Circe’s Power: Part 1   Leave a comment

OK, be forewarned … this runs long.  If you’re more in the mood for bon-bons than for jerky, come back later.  This ended up pretty chewy.  It’s also provisional, a lot more tentative than it sounds.  Now I’ve told you, so don’t get cranky with me later.  Here goes …

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In her poem “Circe’s Power,” Louise Glück speaks in the voice of the sorceress who transforms the crew of Odysseus into swine when they arrive on her island.  Even the great war-leader and trickster Odysseus himself would have fallen under her spell, but for a charm the god Hermes gives him.  (“Some people have all the luck,” “the gods favor them,” etc.) So it’s dueling magics at work, divine and mortal enchantments competing for supremacy.  (Sort of feels like life at times.  Like we’re adrift in a hurricane, or trying to build a house on a battlefield.) Circe speaks to Odysseus, to all of us, in a kind of explanation of life seen from the vantage point of magic. Or not.

I never turned anyone into a pig.
Some people are pigs; I make them
look like pigs.
I’m sick of your world
that lets the outside disguise the inside.
Your men weren’t bad men;
undisciplined life
did that to them. As pigs,
under the care of
me and my ladies, they
sweetened right up.
Then I reversed the spell,
showing you my goodness
as well as my power. I saw
we could be happy here,
as men and women are
when their needs are simple. In the same breath,
I foresaw your departure,
your men with my help braving
the crying and pounding sea. You think
a few tears upset me? My friend,
every sorceress is
a pragmatist at heart; nobody sees essence who can’t
face limitation. If I wanted only to hold you
I could hold you prisoner.

Oddly, this poem always cheers me up, with what I take to be its hard realism.  That may sound funny, since part of the time Circe’s talking about magic, and she has a cynic’s view of much of life.  Or maybe a minimalist’s.  How do those two things go together?! But it’s a magic we’re born into, the nature of a world in which the outside does indeed often “disguise the inside.”  Here, almost everything wears a mask.  Even truth hides as illusion, and illusion as truth.  The god of this world, we’re told in the Christian Bible, has the face and name of Liar.  We learn this soon enough, discovering quite young the great power of lying.  It’s a magic of its own, up to a point — a beguiling enchantment.  Some of us never recover.  It’s lies all the way.  But there are other worlds, and other magics as potent, if not more so.  If Circe is “sick of this world,” what can she tell us of others?

Another way of looking at it can come to us in an Emily Dickinson poem.  (What is it with these poets, anyway?!  Liars, magicians, many of them.  Enchant us into the real.)  “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” says the Amherst visionary, and we’re off to the nature of truth seen in a world of illusion:  paradox.  (Maybe truth needs a mask, to exist here at all.)   “The only way out is through,” insists Frost in yet another poem, but in spite of our longing for the Old Straight Path, it’s fallen away from us, and the world is now “bent,” as in the Tolkien mythos.  We can’t get out so easily.

“Success in circuit lies,” Dickinson goes on to say.  In other words, “you can’t get there from here”: the directions are all scrambled, even the best of them.  You travel in a cosmic roundabout and end up somewhere else, not just on a road less traveled, but one apparently never traveled before, until you set foot on it.  Who can help you as you journey there?  No one?  Anyone?  One paradox is that you’re walking the same path everyone else is, too.  Everyone’s having an experience of being on their own.  What we share is what keeps us separate.  Paradox much?  Useful at all?

“Too bright for our infirm Delight/The Truth’s superb surprise,” says Dickinson. OK, so what the hell does that mean?  Well, Circe knows, or seems to.  If every sorceress is indeed a “pragmatist at heart”, then she and all the others who deal in truths and illusions may have something useful to tell us in the end.  Certainly our encounters with truth can have a surprising quality of sudden opening and revelation.  Whether the surprise is “superb” depends in part on you.  But what are we to make of her next assertion?  “Nobody sees essence who can’t face limitation.”   The two negatives “spin your head right round.”  Is it still true if we remove them?  “Everyone sees essence who can face limitation.”

This is without doubt a world of limits, of hard edges, of boundaries we run into all the time, however much we try to ignore them.  Inconvenient truths aren’t the same as illusions.  (We just wish they were.)  Some of the edges cut, some leave scars.  We get away with very little, in the end.  Most of our illusions get stripped away, in this world of illusions.  What’s left?  Emily, Louise, mother-wit, “the sense God gave gravel,” somebody (anybody!), help us out here!!

“As Lightning to the Children eased/With explanation kind/The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind –” Emily concludes.  (Maybe the dash says it all.) Is there any “kindness” in this world of disguises?  Well, if some truth really is, or can be, as potent as the words here suggest, then one kindness is precisely the illusion we complain about.  It’s protection, insulation, a hot-pad between us and the Real, to keep it from scorching our skin, burning our vision.  Mortal eyes cannot behold the infinite.  “No one can see the face of God, and live,”  Moses is told.  Things get scaled down in this world.  The hot turns lukewarm, tepid.  You want scalding?  You were warned.

So what might we take away as a provisional set of guidelines to test and try out, and maybe use, if and when they fit?

1.  Know your worlds.

This ain’t the only one.  Don’t mix ’em, or expect one to work like any of the others.  “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” and all that.  This world in particular revels in concealment.  Spring lies in the lap of winter, and unlikely as it seems, green and warmth will return to this world gone gray and white and cold.  Neither winter nor spring is the whole truth, but each is true in its season.  Time works out truth in a world built of time and space.  “Dazzle gradually,” so you can surprise and startle and reveal intensely … in the end.

2.  Essence and limitation are linked.

“Nobody sees essence who can’t face limitation.”  If we want the truth we seek, and desperately need, and deep-down know already (a particularly maddening truth we reject whenever we can), we find it here in this world, in limits and seeming dead-ends and walls and obstacles and finales.  Death’s a big one.  These are our teachers still, till we’re able to move beyond them.  Really?  That’s the best you can do for us?  Well, got any other world handy? Yes?  Then you know what I mean.  You don’t need this.  No?  Then you’re right where you need to be.  Understand that I’m not speaking from any privileged or superior place.  I know what you know, and vice versa.  Deal.  You’ll notice that I’m here in this right beside you.  As my wife and I remind each other whenever necessary, those too good for this world are adorning another.

3.  Truth ain’t so much obscure or impossible or unavailable or “an empty category,” but it IS often different than we think or want it to be.

We manifest it as we discover it.  We know it when we see it, like pornography or good taste.  Just don’t ask for someone else’s version to guide you, or you’re back to square one.  (As a clue, OK.  As absolute authority over your life?  Don’t even think about it!)

4.  In the end, it’s all Square One.

5.  And that’s a good thing.

6.  To quote The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, “Everything will be all right in the end.  If it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the end.”  Patience is one of the primal and most subtle of magics.

7.  Your version of “all right” will keep changing.

If it hasn’t changed recently, check your brain for clogs.  You may have missed an important message the universe has been trying to tell you.

8. Everything wants to make a gift of itself to you.

The distance between your current reality and that truth is the measure of the Great Work ahead.  This one’s taken me for a couple of l o n g walks indeed.  EverythingGift.  If I resist it, it comes back in an ugly  or terrifying or destructive “un-gift” form.  There are hard gifts.  Each life ends with one.  Still a gift.

9.  Ah, the triple three of nine, a piece of Druid perfection.

The ultimate four-letter word is love.  “A love for all existences,” goes the Druid Prayer.  Get there, and life begins in earnest.  We’ve all been there, briefly.  Time to make it longer than brief.  “Reverse the spell to see the goodness and the power,” to reword Circe only a little.  Still working on these.

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