January 24, 2006

On Dancing

At the opening of his fascinating series of conversations with Joseph Campbell entitled "The Power of Myth," Bill Moyers tells the following anecdote:
Joseph Campbell believed that everything begins with a story, so we begin this series with one of his favorites. He was in Japan for a conference on religion, and he overheard another American delegate, a social philosopher from New York, say to a Shinto priest, "We've been now to a great many ceremonies and have seen quite a few of your shrines. But I don't get your ideology. I don't get your theology."

The Japanese paused as though in deep thought, and then slowly shook his head. "I think we don't have ideology," he said. "We don't have theology. We dance."
Expressing a similar view, Jamake Highwater concludes his very provocative book, Myth and Sexuality, with these thoughts:
Perhaps the endless transformation of our bodies into visions of the cosmos will find its current resolution in that most ancient mythology of all: the one that was doubtlessly among the first cultural possessions of human beings when they were newly evolved upon the earth. Perhaps we will be done at long last with our obsession with the "wickedness of the body" and the endless ritualization of transgression. For centuries we have comfortably lived with the brain's insolent recreation of itself as mind. Perhaps we can finally begin to live with the more ancient mythology that envisions the fragile, vulnerable, and utterly perishable body as indistinct from soul.

The physicist Niels Bohr has told us: "The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth."

Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag came face-to-face with Bohr's concept in a hospital in the American Southwest where he has worked for many years as a physician and psychiatrist. One day, while making his morning rounds, he encountered an old man. "I didn't know he was a Pueblo priest and clan chief," Dr. Hammerschlag explains. "I only saw an old man. He asked me, 'Where did you learn to heal?'"

Dr. Hammerschlag rattled off the details of his medical education, internship, and certification. The old Indian smiled. "Yes," he said, "but do you know how to dance? You must be able to dance if you are to heal people."

At first Hammerschlag was confounded. But over the years he gradually came to understand the great value of what that old Indian taught him. The poet W.B. Yeats also understood that mordant metaphor of dance, for it was Yeats who asked that most simplistic of all questions about the human body: "Who can tell the dancer from the dance?"

For Yeats, as for the Pueblo priest, the body is indistinct from the spirit.
I offer these stories not to condemn the genuinely great and revolutionary achievements of the West, or to challenge the profound, inestimable worth of what we generally refer to as "Enlightenment values." I offer them to make a more modest suggestion: that the fundamental approach inculcated in all of us by our cultural traditions of thousands of years does not represent the only way of viewing the universe and our place in it. We take our approach as a given to the extent that we usually think of our conception of the universe as entirely overlapping with the actual nature of existence itself.

I would submit that this is an unnecessarily limiting manner in which to approach the most important questions that concern us -- and I would additionally submit that our way of framing the world enfolds a deep streak of violence and destruction within its basic fabric. Some might argue that this violence appears to be inherent in being human: in War Is A Force that Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges notes that "historian Will Durant has calculated that there have only been twenty-nine years in all of human history during which a war was not underway somewhere."

But I think certain aspects of the philosophical, religious and moral framework that dominates Western thought exacerbate the problem, and worsen it immeasurably. The two stories above suggest another way of viewing the world, and they also remind us that there is an ancient legacy that has been almost completely lost to us. That worldview from eons ago conceived of our lives as part of a great, eternal cycle. It was not a cycle without pain and loss, but inevitable pain and loss were embraced and overridden by an all-encompassing sense of endless renewal and growth. People danced in that world, all the time.

I am sorry in one sense that I took this blog down several weeks ago without notice (or, at least, without clear notice), but I can truly say that I had no choice. I needed some time to reflect, and to reconsider how I wanted to continue with my writing. Once again, I had become caught up in writing about issues that cause me much more pain and frustration than they provide pleasure or stimulation. It became impossible for me to continue in that manner. At the same time, I was unable to get attention for what I considered my most valuable writing. It has been an immensely difficult time, and I will probably have more to say on this subject in the future.

I decided that I needed another kind of site for the writing that concerns me most. I've created that site now: The Sacred Moment. I know that it may look like just another blog, but I hope that, in time, it will prove to be more than that. The layout is still being worked on, but the basics are there. I've reposted my series On Torture, as well as many entries from my lengthy series of essays based on the work of Alice Miller. I'll be reposting many of my other Miller essays, including a number that haven't been available on the internet since the data base of my first blog was corrupted in the fall of 2004. (I'll also be posting a Table of Contents for the Miller essays, once I've restored more of them and determine a reader-friendly way of organizing what will probably be in excess of 50 essays.)

There are a great many subjects I want to write about at The Sacred Moment. I'll be explaining the title of that blog very soon, when I offer a lengthy consideration of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, including both textual and musical matters, the myth from which the opera's story derives, and the series of dualities that Wagner questions and reformulates -- dualities that are the underpinnings of the West's central stories and philosophies. A number of the additional subjects I'll be discussing at The Sacred Moment are suggested by the stories and observations above. And I will still write about politics and current events -- but only about events or trends that I view as of unusual importance. Most of the debates and controversies that consume political blogging are forgotten by the next week or month. To be honest, I view the great majority of those discussions as ultimately trivial and of very marginal interest. There are deeper reasons for my frustration with contemporary political debate, and I will explain them soon in an essay that will be posted here. That piece will concern the death of politics in any genuinely meaningful sense in our time, given the terms in which most current debates are conducted. Because Iran continues to be in the news, I will repost here my earlier entries on that subject and complete the series on Iran that I had begun. Events that may well lead to a conflagration that might destroy large parts of the world certainly merit some consideration, and I see almost no one making certain points that I think require explanation.

I had previously spent the time I did on political issues of the day in part because I had hoped those posts might attract a larger audience for what I consider my more valuable writing, such as the series On Torture. That strategy proved unsuccessful. So I have a question for readers: Do you have any ideas or suggestions for how I might market my writing? I admit that I feel largely at a loss, and completely stymied and frustrated on that score. I would be very grateful if you would write me with any thoughts you might have.

So there is a great deal of writing that I still very much want to do. I simply don't know where the audience for it might be, or how to contact it. But I will tell you this: The Sacred Moment and this blog will not be taken down again. Even if I'm unable to continue writing at some point, the essays that I have written will remain available for those who are interested. And as I indicated, I will have more to say concerning what I've been thinking about and why I am proceeding in this manner as time goes by.

Thanks for dropping by. I'll be back very soon, and I will continue reposting earlier essays on both blogs over the next several days. For politics, you should come here.

But if you want to dance, then I hope that The Sacred Moment is a site where you will choose to spend some time in the future.