The Point of Departure

January 21, 2010

posted by Caroline Picard

As you may or may not know by now, I have an on-going interest in shamanic practice, particularly as it relates to myth. My fascination is seated, I believe, in a more general investigation of alternative lifestyles, beliefs and practice: approaches to reality which serve (at the very least in ideology) to counter the predominant capitalist framework that drives modern society. While on the one hand I feel  such investigations must essentially fail (more on that in a moment), I nevertheless feel it’s important to recognize that the overarching agenda of consumerist culture is merely a scaffold; a schema that necessarily orients one’s experience, a map that we lay upon subsequent perceptions such that one can then attribute meaning to the world. One example might be Euclidean geometry, which cannot begin without first establishing a set of premises (Definitions/Postulates/Common Notions) from which to depart. It is for that reason precisely–because ordering principles are necessary if one is to make any conclusions–that I’m convinced my interest in alternative lifestyles/mythologies fail. Because the contemporary American cannot practice Haitian voodoo, just as he or she cannot go to Mexico or Tibet for spiritual awakenings. Encoded in our associations is the baggage of inheritance. Hallucinogenic experiences, for instance, while perhaps providing some deep personal insight, must be disguised–re-described in general or metaphorical terms (terms which generally relegate any insight into the ultra-personal, and thus inarguable realm), if their importance is to be shared. Similarly any mystical properties of the world are relegated to s similarly personal realm; that is, faith healers, crystal fetishists, even the idea of real zombies (which in some parts of the world are considered real threats), are banished to the personal regions of belief. Because they do not fit in with a consensual reality which has gathered undeniable momentum. My interest then, is not so much in the appropriation of those alternative practices (for I will only ever be a tourist or, at best, an expatriot, in such theoretical lands), but rather to learn about them, understand them as best I can in order to remember that the culture I come from is similarly peculiar, insightful, idiosyncratic, mystical and (perhaps above all else) blind.

To that end, I have started reading Maya Deren’s book, The Divine Horsemen. What follows is an excerpt which I found exceedingly beautiful.

The Trinity: Les Morts, Les Mysteres, at les Marassa


The Point of Departure

by Maya Deren

Myth is the twilight of speech of an old man to a boy. All the old men begin at the beginning. Their recitals always speak first of the origin of life. They start by inventing this event which no man witnessed, which still remains mystery. They initiate the history of their race with a fiction. For, whether it was the first in the sense of time, life is, for all men, first of miracles in the sense of prime. This is a fact. Myth is the facts of mind made manifest in a fiction of matter.

The speech of an elder in the twilight of his life is not his history but a legacy; he speaks not to describe matter but to demonstrate meaning. he talks of his past for purposes of his future. This purpose is the prejudice of his memory. He remembers that which has been according to what could and should be, and by this measure sifts the accumulation of his memory: he rejects the irrelevant event, elaborates on the significant detail, combines separate incidents of similar principle. Out of physical processes he creates a metaphysical processional. he transposes the chronology of his knowledge into a hierarchy of meaning. From the material circumstances of his experience he plots, in retrospect, the adventure for the mind which is the myth.

This adventure is composed, then, as all fictions are, from the matter of memory at hand–from the specific physical conditions which circumstance imposes and the particular processes which time composes for each individual race. The differences between the tales of the venerable ancients of the various nations are differences, then, between the matter of them. But in this cosmic variety, the constant is the mid of man. What is has least to describe outside itself and most to invent out of itself, it displays this constancy most purely, as in the fictions of origins. It is as if the mind, by-passing the particularities of circumstance, the limitations and imprecisions of the senses, arrived, by paths of metaphysical reason, at some common principled truth of the matter.

The fictions begin with a solemn fanfare, less for the Person of the First Source, than for the moment of creation. The metaphors of the diverse myths differ; the nature of the Cosmic Catalyst is the same. It is an energy which, out of the anonyminity of the void, of chaos, of the wholeness of the Cosmic Egg, crystallized the major elements, precipitates the primary areas, and finally differentiates the first androgynous life (as the solitary Adam) into the twinned specializations: male and female. This is the fiction of beginnings, couched in the past tense. But the chants are not in memoriam. They may be heard as a celebration of each contemporary recapitulation of the first creation. The microcosmic egg rides the red tides of the womb which, like the green tides, still rise and recede with the moon; the latest life, like the first, flows with the seas’ chemistry, is first anonymous, then androgynous, becomes differentiated, is beach in a surf, its heart reverberates a life-time with the pounding momentum of the primal sea pulse. The beginning, which no man witnessed, is ever present, ever before us. When we come to perceive the final fact of the matter, we find that it was conceived by the mind in the first fiction of the myth.

But the accomplishment of matter is always as an overture to the major movement of myth, the accomplishment of moral man. Matter creates the matter of man. But this creature, who may intermittently feel hunger and fatigue, would not understand the intervals of time; it might sense itself at first weak, then strong, then weak again, but would not comprehend this change as age; it might come to perceive the logics of matter and might observe, eventually, the reason for the succession of seasons, for natural sequences of natural events. But the reasons in matter are still a property of matter; its meaning conceived in the marriage of matter and mind, is a property of the human mind. As chaos contained the possibility of matter, so this creature contains the possibility of a mind, like a fifth limb latent in man, structured to make and manipulate meaning as the first is structured to grasp and finger matter.

The fictions of the old men are their final fecundity. As their flesh once labored to bring forth flesh, so the minds of the elders labor, with like passion, to bring forth a mind. By rites of initiation they would accomplish metamorphosis of matter into man, the evolution of a mind for meaning in the animal which is the issue of their flesh. By this they would ensure that the race endure as a race of men. The rites of this second birth, into the metaphysical cosmos, everywhere mime the conditions of the first physical birth. The novice is purified of past, relieved of possessions, made innocent, placed nascent into the womb solitude of a dark room. The matter, which is himself, and the myth of the race are joined. His solitary meditation is a gestation and, in the end, a man emerges by ordeal, to be newly named, newly rejoiced in.

But who first informed the ancestral elders of the various nations? What was the common inspiration of their common fanfare for origins, their common fiction of initiation, their common metaphors of metamorphosis? No man has ever witnessed the moment when life begins; it is in the moment of its ending that the limits of life, hence life itself, are manifest. Death, as the edge beyond which life does not extend, delineates a first boundary of being. Thus the ending is, for man, the beginning: the condition of his first consciousness of self as living. Death is life’s first and final definition. The fanfare for cosmic origins is followed by this major fugue: the initial figure is a lament of the living for the dead; and the voice which first propounds the major themes of life, love and generation is borne up from the abyss as the flesh was first, and is still, born from the deep seas of chaos. The hero of man’s metaphysical adventure–his healer, his redeemer, his guide and guardian–is always a corpse. He is Osiris, or Adonis, or Christ.

But death itself we recognize not so much by what it is as by the fact that it is not life. As the land and the sea define each other at the shore, so life and death define each other by exclusion. These, which  are the immediate neighbors in the realm of matter, are separated by a difference which is as a vast distance in the realm of meaning. Myth is the voyage of exploration in this metaphysical space. The point of departure is the first meeting between the quick and the dead.

To enter a new myth is a moment of initiation. One must return to the moment before myth, anterior to all its inventions, when the myth of any man might still become the myth of any other. It is to enter, in one’s mind, the room which is both tomb and womb, to become innocent of everything except the meaning. It is to mediate upon the common human experience which is the origin of human effort to comprehend the human condition.


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