Phenomenology of Astrology

This phenomenological exploration, originally written in December 2013, will soon be published in the Fall 2016 issue of Immanence: The Journal of Applied Mythology, Legend, and Folktale.

Prologue: Cosmos in Ellipsis

As I climb higher up the gray switchback staircase of rickety wooden boards my body tenses with the increasing height, even as my mind knows I am safe, that the stairs beneath my feet will support me. Already present is that indescribable bodily sense, that physical intuition that seems only able to be captured wordlessly, by something as unarticulated as an ellipsis. . .I step out onto the gravel of the roof to be met by the sight of the flaming orb of the setting Sun. This closest of stars burns the clarity from the landscape, blurring the features of the horizon line being pulled toward it: hill, forest, and stretch of ocean I can only perceive in memory as the deepening gold of sunset shatters my sight into uncountable, undifferentiable monads of color.

Setting Sun

To read the rest of this article please see: “Phenomenology of Astrology.”

Towards an Imaginal Ecology: A First Glance

“The imagination is a tree. It has the integrative virtues of a tree. It is root and boughs. It lives between earth and sky. It lives in the earth and in the wind. The imagined tree becomes imperceptibly the cosmological tree, the tree which epitomizes the universe, which makes a universe…”
– Gaston Bachelard[1] 

California Sunset

Imagine a stream, choked, murky gray, oiled surface, sunken deep below the watermark-stained banks. Feel deep within your soul the hopelessness of this place, the deadening of your senses to the despair of the river. Allow your imagination to fill with the river’s pain. Now, slowly, begin to imagine those waters rising, gradually at first, then more and more quickly, flowing first as a muddy trickle, widening into an onrushing stream. Bulbous plants begin to flourish along the banks, setting roots into the silted bottom. Filth becomes food, the waters begin to run clear. Light, once again, sparkles on the rippling surface. Fish return. What has allowed such a transition to occur? A re-imagining of purpose.

The imagination plays many roles in our practice of ecology upon this exquisite, blue and green celestial gem we have named Earth. As our planet suffers the ravaging destruction of industrialization and the consumptive growth of human greed, humanity is beginning to re-imagine its purpose in relationship to the Earth. The imagination is a multifaceted gift to ecology, one that can connect us to both our past and future, that can connect us with spiritual strength and moral empathy, that allows us to see our human role in an enchanted cosmos. The imagination is the eye of the soul, a bridge between the rational mind and the physical world, the opening of a realm in which the true beauty of the anima mundi can be revealed. Aspects of what could be called “imaginal ecology” can be glimpsed throughout the work of Joanna Macy, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Mary Evelyn Tucker, Christopher Bache, James Hillman, Theodore Roszak, David Abram, and many other thinkers; it resounds in the poetry and philosophy of the Romantics, Transcendentalists and German Idealists. Imaginal ecology flourishes in the articulations of the enchanted realm of Faërie penned by J.R.R. Tolkien, and other fiction writers whose work reveals the enchantment of the realm in which we live.

The moral imagination of which Macy speaks can allow us to situate ourselves in the experience of other beings, whether ancestors of our past, or plants and animals, ecosystems of our current Earth, even beings of the future. Through imaginal practice we can hear the needs of others and recognize them as our own. Macy writes, “The imagination needs to be schooled in order to experience our inter-existence with all beings in the web of life.”[2] We can gain spiritual and psychic courage by seeing with the imagination’s eye into our potentially dire future. The work of Bache allows one to envision such a future while learning to cultivate the spiritual center needed to stay grounded in such an unstable time. The grief and despair work of both Macy and Bache lay a solid foundation in reality that can act as the fertile ground from which creative solutions can sprout and flourish.

Imagination can carry us back through time to the flaring forth of our cosmos, and as we experience the unfolding of our universe our own role as human beings becomes clearer. As Swimme and Tucker write, “Every time we are drawn to look up into the night sky and reflect on the awesome beauty of the universe, we are actually the universe reflecting upon itself.”[3] Such a realization can reorient our actions into a more harmonious relationship to the Earth as we recognize that we also are the Earth in relationship to ourselves.

Because we are the cosmos in human form, the pain of the world is expressing itself through our human pains, through our pathologies and diseases. The work of ecopsychology practiced by Hillman, Roszak and others, which itself could be seen as a form of imaginal ecology, seeks to engage in the healing of the soul of the world, the anima mundi.

Abram suggests that the imagination exists not only in the human but in the Earth and the cosmos itself. The imagination of the Earth is diverse, and varies from region to region like the landscape, affording various insights and ideas that differ by location. Abram writes,

There are insights we come upon only at the edge of the sea, and others we glimpse only in the craggy heights. Some prickly notions are endemic to deserts, while other thoughts, too slippery to grasp, are met mostly in swamps. Many nomad thoughts migrate between different realms, shifting their habits to fit the terrain, orienting themselves by the wind and the stars.[4]

Our ability to create and sustain our existence, to imagine the future, is wholly dependent on this creativity gifted by the Earth.

The creative works of many authors and artists can serve ecology by offering a “recovery,” as Tolkien writes, giving us the opportunity of “regaining a clear view”[5] of the enchantment inherent to the world in which we live. They offer a view of a fantasy realm, which Tolkien calls Faërie, crafted out of the materials of our everyday world, just as the painter’s or sculptor’s materials are drawn also from nature.[6] Yet fantasy allows us to see these primary ingredients in a new way, once again marveling at the wonders of our own world.[7] Tolkien shows the overlap between our world and Faërie when he writes,

Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.[8] (Emphasis added.)

Faërie could then be seen as the real cosmos but without the human, or rather, without the disenchanted human. Fantasy—expressed through any art form, from literature, to painting, to sculpture—allows us to look again at our own world with new eyes, for as Hillman writes, “We pay respect to it simply by looking again, re-specting, that second look with the eye of the heart.”[9] The role the imagination can play in ecology is to unlock the doorway to this realm, our own cosmos, and re-enter as re-enchanted human beings, reflecting on themselves in the form of the universe.

Bibliography

Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York, NY: Pantheon Books. 2010.

Bache, Christopher M. Dark Night, Early Dawn: Steps to a Deep Ecology of Mind. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 2000.

Bachelard, Gaston. On Poetic Imagination and Reverie. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc. 2005.

Berry, Thomas. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 2006.

–––––. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 1988.

–––––. The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press. 1999.

–––––. The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. 2009.

Hillman, James. The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc. 2007.

Macy, Joanna. World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007.

Roszak, Theodore, Mary E. Gomes, and Allen D. Kanner, ed. Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 1995.

Swimme, Brian and Mary Evelyn Tucker. Journey of the Universe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

Swimme, Brian and Thomas Berry. The Universe Story. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. 1994.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group. 1966.


[1] Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc, 2005), 85.

[2] Joanna Macy, World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007), 112.

[3] Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Journey of the Universe (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 2.

[4] David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010), 118.

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 77.

[6] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 78.

[7] Ibid, 77.

[8] Ibid, 38.

[9] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 129.

Prehending The Monster: A Dance With Whiteheadian Dragons

What does it mean to be a monster in a Whiteheadian universe? A world in which “the holy idea of process”[1] pervades, and all beings are defined in relationship to each other. A world in which God is unconscious and yet able to see all Time and Space, who gives limit and also meaning through infinite patience, a God who may indeed even be a dragon. “Seek out gold and sit on it.”[2] Infinitely patient, eternally growing with the accumulation of the experience of all lowly creatures, God becomes a creature himself bound within the immanent sphere of Time. How does one define oneself in such a world? How to know thyself when there is “No thread, no frailest hair between myself and the universal clutter”[3]?

Dragon

Beowulf is a poetic elegy of heroism, written by an unknown Anglo-Saxon imagination, which we have inherited from Europe’s Dark Ages. “Not that one age is darker than another,”[4] as a post-modern dragon proclaims. The novelist John Gardner has taken this Medieval text and offered it from a new perspective: the man-eating monster Grendel, whom the hero Beowulf defeats in his first battle, tells us his own story of how he came to be who he is. Gardner’s tale is woven of the post-modern philosophies existentialism and nihilism, framing Grendel’s solipsistic view of a disenchanted, mechanistic universe devoid of all meaning. Yet the narrative is also richly saturated with the thought, and even direct quotations of, the process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, whose voice speaks through a worm from the ancient world, as well as an old priest enraptured with his musings on God, but also through each scene of the story’s unfolding.

It may be that Gardner was able to write Grendel’s tale through a Whiteheadian lens because something of Whitehead’s thought was already present in the original poem of Beowulf, although written some ten to thirteen centuries before Whitehead was ever born. Through Grendel one can begin to see glimpses in Beowulf of prehension and concrescence captured in narrative form, long before they were ever named as philosophical concepts. This study of ancient myth, imaginative poetry, and process philosophy is an exploration in which cause and effect are not dependent upon time, in which the hero’s final defeat can illustrate concrescence, Whitehead’s prehension can illuminate Grendel’s monstrosity, and Gardner’s dragon can give metaphor to the contemporary practice of creating concepts without images, and the dangerous bridges we may walk to understand them.

Grendel woke up in a mechanistic universe, to paraphrase John McDermott.[5] He contemplates the indifference of his world, the “cold mechanics of the stars.”[6] All things are inanimate to him, religion is lunatic, he is vastly alone, isolated. “Space hurls outward, falconswift, mounting like an irreversible injustice, a final disease.”[7] Yet, like so many “terrified by the eternal silence of these infinite spaces,”[8] Grendel seeks out meaning, even as he denies its existence: “Stars, spattered out through lifeless night from end to end, like jewels scattered in a dead king’s grave, tease, torment my wits toward meaningful patterns that do not exist.”[9]

It is as this post-modern “meaning-seeking speck of dust”[10] that Grendel has his first crisis of meaning, in which he sees the living values of what he thought of as the inanimate world. While trapped painfully between two trees, Grendel searches the landscape in vain for his mother, and the objects of the world each present themselves to him.

I twisted around as far as I could, hunting wildly for her shape on the cliffs, but there was nothing, or rather, there was everything but my mother. Thing after thing tried, cynical and cruel, to foist itself off as my mama’s shape… each thing trying to detach itself, lift itself out of the general meaningless scramble of objects, but falling back, melting to the blank, infuriating clutter of not-my-mother…. I seemed to see the whole universe, even the sun and sky, leaping forward, then sinking away again, decomposing.[11]

Grendel is having a cruel experience of the full presence of everything, a multiplicity of what Whitehead calls prehensions, in which everything is always present in, and creating the relational essence of, all other things. Whitehead writes,

The actual world is a manifold of prehensions; and a ‘prehension’ is a ‘prehensive occasion;’ and a prehensive occasion is the most concrete finite entity, conceived as what it is in itself and for itself, and not as from its aspect in the essence of another such occasion.[12]

Each entity in Grendel’s experience is actively putting itself forward; the objects and Grendel prehend each other, yet Grendel also prehends the absence of his mother—her very absence is a real entity that is defining the essence of each object in Grendel’s experience. “Every occasion is a synthesis of being and not-being.”[13] “Being,” in this case, refers to Grendel’s prehensions of all that is physically present, whereas “not-being” refers to his prehensions of what is only conceptually there as a desirable possibility—his mother.

In the trauma and pain of being caught in the tree, believing he is dying, Grendel is having an enchanted experience of the world that immensely contradicts his belief in a meaningless, inanimate universe. He has lost the ability for negative prehension, the “definite exclusion of that item from positive contribution to the subject’s own real internal constitution.”[14] He cannot filter out any presence; it is utterly overwhelming, this interconnection of all things.

At last Grendel is rescued, hours later, by his mother. As he lies safe within his subterranean cave he contemplates his experience and can only conclude that it was entirely projection: “‘The world resists me and I resist the world’ I said. “That’s all there is. The mountains are what I define them as….The world is all pointless accident… I exist, nothing else.’”[15] Grendel refuses to be changed by his experience. Yet, as he thinks on himself thinking, he comes to a realization: “I observe myself observing what I observe. It startles me. ‘Then I am not that which observes!’ I am lack. Alack! No thread, no frailest hair between myself and the universal clutter!”[16] The interconnectivity that is his essence, without which he is lack, sinks in. He experiences a reversal of Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am not. Grendel only exists in relation to the entirety of the universal clutter. Who then is he to be?

It is in this state of existential isolation that Grendel first encounters the Shaper. The Shaper is the name Grendel uses to refer to an old minstrel who has come to entertain the thanes of King Hrothgar beneath the golden eaves of Heorot. The Shaper cannot be allegorically exhausted in Gardner’s rendering. On one level the Shaper is clearly the forgotten Beowulf poet himself. His first lines are explicitly the opening lines of the Medieval poem, translated into English:

Hwæt! We Gar-Dena     in gear-dagum, 
þeod-cyninga,     þrym gefrunon, 
hu ða æþelingas     ellen fremedon.[17]

Lo, we have heard the honor of the Speardanes,
nation-kings, in days now gone,
how those battle-lords brought themselves glory.[18]

This puts the Shaper simultaneously inside and outside Grendel’s story. He is composing the tale, yet is also a character within it. Yet Grendel outlives him, so the Shaper writing the entirety of the Beowulf poem is an impossibility, as that poem carries on long past Grendel’s own death. The timing of their deaths contradict each other.

Grendel’s desire to find meaning is met by the song of the Shaper, images woven on the weft of his harp strings. “Even to me,” Grendel says, “incredibly, he had made it all seem true and very fine.”[19] He hears the roaring applause, following the song, of “men gone mad on art.”[20]

What was he? The man had changed the world, had torn up the past by its thick, gnarled roots and had transmuted it, and they, who knew the truth, remembered it his way—and so did I.[21]

The Shaper has the ability to create and reshape history with the power of his poetic imagination. J.R.R. Tolkien, arguably the greatest advocate for Beowulf as a work of creative imagination, perceives this ability of the Beowulf poet to make art appear as history. Beowulf was long studied as no more than a historical document, of little artistic or literary significance, until Tolkien shone a new light on its virtues. “The illusion of historical truth and perspective, that has made Beowulf seem such an attractive quarry,” Tolkien writes, “is largely a product of art.”[22] Tolkien tends to use the term art in a highly specific way: Art is what gives an “inner consistency of reality”[23] to a creation of the imagination. Art is what makes the imaginal real, and what gives the Shaper his great powers.

The Shaper of Gardner’s tale has more roles to play than one in Gardner’s Whiteheadian universe, and he may be no mere mortal poet. His ability to reshape history, to imbue it with beauty and meaning, thus inspiring Hrothgar’s people to lead better lives, bears strong resemblance to what Whitehead calls the “consequent nature of God.” Whitehead writes,

God’s role… lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.[24]

This characteristic of the Shaper is what so enchants Grendel, what draws him in with a desire to participate in the poetic image the Shaper weaves. “He takes what he finds,” Grendel says, “And by changing men’s minds he makes the best of it.”[25]

Finally, it is through Whiteheadian scholar Isabelle Stengers’ reading of Grendel that yet another role of the Shaper is revealed: the Shaper may be Whitehead himself in his mode of creating philosophical thought. Stengers writes that Whitehead “conceived philosophical thought as the Shaper himself conceives of history—as fabulation—and who has succeeded in making converge what should have diverged.”[26] Whitehead creates concepts as the Shaper sings his heroic tales: “Whitehead fabricates, composes, constructs—deliberately, technically, artificially—a universe whose facticity and fictional character cannot be denounced, because they are obvious.”[27] The only character in Grendel who can denounce the Shaper is the dragon. He says, “That’s where the Shaper saves them. Provides an illusion of reality—puts together all their facts with a gluey whine of connectedness. Mere tripe, believe me.”[28] The dragon can make such assured insults because he is granted a greater perspective on all existence; yet he too is limited, for he cannot see his own nature, a topic to which we will return.

Grendel is born into the body of a monster, cursed to be misunderstood in his actions at first sight. Thus he truly becomes a monster, choosing to murder viciously and devour crudely, only after this definition has been projected by others upon him. He sees himself as lack ever since he experienced the world as “not-my-mother,” a lack which awaits definition in relationship to others. But his grotesque physical form can only offer him one relationship. Eavesdropping at Hrothgar’s hall, Grendel hears the Shaper tell of the world’s creation by the greatest of gods, followed by a tale of two brothers: one killed the other, splitting the world into dark and light, and God cursed the murderer. As he listens Grendel realizes he is one of the accursed, doomed to darkness. Throughout Beowulf Grendel is often referred to as of Cain’s descent, an indication of the strange mix of early Christianity and northern mythologies that ignited the poet’s imagination.

þanon woc fela 
geosceaft-gasta;     wæs þæra Grendel sum, 
heoro-wearh hetelic.

And from Cain there sprang,
misbegotten spirits, among them Grendel,
the banished and accursed.[29]

Grendel is enchanted by the Shaper’s words. He believes his tales, even as he wishes for them to be untrue. In a fit of religious conversion Grendel rushes down to Heorot calling “Mercy! Peace!”[30] His presence incites fear in Hrothgar’s thanes and they attack the crying beast they believe to be threatening them. Grendel flees. He is saddled with Cain’s guilt before ever committing Cain’s crime. It is this burden that draws him to the dragon.

Premonitions of the dragon’s presence resound throughout the chapters of Grendel that lead up to the dragon’s introduction; whispers of “something deeper, an impression from another mind, some live thing old and terrible.”[31] Grendel begins to sense the dragon more and more as he sinks further into his own darkness and cravings for violence. “I could feel it all around me,” Grendel recalls, “that invisible presence, chilly as the first intimation of death, the dusty unblinking eyes of a thousand snakes.”[32] Grendel’s prehensions of the dragon seem to shift from non-being ever more toward being until finally he stands within the dragon’s presence. Yet it is never made clear if he ever encounters the dragon in the flesh, or whether the dragon always remains a conceptual prehension. Grendel sits in silence feeling an unknown presence. Then, he says, “I made my mind a blank and fell, sank away like a stone through earth and sea, toward the dragon.”[33]

“I know everything, you see,” the old voice wheedled. “The beginning, the present, the end. Everything. You now, you see the past and the present, like other low creatures: no higher faculties than memory and perception.” He stretched his mouth in a kind of smile, no trace of pleasure in it. But dragons, my boy, have a whole different kind of mind. “We see from the mountaintop: all time, all space. We see in one instant the passionate vision and the blowout. Not that we cause things to fail, you understand…. Dragons don’t mess with your piddling free will.”[34]

“Dragons, real dragons,” Tolkien writes, “are actually rare.”[35] The presence of the dragon in both Grendel and Beowulf is “richer in significance than his barrow is in gold.”[36] Gardner’s dragon hurls philosophy at Grendel with the ferocity of his fiery breath, and Grendel leaves more than a little singed by perplexity. The dragon’s mountaintop view of the universe—all time, all space in one instant—is a view, at least in Whitehead’s cosmology, only God can have. Like Whitehead’s God, the dragon can only know the universe, not alter its outcome. Whitehead’s God can know all the possibilities of the future, but it is the actual occasions themselves that determine the outcome. Creativity thus reigns supreme. “My knowledge of the future does not cause the future,” the dragon says. “It merely sees it, exactly as creatures at your low level recall things past.”[37]

Whitehead’s God, like the dragon, is a creature himself, a creation of ultimate creativity, just as the dragon is a creation of the creative imagination, “incarnate in time, walking in heroic history, and treading the named lands of the North.”[38] There are interesting parallels here with the gods of Norse mythology that was a deep wellspring of inspiration for the Beowulf poet. “In Norse, at any rate, the gods are within Time, doomed with their allies to death.”[39] Gardner’s dragon, like the Norse gods, knows he will eventually die. “A certain man will absurdly kill me.”[40] The man he refers to is, of course, Beowulf, although his name is never once mentioned in the entirety of Grendel. “A terrible pity—loss of a remarkable form of life. Conservationists will howl,”[41] he says with bitter irony. Perhaps it is here that fiction and philosophy diverge, for no such fate seems to await Whitehead’s God, unless we take a deep plunge into Nietzschean post-modern despair.

The dragon and God’s apparent omniscience brings to light the question of fate within Beowulf and Grendel’s stories. God can see all possibilities but not determine the outcome; the dragon seems to be able to see a single outcome but not have the ability to alter it—even his own actions always unfold according to what he has seen. If the dragon is indeed God he seems not to be aware of it, making him unconscious of his full omniscience. Fate certainly plays a prominent role within Beowulf, as we hear of how “one man lay down to his rest, already marked for death;”[42] that “doom abided”[43] in the high, golden gables of Heorot that someday they would burn; or finally, that Beowulf’s “fate hovered near, unknowable but certain”[44] as he went to face the dragon and his own demise.

Sceolde læn-daga 
æþeling ær-god     ende gebidan, 
worulde lifes,     ond se wyrm somod, 
þeah ðe hord-welan     heolde lange. 

After many trials,
he was destined to face the end of his days
in this mortal world; as was the dragon,
for all his long leasehold on the treasure.[45]

The role of fate in Beowulf is a clear sign of what has shifted in our philosophies since the Middle Ages, and what differentiates the Anglo-Saxon poem from Grendel. We have, in many ways, been released from a world in which “the Lord was weaving a victory on His war-loom”[46] into one where God can behold each possible string of the warp and weft but it is up to the tapestry to move the shuttle.

Gardner’s dragon explodes in a tirade against humanity’s inability to create a comprehensive philosophy when it becomes clear his words are not having the desired effect upon Grendel.

“Man” …He snorted fire. “They only think they think. No total vision, total system, merely schemes with a vague family resemblance, no more identity than bridges and, say, spiderwebs. But they rush across chasms on spiderwebs, and sometimes they make it, and that, they think, settles that!”[47]

In the “leap of imagination”[48] it takes to create truly new concepts sometimes one must run forth blindly, balanced on a spider’s thread over a bottomless chasm mired in fog. No images on which to grasp hold. Such is the adventure Stengers embarks on when she undertakes to “think with Whitehead.” In her introduction she warns:

It is a strange tongue that will gradually be elaborated here, a language that challenges all clear distinctions between description and tale-spinning, and induces a singular experience of disorientation in the heart of the most familiar experiences.[49]

Yet the work Whitehead, Stengers, and other process philosophers have taken on is to move away from what the dragon derides: “Simple facts in isolation, and facts to connect—ands and buts—are the sine qua non of all their glorious achievement.”[50] He goes on, succinctly summarizing Whitehead’s project in two simple sentences: “But there are no such facts. Connectedness is the essence of everything.”[51]

Connectedness is the essence of everything. Grendel experienced just this as he searched the landscape of “not-my-mother” and instead encountered the universe rushing in at him with organic attention. But it is more than he can handle. It is more than most mortal beings can handle. The dragon knows this when he says, using direct quotes from Whitehead’s Modes of Thought,

Listen. Listen closely! An angry man does not usually shake his fist at the universe in general. He makes a selection and knocks his neighbor down. A piece of rock, on the other hand, impartially attracts the universe according to the law of gravitation. You grant there’s a difference?[52]

This form of selection is how we handle prehension without being overwhelmed as Grendel was when his ability for negative prehension dissipated. Furthermore, it is the method Grendel chooses from then on so that he can maintain the isolated boundaries of his mechanistic, meaningless world view. He chooses to direct his anger at the universe by brutally murdering and devouring the men of Hrothgar’s kingdom.

Connectedness is the essence of everything. As prehension is defined by Whitehead, nothing has any independent existence. All things “are only entities as within the totality; you cannot extract them from their environment without destruction of their very essence.”[53] If this is the case, by their very existence Grendel needs the humans to be who he is, and the humans need him. But they also are defined by the actions and existence of all the past; Grendel carries Cain’s guilt and the humans can only define him as such. “This unity of a prehension,” writes Whitehead, “defines itself as a here and now, and the things so gathered into the grasped unity have essential reference to other places and other times.”[54] The other places and times in which creatures like Grendel have acted violently toward human beings now weighs on Grendel’s own life, as the dragon mercilessly points out to him.

“Ah Grendel!” he said. He seemed that instant almost to rise to pity. “You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? …You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves.”[55]

The unity of prehension seems to have two important effects in this case. In some strange way the deep interconnectedness of everything begins to bear the weight of fate. Grendel cannot escape who he is meant to be in relation to all others. But prehension holds another effect: if the monster is not monstrous without humans, and humans are not human without the monster, their essence is not only defined against the other but as the other. Thus to reject the monster is also to be the monster. There is a monster inside each of us.

Whether or not we wish to interpret the dragon or the Shaper as aspects of Whitehead’s God, we are given a much more direct glimpse of his God in Grendel’s encounter with the old priest Ork. In Beowulf the God of Christian monotheism is unknown to the Danes, although he does seem to be known to Beowulf, who is a Geat, a foreigner.

Metod hie ne cuþon, 
dæda Demend,     ne wiston hie Drihten God, 
ne hie huru heofena Helm     herian ne cuþon, 
wuldres Waldend.

The Almighty Judge
of good deeds and bad, the Lord God,
Head of the Heavens and High King of the World,
was unknown to them.[56]

The God we meet in Ork’s spiritual revelation is, as Stengers points out, first God as principle of limitation from Science and the Modern World, followed by the God of infinite patience in Process and Reality.[57] “The King of the Gods is not concrete, but He is the ground for concrete actuality,”[58] Ork whispers in a trembling fit. “He is the eternal urge of desire establishing the purposes of all creatures. He is an infinite patience, a tender care that nothing in the universe be vain.”[59] Grendel watches in wonder as the priest sobs in the snow, overcome by his vision, by his realization of the nature of God. Whitehead writes, “The power of God is the worship He inspires.”[60] The worship to which Ork is inspired baffles Grendel because he has never encountered a being worthy of such worship. The dragon inspired terror, anger; the Shaper inspired enchantment, confusion, but neither inspired worship. The dragon and the Shaper do not hold the power that the priest, and before him Whitehead, feels emanating from the King of Gods.

“The ultimate evil is that Time is perpetual perishing, and being actual involves elimination,”[61] Ork cries forth. The encounter with death is a strong theme that courses through Beowulf, and subsequently Grendel.

Ure æghwylc sceal     ende gebidan 
worolde lifes;     wyrce se þe mote 
domes ær deaþe.

For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death.[62]

Tolkien describes poignantly the experiences of heroes as they live their lives fighting the long defeat against darkness: “…as in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat.”[63] Perpetual perishing may indeed be the ultimate evil, but it is inevitable. In that inevitability, perhaps, is where the beauty and meaning lies. Every actual occasion, in its process of concrescence, becomes in relation to all other actual occasions. So too the hero becomes a hero in relationship to all the surrounding darkness. When concrescence is complete the actual occasion perishes into objective immortality, and thus participates in the concrescence of all other actual occasions. In his final defeat the hero too perishes, but he also perishes into immortality, the immortality born by the glory he has won. Thus God takes care that nothing in the universe is done in vain.

But what, then, of Grendel? He does not seek to win glory, to attain any form of immortality. What can be the meaning of the actions of one who still sees no meaning in the universe in which he lives? His entire journey has not changed him—he was born into the post-modern, encountered the enchanted pagan-Christianity of the Shaper, the undetermined fatalism of the dragon, the painful onslaught of interconnection between himself and all that was not-his-mother—yet by story’s end he is unchanged, a psychopath to experience. In his fatal encounter with Beowulf he recognizes the dragon within Beowulf, sees flames slip from the corners of his mouth, fiery wings ignite behind him. The words of the dragon are whispering through Beowulf, whether in reality or in Grendel’s hallucinating imagination it matters not, for they are all one: Beowulf, the dragon, Grendel. Each is not without the others.

Yet as Grendel escapes Beowulf’s grasp, leaving his arm and life force behind him, he reverts to his sense of meaningless once again, for the final time. He knows he has encountered another world view, the Whiteheadian philosopher embodied in Beowulf as well, and believes he understands him. “Understand his lunatic theory of matter and mind, the chilly intellect, the hot imagination, blocks and builder, reality as stress.”[64] Yet he defines himself to the last in opposition to this.

“It was an accident,” I bellow back. I will cling to what is true. “Blind, mindless, mechanical. Mere logic of chance.”[65]

He cannot change. He does not evolve through any process. This is not why he must die; death is the inevitable, the meaningful, the beautiful. He cannot change. That is what makes him a monster. And the potential to be that monster resides in each of us.

“Poor Grendel’s had an accident,” I whisper. “So may you all.”[66]

 

Bibliography

Gardner, John. Grendel. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1989.

Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Stengers, Isabelle. Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts. Translated by Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group. 1991.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Monsters and the Critics. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.

–––––. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group. 1966.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1985.

–––––. Science and the Modern World. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1967.


[1] John Gardner, Grendel (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1989), 159.

[2] Gardner, Grendel, 74.

[3] Ibid, 29.

[4] Ibid, 69.

[5] John J. McDermott, qtd. in Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group, 1991), 417.

[6] Gardner, Grendel, 9.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Blaise Pascal, in Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 420.

[9] Gardner, Grendel, 11.

[10] Richard Tarnas, “A Brief History of Western Thought,” course taught at the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, CA, October 5, 2012.

[11] Gardner, Grendel, 19.

[12] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1967), 71.

[13] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 163.

[14] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1985), 41.

[15] Gardner, Grendel, 28.

[16] Gardner, Grendel, 29.

[17] Seamus Heaney, trans., Beowulf (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), 2.

[18] Gardner, Grendel, 41.

[19] Gardner, Grendel, 43.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), 7.

[23] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 68.

[24] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 346.

[25] Gardner, Grendel, 49.

[26] Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 503-504.

[27] Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 506.

[28] Gardner, Grendel, 65.

[29] Heaney, trans., Beowulf, 88-89.

[30] Gardner, Grendel, 51.

[31] Ibid, 48.

[32] Ibid, 50.

[33] Gardner, Grendel, 56.

[34] Gardner, Grendel, 62-63.

[35] Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, 12.

[36] Ibid, 16.

[37] Gardner, Grendel, 63.

[38] Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, 17.

[39] Ibid, 25.

[40] Gardner, Grendel, 70.

[41] Gardner, Grendel, 70.

[42] Heaney, trans., Beowulf, 87.

[43] Ibid, 7.

[44] Ibid, 165.

[45] Heaney, trans., Beowulf, 158-159.

[46] Ibid, 47.

[47] Gardner, Grendel, 64.

[48] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 4.

[49] Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 3.

[50] Gardner, Grendel, 64.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Gardner, Grendel, 69.

[53] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 65.

[54] Ibid, 69.

[55] Gardner, Grendel, 72-73.

[56] Heaney, trans., Beowulf, 14-15.

[57] Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 3.

[58] Gardner, Grendel, 131.

[59] Ibid, 132.

[60] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 192.

[61] Gardner, Grendel, 132.

[62] Heaney, trans., Beowulf, 96-97.

[63] Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, 18.

[64] Gardner, Grendel, 172.

[65] Ibid, 173.

[66] Ibid, 174.

And Back Again

Thus it ends…

Photo by Becca Tarnas

I never imagined that I would know what it was like to be in a car for 1,095 miles straight, but now that I do I hope not to have to experience it again. Perhaps it was the two full days rest in Aspen, or just a strong desire to be back in our own home by the Bay nestled beneath our blanket of fog, but come Wednesday morning Matt and I decided to drive all the way home in one long shift. Or rather, we decided to keep the option open, in case we arrived at the campground in Austin, Nevada with enough energy and daylight hours to keep going to the coast.

The two whole days in Aspen were worth the trip itself, even if we hadn’t had all the other adventures and wonderful encounters along the way. There is something about Aspen that makes one feel as though one has stepped into a painting, like the moment Robin Williams arrives in heaven in the film What Dreams May Come. Everything is too perfect, each blade of grass arranged in just such a way as to set off the seemingly carefully placed rocks beneath the snowy white trunks of the aspen trees. The towering mountains with their rouge and evergreen flanks are dwarfed only by the vast sky, with its many hued cloud formations sculpted by a divine breath. We went on a brief hike the first day there, noticing the lupines and wild geraniums peering out among the grasses. Like the rest of the country, Aspen has also suffered drought this summer, which could be seen in the reddish dust that is usually moist soil. The wildflowers too were sparse this year; normally the mountains are garlanded in purple and yellow blossoms all throughout June and July.

The town of Aspen is as picturesque as the wild scenery, with quaint little houses surrounded by blossoming flower gardens, and old brick buildings with former store names carved into the very stonework overhanging the doors. The streets are all named after the miners who first settled the area. The design of the town reflects the natural surroundings, bringing aspen trees onto many of the sidewalks, even allowing them to grow through the center of the architecture in some cases. Strips of grass and fountains border the cobblestone streets, and narrow streams meander between the grassy banks and laugh their way over smooth river stones arranged beneath the clear ripples.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

On our second day in Aspen we attended a concert put on by the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen. The orchestra, which gives young conductors the opportunity to learn their craft with the help of a full orchestra at their disposal, played three symphonies over the course of the afternoon, beginning with Haydn’s Symphony No. 85 in D major, written in 1786. This was followed by Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major, written in 1775 when Mozart was only nineteen years old. The solo violinist for this piece, Hannah Tarley, has been playing since she was two years old, and was the youngest violinist to lead the San Francisco Youth Symphony on tour. She played, to say the least, exquisitely. After an intermission, the final symphony of the day was Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, written in 1945; however, we only heard the ending of this piece because we chose to take a stroll through the gardens of the Aspen Institute while the afternoon sun was still warm.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

It was with some reluctance that we packed up the car for the last time and bid adieu to Aspen and its fluttering silver-green leaves and crystal streams. We headed west toward Glendale where we went back onto I-70. The mountainsides turned a sunburnt red, and each peak looked like a scalp with thinning tree hair that had spent too much time exposed to the sunlight. As we passed Mount Sopris I was already beginning to observe the much drier climate. A magpie, with its black and white wings, soared over the road. As we passed through Glendale I noticed a crew of carrion birds circling ominously over the town.

As the mountains around us became more angular and treeless, we listened to a debate between Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury. I was amazed to hear the sense of wonder in Dawkins’ voice as he described the unfolding of the universe and how it could give rise to “apparently purposeful” beings such as ourselves, that give the cosmos the “illusion of design.” This dialogue accompanied us for more than half of the day’s journey because occasionally it would cut out and we would switch to music, then try again an hour or two later. Because of this, the debate seemed to set the tone for much of the ride, giving rise to many exciting discussions between Matt and myself, including one regarding the language and cultures of animals, and whether or not they can be understood from a human perspective; if they cannot, as far as I see it, that is not proof that animals or even plants, cells, or minerals, do not have the same capacity for language, culture or spirituality that we do. It may, at this point, just not be able to be translated into something humanity can comprehend.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Our road followed the Colorado River for some time, and I marveled how this one river had been able to overcome these mountains surrounding us, carving such wonders as the Grand Canyon, and yet it could not—as of yet—overcome humanity, who has dammed it and siphoned off its waters until barely a trickle remains to empty into the Sea of Cortez. Eventually we left the Colorado River behind, and passed through Rabbit Valley and a park offering a Trail Through Time walk. As we crossed the border into Utah a signpost stood by the road warning of eagles on the highway, definitely the strangest of the many animal warning signs we saw over the rest of the day: moose, deer, cows, and hikers all had their own specific warning signs in different mountain areas.

The buttes and plateaus shifted into greener mountains and short trees as we entered Fishlake National Forest. To the side of the road I saw several cows and calves among the greenery, and past them a wood and metal fence climbing at nearly a 90° angle up a mountainside. Imagine the determination of the rancher who had put up that fencing, not wanting to lose a single acre of his property no matter how steep the terrain.

Mysterious train tunnels once again bored through the mountainsides as we neared Salina, Utah. Past the town flat green fields unfolded for several miles, dotted with horses along a placid blue lakeshore. Eventually we left I-70 and began the long journey upon the loneliest road in the West, US 50. Barely a car passed us. The fences by the roadside were constructed with rough-hewn branches, making the era we traveled through ambiguous. A neat little farm stood by the road named Duckworth Dairy. Eventually we entered the town of Delta, Utah, where a tiny wooden shack was featured in the central square: the very first house ever built in Delta. The house was smaller than a modest bedroom.

Outside Delta we passed a tree completely ornamented with dozens upon dozens of pairs of shoes. I once heard that a pair of shoes tossed over a power line means “I love you.” If that is the case this is the most loved tree I had ever seen, even if not a single leaf graced its branches.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Highway 50 went on straight for seemingly endless hours, with only an occasional crossroad going just as eternally straight in the opposite direction. We saw hardly anyone. We crossed over a snow white salt plain, passed Death Canyon, and entered into a new set of mountains. At some point we crossed into Nevada but it was hard to tell where. Our road less traveled was not busy enough to bother marking the state border. The landscape of Nevada seemed to be a repeating pattern of flat plain followed by a mountain ridge, then flat plain, mountain ridge, flat plain, mountain ridge. It was difficult to keep track, except by the changing names of the different national parks: Great Basin National Park, Humboldt State Park. A ranch in one of the mountain ranges had an entrance gate made entirely of bleached white antlers. Not long after we glimpsed a fence decorated in deer antlers. The deer population in that area must be abundant indeed.

The largest town we saw on 50 was Ely, which boasted six churches on a sign at its entrance. From the size of the town there must be one church for every family. Some time after we had left Ely we came to the next largest town along the highway, Austin, where we had intended to camp. At this point it was only 5:30 pm, and with barely a consultation Matt and I decided we wanted to continue all the way home to San Francisco. So with 702 miles already under our belts we left Austen behind to complete the next 391 miles to the end of the continent.

The light slowly grew dimmer and fantastic sunset colors streaked the sky. Since we were driving westward the twilight seemed prolonged for many hours. We passed Sand Mountain, a large sand dune set back from the road, glowing white against the dark backdrop of the distant mountains. The last of the light began to fade as we left Carson City, and the last sight I saw before nightfall was a sign for the Old Pony Express trail. Then, in the still darkness, we entered California and began to climb into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Immediately I wished we were passing through here in daylight, and I longed to see the trees, lakes, and mountains that were now shrouded in darkness.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

The backroad route we had inadvertently chosen to take provided a stressful 70 miles of watching for deer potentially leaping into the road. In total we saw five deer, two coyotes, and a bobcat. The bobcat, standing directly in the center of the road, seemed not in the least disturbed by our car, and gently pawed its way off the road at its own sweet pace. When we passed where it had exited moments later, it was already swallowed up in the camouflaged gloom of the forest.

The last couple hours of the ride were the most difficult of the entire trip. Both Matt and I were questioning our decision to go 1,100 miles in one day. But somehow, close to 1:00 am, we arrived on our own familiar street, where parking is still familiarly difficult, and at last were able to be home.

So in total, after 110 hours of driving, 6,700 miles, 20 states, one province, dozens of family members and friends, and not a single argument, Matt and I ended our rather epic journey. As for the next one, who can say?

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

A Long-Expected Journey

So it begins…

This is the first day of a long-awaited journey, one that is two years in planning, and will at last be embarked upon. Two people, a Ford Focus, 18 days, and 6,000 miles (at least!) This morning Matt and I depart upon our cross-country road trip from San Francisco, California to Bennington, Vermont and back. The purpose? To retrieve my belongings that have been languishing peacefully in my dear uncle and aunt’s basement. The true purpose? To have an adventure, a real one, by driving deep into the heart of the American continent, and emerging on the other side to inhale the breeze on the Atlantic coast.

The first leg of the journey may indeed be the longest, as we leave the Bay Area and head east, aiming to arrive in Wendover, Utah by late evening. We will be camping out for our first two nights, before meeting up with family and friends for the remaining overnights of the trip. Our initial plan had been to drive through Colorado, but the wildfires blazing throughout the state have influenced us to reroute north. I am curious if we will see smoke along the way, or if we will be fully out of range. Climate change is indeed doing its damage, from the fires in the West, to the tornadoes in the Midwest and the East, and the 118° temperatures in Kansas. We will be experiencing the rapid changing of our planet first-hand on these travels.

Our planned route for the journey after Utah is to camp again in Cheyenne, Wyoming, then stay with my fraternal family in Kansas City, Kansas, Matt’s family in Cincinnati, Ohio, my paternal family in West Bloomfield, Michigan, before arriving in Bennington, Vermont to stay with more family and pack up my belongings. From the Green Mountain State we’ll drive to the Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts, where I went to school at Mount Holyoke College, and we’ll stay with friends in the area. Our next destination is New York City to stay with another friend, and then we’ll turn our eyes homeward once more. Another pass through Cincinnati and Kansas city, and then a stay with Matt’s aunt in Aspen, Colorado if the pass there is unobstructed by wildfire. If it is, my desire is to turn southwards and see some desert-land before we cruise back into the chilly humidity of our fog-bound San Francisco home.

We are outfitted for the trip with few items of clothing, but a multitude of entertainment: dozens of podcasts of This American LifeFresh AirWait Wait Don’t Tell Me, as well as an obscure Tolkien podcast entitled An Unexpected Podcast. We will also have the treat to listen to Matthew Stelzner’s archetypal astrology podcast Correlations to help us stay attuned to the outer planets as we travel across the surface of our own home planet. Finally, we have the rare privilege of listening to a large collection of audio tapes I salvaged out of my father’s studio: lectures by Joseph Campbell, Rupert Sheldrake, Terrence McKenna, Bruno Barnhart, Robert McDermott, and several others. And lastly, if we can listen to the stereo no more, Matt will have his books on Schelling for his Ph.D. comprehensive exam, and I will have a few books of my own: The Road to Middle Earth by Tom Shippey, On The Road by Jack Kerouac, Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram, and, if a copy stumbles into my hand soon, The Cosmic Game by Stan Grof.

May the stars smile down upon us as we begin this journey, may the unexpected adventures be merry, and the expected ones all the sweeter for occurring,may the road be swift and safe, and may the landscapes be the deep pool from which I’ll fill the cup of my imagination. To quote a great traveller in the wilds of the imaginary, let me conclude:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.