Mankind: The Modern Mystery and Myth

This piece is featured in this month’s issue of the BeZine. For a link to the complete issue, click here.

The hero’s journey is a deeply challenging topic for an amateur writer and philosopher. What a great invitation to read and research, to tie strands together and squint to see a pattern! Typically, I submit essays to this forum, as I am much more comfortable in prose. This time, however, I decided that an essay on this topic would be way too ambitious. What I have is Swiss cheese and spiderwebs, full of holes and only loosely connected, so I thought a poem would be more appropriate.  However, I will preface this one with a bibliography.  I began with the final chapter of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, where I read this:

“Today all of these mysteries [“the great pantomime of the sacred moon-king, the sacred sun-king, the hieratic, planetary state, and the symbolic festivals of the world-regulating spheres”] have lost their force; their symbols no longer interest our psyche. The notion of a cosmic law, which all existence serves and to which man himself must bend, has long since passed through the preliminary mystical stages represented in the old astrology, and is now simply accepted in mechanical terms as a matter of course. The descent of the Occidental science from the the heavens to the earth (from 17th century astronomy to 19th century biology), and their concentration today, at last, on man himself (in 20th century anthropology and psychology), mark the path of a prodigious transfer of the focal point of human wonder. Not the animal world, not the plant world, not the miracle of the spheres, but man himself is now the crucial mystery. Man is that alien presence with whom the force of egoism must come to terms, through whom the ego is to be reformed. Man, understood however not as “I” but as “Thou”: for the ideals and temporal institutions of no tribe, race, continent, social class, or century, can be the measure of the inexhaustible and multifariously wonderful divine existence that is the life in all of us.” (emphasis mine)

That reading led me to recall lectures I heard from Dave Foreman at the Wilderness 50 conference. His essay on “The Anthropocene and Ozymandius” can be found in several online posts. From there, I considered Nietzsche’s Übermensch from Also Sprach Zarathustra. And always underlying my thoughts is my admiration for Buddhist practice and The Middle Way. So, with all that as the primordial soup, this emerged:

Homo sapiens sapiens
Oh most separate, separating
Anthropocene anthropocentric
The Egoid egotist
Ozymandius, great Wizard of Man
Eyes on screen
Fingertips fiddling

Journey who will
That
Über undertaking
Condescend to transcend
Dare to die in darkness,
Awake in wilderness
At one, atoned
In mystic Middle

Cosmic consumption
Preposterous presumption
Unsustainable usurpation
Deplorable devastation

Parading Nero
Begs a humbler hero

hero

© 2015 – poem, essay and photograph, copyright Priscilla Galasso.  All rights reserved.

 

A Peace-lover’s War Hero

Veterans’ Day.  A very forgettable holiday for me.  If it weren’t for the bloggers who have mentioned it, I might have been altogether oblivious of its passing.  I am unemployed at the moment, so no schedule change would have reminded me — except for the fact that the Post Office is closed tomorrow, so we won’t be preparing packages for Steve’ book business.   The truth is, I don’t really know what to do with Veterans’ Day.  I don’t know any vets.  I don’t have any family members who have been in the service.  And I am absolutely opposed to war.  It seems like we should have figured out an alternative long ago.  I’m truly puzzled that we have computers relaying information from Mars right now while we have yet to find an effective way to live together down here.  Learning should lead to understanding, which ought to lead to compassion.  At least that’s the trajectory I’m hoping for in my life. 

It does occur to me, though, that I have been acquainted with a veteran whom I admire very much.  I have read two of his books and have now embarked on a third.  I’ve also seen a DVD documentary about his journey home from Auschwitz.  His name is Primo Levi.  I was attracted to him first because he’s Italian.  In high school, I was the Vice President of the Italian Club.  I was learning to speak Italian because I love opera, and I wanted to meet Italian guys…or at least Italian-American guys.  I finally married a Galasso.  Now that I’m (ahem!) more mature, my love of the Italian culture is much more broad-minded.  Primo Levi’s writing is truly astounding.  He was a chemist by trade, not a writer, but his experiences during and after WWII compelled him to share the intimate details, disturbing observations, and profound insights he hoped would prevent similar events from ever happening again.  He could not let his story go unrecorded, even though its horrors caused recurring bouts of depression.  I think that makes him a very brave soldier and a heroic humanitarian. 

Here is an example of his extraordinary insight:

“Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable.  The obstacles preventing the realization of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition which is opposed to everything infinite.  Our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called, in the one instance, hope, and in the other, uncertainty of the following day.  The certainty of death opposes it: for it places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief.  The inevitable material cares oppose it: for as they poison every lasting happiness, they equally assiduously distract us from our misfortunes and make our consciousness of them intermittent and hence supportable.  It was the very discomfort, the blows, the cold, the thirst that kept us aloft in the void of bottomless despair, both during the journey and after.  It was not the will to live, nor a conscious resignation: for few are the men capable of such resolution, and we were but a common sample of humanity.” – from Survival in Auschwitz

Thank you, Signore Levi, for your service to all of us through the horrific war you survived and the work of writing your story.