We old folks remember when televisions made the transition from monochrome to color, music moved from mono to stereo, and everything migrated from analogue to digital. We all remember the first family in the neighborhood to get a color television (not us!). In each case, we were awed by the difference in quality – in a stereo symphony, in a technicolor movie, in digital accuracy. We have had examples of how our perceptions were changed simply by the filter which technology put on things (or the filter it took away).
I was thinking about this the other day when I was re-reading Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. (Re-reading is one of the great gifts of old age – for the things you remember it is a deepening experience, for the things you don’t remember you get the pleasure of a first-time reader all over again!) I picked Campbell’s book up again because I have had it in mind for years to write a novel based on the “hero” experience, but with an older woman as the main character. Stay tuned. Anyway, in the end Campbell returns his hero from whence he came, but bringing him back to his old culture with a new dual perspective – the old mundane view and the new cosmic vision. We all – even heroes – have to deal with the mundane world, but the hero knows that it is only a reflection of, an emanation of, the “vital energy that feeds us all,” the universal chaos that we all came out of. This knowledge cannot be verbalized; it can only be realized.
Campbell tells a story about Thomas Aquinas that I had never heard before. The great writer and scholar had a mystical experience while at Mass about three months before he died, after which he
put his pen and ink on the shelf and left the last chapters of his Summa Theologica to be completed by another hand. “My writing days,” he stated, “are over; for such things have been revealed to me that all I have written and taught seems but of small account to me…
Campbell, the man of myths, says that what is experienced at this point is “beyond myth,” beyond language; there is only silence. We see this in the Bhagavad Gita where Arjuna is speechless when Krishna finally reveals his true nature; we see it in the Book of Job when God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind and Job says he learned “of things beyond me which I did not know.” In the myth, Job is rewarded with new children and cattle. Beyond myth, perhaps, Job is awarded by a new expanded view of the world, in stereo and living color.
I don’t know about you, but as a younger person with children and ambition, I could not look beyond the mundane world. My younger life was definitely a mono world – and nothing high def about it. Get lunches made, make sure everyone has clean underwear, make it to the office on time – such were the parameters of my world. I miss some things about those days (the things I can remember – it was such a blur), but my life has changed. Now, I have time to assimilate all that has happened to me, to ponder what I see and hear and read, time to digest. In one Hindu myth, souls go to their appropriate level after death in order to think about the life they have just led and to extract lessons from it. I am not so sure about counting on that opportunity after I am cremated; I want to do it in my old age. I think that is one of things that old age is for. It is the only kind of ambition I have left.
But unlike Thomas Aquinas – or maybe because I lack his level of mystical experience – I do want to try to write about it. So here I am. In Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent, Lady Slane sees the ability to reflect on the past as “the last supreme luxury, a luxury she waited all her life to indulge.” She goes back over her life, perhaps looking for the hero’s journey in it all. “She could lie back against death and examine life.”
At the age of sixty-four, Emerson said in his journal that “the good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the Universe which runs through himself and all things.” Is it Emerson’s “thread of the Universe” that Campbell’s hero discovers and which gives him an extra dimension (or two or three) from which to look at life?
We can see this reach for a more multi-dimensional view of life if we look at the late novels of Marilynne Robinson. She published the wonderful Housekeeping in her thirties, and then did not publish another novel (although she did write non-fiction) until she was sixty-one. There followed four novels that explore the same lives from different perspectives: Gilead, Home, Lila, and the recent Jack. Many of her characters are elderly; many see themselves and their lives in tremendous perspective. In the four novels, she circles around and around her characters (and wonderful characters they are) and around the very nature of existence. After I read Jack, I decided to go back and re-read them in order. It is turning out to be a good exercise, and I only hope that Robinson, now seventy-seven years old, has not written her last novel.
Proximity to death is necessary for the hero’s journey, according to Campbell. Well, proximity to death is something we old people have. The hero must slay the dragon, outrun the wind, sail across an angry sea and defy the gods of his time. In one form or another, many of us have performed these deeds. What is the myth that we embody? Is it different from one person to another? Or is it, as Campbell claims, the same in essence if not in symbol? Have we gained perspective? Acknowledged the universal chaos? Have we moved from mono to stereo, from monochrome to technicolor, from a shortened perspective to a wider one? Comments welcome.
To think about the value of re-reading, you might try my short story, “Nothing New.“