Thoughts on art and ecology

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It isn’t that more people died during 2016-early 2017. Well, actually, probably more people did die, because there are more people to die, and there are quite a number of nasty little wars going on, murder technology that is extremely efficient, and a high degree of wealth inequality ensuring lots of people die from treatable diseases and starvation.

But here in the Empire of the West I submit that we’ve all been very sad about the proportionately rather large number of artists* who died last year. Now a lot of these people weren’t exactly young, many of them were rode hard and put away wet for years, and they had to shuffle off the mortal coil sometime. We all know Keith Richards has been living on borrowed time for decades. But I suggest what makes these deaths hard is that they make it clear how little art there has been in pop/monoculture for a long time–long enough for the last celebrity artists to get old.

And as it stands, I think it will be a very long time before we see any more celebrity artists, because we are a monoculture that excels at entertainment, but sucks at art.

Lots of people are artists, humans being a creative lot, and many of them are even very talented and/or skilled, but I have this idea that what makes an artist or a work of art “great” is that they make us see from new perspectives. If they have a big enough audience, that can change culture and society. Even with a small audience they can cause a trophic cascade to borrow a term not originally from Gordon White, but I’m applying it in a parallel way. Obviously there will be dispute about who and what is “great” because individuals will inevitably be differently affected. For one thing, there’s an aesthetic barrier to be jumped right out of the gate, since if people don’t find the artist’s work pleasing enough they may not experience it enough to be changed by it. On the flip side, just because something is avant garde or not aesthetically pleasing does not make it great art. I don’t know, your mileage may vary, but putting a picture of Jesus in a jar of pee not only does nothing to change my perspective, it’s just lazy. Art is inevitably controversial but just because something is controversial doesn’t make it great art.

Some chalk artistic “greatness” up to genius. I don’t think genius is an intrinsic quality that some humans have–I think it’s a collaborative thing whereby certain individuals have something to express and a mode of expression that act like a key that fits the lock of the Zeitgeist or egregore or some such. The same key wouldn’t fit in a different lock. Sometimes a key comes along that fits no lock until after the artist has died. That’s probably the case more often than not (thinking of Colin Wilson’s outsiders here). It doesn’t matter if your great artist is not so great for me, and vice versa; it doesn’t matter that there are different schools of art and different followings for different artists. What matters, or rather, my point, is that the putative “genius” must be in the right place at the right time and saying the right thing in the right way, just as a seed has to fall on fertile ground and get the right amount of water and sun in order to germinate. Art and genius are, in short, ecological. And just like any other ecology, they involve spirits. Indeed if folklore is to be believed, spirits are all over art like white on rice.

But at the moment we are in an ecosystem that’s not particularly friendly to art or artists. Anything that changes perspectives is going to make people uncomfortable–some people uncomfortable all the time, a lot of people uncomfortable some of the time–and what makes people uncomfortable can’t really be mass-marketed. Seeds that fall on such barren ground have little chance to flourish, and that’s what I mean when I say that today, artists are seldom celebrities and vice versa.

The stereo in my car is broken so my options when driving to work are NPR or the pop music station. I often end up listening to the pop station just because it’s energetic. (For man cannot live by bread alone–yea, sometimes he needs a funky beat.) But at the risk of sounding like a hipster here, today’s pop music is highly repetitive dreck.

Because when it comes to selling stuff, you want to manipulate people’s emotions, and the easiest, lowest-common-denominator way to do that is through sex or fear. The plethora of sub-mediocre, copycat sex songs in American pop music is a sure sign that you are being sold. It’s not that you can’t have great songs about sex (blues music is full of them) but if you haven’t been listening to today’s pop music, you cannot imagine just how stupid and crass the current crop of songs is.

Yes, artists are still making art. Some of it is great. But you’re more likely to stumble upon it in a weird series of synchronicities than you are to hear it on the radio or recommended by your coworker, because the monoculture ensures that most of these people labor in relative obscurity. We are lucky that technology enables us to discover art from outside our own communities and times. Indeed, for my money, there is some tremendous music being made at the moment, and I am particularly pleased to see a resurgence of a hippy/Romantic, poetic, occasionally overtly animist, folk aesthetic being melded with modern instrumentation in fabulously unique ways. It’s exciting for me not only aesthetically but because of what it suggests about the values and visions of the people involved. They are visions that I want to see propagated as widely (but as faithfully) as possible. But sadly you’ve got to slog through a lot of Arianna Grandes and Thomas Kinkades to find them.

The role of spirits and of mediumship in art is something I want to know more about. Until college I was an artist (not a great one by any stretch of the imagination), and then something happened that switched off my connection. Connection is what it was, because I was not so much expressing something in myself as I was compulsively trying to birth something that moved through me. I felt almost commanded to draw and paint; the images had their own agency and controlled the process much more than I ever did. I don’t know how or why the connection was shut down but I am doing my best to reopen it. Sorry, I don’t have any answers to this question yet. But if you’re interested, check out Chris Knowles’ series on Elizabeth Fraser and the Siren archetype (Part I, Part II, Part III) and also watch her perform. I don’t know if Knowles is right but there is something weird going on there. Incidentally, this isn’t to diminish the agency, talent, or skill of Fraser or any other particular artist, merely to acknowledge that in this sphere of human activity as in all the others (perhaps more than in some others), there are more influences than we usual credit, and some of them just happen not to be humans.

*I know this is a controversial topic with room for disagreement but I’m not really interested in a discussion of “what is art?” at this time because

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On the feast of St. David

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St. David’s Cathedral with Carn Llidi in the background (there are a couple Neolithic burial chambers up there)

I have a soft spot in my heart for St. David (Dewi Sant), the patron saint of Wales, and for the town that bears his name (St Davids, obvy). You’ll be hard pressed to find a more beautiful or more magical corner of the world than Pembrokeshire, and it doesn’t hurt that it looks a lot like northern California, where I spent my childhood. As Gordon so rightly remarks, when it comes to the colonized corners of Britain, Wales may not have Scotland’s aggressive glamour (so metal), but there’s something undeniably subversive in the way the Welsh just go on quietly Keepin’ It Welsh. (And I submit that what they lack in kilts they make up for in wetsuited surfers, so.) To my ear there’s a sweetness unique to Welsh music, and the language with its many Fs, Ps and Ws and its soft, full vowels and rolling cadences sounds gently magnificent. Appropriately, St. David–whose dying words included the injunction to “be joyful, and do the little things you have seen me do”–is a very chill saint. He has the juice to get stuff done but he doesn’t put on a big show about it, and I respect that.

So it’s the feast of St. David today, 1 March, and this year I have really connected with his dedication to the little things. Currently I’m looking at having to ruthlessly Marie Kondo-ize all my earthly possessions, including family heirlooms, move out of my house within 2 months, and move overseas (destination and job TBD) sometime probably within the next half year, leaving friends and family behind yet again–and I feel very acutely the importance of community, family, friendship, and home.

The profundity and preciousness of the small is evident from within a state of absorption such as I wrote about yesterday. In a divination the other day it was suggested that the the joys to be found in the small will always play a large role in my life and family. That of course remains to be seen, but it is an important reminder that how you do everyday things is usually more important than doing “big” things. And with everyone miserable with the state of the world and its so-called “leaders” these days (Kali Yuga, innit?), some renewed attention to the small, the local, the personal, the immediate, the realizable, the concrete is timely. St. David’s day is an excellent time to reflect on the power of simply caring. And if you want to really mark the day, you could experiment with what happens when you combine mental absorption with an attitude of confident expectancy and calm enthusiasm and apply them to the little things in your life.

And so I leave you with a song about being indestructible and honoring the small things, by the utterly delightful and brilliant Cosmo Sheldrake.

Did you know it has been suggested that 2017 be “the Year of the Tardigrade“? Words to live by, eh?

On the evolution of unicorns

I haven’t posted much lately because there’s been a lot going on, but it’s mostly internal stuff which is terribly interesting to me and terribly irrelevant to everyone else. I guess you could say I’ve been navel-gazing, and I didn’t want to subject everyone to the slides from that vacation. I half-jest, but seriously, it’s also that so much of this stuff is inexpressible, and some of it even feels like it benefits from secrecy while it gestates. You all know what I’m talking about. But there are a number of thinks that may develop into posts in time, if the assays pan out.

I came here, to my family’s little corner of Appalachia, a little over a year ago now, and I laugh now to think of my plans for my future back then (best left unsaid as they are embarrassing). It all made perfect sense, logically, and I thought I had some idea of what I wanted. That might sound like no big deal but having spent my life up until late 2015 always doing what others wanted, I am only beginning to have a sense of the boundaries between my own interests and those of others. Well, I was still way short of the goal there. Anyway, shortly after I got here it became obvious that spirits had other plans. I wasn’t ready to start a new life yet, because I still had to process the end of the old one. Also I had some remedial education to go through. My ancestors ensured that I got a safe place to land and cocoon, and I have been able to forge stronger communication with them as well as reconnecting with a culture integral to my family’s experience and values. My inner power has been building though I don’t know what that means or what to do with it. That I have made friends and had fun here has been gravy.

So it’s bittersweet for me that my ancestors are now making it clear they are going to push me out of the nest soon. Economic opportunities here are severely limited, so I’ll have to leave. I mean, I don’t maintain a luxurious standard of living, but I got bills to pay. On the positive side, this will mean I get to go overseas again, that being where I stand the best chance of improving my circumstances–something my ancestors get really excited about–but I am going to miss this place and these people, the waters and the ghosts. It’s also damn difficult because while I am getting tons of synchronicities and lots of spectacular bird omens, and the helping spirits are all thumbs up, I have no idea what I am doing. There is no guiding purpose or goal here because defining one would require a better understanding of what I want. (The curse of the phlegmatic. You see why I don’t do much practical magic now, right?) Sometimes just putting one foot in front of the other is enough, of course, and I’m used to being a rambler; funnily enough the little direction I’ve been given actually confuses things more than clarifies because the intermediate steps all seem to lead in the opposite direction. Well, they don’t call it a crooked path for nothing.

Alpaca posse, assemble! We’re hitting the road.

Anyway. Something I thought might be of interest to some:

Because of reasons, I found myself having to do some research into the mythos of the unicorn. “Mythos” is maybe a bit of a stretch, since there isn’t much of a mythology when it comes to unicorns–more of a symbol set, really. What struck me, though, is that it is pretty obvious the European unicorn evolved/derived from the Chinese qilin, yet The Internet seems determined to disavow this. The obvious caveat: Of course I know the internet is not a good place to do research on anything, but it can serve as a sort of bibliography and lead you to better places. Also, I’m busy and lazy. My research is only at the beginning, and doesn’t necessarily need to go too deep–that remains to be seen–and I am certain I cannot be the first person to make this connection. But what surprises me is that this little corner of Eurasian myth apparently hasn’t been given the common-knowledge treatment yet.

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Unicorn from The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents by Edward Topsell (1658) (Wikimedia Commons). Note all the extra hair on the shoulders, fetlocks, and chin, cloven hooves, and tufted tail.

It’s true there are significant differences in appearance between modern depictions of qilin and unicorns; but the historical evidence, while circumstantial, is pretty darned suggestive. Consider:

  • The first (surviving) written Chinese record of the qilin and the first more or less European (Graeco-Persian) account of unicorns are approximately contemporaneous–5th century BC. That makes it possible for the European account to be derived from the Chinese (assuming that the qilin existed in Chinese oral lore before being written about).
  • That first European account of unicorns is in Ctesias’ Indica (“On India”), which was more or less a natural history based on the accounts of Silk Roads travelers in Persia. The eastern hub of the Silk Roads was, of course, China–but to the Greeks, India was the eastern edge of the known world. It seems reasonable to suppose that the Subcontinent and everything east of it was basically “India” from the Greek point of view, and thus a Chinese creature might be understood as Indian, which is what Ctesias said of the unicorn.
  • Although qilin and unicorns have followed separate trajectories since the 5th century BC, and settled into familiar forms which are quite different today (people of a certain age may remember the plethora of folders and Trapper Keepers with airbrush unicorn pictures on them back in the ’80s…pretty sure I collected them all), there is a great deal of overlap in their earlier forms: Older (e.g., medieval) depictions of the unicorn show it with a deer-like body, horse-like head, tufted tail like a lion or ox. The hooves are sometimes cloven, sometimes horse-like, and sometimes it has a goat-like beard and/or feathery hair on the fetlocks and shoulders. Ctesias described it as a type of wild ass, as large as or larger than a horse, with a white body, red head, and blue eyes, and of course a single horn. The qilin was described differently by time and region (here is an assortment of images), but among its recognized variants were a deer-like body, cloven or horse-like hooves, a tufted tail, and a single horn. It is often depicted with flames emerging from around its shoulders, and sometimes with a goaty beard and hairy fetlocks. The main consistent differences between the two is the shape of the head (horse-like in the unicorn and dragon-like in the qilin)–although these are not entirely dissimilar in overall shape–and the color (generally white in the unicorn since the Middle Ages, and variable in the qilin). The all-white color of unicorns presumably came to be emphasized as part of its symbol set related to purity.
  • The European unicorn is symbolically associated first and foremost with purity (hence virgins), and deriving from that, healing. It is generally described as gentle and elusive, but extremely wild and pretty much impossible to capture. It is fierce only in defense of its freedom (hence its use as the symbol of Scotland). The qilin is described as an exceedingly gentle and peaceful creature, but one which is fierce in the defense of justice. It too is elusive and impossible to catch. Both are often used as symbols of forests and wilderness.

I see no reason there couldn’t be an even earlier origin for a unicorn-like creature in Indian myth, but if so it went through China before reaching Europe. I don’t find the argument that the Indus Valley Culture seals represent unicorns terribly persuasive. Maybe the representation is of a one-horned magical form of bull (elsewhere two-horned animals are shown with both horns, after all), but it is still clearly a bovine; and while it’s possible the unicorn as we know it could have evolved from a very ancient bovine prototype, there are so many more similarities to the qilin that the Chinese connection mustn’t be dismissed. I’m also not convinced by the argument that the unicorn derives from the accounts of travelers who saw oryxes in profile. I mean, are we really to believe that multiple travelers never saw an oryx turn its head even a tiny bit? The qilin connection is way more parsimonious than this oryx nonsense.

Not surprisingly, the European end of the Silk Roads has tended to way downplay the influence of the Asian end. We are determined to be the core and make them the periphery. Temperate Eurasia (that is, Eurasia minus the arctic or tropical parts) is basically one giant prairie, with horses, rivers, and wheels allowing for rapid and efficient transit; trans-Eurasian contact has been the norm since at least the Bronze Age. And It doesn’t take a Marco Polo traveling the breadth of the entire supercontinent* to share myths, it just takes interlinked trade networks. So as far as I can tell there is no valid reason to think the unicorn couldn’t have evolved from the qilin and yet over and over again I read how they are in no way related.

Anyway, personally it doesn’t change much for me to know that unicorns and qilin are related, except it makes me wonder what other connections we might be missing. It also gets me thinking why the unicorn caught the European (or Graeco-Persian) imagination the way it did, not only being carried across Eurasia but remaining/becoming an extremely potent symbol in the process. For me the connection, or communication, came through the symbolic vectors of healing and childhood. And finally it makes me curious what further evolution of the unicorn/qilin we may yet see.

*Although there clearly were such people: https://theheritagetrust.wordpress.com/2016/09/23/east-asian-skeletons-found-in-a-londinium-cemetery/

Underworld journey movies for kids of all ages

Maybe it’s part of the trend of magic re-entering the mainstream of late, I don’t know. Although the inner shadow-hipster I completely disavow cringes at the idea, I think it’s a good thing that we seem to be seeing a re-injection of proper myth into stories “for kids.”

Cases in point: Spirited Away, The Little Prince, Moana.

(Ok, I know Spirited Away isn’t new, in fact this year is its 15th anniversary. But for precisely that reason some theaters are screening it this month. And to be fair, Miyazaki has been making movies with spiritual/Shinto themes for decades, but maybe now people outside Japan will be able to get that in a way that I suspect they haven’t previously. As a sidebar, Chihiro is way less bratty and annoying in Japanese than in the English-dubbed version.)

Oh yeah–spoiler alert. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.

Spirited Away (2001)

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Spirited Away is the most overtly shamanic of the three films here. It is pretty explicit that the heroine Chihiro and her parents inadvertently cross into an Otherworld when they wander through a seemingly abandoned amusement park. I mean, they should have known, really–transdimensional crossings pretty much go with the territory with abandoned amusement parks, I would think, much like buildings that used to be hospitals (speaks the voice of experience) or are full of antique dolls (shudder) are bound to be haunted. There follow a series of encounters with bizarre spirits out of a really adorable (Japan, amiright?) mushroom trip as Chihiro is stripped of her this-world identity* and must find allies, and her own courage, on the Other side. She does this, in part, through performing services to spirits like the river kami in the bathhouse, Kaonashi (“No-Face,” a kind of wetiko–and indeed, greed is the big villain in this film), Haku the dragon, and Bou the giant baby. What she learns in the Otherworld enables her to return herself and her parents to this world, but now she is not only transformed by the journey but has a posse of helping spirits.

There’s some more theories about the meaning(s) of Spirited Away in this article, but it unfortunately reduces the shamanic character of the story to the more universal but neutered “spiritual.”

*Chihiro’s loss of this-world identity is made explicit when she is renamed Sen. Sen, another reading of the first character in the name Chihiro, means 1000; in other words, she is literally robbed of a name and becomes just a number. That this is done by Yubaba, the greedy mistress of the underworld bathhouse where Chihiro must earn her freedom, could be read as a symbol of the dehumanization we all face in the modern workplace/marketplace.

The Little Prince (2015)

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The Little Prince, based on the ostensibly-children’s story (really more a tale for jaded adults), was released as a Netflix original. It sets the original story within a framing narrative which is what turns this from a very French meditation on love, loss, and death (seriously, when I read the story I can hear it in my mind’s ear as if it is being read by an ennui-filled Frenchman between slow, cynical drags on a Gaulois) to an underworld journey. I highly doubt this was intentional, but it gets the job done nonetheless.

Netflix had been plugging the movie on its homepage but I had exactly zero interest until I happened to hear an interview about it on NPR while driving to work. Specifically, it was this quote, from the Fox, that happened to be a major sync for me:

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Three days later I was looking to kill time while doing laundry and Netflix promoted the movie again, and my primary helping spirit told me emphatically that I needed to watch it.

You can “read” the movie on various levels: as a social critique about how work and school crush our souls; as a parable about death and grief; or as an exploration of “what is essential” in life, e.g., play, spontaneity, love. But the more interesting story, to me, is once again about a journey to the Otherworld and the encounter with helping/tutelary spirits–specifically the Little Prince, the Fox, the Snake, and the Rose. The little girl heroine first acquires her own helping spirit/power animal–a fox (Trickster par excellence), represented/embodied by one of the most shamanic implements I can imagine, a stuffed fox toy covered with glow-in-the-dark stars and filled with jingle bells–and then goes to retrieve her friend the Aviator’s helping spirit, the Little Prince, before stewarding the Aviator into death. In so doing she effects healings/soul retrievals for herself, her friend, her mother, and by extension (if you’re receptive to the idea) the viewer.

For me, this movie was filled with truth bombs, some of which are still waiting to be ignited. My feminists out there will be happy to know that the Rose, who in the book is a two-dimensional and very unflattering depiction of Woman as weak, vain, and naive, is in the movie a tutelary spirit; and as mentioned, the Little Prince is actually not the hero in this version, but rather a little girl.

If you do work with helping spirits, it’s hard to put into words but there is something about this movie that seems to allow them to plug into it and download huge packets of information to a receptive mind. I don’t know, maybe it was just me? Give it a try. For example, if you plug the character of the Rose into the mystical and goddess (Isis/Venus/Mary/etc.) symbolism of the Rose (an example, another–there’s a lot and it’s well worth the dig), and even its medicinal properties, it’s like a cheat code that lets you jump ahead five levels. Then layer it onto this:

Strike, dear Mistress, and cure our hearts. I’ll just leave you with that and let you do your own experimentation.

Moana (2016)

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Let’s just say I’m not the biggest fan of Disney films. Even as a kid I chafed against the message that the most important things I could aspire to were being pretty and falling in love with a rich man. I mean, I get the social context of the films made circa midcentury when that was an accepted “truth,” but Disney has lagged way behind the times in updating that message. As far as I know it wasn’t until Brave (2012) that we finally got a movie where romance wasn’t portrayed as the apotheosis of the story (and thus of a woman’s existence).

Also I hate musicals.

But, again because of an interview I heard on NPR on the way to work–which is interesting because I only switch to NPR these days during commercials on other stations, because as shit as popular music mostly is these days, it’s still better than what passes for “liberal” “news”–I thought I’d give this one a shot. I mean, it has a Trickster (Maui), explicitly identified as such.

Unsurprisingly considering this is Disney, of the three movies under consideration here it’s the most literal and (for me anyway) has the least potential for truth-bomb-downloads. In some ways, this movie is kind of an example of how not to do a movie about Otherworld journeys. It takes the seafaring very secularly and beats one over the head with the usual vapid Disney pabulum about “being true to yourself” and “listening to your heart” and such, and once again the protagonist is a “princess” (in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge on the part of the writers, she rejects that title, but if it walks like a duck…). Being a “voyager” is held up as something wonderful but there is never any reasoning for it; I can’t help but think how cool this movie could have been if the writers had read Star.Ships. Yet it does have ancestor spirits, Tricksters, an animate ocean, and gods, and the classic storyline of seeking a helping spirit, journeying through the underworld, ordeals, performing service to the spirits, and returning home transformed: The eponymous character Moana rebels against custom and authority in watered-down Whale Rider-style to find Maui and force him to fix a mistake he made that is ruining the world for mortals. Although she finds Maui in this world, together they journey to the underworld to retrieve Maui’s magic fishhook.

The underworld act is by far the best part of the movie, in large part because it evokes that boss Trickster, now on the spirit side, David Bowie.

Indeed, of these three movies, this one actually explores the Trickster mythos most deeply, showing how Maui is both a teacher and helper of humans and also something of a bumbling clown who “inadvertently” makes trouble for us. Arguably the story would have been more realistic (at least based on my experience of Tricksters) if at the end we found out that Maui had set up the story’s central McGuffin and all of Moana’s ordeals from the get-go for inscrutable purposes of his own, but I think that’s way too meta for Disney.

Anyway, if you bring the right perception to Moana (he who has eyes to see, let him see) you can still show the kids how to extract its mythic marrow. And for the girl children, they will get another young heroine, one who is happily not on a quest for a socially-advantageous marriage. And it’s a more appropriate entry-level treatment of myth for the littles, where Spirited Away has some creepy nightmare fuel and The Little Prince might go over the head of “kids” who don’t already have some grounding in the concept of spirit journeys.

Spirits and parasociality

Wow, been a while, huh? The spirits have really been putting me through my paces. They say we are trying to make up for all the time lost while I was pretending to be a grown-up. Trust me, you do not want to read the “Dear Diary…” type crap writing this generates. The rest of my observations I’m saving up for my magnum opus (tentative title: Hillbilly Downton Abbey*). It’s now clear to me that my ancestors were instrumental in bringing me here specifically to work through the stuff I’m working through (to grow up for real, basically) but also that, as much as I love this corner of the world–and I love it dearly–I can’t stay. Since time is short, it’s nose to the grindstone time (little magical humor for you there). I feel like I’m neck deep in Tricksters and tripping balls most of the time…so pretty awesome, in other words.

A bit like this, with less pie-flinging but more absinthe:

But I’m breaking radio silence to throw an idea out there. Recently I read an article about parasocial attachments…of course wouldn’t you know it, I can’t find the link to save my life. So parasocial attachments are when you bond with someone you don’t/can’t directly interact with. And–stalkers aside, because according to the article that is actually a different thing–though you might think it’s only muttering shifty-eyed recluses and cat-hoarding shut-ins who form parasocial relationships, actually it’s usually people who also have lots of normal in-person relationships.

I assume this varies on a cultural as well as individual basis. Thanks to my addiction to occasional enjoyment of the surreality that is Japanese variety shows, I can tell you that their celebrities are seemingly omnipresent across all forms of media. Also, bless their hearts, they really like to see their celebrities lightly terrorized or humiliated on a regular basis. So, watch a couple shows and you may suddenly realize you know more details (some uncomfortably probing) about some random actor/singer/model/whatever than you do about people you consider friends in real life. Even if I discount a large percentage of it as lies or obfuscation, it still makes me feel like an accidental creeper. I can only imagine the crush-fuel this might have been had I discovered Japanese TV as a teenager…probably best for all concerned that that didn’t happen.

But I digress. Point is, although as I understand it parasociality was only identified about 50ish years ago, and is considered a modern phenomenon emergent from technologies like TV, I can’t help but wonder if the human tendency to form parasocial attachments could be related to our ability to form relationships with spirits. In both cases we’re forming relationships with persons who are (for the most part) not physically present. In the case of the spirit relationships, the spirits do relate back to us, so it’s not one-sided; whereas our celebrity crushes and favorite actors and musicians and such don’t know we exist. That is a major difference. But perhaps parasocial attachments are a byproduct of whatever mental/spiritual/consciousness faculties allow humans to form and maintain bonds with spirits, (mostly) in the absence of physical contact.

(I’m saying “mostly” here because certain types of spirit encounters do involve the physical senses or manipulation of physical objects, and really any line we try to draw between physical and non-physical is blurry at best.)

Perhaps, then,

“A more fruitful approach to anomalistics is to regard the strange occurrence as both noumenal and phenomenal, that is properly apprehended by both sense-perception and reference to the ideal forms we hold in our head, without the requirements of a strict materialism, or rather a materialist test which will invariably fail, as our only means of perceiving the relationship between stuff out there and the carnival in our craniums is our senses.” (source)

In principle, a parasocial relationship is part of the “carnival in our [crania]” and thus not really real; but readers of blogs about high strangeness are too savvy to fall for such false dichotomies as “out there” and “in here” or “real” and “imaginary.” (Or maybe I just outed myself as a nutter.) As the philosopher George Berkeley said (quoted at the link above, the most excellent EsoterX), whether perceived by the senses or “excited in the imagination,” the perception is still in your head. Dickering about the relative reality of the noumenal vs. the phenomenal is angels-on-a-pinhead territory.

“Apparition is not a bad word.  It is the fundamental way in which we perceive the universe if we divorce ourselves from the noumenal-phenomenal dichotomy that powers skeptical critiques.  We never know, we simply apprehend.”

Whether it’s a celebrity or a helping spirit, we usually encounter (apprehend) them as an insubstantial apparition, a vision whether in the physical or the mind’s eye. Yet that apparition has its own consciousness, it’s own personality and motivations; it’s clearly independent of us. At some point in the wayback, our ancestors became self-referential animals prone to forming relationships with the numinous. And through most of our (pre-)history we seem to have regarded this as a necessary and desirable thing to do, indeed a proper survival instinct. Is it unreasonable to think that such a faculty evolved through natural and sexual selection? (It’s long past time we restored spirits and consciousness to the panoply of selective pressures and environmental niches.) However we got here, here we are with our highly social minds, forming relationships willy-nilly, hither and yon, with just about anything that’s willing to relate or provide a facsimile thereof. TV, films, recording technologies, and the internet just give us more apparitions to relate to. The fact that most of them are shit Baudrillardian simulacra simply proves that even humans’ prodigious laziness isn’t enough to stop us seeking relationships with all the things.

*Not really. I don’t have the attention-span for long-form writing.

Salt and spirits

I just got around to Gordon’s interview with Joshua Cutchin on a Rune Soup podcast from last month. It’s pretty interesting (I mean, food, right?) but it got me thinking again about an issue that has always perplexed me: What’s the deal with salt and spirits?

From around minute 33 to 34 Gordon and Cutchin discuss salt in the context of faery food–or rather, the absence of salt.

shinto-offerings
Shinto offerings. The salt, rice, rice wine, and water are in the white vessels in the back row; the salt is in a little conical pile.

From what I know (and I’m not an expert, just spitballing here) it seems to be a widespread belief in European cultures–at the very least in northwestern Europe–that faeries/spirits are repelled by salt. So don’t give them salt as an offering unless you want them to bugger off. I have heard the same argument made about ancestor spirits, but by contrast, I’ve never heard that deities are bothered by salt; and in fact, some traditions use salt to purify before approaching a deity (I’m thinking of khernips here).

But I’ve always been a bit dubious about that because in Shinto salt is one of the essential offerings (along with sake, uncooked rice, and water) for both kami and ancestors. These four offerings are considered the essential foodstuffs in Shinto–the four elements of food, as it were–so while other things can also be offered, you cannot omit these four.

Salt, rice, rice wine, and water are also ritually pure, as emphasized by their white/transparent color. Purity vs. pollution is a huge deal in Shinto, and spirits are pure, so the offerings must also be pure, and the offerer must purify themself ritually before offering. Salt is considered purificatory and apotropaic in Japanese culture just as much as it is in Europe; in fact if this isn’t a human universal it is about as close to it as we get.

Now of course it’s easy to say, well, kami aren’t the same as faeries, and that’s true as far as it goes; but there is massive overlap between the two domains, and cultural differences notwithstanding, human ancestors are human ancestors. I want to know why kami and faeries, Japanese ancestors and European ancestors ostensibly have opposite attitudes toward salt.

  • Are there cultural differences on the other side?
  • Is this purely a human scheme imposed on the spirits, which is actually irrelevant to them?
  • Or does this reflect different modes of human interaction with spirits?
mori-shio
Mori-shio is salt placed outside the doorways of homes and businesses to repel bad luck, etc.

So both the Japanese and Europeans are agreed that salt is apotropaic. Kami and Japanese ancestors not only aren’t dispelled by salt, they seem to have some analogical kinship with it as pure beings/things. Yet faeries and European ancestors are dispelled by salt. This would seem to suggest faeries/Euro ancestors belong to a class of potentially dangerous or impure beings subject to the apotropaism of salt. They lack that analogical kinship with salt. Of course the folklore agrees that faeries are indeed potentially dangerous, but then so are kami. Does this reflect a difference in human attitudes to safe spirit contact?

Kami is kind of a catch-all term for spiritual beings that are not human, from giant powers of the land like volcanoes and the ocean, to pan-Japanese deities (at least, as close to the Western concept of deity as you’ll find in Japan) like Inari or Tenjin, to local spirits that behave pretty much exactly like faeries do in Europe. One difference between kami and faeries (as I provisionally understand it) is that whereas all faeries are tricky and temperamental, though some are basically good (i.e., well-disposed to humans) and others are bad (ill-disposed to humans), every kami or human ancestor has both a “rough” (aramitama) and a “gentle” (nigimitama) soul. One village’s protective kami can be the next village’s monster or plague demon. So whether a kami is dangerous or not depends to a large extent on the perspective of the humans involved with it and the relationship that has been cultivated.

Some accounts say that a kami first appears in its aramitama guise and must be pacified to reveal its nigimitama nature. (This reminds me of what the fox says in The Little Prince, viz. that he won’t play with the prince until the prince takes the time to establish a bond of friendship.) Does salt perhaps banish the aramitama while having no effect on the nigimitama?

Salt is a biological necessity for humans and many other animals, which is reflected in its primacy as one of the four basic Shinto foodstuffs. In other words, Shinto offerings provide the spirits (including spirits of the dead) with the same sustenance as living humans take. If the idea behind offerings is to give something of great importance to humans/the living, salt makes sense. Does the avoidance of salt for faeries and ancestors in Europe reflect a different attitude toward proper nourishment of the dead/non-embodied? It is certainly not the case that the living and dead/non-embodied require completely different foods, since many faeries seem to like things like milk, alcohol, honey, etc. Everyone seems to appreciate water and booze.

I don’t have answers to these questions but would be curious to hear of your experiences. In my own dealings with spirits, none of them has had any aversion to salt as an offering. But as I write that, I realize that none of the spirits to whom I have offered salt is a European faery-type being* or a human ancestor (though I have given food cooked with salt to my ancestors, and didn’t notice any adverse effects).

*Unless Emma Wilby is right about cunning persons’ familiars being faeries (I find her argument persuasive), because that would suggest that rather than referring to a specific type of being, faery in English, or sidh(e) in Gaelic, or Tylwyth Teg in Welsh, are potentially as much catch-all terms for spirits as kami is in Japanese. Wilby thinks that the faery faith in Britain retained shamanic elements from earlier times, in practice if not in doctrine; and that the familiars witches consulted were, individually, either spirits of the dead or faeries (often spirits of the dead living among the faeries, according to testimony). In other words they are the same general type of beings that shamans deal with, i.e., “spirits” sensu lato. And if that is how you define faery, then I have offered salt to faeries and they didn’t mind at all.

Narrative and the “Rashomon effect”

Toshiro in Rashomon
Summer in Japan. So hot right now.

This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for a while as I wasn’t sure quite where to take it. But Ivy at Circle Thrice just posted about narratives and it got me thinking about this again, so I decided this might be worth publishing after all.

Ivy refers to Walter Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm theory, which basically says that people don’t make decisions or experience the world in terms of a rationalist evaluation of facts, but rather “The ways in which people explain and/or justify their behavior, whether past or future, has more to do with telling a credible story than it does with producing evidence or constructing a logical argument” (my emphasis; source). And of course “credibility” is in the eye of the beholder, so it’s subjective and subject to constant negotiation not only among individuals but within the individual as their idea of the credible inevitably changes.

The story is what we care about, not the facts. The story is the framework that gives, and relays, meaning and value. But in our creative Homo sapiens hands, it’s shifty, slippery, tricksy; as beautiful as it is dangerous.

If you read my post about my tentative ontology, you might be seeing where this is headed. But let me unpack it a bit.

I’m assuming you have seen the movie Rashomon, and while I won’t spoil the plot points, I will be talking about its philosophical take-away, so if you haven’t watched it, go do that now.

In the so-called “Rashomon effect,” different witnesses to or participants in a given event remember it differently. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the truth of that; memory is notoriously malleable and fallible after all. I have often heard this effect described as the entire point of the film (or rather, the short story on which most of it is based, In a Grove by Akutagawa Ryunosuke)–that is, that the moral of the story is that memory is fallible and people have different perspectives. But that is the most superficial meaning that can be derived from the story. I mean–witch, please–this is Kurosawa we’re talking about.

The more fundamental point of the story is that individuals can become so committed to their personal storylines that they would sooner kill, die, even endure hell than imagine themselves not to be the heroes of those stories. At the end of the film, the truth of the events upon which the plot hangs not only isn’t revealed, it is revealed to be unknowable. No two characters give the same account of events because no two characters are living out the same storyline. Rashomon isn’t a whodunnit, it’s not just stating the obvious fact that people remember and interpret things differently–it’s a meditation on maya and suffering.

Rashomon

To make that even clearer, Kurosawa brilliantly set the story of In a Grove within another Akutagawa story (the one actually titled Rashomon). This frames the more dramatic, acute suffering of the events in the grove within a setting of more ordinary, chronic suffering–the stifling heat and humidity of a summer monsoon, poverty, and a haunted gatehouse ruined by war and natural disaster. Here a witness to the events in the grove, a Buddhist monk, and an ethically-dubious passerby consider the plight of an abandoned baby and debate human nature and the human tendency to lie, even to ourselves as is repeatedly noted. “I don’t even understand my own heart/mind/soul*,” says the witness. The redemption offered at the end of the movie is not the discovery of the truth about the events in the grove (as it would be if the movie had been made in America), but rather the observation that when we finally admit our own lack of understanding and let go of our death-grip on our personal narratives, we become more compassionate and suffer a little bit less.

You can approach the story at various levels. First, staying entirely within the world of In a Grove, you have the the basic level of human experience. At this level, the protagonists cannot face the possibility that they are venal, weak, and morally-challenged, so each rewrites the story to portray him- or herself in a better light. Lies are told (maybe, probably), memories flawed and finagled. It’s almost an organic process rather than a series of conscious decisions. Subjective truth is all, and objective truth doesn’t even enter into it.

Pulling back to a slightly wider scale, the scale of Rashomon-the-story-within-Rashomon-the-film, the characters are aware of the fallibility of memory, of the human tendency to deceive ourselves and others and to be deceived, and must acknowledge that objective truth is inaccessible.

At the next level, we can look at the authorial choices of Kurosawa as the director. By framing In a Grove within Rashomon, for example, he created space for reflection within the film. He also used the environment masterfully: The blazing sun in the In a Grove core contrasts with the torrential downpour in the Rashomon frame, while both are united by the characters’ ever-present sweat. (One time when I was in Korea during the monsoon season it was like 85 degrees and foggy. It’s like being in a sauna but with bugs and you have to wear clothes.) The scenes shot in the forest are disorienting, filled with broken patterns of leaves and light and blurred motion. There are only three sets–the gatehouse where the witness, monk, and passerby wait out the rain, the forest, and a courtyard where witnesses testify before an unseen magistrate. On the Criterion Collection DVD there is an introduction by Robert Altman who points out that the testimony scenes are shot with the characters speaking to the camera, so the audience is placed in the position of the magistrate or investigator. It’s as if Kurosawa is daring us to arbitrate or “solve” the mystery–which cannot be solved, so… It all combines to build a subtle but palpable sense of oppression, claustrophobia, and confusion.

We can pull back further (so meta!) and examine ourselves as the audience, considering Kurosawa’s direction and storytelling and how the medium of film makes it possible to tell these stories within a story within a story. We can try to take up the challenge to determine the objective truth of what happened in the grove (though that would be an exercise in futility) or we could settle for the easy way out and say the story is about people’s different perspectives. Or we can do the hard work and recognize we are looking at stories within a story within a story within our story (and so on and on and on, fractally) and think about how our own stories nest into wider and wider ones. And also, what it means to recognize and own them as stories.

Rashomon‘s are very Buddhist values, of course, but we are talking about a Japanese story/film. In writing about the power of narrative, Ivy points out some of the ways it can be weaponized against us (it is part of her Mind War series). Hijacking a narrative is the easiest and fastest way to manipulate people’s actions and beliefs, because you are effectively hijacking their entire reality. So it stands to reason that if you can (1) recognize your narrative as just one among a nearly infinite number; (2) recognize that you are a character in other people’s narratives, but your roles are not something you can experience, let alone control; and (3) reduce your investment in your narrative’s truthiness, you will have made yourself much harder to deceive or manipulate. And perhaps more importantly, it will be harder to deceive yourself.

When you put Rashomon‘s internally-focused narratology together with Ivy’s externally-focused one, it becomes clear how you can re-frame your narrative–and thus your reality–in astoundingly creative ways; i.e., magic. No, I don’t mean that magic is all psychological. I mean that when you recognize the narrative and take the reins, you can rewrite the entire meaning of your life. It’s one way to hack the code of your virtual reality, or to use my preferred metaphor, start dreaming lucidly.

But you have to be prepared for everything to fall apart, as it will. The Western world is extremely invested not only in the belief that objective truth exists, but that it is knowable and discoverable given the right techniques. One place you see this reflected is science, of course, another is the Bible, but it’s reified everywhere in our epistemologies. Reason and philosophical rationalism are highly esteemed here not only as intellectual projects but as personality characteristics. When you recognize your story as more creative writing than truth, shit goes upside down and you have the fun of sifting through and reevaluating (or sort of de-evaluating) everything you’ve taken for granted in your past and present. Undertaking this will put you (even more) profoundly out of step with most of the people around you and will definitely make you question your sanity on a daily basis.


On a personal note, my helping spirits have recently doubled down on the assignments they’ve been giving me. I have to keep a journal just to remember all of them. And guys. It’s all in aid of something I want and something I asked for, but the work is so hard sometimes. Recently I got slammed with a whole series of synchronicities that, while fun at the time, led me down a very dark rabbit hole. I have been encouraged to not only ignore but explicitly reject the evidence of my senses and the public written record (faith doesn’t come easy to me), while also dealing with some decades-old emotional junk. I wouldn’t have been given this task if I weren’t up to it, and the spirits are taking me through it step by step, but that doesn’t mean I can’t fail (as I have before), and it’s definitely pushing my limits.

When I put it in words it doesn’t look like that big a deal, especially since I’ve been rejecting consensus narratives since I was little (like you, I expect), but this time I’m working not just on rejecting external narratives but internal, heavily-invested ones as well. Working on this is taking most of my mind/heart resources which is why I haven’t posted as much lately.

*Kokoro, which doesn’t really translate in English but corresponds to our notions of “heart” and “mind,” and to some extent “soul” (though there is another Japanese word, tama, which better fits “soul”).