Monday, March 07, 2011

Balancing the Lofty and the Simple

Rod Landreth, over at Jotun's Bane Kindred (and who can't immediately like a kindred with a cool name like that?), has written a kind appraisal of my work here, accompanied by good-hearted critique, as well as more critical attention to elitism amongst the denizens of the academy that is worth reading. It is an honor on my part to hear such high praise, along with good suggestions by someone who is not only a fellow heathen, but an elder (not in the chronological sense, but the spiritual sense)in our community. Good-hearted critique is always worth considering, because it is not only a compliment, but a goad to be better ; moreover, it means that someone actually enjoys your work, and so much, they want it at its best. We must thank those who have such love, particularly in the face of more widespread apathy.

It seems worthwhile to begin with our agreement, which is substantial. I think we are both opposed to elitism, but with slightly different approaches and strategies. One of the things that drives me crazy about Ezra Pound, for example, was his refusal to footnote his work. There seems to be the assumption that you should "just know" whatever random quote he pulled out of the archive and decided to slip into his poetry. Footnoting his work (with the notes in the back) would not have detracted from the work, but would have made it more accessible. Snobbery irritates me. Pound did know a lot, but how does he expect the rest of us to know the material he gleaned pouring through rare archives in Europe? That's silly. I also am irritated by scholars who will include quotations in Greek, Latin, French, or any other language for that matter, and not bother to translate it, assuming that we should "just know".

I also agree that we need to be bold and push forward the development of our living religion, without fear of stepping forward "unless they see three to five references that supports their step." Certainly. Actually, for myself, I often move first with my gut. I get an intuitive feel about a topic, and then, as educators say, engage in backwards planning : once you've figured out your goal, going back and mapping out the steps on how to get there. My high school math teacher emphasized this approach to me. He'd say, "Ziggy, you can know the end answer, but you still have to show the proof on how you got there." It took me a while to understand that, but actually, I think it is an anti-elitist move to provide footnotes and outline steps. I sometimes have some leaps to make, and I want people to be able to retrace my steps so they can check me at each step along the way. It doesn't have to be in the lore for me to speak on it, but I have developed such a broad faith in the resiliency of the lore, even in the fractured, skewed state we have it, that I'm pretty confident that the tradition has some angle on just about anything I might want to speak about. For me, that is a way of speaking not just to a modern audience, which I agree is important, but also including the ancestral audience, which is equally as important. The footnotes are there not out of timidity but out of respect, and frankly, a kind of intellectual necromancy.

By providing readers with the careful steps on how I got somewhere, I avoid the authoritarianism of "Look, just trust my intuition 'cuz I said so." I can show you how I got to where I wanted to go, so if you want to go there, too, you can do so confidently. On the other hand, if you want to go part way, and then veer off and explore other territory, you can do that, too. I can also point out where I went on gut instinct.

The lore is necessary to explore in depth, and it is complicated, which means there's a bit of study to be done. I've done most of that work, and so from my perspective, having gone into arcane medieval documents and translated their Latin (or whatever), and taken the time to synthesize the material, I am already presenting more simplified work. You're getting a lot of already digested material. Do we need to digest it further? Absolutely. But my point here is that the ancients wouldn't have needed to be scholars when it came to lore because they would have had it at their fingertips from an early age. Having the full span of lore before them, they could reflect on it at their leisure. They knew it like adolescents now know Star Wars, like trekkies know Star Trek, like kids know Robin Hood. But because our literature was often religious in tone, the Christians did the best they could to blow all that to smithereens, so that we have hundreds of fragments that require careful puzzle-piecing together, just so we can approach the knowledge any seven year old heathen of ancient days would have had! This is frustrating to all of us, but until we assimilate this matter, we aren't as open to all of the encoded spiritual messages found therein. The lore is meant to unlock all kinds of intuitive reflections and inner locked material. It's often unlocked best on reflection when one is walking out of doors in a natural setting, looking at a sunset, dancing in a rainstorm, struggling with the cold. Then the poignancy of certain episodes suddenly hits one.

It's true that I'm so often enthralled by my visions of the old growth heathenism that I know we can grow and develop into, that I'm a little more neglectful of the pioneer stage of succession that we're at. I believe we need voices at all levels, and it's important to have accessible materials. I will again extend the offer : if there are any articles here that anyone thinks worthwhile, but needing a little simplifying, I would be happy to either initiate or collaborate on a kind of "Cliff Notes" version.

The other point in this regard that I'd like to emphasize is that I really encourage people to ask questions and comment, and I am very happy to answer any and all questions. I am also willing to engage critical debate, and the only comments I will not acknowledge or respond to are those which are openly antagonistic or bigoted. I very much want to encourage dialogue here, and I'm very happy to explain anything I've said here, both prose and poetry.

However, while we need accessible materials -- no questions about that -- it is also true, I believe, that we need something to aspire towards, cultural materials that are not about barring entrance but raising the bar and providing a challenge. Rod speaks of materials that require one "to read, reread, unpack and make copious notes." I think that's ok, so long as there is also other material at more accessible levels as well. We need all levels of challenge. For myself, I cannot assess what levels I may have managed to reach -- perhaps I am bombastic failure -- but that I do reach is something I am proud of. It may be that I fall on my face, but reaching is a noble action, and I would like everyone in their own right to reach.

Despite the fact that our ancestors "were not a literate people", their oral culture could be quite sophisticated. Skaldic poetry, which people delighted in, was sometimes difficult even for well-trained and educated listeners to fully understand. They delighted in its riddling nature and its ability to overwhelm with nuances one often only caught on a third or fourth hearing. Nobility, high ideals, and intricate, elevated, and lofty forms of art are native to our tradition. That doesn't mean they were for everyone. But consider : even common folks came to see Shakespeare. They may not have caught every nuance in the play which more educated folks may have, but they enjoyed the mythic situations, and appreciated the rich imagery, as well as the feeling of elevation that came from being immersed in such diction. It is not elitist to offer people the opportunity to level up. Not all leveling has to be downwards. This religion is based on challenge.

So far as my poetry is concerned (and I don't know if its level or prevalence is of concern to anyone or not), my style is far less baroque than classical skaldic poetry. In fact, I often write in blank verse precisely because it's more accessible than the beautiful alliterative style of our ancestors. There's lofty mythic material here to be told in elegant, powerful ways.

Rod compliments me greatly by flattering me with the label of "Brahmanic". If only I could write such Upanishadic literature! It is my goal to try to create literature, and thus extend lore, to give some solid meat and garnishes for our ample feasts. Brahmanic knowledge was often elitist precisely because it was mostly confined to the caste system ; but I envision the three levels Rig instituted as meritocratic, and thus potentially open to all who have an interest.

However, I never write with the object of trying to impress with big words, and I have always been very critical of people who try to intimidate others with their knowledge, rather than welcome their participation and dialogue. (Being intentionally intimidating, and naturally formidable, are different things. I don't find Patrick Stewart intentionally intimidating, but I do find him naturally formidable, and am appropriately impressed and inspired.) I have a particular style that is native to me, and other styles that I am experimenting with as I strive to develop my craft as a skald. The denseness of some of my writing may be due to wanting to pack so much in and gather every possible nuance. I would love to do this unpacking myself, but I would need reader input on where they would find such unpacking and explanation helpful. "I wish he would ramp down his dense wall of words so more people could access what he has to say." I am open to suggestions!

Rod makes a very good point when he says, "They miss the point entirely of religion, spirituality, faith, and belief, but they are mostly agnostic to all that *anyway.*" This is right on target. Asatru may be the "religion with homework", but it is still a religion, and that involves faith, belief, prayer, cultivation of gnostic experiences, and so forth. In other words, we're supposed to be ambidextrous : faith and reason, intuition and lore, modern and ancestral, precisely because wisdom is the blend of the theoretical and the practical, the intuitive and the logical, the inspired and the studied. The God of Warriors may be one-handed, but he is one God amongst more than a dozen. We needn't be.

Faith, and the struggles that go with faith, are very important to me. I don't know whether it's obvious or not, but from my perspective, I am often leading here with my emotions, with my aspirations, with my passions, and with my desperate wrestlings with reconciling ancient religion and modern dilemmas. It's something we're all struggling with to make it relevant, yet still be faithful to the ancestors.

So ... what would you like to see at Heathen Ranter? What would make the discourse here more accessible? What would make your questions and dialogue feel more welcoming? Chime in.

Would hypertexting help more? I've hypertexted in this blog entry a little more, linking to any terms I think might be arcane in any way.


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