Mystery and Tragedy
THE TWIN MOTIONS OF RITUAL HEROISM
Literary public lecture-writing is not my cup of tea; it is an occasional temptation, like changing jobs or writing literary essays, to which occasionally I succumb. After "How To Make a Universe" at Hiram College, I fell into that once-a-month habit of reading publicly from my fiction, but I didn't venture another public essay-lecture until this one, four Decembers later.
By then I was in the home stretch of the novel Giles Goat-Boy and about to decide to change jobs, though not professions, after a dozen agreeable years at Penn State. This lecture was first delivered on December 10, 1964, at the State University of New York at Geneseo, in handsome Finger Lakes country, from where I went over to Buffalo to be interviewed for a professorship at the state university center there. It makes plain, for better or worse, some preoccupations of the Goat-Boy novel: preoccupations carried over from The Sot-Weed Factor and on into the goat-boy's successor, Lost in the Funhouse. It was to have been one of a series of guest lectures at Geneseo by writers on writers; for the reason explained in its opening sentence, I prayed for and was granted absolution from the series theme.
The difficulty of this visiting-lecture series for your present visitor is that although I enjoy reading pieces of my own and others' work aloud in public places, I don't know anybody else's works well enough to hold forth upon them except in the privacy of my classroom, and I don't much enjoy analyzing my own. It's sobering enough to see what curious things my novels say to other people; never mind what they say to me.
So I've decided to speak about a topic instead of a particular writer: the ritual of mythic heroism as I understand it, and some relevance of this ritual to two famous general ways of thinking about life and the world. It is a topic I would never essay if I knew very much about it; but fools rush in, and I've banked my soul anyhow on the reality of the Limbus Fatuorum, that apartment in Hell reserved by medieval eschatologists for chaps too invincibly crankish to fit the usual categories. The fact is that the novelist, whose trade is the manufacture of universes, needs ideally to know everything, or he's liable to do an even odder job than God did. On the other hand, he doesn't need to know anything until he needs to know it, and at times it can be important for him to preserve a saving ignorance if he's to get his work done. I shall advert to this matter.
My interest in the pattern of mythical heroic adventure dates from a weekend in 1961, after my novel The Sot-Weed Factor had been published. That weekend, in preparation for a lecture on Virgil's Aenead in an undergraduate course in the humanities, I happened to read Lord Raglan's famous treatise called The Hero (1936). The truth or falsehood of Raglan's thesis -- that myths are not derived from historical facts, but from the dramatic features of traditional rites -- doesn't particularly interest me; but I was interested indeed in the remarkable generalizations he makes, at one point in the book, about the pattern of mythic heroism as it seems to occur in virtually every culture on the planet: a list of twenty-two prerequisites, as it were, for admission into the heroic fraternity. Some of you may be familiar with Raglan's curriculum (if you think there's a connection between this Lord Raglan and the Raglan sleeve, you're right):
1. The hero's mother is a royal virgin;
2. His father is a king and
3. Often a near relative of his mother, but
4. The circumstances of his conception are unusual, and
5. He is also reputed to be the son of a god.
6. At birth an attempt is made on his life, usually by his father or his maternal grandfather, but
7. He is spirited away, and
8. Reared by foster parents in a far country.
9. We are told nothing of his childhood, but
10. On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future kingdom.
11. After a victory over the king and/or a giant, dragon, or wild beast,
12. He marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor, and (at about age 34 or 35)
13. Becomes king.
14. For a time he reigns uneventfully, and
15. Prescribes laws, but
16. He later loses favor with the gods and/or his subjects and
17. Is driven from the throne or city, after which
18. He meets with a mysterious death,
19. Often at the top of a hill.
20. His children, if any, do not succeed him.
21. His body is not buried, but nevertheless
22. He has one or more holy sepulchres.
Raglan proceeds to apply these criteria to mythical heroes, Eastern and Western, and rank them by scores, a fascinating procedure: Oedipus gets an A, with 21 out of 22 (he wasn't a famous legislator, though he did run Thebes); Moses an A- , with 20; Watu Gunung, of Java, checks in with a solid B (18 points); Nyikang of the Upper-Nile Shiluks manages a C- (14 points), and so forth. The temptation to play the game yourself is irresistible; if we allow the criteria to be read more or less metaphorically, Jesus and General MacArthur both come off respectably well, for example. But what struck me was that without my even having registered them for the course, my Sot-Weed Factor hero Ebenezer Cooke and his tutor Henry Burlingame each made fair scores, and taken together (as properly they might be, opposite sides of the same coin) they did almost as well as Oedipus -- there's always one smart fellow in the class who ups the curve. Ironically, the real Ebenezer Cooke might have done even better: No one knows where he's buried, though the Cook's Point estate, his Holy Sepulchre on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, is presently owned and tended by a respectful New Jersey dentist. I made up a grave for my Ebenezer because I wanted to compose his epitaph, and thus inadvertently did him out of a point.
Needless to say, my curiosity was provoked, the more so when a critic remarked that my novel had been influenced by Otto Rank's Myth of the Birth of the Hero. I borrowed that book from the Penn State Library; I peeked into it; sure enough, the critic was right. Well now, I thought, one of two things is true: Either it's very hard to invent any extravagant hero who won't at least metaphorically fit that pattern, or else, without quite knowing it, I had "got aholt of something big," as John Steinbeck's parson says. Too late to go back with Raglan's crib and set Ebenezer up for an A+, but I decided to poke a little further into this hero business while I was making notes for a new story, and perhaps learn a bit more about where I'd been before going on to the next place.
I hadn't poked far before I ran across an even more remarkable actuarial model of heroic adventure, this one the fruit of the synthesizing imagination of Professor Joseph Campbell of Sarah Lawrence College, a mythologist and comparative-religionist who also knows his way around Freud and Jung, the history of philosophy, and philosophies of history. Campbell even draws us a diagram, and when I knitted into it a little Raglan, a little Jung, and a few odds and ends I had up my own sleeve, it came out a fascinating pattern indeed:
Try running Odysseus or Aeneas around this track, or the aforementioned son of Mary and Joseph, or for that matter Lewis Carroll's Alice or D. H. Lawrence's Paul Morel in Sons and Lovers, and you'll appreciate how ubiquitous the pattern is. Much more might be said in the way of detailing and illustrating it; but I commend you to the more learned hands of Raglan, Rank, Jung, Campbell, and company if you're interested (the basic diagram itself comes from Campbell's book The Hero With a Thousand Faces; New York: Bollingen Series XVII, 1949).
Two distinctions ought to be made at this point. The first is between whatever meanings one might attribute to the pattern itself and the significance of its uses, conscious or unconscious, by particular artists in particular works of literature. The myth of Aeneas's descent into Hades may be said to have allegorical correspondences -- a number of them -- but its rendering in Book VI of Virgil's poem is largely religious and political propaganda. The author of "Bre'r Rabbit and the Tarbaby" probably wasn't much interested in mysticism, and while a Zen Buddhist's interest in him would be entirely legitimate, we needn't make an adept out of Joel Chandler Harris. Substantial elements of the Master Plan appear in Dante, Lewis Carroll, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, Steinbeck, Joyce, and heaven knows how many other writers, ancient and modern, some of whom can be supposed to have been aware of using it, some not, and it goes without saying that its particular literary point is likely to be different in every case, perhaps sometimes absent altogether.
As to the significance of the pattern itself, apart from its literary adaptations, a good thing about Campbell is that he seems to keep clear a second distinction, between the kind of meaning conscious symbols have and the kind that myths have. To explain a symbol -- cultural, literary, whatever -- you look for its referent; but you don't explain a myth these days at all, my mythological colleagues tell me: What you do is look for correspondences, merely, between it and other things, and correspondences of course may be manifold, coexistent, and equally "legitimate," though of unequal interest and heuristic value. My point about the general ritual of adventure will be that it doesn't "mean" anything; but it has been held to correspond notably to at least seven things -- a nice mythic number -- six of which I'll merely note in passing and the seventh enter into, like that last door at the end of the passageway which you aren't supposed to open.
The first two correspondences exemplify what could be called the class of "natural" hypotheses, and I gather that they don't cut as much ice with students of myth as they used to: the "solar" hypothesis and the "seasonal" hypothesis. Obviously the westward movement of the hero, his contest with the forces of darkness, and his descent into and resurrection from subterranean realms, as well as the generally cyclic path of his biography, correspond both to the daily apparent motion of the sun and to the succession of the seasons in temperate zones of the earth; this correspondence led some nineteenth-century investigators to maintain that the myths were fanciful primitive accounts of such natural phenomena. It is an extremely complicated way to explain the astronomical facts of life -- a way perhaps more suggestive of nineteenth-century German scholarship than of "primitive" science -- and nowadays, I understand, we're more inclined to go at it the other way around, regarding the daily motion of the sun and the annual sequence of the seasons as metaphors for the myth instead of vice versa. This is a much likelier state of affairs, it seems to me. No one who makes up stories can be much perplexed by the relative paucity of equatorial and polar literature, for example: Aside from the fact that there aren't many readers and writers at the poles and the equator, where on earth will you find your basic metaphors for life and death if the seasons don't change? The myth and the natural facts are surely analogous (isomorphic is the fashionable term) and throw reciprocal metaphorical light on each other; no need to see one as symbol and the other as referent.
A second class of correspondences can be called experiential. I'll mention three; very likely there are others, and very likely too each has been argued to be the "explanation" of the ritual of adventure. But let's ignore from now on the empirical question of what the originators of the myths may in fact have consciously intended them to express; except as a historical datum, that question doesn't seem especially important, and to take it too seriously may be a large-scale equivalent of the Intentional Fallacy in art criticism. The fact is that the Diurnal, Maturational, and Psychoanalytic "hypotheses" aren't mutually exclusive, once we stop regarding them as hypotheses and think of them as correspondences -- isomorphies -- instead. They have in common their view of the heroic pattern as a dramatic emblem of ordinary human experience.
Thus, to take the first of them, what happens to the hero in his lifetime figures the daily adventure of all our psychic lives. Our rational consciousness cognizes, in common with other people's rational consciousnesses, the sunlit, rigid, discrete forms of waking experience. In the individual subconscious these forms become, as in dreaming, self-luminous and fluid: We "wake" from the "unreality" of our conscious perceptions to dream through the twilit imagings of subconsciousness toward the province of deep, dreamless sleep -- the place of dark, formless, unconscious, immediate knowledge. Day, twilight, night; consciousness, subconsciousness, unconsciousness; waking, dreaming, sleeping deeply; cognition, assimilation, immediate knowledge; being, becoming, not-being; life, half-life, death; discrete form, fluid form, formlessness -- there are lots of ways to slice it. In each case, the geography is the geography of the psyche, and the adventure is our daily round.
The maturational and the psychoanalytic or individuational hypotheses compare to the diurnal somewhat as the seasonal hypothesis to the solar. Whether or not, as Raglan claims, the myths literally originate from the dramatic ceremonies of the rites of passage -- circumcision, Bar Mitzvah, marriage, funeral, what have you -- the pattern certainly does exemplify in heroic scale the passage itself, from any number of viewpoints. We're all God's children, speaking literally or figuratively. Our mommies and daddies are all kings and queens whom we shall have to displace, and our conceptions were extraordinary because they engendered the uniqueness of each of us. We all bear the scars of infant traumas. What kid hasn't suspected, or hoped, that his parents might be really the President and First Lady instead of that impossible couple downstairs minding the store? And of course, whether in professional psychoanalysis or the normal process of maturation and self-discovery, we all must come to terms with sibling, "shadow," alter ego; undergo the ordeals and humiliations of adolescence, lose our innocence, prove our manhood or womanhood, slough off the vestments of our former or egoistic selves; rebel, question, despair, and drive to the best of our capacity down to the bottom of the womb of things; discover there our deepest identity, perhaps by losing it in another. We make final terms with father, self, past time, and the world: the alignment that must carry us through the years of our maturity. We found our little dynasties, do our little work, pass our climacterics, and become ourselves the ogres whom our children must depose. Then naked we return whence naked we came, to the bosom of God or of nothingness -- and what can any man tell his children, finally, or leave behind for them? Et cetera -- you get the idea, and can work out your own details with appropriate rhetoric: Christian, Freudian, Jungian, what you will. It may be questionable practice in literature classes, but in civilian life a very great many of us find the most intense relevance of Homer's Odyssey, for example, in our own prolonged endeavor to get Back Home.
The third class of correspondences is philosophical. According to the cosmogony of many cultures, the primal void originally gave rise to space, and space to life (in the form of "uncreated creators," those androgynous protodeities); life gives rise to polarity, and polarity to profusion (as the sexual Olympians, or other "created creators," give rise to giants and heroes and ultimately to men). This proliferation is followed, or will be, by decadence and deterioration: Nation eventually destroys nation, kin takes arms against kin, and the whole show culminates in a splendid Götterdämmerung, the gods expiring and the universe relapsing cataclysmically into nothingness -- whence it may or may not in time regenerate, depending on what paper you take. The mythic hero who operates in this sort of cosmology may be thought of as backtracking through the history of creation, reversing as it were the first law of embryology; the hero-work consists in going to the source as well as to the bottom of things, playing the tape of time backwards in order to acquire the means -- the literal or symbolical equipage -- to carry history and/or the culture forward. This interpretation is more interesting and pertinent than I have time enough to make it appear; again I refer you to Campbell and company if you're curious. I shall remark, though, that the Cosmogonic hypothesis, too, seems to me to lend itself to experiential correspondence, in this case to the lives not of the commonalty but of the intellectual, spiritual, and artistic elite: the masters in any field who drive to the origins and first principles of their discipline in order to turn it around a corner -- often, in the case of visionaries and others with deep vocation, at great personal cost.
Stripping the Cosmogonic hypothesis in this way of its grand chronology and its metaphorical personages, we come near to the Mystical interpretation of the hero-work, and the point of this lecture. It was here, I ought to add, that I stopped researching, in order not to overburden imagination with information. My notes for a new novel had by this time got copious, almost out of hand, and so inextricably mixed up with certain possibilities of the hero business that it was necessary, like Gustave Aschenbach in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, to turn my back on knowledge lest it paralyze action. The storyteller's stock in trade, after all, is fabrications, not facts, and though he may require a few seeds of truth from which to sprout his lies, there's nothing in his contract obliging him to spill those beans, and too many of them will only clutter up his plot.
Any variety of unitive mysticism would serve to illustrate this last interpretation of the hero pattern and lead us to the relationship between mystery and tragedy. Since we Westerners perceive mysticism as a characteristically Eastern reaction to the world, I'll use Buddhist terminology -- and compare it by the way with Plato's famous metaphysical myth in The Republic for the sake of his interesting inversion of the usual metaphors.
The Buddhist term for things as we commonly perceive them is samsara: the world of birth and death. Through the Veil of Maya (the screen of conscious analytical perception), we see reality as differentiated into this and that: the polar contradictions of male and female, subject and object, life and death, space and time, truth and falsehood, being and not-being -- in short, the problematical daylight realm from which the hero sets out, and to which he returns. In analogous but obverse wise, Plato figures the common consciousness as chained in a dark cave, and compares our normal perceptions of reality to shadows projected from outside onto the cave's back wall. The mystic then is like the hero: Summoned by whatever voice, he comes to grips with the contradictions and self-defeating nature of differentiated reality (in the case of the Buddhists) or material reality (in the case of the Platonists); he leaves analytical consciousness behind him like Bre'r Rabbit's clothes on the Tarbaby, and after the very trying -- and in the case of young Zen novices, often humiliating -- ordeals of logical binds, despair, riddling koans, insults to "common sense," perhaps even physical mortifications, he is if he is fortunate vouchsafed a satori -- an enlightenment as to the "true" (which is to say, undifferentiated) nature of reality: prajna. He sees that seamless nature knows nothing of the concepts and distinctions by which the "waking" consciousness apprehends her; that, in the paradoxical language of the mystics, I and thou, male and female, subject and object, good and evil, self and Buddha-self, are all aspects of the same thing, of the One. Thus the paradoxical metaphors of rebirth in death, enlightenment in darkness, associated with the hero's arrival at the Axis Mundi: They become symbols of the mystical transcension of category.
Up to a point, Plato's allegory of the cave proceeds similarly, though with the symbols always reversed. The philosopher-king is the man who ventures out of the cave (by means of a ladder of abstraction and generalization which he may borrow from The Symposium): He ascends from the apprehension of beauty, for example, in a particular material thing to its apprehension in classes of material things and then in classes of nonmaterial things and abstractions, until -- but only if he is of the elect -- he transcends the cave altogether and with his mind's eye looks on Beauty Bare and the other Platonic Ideas, which in turn derive their reality from the Form of the Good, just as the objects whose shadows are cast into the cave derive their luminosity from a single sun.
Obviously there are differences between pure mysticism and Plato's logical realism. For one thing, the mystics don't leave material reality behind; they merely transcend its categories to see it in a different way. For another, they press their supralogical logic further: Plato maintains such distinctions as perceiver and perceived, objects and essences, and, presumably, the Form of the Good and the Form of the Bad; but your out-and-out mystic, when he arrives at the Axis Mundi, transcends among the other polarities the differentiation between Differentiated Reality and Undifferentiated Reality. He understands (that's a falsification, of course, since he is not then different from his understanding or the thing his understanding is of) that nirvana and samsara are not different (though not the same either, it must go without saying) and therefore that the undifference of things, the realization whereof constitutes his enlightenment, makes no difference, strictly speaking, though at the same time of course it makes all the difference in the world, exactly.
William James lists the four famous hallmarks of this experience in his chapter on mysticism in The Varieties of Religious Experience; we'll see that they apply equally to the hero at the Axis Mundi, the mystic united with the All, and the philosopher-king outside the cave.
1. Passivity. The hero may slay dragons and answer riddles, but his reward comes giftlike. "And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? Come to my arms, my Beamish boy!" The Zens in particular insist that Truth is like those dim stars that can be seen only when you stop looking straight at them, and Diotima warns Socrates that only the elect may ascend to that top rung of the ladder, where logic ends and mystery commences. To be a saint takes more than mere effort and ambition: "Many a one," Kafka tells us in "The Country Doctor," "proffers his side and can scarcely hear the ax in the forest, far less that it is coming nearer to him" to give him the Christ-like wound he yearns for.
2. Noumenality. The hero, the mystic, and the philosopher-king no longer believe; they know. After his interlude with Dido and his descent into Hades, Aeneas is never again diverted or detained from his destiny.
3. Transience. Alas, the trouble with transports, visions, and other ecstasies is that they end -- in half an hour or so, William James remarks, perhaps optimistically. The messenger summons the hero back from his honeymoon to run the store; karuna or some such thing fetches the Boddhisatva back into samsara, full of compassionate detachment; civic responsibility leads the philosopher-king, with tears in his eyes, back to his fellow men in the cave of shadows.
4. Ineffability, the unhappiest quality of the mystical experience. Odysseus is the king, but he looks like the pig-man; there are jewels stitched up in Marco Polo's hems, but he's ragged as a tramp. The mystic One can't be described, because language is analytical. It can't be drawn, because it has no attributes: Very Beauty is not like any beautiful thing. So they all come back and do their best, and their best can never quite work out: A pox will come upon Thebes; the disciples will misconstrue the master's gospel; even the model republic, Plato acknowledges, must ultimately degenerate and fall. And at last the philosopher-king retires, with emeritus rank, to publish before he perishes; depending upon how seriously you take Plato's Myth of Er, he may or may not be reincarnated to recommence the cycle. The Buddha, likewise, under his Bo tree at the end of his ministry, and the hero on his foreordained exurban hilltop, prefigure the winding down of the cosmos.
Let's leave the diagram for a minute to review the contrast between mysticism -- the most profound and characteristic Eastern reaction to the human condition -- and tragicism, or the tragic view, which I regard as the noblest Western reaction to the same state of affairs, though perhaps not the most characteristic or popular. Confronted with the proposition "I am dying of cancer," for example, your mysterious East might address its energies to the syntax: Death, self, and cancer are all transcendable concepts imposed arbitrarily upon reality by the Veil of Maya and the nature of language; anyhow, if I'm dying of cancer, then cancer is living of me: Sub specie aeternitatis, what the hell. Your Westerner more typically will attack the cancer with one hand and the finality of the verb with the other: If I'm dying of cancer, then we'd better find a cure for the damned thing fast -- that there is a cure somewhere, there can of course be no doubt -- but if we find it too late, it'll be only this particular Package that I leave behind anyhow; the Goods will get through Customs intact to Beulah Land.
But the tragic response to this proposition, and to the human situation in general, is different from all of these. It's notable that while the Greek philosophers, various as they were, pretty much agreed that Truth is a fine thing to have, and made up future university mottoes like Know thyself and The unexamined life is not worth living, the Greek tragic poets -- Sophocles especially -- had a quite different opinion. Imagine what King Oedipus at Colonus would say to those mottoes! The postulates of the tragic view of life, as I understand it, are principally four, and constitute a kind of existentialist reading of Sophocles:
1. The world is morally ambiguous and brutally compensatory. Virtues have their vices, and conversely: If you want this, you've got to take that; the pans remain more or less balanced, but always ultimately for the worse. Readers who say "If only Oedipus hadn't been so rash" are like people who wish their children to be high-spirited but not troublesome. If Oedipus hadn't rashly insisted on knowing who he was, he wouldn't have been who he was.
2. Consequently, there are only different ways to lose; no "victories," in the sentimental sense, are possible. Greatness is punished; mediocrity is not rewarded. You can "not go gently to that last goodnight," or you can go gently: Either way you go, and it is goodnight. Oedipus's choice, if he had any, was to take it on the chin in Thebes or in the back in Corinth, where presumably his fate would have sought him out: in other words, to be a tragic hero or a member of the chorus. Endowed with his temperament, he hadn't really any option. The pity and terror in our response to the tragic hero's fall, then, come not from our feeling "There but for the grace of Zeus go I," but, more grimly, "There but for my petty-spiritedness go I."
3. The self is not transcendable. The tragic view imagines no dualism of ego-self and Buddha-self, or corruptible body and immortal soul, but only the ambivalence of a self whose noblest assertions of its individual dignity against the non- or suprahuman are precisely what bring it to catastrophe. King Oedipus's hubris is antimystical: It is Aristotelian rationality inspired by the moral virtue of megalopsychia, "great-souledness" -- but operating in a Sophoclean rather than an Aristotelian universe.
4. Therefore the human condition is essentially ironic and technically absurd. Understanding "Fate" and "the Gods" simply as Sophoclean metaphors for The Way Things Are, there's no lesson in Oedipus's suffering except the metaphysical one; no divine meaning or plan (as it's argued there is in Job's), only a meaningless Olympian plot. For the tragic hero there's no redemption, only understanding; no joyous affirmation, only dignified acceptance of suffering. The tragical universe is nihilistic in the sense that this suffering doesn't "add up": Nobody's keeping score upstairs against ultimate redress; there's no discernible justice, only an awful compensation. Those who say of Oedipus, after the catastrophe, "But at least he knows himself now, and is ready for the condition of prophethood" -- as if to say Truth is expensive, sure, but so are Rolls-Royces; you gotta pay for class -- are being sentimental: Oedipus certainly doesn't feel that way; neither does the chorus, and neither does Sophocles. Yet the alternative, of course -- persisting in ignorance of the awful truth -- is equally unacceptable (though it's touching that Jocasta at one point seems willing to give it a try; there's a mother for you). "Affirmation of the human spirit. . ." all very well, as long as it's clearly understood that the affirmation doesn't get you anywhere: It is meaningless beyond itself, and people outside the drama too readily get sentimental about its terminal value. Be it repeated: On the tragic view there is not any way to win; there are only more or less noble and spectacular ways to go down.
The effect, however, of the tragic dénouement is certainly different from that of Sartre's Nausea or Camus's The Stranger, for example, and the source of the difference -- aside from the relative powers of poetry and prose -- I believe to be less in the respective theaters of action than in the natures of the actors. Specifically, it is that quality of megalopsychia, other things being approximately equal, that makes the difference between Angst and catharsis through pity and terror. But megalopsychia is a heroic attribute, precisely -- and so we come back to our diagram. (It is also, by the way, not a quality one ups and decides to have; Aristotle makes more sense to me than Sartre on the matter of moral dispositions.)
The myth of Oedipus involves the entire cycle, as Raglan demonstrates; the Tragedy of Oedipus the King involves only the last quadrant. But elements of the tragic situation as I've outlined it run through the whole second half of the pattern, beginning with the hero's summons to return; the tragic irony is in our foreknowledge (and/or the hero's, depending on the story) of the ultimate futility of his "reign," and of his destined end. It is an insight which, if the hero has it, he acquires exactly at the Axis Mundi, as a feature of his general illumination. The hero voyages westward, but it's the East he reaches, as Magellan did: the realm of selflessness and mystical transcension. The truly Westward motion, at least potentially, is the long voyage home to the country of waking consciousness: of the analytical, reasoning self bound by the paradoxes of its necessary concepts and doomed to misunderstanding, failure of its enterprises, and, in a sense, self-destruction. Literarily, to date, these have been very different voyages, because of the contradictions between the mystical and the tragical cosmoi: There is nothing tragic in the Divina Commedia or the Aenead (though in the Dido story Virgil comes so teasingly close to the tragic view of Herohood that you can almost feel his relief when he gets Aeneas out of Dido's Carthage and back to epical slam-bangery), and there's no mystery in Oedipus the King, that quintessential Western drama. East has so far been East; West West.
But, as the mythic model demonstrates, it is one voyage after all, and its philosophical hemispheres impinge at two interesting places. One is down there at the Axis Mundi, where, as Odysseus tells his shipmates, "East and West mean nothing" -- nor does any other distinction, including the one between mystery and tragedy. The bottom of things -- difficult enough to get to, much more so to return from, in any age -- seems to me a place worth the closest attention of any author or civilian concerned with the possibility of rapprochement between the two profoundest motions of the human spirit. The other conjunction is up there at the end of the road, in that dark hilltop grove where even Sophocles, as he drew near it in Oedipus at Colonus, could imagine or hope that mystery might begin where tragedy ends.
That latter is a place I leave to ninety-year-old playwrights and people with inside information not vouchsafed to me. But even a thirty-four-year-old concocter of comic novels (going on thirty-five) might have a word to say, or to try in vain to say, about that Axis Mundi place -- once he has left there, and if he can find the other half of his round-trip ticket.