Paradise Lost: So Long Hunting, Hello Work Week

black adam and eveA couple of posts ago, I channeled the late Joseph Campbell and echoed his contention that myths should be considered deep unconscious poetic projections that embody profound truths rather than as demonstrably false tales from antiquated religions. Echoing Northrop Frye, Campbell believed that myths provide models that help us navigate the progression of our lives through the blooming and withering we’re all heir to, maps, as it were, handed over to us from old Tiresias to help us find our way to our ultimate destination – oblivion.

Tiresias appearing to Odysseus by Johann Heinrich Füssli

Tiresias appearing to Odysseus by Johann Heinrich Füssli

For example, the requisite trip to Hades that epic heroes like Odysseus and Dante suffer might correspond to the midlife depressions many of us undergo, journeys that though abysmal provide us with secret knowledge, in Odysseus’s case how to navigate his way back to Ithaca and in our case a deeper perspective on what it means to be human.

Take the Eden myth. It offers many interesting possibilities for interpretation. Given that it is a post-agrarian myth (besides death, Adam’s curse is tilling barren soil by the sweat of his brow), I wonder if the myth harkens back to the simpler and more organic lifestyle of hunting and gathering when our ancestors ran around naked picking berries, spearing rabbits, and living communally.

Perhaps knowledge here means the knowledge of agriculture, and if you want to fault anyone for that, why not women, who probably through their foraging discovered that seeds can be cultivated, which led to settled communities, caste systems, factories, ghettos, and ultimately reality television shows like Boy Meets Boy, Megan Wants a Millionaire, and Sarah Palin’s Alaska.

Sarah Palin and Offspring

Sarah Palin and Offspring

In the mid-90’s, I took two graduate anthropology courses to satisfy certification requirements. For my midterm take-home exam, I had to provide my opinion on an essay claiming that agriculture has been disastrous for most of humankind. I can’t find the essay, but here’s the first paragraph of my test essay, which summarizes the argument:

In his essay “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Jared Diamond argues that agriculture is responsible for a diminution in the quality of life for the majority of humans who have lived since its inception. Diamond argues that food foragers enjoy a healthier diet procured with less labor and that the population explosion that accompanied the agricultural revolution has given rises to epidemics of infectious diseases. Furthermore, agriculture is directly responsible for class stratification and the subjugation of women. In essence, Diamond’s essay is the Eden myth revisited: food foraging Adam takes up the hoe, and paradise is lost. Diamond could have taken it even further, I suppose, and argued that agriculture, which gave rise to industrialization, can also be traced as a root cause of an ensuing ecological disaster as cultural evolution outstrips biological adaptation. The ultimate balance of life is being destroyed as holes appear in Gaia’s ozone umbrella, oxygen-producing rain forests are slashed and burned, and the water supply disappears.*

*By the way, I received an A- on this essay, the minus probably attributable to its last paragraph: “The question of whether or not agriculture was humankind’s greatest mistake, like most questions, ultimately ends up being an existential one. If I were huddled in an inner-city tenement or wielding a pick in an Appalachian coal mine, I might prefer non-existence and rue the day agriculture came into being. Indeed, food foragers possess a oneness with nature I truly envy. However, at the present moment (which is ultimately all we ever have), I’m off for the summer, preparing to end this essay and grab my surfboard. The agricultural revolution has been kind to the people I love. Jared Diamond would, no doubt, brand me an elite, but then again, I am just a high school English teacher and have never voted for a Republican. Everything is relative. Diamond has probably never been writhing in the Kalahari Desert with an abscessed tooth. [Instructor’s only comment: I get your point, which is indeed elite by world standards].


yours truly surfing in the mid-90's

yours truly surfing in the mid-90’s

To return to the Eden myth, Adam and Eve run around naked, pick berries, in essence live off the great bounty that Yahweh has provided, but that damn woman who always has to stick her nose into everything upsets the divine plan by discovering a way to produce food differently. Humankind now possesses the knowledge of how to cultivate the land, but it takes hard work. Eating the apple symbolizes the shift from relying on natural food to being dependent on cultivated food. Hunting is more fun than plowing, making clothes is labor, etc. We have abandoned meaningful communal simplicity for complex stratified world of civilizations.

"Cain and Abel" artist unknown

“Cain and Abel” artist unknown

As it happens, a very rarely encountered non-agrarian Peruvian tribe upset by incursion into their territory confronted park rangers this week. In investigating the tribe, the Mashco-Piro, I found video of another tribe, this one from Brazil.

These folks are essentially naked and so far off the grid that they don’t even have immunity to the common cold. Perhaps, Diamond was right after all. Perhaps in the very long run humanity might have had a longer lease on survival if Eve had just left well enough alone.

I’ll leave you with a passage from Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Story Teller as a shaman-like wanderer from tribe to tribe who relates myths to various clans that explain their origins and ways of life:

Thanks to Tsaurinchi, the firefly seripigari, I’m never bored when I’m traveling. Nor sad, thinking: how many moons still before I meet the first man who walks? Instead, I start listening. And I learn. I listen closely, the way he did. Go on listening, carefully, respectfully. After a while the earth feels free to speak. It’s the way the way it is in a trance, when everything and everyone speaks freely. The things you’d least expect speak. There they are: speaking. Bones, thorns. Pebbles, lianas. Little bushes and budding leaves. The scorpion. The line of ants dragging a botfly back to the anthill. The butterfly with rainbow wings. The hummingbird. The mouse up a branch speaks, and circles in the water. Lying quietly, with closed eyes, the storyteller is listening. Thinking: let everyone forget me. Then one of my souls leaves me. And the Mother of something that is all around comes to visit me. I hear, I am beginning to hear. Now I can hear. One and all have something to tell. That is, perhaps, what I have learned by listening. The beetle as well. The little stone you can hardly see, it’s so small, sticking out of the mud. Even the louse you crack in two with your fingernail has a story to tell. If only I could remember everything I’ve been hearing. You’d never tire of listening to me, perhaps.

Now that’s what I call being alive.

A Buddhistic Approach to Kafka’s Metamorphosis

K-buddah_jpgA professor friend of mine at the College of Charleston who teaches a freshman course entitled The Nature of Solitude: Sacred & Secular, Voluntary & Involuntary invited me to come and cover Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” so I thought I’d share with any instructors out there the approach I took. Since the course is philosophical, not literary, rather than discussing the structure or aesthetics of the work or taking a Freudian or Marxist approach to the narrative, I’ve opted to approach the work more practically.

I decided to begin the hour-and-fifteen minute class with a keynote presentation that highlights the remarkable unlikelihood that any of the students sitting in the class actually have come into being (see “Slide 4” for further explanation) to underscore the horrible tragedy of the stunted life of the Metamorphosis’s protagonist, Gregor Samsa.  In addition, the presentation also suggests that mythology and its talented stepsister literature offer interesting ways to cop insight into, not only our lives, but science as well.  In fact, the presentation suggests that science itself is a myth, albeit a self-correcting one. Finally, I wanted to alert students to the human propensity of projecting our biology onto the cosmos as a way of explaining mysteries outside of ourselves. Of course, you can view the presentation all at once, but I have provided how I deal with each slide below the presentation.

Slide 1

As you can see, the first slide, the title slide, consists of two images, the first a sperm cell crashing into an ovum, the second, an artist’s rendering of a comet or meteor crashing into earth, which is science’s current best guess as to what engendered the chemical reactions that led to life.  I do the ol’ Socratic method, asking the students to identify what’s going on in each slide.

Slide 2

Slide 2 consists of Wordsworth’s famous sonnet “The World Is Too Much with Us,”  as in the work-a-day world overwhelms me with its mind-numbing responsibilities and anxieties, which, of course, relates to “The Metamorphosis.”  As you recall, Gregor who has awakened in the form of a gigantic beetle seems more worried about getting to work on time than he does about horrible fact that he has been transformed from a mammal to an insect who still possesses a human consciousness.

The poem offers a plethora of potential Socratic questions as you relate the sonnet to the novella.  I actually talk about the structure of the sonnet, its volta in line 9, but the main focus is what the speaker of Wordsworth’s sonnet and Gregor Samsa have in common and what the sonnet and Dylan’s lyrics have in common.

Slide 3

Slide 3 quotes a stanza from Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,”  which offers a beautifully truncated catalogue of childhood.  Note the anxiety inherent in Dylan’s ditty. (By the way, you can read my argument why Dylan deserves a Nobel Prize in literature HERE).

Slide 4

The fourth slide is an excerpt from the movie Adaptation, which didn’t successfully make the trip from my hard drive to the Internet, but you can view it here: 

Obviously, ultimately, Nicolas Cage’s character’s question how did I get here has a very complicated answer.  For him to exist on this tiny planet swirling around a run-of-the-mill star much has had to happen, much of which from my perspective seems random, the first meteor which brings life, the second meteor that brings death to the dinosaurs and their displacement by mammals; then you have to factor in the long odds of that particular sperm hitting that particular egg through the long line of his ancestors culminating with his parent’s coupling on that particular day of his conception, a day when his mother didn’t have a headache, a coupling that led to one of 250,000 sperm cells in what I call the most important-race-of one’s-life reaching the finish line of one of mother’s 300 or so ova, a process that resulted in him, and by extension, you, C of C freshman, or you, blog reader.

Slides 5 & 6

These slides underscore the long odds of existence, emphasizing just what a shame it is for poor Gregor to live such a stunted life given the enormous odds of existence.  Here, I sneak in Buddhist doctrine, and talk about the Samsa family dynamic, the office manager, etc.

Slide 7

I talk about myth here, not as untruths, but in the Joseph Campbell mode as symbolic structures that embody profound truths.

Slide 8

This slide suggests that science is often wrong about details (not theories).  If I had written “quark” instead of “electron” in my 1970 chemistry test, I would have been correct but had my answer marked wrong.  By the way, I’ve photoshopped my 1970 self into this slide (the redheaded one leaning over the desk) to show the freshmen what I looked like 45 years ago and to horrify them with the realization that they too one day will look like me now [cue maniacal laughter]

Slide 9

The discoverer of the quark, Murray Gell-Mann named it after a word from James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake, suggesting that scientists like literature, that disciplines are all interrelated.

Slide 10

A reprise of Slide 8

Slide 11

In Slide 11, I ask if anyone recalls the Greek creation myth of Uranus and Gaia.  If no one does, I retell it, which is essentially, the sky Uranus had sex with the earth Gaia and life began, which, brings us back to the first slide.  The current scientific theory and the Greek myth are essentially the same.

For the rest of the period, I let the students talk about “The Metamorphosis” and give them wide range.  Of course, given the title of the course, Gregor Samsa’s involuntary solitude should be brought up.

Robin Williams, Maria Bamford, and Shamanism

Last night CNN’s Errol Barnett and Larry King pondered why someone like Robin Williams, a man whom they claimed had everything — genius, riches, awards galore – would take his own life.

King went on to paraphrase EA Robinson’s famous poem “Richard Cory,” the one Simon and Garfunkel put to music; only King misidentified Richard Cory as “Mr. Blackwell” and embellished with extra info like “he had parties on every Halloween.”

Here, look at it yourself. (And also enjoy the dulcet tones of Judy Birdsong yakking on the phone in the background)

Here’s the poem “Richard Cory”

Whenever Richard Cory went downtown,

We people on the pavement looked at him;

He was a gentleman from sole to crown,

Clean-favored, and imperially slim


And he was always quietly arrayed.

And he was always human when he talked;

But still he fluttered pulses when he said,

“Good morning,” and he glittered when he walked.


And he was rich — yes, richer than a king —

And admirably schooled in every grace:

In fine, we thought that he was everything

To make us wish that we were in his place.


So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

And Richard Cory, on calm summer night

Went home and put s bullet through his head.

Here is Errol Barnett extolling the nuanced wisdom of Larry King.

Now, dear reader/viewer, take a look at Robin Williams’s first appearance on Johnny Carson.

Nancy C Andreasen’s article “Secrets of the Creative Brain” in the July/August Atlantic explores the connection between creativity and mental illness.  According to her 15-year study of participants of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop that included the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Yates, John Cheever, “and 27 other well-known writers,”  Andreasen writes that her “writer subjects came to my office and spent three or four hours pouring out the stories of their struggles with mood disorder — mostly depression, but occasionally bipolar disorder.  A full 80% percent of them had some kind of mood disturbance, compared with just 30% of the control group.”

Although Williams never acknowledged that he suffered from bipolar disorder, his manic highs certainly seem to suggest that a BPD diagnosis is reasonable, and if we can imagine lows that counterbalance the highs on display in the clip above, those those lows would be Marianas-Tench-like, bottomless.

Coincidently, just last week I caught the comedienne Maria Bamford being interviewed on NPR describing a visit she received from a Whole Foods aficionado while Bamford was in a mental hospital.  Bamford, who’s famous for channeling voices, echoed the all-knowing tone of a Californian new ager as she impersonated the visitor.

Visitor: Look, Maria, you need to, like, get into nature.

Maria:  You mean like Virginia Woolf and the river?

old pictures 004Even before yesterday’s dismal news, I wondered in a different culture if Williams might turn out to be a shaman, and watching Bamford’s most recent special (see trailer below), it’s almost as if she’s possessed, not by demons, but by a number of different personalities.  Here’s Joseph Campbell explaining the difference between a Shaman and a priest:

There’s a major difference, as I see it, between a shaman and a priest. A priest is a functionary of a social sort. The society worships certain deities in a certain way, and the priest becomes ordained as a functionary to carry out that ritual. The deity to whom he is devoted is a deity that was there before he came along. But the shaman’s powers are symbolized in his own familiars, deities of his own personal experience. His authority comes out of a psychological experience, not a social ordination.

To become a shaman or shamanka (the term for a female shaman), one must undergo a psychological crisis.

Here’s anthropologist Douglas Mackar’s description of the shaman state:

The most basic aspect of how we are Shamans is the experience of the trance state.
 All creation occurs in a trance state. In trance, your old attitudes can’t disrupt creation and evolution. It’s only when you release from that trance state that you fall back into your old mind state. It’s always a temptation to go back to the familiar. True change- transformation- is incorporating new knowledge into your psyche and holding it there long enough for it to become a permanent part of your thinking. (Douglas Mackar)

Of course, the 20th and 21st Century LA was Williams’s and Bamford’s milieu, and I don’t mean to imply that they literally were sha-people, only that they share some similarities, and a trance state is not a bad way to describe some of their comic performances.

And also we shouldn’t conflate Williams with Richard Cory.  Cory “glittered when he walked” and Williams bounced around whatever room he was in like an Indian rubber ball.

His suicide didn’t surprise me.