Approaches to mythic ecology: facing paradox and meaninglessness through poetry

Here are extended reflections on 2 of the poems in “Haunted Evaporations”.   The first is a reflection on nature and human nature, through the poem “I Will Be Your Amulet: Facing the Paradox of Nature”.  This approaches the nature/human nature question through the speech of the mercurial trickster god Hermes Trismagestus.

The second essay “Facing Meaninglessnes: Approaching the Ivy Covered Theatre” looks at the question of the finding meaning in nature through encountering the spark of life – personified by the god Dionysos who introduces Haunted Evaporations.

These writings have their basis in a movement to legitimise the imaginal, to heal the splits between materialism and the psyche.  You can find my attempt to do this in the essay “Towards a Poetics of Evidence” here


13.5.18 I Will Be Your Amulet: Facing the Paradox of Nature with Trickster.

At the heart of modern life is a wound.  It is an injury so painful that it feels hard to face.  And what makes the situation more inflammatory, more mad making, is that we can’t seem to locate where the wound is.  As we can’t find it, we can’t seem to soothe it, so it sends us more and more crazy with pain.

The backdrop to this situation is riven by contradictions -a digital landscape that offers a glossy vision of life, behind which sits an uncomfortable underworld of overcrowded cities, landfill rubbish dumps, climate change, social inequality, species extinction, industrial farming, abbatoirs,  strip mining, burning fossil fuels.   Yet if I take a walk from my front door to today,  I can soon find myself amongst adonis butterflies on the fecund mounds of chalk downland, under a clear blue sky.  I can drive  thirty mintues to Aldrington woods to find a carpet of bluebells underlying oaks, ash and lime, and people enjoying the dragonflies skimming the woodland ponds.

Is all of this nature? And is it our nature?  How can we be the keepers of the bluebell woods, and the owners of the abbatoirs and fracking stations?

To my mind the level of conflict this situation provokes demands a therapeutic response. In my work as a dramatherapist, I often simplify the therapeutic task to three questions. Firstly –  “Who are you?”  This question involves working out how you feel, think and act, and what your identity is.  Secondly – “what do you want?”  This task involves identifying strengths, awakening desires and finding allies.  The third question? What is it that is stopping you becoming and getting what you truly desire?

This question of the wounding of nature cuts us right in the place of the first question – who are we?  And if how do we find a way through life, it we see ourselves as human beings as part of the destruction of the world we live in?



Two visions of nature

It can seems at times as if there are two completely different visions of nature competing for our belief.  In one vision, nature is wild and unsafe, a  savage place that threatens us.  Here is a kind of “realist” view of nature, of seeing things as they “really are”as nature “red in tooth and claw.”  Nature in this view becomes something that we as a species have transcended through our ingenuity. The story of humanity becomes a story of a long slow march towards civilisation.  This story defends science, evolution and places humanity as the leading edge of conciousness and development on the planet.  Perhaps, this story seems to go, things are bad, but they only seem bad.  There is greater abundance, more people living longer, lifted out of poverty, less violence.  We have become masters of our own destiny as a species and have conquered raw nature. Perhaps  we can adapt our technology to live in harmony with nature.

However, there is an equally strong opposing version of nature.  In this romantic version of nature, nature is a source of abundance, of beauty.  Nature reveals it’s perfect forms, it’s wisdom is beyond human comprehension.  It is something we need to return to, something we have despoiled.  We need to atone for our destructiveness and learn to live with nature, whose bounty overflows, and whose limits we must respect.  We are the disease, and civilisation has polluted a pure nature, it has despoiled the oceans, burned the trees, abused the soil and killed the animals.  Our science is a suspect and reductive mechanisation of processes within nature that industrialise and poison our surroundings.

Both of these visions of nature have something in common; they lead to speculations and fantasies about human nature.   In one human nature is skillful and ingenious and nature hostile and stupid, in the other, there is a reversal, humans are aggressive and evil and nature beautiful and full of goodness.

Understanding human nature

However we view nature, we are always left with one obligation: we must live our own lives.  Our thoughts about nature show us a mirror, and what we see in that mirror depends on what we have projected onto it.  One of the great shadows of the environmental movement is misanthropy, and those of us who are prepared to take on some of the reality of the Earth’s wounding need also to be aware of the effect this has on us, how it activates our own shadow, our own dark thoughts about ourselves.  At a certain level of depth the distinction between “humanity” and “me” collapses.  In order to face the shadows of  “progress” and environemental destruction, we must also face the shadows within ourselves.

Facing the shadow of the Ivy Covered Theatre.

To face the shadow means to embrace a paradox, the paradox is about holding apparently contradictory ideas about nature and human nature. Like many paradoxes, it’s twisting in on itself reflects the twisted knots tangled in our conceptions of our identity and of reality.  When I wrote “Haunted Evaporations” I began the sequence of 12 poems with “The Ivy Covered Theatre”.  This theatre then, stands for the theatre of the dreaming earth.  It is a symbol of  the place where man and nature become reconciled.  It is the theatre of ritual, of Dionysos.  Theatre as we know it in Europe traces back to the Dionysia of the Greeks, the roots of what we recognise as theatre have their origins in the worship of a Green God, who personified the Zoe, or indestructible life force.

The Greeks had two words for Life –  saw the bios or personal life story as stand in relation the impersonal Zoe, which was an impersonal force that drove the cherry blossom, the tides and the harvest.  Dionysos was the personification of the zoe, the indestructible life force.  By participating in his rituals, men and women could touch on this life force, through dance, music and mythic ritual.  We still do this when we go out dancing or let paint flow onto the page, or allow ourselves to shape images through words.

To return to the Ivy Covered Theatre, is something we do when we make art in a way that inspires the zoe to move in us – the forging of images in poetry, music, art or story.  We go there when the art of others touches us ; moved by a poem or transported by a painting, taken into the world of a film, moved to dance.

However, we cannot live in the Ivy Covered theatre, just as we cannot staying dreaming 24 hrs a day.  To do so would be a futile attempt to return to Eden.  Dionysos opens a gateway, but he does not offer guidance as to how to proceed through it.  We may feel that we came to life at a festival,  or a gig or an art exhibition but the dionysian feeling although indestructible is ephmeral.  We need a different guide to find a pathway through life. Paradoxically, the pathway to authenticity involves trickery, illusion and cunning; all the twists and turns we know from storytelling.  The god of this form of guidance would be charming, wise, foolish and inscrutable.  So it is, we come to the god of thieves, travellors, merchants, poets and alchemists  – Hermes, the trickster.cropped-cropped-orpheus-drawing.jpeg

Hermes the Thief

Hermes, we are told, when only a baby, crept from the cave he was born in.  Outside of his home, he did two things; he found and stole his brother Apollo’s cattle, and he killed a tortoise, and turned the shell into a kind of guitar.  When confronted by this brother, he showed him the guitar.  His brother, angry at first eventually laughed at the cheek and ingenuity of the young god, and forgave him in return for the gift of the guitar.

Hermes then, who the greeks called “the most human of the gods” shows us something of human nature.  He is greedy, tricksy and ingenious.  He wants the cattle, he has the imaginative vision to see the guitar in the tortoise, and he finds a way to get off the hook. All deeply human characteristics.  The name Hermes comes from “Herms” which were stones marked at boundaries, perhaps with ancestral spirits to protect them.  So Hermes became the god of travellors, and so businessmen, who by nature must travel, and so theives, as business is always a kind of deception, and also magic, because of the illusions  and hidden actions involved in commerce and storytelling.

But Hermes also had another job; he was guide of souls from this world to the underworld.  He travels not just horizontally, between boundaries in the world, as a merchnat travellor, but vertically, into the depths of the underworld as guide of souls to the lands beyond life.  He is the Psychopomp.   The underworld, as well as being the literal place is also the place the soul journeys to, it is the psyche, the depths hidden within the everyday, the raging fear beneath the calm exterior the mass of images that proceed unbidden when space is given to them.

Hermes, then, acts as a guide between boundaries, between merchant and customer, between storyteller and audience,  between ego and Self,  between the Earth and the Underworld.  Like life itself, Hermes may seem untrustworthy.  Can we trust ourselves to be untrustworthy; to perform, to trade our art, to take advantage of opportunities?  As Jung said, the things that we fail to become concious of in our lives manifest in them as Fate.  If we cannot ever let ourselves be trickster, we cannot find out way through life.  Our blind spots come back to haunt us, our weaknesses and flaws.  Hermes seems to suggest that each crisis is an oppotunity.

The Earth is in pain. The world as-enworlded-by- humans has reached a crisis point.  This crisis is not an illusion, in any conventional sense of the world.  Perhaps though Hermes, who faithfully guides souls to the Underworld, and guides business transactions, can help us to catalyse our woundedness into healing.  His trickery and quicksilver tongue bring us closer to the wound.  He is a trickster and so he knows what it takes to be genuine.  He knows that our lives are fictions, illusions that yet hold the reality of the world.  He knows that we are a part of a world we love, fear and desire. He holds these contradictions together, and offers us a passage through.  For the Alchemists he was the god that guaranteed the whole matter, the whole process of shaping the raw material of life into the Anima Mundi, the soul of the World.  In Haunted Evaporations, when he speaks, he speaks this poem:

I Will Be Your Amulet
(A speech by Hermes Trismagestus:
god of theft, magic, business, language, guide of souls to the
underworld, “the most human of the gods”)

“The path up is the path down…
the way back is the way onward…
black is white and white is black…
the great secret is no secret…

Come closer and I will tell you…
Spend your time on this and that
if you want mankind to be a brotherhood
go out and meet your brothers!

If you want to sit in a room and split
words apart with a knife do this…
Just remember,
when you cross the border,

to give your gold to me
and I will be your Amulet.
For in the coming time
there will be no distinctions

the shades of the dead
know not the colour they are
so live now.

Know your wise heart
your foolish heart,
your cunning heart,
your evil heart

Know them all
that you may give them to me
when you cross the border

and I will be your Amulet.”





2/9/18 Facing Meaninglessness: Entering the Ivy Covered Theatre

In a world stripped of its cosmology all we can see are multiple glossy reflections of ourself projected through a dead mechanical technology.  A world like this is inherantly meaningless; we cannot generate meaning from our own reflection nor revere  machines that can only prolong life, not grant it.   A world so distracted is also politically unstable, it has no means of understanding resentment and transforming intolerance.  It is environmentally unstable, as it has no connection to it’s true origins in nature.

However, hidden within our  lives, we can find hints, mythic fragments that may guide us to an older conception of life, not as something that we own, but as something we participate in, as something we have the opportunity to create.  If this voice were to speak, it might say:

“Seek the indestructible life force you taste in music, art, story, and nature, and in awareness of death. Enter the theatre that connects your own small life to life itself.   In this theatre of transformation,  remember what Rumi meant when he wrote:  “Unfold your own myth”.

Here is one way of approaching a theatre like this, the poem with which I open haunted evaporations:

The Ivy Covered Theatre.
At the corner of north and New St
The theatre looms
quiet as midnight.
Ornate sashes lead to
ebony balconies,
brickwork covered in ivy.
Ivy covers walls, roof tiles, windows,
snakes around the banner that advertises
Waiting for Godot,
its tendrils stretch and burrow
into Lucky’s ripped face.

In front of the empty box office,
black paving slabs
lit silver and green;
dead silence
in the ghosted street.

I walk around the building
where the rotten door swings
on rotten hinges,
push it open and
walk into its darkness,
the atmosphere as thick as a secret,
as heavy as a crown of ivy,
the ghosts of forgotten actors,

the shadowed hulk of the broken stage –


the snaking tendrils of
the green god’s leaves.



Inside the derelict theatre: beyond meaninglessness

This ivy covered theatre is the doorway to Haunted Evaporation.  Haunted Evaporations  began life as a dream fragment,  a voice saying “learn to become a haunted evaporation.”  The dream was accompanied by a feeling of awe, what Jung called numinosity, that strange state of unshakeable reality that accompanies certain dreams or experiences and whose memory abides long after the dream has passed.   The fragment grew into a poem, the poem into a book of 12 poems.  The poems and their mythic fragments act as a source for a piece of immersive theatre, as sparks that light up depth with the mythic fragments that the poems constellate around.  Robert Anton Wilson used to use the image from Bhuddism of a circle of jewels, each reflecting each other.   This is the idea of Haunted Evaporations; there is no foundation as such, but a circle of essays, poems, myths, dreams, theatre that reflect each other, like jewels.

Haunted Evaporations is an invitation to walk into this circle of jewels and watch the reflections come to life.  Meaninglessness is one way of being haunted; the shadow of haunted evaporations, a ghost that won’t speak.  When life lacks meaning and purpose, then something haunts that life, something left unremembered or unsaid, some tragic experience unlamented, some angry word bitten down.  A story untold.

The Ivy Covered Theatre begins in a derelict theatre, over run with ivy and the ghosts of  actors playing out forgotten stories. The ivy has destroyed even the poster for “Waiting for Godot”, Beckett’s masterpiece of meaninglessness and ennui. Beckett’s play captured the meaningless of post war Europe like no other. No grand narratives, perhaps even no narrative at all. Human characters living like King Lear gone mad on the heath for so long that he can remember no other way of living, stripped of dignity and power, comedic in their nakedness. Even the decision about whether to put boots on or not an agonising deliberation of no consequence.

At times it feels as if the characters suggested by modern lives; who we are “supposed to be” were lifted from Beckett, but given better clothes and an array of gadgets. However, if humans are good at anything, it is weaving narratives and finding meaning within this process.

The world and the individuals that live within it face many challenges. Environmental destruction, social inequality in housing and education, the legacy of colonialism. However, unless the central problem of meaningfulness is addressed, no other challenges cannot be faced. Unless a person feels there is a meaning and a purpose to their struggles, how can they muster the strength to engage with them?

In order to answer this question, I propose we get to the source; that we visit the ivy covered theatre. It is a theatre that has been left to decay. As it decays it is reclaimed by Ivy and ghosts. In the ivy and ghosts you will find two unruly forces that govern and shape our lives – the forces of nature and of story. Here you may approach the lost truth that creativity comes not from our minds, or ourselves, but from the same force that brings the blossom to the cherry trees, and ripens the grains, that pulls the tides in and out.

The ancient Greeks had two words for life – “zoe” and “bios”.  “Zoe” means the life as in the indestructible life force – the life that you participate in.  Bios is  your life, the story of your life, your biography.  Your Bios is encapsulated by the Zoe.



Unfold your own myth

At the same time as our world has become industrialised, so our concept of nature has become romanticised. This is fine as far as it goes, but the problem is that this makes nature seem like a picture postcard. It denies the simple truth that even something like breathing reveals – nature is not “out there” it is “right here” in as much as it is also to do with us, in some way is us.  Yet it’s also a kind of madness to say that nature is a “social construction” ; we may fantasise about nature, but it is very real and has a life or lives of its own, it is a networked self regulating biodiverse ecosystem.

We are part of it, as we are part of the zoe.  Our connection to it is our  natural tendency towards autopoeisis, to  generate narratives, and to understand our own life as a story. When poet Rumi  wrote “unfold your own myth” he meant that to unfold your life is to start thinking mythogically, to think of how it connected to deeper patterns of narrative.

We are born into a storied world, told stories about ourselves from the moment we are born. As a mother holds a child she spins a web of stories about him, in which he is the character, first about what he does and who he is. This web of stories, invisible, spins a cocoon around a child; as the skin and skeleton provide structure and shelter to the body and it’s soft organs, so narrative and stories give structure and shelter to the human psyche, which also carries vulnerabilities.

Visit the ivy covered theatre and you will find something that has been split apart come together. That split is a wound, a wound that has separated us from our nature. So this theatre is derelict – it has been built, and is decaying. As it decays, it is reclaimed by non human life, in this case ivy. As it decays, it becomes more alive. Ecologists tell us there is more life in a dead tree than a living one. Dead trees are vital for ecosystems. This defies one strong gradient of our dominant culture – the idea of growth – both in economics and in psychology. What ecology teaches is is that growth of one thing is systemic, is interconnected, and linked to winter and decay as much as spring and growth. In order to be, we have to be able to go down, to descend into the depths of ourselves. To do this, we need myth, because myth is what lies in the depths.


Brighton and Hove-20120818-00584

The Dying and Resurrected God

At the heart of life, there is a struggle. At it’s most basic it is the struggle to survive – for the lungs to keep breathing, for the heart to keep pumping, for the brain to keep thinking. It is a struggle we would perhaps rather not always consider. We depend on oxygen, warmth, food to keep going. In this way we are stitched into the world and it’s processes at a level that can often be uncomfortable to accept. We are bodies whose powers and abilities are limited – we cannot see around corners or even tell what is happening in the next room. We need food and water everyday. Satisfying our hunger means being part of the violence within life – killing animals or plants. Even if we try to find ways to reduce the effect of our hunger, it is an ecological fact that life feeds on life to continue.

Struggle is at the heart of nature, and at the heart of storytelling too. The hero must struggle to achieve his goal overcome conflict. It is a central feature of all stories.
Yet despite this struggle there is an animating force within nature that seems to indestructible – the blossom returns each year, the grain ripens, the seasons change, the moon waxes and wanes. Dylan Thomas called this “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower”.

This green force is just what the Greeks meant by – zoe – the indestructible life force. And the zoe was also personified and given another name – Dionysos. Dionysos was the god of both the passion of the hunter and the panic of the hunted.  His rituals united both these impulses to give his followers a taste of the divinity of the zoe.  He is a sacrificed and resurrected god, and so of the potential for suffering to become transformative.  Dionysos symbolises this indestructible life force, so of fertility, of the loosening of bonds, of divine madness, of union with all things. He was also the god of theatre, so of the act of sharing stories to a deeper purpose.

The Theatre of the Psyche

Theatre as we know it has origins in ancient Greece, around 500BCE yet it’s roots stretch back further into Dionysian rituals, and seem to have prehistoric origins that date back at least as far as Minoan society, 2,600BCE.  Theatre was sacred to Dionysos. Think of the actors job when they take on a role, how they reach empathically towards a different way of being and acting, and draw it within themself, then present it to an audience. This ability to loosen the bonds of identity and reform them again is at the core of not only disciplines like psychotherapy, which seek healing transformation but of Being itself, as being itself is never static but always in flux.

Tradition states that that this chorus was the origin of theatre, that at the roots of theatre, there was no audience or characters, only participation in the ritual. The beginnings of individuation are the emergence of gods from the collective, portrayed by masks. These masks were called “persona”; which meant that from which the sound comes through; and from which we derive the word “person”. The Jungian writer Edward Edinger suggests that the individual psyche emerges from the unconscious in a similar way; that the ego of a child emerges from the golden bliss of its oneness with the maternal psyche and continues to individuate in the same way, continually dipping in and out of this state of togetherness with the Self that it comes from as it matures. The psychoanalyst Winnicott described this process as a lifelong interplay between illusion and disillusion, and as the engine that forms the self.

A theatre is a master metaphor for the mind, as different parts of ourselves, different characters that we can be compete or co-operate to establish our personal narrative. “Drama” means “to act” in Greek.  Yet the action in theatre is not direct, but symbolic. Drama means symbolic action, our thoughts made manifest so that they can be expressed and reflected on by an audience.  This audience may be a real audience, or it might be the part of the self that as Tolle says “Watches the thinker” – the place of reflective self awareness and reflexivity, a place where we might become not only actor, but director and audience.


Personal Suffering and The Anima Mundi


Dionysos is both hunter and hunted, the hardwired passion to kill and the grief at the loss of life, and of being unable to escape. And, strangest of all he holds it all within a dance, within a trance state, within a ritual that unites the god with his consort, the participant with his grief. We have anecdotes of ecstatic dances on the mountains of Crete, 3,000 years ago, of women dancing on mountain Citharon in winter to bring the Spring. Gods don’t die, but their meanings can change. By the time Euripides wrote the Bacchae around 2,500 years ago, the world had shifted, civilisations were growing, the old matriachal mysteries of fertility giving way to ideas of rationality, civilisation, individality.  The Bachae shows a shadow side of Dionysian, it’s potential for savagery and violence if repressed.  Yet, the ancient greeks came to celebrate Dionysos through tragic theatre.  The Bachae itself is a prime example of this, and audience witnesses the suffering and tragic death of a King whose authoritarian tendencies lead to his own self destruction and madness.  Tragic theatre shows us that our own suffering, when connected to myth  might become  a gateway to a deeper whole.

Yet, the Bacchae itself is also a demonstration of something that does not change within the human psyche – the need for a Dionysian experience, of a deep emotional sense that whatever rends us apart connects us to the soul of the world, the anima mundi beloved of alchemists and archetypal psychologists, whose gateway seems built from our grief and joy. This need is still there – like the ivy covered theatre, it lives in stories, in art, at festivals, in experiences of nature. The gods are no more dead than a guitar that has been left in a corner. Yet the song that guitar plays has changed.   If we could give it a voice it might whisper:

“Seek the indestructible life force in music, art, story, and nature.  Find it in awareness of death. Enter the theatre that connects your own life to life itself. In this theatre of transformation, remember  Rumi’s words: “Unfold your own myth”.”