This post is the result of thinking about another post, found here: Wild Children, at Myth & Moor.
It is always dangerous to view the myths of the past with a modern sensibility. The quandary: not much has changed in the basic machinery of being human, but we have cultural artifacts lodged deeply into every crevice of that machinery. Beyond the obvious intrusions of culture, it is impossible to extract much modernity.
We are all hobbled by that hitch, whether we feel its presence or miss it entirely.
So: can we modern humans let go of enough cultural rot and posies to get to the truth of our being?
I would say absolutely not. Not to the truth specifically.
By letting go, however, we can get to the meaning of our selves: we can shed a few historical assumptions, peel off (or step out of) some cultural norms, and be sufficiently naked and needy to see with less cluttered eyes.
(Not that we can assume that the modern life of quiet desperation overlays a much earlier one of loud, roaring desperation. The human condition is one that adapts, and is very relative. If we grow up next door to the woods, then the woods is the norm; if we grow up in Cambridge, then that is the norm. We should not take that kind of difference as much of a difference at all; it simply sets the reference point at a different emotional location.)
So by shedding, I mean getting partway back: letting go of the norm, without putting another in its place.
I hear the objection: the ultimate point of view would be to dress up in the norm of the wild as a replacement for the norm of civilization. Useless. I ask you to recognize that every norm is civilizing, even if it be cutting off hands for minor crimes, or throwing victims to the lions and laughing like fools at their fate. Barbarous as we moderns find such things, they are just cultural norms. You do not have to go far–certainly not into history–to find current examples, or substitutions, or even the raw lust of unfettered belief battering the weak into submission. It’s all still there, transmuted, or just muted.
Deep knowledge of self is therefore the same as with writing: permission to go to dangerous places, to have dangerous visions, to be willing to misunderstand, but to at least try to put a meaning to the cruelest events.
As with myths and fairy tales, described with loving detail in the linked blog post.
The tropes of the lost child, the wild child, the lost hero who returns – do these actually have much in common? Their differences are at least as important as whatever they might have in common.
I see two different themes:
One: the entitled being who must endure, and learn from, the wild in order to earn the right to govern/conquer well.
Two: the mere being who must endure, and learn from, the wild in order to survive into adulthood.
You can see immediately where I’m going here: the commonness is the tempering of the inhuman that inhabits us all. Grossly, hatefully, embarrassingly, it is the inhuman in us that gives us the emotional distance to conquer/survive. With it, we understand how a person works, and that is the root of power: you cannot control a machine without observing which lever does what. You cannot lead—armies or yourself—without both sensitivity to what hurts, and cold awareness of what fixes.
The entitled are always in want of sufficient opposition to develop real skills. The weak are always in want of sufficient will to overcome stupid fates.
The powerful always start out blind to suffering and then learn its lessons; those who suffer start with the need to survive and learn how to prosper.
The child who escapes to, or who is thrown into, the woods fits a peculiar and contradictory fact of human existence: even deep in the past, the need to shuck off the cruelest thing we desire—civilization—was strong. Civilization, of course, always wins, but only because it can carry the burdens of madness and cruelty and theft. And it can: the illusions we construct to make that true are the organizing principle of humanity.
But it is only children—famously indifferent, are young children, yet so are many adults—who are publicly allowed to have the capacity to embody both sensitivity and indifference, innocent and potency. Adults must choose one or the other: to be weakened by the stakes that emotions create and therefore subject to power, or to seize power by letting go of (or never having, or never developing) emotion. (Zen: no emotion, no power, a unique state of the mind.)
So the children go, in stories once real life does not require it: into the woods, where either by entitlement or courage they find–what? Poetry, storytelling, art?
They find meaning, the raw material of life. It’s not something we inherit from gods, or make out of whole cloth. It’s a feeling that comes from courage. Only the child who has been to the woods, and come back, has it. A privilege? No, just bad luck made good. That’s all life is about, but it is an infinite domain of sucking wounds, lost loves, unmade treasures, cruel hates. None of it matters until the child can see that he or she still matters, even in the vast, hopeless dark of the woods.