Dialogue # 18: Whales, Dolphins, Joaquin Miller, and Definition Tyranny

August 12, 2013

[In this dialogue, Steven and I take a look at human cruelty — toward each other, toward other animals, and the indifference that allows the destruction of the world’s great forests and of the land itself.  I suggest the idea of “the other” in human thinking is the basis for such wholesale destruction.  A powerful antidote appears to lie in  the healing power of spiritual democracy. The discussion ranges from Melville’s great ecological novel, Moby Dick, to the spiritual transformation of Joaquin Miller among the Indians of Mount Shasta, to the rich symbolism of  the Golden West and the Golden Gate, and to the influence of the great transcendental thinkers of the Atlantic states — and Walt Whitman’s vision of beauty in all religions.]

The Horror of Objectivity

But when you see a picture of the tiny whale boat next to this huge creature, how would you have the nerve to actually try to kill it and bring it alongside of your ship?

M: That’s a marvelous book about Moby  Dick you have on your coffee table. [Moby Dick, A Picture Voyage, edited by Burt, Thomas and McCabe.] There are some wonderful pictures in this book of the trying process and of a crew actually going after a whale.  You really get the feel of it, the scale of it. It’s one thing to read about it, and you do get the idea that these whales are immense. But when you see a picture of the tiny whale boat next to this huge creature, how would you have the nerve to actually try to kill it and bring it alongside of your ship?

H: And not only kill it, but…

M: Just the sheer labor of it…

H: Cut the head off, cut up the huge slabs of fat…

M: Just to keep going with this a bit, there’s a new movie out, Black Fish (2013), about this orca, this whale, that killed his attendant. He had been captured as a baby and was 32 years old. Well, I’d say he finally got fed up with that. He killed her and tore her apart. Whales as you know are very, very smart. And you know the great seas of the world are their homes, not some tiny cage where they are expected to perform parlor tricks for gawking audiences. Well, this whale had had enough. This horrible event and others like it are bringing to a head the practice of imprisoning wild animals for the entertainment of human beings. Well, the reviews referred to a documentary, The Cove, that came out in 2012; it was filmed in 2006. It’s about this hideous process in Japan of driving dolphins into a little cove where they can’t  get out and then men in four or five boats  set about killing them, killing them, killing them. The sea runs red, literally red.

H: That’s horrible.

M: They try to keep the public from seeing that. The entire area is heavily guarded. But an American team set up a plan, almost like Navy Seals, and managed to record the whole picture of this hideous, hideous thing. They were able to show how Japan has been able to penetrate the National Whaling Society and fix it so that the whaling industry can keep on going. So year after year, the society won’t do anything about this. Japan even pays off various countries to deny  there is any danger to these creatures. No problem. Well, in the last scene of the movie, the man who headed up the team is seen walking into the Society’s annual conference with a TV strapped to his chest with the footage of the cove murders playing across the screen. Oh, and here’s a good one: They take dolphin meat and palm it off as some other kind of meat for school lunches! It’s full of mercury. The Japanese government has allowed these dolphin killers to sell this contaminated meat for school lunches.

H: That’s a tragedy! The organizations that are trying to stop the killing of whales and dolphins are doing the kind of work that Melville was interested in.

M: And Joaquin Miller, of course–anybody who thinks very much about it. There’s no logic to any of this. It’s ironic.  In the process of destroying whales and dolphins, the methods they use are also destroying the sea life in the ecosystem that feeds the human race.

H: Of course. It’s all interconnected. When you kill sharks, for example, you’re killing the top predator on the food chain that’s part of the harmony of the ecosystem. Everything was  in balance. The Indians saw this, and of course Moby Dick is an ecological novel; it focuses on the crimes of an industry.

Spiritual Democracy Is Not Possible in Isolation.

M: You could almost say it advocates stopping the whaling industry. When he makes such a vivid picture of what a whale is and how smart it is, I think he’s really saying, You pursue these creatures at your peril. And to take it in the larger context that you’re taking it in, that peril is not just to you yourself but to the entire interconnected system. You know, I was thinking of the ecosystem and everything else. That’s at the heart of these dialogues, Steven. spiritual democracy hinges on it.

The Self, the Center of the Ecosystem

So my point is this: You can’t kill a dolphin if you think of him as yourself, any more than you would kill yourself…

You can’t kill a dolphin if you think of him as yourself.

I don’t know about our work, but I think as we talk together, you talk of spiritual democracy, and I talk of universal intelligence all being one thing. It’s pretty much the same thing. But let me just emphasize that we humans have been having this discussion ever since we began being conscious of our thoughts. What is our relation to everything else?  Is  there a hierarchy of quickened matter, indeed between the quick and the so called inanimate? It seems simple enough to me. If I see myself as separate-from, then I’ve opened the door to all these atrocities. Most dangerous of all is having an intellectual conception of the ecosystem without wrapping our senses around it. That’s how we’re able to watch an orca at some  aquatic circus and not throw up. Well, that’s quite an essay! Have I distracted you too much?

Most dangerous of all is having an intellectual conception of the ecosystem without wrapping our senses around it.

H: It’s a good entrance into talking about Joaquin Miller and this being his centennial–1913 the year of his death–and finding that little book, that little jewel, The Building of the City Beautiful, is reminding me of where I started in 1995 and 1996, when I was reading Miller…

M: Fill me in. What was the time-line that led to that interest?

H: Well, I had been building a background for the Miller interest from early in my undergraduate work with Bill Everson. My doctorate year was 1995. I was thirty-nine when I wrote my first essay on Dickinson.

M: Ah, yes. Thirty-nine or so is when I should have started my literary readings, because I think a young mind, especially a provincial mind such as mine, isn’t that ready to receive the art. I received a lot of it viscerally, emotionally, but not with the surrounding awareness that you can bring to it at the age of thirty-nine.

H: Well, I was introduced, of course, to Everson when I was twenty-five.

 M: So you already had that. And perhaps at twenty-five you were more intellectually and spiritually mature than I was at that age, but in my particular case I hadn’t really taken full charge of my entity till my late thirties. I think that’s true of lots of people.

Vocational Dreams and Nuclear Symbols

H: So I already had that. And that was there in the background, and through my pursuit of the master’s degree in clinical psychology. And then that led to my writing my master’s thesis on vocation and vocational dreams in early adulthood. Then I went down to interview Everson when I was in my mid-thirties. My dissertation was on vocational development in childhood. I used case studies of children in residential treatment, here in Oakland, at Lincoln Child Center. They were my patients who became subjects for the dissertation study on where these occupational themes begin. So when I later went to look at Melville’s biography, for example, I found that at the age of five he went into his father’s study, and there was a painting of a great whale, and it was being harpooned. He used to sit and meditate by that picture. So that image was with him from the age of five onward. In addition to that there were what I call nuclear symbols of his vocation that emerged at a very early age. Around four he had a dream…

M: Nuclear symbols would be things like special dreams…?

H: Not only dreams. Black Elk heard a voice at the age of five. A bird spoke to him from a tree. Whitman heard the song of the mockingbird as a boy. He saw it flitting to and fro from the nest looking for its mate, and that became the call to his vocation.  Those are examples of what I call the nuclear symbol. I was able through my clinical research to come up with a hypothesis and then see it in literature, see it in poetry, and through these poets write out of that empirical knowledge of how a vocation starts in early childhood. But it was all kind of interconnected and the conversations with Everson were a re-opening of that chapter in my life when I was Everson’s TA and looking at these dreams of vocation at the college entry level.

Happenstance, Synchronicity, and Serendipity

Woodminster Amphitheater: Jack London, Joaquin Miller, “…and they met right here in Joaquin Miller Park.”

But the discovery of Joaquin Miller happened pretty much naturally. Nobody directed me to Miller. When I was at Lincoln Child Center, I used to go and sit by the fountain, by the cascade that was built for the writers of California. I didn’t know it at the time, but that whole amphitheater, Woodminster Amphitheater [about a mile from Steven’s home], was dedicated to the writers of California. It all started with Jack London and Joaquin Miller who started the California Writers Club–which I’m going to become a member of, by the way. It started in 1909, and they together came up with the idea of the small circle readings, and they met right here in Joaquin Miller Park. So the discovery of Miller was a happenstance, a synchronicity, or serendipity.

M: What you’re laying out here are quite a few “happenstances”! You happen to buy your house right up against this park. Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, being right here at Joaquin Miller Park is going to have an influence on you. And what you came to discover is exactly about the things you’ve been working on. It fits in perfectly.  And there are other coincidences of yours I can’t recall right now, but I remember there were a few. Weybridge Court [where Steven lives], as you know, fits in with E. M. Forster; it was the place where he wrote A Passage to India, and  as you know, there’s a poem of Whitman’s with that title. And so on. The net has to be there to receive these influences, but you were primed for that. Did you discover Shasta before you started reading about Miller?

Active Imagination

Lake Shasta Dam: “We would go up there in  the summer, usually around two weeks. My father had a boat, and we  used to go  water skiing.”

H: My father and mother used to take the four of us up to Lake Shasta. We would go up there in  the summer, usually around two weeks. My father had a boat, and we  used to go  water skiing. You could see Shasta from the lake. So the Shasta region was imprinted on my psyche. While I was writing about Joaquin Miller, I took my son camping on Mount Shasta, and that was the first time I brought back a number of memories about being up there. I had just read Life Amongst the Modocs [Miller’s book]. What opened my mind to the importance of Miller’s whole work was his 1905 book The Building of the City Beautiful. It really is what Jung calls an active imagination. The dialogue with the soul, the anima [the feminine part of an individual’s true inner self, reflecting archetypal ideals of conduct] appears to Miller right at the beginning of the book. She’s a Russian Jewess, Miriam…

M: It’s like Dante’s Beatrice.

H: Very much so. You could say he made a shift to the feminine. His first anima figure was this Native American woman he married, Sutatot. But at that point he was still projecting his soul- image outward.

M: Yes, he wove her into his novel.

H: That’s the projecting of the anima onto an actual woman.

M: Let me interrupt. Did you see the two-hour documentary on the Lewis and Clark expedition? The heroine of that journey was a Native American woman. Sacajawea  was a fantastic woman, and I think that journey could not have succeeded without her. Sixteen years old and pregnant when she led these thirty-eight Eastern white men across the Rockies, one of the most arduous of journeys from the headwaters of the Missouri all the way to Oregon. Thirty-eight  men on that  trip and only one of them died and that was from a burst appendix.

Sacagawea: Sixteen years old and pregnant when she led these thirty-eight Eastern white men across the Rockies, one of the most arduous of journeys from the headwaters of the Missouri all the way to Oregon.

H: That’s fascinating. That was the beginning of spiritual democracy in this country’s development. She carried that lineage, and Miller like Lewis and Clark had an anima figure who’s an actual woman.

M: Yes.

The Raping of Nature

H: A Native American woman whom he projects this anima onto. And there he comes into connection with the mythology of the Shasta Indians–about the mountain, the great Teepee, the Great Spirit. He has this dream he talks about in Life Amongst the Modocs, the coming together of the tribes and creating a kind of unified front against the forces of civilization that are basically doing what Melville was pointing out just a little bit earlier in Moby Dick, which is raping nature, taking the women, and killing. The paradox about Miller is this shift from being a gold miner in the Shasta region, then becoming an Indian fighter and being hit in the face by an arrow that just about killed him.

M: Maybe in a way it affected his perspective …

H: In the long run, you could say he did, although the tragedy is that he later engaged in the Pitt River battle. He said he even led the bloody expedition and made it a success. And that’s a tragedy.

M: Well, it is, but I guess in his story there’s this dramatic shifting in his way of looking at things. Even when he was a gold miner he was sensing things that maybe his fellow miners were not seeing. In Life Amongst the Modocs, he says, “I was born with a nature that did not fit the molds  of other men.”

H: Definitely. He had a very poetic sensibility.

Ecology and the Role of the Poetic Eye

M: Yes, that comes through in Life Amongst the Modocs. His poetic eye. I’ve never seen better travel writing. If you want people to know what Shasta’s like, hand them that book. These travel pieces you read in the newspaper, they’re so artificial, so unfeeling. Then here’s the beautiful poetic prose.

H: Yes, and once he moved here, to the Oakland hills and began to build–he moved here in 1886, after staying in Washington D. C. for three or four years.

M: Why was he there?

H: He was looking for his muse. He didn’t find her there. Of course, his muse was always in the West, always on the Pacific Basin.

M: Apparently.

H: He stayed with Longfellow and visited Walt Whitman twice. Whitman had great hopes Miller was going to be the great Poet of the Far West–which would fulfill his dream of the poets to come.

M: Maybe he did, but maybe people didn’t receive the message.

An Indigenous Vision

H: I think Whitman was disappointed because he didn’t quite live up to what he had hoped. Of course, Whitman died before he published this book The Building of  the City Beautiful in 1905.  In fact, this book was begun in 1893. Whitman died in ‘92. Melville as well, same year. Melville and Whitman were contemporaries. They were born the same year and died in the same year. Miller was a younger man. When he went to see Whitman, Whitman had just published his great manuscript on spiritual democracy, “Democratic Vistas.” This was before Miller visited London and became famous almost overnight and was called the Poet of the Sierras. But Miller brought back to Oakland an indigenous vision of spiritual democracy. It was not influenced by Whitman.  It was completely original. It was aboriginal. It was located in the mythologies and  rites and rituals of the four tribes of Shasta. For four, five, years up there he was learning the way and  life of the Indians, and it’s in this book as a kind of a myth you could say that’s given to him later by this figure Mariam, who’s the divine feminine voice that speaks to his soul, not just the realms of gold of the imagination. It’s the real thing.

I don’t know if you got a chance to read those two poems I sent you? Miller would immortalize himself as a Pacific Coast poet in one of his best poems cited in the Complete Poetical Works, “The California Poppy.”

The California poppy (golden poppy, cup of gold, or California sunlight) is our thirty- first’s State flower, which grows abundantly in the valleys and foothills of the  Pacific Coast of our United States from Washington to the border of Mexico. Its deep golden-orange flowers span four inches across, with four petals that open to the sun’s glow during daylight, and close during nighttime. When their colors shine during the day from February to September, they radiate with a brilliant sheen. Today the California poppy is pictured on welcome signs along highways entering California. Like Mt. Shasta, Miller helped put the poppy on our maps. In “Dawn at San Diego,” Miller’s quest for the burning bush and Holy Grail ends in the Far West in golden sunsets and finds ultimate peace, as he did on “The Heights,” in our beautiful, golden wild flower:

Such efforts to equate the whole Earth with the goodness of spiritual democracy and its gold-colored hue culminates The Building of the City Beautiful, where Miller writes:  “Man’s books are but man’s alphabet; / Beyond and on his lessons lie–/ The lessons of the violet, / The large, gold letters of the sky”

M: That captures it.

Spiritual Gold, the California Poppy, and the Golden Gate

H: That said, he finds the Holy Grail here in the California poppy, the California state flower. He finds it in nature just like John Muir did. So he’s actually taking the British poets further than the “Sailing to Byzantium,” finding the gold in the imagination, the emotional sphere. He’s  finding  it everywhere in all of Nature surrounding this whole realm. So this is really an evolution, you could say, of the quest for gold down in the cities. He finds it here, actually looking out through the Golden Gate.  That to him is the golden sunset.  He’s actually arrived.  He contemplates that in these beautiful passages, looking out across the Oakland plain, across Alameda, right over your house there. He’s looking out at the ships, through the Golden Gate, towards the  opening that goes to Japan. He writes about this in such a beautiful way.

M: Yes, we could use such writers in the Sunday travel section!

The Strip-mining of the Soul

H: What he did was to transform the quest for the material yellow metal, as the Native Americans called it, into a quest for the spiritual gold, which is the gold of what Whitman calls Spiritual Democracy. The remarkable thing is that Moby Dick was written as a commentary on the California Gold Rush. It was written in 1850. And  Ahab  is  a metaphor for the material rape of the continent in quest of gold, the White Whale. That’s not just my intuition. That’s actually an agreed upon literary interpretation of the novel from a number of literary critics, and so here is Joaquin Miller who is the younger man, younger than Whitman and Melville; he comes along, he was actually there and he tells us what happened. He saw what you read about in Life Amongst the Modocs. He saw the killing of all the salmon up there, on the McCloud River, and the Indians starving because their main source of food was gone. The trout turned up on their bellies in the rivers and died. He saw the strip mining and saw it was the strip-mining of the soul. In “Lessons Not in Books” he says: “Man’s books are but Man’s alphabet.” So he’s finding the gold of God’s lessons in nature. The gold is everywhere. You just have to see it.

So he’s finding the gold of God’s lessons in nature. The gold is everywhere. You just have to see it.

M: Yes. The point, I think, is that what he’s describing is not metaphor. It’s what I would call that-which-is, which is even more grizzly in modern whaling, and the cove in Japan red with the blood of dolphins.

Sweet Divinity Everywhere

H: The real thing. He’s found the place of spiritual democracy. I was touched. This is about the experience of zen. Enlightenment is about seeing divinity everywhere. Here’s the other golden passage in Behold, the City Beautiful. He has a little poem before each of the chapters. This one’s from Chapter 16.

 The sun lay molten in  the sea
Of sand and all the sea was rolled
In one broad, bright intensity
Of gold and gold and gold and gold.

He’s looking through the Golden Gate at the sunset. He’s looking at the real thing. He’s found his place of spiritual democracy. You know, I was  thrilled when I found this  little volume. I got it on Amazon, and it’s in mint condition.

M: You’re very lucky to have that. It’s beautiful. I think I’ll see if I can get a copy. A less than perfect copy would be fine! Blake says “If the doors of perception were cleansed, man would see everything as it is, infinite.” Well, the doors of perception are shut because of the language barrier. We let the alphabet interfere. There isn’t any curtain there. But the  language  process serves as one. We must keep coming back to get rid of that barrier.

…the doors of perception are shut because of the language barrier. We let the alphabet interfere. There isn’t any curtain there. But the  language  process serves as one.

H: Miller struggled with the whole problem of success and failure. He lived through the 1906 earthquake.  He saw the loggers come back to these Oakland redwoods for a second time and take a double cut.

M: When did he die?

H: 1913. Everson was born in 1912. He was around at a very important moment, just before the outbreak of World War I. This was when Jung was beginning his Red Book. Jung was just beginning to discover active imagination. Well, The Building of the City Beautiful is all about active imagination.

M: That’s quite something.

H: Yes. Well, this is what some of these novelists were doing. Melville was doing the same thing in Moby Dick.

M: I think I know the answer to this, but why would Jung think active imagination was such a swell thing?

The Images of Instinct

H: Because it connects one to the collective unconscious and the unity of the cosmos. And that’s where wisdom resides. In the unconscious, in the universe. These archetypes that are images of instinct are there. Now, if we can get in touch with animal powers, which Native Americans had direct contact with, then we might get animal intelligence. Those are images of the instinct. The mother learns wisdom from being a mother and parenting her child.

M: Well, apparently.

From Silly Girl to Motherhood, a Rite of Passage

H: The instinct clicks in, the intuition and sense.

M: I’m always reading about these grandmothers who have such amazing wisdom. And think, they were silly girls at one time. How do they get this?! It must be what you’re saying.

H: Well, I think that with age does come wisdom.

M: I think pregnancy must surely give women–many, certainly not all–a leg up on wisdom. We males need a rite of passage or a knock on the head. [Laughter]

Precognitive Dreams

H: Yes. There’s research on mothers’ dreams. For example, I was at a course this weekend, and somebody in the audience was talking about a mother who had a dream that was precognitive; she had this dream the night before the death of her child. We see this  in the research, sometimes across a span of 3000 miles. Somebody here in California may be dreaming about the death of her child, and then it happens in New York. These things are not that unusual.

M: I’ve read scores and scores of reports of such occurrences.

Directed Thinking, Fantastic Thinking

H: I liked what you said about the alphabet. When we  can get past the  literal, directed, thinking, in which we can get past the word, fantasy thinking, that is what  Jung was  interested in.  When  he wrote Symbols of Transformation, he talked about two kinds of thinking, directed thinking and fantasy thinking. This is fantasy thinking, what he later called active imagination. And that’s where wisdom comes in.

The Wisdom of Trees

At the center of Miller’s book there are a number of things, but a couple I’ll talk about. One is forestry and what he learned from Native Americans about trees. As you know, he was responsible for having planted 70,000 trees up here in the East Bay hills and even in San Francisco, in the Presidio. He was the founder of Arbor Day. He was on the Council for American Forestry. He was very much interested in the relationship between trees and humanity and said that there’s a wisdom in trees and that we’re here to tend the trees, not the other way around. Trees are not here just to serve us. [Gilgamesh destroyed a sacred forest with dire consequences.]

“Where do we learn this? America owes ever so much to the Indians for their care and skill in forestry. But for the savage, so called, we would have found but a barren wasteland along the Atlantic sea coast.”

M: It does seem that humans and trees are fundamentally merged. I’d have to get my senses wrapped around the idea, though, about the Biblical certainty of that.  But in actual fact, I don’t see how we could have pulled it off without them!

H: Miller learned forestry among the Indians of Mount Shasta. He learned  directly  the importance of trees. And we now know scientifically that redwoods are oxygen producers. They store more carbon dioxide in their massive bulk than any other tree. And they are antidote, really, to global warming. Miller somehow intuitively knew this. That’s what you call instinctive knowledge in the unconscious. And it’s not just something he learned intuitively; he learned it directly from Native Americans. When we destroy trees, we destroy ourselves. When we destroy the habitat, as the gold miners did to the McCloud River and great Sacramento and all of those tributaries that were the source of food, then we’re destroying ourselves, and Melville was doing the same thing in Moby Dick: teaching us how to be modest and wise stewards of the Earth and sea. When we kill the whales, butcher them–Ahab is an industry for the production of oil…

M: You were saying earlier, the broader view of him is that in pursuing gold, money, stuff to put in your pocket, you lose track and become obsessed with the process itself.  That becomes a kind of hate that you build into yourself. So you build up that I against you again.

H: I / it.

M: Yes, I/It is better. Well I/Everything Else! By the time he takes that last voyage, he is an obsessed, sick soul.

H: Totally.

M: I think you’ll be able to answer this, but who says Man was created to take care of everything? I like doing it and I feel good about it, but what force created me to take care of stuff?

H: When you say stuff, what do you mean?

M: The universe. The environment I live in. I can answer this for myself. It sounds like a deity.

Churches Illuminated by Whale Oil

H: Well, when you talk about living in harmony with nature, there is an intelligence in nature. I think we both agree on that.  There is intelligence  to the  way ecosystems work. The trees–there  is a certain kind of intelligence in the way they produce oxygen, the way in which they take in carbon emissions, the way they create an atmosphere in which we can live, in which everything can live. We know this. To circle back to your question, we know we  have to live  in harmony with nature because we see what’s happening as a result of fossil fuels. The irony of our discussions about Moby Dick is that whales were the primary source of oil in 1850.  Churches  were illuminated by whale oil. We’re still in quest of fossil fuels, of oil in the Middle East. And Ahab is continuing on his reckless quest.

M: “Reckless” is a good word there.

H: To continue raping and monopolizing the natural resources in nature. Now we’re finally getting it that the effects of all this are these terrible storms on the East Coast.

M: Yes. But even if we didn’t cause any of that, it would not absolve us from taking care of our universe, our planet. What I was getting at is Who made me in charge?  But I think  I can answer it for myself.

H: Well, it doesn’t necessarily mean it makes you in charge of anything, but it does mean we all have to live in harmony.

Being in Charge Is Being in Harmony.

M: Well, I’ll come back to it-that we are, I am, in charge–in this sense: It makes me in charge because I know I’m at the center. Of this universe, my universe, the universe, a universe. I’m at the very center of it. I’m in charge of that because I know it. And you are in charge because you know it.

H: That’s a shamanistic realization. Black Elk said the same thing.

When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the west,  it comes with terror like a thunder storm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greener and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like a rain. The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm. —From Black Elk Speaks

M: What about this bird out your window there? Is he in charge? I think he is, because he lives in harmony with nature.

H: Right.

M: He’s not doing it perhaps in the same way I am, but I have the option. I now have the burden  or blessing of being aware of all this. So I have to shape up here. Well, I don’t have to. I can ignore it. But then I’m hurting myself. So that’s my view. Again, I cannot bear the idea of an external deity running this.

A Cosmic Harmony

H: I see what you’re getting at. That’s getting at spiritual democracy. You don’t have to  be a  Deist or believe in a Deity. You could be an apostate. You could be an atheist. And still see that everything… there is a cosmos, there is a harmony within it. We do have to wake  up ultimately  and when we do have an inner spiritual realization, that is the first peace, as  Black Elk says, that  is the peace that you realize that you are the center of the universe.

M: So you say, Now what do I do?

Peace at the Center

H: And feeling and experiencing the peace and harmony of living in relationship to the environment and with nature and with all of the animals as our kin. Then there’s a realization of that the Great Spirit is at the center of all things. There is a spiritual presence. Whether you want to call it a god or enlightenment or light or an energy–which is more a scientific idea of it these days–sure there is a light at the center of things. There is a golden light that we can realize and that’s what Miller’s book is all about, bringing this kind of awareness to light. He spent two or three hours in the morning writing poetry. The rest of his day he was working on his stone monuments or cultivating trees.

M: But as soon as you invent a god–and that’s what religions do, every one of them– I’m out of here.

H: I take a somewhat different view. I’ve learned this from Whitman and Melville and Miller as well. There’s a great quote in Moby Dick about realizing the goodness and the beauty in all religions. So what if they want to create a new god out of their images? Every culture does this.

M: Well, there’s the problem, every one of them: The problem is, Yes, create a god. That’s fine. As soon as they do that, then they say, Your god is no good. Mine is better. I was watching a debate between Christopher Hitchens and a god guy. Hitchens took him apart because the history of religion, of organized religion, is a bloodbath. The bloodbath of the cove in Japan I was telling you about.

Cosmic Divinity by Whatever Name

H: Whitman had this big idea to solve this problem. You don’t have to get rid of the deity. You can, but not everybody wants to. Whitman’s point is that we accept everybody’s conception of a deity and not assume ours is any better. I think that’s the realization right there we now need. Along came Alexander von Humboldt in 1844 with his scientific vision of the cosmos. This is what Whitman and Emerson were writing about, this sudden realization that science can come up with a conception of our relationship with the unity of the entire cosmos. Black Elk had been talking about the same thing when he talked about us being at the center of the universe and realizing that we are the center of the universe, and at the center of that is what he called the Great Spirit. That’s what the Sioux did. If they want to place the Great Spirit at the center, that’s fine with me. That’s a divinity, you could say.

M: Let me just complete this thought, though. OK. You said there are people who want to have this situation. Why do they want that?  As Hitchens  was saying, they  want  to be subservient.  They want somebody to take charge outside themselves. They move the center to some kind of guiding force, whatever you want to call it, but it tells me what to do. And according to Hitchens and me, that makes me a slave.

You said there are people who want to have this situation. Why do they want that?  As Hitchens  was saying, they  want  to be subservient.  They want somebody to take charge outside themselves. They move the center to some kind of guiding force, whatever you want to call it, but it tells me what to do. And according to Hitchens and me, that makes me a slave.

H: Well, that’s a projection of a god image outward, outward onto some external object. Definition Tyranny

M: Exactly. That’s why these people flock to church, in order to have that “out-there” tell them what to do. It absolves them of the responsibility of husbanding the Earth themselves. I will do what you tell me, Boss, because if I don’t you’re going to really get mad at me. I find that just repulsive. I can’t do anything about it, and I understand the  poor, sad souls, but they really have to get rid of definition tyranny and let loose, let go. I think that’s what you would say at bottom, that you have to let them have their religion.

H: Oh, absolutely. That’s the whole beauty of spiritual democracy. Whitman’s  realization is that all are equals.

M: Sure.

Absolutism in Religion

H: There is not superiority, no better than. Your belief is as good as anybody else’s.  I think there’s something about that that neutralizes this war of religions that  you’re talking about, the war of the better-than. My god is the god, the absolute. Jung was really big on tearing down and confronting directly the absolutism of religion. At the center, what  did he  place at the  center? The Self. Now, the Self is an archetype that’s in you, and that’s what you’re talking about. And it’s in the person next to you, the I and the thou. So you see, it’s everywhere. This is really, I think, a solution to the bickering and backbiting that goes on in spiritual debates.

M: It’s almost ridiculous.

H: Not almost. It is!

M: But a dialogue among religions, if you could have such a thing, would be lovely. But they don’t have dialogues. You have attempts to force the other guy  to submit to your view.  Every one of the so-called dialogues is a power play. Everyone is trying to force the other guy to admit he’s right. The god-fearing guy says to Hitchens at the end of the debate, “You hate God. God loves you.” And his followers in the audience clapped. He thought he’d won the argument.

Go Outside and Look at the Stars.

H: That’s a great segue to “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer” which we looked at earlier. In 1865, right after the Civil War, Whitman writes this beauty. What happens  in the poem?  He’s in the audience, and it’s all about astronomy, the new science. Science is the new God. The astronomer’s got it all figured out with his charts. Whitman feels sick and tired. He goes outside  to look at the stars. He doesn’t argue  with the learned astronomer. He goes outside to look at the stars. That’s really the key here. We all have a vision. We all have to find out what that  vision is.  When we do, we can bring our own contribution to this discussion. There’s no argument.

M: Give me a punch line. I have to go home now. [Both laugh.]

H: Well, get the book and read it and maybe we can have a discussion about it when we get together next time. In a sense, it’s Joaquin Miller’s wisdom stored up from all the years that comes out of the Gold Rush. It’s interesting how much forestry is a part of it and the process of creating the kind of spiritual gold that comes from having a symbolic life through visioning methods. We talked about methods that can help students toward seeking their own vision in the field of literature. To learn from someone like this how to engage in active visioning, there’s  some gold in the teaching.

To Release Our Capacity for Active Imagination

The idea of a Universityi:To learn how to activate or release your capacity for active imagination.

M: What you just said probably is the conclusion: To learn how to activate or release your capacity for active imagination.


Author: Clark McKowen

I taught English at Diablo Valley College in the Bay Area for over thirty years and probably taught over 20,000 students during that time. II'm still interested in how beings of any species learn and why, and I write books and articles about these things. My 2000 book of haiku, Ligonier Sightings, is an appreciation of the Chestnut Ridge area of Southwestern Pennsylvania, where I grew up. All of my books can be purchased on the internet. Most teachers say they love teaching, but I don't know what they mean by that. I loved being in a group -- under my guidance, to be sure -- and getting so absorbed in exploring an idea that we didn't care whether school kept or not. That's the kind of teaching I love. I love seeing a bunch of people's eyes light up. I love the feeling of discovery of any sort. I love enlightenment. That's what more or less gets me up in the morning, -- and I suppose is involved, one way or another, in everyhing you will find on this website and in just about everything I do, including building redwood decks or going to the dog park with our Boston terrier Gracie.

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