Robert E. Lee 30¢ Stamp Issue of 1957
My posting the day before yesterday entitled “Bulldozing the Past” ran into some opposition from two old friends of mine. I have a slightly different point of view toward figures of the past such as Robert E. Lee and Christopher Columbus. Both have become, as it were, figures of myth. I have two questions to ask:
- How dangerous are these myths today? —and—
- How dangerous is it to attempt to bury these myths as if they never existed?
Now I could see wanting to eradicate even the memory of Nazism, the Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot, the massacres between to Hutus and Tutsi, the racism of Slobodan Milosevich and Ratko Mladic, and any number of other episodes in the last several hundred years. One does not want to be associated with mass murderers.
Both Columbus and the generals of the Confederacy were associated with death on a large scale. Probably the quote that Lee is most famous for is the following: “It is well that war is so terrible. Otherwise, we would grow too fond of it.” As for Columbus, most of the death that came in his train was from diseases lurking in the Spanish caravels that laid low the native population of the New World by the millions.
The Italians of America, however, revere the memory of Columbus: The Genoan Admiral of the Ocean Sea was one of them. As for the Confederacy, the myths relating to the War Between the States relate to the Lost Cause beliefs that the South was right to secede from the Union. There were decades of resentment prior to the Rebellion as the South tried vainly to balance their slavery-based agrarian culture against the more industrial North. These resentments still abound today, so it is tempting to want to wipe the slate of history clean at several key points.
But didn’t Trump get elected because a number of flyover states felt resentment at being slighted by the Democrats, by the bi-coastal mafia, even by Hillary Clinton, who assumed she didn’t need their votes to win the presidency?
Erasing still active myths is a dangerous business.
Perceval Arrives at the Castle of the Fisher King
Although I have always liked the philosophical and historical insights of Joseph Campbell, I have suddenly struck a particularly rich vein while reading his Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth. It is not unusual for me to suddenly change directions based on my reading. In this case, I foresee an Arthurian Spring.
By that I mean not just the Christian interpretation of the so-called “Matter of Britain,” but the nexus between that and a semi-Druidical interpretation allied to primitive, Islamic, and East Asian influences. In my book collection are a number of volumes of the originals in translation which I have either never read or read strictly through the eyes of later monastic sources.
The stories of the Holy Grail, the Knights of the Round Table, the Fisher King, and the Waste Land (including T. S. Eliot’s interpretation as influenced by Jesse L. Weston‘s From Ritual to Romance) are a rich treasure trove with interesting links to global sources. Most of the original works were written during a hundred-year period comprising parts of the eleventh and twelfth centuries A.D.
The Holy Grail of Indiana Jones
When most of us think of Camelot and the Arthurian legends, we think of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur or—worse yet—Howard Pyle’s 1903 re-telling in The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, which was my first introduction. Both are thoroughly influenced by the monastic hijacking of the legend that took place beginning late in the twelfth century.
So I am on my way to an absorbing world that should see me through much of the remaining quarantine and the transition to the worldwide economic depression that will inevitably follow.
Roman Statue at the Getty Villa Depicting Leda and the Swan
Today, Martine and I spent most of the day at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades visiting their collection of ancient Greek, Roman, and Etruscan art. One of the pieces is a statue depicting the rape of Leda by Zeus in the form of a swan.
I cannot think of the subject without recalling William Butler Yeats’s poem, “Leda and the Swan”:
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
According to Greek mythology, the children born of that rape were Polydeuces and Helen of Troy. The latter was responsible for the Trojan War when she was willingly abducted by Paris (no relation). Her half-sister was Clytemnestra, daughter of Leda’s legitimate husband Tyndareus. She was traumatized by the god’s rape of her mother. And Clytemnestra, of course, murdered her own husband Agamemnon when he returned from Troy. All this makes Yeats’s poem a wry comment on the inter-relatedness of history.
When you get down into the depths of mythology, [mythic] forms are beyond good and evil. With the Indian deities—this is the wonderful thing about them—the upper right hand will say. “Fear not” and below it is the boon-bestowing hand; and the upper left will have a sword, and in the lower a recently amputated head. These are the two aspects of power, the two aspects of being. in our traditions—and this is true even all the way back to the Greeks—the beneficent and the malfeasant aspects of power tend to be separated and contrary entities.
Is that when trouble arises?
No, not necessarily—provided the two are in play with each other. But when one is impugned, as in our tradition where the powers of the deep are consigned to Hell … It’s interesting that the symbols of Shiva and of Poseidon are exactly those that are given to the Devil in Christian mythology—the bull’s foot and the tridents. So the power which is symbolized in those forms has been pushed aside as though it should not be admitted.—Joseph Campbell, An Open Life