a good treatment of their hardness and extremism, they are turned into porpoises, flesh once again turned to good purpose; and just before the old helmsman is about to bow out, apologetically, the god Dionysos, having understood the old man's heart, commands him to hang out and stay awhile. And I imagine that as the sailing day reached the dusk, they had some wine together. They were content within their own transforming mythical poetic story, in time but out of time as we experience it through our senses and the historical account of the ego.
Wine was had, that day on the ship with the divine God and the reasonably humble helmsman, who, after all, was the helmsman, even if people are pirates sometimes, and worse.
I wonder if there's a better myth suited to the world right now and all its news stories.
Eric Asimov, of the New York Times has been brilliant as always with what he does His wine school is now tasting the wines of Gigondas, a favorite alternative to the old Pope's favorite. He's reminded me, in his twelve essential wines piece, of the value of a Chianti in one's quiver. (We agree on the Beaujolais and the Macon white Burgandy chardonnays.) And they are true middle of the road, middle of the palate reds to which no terms need be put upon. They are light and dancing; the fruit is balanced with the tactile experience, with that nascent source of all things grow, as if one could taste the acorn, the pine cone, the rocks and sediment where a small creature might be happy along the edge of a stream or down under the roots of a great tree, or where earth has been turned over to plant something anew and good, or, where the earth has received some form of its own history.
In what terms can we express the reality of life? Sometimes, like wine, we need the leap of faith that is the truth wrapped in myth, perceived and understood at deeper levels of consciousness.
Oddly, exposure to myth allows us to comprehend the truth of another person. With a head full of Cuchulains and Quixotes, gods who mingle intimately with shepherds and shepherdesses, we get the human psyche. From our visions emerge the clean person standing there before you, unbound, unpacked from that which is imposed.