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The Infinite Reach of Mercy

BY Bradley Olson December 13, 2020

“Mid-air.” Victoria Price, 2006. Creative Commons.

The December theme for the MythBlast series has been “The Still Point,” a reference to T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets. The still point is a poetic image that Joseph Campbell remarks upon several times in his book, “The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and As Religion.” Referenced only four times in The Four Quartets, and only then in “Burnt Norton,” the first of the quartets, this phrase, “still point”— especially when it appears as “the still point of the turning world”— remains inexhaustibly evocative. But first, metaphor, especially since it appears in the title of the volume under consideration, demands our attention. In this highlighted volume, metaphor is itself metaphoring as myth and religion.

To understand the necessity of use of the word metaphor in Campbell’s title, one must understand the word in its nonallegorical sense: as metapherein, meaning “to transfer.” Hannah Arendt deftly and beautifully explains this in her editor’s introduction to a collection of Walter Benjamin’s essays:

For a metaphor establishes a connection which is sensually perceived in its immediacy and requires no interpretation, while an allegory always proceeds from an abstract notion and then invents something palpable to represent it almost at will. The allegory must be explained before it can become meaningful, a solution must be found to the riddle it presents, so the often laborious interpretation of allegorical figures always unhappily reminds one of the solving of puzzles even when no more ingenuity is demanded than in the allegorical representation of death by a skeleton … Metaphors are the means by which the oneness of the world is poetically brought about. 

(Illuminations: Walter Benjamin Essays and Reflections, 13-14. The emphasis is mine.)

This rhetorical transference gives the invisible material form and, thereby, “the still point of the turning world” makes itself available to be experienced. “It is there,” Campbell says of the still point, “which is no ‘where,’ that the Eye opens of Transcendent Vision.” (The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, 106)

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The Inner Reaches of Outer Space by Joseph CampbellEliot prefaces his quartets with two quotes from Heraclitus, the last of which is self-evidently paradoxical: “The way upward and the way downward are the same.” What does it mean that so much paradox is present in this particular work?

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

(The Four Quartets, Burnt Norton)

The use of paradox as a literary device is a way of disclosing  hidden — perhaps even nonrational — and often unexpected profound truths. Hans Bohr quoted his father saying that there are two sorts of truths: a “profound truth [is] recognized by the fact that the opposite is also a profound truth, in contrast to trivialities where opposites are obviously absurd.” (Niels Bohr: His Life and Work, 328) Bohr is touching on an important point; the deep questions life raises, its insoluble mysteries, the unanswerable ontological questions that trouble sleep and keep one staring at the bedroom ceiling at 3:00 a.m., are redolent with the paradoxes of living. When one encounters paradox in literature, especially poetry, one senses art imitating life, for life itself is seldom logical, often paradoxical, and more often than not, unfathomable. Paradox provokes a seizure of the intellect which then pivots one to a more pensive, inquisitive state of mind. Paradox seems to insist upon imaginative, experimental, unconventional thinking and problem solving.

At the conclusion of The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Campbell quotes from Romans 11:32 asking, “How far does one’s mercy reach?” He answers his own question saying, “For only so far do the inner and the outer worlds meet.” (117) This is another paradox, yes? The point at which the inner and outer worlds meet would necessarily be neither, or perhaps both, inner or outer. Yet it is here, amid paradox, where once again we find the still point of the turning world.

Plato writes that within the soul was formed the “corporeal universe, and brought the two together and united them center to center. The soul, interfused everywhere from the center to the circumference of heaven, of which also she is the external envelopment, herself turning in herself . . . .” (Timaeus, 36e. Emphasis is mine) Thusly the entire Cosmos is ensouled and, as Plato recounts in the Republic, wheels around another image of a still point, the Spindle of Necessity (the Myth of Er describes the spindle and its governess, Necessity, the great goddess whose daughters are the fates). In Plato’s conceptualization, the soul may be thought of as motion made manifest; after all, the Latin word for soul is anima (from which we derive the word animate) and we may conclude that self-motion is a characteristic of anything with a soul, and so infused, the entire universe wheels, centrifugally, out of Soul or, its Greek homonym, psyche (ψυχή).

Following Joseph Campbell, one may conclude that mercy inhabits the point at which the inner and outer worlds meet — Plato’s point of singularity at which Soul suffuses the entire corporeal universe and becomes infinite. Again then, how far does mercy reach? Its reach must be regarded as infinite, and thankfully so, because we’ve never needed it more.

Thanks for reading,

Best regards, Bradley Olson, Ph.D. About Brad  Bradley Olson, Ph.D., is the editor of the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s MythBlast series. Dr. Olson is a Depth Psychologist in private practice in Flagstaff, Arizona; his work with clients is heavily influenced by his interest in Jungian Analytical Psychology, literature, and Mythological Studies.

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In every sphere of human search and experience the mystery of the ultimate nature of being breaks into oxymoronic paradox, and the best that can be said of it has to be taken simply as metaphor––whether particles and waves or as Apollo and Dionysus, pleasure and pain. Both in science and in poetry, the principal of the anagogical metaphor is thus recognized today: it is only from the pulpit and the press that one hears of truths and virtues definable in fixed terms.

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