W.B. Yeats: Are fairies real? Myths and The Myth

What are fairies? Are they real?

I’m skimming Yeat’s anthology, “Fairy & Folk Tales of Ireland,” and one for thing, the “wee folk,” “the good people,” or the fairies are actually rather menacing. They are not the beautiful, delicate women with large butterfly wings who sit cross-legged on flower petals. The Irish fairies belong to a different world; Yeats quotes the “peasantry.” They are “fallen angels who were not good enough to be saved, nor bad enough to be lost.”

Fairies leave odd signs like mushroom rings and those careless or luckless enough to wander into their territory are often stolen away for years or sometimes never returned. The fairies must be appeased or they turn children into changelings or drive people mad. But in other stories, they punish wrong-doers and teach lessons to the vain.

What I find particularly interesting is in Yeat’s introduction. Yeats does not directly treat the question of the veracity of these stories.

Instead, he explains that he punts on the question: “The reader will perhaps wonder that in all my notes I have not rationalised a singled hobgoblin. I seek for shelter in the words of Socrates.” [from the Phaedrus, which he quotes at length]

The question is the exact site of an mythical occurrence of Artemis, Socrates:

“The wise are doubtful, and I should not be singular if, like them, I also doubted. I might have a rational explanation that Orithyia was playing with Pharmacia, when a northern gust carried her over the neighboring rocks; and this being the manner of her death, she was said to have been carried away from Boreas….And if he is skeptical about them, and would fain reduce them one after another to the rules of probability, this sort of crude philosophy will take up all his time. Now I have certainly not the time for such inquiries. Shall I tell you why? I must first know about myself…to be curious about that which is not my business, while I am still in ignorance about my own self, would be ridiculous….Therefore, I say farewell to all this; the common opinion is enough for me. For as I was saying, I want to know not about this, but about myself.”

And Yeats says no more on the matter. Which to me is a version of the perspective that true or not, these are myths or stories meant to tell a lesson, meant to show us part of ourselves, part of truth.

Yeats is so willing to learn, tell and enjoy the tales of Irish countryside without much concern for specific verification–a perspective that I honestly find refreshing. As Socrates points out, that’s not what it’s about.

Myths are cultural stories that give shape to how we understand ourselves and our history; they are the geography of the cultural landscape–imparting values, presenting warnings and outlining a structure of what to expect from life and from other people. As Socrates said, he is interested in discovering the truth about himself and the myths help him do that.

 

Two prominent Christian writers in the twentieth century thought very highly of the importance of myth:  J.R.R. Tolkien said to C.S. Lewis, Christianity is not a myth, but “the” myth. He said the Christian faith is an enunciation of the highest truth from which all stories derive their of insight. I think Lewis and Tolkien would agree that the faith is a way of life with meaning.

While materialists may balk at any/every myth, I find this misguided. There needn’t be a massive conflict between acknowledging the atoms and rocks of the world and the meanings for us infused in them.

Returning to fairies, I agree with Yeats and Socrates that is more helpful to leave the status of the myth’s veracity open, at least for the fairies, because true or untrue, they yield insight into human life and nature. And to understand our own little place in the world and our role within it is both demanding and necessary in order to see how to live our own lives well, how best to direct our choices. To use Aristotle’s terms, myths are necessary for our flourishing, to help direct us towards our end-goal or telos.

What are your favorites myths or stories? Which did you grow up with? What values did they emphasize? Did stories affect your development?

 

Stub: W.B. Yeats on Old Stories

“These folk tales are full of simplicity and musical occurrences for they are literature of a class for whom every incident in the old rut of birth, love, pain and death has cropped up unchanged for centuries, who steep everything in the heart; to whom everything is a symbol….They have few events. They can turn over the incidents of a long life as they sit by the fire. With us, nothing has time to gather meaning.”

-Introduction to “Fairy & Folk Tales of Ireland,” edited by W.B. Yeats

More on this coming…maybe sometime soon. For now. I enjoy the quotation, especially “the old rut of birth, love, pain and death.” It reminds me that things are not new; they are just new to me.

And I appreciate the value of turning incidents over slowly. Time has a value all its own.

 

When Truth is Disturbing: Another Look at Wuthering Heights and the Purpose of Literature

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Flannery O’Connor

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, drew me in immediately, pulling me through every lurid page. Yet I felt oddly uncomfortable about how much I liked it as it is populated by selfish, angry, dysfunctional characters, only one of whom possesses much of a moral compass.

Like a good Catholic (I say that sarcastically), I tend to want to spend to time reading things that will edify or offer some great insight or meaningful lesson to take away, which I usually look for in Christian themes or uplifting messages. But this is exactly the attitude that Flannery O’Connor excoriated in her 1965 essay, “The Catholic Reader and the Catholic Novel,” in which she skewered the legions of “pious trash” that Catholics have written and that Catholics read. O’Connor argued that good art or literature has to be good in and of itself–that is, it must also be true. Something that disregards basic truths or doesn’t testify to them fully will inevitably be bad–no matter how pious.

She says, quoting Aquinas, “a work of art is good in itself…this is a truth that the modern world has largely forgotten.” When she cites him, she (and he) mean “good” in the metaphysical sense–that is the worth of the art comes from itself, not just from its relation to ideas we approve of. Goodness is one of the transcendentals; the others are truth, unity and beauty. Goodness, in this sense, is its desirability in so far as it exists, its ability to attract and move the will. It is a property co-existent with being, one that is not dependent on our feelings about it. To my judgement, “goodness” in a work of art will correlate with one or both of two things: its beauty and its truth.

In written work, with the exceptions of certain poetry, the value defaults to coming from truth. Then the value of being a Catholic writer or a Catholic work doesn’t come from having “uplifting” themes, but from being true, of offering real insight into reality and human understanding. Many secular works succeed at this; many Christian ones fail.

But, Catholic belief should be an effective instrument that contributes to a work’s goodness. Far from a shackle, O’Connor says, “dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality.” She further explains: “It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight.” Thus the Church’s understanding of the span of natural and supernatural realities is a magnificent insight that aids the artist or viewer in seeing and composing a true picture of the world.

Nevertheless, she says, the artist must still use her own eyes. The Church offers an extension of sight, not a replacement. O’Connor cautions that “When the Catholic novelist closes his own eyes and tries to see with the eyes of the Church, the result is another addition to that large body of pious trash for which we have so long been famous.” Just like grace does not exclude free will, the Catholic vision still demands the vision of the writer him or herself. Her insight is that Catholic literature is really anything that is true, but that something that pursues the whole scope of reality will inevitably be better. I think here of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Having established that good art is true. That leads me back to Wuthering Heights. Someone as wretched as the abusive Mr. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights still offers us a great catholic value; Healthcliff shows us a dark side of humanity, an anti-hero whose love, while real, is distorted and disordered and plays out to the harm of the generations, the cast of characters whom he taints.

Continue reading

Might TV Contribute to Millennials’ Emotional Fragility?

Image resultDavid Brooks has noted that Millennials, while more accomplished, are more “emotionally fragile” than previous generations. He is backed up by this article which includes reports from Psychology Today, that “the average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s.”

This fits with my experience. People my age have battled spiraling depression and anxiety since early adolescence or before. I do agree with Brooks that it’s in large part because many of us lack deep convictions and a narrative about what is really meaningful.

In his book, “The Road to Character,” he identifies inside everyone an “Adam I” and an “Adam II.” Adam I is the external person, the face we show to the world, the bearer of “resume virtues,” as he puts it. Adam II is the internal person, the inner compass of wisdom, maturity and kindness or of fragility, shallowness and self-righteousness. Adam II is bearer of the “eulogy virtues.” Brooks says and I agree that the great struggle of being a good person is to bring these two aspects of ourselves together.

I would like to introduce a contributing factor that Brooks does not explore: the saturation of TV, movies and visual media in our lives. In my (limited) experience, development of the Adam II, the inner person, relies on refining our emotional processing of external realities. Yet, in our culture, we almost lack entirely a vocabulary to express this inner thought process and dialogue. Our language is much better suited to the roles of Adam I – naming nouns, like rocks and buildings, and discussing clear, observable markers of achievement such as job titles and salaries. If our words have trouble explaining Adam II, our visual mediums struggle even more and this contributes to the difficulty we have in developing Adam II.

In mediums such as TV shows and films where characters hash out their differences or conquer adventures in visual theatrics, there is almost no method for depicting the inner-transformations that go on in order to develop that wisdom and maturity that characterizes Adam II. Even writers, artists of the silent medium, today criticize older models of novel-writing that spent paragraphs and paragraphs detailing a character’s motivation. In today’s sitcoms or romantic comedies, a character experiencing emotional distress almost always runs away and pouts–be it a child nervous before a performance or a woman scorned. Then, the father, teacher or boyfriend character seeks out the distressed child or girlfriend, listens patiently, gets passed the walls and offers reassurance. This is the model of any TeenDisney or Jude Apatow movie.

From an artistic standpoint, it makes sense. When two characters interact, there is something to display on the screen. When they speak to one another, their thoughts and emotions can be revealed. Dialogue is the Holy Grail of good story-telling.

But when this example permeates our lives, we encounter a problem: it is not realistic. These portrayals set-up the expectation that there will always be a kind mentor to rescue us from our emotional distress or at least help us to process it. But in real life, the mature person must often process her own emotions rather than expect others to do it for her. (It’s not that we can never ask for help, but that sometimes we can do it ourselves and we grow when we try).

When our real-life father, teacher and boyfriend (or opposite sex) figures do not always deliver the expected emotional rescue, we are often left distraught, without options–hence the spiral of depression and anxiety. The Washington Post describes the story of Amy, a 30-year-old in therapy who suffered break-downs in college “unable to do laundry and often stayed up until 2 a.m. trying to complete homework because she didn’t know how to manage her time without her parents’ keeping track of her schedule.” We have few models for healthy self-reliance and care in our cultural models of TV and film.  It’s not as simple as pointing the finger at mom and dad, though. The issue is more pervasive. If TV and movies are our cultural models, and I think they are, there are no cultural models even to guide parents for effective development of Adam II, of healthy maturation or emotional processing.  Continue reading

Book Review: L’Engle’s Walking on Water – Overly Lofty

9780804189293In one sense, Madeleine L’Engle’s “Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art,” was pleasant to read and stroked my ego as as a wanna-be writer. Parts of it were inspiring. Overall, however, I found it insipid and overly foofy; it talks of writing and art in the loftiest of idealistic prose, as the highest reaches of human meditation and striving.

In a sense, I agree with most of it. But an idealization of the writing vocation is only a tenth of the story. The other nine-tenths are work, the basic discipline of hitting the nail with the hammer every single day. In this sense, it’s like any other skill or job, one where talent and know-how deepen as experience progresses.

Here’s an example of what I didn’t like:

“The world of fairy tale, fantasy, myth, is inimical to the secular world, and in total opposition to it, for it is interested not in limited laboratory proofs but in truth.” (46)

I love fairy tales and fantasy far more than the average fellow, but science is not something to dismiss. I am not a scientist, but I suspect that a tech-minded reader might react defensively, “Hey that’s what my lab tests are all about–truth.” Of course scientific methodology excludes philosophy, meta-narrative claims, but the whole purpose is to learn true things about how the universe works in order to understand it better. This mentality oversteps when we view ourselves as masters of the universe, meant to tame it. But in general, I would say science and laboratory experiments are at the service to truth, a different approach to understanding our world. I think it throws the baby out with the bathwater to pit science in opposition to truth, as if creative types have some sort of lock on that.

Then there was this:

“In art, we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars.” (47)

Bleck. I am an idealistic person, and I am sympathetic to what she is getting at, which I take to be that art or creativity is an attempt at knowing or expressing truth. Seeking the fullness of truth can be understood as a sort of prayer or connection with reality aka God. That striving to speak truth can bring the speaker to the heights of human calling.

But. I find L’Engle’s language so over-the-top as to discredit it. It’s as if she divinizes the artist himself rather than showing him as a mere human glimpsing at participation with the divine–which is really the intention. Much of life, and I suspect much of an artist’s life, is spent in murky misunderstanding, darkness and trials, and the prosaic daily activities of buying materials, preparing food and changing sheets. Even the highest peaks of sublimity in creation pass unnoticed because the artist is so absorbed in the act. Never is she really conscious of “moving unfettered among the stars.” Maybe L’Engle is, and that sounds amazing.

But the work of other writers and artists, such as Stephen King and Flannery O’Connor, who have explained their craft, spend more time focusing on the process, on the work, of being surprised by the product despite their best plans. So while the artist does do some amazing co-creation, it is rather unknowable. My concern is not that L’Engle is wrong, but that the tone is deceptive.

Artists are not really a breed set apart for transcendental experience, but rather fellow stumblers along the road. More accurate would be Oscar Wilde who said, “We are all lying the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Continue reading

Why Old Magic was Innocent, According to C.S. Lewis

As I’ve mentioned, That Hideous Strength dealt with a number of things, and there is one of them I’d like to explore more in depth, as it is a topic that interests me a lot and is relevant to the general enjoyment of literature and other of my favorite works such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Arthurian tales such as The Once and Future King by T.H. White and the more recent Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which I hope to begin soon.

Through the character of Arthur Dimble, a professor of ancient languages and mythology, C.S. Lewis speculates on the role and place of magic in ancient times as contrasted with its place today. Here is an abbreviated version of the discussion on the subject between Dimble and his wife:

“Everything is getting more itself and more different from everything else all the time….[For a man like Merlin] there were still possibilities for a man of that age which there aren’t for a man of ours. The Earth itself was more like an animal in those days. And mental processes were much more like physical actions. And there were–well, Neutrals [spirits] knocking about…A conscious being is either obeying God or disobeying Him. But there might be things neutral in relation us [humans]….There used to be things on this Earth pursuing their own business, so to speak.”

“I think there was room for them then, but the universe has come more to a point.”

“In Merlin’s time…though you could still use that sort of life in the universe innocently, you couldn’t do it safely. The things weren’t bad in themselves, but they were already bad for us….Like polygamy. It wasn’t wrong for Abraham, but one can’t help feeling that even he lost something by it.”

“Merlin…is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our modern point of view, confused. For him every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead–a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases.”

(from That Hideous Strength, p. 284-285)

Lewis, who like Dimble, was an expert in languages and in English literature especially would have encountered this issue theologically and in explaining the value of the myths from various cultures that engrossed him so much.

His answer regarding the status of pre-Christian or early post-Christian magic is that the world was a bit different back then, when distinctions about power and agency were perhaps less clear. It was a time, he says, when angels or other spirits may not have had a position towards humans and when the spiritual, even animal, realities of nature could be tapped into innocently, though he adds not safely. Continue reading

Book Review: C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength – The Real of Religion

that-hideous-strengthThat Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis opens with a grumbling wife and goes onto weave in realities of marriage, science, the supernatural, morality, magic, politics, violence and animals, all under the auspices of exploring, through story, what a well-lived life looks like. The answer it settles on is surprisingly warm and domestic.

This was the first of the Space Trilogy (which began with Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra), which grabbed me from the beginning and pulled me right through the pages; it is far more character-driven and less allegorical than the others, while equally thoughtful. It is one of those life books that encompasses so many experiences, states in life and realities that it is grand and revelatory such that every page seems to reveal more to me of own soul. Another book I have read like this was The Once and Future King by T.H. White, which was my book of the year for 2015. I loved it so much I couldn’t decide what to write about it, so I never wrote anything, a tragedy.

Anyway, the themes addressed in That Hideous Strength were manifold, though very pointed and specific, such that I wouldn’t be surprised if many readers did not connect with this book because it does feel located in a very concrete time and place, with very precise philosophical concerns–those of C.S. Lewis–a small university in a quiet, English town and the rising onslaught of scientific materialism. While I find the academic setting relatable and generalizable, not all readers might agree.

Here is a short list of themes worth noting; their breadth is the pleasure of the novel: Continue reading

Local Book Places #5 Busboys and Poets/ Politics and Prose

  I did something so hopelessly cliche it makes me laugh, but it was fun and that’s what matters: a book-signing at Busboys and Poets. I had begun reading Lit by Mary Karr with the Contemporary Catholic Writers reading group … Continue reading

Book Review: SPOILER ALERT Harry Potter and The Cursed Child – (Overdone and Boring at the same time)

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I’m sorry to review Harry Potter and The Cursed Child as one of the biggest reading disappointments I’ve had since I started reading for pleasure again after my kids were born–so in the last four years.

I loved the original Harry Potter books and the movies: the magic, the adventure, the fun, the characters. I grew up with it, and I wanted to love Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Yet, from page one, I was disappointed:

  1. little new plot material
  2. simplistic characters
  3. sloppy emotional outpourings

SPOILER ALERT – consider yourself warned, though I have avoided things that could ruin the one real surprise.

Plot:

There is only a little I could spoil because the new plot mostly revolves around the plots of the original seven books. What’s new is that that Harry’s son, Albus, and Draco’s son, Scorpius go, back in time with a time-turner in attempt to right certain wrongs from the past. They revisit Triwizard Tournament a few times, remind us of the Chamber of Secrets and go back to that fateful day when Voldemort gave Harry his scar.

The only present day conflict is that Albus and Harry don’t get along well. The Cursed Child is about the next generation wrestling with the scars of the past, which is of course a real struggle, but I was hoping for new present-day problems and adventures.

Yet the back-in-time plot, while a bit trite and logically-suspect, also tries to do too much.

At one point, Scorpius encounters an alternate universe where Voldemort is king, where all is dark, and Dumbledore’s Army is completely underground and he must find them, and convince them to help him and get time aright again. During this one-scene gargantuan plot piece, three (THREE!) characters throw themselves at Dementors to help save Scorpius. The full undermining of the alternate world is accomplished merely as a step in rest of the story–which is about the importance of letting things stand as they were. That one scene has to do a bit too much emotional and story-telling work for the amount of time it gets. And it seems a little too easy for Scorpius to sweep in and right this all-goes-wrong world in a few sentences.
Continue reading

National Book Festival – Sept. 24

nbf-home-animated-banner-2016Something of interest to book readers in the area or perhaps even in general, the Library of Congress’s National Book Festival is happening here in Washington DC on Saturday, Sept. 24 at the Washington Convention Center.

Stephen King will be speaking, and Marilynne Robinson will speak and receive an award. My good friend and fellow reader, among other honors, Meg, had this to say about the latter:

“Marilynne Robinson wrote Gilead, a really beautiful book.  It won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, and was notable for prominently featuring faith as its theme.  It is written from the perspective of a Midwestern pastor. She once said that authors today are afraid of writing about faith, but she finds that writing about it, authentically, produces some of the best writing there is.”

The book festival is free, features dozens of authors and will have children’s activities and appearances by children’s writers.

There will be also be poetry readings and poets. 😀

http://www.loc.gov/bookfest/

#natbookfest

So I’m thinking of going! Are you?