Thursday, 24 March 2011

Gods and Diseases: Review

There is a story in David Tacey’s latest book, Gods and Diseases, which captures in a neat set of images the sense of what the author is trying to say. In ancient Greece, he tells us, people wanting relief from ailments of one kind or another would come to the temple of the god of medicine, Asclepius, and be led into a “dream chamber”. They would be asked to sleep for a while and their dreams then analysed by the priests of the temple to form the basis for their remedy.
This picture is emblematic of Tacey’s outlook in the book. Physical and mental wellbeing, he says, has a hidden, psychological-spiritual component. There are stories and meanings behind why we feel unwell and these must be understood to help us properly face our situation.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

The Girl with the Redback Tattoo

I was fascinated by a woman on a tram not long ago. It wasn’t the woman’s long, black hair that attracted my attention or her sullen and somewhat ashen expression. Nor was it the book she was reading, which I couldn’t properly see.  It was the large, redback spider that was tattooed on her left arm.

Discounting the possibility that she merely liked spiders, I guessed the tattoo was a reference to the venom and aggression of the redback, that if attacked physically or emotionally she, like the spider, would bite hard. I was reminded of a friend who once told me he was going to get a tattoo on one arm of a playful cat and on the other a tiger. He wanted to give the world a simple map of his inner life.
Symbols such as these provide insights into a person’s psychology, but they also point to broader trends that run counter to the recognised and simple version of our collective identity. It’s accepted that Australia is a rational and rationally organised country. As individuals, we are driven by materialistic goals of prosperity and happiness through work, family, consumption of goods and services and property ownership.
The long decline of religion as a social force has left the field of spirituality undefined or vacant for most people. This territory is about the sacred, about all the ways of understanding and experiencing meaning and depth in our lives and the world around us. Abandoning the rituals and explanations of religion, we are left with a rational, outward-looking, materialist and largely shallow picture.      
Despite this, we continue to seek meaning beyond the surface reality of our day-to-day lives and continue to act, often without knowing, from the depths of the psyche – a murky world best understood through myths and symbols, dreams and the artistic imagination.
Looking at the woman with the redback tattoo, my mind wandered to all the other ways we behave that are on the borderline of rationality, if not beyond.  According to Carl Jung in his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, “Day after day we live far beyond the bounds of our consciousness; without our knowledge, the life of the unconscious is also going on within us.” The American mythologist Joseph Campbell told a humorous story about going ten-pin bowling with a university professor, a man ordinarily steeped in reason, who kept waving his arms after releasing each ball to direct it to the right spot.
Some of the clearest ways in which we express our non-rational impulses happen in response to death – at funerals and other rituals. Deep down, as Jung observed, most of us just can’t accept a life simply stops and is no more. Some people speak to their loved ones in their minds or at graves for years after their death. It is common for people delivering eulogies at funerals to directly address the deceased with something like, “I miss you and will always love you.” Likewise, messages left at roadside memorials are often addressed to the dead: “You were taken away too early from us. We’ll always remember you.” From a strictly rational perspective these are all nonsense – the dead cannot hear or respond to anything said to them. Yet it is clearly important and a balm to the grief of the living to act in these non-rational ways.
Other death rituals happen on a grander scale, such as can be seen on Anzac Day or Remembrance Day. The dawn services, the shrines of remembrance, the pilgrimages to Gallipoli, the minute of silence, the haunting sound of the bugle, the intoning of “They grow not old as we grow old”, all have a strongly religious quality. They allow people to reach beyond the limits of time and space and unite them with the dead Anzacs. In effect, the dead soldiers come to life through myths and rituals, much like in other cultures where the spirits of ancestors are alive and revered and worshipped.
Sport is another area where non-rational impulses are expressed. AFL football is, for some people, a lightning rod for emotions driven from the inner depths of the psyche. A supporter whose team loses can be depressed for days, while another whose team wins is filled with a radiant and lasting joy. Through the force of psychological attachment and emotional participation, the spectacle of football becomes a mythic hyper-reality of heroes and battles.
Football games are modern-day re-enactments of timeless archetypes, motifs and stories. The best players are invested with the quality of supreme warriors, gods (Gary Ablett snr was literally “God” on some Geelong banners) or kings (Wayne Carey was nicknamed “the king” before his fall from grace at North Melbourne). There are those who are reviled and others who are saintly, those who sacrifice themselves and are crucified (injured) and fallen idols like Carey or Brendan Fevola. There are the stories of David and Goliath, of winning in adversity, amazing escapes and tragic losses. And above it all there is an elemental and deeply tribal clash of opposites – us and them, your team against theirs.
Jung and Campbell believed the impulse towards myth arises out of the dynamics of the psyche, the inner growth of the individual dependent on bringing unconscious elements to consciousness. Where once religion directed the energies of the psyche through frameworks of belief, now there are no collective maps for the inner life. A modern, Western society supposedly no longer needed the hocus-pocus of religion, yet the shadow of non-rationality remains.
To admit the presence of depth beyond the surface of the material world does not mean abandoning reason. It is not a recipe for adopting a particular spiritual belief or practice. To accept the non-rational is to acknowledge the deep mystery that cloaks the human mind and our lives generally. Gentle exploration can start to peel back the unknown. A redback spider tattoo on a young woman may be just a pretty – if somewhat menacing – symbol, but it’s also a reminder that our lives are much more than what they seem.