Phenomenology of Astrology

This phenomenological exploration, originally written in December 2013, was 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.”

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: Unveiling the Modern Shadow

I am excited to say this essay was accepted by Kepler College to be displayed on their website. To read the article there please follow this link.

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Born Mary Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was the daughter of the revolutionary feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, whose powerful treatise, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, opened up new avenues of possibility for the education of women at the commencement of the 19th century. Her daughter was one such beneficiary of Wollstonecraft’s desire to reform women’s education, going on to publish the wildly popular novel Frankenstein at the young age of 20. A look at the planetary aspects of Mary Shelley’s natal chart, using the perspective of archetypal astrology, can help illustrate how the archetypal energies correlated with the planets of our solar system were expressed in her personal life and in her writing, with a particular focus on her masterwork, Frankenstein. An analysis of the world transits, and the personal transits they form to Shelley’s natal chart, at the time of the publication of Frankenstein provide further insight into Shelley’s writing.

Mary ShelleyMary Godwin, who became Mary Shelley upon her marriage to the Romantic poet Percy Shelley, was born August 30, 1797 at 11:20 pm in London, England. Most prominent in her chart is a triple conjunction of the Sun, Mars, and Uranus in the sign of Virgo, in a tight 180° opposition to Pluto, with Mars closest to Pluto in the opposition. The Sun is archetypally correlated with the principle of the self, of one’s central identity and focus, and the areas in which one shines or expresses oneself most prominently. Uranus, the first of the outer planets to be discovered in the modern era, is correlated with the revolutionary impulse, with breakthrough, rebellion, genius, brilliance, technology, electricity, the young, and the new. Sun-Uranus aspects are often found in the natal charts of brilliant individuals whose work has provided some kind of breakthrough or revolutionary shift in consciousness or worldview, from Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler, to Newton, Kant, and Freud.[1] The planet Uranus is archetypally correlated with the Greek myth of Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire (a symbol for consciousness) from the Gods and gave it to humanity. Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy Shelley, was also a Sun-Uranus figure. His expression of the archetypal complex can clearly be seen in his poem Prometheus Unbound.

Mary Shelley’s personal expression of the Sun-Uranus combination comes through in the brilliance of her individual expression in her breakthrough first novel, which even has the apt subtitle The Modern Prometheus. The character of Victor Frankenstein is that of a rebel seeking to create life by means of technological innovation, all of which are Uranian themes. He desires to create new life alone, not as father and mother, but to elevate himself to the role of God the Father, the individual solar hero on his quest of technological prowess. Frankenstein takes on the role of both father and mother, rebelling against the order of nature, doing so in an act of technological breakthrough and brilliance. While working, Frankenstein speaks of those he would create, saying “No Father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.”[2] Yet, he must also suffer the consequences of achievement. Like Prometheus, whose gift to humanity leads to his eternal punishment—chained to a rock while an eagle consumes his liver each day only to have it grow back again each night—Frankenstein is haunted by the life he gave, the monster he created out of his own hubris and ambition.Mary Shelley Chart

Mary Shelley’s Sun-Mars-Uranus triple conjunction is, as mentioned above, in opposition to Pluto. The Uranus-Pluto opposition Shelley is born under is the primary transit that defined the tumultuous era of the French Revolutionary Period. The Uranus-Pluto impulse is toward revolutionary change on a mass scale, the liberation of the repressed and the oppressed, and the unleashing of the taboo. It is the same transit that defined the 1960s countercultural era and our current moment of world revolutions and protests, from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement, to the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act in the United States this current summer.

An interesting connection between Mary Shelley and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, is that Wollstonecraft was born with Uranus square Pluto in 1759 and published her masterwork, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, under the Uranus-opposite-Pluto in 1792. Her daughter was born just five years later in 1797 under the same Uranus-Pluto transit, and she went on to publish her own masterpiece, Frankenstein, under the subsequent Uranus square Pluto that was just beginning to come into the orb of influence in 1818. Both mother and daughter’s writing has a revolutionary quality: they were both breaking through the gender barrier in their era that oppressed female writers, and female expression as a whole.

The quality of Shelley’s Frankenstein also expresses Uranus-Pluto archetypal themes in the eruption of the shadow in her story which tells of the creation, through the Uranian technological spark of life, of a Plutonic monster. Shelley reveals and shines light upon (Sun-Uranus) the potential monstrosity (Pluto) of technology (Uranus), as well as the hubris of the modern age and the notion of progress, demonstrating how the sudden break (Uranus) with from the course of nature (Pluto) can unleash (Uranus) tremendous horrors (Pluto). In Frankenstein’s words he describes,

One secret which I alone possessed was the hope to which I dedicated myself; and the moon gazed on my midnight labors, while, with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding places.[3]

The relentless pursuit of nature, the reference to ‘her hiding places,’ and even the idea of a ‘secret. . . possessed’ evoke the underworld nature of the Plutonic, while the sense of the technological secret of life held by a single individual reflects the Sun-Uranus complex. Interestingly, this pursuit of nature is echoed by Dr. Frankenstein’s vengeful pursuit of the monster across the northern wilderness in the latter portion of the book.

The manner in which the horror of Shelley’s narrative unfolds clearly reflects not only her Sun-Uranus conjunction opposite Pluto, but also the Mars-Pluto opposition that is part of this larger complex in her natal chart. Mars correlates with the archetype of the warrior, with a potential range of manifestations from energy, action, and athleticism, to anger and even violence. The archetype of Pluto deepens any archetype with which it is in aspect, so the Mars-Pluto combination can potentially come through as a deep rage or potentially murderous violence, which is clearly expressed in the revenge of the monster of Shelley’s narrative. That Shelley has the Sun in aspect with her Mars-Pluto opposition can be seen in the individual embodiment of the violent shadow, both literally in the monster but also in the individual acts of Frankenstein that brought about the monster’s creation.

Briefly, I would like to touch on a few other aspects in Shelley’s chart that come through in the nature and style of her writing. Shelley has a tight Sun-Neptune sextile which is beautifully captured in a sentence she used to describe herself as a child: “As a child I scribbled. . . Still I had a dearer pleasure than this, which was the formation of castles in the air.”[4] The archetype of Neptune correlates, in one form of its expression, with the imagination and transcendence, which come through in this whimsical, imaginal quote illustrating Shelley’s innate ability to create imaginative narrative. She is also born with a Mercury-Venus conjunction, which can be seen in the beautiful, lyrical quality of her writing. The archetype of Mercury correlates with all forms of communication and expression—from writing, to thinking, speaking, and sensing—while the archetype of Venus correlates to beauty and artistry. Shelley’s Mercury-Venus can also be seen in the romantic fairy-story qualities of some of her other works, such as The Dream or The Heir of Mandolfo. Furthermore, Mercury is in a tight sextile to the Moon in Shelley’s chart, an example of which is the narrative form in which Frankenstein is written: a series of letters. Letter-writing is often intimate and familiar, and in this case also familial, all of which are Lunar qualities, in this instance expressed in Mercurial written form.

Frankenstein Published TransitsWhile much more could be elaborated in Mary Shelley’s natal chart, I would like to turn to the world transits that were in the sky at the time Frankenstein was published, on January 1, 1818. On that day, and for a short time before and after the publication date, there was a stellium in Sagittarius of Venus, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune, with the smaller orbit of Venus bringing it briefly into the longer conjunction of Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune, and the even longer conjunction of Uranus-Neptune that defined much of the Romantic era. While there are many complex ways in which this quadruple conjunction manifested in world events, the particular expression in relation to the publication of Frankenstein can be seen in the successful release of a beautiful piece of literary art produced by the creative imagination. The archetype of Jupiter grants success to whatever it touches, while Venus relates to the artistic expression, and Neptune to the imagination behind the project. Jupiter-Uranus alignments in world history regularly correlate to successful breakthroughs and the inauguration of new initiatives, and have been found to correlate with the first successful publications of numerous authors, including of course Mary Shelley.[5]

In her personal transits, the Venus-Jupiter-Uranus-Neptune stellium was conjoining Shelley’s natal Moon. While the archetype of the Moon is present in all individuals and certainly cannot be simply correlated with all women or “the feminine,” at the time Shelley lived women were often relegated or confined solely to the Lunar realms of home, family, and domestic matrimony by the then dominant patriarchal structures (which had largely appropriated the Solar archetypal role of the individual shining hero as a symbol of “the masculine”). The significance of the Venus-Jupiter-Uranus-Neptune stellium conjoining Shelley’s Moon can be seen in that she would have, in her time, been viewed, because she was a woman, as a Lunar figure who was successfully breaking out of the constrictive mold that did not encourage creative artistic or literary expression by women. The significance of the Moon in this particular case is not because she is a woman, but because of the primarily Lunar role women were usually required to take on. The archetypal energy of the successful Lunar figure is doubled by a transit that would have lasted for only a few hours on the particular day of publication: the Moon in the sky was transiting in opposition to Shelley’s natal Jupiter, which may have provided an increased sense of emotional joy and success for her.

Another significant world transit that was just beginning to come into orb at the time of publication, but which would have become more exact as the book was disseminated and read by the public, was the Saturn-Pluto conjunction of 1818. The energy of this transit would have been intensified for Shelley because, at the time of publication, Saturn was conjoining her natal Pluto as well. The archetype of Saturn is the reality principle that correlates to mortality, death, and gravity, but also to maturity and wisdom; Saturn is archetypally both hard consequences and the learning acquired from consequences. Saturn-Pluto correlates to the shadow side of the encapsulated egoic will to power that is so clearly expressed in Frankenstein. In his book on archetypal astrology, Cosmos and Psyche, Richard Tarnas describes Frankenstein as Shelley’s “prophetic Gothic masterpiece that depicted the monstrous shadow of the technological will to power.”[6] Shelley’s tale is one of death (Saturn) and destruction (Pluto), of moral (Saturn) depravity (Pluto), and of the Saturnian consequences of the soaring heights of Dr. Frankenstein’s, and modernity’s, Sun-Uranus visions of progress.

Interestingly, the day Frankenstein was published the Sun in the sky was transiting opposite Shelley’s natal Saturn, shining a light on the principle of death, as well as the profound consequences of individual actions. Frankenstein is also a shining (Sun) example of a piece of narrative art that has withstood the test of time (Saturn) and come down to us today as a revered piece of literature: another expression of the Sun-Saturn archetypal complex that brought this book into the world from the pen of Mary Shelley.

To read the complete works of Mary Shelley the kindle edition very inexpensive and available here.

The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

Works Cited

Shelley, Mary. The Original Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. Edited by Charles

E Robinson. New York, NY: Vintage Classics, 2008.

Tarnas, Richard. Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2006.

Tarnas, Richard. Prometheus the Awakener: An Essay on the Archetypal Meaning of the

Planet Uranus. Woodstock, CT: Spring Publications, 1995.

Teacher, Janet Bukovinsky. Women of Words: A Personal Introduction to Thirty-Five

Important Writers. Philadelphia, PA: Courage Books, 1994.


[1] Richard Tarnas, Prometheus the Awakener: An Essay on the Archetypal Meaning of the Planet Uranus, (Woodstock, CT: Spring Publications, 1995).

[2]Mary Shelley, The Original Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, ed. Charles E Robinson (New York, NY: Vintage Classics, 2008).

[3] Shelley, Frankenstein.

[4] Shelley, qtd. in Janet Bukovinsky Teacher, Women of Words: A Personal Introduction to Thirty-Five Important Writers (Philadelphia, PA: Courage Books, 1994), 17.

[5] Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View, (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2006).

[6] Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche, 268.

The Harmonic Nonbeing of Evil: Plotinus’s Neoplatonic Mysticism

If a candle burns alone in the darkness, and the flame and its emanating light are all that exist, whence comes the darkness? If everything that exists is One, and the One is Good, whence comes evil? The paradox of Plotinus’s Neoplatonism is before us, the paradox of how all of existence emanates from the One and yet evil still operates in the world. For Plotinus, is evil real or an illusion? If all is One, is anything real, or is all an illusion? Finally, what is the role of the human being, the human soul—in relation, participation, unity, or differentiation—with the One? And with evil?

Candle Flame

Neoplatonism was born in Rome through the writings and teachings of the Platonic philosopher Plotinus in the year 265 ce. Carrying forward Plato’s philosophy while drawing on 600 years of philosophical, religious, and cultural development in the Mediterranean, Plotinus conceived of a “suprarational mysticism”[1] of the divine, the One without a second, in which the universe is a living continuum, from the inanimate matter of minerals to the luminosity of the gods.[2] The One is all things, yet also it is no thing; in order for the One to generate being, it in itself is not being.[3] The One exists, but it exists outside of being and time.[4] “The One,” writes Richard Tarnas, “also called the Good, in an overflow of sheer perfection produces the ‘other’—the created cosmos in all its variety—in a hierarchical series of gradations moving away from this ontological center to the extreme limits of the possible.”[5] The One is like the flame of a candle and the emanating light is the “other,” the overflowing of utmost perfection. A flame cannot help but emit light, and light cannot emanate without a source. They are inseparable, and yet distinct nonetheless. Jacob Sherman describes the emanation of the many from the One thus: “The doctrine of emanation of Plotinus. . . pictures the many as epiphenomena that proceed from the One but do not remain within the One. . . Plotinus’s One remains unmoved within itself, and the many are distinct from this One.”[6] Although the One radiates all things into being, the One itself cannot be interacted with. The candle flame will burn us, while the light will not: the flame and light are distinguishable, and it is clear that while the flame creates the light, the light does not cause the flame.

As existence emanates from the One it radiates out in hierarchical gradations like the fading brightness of a candle’s light. The brightest, closest to the One, is the Intellect, which then radiates out to Soul. Tarnas writes, “The three ‘hypostases’—One, Intellect, and Soul—are not literal entities but rather spiritual dispositions.”[7] Individual human souls, as well as the World Soul, derive from this hypostasis Soul.[8] Again, there is no ultimate difference between these aspects of the One, but rather a more subtle distinction: the light further from the candle flame is distinctly less bright than the closer but it is the same light.

Contemplating the spiritual distinctions of the One brings into question the reality of the world, and particularly the reality of the individual human soul as individual. According to Plotinus, the human soul contains all the hierarchical stratifications of the One; part of the human soul never left the One, never left the core of the candle flame.[9] Yet Plotinus also speaks of the soul’s descent away from the One, into incarnation, saying, “Those souls which descend deepest show their light furthest down.”[10] What is being illuminated by their light? Once again, whence comes the darkness? Sherman writes,

Plotinus’s emanation cosmology sees the contraction of form as an isolated mass surrounded on both sides by two infinities; form floats upon the surface of the chaotic illimitation of nonbeing, and gazes heavenward to the infinite pleromatic vaults of the One’s ineffable simplicity.[11]

This image portrays a dynamic tension between the One, which is outside of being, and the ‘chaotic illimitation of nonbeing’: what emerges between these two different yet parallel infinities is form, existence. A contradiction seems to exist in Plotinus’s thought, for although the One may not have a second, something else seems to exist in relationship to the One by its very nonexistence. All that emanates from the One Plotinus deems to be Good; thus the evil experienced within the world must either not emanate from the One—and therefore not exist—or, if evil is real, then it must be part of the One. Finally, in paradoxical contrast to these first two possibilities, perhaps evil does exist in such utter contrast to the One it can only be named nonbeing, which is what Sherman’s image seems to present. This third possibility appears to place, in a non-spatial sense, both the nonbeing of evil and the One that generates all things, outside of being itself.

Plotinus seems to hold contradictory views on the subject of evil throughout his writings. At times evil appears to be a presence on the edge of being, at the point when the emanation of the One ceases. At others evil seems to be a tangible part of the One expressed by the material realm. Finally, evil also appears to arise only in relationship: the relationship between soul and body, between spirit and matter, and in the interactions between incarnated individuals. Evil shifts from a noun to a verb; it is not a being but rather an action; there are no evil people, only evil deeds.

The individual soul moves away from the divine Intellect and descends into material reality by turning away from the totality of the One and instead focusing inward upon itself. The soul becomes “a deserter from the totality; its differentiation has severed it; its vision is no longer set in the Intellectual; it is a partial thing, isolated, weak, full of care, intent upon the fragment; severed from the whole; it nestles in one form of being.”[12] By focusing on its own particularity the soul becomes particular, and thus an individual. Plotinus presents this movement of the soul as a fall, but he also affirms it as part of a larger movement “determined by the eternal law of nature.”[13] He goes on to say that “there is no inconsistency or untruth in saying the Soul is sent down by God.”[14] Yet once embodied the soul that exists on the periphery of the One’s emanation can potentially forget its origin, depending how far the soul descends. Plotinus writes, “As long as they have not touched the lowest region of process (the point at which non-being begins) there is nothing to prevent them rising once more.”[15] This image gives the sense that non-being, which has a “point” at which it “begins,” is an actual entity, the infinite chaos beyond the One’s power.

Encountering the knowledge of evil and gaining an understanding of sin will not in itself harm the human soul—if that soul returns quickly to its source.[16] According to some interpretations of Plotinus that evil exists outside the One as nonbeing, while according to others evil is present at the periphery of the One’s emanation in the material world. Tarnas writes,

The material world, existing in time and space and perceptible to the senses, is the level of reality furthest from unitary divinity. As the final limit of creation, it is characterized in negative terms as the realm of multiplicity, restriction, and darkness, as lowest in ontological stature—holding the least degree of real being—and as constituting the principle of evil.[17]

It seems clear from this excerpt that matter, and the principle of evil, are on the periphery of the One’s emanation: they have the ‘least degree of real being’ rather than complete nonbeing. Yet, just as it is difficult to differentiate the exact location at which a candle’s light has completely faded and utter darkness begins, the distinction between the end of being and the beginning of nonbeing may be equally blurred.

Plotinus emphasizes that to be in a body is to be “apt to body-punishment,”[18] and even goes so far as to say, “The soul is evil when it is thoroughly mixed with the body and shares its experiences and has all the same opinions.”[19] To live a divine life as an embodied soul one must have “detachment from all things here below, scorn all earthly pleasures.”[20] Lloyd Gerson elaborates on the point of the evil of matter:

As Plotinus reasons, if anything besides the One is going to exist, then there must be a conclusion of the process of production from the One. The beginning of evil is the act of separation from the One by Intellect, an act which the One itself ultimately causes. The end of the process of production from the One defines a limit, like the end of a river going out from its sources. Beyond the limit is matter or evil. (Emphasis added.)[21]

In Gerson’s interpretation of Plotinus, matter, and therefore evil, are caused by an act of the One. However, Plotinus also indicates in the Enneads that matter is still able to participate in the Good of the One, in seeming contradiction with himself. He writes,

No principle can prevent anything from partaking, to the extent of it own individual receptivity, in the nature of Good. If, therefore, Matter has always existed, that existence is enough to ensure its participation in the being which, according to each receptivity, communicates the supreme Good universally. (Emphasis added.)[22]

I emphasize Plotinus’s repeated point about matter’s individual receptivity because this indicates the limited participation matter is able to have with the Good. In turn, this excerpt of Plotinus can be contrasted with Tarnas’s interpretation of Plotinus’s Neoplatonism, which “portrayed nature as permeated by divinity, a noble expression of the World Soul. Stars and planets, light, plants, even stones possessed a numinous dimension.”[23] This image of numinous nature appears to indicate an intimate participation of matter in the Good, implying that matter itself is not evil.

If matter itself is not evil, but a human soul becomes evil by being in a material body, how can this contradiction be reconciled? Returning to Plotinus’s statement about the soul in the body we can reinterpret his words slightly: ‘The soul is evil when it is thoroughly mixed with the body and shares its experiences and has all the same opinions.’ The body, and matter in general, is only evil when it becomes an object of desire that impedes a soul from returning to its divine source. Matter can only be the goal of desire for beings who are self-conscious and able to choose material desire, specifically human beings. “This is not because body itself is evil,” Gerson writes.

The evil in bodies is the element in them that is not dominated by form. One may be desirous of that form, but in that case what one truly desires is that form’s ultimate intelligible source in Intellect. More typically, attachment to the body represents a desire not for form but a corrupt desire for the non-intelligible or limitless.[24]

Evil then can be interpreted not as an entity—it remains nonbeing—but as existing as an action. Acts of evil, or acts of any kind, take place within the unity of the One because the One is simultaneously a multiplicity. Plotinus writes, “In virtue of the unity the individual is preserved by the All; in virtue of the multiplicity of things having various contacts, difference often brings about mutual hurt; one thing, seeking its own need, is detrimental to another.”[25] He goes on to speak of the action of the entire Cosmos coordinating the beings within it:

The beings thus co-ordinated are not the causes; the cause is the co-ordinating All; at the same time it is not to be thought of as acting upon a material distinct from itself, for there is nothing external to it since it is the cause by actually being all.[26]

From this perspective, any punishments for wrongdoings, for temporary acts of evil, can be seen as medicine for the whole although they are experienced as suffering by the individual part.[27] Furthermore, unmerited suffering, for example from disease or poverty, Plotinus considers accidental consequences of the greater actions of the All, and not as individual punishments.[28]

As the One radiates out from itself, through Intellect, Soul, and on to incarnated materiality, the One’s emanations do not actually come into being until they look back at their source: their moment of contemplation is their moment of becoming. This brings up the question of what might happen if part of the emanation never looked back—would it never come into being? Might this be how evil can be present in the One’s creation? If something never looked back it would not come into being, making it nonbeing, meanwhile it is not a form of nonbeing that enters the One from outside. The monism is kept intact while the action of evil—of not looking back or literally re-specting the One—is accounted for within creation.

The soul’s encounter with evil is a necessity for the soul to be able to contemplate and respect the One. Plotinus writes, “Where the faculty is incapable of knowing without contact, the experience of evil brings the clearer perception of Good.”[29] Matter is only considered evil when it impedes the human soul from returning to the One, yet paradoxically evil also seems to be necessary for the soul to know how to turn back toward the One, toward the Good. Gerson writes, “To deny the necessity of evil is to deny the necessity of the Good.”[30] Evil’s role within the One is to produce a harmony that weaves through the notes of the melody of the Good. It is the self-consciously acting human soul that allows, through its actions, the necessity of evil to play its role in creation. The “negative reality” of evil, writes Tarnas, “plays a necessary role in a larger design, and ultimately affects neither the perfection of the One nor the well-being of the philosopher’s highest self”[31]—the highest aspect of the human soul that always remains with the One. The very perfection of the One seems only to be completed by the dynamic harmony evil provides. The candle flame is brightest, and therefore contingent upon, the very darkness that lets it shines forth.

 

Works Cited

Gerson, Lloyd. “Plotinus.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition). Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Accessed March 13, 2013. <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2012/entries/plotinus/&gt;.

Givens, Terryl L. When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012.

O’Brien, Elmer, ed., The Essential Plotinus. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1981.

Plotinus. Enneads. V.2.1. Translated by A.H. Armstrong. 7 volumes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966-88.

Plotinus. The Heart of Plotinus: The Essential Enneads. Edited by Algis Uzdavinys. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom Inc., 2009.

Sherman, Jacob H. “A Genealogy of Participation.” In The Participatory Turn, edited by Jorge N. Ferrer and Jacob H. Sherman, 81-112. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008.

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.

 


[1]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), 84.

[2] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus: The Essential Enneads, ed. Algis Uzdavinys (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom Inc., 2009), 136-7.

[3] Plotinus, Enneads, V.2.1, trans. A.H. Armstrong, 7 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966-88), 5:59.

[4] Terryl L. Givens, When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012), 76.

[5] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 85.

[6] Jacob H. Sherman, “A Genealogy of Participation,” in The Participatory Turn, ed. Jorge N. Ferrer and Jacob H. Sherman (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008), 96.

[7] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 85.

[8] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 136.

[9] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 137.

[10] Ibid, 139.

[11] Sherman, “A Genealogy of Participation,” 89.

[12] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 163-4.

[13] Ibid, 165.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 146.

[16] Ibid, 165.

[17] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 85.

[18] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 140.

[19] Plotinus, Enneads, I.2.3.

[20] Elmer O’Brien, ed., The Essential Plotinus (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1981), 88 (Enneads VI, 9:9, 11).

[21] Lloyd Gerson, “Plotinus,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, accessed March 13, 2013, <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2012/entries/plotinus/&gt;, section 2, para. 15.

[22] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 166.

[23] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 213.

[24] Gerson, “Plotinus,” section 2, para. 17.

[25] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 151.

[26] Ibid, 152.

[27] Ibid, 157.

[28] Plotinus, Enneads, IV.3.16-17.

[29] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 167.

[30] Gerson, “Plotinus,” section 2, para. 17.

[31] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 85.

Archai Journal: Death, Rebirth, and Revolution: Archetypal Dynamics and Personal Experience

Archai

Journal Publication

I am excited to announce that my essay “An Archetypal Glimpse into Teilhard’s Evolutionary Vision” has been published in the fourth issue of the Archai journal, Death, Rebirth, and Revolution: Archetypal Dynamics and Personal Experience.

The essay is available for free download here.

In this issue, leading figures in the field—including Richard Tarnas, Stanislav Grof, and Rod O’Neal—address topics such as the archetypal dynamics of astrology, personal encounters with the death-rebirth process in holotropic states of consciousness, and schisms and reformations within the Anglican church. This issue also contains an in-depth archetypal analysis of recent world events, including the revolutionary uprisings of the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, and some of the major political, economic, artistic, and technological developments of the 2007–2012 period. Other articles explore the ideas and creative works of figures as diverse as Plato, C. G. Jung, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Leonard Susskind, and Jim Henson.

For further details, please see the table of contents on the Archai website.

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.