The Great Neglected Tradition
An interview with Gary Rosenthal
by Mark Rudinsky*
MR: Gary, in an article that arose from a correspondence
with Robert Bly, you touch upon the fact that love poems have become
almost an endangered species in this culture. Why is that?
GR: Well, the correspondence was rather brief, but Bly said it--and I tend to agree. He thought maybe the dearth of love poems relates to the loss of what he termed "the large She"--i.e,, the loss of the archetypal perception of the beloved, for it seems that's more common today. And the more I've thought about this notion, I've wondered if the loss of the archetypal perception of the beloved isn't related to the culture's loss of a polymythic perspective.
For monotheism is monomythic, there is only one God, one basic myth that accounts for everything. But in the process you wind up losing the pagan gods, and the different nuances of divinity they offer, which includes different nuances, different ways of loving. The troubadour sensibility--and the sudden profusion of love poems that came in with it --was really an attempt to provide an alternative to the prevailing Christian mythos and its mythological underpinnings, and the ways they had been narrowing our perspective of love. And thus, maybe the ways that monotheism has continued to shape or limit our mythic imagination accounts, in part, for why Bly finds that love poems are
"hard to come by these days."
Other people have also commented on this curious
phenomenon--the contemporary lack of love poems--including the poet and critic Dana Gioia who wrote, "love
poetry has become the great neglected tradition." You ask why this is...but "why" is a funny word, a curious gawker who might want the simple answer, and here I don't know any simple answer, any single answer, and can only go into a speculative kind of ramble, and hopefully come up with some likely suspects...
Perhaps the lack of love poems also has something to do with our literary
culture having been a culture of the head versus the heart, for the most
part...and I'm afraid the Internet and the 'age of information' may only be making
that worse... I mean there's a difference between information and wisdom, and a like difference between horizontal breadth and vertical depth.
And as with the cultural conditioning that prevailed prior to what emerged in the 12th century in Europe, here also it's been a more mental and masculine kind of logos --"here" being in the United States. We're a nation
on the go, a 'can-do' culture, a nation of doers, such that a more feeling-based
eros has had a harder time emerging and retaining a foothold in
consciousness than has been the case in some of the slower paced --and
perhaps more heart-friendly-- Southern and Latin cultures, whose languages
are even called 'Romance.'
In terms of America, this is also a nation formed by people who wanted to get away from being
ruled --so we're an unruly nation, and one so polarized at present, that we're almost ungovernable. We're a nation that values independence and 'rugged
individualism,' a nation with the martial eagle as its national bird--something Ben Franklin tried to warn us away from. And perhaps, not coincidentally, we're also a nation with over 700 military bases in over 130 different countries--and one of
the few nations on earth that has never been overwhelmed and dominated
by another. And all of this is far away from the kind of vulnerability,
undefendedness, or surrender that I associate with love, with 'ecstatic love,' and
the kind of poetry that comes from it.
MR: And yet I gather that at one time there was a lively tradition of
love poetry happening almost everywhere. If that's true, what was going on
GR: The one great period in which there was an explosion of love poetry
in most European cultures--the 12th to 14th centuries, was also a time when
those cultures--but also those in the Near East-- were all in extremis. It was a
time of religious wars and upheaval, there were the Crusades, and in the
Near East there were also the Mongol and Tartar invasions in which the
cultures of the great Sufi poets were under siege. Persia was laid to ruin.
Rumi's family had to move to Turkey because of the Mongols invading
present day Afghanistan, and Hafiz was nearly executed by Tamerlaine--at least in an apocryphal version of their encounter--saved
only by his presence of mind and ability to say the perfect thing under
There's probably something about living in a time when it's more obvious
that death could come at any moment, and there's not much security to be
found on the physical plane, that can help turn us in a more spiritual
direction--like that old saying that there's no atheists in foxholes...
There's something about being on the edge...as in facing real danger... that
may knock out some portion of the conceptual mind that we're normally
filtering things through. In this way we may begin to wake up, to become more
aware of our vulnerability and have less denial about impermanence--which
can help intensify one's sense of being alive, as well as one's sense of humility--contributing to great poetry in
general, and possibly, love poetry in particular. In both love and war, the
stakes seem high and people are playing for keeps...so folks don't tend to self-
deaden, or grow heedless to what's going on around and within them...
And there's a significant cultural factor here as well... namely that the
crusades and pilgrimage routes brought Europeans into contact with Moorish
and Sufic influences, including a long-existing tradition of ecstatic Persian and Arabic love poetry, that began to enter the west through an unexpected source--namely through the Muslim ambassadors who met with the Christian crusaders during the negotiation counsels that occurred during the crusades, for as it turned out, almost all of the Muslim ambassadors were also poets.
MR: Could you say more about the consequences of what
wasn't killed off in Moorish or Muslim cultures as compared to our own?
GR: In the West, Christianity began to emerge with a near monopoly on the religious imagination by about the 4th century--"Christianized at sword-point"--was how Joseph Campbell termed it. Because at that time, with the conversion of Constantine, Christianity begins to become a state-sanctioned religion, and then towards the end of the 4th century under Theodosius I, Christianity becomes the state-sanctioned religion--somewhat like Shi'ite Islam today in Iran.
Until that time there had been any number of competing sects, whether Gnostic, pagan, or other splinter sects of Christianity, or Jewish-Christianity with differing beliefs. But with the conversion of Constantine, the Roman Empire begins to have a stake in the religion game. Previous to that, Rome had wanted little to do with the various forms of religion being practiced within the Empire, as long as they created no political problems. And previous to this time Roman religion had been polytheistic. In fact, when Caesar had gone into Gaul, he noted many of the same gods, the same forms of religion as those in Rome, though being worshiped with different names. But from the time of the Council of Nicea, also in the 4th century, there's now an official version of the state sanctioned religion, the dogma of the Church becomes codified, and the competing Gnostic, pagan, and splinter cults began to wane. And finally, we killed off most of our remaining Gnostics by the 14th Century--the
Albigensian Crusades took care of that.
Whereas in Islamic countries
--with some exceptions and periods of repression--the less fundamentalistic practitioners, which is
to say the Sufis, were allowed to live. The Sufis have always been less ethnocentric, less polarized, and more geared toward recognizing the universal truth found at the heart of all religions. And more than any spiritual culture
I can think of, the Sufis put great value, great emphasis upon the way of the
heart--and its poetry. In fact, more than any other spiritual tradition, many of
the most illustrious teachers and saints are poets. In the 13th and 14th
centuries alone you have Rumi, and Hafiz, and Ibn Arabi, Sanai, Attar, and
Saadi. And so in the Islamic cultures not only are the less fundamentalistic folks allowed to
live, but poetry, and love poetry in particular, retain a lingering impression. And the cultural consequences of this can be
far-reaching and long-lasting. Though often covered over by fundamentalisms of all sorts, the more mystical roots are still there, not far from the surface, where anyone might stumble on them.
An American poet will often carry a subliminal grief of alienation that
comes from having grown up in a culture where the art he practices and has
made sacrifices for, is continually being marginalized, and for the most part
ignored. In a capitalistic culture the bottom line is that "poetry doesn't pay." So the culture's channels of dissemination and distribution tend not to support poetry very well or take it very seriously. And so an American poet may tend in his own soul to feel orphaned in some way, like a stranger in his own land. As a
child, if he was read any poetry at all, it was likely Dr. Suess, i.e., a benign, whimsical kind
Whereas by contrast, even in modern day Persia--Iran--which is currently ruled by a quite repressive and fundamentalistic regime, even so, children grow up
having their parents and grandparents read them Hafiz--instead of 'Green
Eggs and Ham.' And so, an American poet would find the level of poetic
fluency in Iran quite astonishing, and perhaps even have a nostalgic kind of
wish to have been born in such a place where poetry is taken seriously... and where even in more recent times, one of the most popular
shows in the history of Iranian television has been a quiz show about poetry!
That whole culture has been attuned to poetry at least since the tenth century--and
the average Iranian truck driver or barber will know more lines of poetry by
heart than the average North American poet.
Yet great poets--as with the mystics in any culture--are often voices speaking from the psychic outskirts of where most people live. And for this reason, even the proliferation of great spiritual poets in the middle ages was not enough to jolt the wider elements of Islamic culture from being centered in a more narrow, ethnocentric, and parochial view.
MR: An interesting contrast. And speaking of contrasts, Gary--with your
Jungian background, how do you see the difference mythologically or
archetypally--between what may have been going on seven centuries ago--
when love poems seemed to be so prevalent--and what we're looking at
GR: There was a lot going on back then that made possible a climate in
which love poems thrived--and then got cut off... First off, the troubadour tradition, along with the Arthurian quest mythology, were the two great poetic traditions of the time that were attempting to remythologize the culture, and free it from the more narrow casing that had grown around the Christian myth. And in Christianity you certainly had brotherly love, and you had agape, but where you had a supposedly celibate male priesthood making the rules, and where you have the mythic hero--Jesus--never depicted in an erotic encounter, you wind up with a religious sensibility that for the most part is anti-sex. That's what the erotic climate is going to be like. It's going to be very ambivalent toward sexual love at best. And it's not going to value women very highly, which is the legacy that follows when your conception of the divine is an all masculine affair, comprised of a Father, a Son, and a Holy Ghost.
But in the 11th century a couple of things begin to arise that will contribute to the explosion of love poetry in the following century. The first thing is that
women begin to be seen in a new way. Not entirely new, but new in the context of a patriarchal Christian culture. Women are suddenly elevated, become deified, and seen as a portal to something ecstatic, something divine.
The tail end of the 11th century also brought the beginning of the Crusades. There were to be nine of them, and they were to last approximately 200 years. And as part of this ongoing warfare between the Christian crusaders and the knights of Islam for who was going to control the Holy Land, there would be ongoing negotiations between the rival camps.
These negotiations contained a bit of a newsflash for the Christian crusaders. For the Islamic ambassadors were not so “heathen” after all. They were rather refined human beings. In fact, most of them were poets. And in addition to negotiating the terms of engagement between military rivals, the Islamic ambassadors began to transmit something else.
They began to transmit elements of the sensibility found in certain strains of ecstatic Arabic love poetry, ecstatic Persian and Sufic love poetry. Yet importantly, the Islamic poetic ambassadors weren't burdened by the Christian anthropomorphic conception of divinity--all that Father and Son stuff. So a different kind of eros could come through them. And this sensibility was being transmitted to one of the more refined and mobile conduits of European culture--who were also warriors mounted on horseback. Our very word “chivalry” seems to evoke these men, as it derives from the French word cheval which means “horse.”
Anyhow, you begin to have this poetic, cultural dissemination coming up from the south, up from Moorish Spain, over the Pyrenees and into France. And then in the 12th century, coming down from the north you have a re-emergence of buried remnants of Celtic and Germanic goddess worship. And at the same time you find the spread of cults of the Black Madonna throughout Europe, which also is bringing up a lot of buried goddess material. As I suggested at the beginning of this interview, there was no single factor that gave rise to all the love poems that flooded through the 12th century. A "perfect storm" arising from many fronts had gathered, all at the same time.
Plus we're also seeing a new kind of mythos, a new kind of story, a new kind of literature emerging, that of the Arthurian quest sagas, such as Parzival--and Parzival, in von Eschenbach’s version of the tale, goes through a series of initiatory encounters with women—one right after another—in the course of his deepening.
The initiatory themes which the Arthurian quest sagas are so replete with are significant. And they’re significant --as both Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade point out-- because the middle ages had become a time in which initiation had practically died out. So the culture must have been starving for viable forms of initiation, for their lack had left the cultural climate in the condition of a Waste Land. But the European soul must have also been starving for the type of goddess consciousness that had been repressed ever since Christianity had emerged with a near monopoly on the mythic imagination, beginning at around the 4th century.
But the 12th century also gives rise to stories such as Tristam and Iseult where there’s an erotic love triangle, just like there’s a similar love triangle between King Arthur, Guinivere, and Sir Lancelot. This theme of love triangles—or adulterous love --becomes quite central not only in the new stories, the new mythos arising, but also in the tradition of Courtly Love, which is also starting to emerge now.
Now, the medieval term for Courtly Love is fin ‘amour. Everyone knows that “amour” is the French word for “love.” So we need to look at that word “fin.” It carries multiple associations. For the style of love here has “refinement,” it has “finesse.” But it also has an end in mind, a finale. And that end or goal was a kind of transcendence.
We might say that Courtly Love attempted to use erotic energy as a kind of soul fuel that could lead to God (though the God here was not exactly that of the Old or New Testament). Encountering something ecstatically transcendent was the fin, the end or goal for fin ‘amour’s more spiritually inclined practitioners. And there were specific practices--gazes, visualizations, touches employed…in the light of which we might recognize fin ‘amour as a western form of tantra.
And taken together, all of these elements seem to reflect what a contemporary Jungian might call a collective awakening of the anima in European consciousness, an awakening of what Goethe termed “the eternal feminine” --which Ean Begg in his book, The Cult of the Black Virgin, notes as “the Muse of all true poets.”
So with the troubadours and Courtly Love you had this kind of counter-cultural flowering in which a new kind of love was going around,
and it was tolerated for a while, as had been the rise of the Gnostic Cathars in southern France. But then the Church came down on that kind of thing, and became militantly opposed to anything that smacked of "heresy." At which point it launched a new Crusade, only this time not against the Muslims for who was to control Jerusalem, but a war waged within Christiandom-- principally against the Cathars in Southern France, a war in which over a million people lost their lives. The "Large She" was being burnt alive. And the Crusades were about to become the Inquisition.
In the process we were about to lose connection with all the imaginal aspects of the Great Goddess which had briefly re-emerged between the 11th and 14th centuries. Not just the medieval archetype of the distant, partially unavailable beauty up in her tower, but the crone aspect of the Great Goddess as well, the Wise Old Woman. Anything that smacked of Gnosticism, or any lingering element of the old pagan gods are now viewed as something heretical. Sophia was basically burnt at the stake at the time of
the Albigensian Crusades, the counter-cultural impulse was getting literally burned alive--all in the name of heresy. And maybe it's no accident that the poetic love
tradition, certainly in the west, went down hill not long after, the victim of a virulent kind of fundamentalism.
But for a time you had the French troubadours in Provence, and Dante and Petrarch in Italy, and the
Minnesingers in Germany. In the courts of Spain you had troubadours also, and they're writing love poems in Arabic, Spanish, and even Hebrew. And in the East there's Rumi and Hafiz and Saadi and
Attar and Sanai, as well as the Sufi Sheikh and poet Ibn Arabi, and also Lalla
in Kashmir who was born in 1320, the same year as Hafiz--a year before Dante
Anyhow, all these folks are writing at about the same time, and with a
spiritualized kind of eros, where there was this heightening of love for the personal beloved, and yet the love for the personal beloved has
something deeper and more "transcendent" standing behind her or him. But then you have the Church coming down on the
Cathars--who had influenced the troubadours--and within a century or so
following that, not a hell of a lot happening, at least in the West, in terms of
a certain kind of love poetry, poetry with a devotional, feminine inflection, and where the
personal and transpersonal intermingle and flow into each other, never again a huge wave of it
like there had been before...
Of course there were other factors too that cut all of this off...though the 14th century would give rise to the Italian Renaissance, the14th century was also a ferocious time of spiritual agony, a world plunged into chaos. And it wasn't just love poems that began to dwindle. The Black Death of 1348-1350 wiped out over a third of the population between Iceland and India--and the Bubonic plague was to return four more times before the end of the century. Which means that you lost over a third of the poets, with many of the rest just trying to stay alive.
The ideal of chivalry itself, which had lent its distinctive flavor to much of the romantic love of this time, was starting to erode, in some part due to advances in weaponry. In Europe there was a "hundred years' war" that no one, not even the combatants could stop. There were peasant revolts--and the answering panic and repression on the part of the landed classes. There was a schism in the Catholic Church with the Papacy removed to Avignon. And in one of history's most outrageous statements of religious hubris, Pope Boniface in 1302 delivers a papal Bull that declares: "It is necessary to salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff."
In such a climate, people of mystical insight often had to operate with one eye peeled for the punitive fundamentalism that reigned in high places all around them. In 1328, for example, and within seven years of the last Cathar being burnt at the stake, Meister Eckhart disappears from the world just as he's about to be tried for heresy...
We might say that when you burn Sophia at the stake, love and wisdom
become separated from each other. Perhaps when we killed the Gnostic Cathars and
buried Sophia, we buried some our deep images, and lost half of our philosophy,
leaving us with less wisdom in our loving, as if love has lost its logos and
become merely emotional love--a love that as Gurdjieff says, more easily
turns into its opposite. And then not only do our love lyrics become
trivialized and cheapened--just listen to rap music--but the whole culture
ceases to be grounded in either love or wisdom...
MR: Could you say more about the coming together of the personal eros
with the transpersonal back in the 12th and 13th centuries?
GR: There had been a lot of men going off into an idealized love and service to Mother
Church--the crusaders fighting in a series of holy wars. But after the first
Crusade, the Pope then forbade women to go off with the men on their
journey to the Holy Land--so perhaps after this initial idealization of the
Church, and seeing oneself as being devoted to God, willing to die for the
good cause, you then have men returning to women, and perhaps beginning to bring some of
that noble, elevated, idealizing tendency into their personal, romantic
relationships--and often, instead of the Church or the Virgin Mary, it's now maybe the wife of the feudal lord
who's getting that idealized projection. For it was often the custom for a man to love a woman of a higher social standing, and to then use his love as the inspiration to prove his worthiness--in the process awakening Amor, the slumbering god within him.
There was really an emotional alchemy in all this. Fin 'amour intended a transformational process, a form of initiation that the middle ages had come to otherwise lack. And here the masculine ideal was a lovely triumvirate of Warrior/Poet/Lover, a leaning back into old Celtic sources, such as the Fianna--a mythical cadre found in Irish mythology and for whom admission required not only being able to demonstrate various forms of athletic prowess, but also an apprenticeship in poetry, and not insignificantly, that one treat women well.
But although there was something kind of juicy and spiritual going on in
regards to love back in the 12th and 13th centuries, we should be clear that this
phenomenon and its attendant idealizing of the feminine was not a culture-
wide phenomenon, even in Southern France where the troubadours briefly
flourished. The troubadour sensibility actually seems a corrective reaction
to the then dominant wider culture, a wider culture that had actually been
extremely dismissive and chauvinistic towards women--a culture where
women were routinely beaten by their husbands--wife abuse was more
common then than child abuse--and at this time women commonly feared
their husbands, even when they loved them. And this is one more reason,
among many, that in the troubadour tradition real love was seen as
something that existed outside of marriage...
At this time, the very notion of marriage had become linked to the Church, to Roma--but Amor, the Provencal word for love is Roma spelled backwards. The whole troubadour tradition was really thumbing its nose at the Roman Church, an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to institute a new kind of mythology, one where the sensibility was more friendly to individuals and the individual's experience of love, rather than the Church dictating to individuals what they should believe, or how they should love. So the ideal in the tradition of courtly love was what was termed "the infernal couple," not the married couple--that is, those unions not shaped by the sensibility, or sanctioning, of the Church.
In the French upper classes, from which the tradition of courtly love arose,
marriages were usually arranged, and by one's family. You weren't marrying
someone you were in love with, but marrying someone your family had
selected, and for economic and political reasons. You weren't marrying an
individual you had chosen, but in a sense, your family was using you as a proxy to join up with another politically prominent family. You weren't following your heart, you were following convention, and doing what was expected of you. Which of course, has nothing to do with love. So the prevailing custom of the arranged marriage certainly entered into the equation of why erotic triangles and "adulturous love" figured so prominently in the literature emerging in the 12th century.
if you were a woman, you were likely being married off at fifteen or seventeen, and
the guy your family was marrying you to was often twice your age. So there
was often a huge discrepancy in life experience, and the couple might not
have even had much to say to each other. There weren't a lot of ideas in the air to begin with--no media, and outside of monasteries few books--the printing press hadn't been invented. And so, in a cultural context in which people were being coerced into unions, and having to profess love for people they hadn't chosen, and didn't really love, it was quite common for
people to take lovers outside their marriages--a convention that has
continued to some extent, even today, in French culture, in Italy, and wherever there had been a well-established tradition of families marrying their sons and daughters off to forge political and economic alliances with other rich and powerful families, and where the generating impulse behind a marriage was more about power than eros. For where power reigns, love tends to fly out the window. And so it was the love that happened
outside of wedlock that was more 'the real thing,' and where some passionate intensity, some passionate interiority might have arisen.
Yet when I speak about the middle ages as being a time when there was a
confluence of personal love and divine love, it's really only small, but
culturally significant sub-cultures that I'm speaking of, where this confluence
elevated romantic love. And even here, I'm speaking mostly of the men.
For when you read the women troubadours--who existed mostly in Southern
France-- for some reason you don't find the same elevating transference or
idealizing going on. They didn't get so lofty...
MR: Why do you suppose that was? Why didn't the women tend to
idealize love in the way the men troubadours did?
GR: Maybe because what you are naturally closer to, and more in touch
with in a daily way, you then don't tend to idealize. The women troubadours
wrote closer to the bone, and called a spade a spade--"this is what happened,
and how I feel about it" --and in this way their responses to their
relationships feel more down to earth, more contemporary, less
sentimentalized, more calibrated to what was going on at the personal
And as has always been the case, the women were probably more in touch
with their bodies, and less raised above them by abstractions. The Jungians
say that when we get in touch with our inferior function that that's where
our demons come in, but also our angels, and so for the men to finally open
to our more characteristically retarded feeling function, this can also open the
floodgate to the more archetypal realm, to some really deep emotional
currents in which the whole universe
comes into it...
Another factor here was probably a carry-over from feudal society, where
men pledged a devoted allegiance to their feudal lords--and there was actually
a ceremony where this was done with the men on their knees before their
lords--in the same gesture or pose as that classical one when a man is asking
for a lady's hand in marriage. So there was this kind of devoted, chivalric
impulse that was just in the air at the time, and that variously got played
out in service to the feudal lord, or to the Church, and then with the troubadours,
We could of course make a psychological critique of "idealized love," but there's also something I
find quite lovely about putting another first, and being willing to
horizontalize the mast of ego, to bow down before another, to hold someone in such reverence. It can allow something very pure to rise up in us that's at least a close cousin to wisdom. This can be a wild, unbounded kind of love, a love that can not only melt your heart, but blow out the walls in your ego structure. Encountering the goddess can do that. The beloved "becomes your everything," a portal into ecstasy.
But we should understand that what can seem "idealized" to us here may not be entirely personal. It may be the encounter --and worship-- of something divine, a mythological being really, which may suddenly emerge out of the encounter with the personal beloved. That's "the large She" that Robert Bly spoke of. And the more humbled stance of the heart that comes from contact with Her , or the more humbled stance that allows Her to appear, can activate a
deep vein of feeling, not at all dis-similar to the
devotional feelings that can come up in Guru Yoga, or any spiritual approach with a devotional inflection.
At the same time, such "divine encounters" may touch back into the archaic early bonding between a mother and infant--that is, they may trigger, re-stimulate, or evoke a phase in development wherein there had yet to arise any separation between the two. Yet here the discernment between Wilber's notion of "pre" and "trans" (personal) can get a bit fuzzy.
For however humbled and devoted our union with the beloved may feel, it could still be some form of "pre-personal" regression, or the longing of "empty unit narcissism." It could indicate not only a regression, but a failure to have ever emerged from a kind of symbiotic state. Or it could be a more trans-personal form of experience, a different developmental level of non-separation or non-duality. And that, like I've said, was really the fin, the end intended by the more evolved practitioners of fin ' amour.
Yet what can make discernment here a bit fuzzy is that the kind of language often being employed to describe such experiences can sound similarly oceanic--like something is flooding our normal boundedness--regardless of where one is actually stanced on Ken Wilber's pre/trans divide. And it's actually possible to write wonderfully ecstatic love poems with a doofus for
a Muse. Sometimes love really is blind.
And though there's actually a lot of similarity between the
medieval love poetry in praise of the lady, and the devotional poetry from
Eastern cultures that's been written in praise of the guru, or devotional poetry addressed to Jesus, or any religious figure, these forms of devoted appreciation don't seem to play so well or occur so frequently in a "ruggedly individualistic," more democratic, "me first," narcissistic culture such as our own.
And we shouldn't lose sight of the issue of narcissism...that's a whole topic in itself, and one I attempt to treat in my new nonfiction book, The Death of Narcissus. In our own cultural era, probably nothing has been as limiting to the erotic climate--or helping to account for the rarity of our love poems-- as our rampant narcissism. Rather than an encountering of the Large She or He, we're often just encountering the small I, whether in our partners or within ourselves. And that "small I" has both delusions of grandeur, and equally deluded assumptions of deficiency. Narcissism is really a very anti-tantric schema.
For here the self feels encapsulated, and cut off from the rest of reality. If you're identifying with your self image, and constantly attempting to embellish or defend it, you're taking yourself to be what you're not. Narcissism is really a case of mistaken identity. Our whole culture is suffering from this confusion now. And if you're confused about the true nature of yourself, you're not going to have much spiritual clarity about the true nature of anybody else. And unfortunately, that more encapsulated perspective tends to be the prevailing framework for many --if not most-- of our relationships today. No wonder something feels "missing." And what's missing is a clearer apprehension of our own true nature.
MR: And how does all this relate to the Crone aspect of the Goddess? What's the relationship
between the Crone and the love spigot either opening or getting turned off?
GR: When a culture doesn't fully value the feminine, and the crone
in particular, you lose the mature feminine in the culture. Then the cultural
ideal for women --when it's not completely virginal --tends to be more "playmate of the month" than
Sophia, or Wisdom.
But in Southern France when the troubadour thing was happening, women
were more highly valued. They were allowed more power and could actually
inherit land which was elsewhere unheard of. Also, there are parts of France, especially the more hilly regions such as up in the Pyrenees, which even by the fourteenth century
had practically no horse-driven, wheeled forms of transport. These areas were more
culturally isolated than where you had better forms of
transportation. And so on the whole, something could take root there for a
time that was more out of reach --until the Church brought an extremely
capable and meticulous man to lead the Inquisition, a man who later became
the Pope, while also bringing Northern noblemen down on that culture
during the Albigensian Crusades, which became a land-grab that destroyed the
culture from which the troubadours arose, a culture in which the Sophia
aspect had flourished, and that for a time wasn't being so encapsulated by doctrines that came from Rome.
...Anyhow, for whatever part of you might get off on "the playmate of the month,"
she's not apt to be such a great muse for some deep impulse that really shakes
your soul up, and brings you to your knees. Any poet worth his salt is going to need a better muse than that!
And without the cultural dissemination of crone values--like wisdom, for example--it can feel like our souls have landed in the Gnostic sense of a fallen world, a materialistic world, where the wisdom or Sophia element isn't much in evidence. And you only have to read the headlines, look at advertisements, or listen to the news, for that to be kind of obvious, even today. And without a better valuing of the crone, women become objectified in a way that exaggerates the importance of youthful beauty. Women become obsessed with their looks, their weight, feel un-necessarily unlovable as they age, and the culture becomes deprived of the perspective that we might call "the Mature Feminine."
MR: Well, if the crone has been lost--
GR: The crone hasn't been lost, she's merely been overlooked--and slighted. As have the truly ancient and sophisticated mythological traditions of pre-Christian Europe, which are the oldest mythological tradition in the world. The earliest cave art in Europe, for example, pre-dates Christianity by at least 38,000 years. And next we had the Neolithic, the early planting cultures, followed by the great Bronze age traditions, followed by the Indo European warrior traditions, and then there's the Greek and Roman, and only then do we come to the Christian tradition, followed in the 12th century by the Arthurian quest mythology, which attempted to counteract some of the narrowing elements in the Christian mythic view.
But to return to your question about the Crone, She's part of "the large She" that has "fallen into forgetfulness"--as Bly phrased it. In
the fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty," for example, the wise old woman becomes shaded as a witch
--who throws a curse on the whole kingdom. But this only happens when
she's not invited to the wedding. And once the feminine mode of wisdom has been excluded--or demonized-- what happens next is that everyone goes unconscious...
even the animals dreaming, with their twitching paws.
To my mind, the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty might reflect the slumbering anima of Christianity and Christian Europe--exactly what began to wake up in the 12th century. But in the unconscious, in some sense there is no time, as well as something a little open-ended about who the story is speaking about, as well as who it is speaking to. That's part of the magical seduction of such soul narratives. We become drawn into the story. Suddenly we're empathically participating in what unfolds. So we could see in this tale a metaphor for something beautiful--the soul itself, our soul--which can slumber within human beings for years, decades--and in cultures, for centuries.
I'm answering your question about the crone in a crone-like way, weaving large vistas of time and space into my replies, for She is far-seeing. But when the crone hasn't been honored, we lose that kind of vision, and then not only do men fall into unconsciousness, and not learn
what we need to learn from women, but women seem to be affected too. For
the culture's lack of visible role models of the more autonomous crone can
lead women to become more relationally dependent, looking to men for
validation, as if there's some 'it' that they need to get from outside themselves.
Which then throws a note of acrimony into male-female relationships
when the men can't provide the missing 'it' the women are looking to them for.
When the more autonomous wisdom element isn't present at a marriage, there is nothing deeper standing behind the personal beloved. And that "something deeper," the Large She, is precisely what began to emerge in the period between the 11th and 14th centuries. Yet when the more autonomous wisdom element isn't present, then both our intimate love relationships and our love lyrics are the poorer for it. And people are set up for a kind of erotic discontent--as in our 50% divorce rate--because something feels missing that your partner isn't able to provide. God, I hear that every day in doing therapy with people--people bitching about what seems to be "missing" in their erotic relationships!
And so, at some points in a marriage or an intimate love relationship, you better have access to that wise crone who can stand alone without being dependent on your partner for your sense of well-being. Because sometimes your partner, "the small she or he"--the personal aspect of the beloved--is going to go nuts, like he or she has fallen under a spell and isn't capable of seeing you very clearly.
So all of this is what I see as "the case of the missing Crone," which is actually the title for
one of the chapters in a book I've been fitfully writing about the Persephone myth. The crone is the one aspect of the
triple goddess that is not dependent on a relationship in order to define her...
but in a Christian culture like ours --where the tripled aspect of divinity is all masculine--where is she?
And without a crone figure like Hekate, to whom might wounded, Persephone-like women turn to for healing, women who have experienced a traumatic rupture with their own personal mothers? Without a myth to draw upon, without a story, without an internalized crone figure like Hekate, women who have suffered some rupture in the capacity to bond with their own personal mothers are set up to have what contemporary psychology might diagnose as "borderline personality features."
That is to say, women who suffer from a history of instability in their interpersonal relationships, and who are continuously becoming destabilized in their relationships when the other person can't possibly live up to their idealized expectations--as if their current relationship should somehow make up for all that has failed to appear in the past. The rupture in early bonding can lead such women to have a deep fear of abandonment, which then gets triggered when a relationship starts to deepen. They may then become overly controlling out of the attempt to protect their underlying fragility.
Unconsciously there can be the tendency to sabotage their relationships--and thus recreate the earlier rupture. It becomes a "repetition compulsion." And their current lovers thus become framed in the light of all that seemed missing early in life as they continue to cycle back and forth between idealizing and then devaluing their potential "love objects."
This seems a similar cycling back and forth between the Underworld and the Olympian realm as that suffered by the goddess Persephone. Only today, we no longer have the Eleusinian Mysteries--the ritual training celebrating Persephone and Demeter--and that for hundreds of years once helped orient human beings to what it is that still remains when all we have based our sense of security on has been taken away.
This ritual loss has also left us disoriented toward death, as well as disoriented toward our own depths--while contributing to our co-dependency, and a general trend of erotic instability, for it is not just "borderlines" who have unrealistic, idealized expectations in their love unions. It's as if we've retained in our contemporary love relationships a lingering legacy of fin' amour--namely the expectation that our lovers should lead us to encounter a divine, mythological being--what the troubadours and fin amour termed "Amor." But we have lost the practices and sensibility that once made this more viable. So, whether we're looking at this from the perspective of Greek mythology or Courtly Love, there have been cultural and ritual losses that we suffer from and have yet to replace.
And I've been saying that one of these losses has to do with the Crone. In one of the Arthurian quest sagas --namely the tale of Parzival --she is well-represented by Cundry, a protectress of the Grail. That Crone wears a veil--behind which lie tusks and enormous eyebrows that meet at the back of her head.
That's not exactly the kind of image of an idealized femininity that might appear today on the cover of Vogue magazine! Instead, that's clearly a very specific kind of mythological figure--namely the Crone. And she plays an important initiatory role in Parzival's deepening. She keeps reminding Parzival of his failings--and she appears at the precise moments he is being lionized by others. Because of this Crone, Parzival is protected from any kind of heroic or narcissistic inflation gaining much traction. And we have mentioned in the Persephone myth, the important role of that other Crone, Hekate--another initiatory figure. But who do we have today?
You can look at the television or any billboard and see the lovely maiden
seducing our attention with her physical charms, and you can see the mother
aspect everywhere as well, perhaps pouring cereal like Demeter might, or
touting cleaning products for the home--but no Crone. We put our Crones in
old age homes while everyone in the media is going gaga over the next
Hollywood ingenue or pop singer. These pretty young women are on the
cover of every magazine, for women have learned to idealize youth as well,
while in some way devaluing older women, and trying to do everything in
their power to avoid even the appearance of aging.
It could be a revealing inventory for contemporary women to take stock of
all the beauty products, all the time and money they spend in trying to look
younger --and then compare that to how much expenditure goes into
cultivating the soul or doing inner work. And the reason is that in a culture
preoccupied with the superficial image--versus what poets in the late 1960s
were calling "deep image"--in a culture where the imagination is trivialized
and preoccupied with youth, then being old equates with being unlovable.
And since nobody wants that, what's looking back at you from the magazine
racks every time you're waiting in line to buy groceries? Young vapid
beauties! They're everywhere!
And in our present cultural epoch, if a man makes love with a woman under fifty, what's likely to be looking back at him when he removes her panties? Geez, whatever happened to pubic hair? Do you think the impulse to appear younger has gone too far? I sure do! But it seems we are only capable of noticing
about one Crone every fifty years. Eleanor Roosevelt and Mother Teresa are
no longer with us, so who do we have? Maybe Hilary Rodham Clinton is a
Crone in waiting--or Oprah.
MR: I was starting to ask if the Crone has been lost, or as you say, overlooked
--and with it the wise feminine--then what is available today, and how
might that impact upon our capacity or incapacity when to comes to love, and
writing about love?
GR: ...I suspect that we're due for an infusion of some good Crone energy as
many of the wonderful women of my generation--which is also the largest generation that has ever peopled the earth-- continue to get older and
become free of child-rearing duties, and increasingly inject their perspective
into the culture. So that should help us. And I'm seeing it already. There really is a kind of soul maturation that seems to be happening with a lot of women once they get into their late 40s or 50s. They've been around the block, and seem to become more realistic about their relationships, no longer traveling beneath what I call "a ridiculous hat."
And I should probably put in a plug
for psychotherapy, which has gotten a lot better, or at least some of it has in
the last few decades, which has not only been a boon for the poets and writers
willing to take advantage of it, but also done something by way of creating a
more psychologically savvy audience for them to speak to and be supported
There seems to be more people out there today who 'get it,' probably
more of an audience today in the culture for poetry than ever before, an
audience that is hungry for a poetry and a wisdom literature that can include
the psychological and spiritual nuances of relationship... And I think that the
Eastern meditative traditions that have begun entering the culture over the
past thirty years or more --and look at all the people doing yoga today!-- when combined with the increased awareness of the
psychological realm that therapy has brought may now make possible a
reiteration of what was in the air back in the 12th and 13th centuries--where the intimate love relationship can be a
kind of spiritual practice, one that can lead to transcendence, if only people are willing to work through the narcissistic wounding, as well as the other forms of fixation that an intimate relationship is sure to bring up.
And there are gazes and other practices that we can draw upon, if not from fin ' amour, then from the Eastern spiritual traditions that can give us another view of ourselves and our partners than one so encapsulated by our prevailing narcissism. (You can look at some of these gazes being practiced in the audio-visual part of this website to gain some further sense of this).
It really is possible to have an experience of the mythological beings--the Large She or the Large He--standing behind our partners and within ourselves. Yet without turning a blind eye toward what in ourselves and what in our partners is conditioned or fixated. As one of my teachers once put it, we human beings have a marvelous light within us...that is often covered by a disgusting lampshade!
But the lovely possibility for us is that we'll see a further nudging forward of what the troubadours and Courtly Love had started, where the spiritual wisdom tradition and the poetic love tradition really go hand in hand.
MR: In your poetry readings you've also mentioned something about a shift
in erotic rhythm, and how that can lead to an emotional deepening...
GR: Yes, seven or eight hundred years ago when love poems seemed to be
more plentiful, there seemed a different erotic rhythm than what I grew up
with in the late nineteen sixties--where you might meet someone at a concert,
smoke a little dope together, and an hour later be making love in the back of a
Volkswagon van. Things were quite different back in the time of the
It wasn't an age of instant telecommunications--or instant gratification.
There was a lot of waiting involved. It could be a very big deal to be at a social
gathering--if you were a member of the upper classes, from which the
tradition of courtly love originated--and have the lady drop her
handkerchief...and in picking it up you actually got to touch her hand.
Weeks might go by before a note got passed. It might be months before you
actually got to be alone with the man or woman you loved...
Plus, in the French tradition the lady was usually married to somebody
else--so it wasn't so easy to consummate things. And in the time of waiting,
all the time of being apart from the man or woman you were lusting for, the energy
would build--a lot of longing had time to arise--and out of this longing some deeper
energies in the soul had time to well up, and along with it a lot of poems and
songs got written.
That longing may have helped Amor to waken from slumber. And perhaps what was being impeded from a quick release on the physical
plane helped to activate something on a more psychic, archetypal plane,
contributing to that more elevated sense of the beloved.
MR: So 'the time of waiting' can be important. You've also alluded to this
in regards to whatever critical or popular success a writer might have. And
that just as ' getting physical' too early can cut something off emotionally and
spiritually in love relationships, similarly, too much success too early can be
an impediment to one's art as well as to one's spiritual development--and
that there's a relationship between the two...
GR: Very much, unless you're not only really great in your art as well as
having a great, mature soul--and very few of us are either --let alone both,
especially when we are young. And we must not forget that the really great
poets like Blake and Rumi and Rilke were also great souls. And that depth of
soul which is going to be capable of writing poetry that can endure and help
guide and uplift people for centuries to come, that kind of soul depth isn't
something that's going to come to you by attending the Iowa Writers
Workshop, or by the mere accumulation of craft...
The really great stuff often seems to have an effortless quality, like its
bubbling straight up from the Source. So the effort and spiritual discipline
really needs to be there before one sits down to write...like weeding your
garden first before you plant anything. We really need to work on ourselves
and do our spiritual homework or our innate wisdom won't have a landing
pad. The well won't be dug deep enough to receive the really sweet and
*Note: This is an edited version of an unpublished article that appeared previously on the old website of Point Bonita Books.
To view a video that further addresses some of this material, see When Lovers Dissolve, Gary's reading delivered to the 2011 Non Dual Wisdom and Psychotherapy Conference.