In the last post I looked at how some of the “themes and ‘motifemes'” identified by Calvert Watkins as they related to scenes in Homer’s Odyssey. Now I’d like to look at them in more depth as they relate to the spiritual quest in general. This quest, which we may dimly remember, is our attempt to “journey back to where we are,” to remember our true eternal Self by letting go of the illusory little changing selves with we are constantly identified. Seen this way, our normal life, our “common day,” is turned upside-down, and we are adrift in a kind of dreamworld where the absurd is normal.
As a quick reminder, Watkins identifies ten of these themes:
- abnormal or inverse social or sexual relations
- the abuse or violation of hospitality
- abnormal servitude
- an injunction
- violation of the injunction
- the temporary victory of the (monster) over the hero; as a result
- the hero’s disfigurement or mutilation, itself causing real or potential loss of status or power
- the abuse or violation of the responsibility of “hospitality” to an inferior…
- the underwater locale of the combat
- the final paean, in direct speech of the victory which reestablishes order over chaos, followed by the death of the hero.
Some observations about how these themes can be identified in our own lives:
- If we can appreciate that our daily lives are but picture-shows, shadows projected onto the cave wall (as Plato describes them), we can also appreciate that all our relationships can be described as “abnormal or inverse.” In our limited consciousness, we see all relations as more or less equal and certainly limited themselves. We do not recognize gods and goddesses when we see them (even in ourselves), and we justify hanging around with demons by our need for making money or for prestige. By the same token, we can become enchanted by making love with deities and forget our quest; if we have fallen in with the demons of matter, it means we’ve already forgotten. Enjoy your fame and toys, but good luck with trying to get back on the quest.
- I’ve written more extensively about the idea of hospitality, or in Greek xenia, elsewhere, so I won’t go into it again in detail, but the basic idea is that every other human being is not other than your own self, just as you are not other than your own Self. As the Irish prayer goes, “Often often often goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise,” which the Greeks would call theoxeny. Our diminished word “hospitality” derives from the places of lodging, often run by the “Knights Hospitaliers,” for people on pilgrimages, which in a real way we all are. Again I would say that this does not appeal to our literal sense of taking in strangers off the street, but to the way we treat other humans in all our interactions with them: whether we judge them, let them make us feel angry or envious, inferior or superior. To do that is to violate this rule of xenia by thinking of ourselves as a separate being.
- Abnormal servitude. This is something in which we pretty much all are engaged, in the sense that we see our activity, our work, as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Our true work is a gift which most of us tend to forget, along with most everything else, and so we look for ways to make up for it through money and status. (I think I’ve finally found mine, by writing this blog and my books.) Our true work is something to which our attention is naturally drawn, on which it rests and expands to its full consciousness. As Emerson says,
There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.
- An injunction. This is a topic that probably requires its own book, since I think it is the cause of so much misunderstanding and suffering in the world, which tends toward the practice of “anything, any time, anywhere.” And let me say that I am not one who wants a government or religion dictating what I can or cannot do–many of those “thou shalt nots” have become corrupted over the years. But the fact remains that not all activities are equal: there are actions which are compatible with the spiritual quest, and others which perpetuate the illusion that we are separate, limited and mortal beings, for whom
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing. (Macbeth, 5:5)
If we wish to avoid this depressing view of our lives, we need to find a way to escape our “abnormal servitude.” Therefore injunctions, i.e. “not joining.”
- Violation of the injunction. Because we misunderstand the purpose of the injunctions, because we tend to see them as some arbitrary authority trying to keep me from enjoying myself, we are quick to violate them, often just because they are injunctions. We disobey, we “sin” or “miss the mark” and because we are not immediately punished, we think we can violate them all with impunity. But this is a case of being bound to them, just as surely as unquestioningly obeying them.
- That we are not immediately punished is the “temporary victory of the monster,” in that we think we are somehow exempt from the rules of the quest. But none of us is, and the hero in us needs to reassert him- or herself. We are in fact punished by being in prolonged separation from our true Self. We can certainly experience the pleasant, but not the good.
- Disfigurement. In the Odyssey the disfigurement and mutilation is made clear–Odysseus is made to look old and diminished through the handiwork of Athena, which results in his being mocked and humiliated by the suitors, which you know (if you’ve read my book) represent the self-important thoughts and desires that plague us day and night. To become “disfigured, mutilated” is to become free from their power over us. (I hope at this point that you realize I’m not talking about physical disfigurement.) In a way we become invisible, one of “God’s spies,” perhaps not that interesting to talk to, not that ambitious, but “pure of heart.”
- To become disfigured in this way though is to invite “abuse of hospitality.” We come to be on the receiving end of the lack of xenia that we may have practiced upon others. We are ignored, we don’t matter. But this too can be liberating–we are free of other peoples’ expectations. (I am experiencing this more and more as I get older and become more and more invisible to those younger.) We can let go of the need to assert ourselves and enjoy the status of observer.
- The underwater battle. Again, in my book I speak of the symbolism of water as representing ignorance, that force that is constantly trying to pull us under and end the quest through whatever agent of the monster: Polyphemus, Sirens, Crashing Rocks, Skylla, Charibdis. In the Odyssey it is always presented as an evil; a “vast waste” at best, a source of danger and death at worst. The hero will always have access to some kind of wood to see him through these ordeals.
- The final paean. “I am I again, unnamed and whole.” Start writing yours now.