If all the books disappeared…..

In a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, the British comedian Ricky Gervais discussed religion. Colbert, an avowed Catholic asked Gervais provocatively about the existence of God as prime mover:

But why is there something rather than nothing?

Gervais, an agnostic-atheist, countered that the question “why” was irrelevant. Rather, HOW was a much more relevant question.

Colbert, a monotheist would deny the 2999 gods of other religions, but maintains one ….the Judeo-Christian God.

Gervais simply denies one more God than Colbert.

Ricky adhers to the scientific process, exploring the eternal laws of the universe, without needing a recourse to theism to accept existence or manufacture morality.

But science is constantly proved all the time. If we take any fiction, or any holy book, and destroyed it, okay, in 1,000 years time that wouldn’t come back just as it was. But if you took every science book and every fact and destroyed them all, in 1,000 years they’d all be back — because all the same tests would be the same results.

What is interesting about this exchange is the elision of several hundred years of western philosophy.

Friedrich Nietzsche stated at the end of the 19th century, ‘God is dead’. This was not a triumphant declaration on behalf a race who had finally overcome millennia of slavery to the dreams and fairy-tales of their ancestors.

It was a melancholy observation of his times and a gloomy foreboding of the consequence of this for subsequent generations.

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Without an understanding of a realm of absolutes, it was not morality that is corroded….. but meaning and identity.

The 20th century found itself contending with existentialism, subjectivism, post-modernism and individualism.  We live in a culture of “alternative facts” in which even the foundations of empirical rationalism can be declared “subjective.”

If all the books disappeared from the world, along with all memory of what they contain, humans would return to campfire story telling dreamers. We would return to pre-scientific intuitive learners, oral historians, mythmakers and poets. 

We would become religious again.

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Knowing this, Carl Jung, following from Nietzsche, sought to re-understand religion and myth, plumbing the depth of our dreams to understand ancient narratives and legends and apply them to human psychology and culture building.

Should all the books of the world disappear, we would have to rediscover the scientific process.

This would require a relearning of an ability to know, to form meaning and have identity.

This would, as it did with the Greeks, the Hindus, the Chinese, the Hebrews, our scientific forbears (and all highly spiritual people), be forged within a framework of absolutes; a transcendental realm in which ideas and knowledge are – within the mind of God.

What’s in a spell?

This semester I embarked on the very first subject of a law degree, a study which, if completed at the current pace of one subject per semester, will take me 12 long years to complete.

As a lover of debate, dialogue, the parsing of meaning, the construction of ideas from mere ink marks on paper, much of law, even the introductory subject I have completed thus far, is fascinating.

For example, the legal definition of a “person” in Australian law is “a body politic or corporate as well as an individual.” [Acts Interpretation Act 1901 (Cth)]. So, to be a “person” in legal terms is to be more than a human individual, but also to be a business, or a nation, at least in terms of rights and responsibilities.

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The magic is that a business is created, or born, when a person or group of people register a business name, acquire an ABN, perhaps create a constitution outlining shares and duties and VOILA,  a person is summoned from thin air, from ink marks on paper.

It follows, ergo, that since words create things, and contracts and constitutions, rightly parsed and formally agreed upon, create something with legal force, an entity, a person, out of the air from nothing…. then laws are like spells.

Furthermore, after studying a few semesters of Biblical Hebrew, it came clear that the commonly used magical term “Abbrakadabra” had Semitic roots. “E’barah, ki’dibborah” literally reads “let it be [created] by the word.” The Hebrew verb barah is used in Genesis 1 to describe God’s creation of the heavens and the earth from nothing, from mere words or commands.

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What unfolds though is an interesting correlation between ancient literature and modern physics. The Hebrew account of creation, in comparison to many creation myths of the Ancient Near East [ANE] saw all matter arising from the divine word or “logos”. Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Egyptian creation accounts of that time, told of the stars, planets, oceans and mountains being formed from the corpses of slain divinities.

Contemporary physics identifies energy underlying all matter, and asserts that our thoughts themselves create energy. It seems the ancient Hebrews understood the world is the articulation of a spectacular divine thought and word.

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Another unique feature of the Hebrew creation story is the nobility granted to humanity. Rather than a servile race, condemned to suffer from the whims of their makers, Hebrews saw humans, gifted with God’s image, capable of further shaping and forming the material world.

Indeed, it is by “words” that humans create laws, contracts, constitutions and so forth, which form societies, nations, businesses, relationships and more.

Percy Shelley in his essay “A Defense of Poetry” [1821] writes “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” What he points out is that by the “word,” poets move ideas into energy. In doing so they bring into being, a force and energy, much like a law or a spell does. 

It is their poems, songs, elegies and ballads, which have the force to move humans, to move societies, and to change them and form them anew. 

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It was and is the job of poets, much like lawyers and good governors, to bring life to societies, to nations, to businesses, to individuals and more.

 

The Neverending Story: Part II

When Bastian hides in an attic to read a mysterious book, he discovers that this is no ordinary story……..the Neverending Story is a living book.

It tells of Fantasia, a land of magical creatures threatened by the Nothing. The Childlike Empress needs a new name and only a human child can grant it. Hardly believing what is going on and shivering in his damp attic, Bastian calls out the Childlike Empress’ new name and in doing so, he enters the Neverending Story.

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He finds himself a character within the story he was reading, Here, Bastian is handsome and bold, a boy equal in strength and courage to Atrayu. As saviour of Fantasia, he is granted AURYN, the gem of the Childlike Empress, inscribed with the words “Do As You Wish.”

Here, his imagination can create worlds. Everything he wishes, comes to pass.

Bastian is cautioned by the Childlike Empress to be aware that his wishes become realities, and these realities affect the fates of other Fantasians. Bastian can only govern Fantasia well when he considers deeply his desires and wishes only for what he truly wants.

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However, as Bastian grows in confidence, he becomes less and less aware of the deep desires that motivate him, and less careful of the consequences of his wishes. With every wish Bastian loses a memory of his former life. Atrayu points out, that without memory, Bastian cannot have a true will and without a will, he will lose himself.

Without a will, he cannot wish himself home again.

Can Atrayu save Bastian from his descent into madness? Will Bastian become trapped in Fantasia forever?

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Ende achieves in the second part of the Neverending Story, new insights of the significance of dream and myth to human health and happiness. Just as travelling into our dreams and subconscious is necessary for human health, a journey required to understand our deep complexes and to do battle with our subconscious fears, so too the converse journey is critical – the return to conscious life.

It is in the conscious world, our external world, where human relationships occur that the deep desires of the human heart are realised. Here we love, are loved, face external challenges and grow.

A person lost in dream or myth, or a person at the mercy of their fantasies and desires, without touch with the real world, is someone who eventually loses touch with their core identity, their memory, their will, even their own name.

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The maddened Bastian becomes so lost in his own fantasy that he needs a saviour, someone who can give him a name and restore enough will for him to remember his father and so desire to return home. Moreover, Bastian needs someone to remain in Fantasia to take responsibility for all the stories that his wishes have given life to.

Atrayu, despite being betrayed and wounded by Bastian steps in, reminds Bastian of his true name and in doing so restores him with enough will and memory to send him back to his conscious life.

It is Atrayu who remains in Fantasia to finish the story. And so Ende delivers the final note to his story. The true hero sacrifices himself so Bastian might have life.

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Atrayu is not a product of Bastian’s imagination. He is the character who drew Bastian into Fantasia, he was betrayed and wounded by Bastian his friend, and now as Bastian surrenders AURYN, at his wits end, Atrayu restores Bastian’s ‘self’ and ability to return to a life of relationship and being.

We need more heroes like Atrayu.

 

The Neverending Story: Part I ….

When Bastian Balthazar Bux, a shy, fat and lonely school boy, steals a mysterious book from a mysterious book shop one rainy morning, and hides in an attic to read it – little does he know of the adventurous journey on which it would take him.
Lost in the world of Fantasia, Bastian reads of the adventures of Atrayu, a boy his own age and his friend Falkor the Luckdragon, as they seek a cure for the Childlike Empress. The Empress is dying and with her, the land of Fantasia, a place where every imaginary character of dream and story lives.
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What is the cause of the Nothing which threatens to consume all of Fantasia? Can Atrayu find the cure for the Empress and turn back the destruction it brings?
Michael Ende’s classic children’s tale, The Neverending Story was first published in 1979 and has been since made into several films. Originally a playwright, Ende is best known for his children’s stories which have sold over $35 million of copies worldwide and translated into over 40 languages.
The story is a rich tapestry of mythology and legend and like all good works of fantasy plumbs the depths of human identity and purpose via our dreams.
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Moreover, like the works of many fantasy writers of the 19th and 20th centuries, including JK Rowling, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein, Michael Ende’s fantasy functions as a polemic against modernity, rationalism, pragmatism, and progress and calls readers back to values of the romantic era, values such as the the imagination, intuition, and the transcendent.
One such key message emerges in dialogue between Atrayu, our hero, and the wolf, Gmork, a servant of the Nothing. Gmork explains the relationship between the death of Fantasia and the world of humans.
Humans have stopped believing in Fantasia, Gmork explains, and because they have stopped believing, they have stopped visiting. It is human imagination which gives Fantasia its life and without their presence, Fantasians are perishing, consumed by the Nothing.
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When humans did visit, they were able to return to their own world and see it through a more magical lens. In this way, Fantasia and the human world are necessary sides of a coin, each needing the other.
The creatures of Fantasia are not only dying, but as they are consumed by the Nothing, they end up in the human world but not in their fantastical form, but in the form of the lies. They become the vain hopes and delusions of the human world such as ambition, greed and vice.
With this brief parable, Ende manages to sum up the modern malaise. Enlightenment and post-enlightenment rhetoric of the 1700s and 1800s, emphasised the rational and scientific, marginalising the role of religion, myth and legend to the realm of childhood or the primitive man.
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The result however was the impoverishment of the subconscious, the dreamscape and the deep psyche which when left unexamined, plagued modern man with unresolved issues such as depression, malaise, unacknowledged vices, greed, self obsession and nihilism.
The Neverending Story is “preaching” the value of dreams, imagination, and story as portals to the depths of the human heart.
Through stories and dreams we can come to know ourselves and we learn to restore our connectedness, a sense of something larger than ourselves,  trust in one another and a hope for our world.

Beauty and the Beast

In 2017, a live action remake of Disney’s 1991 animation, Beauty and the Beast was released staring Emma Watson as Belle, Dan Stevens as the Beast and Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Luke Evans, Ian McKellen, Kevin Kline [and more] in supporting roles.

Since its release [March ’17] the film has grossed over one billion dollars, making it the top earning  film of the year and the 28th top grossing film of all time.

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The story is taken from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s eighteenth-century French fairy tale La Belle et La Bete, and has similarities to the Grimms Brothers’ tale Bear Skin [1812], with variants from Italy in Don Giovanni de la Fortuna and Italo Calvino’s The Devil’s Breeches [1956]. As I outline below there are resonating themes in Goethe’s Faust as well.

Of course, the moniker of this blog being Bear Skin, I cannot refuse an opportunity to examine the subtle layers of this story, its variants and its influences.

What causes this story to be so timeless and resonant? What themes and motifs strike a chord with generation after generation of viewers and readers?

The plot:

A wealthy Prince is punished for his hubris one night when a sorceress comes to him disguised as a beggar. He rejects her request for hospitality and is cursed to bear the form of a hideous beast, his whole household to become inanimate objects, his lands to descend into an eternal winter and the outside world to forget all about them.

The curse is irreversible unless the Beast find someone to truly love him despite his beastly appearance. The time limit is set by a single rose, which sheds a petal every year giving the Beast only a handful of years to restore his true form.

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Time passes until by some glitch of destiny, Belle’s elderly father stumbles through a lost forest pathway into the Beast’s territory. Caught by the Beast for trespassing and daring to steal a single rose for his daughter Belle, the old man is locked up in the tower dungeons.

The lone horse returns to Belle, alerting her of her father’s troubles. She urges the horse to take her to her father, and so Belle finds herself too, face to face with the fearsome Beast in his strange wintery kingdom. Bargaining the release of her father, Belle offers herself as single prisoner for her father’s crimes. The Beast agrees and Belle becomes his prisoner.

Here she discovers the house is alive with staff turned into inanimate items – clocks, dressers, tea pots and tea cups, candelabra, pianoforte, stools, hat-stands and more. The staff love and care for Belle and begin to pin their hopes upon the sweet girl for their redemption.

Indeed the gruff beast soon softens to the girl in his house, wondering if she could truly love him. Caring for his wounds after a wolf attack and sharing his love for his vast library, the two become friends and indeed for a while it seems they might truly fall in love.

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Back in the village, Belle’s father tells the locals of the Beast and with pompous Gaston, stirs them up to rescue Belle. However, selfish Gaston uses the old man’s ramblings about talking chairs and tables to lock up the old man in order that the glory of slaying the Beast might be his own.

With the help of a magic mirror, Belle sees her father’s trouble and begs the Beast to let her go. Because his love for her has grown so deep, the Beast releases her and in doing so, relinquishes any hope that he and his household can ever be freed of the curse.

The villagers storm the castle to kill the Beast and are gamely held off by the army of household items defending their master.

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Meanwhile, Belle arrives in the village to find and release her father. Having released him she immediately returns to the castle to defend the Beast. There she finds a showdown between Gaston and the Beast, who is mortally wounded.

Is she too late to tell the beast she loves him? Can the curse be lifted and all the land restored?

Other stories which resonate: 

The Brother’s Grimm fairy tale Bear Skin, tells of a man wandering alone and lost in the woods, who is offered untold wealth by the devil in exchange for the form of a beast. At the end of an allotted time the devil would return and claim the man’s soul unless within that time, he could, even with his beastly appearance, gain the true love of someone. The man is given bottomless pockets of money, but his beastly appearance prevents people from getting close.

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Can he find love? Can the curse be reversed?

An ancient German legend of Faust, later immortalised by Christopher Marlowe in The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus [1588] and by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Faust [1806] shows some similarities to these tales.

In this tale, an ambitious and successful scholar, Johann Faust, makes a pact with the devil to exchange unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures for his soul. He enjoys 24 years of limitless power, privilege, knowledge and influence before the devil returns to claim his soul.

In Marlowe’s version, Faustus is granted no grace and indeed refuses all opportunities to repent of his wager, due to his own understanding of the Calvinist doctrines of total depravity and of limited atonement. He simply acknowledges that all men are born to sin and the destiny of his soul is set and is dragged off to eternal suffering by the devils.

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Goethe’s later version had Faust saved from eternal damnation, not only by the grace of God but by the pleading intercessory prayers of Faust’s beloved Gretchen.

The Message:

In each story, the plight of the Prince/ Beast is the human predicament.  For all characters – the Beast, Faust and Bear Skin –  all live the consequences of their selfish and foolish actions, requiring “redemption” from the wickedness they sowed.

In Bear Skin and Faust, an arrogant or lost man is seduced by the devil to engage in a wager for his soul, for a time period during which power and privilege is offset with a beastly appearance and loss of true relationships.

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In Beauty and the Beast, The Prince’s hubris leads to a living “hell” – he retains his majesty but becomes an unlovable creature. He finds his actions not only ensnare him, but affect those around him, poisoning those he was in a close relationship with [household] and even the nature and the land in which he lived.

Each major religion or faith system seeks to address this challenge facing humanity – what is wrong with us, what ails our relationship with each other and with the environment and what is the solution?

According to Hindu teaching, humans are reborn endlessly, living the consequences of the sins of each of our lives finding no release unless we purify ourselves of attachment and hubris. According to Buddhist teaching, karma for our deeds follows us within this life time and into the next. Nirvana is found through renunciation and meditation.

In most wisdom teachings of the ancient world, human hubris affects our community and the natural world in which we live, immutably harming relationships and the environement.

According to the Hebrew faith, humans were created in perfect harmony, beautiful and noble but because of hubris, lost their innocence and became wanderers in the earth, wearing the skins of animals and becoming more and more depraved. Not unlike the story of Bear Skin or of Beauty and Beast, humanity is cursed to live out the consequences of their vice and greed, until something or someone shows them true love and redemption.

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As is often outlined in this blog, the “hero journey” is one in which a “hero” experiences a death trial  which they are reborn from, providing salvation for their community.

Here too we have Belle, a girl willing to sacrificially take the place of her father and become imprisoned to the fearsome beast in his wintry castle. There the Beast learns to love her to hope that one day she could love him too.

His test comes closest to his own point of redemption when he is challenged to let Belle go, essentially surrendering any chance of being restored. This act of surrender shows greater love than any show of power could.  He allows her to go and return to him, freely expressing her own love in return to him in his dying hour and turning back the curse.

So too, the Hebrew account of the Fall of man, is countered by the appearance of a “second Adam”, one who surrenders his own freedoms and life to reverse the curse that befalls all humans wearing “skins of animals” and cursed by broken relationships with each other and the environment.

This love story restores humans into their former glory, Princes and Princesses, and restores the eternal winter to spring and brings joy where there was mourning.