The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon
Presentations: Barbara Knott
Note: This interview was originally published in Pilgrimage: Psychotherapy and Personal Exploration (2000). I have edited it lightly, mainly to update biographical information.
INTERVIEW WITH DAVID MILLER, PART 1
DAVID MILLER SPEAKS ABOUT
*PRUDERY & BRUTALITY
*FANTASIES OF ENDING
*DEATH OF EROS, HUMOR, THINKING
*RUIN OF ACADEMIA
*GOD AS MONEY
*A MYTH AND A SMILE
One of the most honored teachers in the United States, David Miller's achievement at age 76 is admirable by any standards. For 34 years he was a distinguished professor in religion at Syracuse University, and in l996 he was named the first at Syracuse to hold a new chair in the humanities. His own education is both broad and deep, encompassing theology, mythology, literature and the arts. He is the author of five books and more than a hundred articles and book chapters. He also was a core faculty member at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich. He is in constant demand to speak at conferences.
James Joyce says the supreme question about a work of art is, out of how deep a life does it spring? It was my pleasure to present David as a writer in an earlier issue of Pilgrimage (Summer l991). Here I want to focus on his role as a speaker, for it was in his lectures and conversations that I got to know the quality of his life. More even than his writing, David Miller's speaking shows the depth of his life, the soul of his work. I believe he is among the most perceptive thinkers and speakers of our time, and that what he has to say is crucial to comprehending the complex world we live in.
For thirteen years (l975--l988) David Miller was a participant in the annual Eranos Conferences at Lago Maggiore near Ascona, Switzerland, lecturing at that conference on nine occasions. Among the members of this elite organization, which lasted for a period of 57 years, were those whom Joseph Campbell, editor of the English translation of the Eranos Yearbooks, called "the greatest scholars of the time": names still familiar to a broad public include Heinrich Zimmer, Carl Jung, and Erich Neumann. Eventually Campbell was among the lecturers, along with Henry Corbin and James Hillman. In the l970s and l980s David Miller joined the circle.
In l972, just before he began the Eranos lectures out of which many of his books came, I met David at another conference, the first in a series called Castalia, also in Switzerland. The retreat, organized by Gene Nameche, was held at a villa in Vezia, a town outside Lugano, where the paths of C. G. Jung and Hermann Hesse had crossed. I went there for a summer whose point of departure into many considerations was the work of Jung and Hesse. David was on a faculty that included Jean Houston, Harvey Cox, June Singer, and Huston Smith.
The six weeks were full of cultural excursions: to Salzburg for the music festival; to Florence, heart of the art Renaissance in Italy; to Verona for an outdoor performance of Aida that included live horses; to Rome, where one's footsteps fell into a profound symmetry with the past, the antique past from whose mold much of the Western world was cast. There was also a journey to the Jung Institute in Zurich and a trip to the Eranos site at Lago Maggiore.
At Vezia where the seminars were going on, we had a visit from Timothy Leary (who was in exile from the U. S. at the time), from Miguel Serrano who had written a book on Jung and Hesse, from Hesse's family members, and from Fred Haines and his film company who showed his just-finished documentary on Muhammed Ali and read us his script for the film version of Hesse's Steppenwolf. The summer was intensely stimulating.
David was fully involved in the heavyweight (to borrow a metaphor from Ali) seminars of that summer of l972, but he was simultaneously engaged in a lighter, more playful role that comes back to me now with equal clarity. Among friends I made early on was Michael Volin, a Russian poet and storyteller who was also a yogin (Swami Karmananda, the "revered teacher," a title bestowed on him in India for his mastery of three yogic traditions: Indian, Chinese, Tibetan). As raconteur, he entertained a group of friends daily after dinner. He had nicknames for those who interested him. He referred to David Miller as Myth Man. Michael had been brought onto the faculty to offer yoga exercises and meditations mornings and evenings. He was also an Olympics runner who loved sports of all kinds. Highly competitive, he had established himself as the one to beat at table tennis. One evening he came into the living room where we were waiting to hear a story. His usually regal bearing had given way to stooped shoulders and a crestfallen look. The master had been beaten. His only comment was, "Myth Man is a very demon at the ping and pong."
When I finally watched them in a game, I saw what he meant. David played with a sportsman's enjoyment of his opponent, but he was merciless on points, and he had a devastating tennis arm. Years later I found out that he had been a tennis pro. The daimonic energy (perhaps slightly demonic as well) that drives him in the game also informs his speaking. Part of the fun of being at Castalia was watching and listening to David Miller and Jean Houston in verbal repartees that resembled championship tennis matches. Though they were playing with words in a way that produced in their discourse a radiant surface, the talk had depth, too. It changed some of the ideas I was walking around in (to use a Miller construct).
After that summer, I saw David at the Hofstra Conference on Jung (l986) where he lectured (with Hillman, Campbell, Robert Bly and many others) and at a more intimate retreat in Rye, New York, where he and Hillman presented a weekend program on "Shadows of Christianity." When I returned to live in Atlanta and was program coordinator and then president of the Jung Society in the early 90s, David came to lecture at a Society meeting and to do a workshop at the Center for Archetypal Studies as well as to present a lecture at West Georgia University in the series named for James Klee. So I have kept up with his work and the work of archetypal psychologists with whom he shares friendships and common intellectual ground. I want always to know what they are thinking about, how they are seeing the world and seeing through the world's dilemmas, for I, too, am concerned with matters of soul.
At the time I met David Miller, he was already well-known as a mythologist. In l963 he had been, with Joseph Campbell and Rollo May, a vice president of the New York Society for Art, Religion and Culture, when Time magazine published its first cover that was not a human face. Instead, it was all black, with bold letters asking the question IS GOD DEAD? David said in a recent lecture that all three members of the Society were besieged with media phone calls and invitations to speak on television and radio news programs where the question was not IS GOD DEAD? (David said, "They already knew that") but WHAT ARE THE MYTHS OF A MYTHLESS TIME?
Thirty-six years later, in June l999, David Miller appeared with James Hillman and others at a conference sponsored by Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, California, entitled "Archetypal Activism." Miller's lecture closed the series. In it he elaborated an idea that on the one hand, we live in what seems like a mythless time; on the other hand, he says, we are at the mercy of myths being lived unconsciously. America experienced a wakeup call in the l950s when the Russians sent up Sputnik, he says, a call in which we as a nation realized that we had to make a supreme effort to catch up our educational lag in science and mathematics.
Now, he says, we are receiving another wakeup call in the form of violence where myths are being taken literally and acted out, in instances of ethnic cleansing, warring in the Middle East and Ireland, in shooting sprees in our own country. He shows how Eric Harris in Littleton, Colorado, acted out the dilemma of having too little myth on the one hand and too much on the other, and how the conflicts around the world are clearly mythological, involving "my god against your god." In this lecture, he continues, "It is hard work and difficult to find the soul of the world, the soul of money, consumerism, capitalist exploitation, global relativism, violence in schools, rape warfare, ethnic cleansing, military solutions to everything, classism, sexism, racism, hate, drug rape, binge drinking, all the craziness in pathology that I live with daily."
The wakeup call, he says, is to study the myths of the world, to find out "the spirituality and poetics of business, global politics, the narratives and images that unconsciously inform and shape lives and cultures." He studies myth, he says, "to try to get a clue to the mythlessness, the absurdity, the irrationality, the meaninglessness. It tells me something about what I am because it tells me what I am not."
Following are transcripts of a series of tape recordings David Miller sent to me in response to questions over a period of nine months, from November l998 until August l999 when he left New York for three weeks in Europe. I was having difficulty finding a place to stop my questions because every day the media brought fresh images whose mythic background needed to be understood. So we stopped with his leaving the country. And sure enough, the very next day's news seemed designed to illustrate what he had been saying. I will review that news at the end of Part II.
THE INTERVIEW, PART I
What an astonishing set of quotations you sent me. I'm thinking of the boxes in the New York Times article on C. G. Jung about his visit on 9/29/19l2 and the report on America that he delivered to the 2nd International Psychoanalytic Conference in Nuremburg in March l9l0. I believe that was the same year that Jung and Freud visited in Massachusetts. The boxes include these comments by Jung: "America is the most tragic country in the world. Prudery is always the cover for brutality. Eliminate prudery and America may become the greatest country the world has ever known."
I don't know about America being the greatest country the world has ever known, but I'm sitting in my office on Monday after the Saturday that the Congress voted the two articles of impeachment of Bill Clinton, and it certainly is true that prudery is a cover for brutality and that America is the most tragic country in the world. These comments of Jung's about America are more relevant 86 years later than they were in l9l2, more relevant at the end of the millennium than they were at the beginning of this century, or so it seems to me. The situation of President Clinton and all that's been going on in that regard, not to mention the voyeuristic attention given to the O. J. Simpson trial a few years earlier, is certainly an example, as someone said in the New York Times yesterday, of neo-puritanism cutting a wide swath across America with the meanness of its scythe. That's indeed the way it seems to me.
I was thinking about Clinton and all this in terms of Hebrew scriptures. The first verse of First Kings says that when King David was getting along in years, the people of Israel brought in Abishag the Shunammite to lie with him, and that she was particularly comely; that is, she was a sexy woman, a voluptuous woman, and the ordeal by bed was to see if he still deserved to be the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the nation of Israel and whether he was also the spiritual leader of the country. And this would be tested by whether he could "get it up" with this young, voluptuous, beautiful woman. And he did not succeed in that task. He "knew her not," as the scripture says, with the result that Israel started to look for a new leader. Now in the United States it seems that we, at least the Congress--not the people, the Congress (representing something or other in the United States)--looks for a new leader when he does get it up, not when he isn't able any longer to be potent. So it would suggest that what we are really interested in is impotent leaders.
It occurs to me that there is an old, old archetypal, mythological context for this. I am thinking of the the Shilluk people of Africa who, according to Leo Frobenius, killed their king every seven years. It's reminiscent of my uncle in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Uncle Ed Gnagey used to tell me that certain fields should be ploughed only every seven years: between times, we should let them lie to themselves in order to rejuvenate lest we wear them out. That, I suppose, is the insight of this agricultural people in Africa (not a hunting people but an agricultural people) who know that the earth needs rejuvenating and use that as an analogy for the human soil out of which leadership comes. Every seven years, they get a new king through a celebration and a ritual regicide that involves the sacrifice of a young man and a young woman who have not yet had sexual intercourse. In the couple's first sexual intercourse, they are buried alive in a pit along with the king. Now, the reason I mention that is because here we live in a post-industrialist computer mythological time, a postmodern time, that still has the remnants of an agricultural civilization. We don't let the President, according to the Constitution, repeat himself more than two terms: that's eight years, one more year than the Shilluk allow their king to live, and the reason is not political or social or Constitutional; the reason mythologically is this old agricultural insight that potency wears itself out. Now, on that basis, the people of the United States, including even the Congress people, should be elated and exhuberant and excited and happy that they have a president of the United States who is sexually attractive to a 20-year-old voluptuous woman. That would seem to me to be an occasion for joy. But you see, what's happened is that the mythology has been retained, but as so often happens when a mythology is out of date, it is inverted, turned upside down. So the same principle is used but backwards and upside down, and in this case, that seems to me to be what has happened.
Again this morning, the polls were up for the support of Clinton as a good president--72%, according to USA Today, and that suggests to me that the people somewhere intuitively know that this sexy guy is doing a good job and doing a good job because he's a sexy guy. I mean, his charm has managed to do fine things--almost--in the Middle East, with Israel and the Palestinian governments. So the people know down deep of his accomplishments, but the Congress people in their moralism don't seem to understand that, and that's what I meant by the scythe of neo-puritanism cutting a wide swath of meanness, or as Jung pointed out, of brutality.
Margaret Atwood, in one of her latest novels, Cat's Eye, ends the last section by saying, "There's a lot of meanness blowing around," and I think that's indeed the case. But one surely might wonder why this is. I mentioned that Jung wrote these comments at the beginning of the century. Here we stand on the verge of l999 (I am speaking on December 2l on the solstice just before the penultimate year of this millennium) and what occurs to me is that when there are fantasies of ending, there is moralistic retrenchment. And why is that? Well, think of all the fantasies of endings. There are the endings of a marriage or the anxiety that a marriage might end, the anxiety and the fear connected with the death of a loved one or oneself due to, say, a prostate or breast cancer, the ending that happens when the kids go off to college, or the ending that happens when friends part. There is a considerable anxiety. There is a fundamental ambiguity, as Freud said, or a complexio oppositorum, as Jung said, and the opposition is that we're "so glad that's over, so glad to be free of that husband or that wife, so glad to be free of the kids. Now we can get on with our lives." This feeling of relief goes together with, "I have so much of my own identity connected up with that relationship that if I lose [the relationship], I lose a piece of myself, and that's scary." That's the reason these things never really die but haunt us for the rest of our lives. They are ghosts in our lives. So when that happens, as we see in apocalyptic and chiliastic movements in Judaism and Christianity and Islam and in other spiritual traditions, people actually start to count. There is a lot of counting. How many people will be in the rapture? l44,000. What's the magic number of the evil principle that will bring about the end? 666. The numbering of the seraphim and the cherubim. Or even in the popular literature, "Will I be in that number when the saints go marching in?" In Aztec calendars mythologically and in Hindu calendars, we have the ages: the gold age, the bronze age, the silver age, and the iron age leading to, in the Hindu case, the Kaliyuga, the worst time, and it's all running down and running out. Then it's going to end, but it's going to go round again, so I'm not going to really get rid of anything. It'll be a new heaven and new earth as the Book of Revelations says, and in the new heaven and new earth, according to the text, the Lord says, "I will make all things new." He doesn't say, "I'll make new things." It's just a different way of seeing everything else again.
Now this business of becoming fixated on numbers in a time of fantasies of endings: it happens in divorce proceedings in the splitting of the money and whether we should have equal parity, split it half and half, and so on. I think it has to do with the simple pun on the word "count" that we have in English. The question of "Do I count?" When the saints go marching in, will I be in that number? And when my parents are divorced, will I count anymore? When my parents die, will I count, or was it all them? The business of counting, whether I count, is very important. When I worry about counting and numbers, I become not only economically conservative, as we have seen in global markets, but I become theologically conservative, I become socially and moralistically conservative, and I want to hold onto relationships. So we have an increase in morality, which is an increase in prudery, but there's also an increase in spirituality, as we see in New Age spirituality.
The thing that worries me about the brutality of these spiritualities--my god over against your god--in Northern Ireland, in Kashmir, in the Middle East and Central Africa and so on--the thing that worries me about this, the brutality of this, including the brutality of New Age spirituality (its seriousness, its lack of playfulness, its lack of eros, its lack of openness), is belief. The question is, do you believe that the rapture is coming? What is your belief? Now, belief is a killer. As Jung said and others have observed, belief is a killer because...let me give you an example.
A couple of years ago there was a New Age convention in New York City. A reporter from the New York Times called me up in Syracuse wanting to know what was going on. Here l0,000 or more people daily were going through this hotel, paying $l3.50 apiece just to get in. That was before they bought crystals and had their charts cast and so on. And [the reporter] said, "What is this?" And I said, "Well, we're a religious nation. At the end of a millennium, everybody becomes religious. And that means that they're interested in belief."
Because why? Well, religion, in the Jewish and Christian and Muslim versions, the versions of radical monotheism and radical morality in the West, all have to do with soteriology, especially Christianism. What must I do to be saved? Soteriology has to do with the doctrine of salvation. Salvus means to save. Why would I want to save something? Well, I'd want to save it if I thought I was going to lose it. So fantasies of endings bring on soteriological religion. Saving. So I want to save the Constitution, I want to save my conscience, I want to save the nation from lying and obstruction of justice, I want to be saved for the rapture. Save, save, save.
The implication is that we've lost something. You don't have to save it unless you're about to lose it. Of course, the reason for soteriological Christianity, the reason one needs a savior, is because of the Fall, of the idea that we're all sinners to start with. So if you start out with the notion that everybody is a sinner, and you find out that Bill Clinton has been a sinner, then Larry Flynt of Hustler magazine is going to offer a million bucks to show how all the other people have been sinners. You see, Hustler magazine is a Christian invention. It's "everybody is a sinner, and we're going to expose it and have this general public confession because if we have general public confession, then we can have redemption, and we can have salvation." People can be saved. Even the New York Times says in an editorial that if Clinton would only confess that he lied and he obstructed justice, then we could do censure rather than impeachment. Well, that's a Christian idea. That's a soteriological thing and it's based on belief. Belief is the killer.
What if there was no Fall? What if people aren't saved? What if people are just doing the best they can, muddling along in their private and public lives, doing whatever they can. And what if we don't call that sin? What if we call that human? What if we call it freedom? What if we call it liberation? Then you don't have to be saved from it. You don't have to have a knight in armor and cast the snakes out of Ireland or kill the dragon that in mythology usually turns out to be female. To kill the feminine. To kill the nurturing, the mothering, the open arms toward humanness. So at the end of the millennium we all become believers. Soteriology.
The woman at the New York Times said to me, "What about this religion, this New Age business?" She said, "I went to an exhibit at the hotel and it looks a lot like the sixties." I found myself saying over the telephone in this interview, "No, it's not like the sixties." I said, "It does look like the sixties. It's the same stuff--astrology and yoga and all kinds of meditation techniques and crystals and so on. It looks the same. But in the sixties, we all took our clothes off, and we danced in the street, and we went to Woodstock and we laughed, and it wasn't a matter of serious belief. Now, [the New Agers] believe. So this is leftwing fundamentalism. The New Age spirituality is leftwing fundamentalism which matches Jerry Falwell and Tammi and Jimmy Baker and rightwing fundamentalism. We are fundamentalists in the face of fantasies of ending, and that's what's happening in Congress vis a vis the impeachment.
I'm not a prophet. I do very poorly playing the horses and the stock market and even in my own life, I'm not very good with futures, betting futures. But I would say that by the year 200l--in two years--this mood, this sense, will turn around. And we'll have a new sensibility. I'm not mystically inclined, but I think when the date, the conventional date, gets three nines in it or three zeroes, fantasies of ending come up, and with fantasies of ending comes belief in soteriology, that everyone is a sinner and we need a savior. The danger, of course, is that's what happened with the rise of the Third Reich in Nazi Germany. It was millennialist kind of thinking that enabled Hitler to become a so-called savior of the people. It's ironic, of course, that he was a messiah figure in the mythological tradition of radical monotheism which he was precisely against, the Aryan being against the Semite.
Barbara, this means that I think the political correctness and pedagogical correctness of the 70s and the 80s and the 90s, the climate of ideas we walk around in today that we're not aware of unconsciously, are very much not social problems or political problems or moralistic problems. I think they are theological problems, theologically based. I think it's an unconscious mythology and theology that people are behaving unwittingly.
BK insert from David Miller's article "Animadversions" in Spring 54, 27-8):
Ideas are not in us; we are in ideas .... Ideas are autonomous, have a life of their own, and we, thinkers all, witting or unwitting and witless, walk around in them, as in a cloud of unknowing. The unknowing is dangerous. The surgeon general ought to put a warning label on everyone's forehead, like a mark of Cain ... and if not on the forehead, then over the guts or crotch or the weak knees or still neck or eyes or whatever part of the body that the person thinks with, a warning that ideas can be dangerous to the health of the soul and the body politic. We suffer ideas, individually and collectively.
DM interview continued:
All you have to do is to join that neo-puritanism to the pragmatism of America, Henry Fordism, the capitalism of a product-oriented society, consumerist mentality, managerial understanding--and you see what happens in total quality management which comes not only to businesses but to the university and to the world that is affected by the United States. It's a religious Walt Disney atmosphere.
Now, in the face of this, we have a computer revolution. I think potentially, in the computer revolution, we have a compensation for the belief system and the literalism that I've just been talking about. People are addicted to the computer, to the Worldwide Web, to the Internet, and they're addicted to craziness, pornography, terrorist stuff, hackers, all kinds of weirdness, all kinds of unconventionality. I think that we are undergoing a revolution in our mythogenesis. The mythogenetic zone today is the computer. And the computer is the ideal spot to locate the mythology of a post-industrialist, postmodern civilization. Why? Because it's all image.
My daughter is a graphic designer, and she works on these graphic interfaces. That is to say, here is the subject on one side of the computer. That's me, and I don't know who I am very well, and I certainly don't know how to operate the stuff that's on the inside of the computer, the other side of the computer, so I need icons, I need images, I need a graphic interface, I need imagination. We have to have a window to look through (Windows 95, 98, 2000, XP, Vista). And someone will give us that window, that way of imagining the other side. Now what's on either side is no-thing. You know about my interest in nothingness and becoming nothing precisely in a time when people are worried if they count, if they're something. Am I something? No, I'm nothing. What's in the computer is no-thing; it's virtual reality. The only thing that's real, that's certain, is the interface: the graphic images, the icons. That's one thing: the computer is the world of nothing that compensates the world of hysterical somethingness of puritans and pragmatists, capitalists and fundamentalists. Since the agricultural revolution about l0,000 BCE (that is to say, for the last l2,000 years), we have been divided into hierarchies, male/female, business class and so on, because we needed a division of labor to do our jobs.
With the computer, every person who has a keyboard has access to all the technologies of the world. Primordial hunters did, too, or people who went on a vision quest: all they needed was a flintknife. That was the technology that enabled them to run their lives. Every person by the age of ten had to know all of the technology of the culture; otherwise, she or he would perish. Not so after the agricultural revolution. I don't have to know how to shoe a horse if I know how to plow a field. Someone else will do the other task. I don't need to know how to cook the food if I know how to grow it. My wife will do that. So that we had a division into gender inequality.
I just saw the other day that women are using the computer more than they've ever done before. There's becoming an equality in the male/female use of the computer. Everyone is his or her own creative hero; creativity doesn't have to depend on the community in a community effort. So that's the second thing: we are returning to a hunter mentality in which the individual guides the community rather than the community guiding the individuals, as Joseph Campbell used to like to say.
A final thing about the computer, and this is where the soul of the computer is, I think: People say the computer lacks soul, but that's because they've so identified soul with the Christian notion of it that they can't see a post-Christian notion of soul in the computer. Soul in the computer has to do with the fact that the computer came right after video games, Pacman and so on, and the computer looks a lot like a video game, and it takes a lot of time, and requires something the Germans call Spielraum, playroom. When I'm with my computer by myself I have a lot of room to play, not gaminess like Pacman or pro football, which is still a capitalist enterprise, but rather just play-play. As in WHERE DID YOU GO? OUT. WHAT DID YOU DO? NOTHING. That was the name of a book back in the 60s. It's a doing nothing. I'm not doing anything. I'm not doing anything productive. It's not going to make my marriage better or my life richer (although I may make money off the computer, and I may damage my marriage by becoming isolated from my wife by looking at the computer), but the main thing is, the computer provides play room like the play that's necessary in a bicycle wheel. If you tighten the nuts of a bicycle wheel down too tightly, the wheel won't turn. It needs some play. Everything needs some play. See, that's what the fundamentalists, the moralists, the prudes, and the New Agers in their brutal "serious belief" don't understand. We need Spielraum, play room.
And so we treat the computer as if it were a video game. Never mind if we're doing our shopping or if we're looking at world news of if we're solving complicated problems; it's still a video game. So I think it will dawn on people as they're doing wheelies on the information highway that it's all image, that it's all imagination, and that the computer is helping them to realize that it was all imagination all along. It wasn't a matter of subjects and objects, me over against the other, my god over against your god, it was just a matter of global economy, global humanity tooling down the information highway, freed from the pragmatism and the puritanism into the pornography and the craziness and everything else that's on the computer which, I think, is a compensation for what's going on in the culture.
Another thing that happens with the computer is that everyone is an artist. Everyone can design his or her own web page. Everyone can use the paint box, tools in Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Word and so on, and we are all "soft" and "micro." It's not a matter of being "macro" and "hard." This is a compensation for the puritanism and pragmatism. The trope for what is going on is that the person before the computer is an artist, and the artist is the model for, curiously, the creativity of the computer. So art is reaffirmed as a leading carrier of culture rather than being seen as evil, as in the Puritan mentality where theater is to be avoided, poetry is a frill, and art in the pragmatic mode is only useful insofar as it is a technique for communicating something else. In the computer, art is reaffirmed for its own sake. The person in front of the computer is an artist in the old and shamanic sense of artist. It is not that the artist is the model for us and that people all become artists; it is rather, as Ananda Coomaraswamy is said to have said (though I think he was quoting a more ancient mystic), that the artist is not a special kind of person, but that every person is a special kind of artist. So the notion of the artist and art as the leading carrier of culture is that culture is everywhere. We are each of us the culture. Not those Congress people in Washington, D. C., but every one of us in the streets, is shaping the culture. We don't know how this is going to come out; this is open. The word open in Greek is chaskein, meaning chaos; it feels like chaos sometimes, but I think it's play. We are all in this great computer mythogenetic playroom waiting to see what might happen. It doesn't matter much what happens; the energy that's generated is the important thing.
The Eranos conferences were a sort of Spielraum, a playroom, a very important thing. They started in l933 and lasted till l988. There were 57 years of these meetings. Then an end to the traditional Eranos conferences happened, and something else happened. It may have to do with what I was talking about in terms of the end of the millennium and the retrenchment. The 57 years of Eranos conferences were imagined first by a woman, Olga Froebe-Kapteyn, who said to herself in l933 (think about what was going on in l933; that is to say, we'd had one world war and we were witnessing the build-up for another one), that if the great thinkers of the world can't come together and talk together and produce harmony, then the world is lost. She set out to demonstrate that the great thinkers of the world could come together and talk and produce harmony. Her only proviso was that these couldn't be merely thinkers; these would have to be thinkers for whom their thought was embodied in their way of thinking and in life--not necessarily their lives, but in life. They had to exhibit thought which was at the same time a spirituality. It's easier to do in European languages where the word for spirit is also the word for mind; in German Geist is both spirit and mind; in French esprit is both spirit and mind, and so on. So it had to be thinkers who were spiritual, not spiritual in an esoteric New Age sense, but a very embodied soulful sense. So the idea was that these people would come together in a "feast." At Eranos the world was sort of like a rural church supper I used to attend in Pennsylvania, in Pennsylvania Dutch country, where everybody would bring a dish and put it on the table, and we would all go around and taste everybody else's dish. Now it was very important that you didn't say, "Well, that's the worst thing I ever had." You always said something nice: "Well, that's very interesting, putting marshmallows on top of turnips. That's really an interesting thing." And so you would try it out.
My first Eranos conference was in l969. I sat beside a British lady, a woman who was very feisty and lively, short, and wore, I remember, white tennis shoes. Gershom Sholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, had spoken that year, and the speeches were two hours long. There was a break in the middle where the speaker would retire to a room. (I learned later when I spoke there the first time in l975 that they served the speaker champagne during the break and tea biscuits and protected him or her from the audience). That was very nice. You had a little bubbly and got your spirit back (that is, your mind back) from the champagne and went back and gave the second half of your talk. During this break, the "pause" as it was called because the German word for break is Pause, we'd all go out on the balcony overlooking this beautiful lake, Lago Maggiore in Southern Switzerland on the Italian border, and I talked to the British woman who was sitting beside me. I said, "Will there be a discussion session with the speaker?"
And she said to me, "You must be American."
I felt properly ashamed and said, "What do you mean?"
She said, "All the Americans think that. It's sort of a democratic idea." She said, "The truth is that the speakers here are asked to speak at the very edge of their thinking," and, she said, "If they manage to do that, of course, they don't know the answers to the questions that might be asked any better than the audience does, and if they don't manage to speak at the edge of their thought, at the very frontier of thinking, then there is no point in asking questions because it's not worth anything."
So either way, there's no point in asking questions. Rather, it's like those church suppers in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. You just taste it and see. Or like the Hebrew psalm says, "O taste and see that the Lord is good." So that's what we did. We'd taste this, and we'd sit then by the lake and talk and see where it went.
These were remarkable occasions. I was asked to speak there first in l975, and I gave nine talks between the years l975 and l988. These were certainly the most important moments of my life. I remember when I gave my first talk, I was very nervous beforehand and James Hillman, the archetypal psychologist who was speaking that year also, noticed. He is a therapist, and he noticed that I was nervous and had empathy for it since he was speaking, too, and even though he was more experienced than I, he also exhibited nervousness. He said, "Miller, think of it not as talking to that audience (which was filled with distinguished people and scholars from all over the world), but talk to dead people, talk to Jung or talk to Freud or to St. Augustine or Plato or Kant or Buddha or Mohammed." So I did that. It had a remarkable effect, and I've thought of that a lot since, in terms of the most effective way to teach--namely, that it may not be to talk to people in the room but to talk precisely to the ghosts, the things that haunt us, the ideas we walk around in, and let the dead give light to the living.
I think that's the way to make the teaching situation or the lecture situation or the presentation situation or the thought situation a Spielraum, a playroom. The nervousness and the anxiety that come, the butterflies in the stomach that come from talking to people as if I have something to say and that they need it because they are needy, rather than the silenic idea, the idea of Silenos, where I have nothing to say, and as Samuel Beckett once put it, "no way to say it, together with the obligation to speak." I speak out of the emptiness and let the conversation of eternity, of the ghosts, come into the room on its own.
Barbara, you asked me about what, among my accomplishments, has brought me the most satisfaction. Well, it's a difficult question. I was at a dinner party in Santa Barbara not so long ago, and there was a large group of people, some of them fairly well known, and at some point, after the dinner, we were still sitting around the table. A psychoanalyst said, "Let's go around the table and have each person tell one time in their life they would like to relive because it brought so much joy." I couldn't think of one moment, and I had to pass. I said I didn't want to relive any of it, it was all terrible. But now I think that's not quite true. Those moments at Eranos conferences, and especially the moments when I was preparing lectures, between the years of l975 and l988, sitting in my study by myself imagining being at that magical place beside the lake in Southern Switzerland, were probably the happiest moments. I think the lectures--not the books that came from the lectures--four or five books came from those lectures--the lectures themselves are what have seemed to me to be most satisfying.
It's sad in a way that this doesn't exist anymore. Actually, the technical answer to the question, Does Eranos exist? is that yes, it exists, and that it's doubled in spades, so to say. When it was announced that the time of Eranos had run its course (a 56-year history is an astrological cycle), there was great wailing and gnashing of teeth. I remember going home from the conference that year in an airplane, crossing the Atlantic, sobbing silently to myself because I thought something had been lost. I think here at the end of the millennium we need the spirit of Eranos perhaps more than we needed it in the 30s. We need a place, a space, where people who are capable of being at the edge of something can come together and talk with the ghosts, the things that haunt our culture, in each other's presence and see what happens. People who live their ideas, who live in the ideas, and the ideas live them. I think it's really needed.
What in fact happened, however, is that now there are two Eranoses. There is the Eranos conference that meets at the Casa Eranos, at the place where the Eranos conferences always met, and it is now focused on divination and the I Ching which indeed was of interest to the woman that started the conferences in the 30s, Frau Olga Froebe-Kapteyn, but now the whole focus has become on divination, especially the I Ching, and instead of senior scholars who have a great deal of life experience, who have had a lot of tragedy in their lives, who have done a lot of things that they hope never to repeat, coming together and talking to the ghosts, it's filled with young scholars that don't have a lot of life experience but have a lot of ideas and, like the New Age group, they believe in their ideas, and so it's an entirely different thing. It's full of life, and it's full of energy, and it's interesting, but it's different.
Now meanwhile, once a year, in downtown Ascona, Switzerland, about three kilometers from Casa Eranos, there meets the Amici di Eranos, the Friends of Eranos, and this is a remnant of speakers from before who think that a wrong turn was made in changing the focus simply to the I Ching and who try to continue in the original spirit of the original thing. And they have added new speakers, some of whom speak not only in French and German and English but also in Italian. Those are senior scholars, but the spiritual sense that I was talking about before has been, it seems to me, lost in that group. I have friends in both groups. I am fully supportive of both groups, but it is not the same Eranos conference we have now. The Amici di Eranos meets once a year in August, the same fortnight that the Eranos conference always met. The Eranos conferences meet at the site of the original conferences but do not meet around a common theme and don't follow the idea of the banquet, though they claim that they do. So what has happened is that Eranos has split itself off, has become split off, has come apart very much like the world has come apart into a fundamentalism and a New Age-ism, two forms of prudery and two forms of brutality.
You also asked me what is the most disappointing thing in my life. Well, the thing that I feel as disappointing is the way I have failed people. You know, I started out as a tennis pro. I taught tennis for l5 years before I began to do whatever it is that I do now, and I remember that I never liked to play doubles. And I think that is a characteristic of me, and I feel it has been that way in life. I don't like to team-teach. I don't like to play doubles. I like to play singles. And if I could play singles only with myself, that would be the way I would do it: with no one else on the other side of the net. So I feel that I have failed people in relationships, and I regret this very much, and I suffer it. I spend a good deal of time in sadness meditating on it. I think I have failed my kids, both of my wives, my students, my colleagues, and so on. But that's the way it is, I guess. I don't know what they would say, but that's the way I feel.
The other disappointment is that the work that I've done has, as far as I know, no perceptible effect. When I started out after the tennis years, in my academic years there were great theologians and great thinkers. There were Freud and Jung, and in theology there was Karl Barth and Paul Tillich and Rudolph Bultmann. In philosophy there was Heidegger and Wittgenstein. And I had a puer inflation as Jungians would say. That's what I aspired to. I aspired to make a difference in ideas, to move the marbles, so to say. And I think not only have the things that I've done not done that, but I think no one is doing it these days. I don't know if that is good or bad. That may be a part of the play of the computer revolution. I'm not talking about just computers, but a computer mentality where everyone is a creative artist.
I had a teacher in college. William Willoughby was his name. Professor Willoughby was my philosophy professor and my major professor. He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to teach. And I did. I was teaching tennis, and I continued to teach tennis for awhile, and then I taught religion and psychology and mythology and literature and so on. And he told me, "Well, one thing about teaching is that you're never permitted the luxury of knowing the effect." So it could be that I shouldn't say that it has no effect. Heraclitis once said that the hidden harmony is better than the obvious. Maybe the hidden effects that the work of teaching has is the important thing rather than the obvious ones.
I suppose it is because of some of these disappointments that I very much looked forward to retirement. I at one time thought I would teach till I dropped dead in the classroom. That was my goal. Because I knew somehow that the older one gets, the more one has to offer, even if one doesn't have the energy and excitement that one does when one is young. I think part of my cynicism and my disappointment is that I am so glad to have gotten out of the university. Not that I will stop thinking or reading and perhaps writing. But I was very happy to get out of the atmosphere of the commodification, commercialization, consumerism of the contemporary university which has crushed the spirit of the liberal arts in my estimation. So I was very happy to get free of that.
I mentioned earlier in the conversation that I thought by the year 200l there would be a shift in mood. You, in a letter to me, commented about the thousand people gathering in Chicago for the World Future Society Convention, and I myself gave a keynote address at Omni Magazine's millennial conference co-sponsored by the Open Center in New York City, a similar event. You pointed out that the people tend to fall into two camps, and that was my experience at the Omni--Open Center conference: into the camp with the accent on misery and the other one, on how everything is promising. I think that split is a split precisely that comes as I was mentioning with fantasies of ending. On the one hand, that promising business, has to do with wish fulfillment. It's totally illusory, and Freud's title The Future of an Illusion is right about that. The accent on misery is of course a negative inflation. That anxiety is a disguised wish fulfillment. Misery is an instant way psychologically of saying, "It's not supposed to be this way." The reason I'm miserable is I think I ought to be miserable. And so that also is a wish fulfillment, a disguised wish fulfillment. What I think is not being looked at by these reactions to millennial prospects, or to the sense of an ending, as Frank Kermode put it, is what Nietzsche called "beyond good and evil," the stance of Zarathustra or the mad man in Thus Spake Zarathustra which sees beyond estimations of good and evil, past and future, suspending judgment, as in the poem that is very zen-like of the Christian mystic Angelus Silesius. He says, "the rose is without why." It blooms because it blooms. And I should think that that is the perspective that is being missed in split thinking. It's neither good nor evil, it's beyond good and evil. The rose has no pragmatic purpose, no puritanical reason for being. It just is. And it is its is-ness, or as the zen people would say, the thusness of the rose and the world and of life--that is the compelling and beautiful part of it. Beyond beauty and ugliness, beyond truth and lie, beyond good and evil: that's what was not being sensed in the impeachment of Bill Clinton. That's what is not being sensed in the prudery that is brutality. That's not what's being sensed in the spirituality that is our new form of materiality.
Well, Barbara, that's all for now. I've gone through your questions and done the best I can for the moment. I haven't listened to the tape myself. I'm just sending it to you, so if you have another set of reflections that you want me to have another go at, you can write them out or e-mail them or send them on a tape of your own. But this is a beginning. Let me know how we're doing. This may be enough. In any case, I thank you again so much for your support in all this and your interest. Above all, Happy Holidays.
Copyright, 2011 Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved