The Waste Land
An excerpt from
An Idiot’s Momentum – How the Mishandling of Myth Has Left Us Oblivious to God & Ourselves in a Nation at War
by Gary Rosenthal
The notion that we now might be living in a Waste Land could appear very insulting in a nation that prides itself as the greatest country in all the earth, “the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” And though eight years of a presidency that had precipitated a disastrous war in Iraq, turned its back on the environment, and greedily dragged the world into economic chaos might qualify as a Waste Land, the Waste Land I’m referring to is not really a literal land; it refers to the psychological landscape encountered in a certain style of consciousness and culture. And it refers us to problems that while being keenly suffered in America today, are also being suffered in the Middle East, and throughout the world. So these problems are not distinctly American – nor even very modern – they go back to the 12th century.
The Waste Land that I am speaking of is really a mythological perception, and one that first appeared long ago, long before even the famous poem of T.S. Eliot. The notion of the Waste Land goes back to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s telling of the story of Parzifal. And it speaks to a cultural condition that is as well a condition of the soul, one that is with us still, and since it was first being recognized in about the 12th century we need to ask: what was going on then?
The medieval situation was one where people were required to profess religious beliefs they didn’t necessarily believe in. (footnote: I am indebted to Joseph Campbell here, and in what follows; for a fuller discussion of the Waste Land see An Open Life—Joseph Campbell in Conversation with Michael Toms). Since marriages were most commonly arranged and not really the union of lovers, people were similarly required to profess love for people they didn’t really love. And the feudal upper classes and royalty held positions of power they hadn’t really earned, but had merely inherited. And so the problem of the Waste Land that was starting to become apparent to the poets of this time was that of people living inauthentic lives.
We might relate this to our earlier discussion of “the Commanding Self” --that is, all that a society instills into a person which can obscure their own individual, essential nature. And since identifying with something other than this essential nature is the broadest definition I’ve have been bringing to narcissism, these notions – Waste Land, an inauthentic self or life, narcissism – are all cognates, different ways of regarding a like condition, one that humanity has been suffering for quite a long time now.
Joseph Campbell said that the inherited religious beliefs people were required to profess were quite central to the Waste Land experience. This was a very collectivized way of relating to God. From the time of Constantine, Christianity had became a state-sanctioned religion, much like Islam today in Iran. And this is very different from the more individual search for God that began to arise with the Arthurian quest literature in the 12th and 13th centuries. The mythic material that surrounded King Arthur and his Court attempted to address the problems being encountered due to all that had been collectively inherited at the expense of a more individualized sensibility. For in the Arthurian quest stories the understanding was that if you’ve been following an already delineated path through the forest of life, and in search for the Grail, then you could be sure of one thing, and one thing only – that the path you were following was somebody else’s path, and not your own.
Campbell says that the whole sense of myth is finding the courage to follow your own path. This is “the hero’s journey.” For there has never been another person exactly like yourself – and so the decisions you make that begin to shape your life need to be uniquely tailored in some way, uniquely tailored to you, the time and place in which you are actually living, and the star you are following – and not just dogmas you’ve bought into, some knock-off purchased off the rack, or proscribed in some book from another age.
But in order to do this, and to live a life that is uniquely your own, something old will need to be broken. You will need to take guidance from another direction than that of the ego that has been shaped by the collective sensibility of a culture, and this is especially so when that culture is in a state of decline, a culture that has become mythically dissociated. For if we’re too fixed on the old, on what has been passed down or expected of us, then we’re going to get stuck in some way. And like Hell, that’s what the Waste Land refers us to: “the place of people who could not yield their ego system to allow the grace of a transpersonal power to move and guide them through the dark and pathless forest.” (ibid).
The task thus of the grail quest, said Campbell, “is the re-vivification of the Waste Land” – for the Waste Land is “a world where people aren’t living out of their own initiative, but out of what they think they’re supposed to do.” In the Waste Land people have inherited their positions, their roles, their rules, their prevailing sensibility. Nothing is earned by one’s own experience or insight. And hence in some way, everybody is leading a false life. The Waste Land is thus “a place where the sense of vitality of life has gone.” (ibid)
And so the hero of the Grail is one who acts out of his own spontaneous nature. And this is what leads him to the Grail castle. There he encounters the Grail King who is maimed and lame, as is the whole country. Why is the King of this place maimed and lame? “Because,” says Campbell, “he just inherited the job.” (ibid).
The loss of initiatory rites spoken earlier of in this book links directly with the Waste Land condition, and both initially came to notice at precisely the same time. Mircea Eliade writes that during the Middle Ages “we witness, if not the total disappearance of initiation, at least their almost final eclipse. All the more interesting, then, I think, is the presence of a considerable number of initiatory motifs in the literature that, from the twelfth century, grew up around the 'Matiere de Betagne,’ (footnote: Matiere de Betagne refers to the legends of Brittany, and more specifically to the body of stories and medieval romances surrounding the legendary King Arthur) especially in the romance giving a leading role to Arthur, the Fisher King, Percival, and other Heroes pursuing the Grail quest." (footnote: Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation)
This is indeed an “interesting” juxtaposition noted by Eliade—the total disappearance of initiation during the Middle Ages, occurring at the precise time that we begin to get an Arthurian quest mythology that is so replete with initiatory motifs. Joseph Campbell helps to elucidate the nature of these initiatory rituals as found in Wolfram’s Parzifal:
“In the Grail castle, Percival has to spend the night in a chapel in which lies a dead knight; thunder rolls, and he sees a black hand extinguishing the only lighted candle. This is the very type of the initiatory night watch. The ordeals that the Heroes undergo are innumerable – they have to cross a bridge that sinks under water or is made of a sharp sword or is guarded by lions and monsters. In addition, the gates to castles are guarded by animated automatons, fairies, or demons. All these scenarios suggest passage to the beyond, the perilous descents to hell; and when such journeys are undertaken by living beings, they always form part of an initiation. By assuming the risks of such a descent to Hell, the Hero pursues the conquest of immortality or some other equally extraordinary end. The countless ordeals undergone by the personages of the Arthurian cycle fall in the same category; at the end of their quest, the Heroes cure the king's mysterious malady and thereby regenerate the 'Waste Land', or even themselves attain sovereignty." (footnote: Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology).
The two great poetic movements of this time--the courtly love tradition as conveyed by the troubadours, and that dealing with the Arthurian quest sagas--were attempting to provide what had grown to be missing in their cultural epoch, and that had left the spiritual climate in a Waste Land condition. The attempt thus was to regenerate, or re-mythologize the world--to free it from the more narrow casing that in the west had grown around the Christian myth.
This re-mythologization of the world, as Campbell has told us, has always been the true function of the artist. These literary artists of the 12th century and those immediately following, were trying to give rise to a distinctively secular spirituality, one freed from the deadening religious orthodoxies of the past–which is our task too, the task of any cultural epoch facing the problems of a Waste Land, the problems that grow out of an inherited mythos that no longer speaks to the nature of the time.
Afternote: There’s a last point to be made here – that might link our present discussion not only to the 12th century, but further back still – to the most ancient mythical roots of the western soul, long before the European continent was Christianized at sword-point. Signs of these more ancient roots are present even in the name “Arthur,” the figure whose name came to stand for the 12th century attempt at a re-mythologizing. For Arthur, etymologically goes back to Arcturus, a word that links Bear and guardian.
Here, the attempt to regenerate / remythologize society around the leading figure of a bear-like “Arthur” might be seen as a linkage not only to the pre-Christian Germanic warriors, the Beserkers (those who wore literally a “shirt of the bear”) but was as well a linkage to the earliest mythological thinking on our planet – those cave chapels with bear skulls and burial gear earlier mentioned in this book, and that go back to at least 60,000 years ago.
The attempt thus – as I and others have suggested – was to reconnect with a mythology that was not anti-nature, and in fact, with a more primordial nature that had been largely buried during all the centuries of Christianity.