The Magic of Describing the Perfect Pizza
The wheel of the year ROTATes and the next card in the TAROT pops up. What card did we pull out of the Year of the Rabbit’s hat for 2023? The next one: The Magician.
Tarot decks typically display roughly the same symbolic features for this card. A mercurial figure holds aloft a scroll, or a wand, or a hollow-tube-to-bring-down-fire-from-heaven. Before him we see a table prepared for some kind of work: a workbench, or a scrying table, or an altar. Tools float in his vicinity or are laid out on the table waiting for the action to begin. In Frieda Harris’s deck he’s shadowed by an ape.
This month we’re looking into Campbell’s Masks of God, Volume 4: Creative Mythology. We now live in an era in which mythology had to become creative rather than inherited. How do we appropriate these traditional symbols and retrofit them to make sense of our situation today?
People who haven’t worked with symbolic structures can see the process as more magical than rational, although there is plenty of good sense floating through proper magic. What we’re being asked to do in the twenty-first century is to come up with ways to put ourselves back into a relationship with the ground of our being—whatever that happens to be. And that’s tricky because, and regular readers will recognize a common theme, the world that the old myths related us to has vanished.
So how do we proceed?
Well, one of the ways to uncover the ground of our existence was discussed last month when the MythBlast series took up the Fool card of the Tarot. The Fool seems to wander aimlessly while never missing a step, an idea reinforced in the classic Daoist texts which remind us that the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself. Whenever you lose yourself in an activity, you almost always discover something that seems to be most suitably you.
(For instance, the religious cult I spend most of my time with, I discovered by accident, by wandering aimlessly, by leaving the road where the woods were darkest, where there was no path—the cult of the ukulele. There are a lot of really interesting people in that cult. You should join us.)
Maybe that’s a MythBlast for another time.
If the Fool card (and the important, but apparently aimless wandering it symbolizes) can bring us to the truth about who we are in the world, and begins to describe our relationship to living-in-the-world, then the follow-up would be understanding and articulating the life this foolish wandering recommends. The Magician, the Magus, carves the runes of that understanding.
This is easier said than done.
Mythology has to be creative now, but creativity can be funny. Edison seems to have captured it best when he said that invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Sometimes you have to wander a lot before you get to wonder about the wandering, and once you wonder about the wandering, you have to use the wand, the pen and ink, of your will to articulate the fire you’ve brought down from heaven, and then let the wonder determine itself. And this is where the magic comes in.
You have to take the moment of aha!, the sigh, the breath, the inspired respiration of that moment of discovery and then carve that column of air—using your teeth and tongue—into a Word, a Logos, that can be transmitted not just to others but also to ourselves. I want sublime and amazing experiences, but I also want to be able to think about them—and that requires making them definite, and making them definite is always a problem because they don’t like being definite.
That’s why there are so many tools laid out on the table in front of the Magician. The inspired insight, the fire brought down from heaven, must be crafted into concrete meaning using the elements available to us—earth, air, fire, water, and spirit—in order to determine it. And while I’m thinking about it, sometimes German is really helpful. The German word for “determinate” is bestimmt or bestimmtheit. But Stimmen is also the word for “voice” and so, to determine something means “to give voice to it.” Until we can say it, until we can speak it, we haven’t fully grasped or understood it. We may have had an amazing experience of some kind—and it could be spiritual, or scientific, or even pizza—but experiencing and understanding are not the same thing.
Any attempt to articulate our relationship to an experience, whether that means my relationship to my spiritual adventures or even to an amazing and “heavenly” pizza (and sometimes these are the same thing), will always and of necessity be inadequate to the task. We can get close, but that relationship will always be expressed metaphorically in the language of myth and it will, therefore, always be inexact—close, sure, but never perfect.
By the way, this applies equally to attempting descriptions of sublime spiritual attainment and descriptions of sublime pizza.
You’ve probably had that experience.
So the symbol of the Magician card reminds us that, in some serious sense, any overly serious attempt to articulate that truth will always end up a kind of lie.
This, of course, is the conundrum of all mythological discourse. When we believe myths are attempts to explain the facts about the universe, all myths turn out to be lies—and when we recognize that their function is, instead, a narrative one that places us into relationship with the deep experiences of our lives, all myths are the truth.
Speaking of which, the idea that all mythological speech is, in some sense, inadequate to the task of complete expression, provides a useful analysis of the craziest and most dangerous of all human beings—the ones who demand the purity of perfect clarity instead of a useful, and liveable, approximation. For more of which, stay tuned for September’s MythBlasts when I take up The Tower.
I suppose there’s also the truth that any time anyone brings down fire from heaven, there’s hell to pay.
Thanks for musing along!
Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.
Myth, Magic, and Metaphor : A Journey Into the Heart of Creativity
Myth, Magic & Metaphor takes the reader on a journey into the heart of creativity: the book attempts to awaken the aesthetic sense and the creative muse who lurks within us all. Today, in a cognitive and technical society, people become more and more removed from the instinctive aspect of the psyche.
“My task as author is to enhance the creative spirit through myth and metaphor, to restore the sense of wonder adults experienced as children. My method is multi-sensory, interdisciplinary, and holistic. There are no limitations to what thoughts, ideas, observations, or research could and might be used to stimulate the creative process. The ultimate tool is the human heart (from the French, coeur, meaning courage). The medium is words. Philosophy, art, music, and linguistics are some of the disciplines used as stimulation.”
The Masks of God™ 4: Creative Mythology
Creative Mythology is the fourth and final volume of Joseph Campbell’s major work of comparative mythology, The Masks of God™. In this installment, the pre-eminent mythologist looks at the European mythology of individualism as it took flower in medieval Europe and spread, through the Renaissance, to influence modernist thought, art, and literature.
Subscribe to JCF’s email list to receive a weekly MythBlast newsletter along with occasional news and special offers from JCF.