What is the greatest human gift? It is metaphor, carrying a cargo of meaning across the oceans that divide us
Jay Griffiths 12 October 2012
Henri Rousseau (1844–1910) The Dream c1910. Oil on canvas 204.5 x 298.5. Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)/Scala
Jay Griffiths is a pioneer of nature romanticism, with books like Wild: An Elmental Journey. Her new novel is A Love Letter from a Stray Moon (Text Publishing).
Eros is coursing through the forest. The forest is mewing with its jaguar life. Life is spiralling into poetry. I am in the other world, I thought, at once in the actual forest and in the forests of the mind where the visible world is not denied but augmented.
I had gone to the Peruvian Amazon seeking treatment from forest doctors for an episode of depression so long and so severe that I had worked out how I was going to kill myself (length-wise, in the bath).
What I experienced was more than the healing of this desolate madness, it was a sense of the raw, green-eyed, lustrous sacredness of life which has never left me, and which came through a sense of identification with other creatures, the knowers of the forest. Shamanism is universally concerned with the well-being of both nature and human nature, and the relationship between them. Here in the Amazon, the shamans’ rituals unleashed in me a force of empathy that was exact, sensitive and enraged. The pull of my imagination was tautened by all the aspects of the occasion: the medicine, the night, and the shamans’ songs until, the torque twisted most surely, I lost my singular self and stepped across the border in a wild, charged, ferocious apprenticeship to a jaguar.
At times, I felt a hot sexuality coursing through me as if, in pelt and paw and breath, I could feel from within my body a radical love for the earth as strong as the gravitational force. At others, I felt a prowling rage, as a jaguar might feel, watching the trenchant stupidity of deforestation. My society is destroying this forest. The anger burned me and I could feel the fire of pure fury. How can modernity know so little for knowing so much? The sacral need to protect life in all its forms swept through me like wildfire, with meaning not only intellectual but physical, sensory, what Hermann Hesse called ‘this felt faith’.
This was shape-shifting. It is part of the repertoire of the human mind, cousin to mimesis, empathy and Keats’s ‘negative capability’, known to poets and healers since the beginning of time. It did not hold literal truth, quite obviously, but had a ‘slanted, metaphoric truth’ — the words I used, when the page was printed, to describe it.
Shape-shifting is a transgressive experience, a crossing over: something flickers inside the psyche, a restless flame in a gust of wind, endlessly transformative. The mind moves from its literal pathways to its metaphoric flights. Art is made like this, from a volatile bewitchment, of a self-forgetting and an identification with something beyond.
Ted Hughes once said that the secret of writing poetry is to ‘imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it … Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn your self into it’. One writing exercise Hughes suggested for students was titled: ‘I am the Amazon’. We are what we think, and we humans have a way to become other, in a necessary, wild and radical empathy.
Dark transformation: a scene from the Handspring Puppet Company's production of Ted Hughes' Crow. Photo by Simon AnnandShape-shifting involves a willingness to make mimes in the mind, copying something else. Art, meanwhile, depends on mimesis furthering our desire to know and to understand. In a recent, Ovidian, dance piece, ‘Swan’, French dancers performed and swam with live swans, imitating the birds in a mime which alluded to the metamorphosis of all art, and to the artists’ ability to lose themselves in order to mirror something beyond.
‘But we, when moved by deep feeling, evaporate; we/breathe ourselves out and away’, wrote Rilke in ‘The Second Elegy’.
In making art, the artist expires, breathing herself out to allow the inspiring to happen, the breathing in of glinting universal air, intelligent with many minds, electric and on the loose. Artist, shape-shifter, shaman or poet, all are lovers of metamorphosis, all are minded to vision, insight and dream.
Imitative shamanism can reek of cultural appropriation, but even in cultures that have temporarily misplaced their shamanic rites, the role survives, donning a deep disguise. The American writer and mythographer Joseph Campbell, among others, believed that artists have taken up the role of the shaman. It seems to me that this is true for a distinct reason: both art and shamanism use the realm of metaphor where feeling is expressed and where healing happens. With metaphoric vision, empathy flows, knowing no borders. Both artist and shaman create harmony within an individual, and between the individual and the wider environment, a way of thinking essential for life. Poetry works ‘to renew life, renew the poet’s own life, and, by implication, renew the life of the people’, wrote Ted Hughes. But ours is an age of lethal literalism that viciously attacks metaphoric insight and all its values, an age that burns the Amazon and mocks those who would protect it, sing it and become it.Read the whole article.