Sunday, August 23, 2009


Certain figures of philosophy, story and poetry in all their glorious forms will return to basic domains of human concern again and again, giving them flesh in semi-human bodies such as the nagual, the shaman, the werewolf, the windigo, the sorcerer, the messiah. Incarnation means “in flesh form.”

Let’s do some sorting. The umbrella that includes ALL these forms is our human ability to think of inhuman or superhuman powers. We all live in societies where there is a continuum of skills and awareness, where some people have more skills and power or even awareness than other people. This is worrisome, because it affects one’s ability to eat -- not just in the practical nutritional sense, but in all the life-sustaining dimensions including healing. When one of these forms with special powers is imagined, they are often anthropocentric, that is, about human concerns.

Some are even institutional, supported and funded, for instance, as a priest or a doctor or -- in a tribe -- a medicine person or herbalist. They are meant to be able to join two realms: that of special knowledge and that of the person needing help.

Because good and evil are human constructs, different in different contexts whether that context is culture-wide or simply an atypical exceptional event, many of these go-between roles are anthropocentric. It is a matter of concern whether the role is an evil one or a benign one -- good for people or bad for people. Because “good” and “bad” when taken beyond simple rule-based morality are often ambiguous or even have unknown ultimate results, the stories about them are meant to help people reflect.

But some of these go-betweens have no concern with good or evil. They are from some other dimension, somewhere beyond human knowledge, and break through unaccountably. In our times the pseudo-scientific beings called “extra-terrestials” come in their flying saucers. Many who interact with them pull them down to human dimensions, often medically which is the only way many ordinary people interact with science. The aliens give them “examinations,” often sexual which is the deepest and most worrisome aspect of medicine for many people.

Today’s sci-fi, like Battlestar Galactica, addresses science in a different way, the relationship between human and machine, especially in terms of robots, who in this storyline are able to get pregnant by humans. We know from experience with animals that this is the test of relationship: can the meiosis that separates chromosome pairs and then rematches them with another set actually form a new creature? (We get nervous when there is mitosis, the simple breaking apart of one creature into two. That’s what plants do, and what scientists do when they clone.) Might we end up with a chimera, something half one animal and half another, half animal and half human: a centaur, a minotaur, a mermaid?

In older times the troubling relationship was between humans and animals. Humans tried to say they were NOT animals, not vulnerable edible meat, but rather something superior whether through mind or soul. Or magic. Or trickiness. BUT it was then possible to conceive of someone who could shape-shift in and out of being an animal or someone like Circe in the Odyssey, who could force people to shape-shift in and out of an animal. Some cultures, like Native Americans, enlist the aid of animals and identify with the qualities of one sort of animal, taking dream guidance from them. These stories are still in the realm of good and evil.

Concern about animal-being gives us the werewolf or possibly the vampire. But these shapes are flesh-eaters, humans who have taken the form of predators. (Strange to think about our love of predators, our sexualization of being consumed.) A little farther out are the windigo (the personification of starvation/predation) and the skin-walker. The only story I’ve ever heard of a windigo turning good was one Joe Bruchac told the junior high in Browning years ago. It was about a loving young mother who fed the windigo enough soup to make it human. A female Messiah whose power of good, defined as nourishment, was able to convert the windigo into a human. Another figure on the “evil” side is the skinwalker.

Do you doubt the reality of the windigo? Consider the case of the bus passenger in Canada who decapitated and ate the man next to him. Consider the cannibal in Great Falls who ate little boys. Consider the recent story of the mother in the paper recently who killed and ate her own baby. There is something in the human brain that can lose the category of “human being” and go entirely outside any human context.

More recent than the tension between human and animal, or human and machine, is between the human per se and the human mind, the struggle to tell “reality” from “illusion” regardless of whether they work anthropocentrically for good or evil. Pogo’s principle, “we have found the enemy and it is us,” is one thing. Now I want to bring up the possibility of parallel universes, the reality of insanity (we do not hold insane people accountable morally in the usual way) and the idea that in the cosmic scheme of things we are just a bit of fuzz on a tiny planet far from the center. This what the crawling baby Krishna reveals when his mother looks into his mouth. Infinity.

Some people have been so endangered in their lives, sometimes beginning in infancy, that they feel they must constantly fight to keep their existence alive, like fighting to keep a flame burning or fighting against a shrinking habitat niche. They are so aware of temporariness and smallness and possibly have seen so many people snuffed by deprivation, starvation, that they yearn to call down the power from that other realm. They may become tricksters in an effort to elude destruction. They do not purposely do good or evil, do not seek power over others, evade all institutions that seek to capture them, and often work as poets rather than scientists, though if a person gets far enough out into deep ecology and theoretical physics, it’s hard to tell poetry from the logic and math. It’s hard to tell madness from insight. It's not about good and evil. It's about being and nonbeing.

1 comment:

Gyasi said...

Mary--Battlestar Galactica, Pogo and Native religion in one fell swoop. I thought I was the only comic book nerd/science fiction nerd/religious nerd out there!!