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"Seven Classics"

Background Reading for Metahistory
(since 1900)

The Metahistory site contains three sections with reviews of books recommended for reading and research:

Basic Reading, consisting of 16 books chosen for their value in general orientation to Metahistory.

The Arch of Metahistory introduces the five primary themes of our discourse: Sacred Nature, Eternal Conflict, Origins, Moral Design, Technology. For each theme, three books are recommended and briefly reviewed, making a total of 15 books.

Additional to these 31 books are the "Seven Classics" suggested for reading relative to the origins and precedents of metahistory. Reviews of the Classics are longer than those found in the other sections, because the commentaries on these books are meant to amplify and extend points raised in the long essay, Background to Metahistory.

The classics are listed in order of date of publication. As with all books cited in Metahistory.org, specifics on publisher, year and edition cited are given in the Bibliography.


The Seven Classics

The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer: 1900

Developed from a series of articles begun in 1885, originally published in two volumes in 1890, and expanded to twelve volumes by 1900, The Golden Bough is best known through the two-volume abridgement of 1922. It stands as a literary masterpiece as well as "the fountainhead" of many, many subsequent inventories and studies. (Doty, 169)

Harking back to Herotodus, Frazer begins with a treatment of the Heroic Quest figured in Aeneas, the Trojan warrior celebrated as the founder of Latium (prehistoric Rome). His opening description of the secret grove dedicated to the Goddess Diana is so captivating that it has hooked many a reader for the remaining 827 pages. The sacred grove of Nemi in Tuscany stands by a lake haunted by water nymphs who test the hero and initiate him into precious secrets. In the classical version recorded by the Roman poet, Vergil [70 BCE — 19 CE], the Quest involves plucking the "Golden Bough" (thought to be mistletoe) and takes Aeneas on the perilous journey into the Underworld to commune with ancestral spirits.

In the main segue that distinguishes his work, Frazer relates the universal theme of the Heroic Quest to the drama of the sacrificed king, the cental figure in theocracy. In alignment that anticipates later feminist writing (e.g., Merlin Stone, below), he shows how the "King of the Wood" gains or loses his authority through his connection with the Goddess Diana (Greek Artemis). In some way the regal candidate must satisfy the Goddess to be chosen as ruler, and he must periodically renew his vows toward her to retain his power. In a series of brilliant, enchantingly written passages, Frazer weaves the drama of sacred kingship into the larger fabric of universal myth concerning the fate of dying and resurrecting gods: Adonis, Attis, Osiris, and others.

Frazer’s metahistorical overview was extremely influential in literature and art in his time, and afterwards. One late variant of the dying-and-resurrecting god was the "Wounded Fisher King" of the Grail Legend, popular fare in the Middle Ages. He appears as a haunting presence in T. S. Eliot’s long poem, The Waste Land, signature text of the Modernist movement (1885 — 1925). Many other writers and painters of the era took up Frazer’s motifs. The link between modern sensibility (especially the tragic sense of having lost touch with the Sacred) and the timeless mythological themes delineated by Frazer was further explored in From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L. Weston. This book became the skeleton key to many artistic and cultural developments in the period between the two world wars.

Frazer’s treatment of these momentous themes is all the more compelling now that we have a fuller understanding of how the themes were historically scripted and enacted. After 4500 BCE a caste of shaman-priests set up the institution of kingship as a way to extend their power into the urban centers then burgeoning across Asia, the Middle East and Egypt. The introduction of agriculture on a large scale had effectively deprived the shamans of their role as mediators between nature and society. Once grain was collected and stored in temple granaries, the crucial role of the shaman in regulating the weather was deeply undermined. Upon the demise of magic came the rise of political authority, yet the king remained invested with shamanic and heroic traits long after his precedents were phased out of the social order.

In the long opening phase of social organization, the hero-king must be initiated by the Goddess before he assumes the status of the enthroned theocrat, the ultimate male authority figure. Eventually the Goddess herself is also phased out. Frazer was not able to trace and articulate all the nuances of this millennial development, but reading him today with what we now know in mind, we can fill in the gaps and enrich his original contribution.

Frazer is still centrally important to metahistory: what he misses reveals what we have learned.

Sacred kingship is one of the five paramount themes in world mythology. Another is shamanic magic (now understood to be the hidden force behind regal male authority, as just explained), to which Frazer devotes the opening 100 pages of his opus. Frazer introduces us to a staggering array of motifs: tree-worship, sacred marriage, taboos associated with sacred kingship, the sacrifice of the king, midsummer rites, particulars of the "vegetation gods" such as Adonis, Attis, Osiris, and Dionysos, the myth of Demeter and Persephone (central to the Eleusinian Mysteries celebrated near Athens), the Corn Mother and other ancestral spirits, rites of eating the Gods, propitiation of wild animals, exorcism, scapegoats, Scandinavian redemptive deities such as Odin and Balder, and European fire-festivals. He concludes with some thoughts on the conception of the human soul in folklore.

Reading Frazer is a process of slow and deep enrichment and it is almost always entertaining. I would propose a good six months to ingest The Golden Bough. It reads best when read effortlessly and at leisure.

Myths to Live By by Joseph Campbell: 1958 - 1971

At mid-century Joseph Campbell [1904 — 1987] emerged as the foremost exponent of comparative mythology and the history of religions. He taught at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, for almost 40 years. His work comprises a vast sweep of materials brought together in the four-volume masterpiece, The Masks of God. At the end of his life Campbell became something of a cult guru in the U.S.. He was known for being the advisor to George Lucas on Star Wars, for which Campbell proposed the theme of the battle between Good and Evil, represented in Persian myth by Ormazd and Ahriman (aka Darth Vader). In The Power of Myth, a series of viedotaped interviews with American journalist Bill Moyers, Campbell expounded in the fluent and eloquent style for which he was known and loved.

Myths to Live By is not the most substantial, nor the most scholarly of Campbell’s work, but it is the most relevant to today’s world. It comprises twelve lectures given between 1958 and 1971 at the Cooper Union Forum in New York City. Ranging through such issues as "The Impact of Science on Myth," "The Mythology of Love," and "Schizophrenia — The Inward Journey," these talks are highly topical and well-suited for anyone who seeks to understand the relevance of myth both to interior personal experience and to collective trends. Every lecture is packed with insights that touch on the great questions of life. Quotable passages abound by the dozens. Here is one:

Myths are telling us in picture language of powers of the psyche to be recognized and integrated in our lives, powers that have been common to the human spirit forever, and which represent that wisdom of the species by which man has weathered the millenniums. (29)

Campbell’s use of the term "wisdom of the species" resonates closely with the aim of Metahistory: namely, to develop versions of the human story in which the wisdom that guides the species can be communicated. This aim is indicated by the "mission statement" on the home page: Metahistory proposes "engagement in a different story about how humanity can fulfill itself." Not all myths reflect the wisdom of the species, however. Oral and written narratives in which myths are preserved can become corrupted over time, rather in the the way data stored on a disk becomes corrupted. These precious stories, originally imbued with a saving dose of human sapience, have all too often been co-opted for cultural, religious and political agendas that reflect the need to control others, and greed, rather than the more enlightened motives of the species.

In Background to Metahistory, I noted the tendency to see in figures such as Jesus a mythical persona rather than an historical person. This tendency can be traced all the way back to Herodotus, but it became a methodological tool with Charles Dupuis (around 1800). Along with philology (study of the historical development of language, reflected in ancient texts), this tendency largely determined the modern method of comparative mythology that emerged with Biblical criticism in the mid-19th century.

The method of reducing history to myth has to be handled carefully, however. In some cases a figure can have both an historical identity and a mythical profile. This applies to "Jesus of Palestine" (as I prefer to call that character), for one or more Jesus-like characters certainly did live in the first century of the Christian Era, although it is extremely unlikely that any single of them behaved in the way Jesus does in the Gospels. The Jesus of the Evangelists is a composite of several historical figures, highly embellished with mythological elements. The Pauline doctrine that Jesus the man was the incarnate "Son of God" is borrowed from the lore of dying and resurrecting gods so richly described by Frazer and others, but not just borrowed. It is also altered with a strong ideological twist, or "spin." In this way, a theological proposition (namely, the promise of unique redemption through Jesus Christ) becomes adapted to the policies of state-religion; that is, it becomes a tool for political control and imperialist conquest.

Ideally, one tries to strike a balance between the historical and the purely imaginative aspects of myth. Campbell was a sanguine person, sometimes prone to take extreme views. He hated Catholicism, and often blasted it full bore. Generally his aim was excellent, but he could also distort the materials or disorient his readers with the force of his passions. One instance always stands out to me. In the second lecture, "The Emergence of Mankind," Campbell says: "Nor does it matter from the standpoint of a comparative study of symbolic forms whether Christ or the Buddha ever actually lived and performed the miracles associated with their teachings." (29) This view is consistent with his general tendency to downplay the historical aspects of mythic and symbolic narratives in the effort to decipher their universal import as psychic patterns.

While it is true that neither Christ nor Buddha need ever to have lived as historical persons, someone had to live through the experiences that produced the mythological narratives attached to those figures. The "Divine Christ" is a mythological identity attached to one, or more than one, flesh-and-blood Jesus who actually lived in Palestine during the Jewish uprising against Rome, and the historical Buddha was an Indian prince of the 5th Century BCE. In his passion for the power of myth, Campbell may overlook the fact that real human experience is at the source of all genuine mythology, although it may not be the experience of the characters alleged to have played out the mythic stories.

I would caution readers of Campbell to reflect on this nuance. It is subtle but also immense.

To my knowledge the lectures in Myths to Live By are without equal as a clear, gripping introduction to the great themes they treat. "The Mythology of Love" does the work of volumes of other studies. "Mythologies of War and Peace" carries tremendous insight on religious ideologies that support and legitimate violence. To read this book by Campbell, and this alone, is equivalent to taking a year’s college course in comparative mythology.

Hamlet’s Mill by Gorgio de Santillanna and Herta von Dechend: 1969

From the lucid and accessible discourse of Joseph Campbell we now turn to one of the most dense, digressive and downright exasperating books written in the 20th century. Perhaps the best that one could say about Hamlet’s Mill is to compare it to a junkyard, a pawnshop, or a museum packed with incredible treasures in almost total disarray. (The same could be said of certain of C. G. Jung’s works, such as Mysterium Conjunctionis, his magnum opus on alchemy. I think that Jung would not have objected to his work being compared to a huge dung heap in which jewels were hidden.) The flotsam and jetsam of the Ages floats through the pages of this massive treatise, coyly subtitled "An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge and its Transmission through Myth." Some essay!

The subtitle is intentional, of course. It indicates the reticence of two scholars from MIT to delve into highly esoteric material, the kind of stuff that is ordinarily off limits to professors and pundits of the orthodox mind-set. The subject of their inquiry is stellar mythology: that is, myths from around the world that relate to particular aspects of celestial mechanics, especially a long-term cycle of polar rotation called "precession of the equinoxes." This cycle takes around 26,000 years and may be considered to break down into "World Ages" designated by the animals of the Zodiac: hence, the Aries Age, the Piscean Age, the Aquarian Age, etc. Amlodhi’s Mill, a mythological image from Nordic literature, represents the axial astronomical mechanism that determines this cycle. As the mill turns, the polar axis of the earth shifts relative to the celestial sphere, and the Ages are ground from the grist of human experience. This mythic image is probably the source of the old saying, "The mills of the gods grind slow, but they grind exceeding fine."

Speculations on cosmic order run rampant in Hamlet’s Mill, but after all is said and done, the authors present and explore two leading propositions:
- Universal legends of continents sinking into the ocean refer to constellations shifted over the horizon of time by precession (a long-term phenomenon, not by any means easy to conceive or visualize);
- Many myths from around the world use numbers (72, 4320, 108) that encode the precise timing of astronomical events and cosmic ages related to celestial mechanics.

The notion that myths encode astronomy is certainly an eye-opener, but the authors of Hamlet’s Mill are perhaps a little overwhelmed by their own discovery. In places they tend to imply that all myths reduce to nothing but coded astronomy. Or, to say the same thing in another way, they suggest that transmitting astronomical knowledge was originally the sole and supreme purpose of myth. Having given some 30 years to the study of comparative mythology, with a special focus on star-related myth, I cannot endorse this view. Elsewhere in this site (VIEWS: Myth in Metahistory, Part One: The Panorama of the Past), I have suggested eight possible "plot-factors" that may be detected in the materia mythica, astronomical events being but one of them. The cases where myths do preserve ancient knowledge of astronomy are always striking, because we of the modern mind-set tend to assume that only in recent times have scientists come to understand what is happening in the celestial world. Santillana and von Dechend are highly effective in dispelling this illusion.

Reading Hamlet’s Mill can be as deeply inspiring as a long vigil under the glittering constellations of the night sky. It can also be like dunking your head in a bucket of snails stewed in molasses. The lasting power of this book lies in the repercussions it has generated, as much as in its actual content. In the 40-odd years since it appeared, heirs to the chaotic insinuations of Hamlet’s Mill have been too numerous to name. Thanks to these two daring authors, the question of the knowledge of precession among the ancients (i.e., before Hipparchus, the Greek astronomer said to have discovered precession around 150 BCE) has become the focal issue in a wide range of debates on the status and purpose of the archaic sciences. Writers like Graham Hancock (Suggested Reading in Themes: Origins) rely on Santillana and von Dechend for the background of arguments on the high sophistication of Egyptian star wisdom. Contemporary reworkings of their thesis are too numerous too cite, although no one has yet solved the riddle of the meaning of the Zodiacal Ages.

Turgid and incoherent as it may be in places, Hamlet’s Mill is a metahistorical thrill ride not to be missed.

When God Was a Woman by Merlin Stone: 1976

The feminist contribution to Metahistory is so huge and so crucial to the revisioning of our story, that it is painful to have to select one work for classic status. However, Merlin Stone’s book is so outstanding in style and argument, and so seminal to the field it defines, that it makes the decision tolerable.

Stone was fortunate to be writing at a time of momentous discoveries that have deeply affected the feminist rewriting of history. The work of archeologist James Mellaart at Catal Huyuk in Turkey became known to the world in 1967, and in 1975 he published The Neolithic Era of the Near East, opening up a whole new perspective on prehistory. Until Mellaart did his meticulous reconstruction of the Goddess-oriented societies of Anatolia, our vision of the "origin of civilization" in the Middle East was dominated by the patriarchal glories of Sumer, Babylon and Egypt. The assumption that civilization was a man’s game was shattered by what Mellaart unearthed at Catal Huyuk.

As noted, Frazer wrote about the empowering role of the Goddess in the institution of sacred kingship, but prior to Mellaart archeologists were prone to modest and reticent acknowledgements of the role of women in building civilization. For instance, Jacquetta Hawkes and Leonard Wooley (Prehistory and the Beginning of Civilization, 1963) write with evident temerity: "It is generally accepted that owing to her ancient role as the gatherer of vegetable foods, woman was responsible for the invention and development of agriculture." (cited in Eisler, p. 215, n. 24)

Some five years after Mellaart, Marija Gimbutas produced her first monograph, The Early Civilization of Europe, revealing the high level of culture achieved by the non-patriarchal, Goddess-based societies of the Balkans, and in 1982 she broke through with The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe (suggested reading: Origins). Merlin Stone’s work is complementary to the great accomplishment of Gimbutas, which it preceded. Whereas Gimbutas concentrated on "Old Europe" (centered on the Balkans, and excluding Southern Italy and the Aegean), Stone revealed the vast legacy of the Goddess in the ancient Middle East. She defined the standard for "Goddess reclamation" later to be popularized in best-selling studies such as Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade (review in Essential Reading).

Originally published under the title The Paradise Papers, Stone’s masterpiece is remarkable for its even tone and rich content. She is never polemic, yet she is at least as convincing as the most vociferous of feminist historians. She is careful in her arguments, yet conveys the sense of excitement, even astonishment, at the discoveries she shares:

As I read, I recalled that somewhere along the pathway of my life I have been told — and accepted the idea — that the sun, great and powerful, was naturally worshipped as male, while the moon, hazy, delicate symbol of sentiment and love, had always been revered as female. Much to my surprize I discovered accounts of Sun Goddesses in the lands of Canaan, Anatolia, Arabia and Australia, while Sun Goddesses among the Eskimos, the Japanese and the Khasis of India were accompanied by subordinate brothers who were symbolized by the moon.

This is page 2, and the revelations unfold luxuriantly from there. Stone is an art historian and sculptor. When God Was a Woman contains 20-odd plates of remarkable and beautiful images of the Goddesss. One of them (plate 8) had an electrifying effect upon me: Egyptian Goddess Hathor (Canaanite Ashtoreth), stone plaque, c. 1250 BCE, British Museum.

During my second or third read of When God Was a Woman I was engaged in writing a book on the Dendera Zodiac*, the unparalleled masterpiece of ancient sacred astronomy. This precious artifact is the sole intact working model of the Zodiac that survives from antiquity. It was discovered around 1795 in the ceiling of a small chapel in the temple of Dendera in Upper Egypt (thirty miles north of Luxor), a site dedicated to the Star Goddess, Hathor, the Egyptian Eve. Traditionally, Dendera is said to be the birthplace of Isis.

When God Was A Woman is saturated with sexual lore. Better than any other feminist historian, Stone shows that the institution of sacred kingship, upon which all known high civilizations of the past were founded, could not have existed if the king had not been empowered by a priestess who represented the Goddess. In this respect her book provides a resonating coda to Frazer’s symphonic variations. The original ritual of empowerment was a hieros gamos, a sacramental rite of sexual intercourse between king and priestess. Stone’s elucidation of "sacred sexuality" stands behind later, more well-known books such as Sacred Pleasure (1996) by Riane Eisler, and it resonates beautifully with the luscious restoration of Sumerian erotic myth by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer (Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth, 1984, cited under Sacred Nature).

Black Athena by Martin Bernal: 1986

This two-volume masterpiece argues the startling notion that Athena, who represents Greece, the fountainhead of the Western cultural heritage, was an Egyptian goddess, a masculinized version of Isis-Hathor, and she was black. Hence the deep tap-root of White-Western-European-Androcratic-Christian culture is African. The subtitle of Black Athena is "The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization."

Martin Bernal, formerly of King’s College, Cambridge, is a professor of history at Cornell University. Predictably, his thesis incited enormous controversy, which continues to this day. Several books devoted exclusively to the cross-arguments generated around Black Athena have been published, and Bernal’s ideas continue to be passionately debated. These volumes (two of a projected four-volume opus) are personal favorites of mine, rare metahistorical treats.

Bernal writes with ease and openness, so it is never tiring to read him even though he plows through enormous masses of research. His thrust is simple and direct: he refutes the "Aryan Model," a script that explains that Greek civilization originated with Indo-European (Aryan) invaders who conquered the indigenous peoples of Hellas. Bernal develops, in contrast, the "Ancient Model" of pre-Hellenic history, the story told among the ancient Greeks who — let’s face it — were much closer to their own origins than we are, millennia later. He shows that everything we conventionally attribute to the white-male, Aryan, Indo-European complex is a gloss, a "cover story" that conceals the true derivation of Greek classical culture from Afroasiatic sources. The title says it all: Athena is black. In one swift poetic juxtaposition, Bernal achieves a metahistorical shift of great import. The way we visualize Athena determines the way we envision the cultural and spiritual heritage of ancient Greece, and all that later derives from it.

The sweep of Bernal’s vision is suggested by one passage taken from the Introduction:

This belief [i.e., that Egyptian wisdom nurtured the Classical world] continued through the Renaissance. The revival of Greek studies in the 15th Century created a love of Greek literature and language and an identification with the Greeks, but no one [of that time] questioned the fact that the Greeks had been the pupils of the Egyptians, in whom there was an equal, if not more passionate, interest. The Greeks were admired for having preserved and transmitted a small part of this ancient wisdom: to some extent the experimental techniques of Paracelsus and Newton were developed to retrieve this lost Egyptian tradition of Hermetic knowledge. A few Hermetic texts had been available in Latin translation throughout the Dark and Middle Ages; many more were found in 1460 and were brought to the court of Cosimo di Medici in Florence, where they were translated by his leading scholar, Marsilio Ficino. These and the ideas contained in them became central to the neo-Platonist movement started by Ficino, which was itself at the heart of Renaissance Humanism. (Vol.I, p. 24)

In linking the distant Afroasiatic roots of Greek culture to Renaissance humanism, Bernal touches a theme revisited time and time again in the metahistory discourse: the origins and fate of humanism. While it is true, and most important to remember, that Hermetic wisdom was retrieved and relaunched in Renaissance Humanism, the reformulation was faulty and humanism did not serve its stated intention of providing moral and spiritual criteria for guiding the human species. We live with the failure of humanism, a failure that metahistory seeks to explain and correct. Bernal’s study gives enormous depth to this great and urgent challenge.

Cities of Dreams by Stan Gooch, 1989

Born in 1932 in London, Stan Gooch studied modern languages and psychology before devoting himself to independent research on some of the more baffling questions of human experience, including parapsychology, genetics, neuroanatomy, and prehistory. Of his fourteen published books, Cities of Dreams is the ninth in his intensive exploration of a single theme: what determines human intelligence.

Subtitled "The Rich Legacy of Neanderthal Man Which Shaped Our Civilization," Cities of Dreams takes an unusual view of human experience before the end of the last Ice Age. Gooch begins by proposing that our ancestors in prehistory (roughly, 100,00 - 20,000 BP, Before Present) may not have been ignorant "cavemen" huddling in dank caverns. Instead, he builds up the picture of a loose network of European cave-dwelling peoples who traveled widely, exchanged goods and communicated with each other, and enoyed a high level of cultural and spiritual attainment: "Neanderthal civilization." Gooch carefully explains how the "civilization" of our prehistoric ancestors ought not to be imagined along the lines of the past high cultures (Egypt, Sumeria, China, etc). He argues that the Neanderthals had a culture unique to themselves, and he describes what it was like.

A polymath, versed in disciplines such as archeology, genetics and parapsychology, Gooch presents a rich and detailed portrait of Neanderthal life. He emphasizes the subjective dimension of Neanderthal culture, rather than such external feats as city-building, irrigation and agriculture. In fact, he suggests that the distinctive mark of Neanderthal mentality may have been its lack of concern for permanent structures or technological advantage over nature. The "primitive" mind-set of this lunar-oriented cave people was deeply esthetic and ritualistic, far more mystical than practical.

Rather like an isolated dolmen on the horizon, Gooch’s study of Neanderthal life stands alone and apart from all other speculative research on prehistory. Due to its radical nature his work has not been sufficiently assessed and integrated by authors and experts working in the same field. The three-part essay on prehistory by Ian Baldwin, featured in the FORUM, is corrective in this respect. It contains many references to Cities of Dreams, especially in the second installment.

Compared to the other "Classics" cited here, Gooch’s masterpiece poses unique demands upon metahistorical inquiry. This is because the material it treats lies at a level of chronological time that must be accessed by active work of the imagination. And this process must rely on judgement seasoned by large doses of erudition, such as Gooch himself exemplifies. Although he cites a vast array of mythological, folkloric, historical, etymological, anthropological and archaeological evidence, Gooch cannot develop his hypothesis without a large degree of invention, or imaginative reconstruction. This is both the handicap and the hallmark of his book.

Of course, all writers who deal with the distant past must use imagination to invent it, but according to scholarly protocols, one pretends not to so do. Among scholars the act of invention is hidden, or denied, so that it looks as if the prehistorian is simply developing a plausible scenario from solid evidence. With Gooch, it is impossible to ignore the act of creative invention, and he does not try to hide it; but neither does he fantasize and speculate in a reckless, irresponsible manner. As I reckon it, the failure of his book to meet established academic standards is due to his not concealing the inventive nature of his thesis.

The narrational challenge to metahistory exemplified by Gooch is central to its function: to reformulate the story of our species in poetic-visionary terms. I alluded to this issue in the essay Tree and Well, linked to the logo for this site. For the greater part of the life of the human family, the task of telling the story that guides the species was encharged to shamans (both men and women) who preserved it in epic oral tales, long narratives full of poetic language and visionary content. These tales were, I would argue, vehicles of true memories of human experience over long periods of time, for myth in its essential form is a memory of events that once transpired, a record of actual developments in the cosmos, our earthly habitat, and in the psychic and somatic life of the species. With Herodotus and the advent of written history, the "recall" process was radically altered. As "facts" and a literal, linear style of recounting them came to the fore, the poetic-visionary memory of the species receded into the background.

Cities of Dreams is both a model and an inspiration for the revival of poetic-visionary recall that might be cultivated in metahistorical discourse from now on.

Where the Wasteland Ends by Theodore Roszak: 1989 (written 1971-2).

After a long trek into the distant reaches of prehistory, the last "classic" in this list returns us to the present and opens a visionary window on the future.

Theodore Roszak is a cultural historian known among other things for coining the word "counter-culture." In his book, The Making of a Counter-Culture, published in 1969, Roszak both critiqued and championed the quest of American youth to find alternatives to conventional beliefs and behaviors. Over the last thirty years he has been relentlessly consistent in his critique of the failings of both religion and science to provide guidance for humanity. A notable slayer of sacred cows, Roszak offers positive and inspirational ideas to counterbalance his intense and unrelenting critique of our cultural and spiritual norms. His is perhaps the most vibrant and articulate radical voice in current debate over the fundamental values of Western culture.

The central thrust of Where the Wasteland Ends is clear from its opening pages. Roszak argues that the failure of religion and the overvaluation of technology have led us to the brink of self-annihilation. Because we have not paid attention to what our humanity demands of us, we have succumbed to a vast range of alienating influences. "Our culture has struck a Faustian bargain for power over man and nature, and it will not easily resign its wager. It still looks to its machines, its science, its big economic systems for security, prosperity, salvation" (xvii). In exposing the ills of society, Roszak does not leave us without a remedy. From the first moment of his argument, he proposes that we can make the necessary course-correction for the species by reclaiming and re-evolving what we have lost. The "Old Gnosis" is his term for the magical and sacramental vision of nature that was normative for the species before we shifted into our current slide, some thousands of years old, that now threatens to remove us from nature altogether.

All along the way, Roszak does a lot of attacking. The main target of his lucid rage is "the technological imperative," the belief-system that insists that all progress due to technology is good and will benefit humankind. In Roszak’s view the confidence invested in technological advance is the insanity of Narcissus: we behold an idealized image of ourselves in the artificial world we are creating, but the reflection is illusory, and dangerous, because it blinds us to who we really are.

In the last section of Where the Wasteland Ends, Roszak sets out his view of "how the Romantic artists rediscovered the meaning of transcendent symbols and thereby returned western culture to the Old Gnosis, and what part the rhapsodic intellect must play in our journey to the visionary commenwealth" (274). Among the Romantics cited the first and foremost is English poet and artist, William Blake, who championed imagination as humankind’s divine faculty. The second culture hero he evokes is Goethe, whom Roszak celebrates for his little-known scientific work, the best option to the "single vision" of Newton and Descartes. His chapters on Goethe’s view of natural morphology, his quest for the "primal phenomenon" in the plant world, and his colloidal theory of light, are brilliant expositions that clearly establish Goethe as an outstanding exemplar of the species’ genius.

Over the years I have wondered if I might be the Siamese twin of Theodore Roszak, separated from him at birth by a meddling pediatrist. We are both notable for our high regard for the Romantics, although I take a more cautious view of their great legacy. My strongest personal affinity with Roszak is perhaps the conviction we share that dissent must be a potent catalyst to any significant reform in the modern way of life. The "feel-good factor" is wonderful when it works, but it can also be a soporific. To those who would object that there is too strong a dose of negativity in Roszak’s critique, I would reply that to see deeply into the current malaise and millennial illusion of humanity is a courageous and empowering act. (In this sense, Roszak’s work belongs to the "despair work" proposed by Buddhist activist, Joanna Macy in World As Self, World as Lover.) To engage our full potential for correction, we need to grasp the fullness of our deviation from the truth of our species. In the work and play of our self-redemption, half-measures will avail nothing.

Those who are unfamiliar with the legacy of Romanticism have a lot to learn from Where the Wasteland Ends. Roszak’s final appeal is to the power and beauty of the "mythopoetic" endowment of the human species. This also is the ultimate calling to which Metahistory leads, the sacred mission it seeks to inspire.

JLL: Jan 2003

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.