The Return of Ulysses:
Two Myths, One Homecoming
7/8/2003 Presentation at the Pacifica Graduate Institute
It pleases me that the Fates have decreed that my presentation go last, here near the end of my own Odyssey and two days after my fortieth birthday.
I wish to read you the lines that begin Dante’s Divine Comedy because they convey my mood upon admission into the Depth Program three years ago:
In the middle of the journey of our life
I came to my senses in a dark forest,
For I had lost the straight path.
For me the “straight path” included the desire to do therapy or work under the psychology industry, for I could no longer follow the rulebooks and had learned from my clients that goals like health or functionality were less meaningful than vitality or fulfillment. Jung said that goodness could be less important than wholeness; to this I would add that wholeness may be less important than what the Greeks called eudaimonia: living in accord with “that self which one most truly is,” the promptings--however misguided or unhealthy they seem at the time--that emanate from the depths of the soul. Given the choice, I’ve tended to prefer Valhalla to Nirvana, although I like to think there’s ample room for both in a life.
This I knew, but I did not know, thankfully, of the other losses to come: transportation, employment, residence, relationship; nor did I know how the myths we do not hear we tend to live unknowingly, playing the roles of bygone characters like actors hustled in off the street and blindfolded. I did not know that being born under a full moon and declared dead at birth--of heart failure no less--by a wanderer mother whose name was Lorna moved within the folklore that permeates my homeland. I didn’t know that in a deeply mythic way, I came in as much the son of La Llorona as Steinbeck was Lancelot and Freud was Oedipus. Nor did I realize yet that history, place, and social conditions and myths mirror one another: witness how weeping Llorona followed the conquistadors into Alta California.
Whether self-centered or Self-centered, psychology has failed to caution us that if figures in dreams and stories can be personifications of the places we inhabit--in my case the Mission counties I’ve been living in--they might not be what they seem. They transgress the borders of our theories, and they unweave the traditionally Christianistic metaphysic in which places are nonliving backdrops to human revelation. By invading my researches and even my dreams, Llorona taught me about this, she who is the figure of transgression as well as the patron saint of the locianalytic method, the “psychoanalysis of place” I invented to tend the local presence of the anima loci.
By doing all this she gave me something else as well. In most versions of the Llorona tale, she drowns her child or children. Although reports of my own death have been greatly exaggerated, Llorona’s imaginal complicity--obviously none of this is about the personal mother except insofar as she stood in for the mythic one--in my own birth, “drowning,” and “resurrection” has opened within me the auditory equivalent of what Chris Downing calls soul sight: a knack for hearing in the dark, one might say, for listening in on the local themes and underground voices pushed to the edges of place by a mainstream culture infatuated with ego, entertainment, consumption, and domination. As a result, I have lost the distinction between what we do to the land, or each other, and what we do to psyche. A single voice cannot be silenced without all of us suffering the consequences.
This was not all, however, for when I moved back to San Diego and was putting away my books, one of them fell on my head--a paperback, fortunately, or it might have knocked some sense into me. I picked it up and looked at it. Homer’s Odyssey.
Of course. The one-eyed maternal grandfather: the ogre of my birth family, a man who’d blinded himself by accident in his workshop and who upon meeting me asked what he should call me. My travels all over coastal California, place to place, never quite feeling at home. The cannibals of the corporate world; the men I struggled to awaken in group. The Circes and Calypsos in my relationships; the dream where I kicked the suitors out of my house. Living for a time with a woman in a place called Capri, home of the Sirens. My journeys to that underworld known as the unconscious. And now Pacificans as the friendly Phaeacians inviting the undomesticated wanderer to tell his tale.
If my birth and adulthood host the intersection of two myths, those of Llorona and Ulysses, we might wonder whether the latter fits the criterion for myth as a cultural wisdom-tale anonymously handed down. After all, we know the author: the blind poet Homer, who lived during the eighth century in Ionia. In truth we know only one author, however. The blinding of the Cyclops is found in countries without Greek influence; Circe appears in India; the Hades descent is told by South Sea Islanders; and the return of a far-traveled warrior to a wife who fails to recognize him is found worldwide.
Myths of course are the local dream-seas in which these archetypes swim. As for Llorona, versions of the Weeping Woman appear all over the world: the Aztec Coatlicue and Cihuacoatl, the Sirens, Lamia, and Medea, even Rachel and Lilith. In Africa she is the Crying Wind in search of her scattered ones, and in Ireland the cloaked and red-eyed banshee. In the Philippines the White Woman stirs amidst the fog; in the Arthurian tales of England she was called the Lady of the Lake. Where her energies are welcomed, she can speak to good effect--as in Argentina, where the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo cry out in public for the disappeared. Ignored, she can turn violent, like Andrea Yates and Susan Smith.
As the Llorona tale came out of subjugated Mexico and California, so Ulysses sailed forth against a background of conquest. The Trojan War was fought around 1200 BCE, with Troy destroyed by mainland Myceneans just before Dorian invaders ended the non-military Minoan period of high culture (1100 BCE) that had radiated forth from Crete. The resulting Greek Dark Ages stretched into 743 BCE, the approximate date when Homer composed the Odyssey. The polis was just emerging, achieving final form around the fifth century, after which empires founded by Alexander's successors came to overshadow politics.
In a land of uprooting and conquest, therefore, the tale was told of a humbled ex-fighter returning to his island, his place.
Sing in me, O Muse, and through me tell the story of that many-sided man who wandered far and wide after sacking the hallowed heights of Troy. Many were the cities he saw and the minds he learned from; and many the sorrows he suffered, heartsick on the open sea, fighting to save his life and to bring his men back home.
If place appears personified in this tale, it is Athena as Greece, or perhaps even as Ithaca. Ulysses’ world even knew an island named Kefalonia off the west coast.
Queen Earth, all bounteous giver of honey-hearted wealth, how kindly, it seems, you are to some, and how intractable and rough for those with whom you are angry. -- Homer
Were it enough to be a player in one great mythic story, or even two, chess pieces would suffice. We could absolve ourselves from all responsibility: the daimon made me do it. I think of this as an Ahab complex, for it was he who railed at the gods over how his own sufferings were “but the stamp of sorrow in the signers.” What he did not know is that while the divine forces that animate us don’t mind highwaymen or mystics or dramatists or lunatics, they don’t like excuse-makers and will not tolerate cowards. The play’s the thing, and how can it be creatively elaborated into a meaningful spectacle if all our play is passive, or if we refuse the challenge of the role before us? (We should have learned from Freud that if we leave a scene prematurely, the scene comes with us.)
To discuss the ethical dimension of the play of stories and places I would first draw your attention to where the two myths intersect in the Odyssey. Why there? Because they don’t intersect in the Llorona tragedy, where the only man present runs away, abandoning the scene and the woman. In my life--and this is key--the tale of Ulysses seems to be a response to the tale of Llorona: one myth answering another in a way that recasts both.
Having taken losses, bewildered Ulysses visits the underworld for advice. He is approached by many ghosts, one of whom is his weeping mother. His first response is heroic in the puerile sense: he wants to bring her back to the upperworld (where there was Llorona, there shall ego be), something Hercules, Orpheus, and others had attempted. Unlike them, however, he listens when she sadly informs him that she cannot be saved by him, not ever.
He then makes a remarkable suggestion: he offers to remain in the underworld with her, to keep her company. To my knowledge no one else in Greek literature makes such an offer.
“You must crave the daylight soon,” she replies. “Remember all strange things seen here, to tell your lady in later days.” At that precise moment, there in the twilit confluence of the two stories, the warrior and former breaker of cities changes into a storyteller. And as a result of this he gains soul hearing: the power to receive and remember the tales of the enshadowed, tales they have entrusted him to memorialize and repeat with reverence when he finally resurfaces. Because he has heard, these tales, these ghostly voices, now live in him.
And he accepts this. He doesn’t attempt to get out of his fate or pretend it doesn’t address him. Rather than try to leave the stage, he makes his own contributions to the drama. Psyche is story, a holy story, embedded with images and archetypal themes. To the mythic eye, even an illumined display of neural nets is a many-tiered assembly of seraphs.
So the personal, cultural, archetypal, historical, and psychological layers of these intertwining myths require another layer: the ethical (from the Greek ethikos: character, whereas “moral” is from the word for “custom”). What Lionel Corbett calls “archetypal authorization” has fallen on the shoulders of Ulysses, now a teller of silenced tales: he is responsible, not for the fate of human subordinates, but for passing on what he has learned. In return for what he’s been given, he has a new kind of duty (from the Old French “due”): namely, the depth psychologist’s:
- To be a living repository for spectral voices, a speaking memorial to unlived lives.
- To host discussion (meeting, not preaching) about the interrelatedness of myth, place, history, symptom, daimon. If psyche is story, our lives are stages for plays filled with divine consummation and tragedy.
- To bear witness to the voice of place in our tales, dreams, and pathologies.
- To illuminate compulsive repetitions, social and political, that displace people and places and ultimately possess and destroy the displacers as well.
- To foster what only Karen Horney had the nerve to suggest as a therapeutic goal: not wholeness but wholeheartedness, a capacity for giving your all after hearing the sound of the world through that ear in the chest, where introversion pulses into extraversion and back again in a heartbeat.
- To do all these things outside the classrooms and consulting rooms, heading even into the streets, where Alfred Adler died at his post one fine day of a worn-out heart. A splendid way to go.
I wish to end by giving you the words of Mary Austin, perhaps California’s most under-appreciated writer. I wish she could have lived long enough for me to ask her whether she still felt, as she had early on, a supposedly archetypal sense of orphanage. In any case I have ceased to feel it myself. My present “true” home is neither Heaven nor the imaginal, although we doubtless come from and return to one or the other. My home right now is here, upon this good ground--the “Earth Horizon”--whose urgent voice pursued me down the decades until I learned to hear, in my heart instead of through my conflicts, how intimately it addressed me, seeking a response not historically or mythically extracted but freely given in duty and love.
I have not been entirely happy in my adjustments. I have suffered in my life, in my means, in my reciprocal relations; but I have this pride and congratulation, that I have not missed the significance of the spectacle I have been privileged to witness....I have known, to some extent, what the Earth Horizon has been thinking about.
West of the West