‘I had a dream: I imagined I was a soul that has come back from the ancient Greek world, the soul of an initiate to the mysteries of Dionysus who has been given the chance to cast a glance at the modern world. What would strike me most? Which transformations of our way of living and feeling would attract my attention?
Some ‘diseases’ are described; in the popular imagery they were suffered by three gods of the Greek pantheon, Dionysus, Mercury and Apollo. The modern world has ‘forgotten’ the intelligence of the heart; it has been replaced by empty sentimentality. The ability to interiorize experiences has been sacrificed to the myth of speed. The riddance of death and of the relationship with the matter condemns western civilization to lose any contact with the Beauty and the mystery of the world, replaced by false rationality.’|
Illnesses of the soul and ‘illnesses’ of the Gods: the marks of time
I should like to present my book from a point of view that is stimulating not only for you who are listening, but for me who is speaking…
I am imagining therefore that I am having a dream: that of being a soul that has come back on earth from the ancient Greek world, the soul of someone initiated into the Mysteries of Dionysus who has been given the opportunity to cast a glance at the modern world. What would strike me most? Which transformations in our way of life and feeling would attract my attention?
Surprisingly I do not immediately think of our extraordinary technological and scientific discoveries, but of three aspects which in fact mark a profound difference between us and the ancient world. These are: the meaning we give to love, how we understand our heart and… the speed that characterizes every aspect of our lives.
I shall begin by speaking of love and of the symbolism of the heart, leaving for last speed, that may possibly constitute the most disturbing aspect of modernity.
I shall then submit the idea that there are two gods, Dionysus and Mercury, that the modern world has neglected and underestimated. That these gods have in a certain sense fallen ‘ill’ and that all the pathologies and the lack of harmony that we find in our lives must be ascribed to the deplorable state in which these two gods find themselves today. The last part of my lecture will be devoted to a third god, Apollo, most dear to the ancient world. The task of this god was to heal men, leading them towards harmony, beauty and unity, but also to prevent the flight upwards of those who try to fly towards the sun with wax wings.
The love between a man and woman is an extraordinary gift that can transform us and make us evolve but which, at the same time, can wound the soul, swallow and dull one’s awareness. Every time we fall in love, we project life, fire, light, beauty and meaning on the ‘frame’ offered by our loved one. But a journey towards awareness makes the arrival of winter inevitable, that is the encounter with the principle of reality, implacable and saturnine, that forces us not to use the loved one as a coat-stand for our magnificent projections, but to recognize and respect him or her for what he or she is and wants to become and brings within herself or himself. The question I have asked myself is precisely whether it is possible to achieve a real exchange between a man and a woman thanks to which the fire of passion becomes alchemical fire and serves to unite, evolve and render free each other, thus allowing us to become what we really are as opposed to becoming a pretext to invent ourselves for the other and vice-versa, fostering a narcissistic game, that of loving the reflected image of love.
My title: ‘Dionysus in the fragments of a mirror’ refers precisely to our energies dispersed throughout the world, fragmented in a thousand pieces into the objects of our projections.
The unusual aspect of the book is perhaps that of linking those questions that we all ask ourselves, to the transformations that alchemists impose on their Materia Prima during theAlchemical Work. This is a theme extensively explored by Carl Gustav Jung in his books aboutalchemy, the initiations to the mysteries of the ancient world and some aspects of the Greek tragedy, in other words, the roots of our culture.
Every time we fall in love with someone we must take into account discords, fears, resistances and tensions that the relationship brings to light together with the awareness of each other’s feelings, with one’s interior image of what is ‘masculine’ and what is ‘feminine’, with the ghosts linked to one’s preceding experiences, from one’s birth onwards.
All these stimuli and tensions are irreplaceable gifts because they help discover, face and transform the unresolved and less evolved part of our soul linked to love and sexuality.
The mirror of the other is a mirror that can reveal and suggest to us a way out from the labyrinths in which we are imprisoned, on condition though that the other also follows an evolutionary path and intends to share it with us.
The 13th century Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi used this parable: Someone journeyed to the door of the loved one and knocked. A voice answered: ‘Who is there?’ He answered: ‘It is I’. The voice said: ‘There is no room for Me and for You’. The door remained closed. After one year of solitude and hardship he came back and knocked at the door. A voice from inside asked: ‘Who is there?’. The man answered: ‘It is you’. The door then opened for him.
If one flees from love or if one only loves one’s own image reflected in the eyes of the loved one, leaves his own ‘dark side’ unchanged and hidden to self awareness, one is dominated by a sort of inertia that vanquishes any effort to modify it.
However if the difficulties and the conflicts with the other sex are potentially a gift because the conflicts reveal our discords and allow sometimes for significant changes, it is not obvious that the final result is that of creating greater self awareness and, least of all, creating an evolutionary step. On the contrary… it is enough to look around… we are surrounded by terrible knots of shadows and neurosis… by people who in their relationship as a couple appear ‘poorer’ and arid than when they are alone by themselves. We are surrounded by people who express destructiveness, obsession with control, sadism, lack of patience, rage, fear, anger and frustration precisely towards the loved one.
In order to unravel the skein of this intricate tangle I have discovered that I had to consider this theme from a much wider point of view: I had to consider the relationship between the heart and self awareness, the purpose according to which we face our fundamental choices, the way we ‘listen’ to the ‘images of the heart’ that guide us during our journey and our capacity to distinguish them from our illusions.
There are some ‘threads’ that accompanied me while I was writing: alchemy, the search for the Self, Dionysus and the myths and Mysteries of the ancient world, the path through the labyrinth and the meeting with the Shadow that awaits whoever searches for his own journey, the descent into the dark nights of the soul and the world of the dead, imagined by different traditions as ‘a reverse world’, love and the evolution of awareness, the symbolism of the snake, the cosmic time and the profane time, the curses of blood.
Only now do I see that, behind the apparent variety of subjects there has been only one main guiding thread.
This journey of mine in the ancient world has led me to make a discovery that has no moral nor social nature but, I would rather say, has a magical nature. Each of us has a duty towards one’s own heart, that of taking on the responsibility and the care of the images and of the visions that are born in one’s heart and to separate them from the illusions that are also incessantly born inside one’s heart. The magic resides in the fact that the destiny of he who tends his own heart is identical to that of Dionysus, dismembered by the Titans while he was looking at himself in a mirror. The god is born again from the heart, the only part of him that has not been broken. In the same way he who starts journeying towards self-awareness is first dismembered through grief, when he has to abandon his illusions. He is then healed by the true images born in his heart, if he has had the courage to look at them.
The images of the heart may refer to loves, people, places, values, utopias, events, particular moments of life or the role we think we must play. These images serve, instant after instant, to trace our path within the world, to glean meaning for our existences, to have the capacity of sharing with others the sense of what we intend building. Our writers, artists, poets, utopists and scientists in the past centuries, imagined their future and gave strength and vitality to their images. With that fire they drew reality. Each of us has an image of their task in the world and of the loved ones and those images trace the profile of our lives.
The images produced by the heart thus mark the destiny both of a community and of the individuals that are part of it. Certainly it can at times be that images are dark and sick or that they are simply illusions. Humankind will then have to face its shadows, or realize it has lost its guides, or that it cannot any longer recognize them.
It is important to remember two fundamental characteristics of the heart images.
The first one is that these Images are the means through which the heart lights the night of the happening, giving events a specific weight, meaning and direction, light and warmth, in the same way as the sun lights the world. They are the source of our feelings and of our emotions.
The second one is that contrary to feelings and emotions, the images of the heart do not have only a personal and individual nature, but they are the means through which we reach into the well of the soul. They are our channel with the finer world, with our ancestors and with our invisible future.
The heritage of whoever has left behind himself a luminous trace in the world does not ever have a nature which is only individualistic: there exist wells where all can quench their thirst, that give the water of life to whoever wants to draw from it. The images that great men leave behind are at the disposal of those who can catch their beauty, their creative force, their verticality.
Tibetan monks ascribe to the imagination of the heart the power of creating around human beings some thought-forms as real, as true as reality. They believe that these thought –forms can even alter reality. According to them, thought-forms are nourished by human beings during all their lives with feelings; with love, hatred, desire, rage, fear, and they are waiting for us when we die to feed on our energies. The Bardo Thodol or ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’, consists in a series of practical indications that must be read to the dying person, to help him recognize the angry divinities that are waiting for him in the afterlife having in fact been produced by his own heart.
The ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Jews of the Old and of the New Testament and the Sufi mystics considered the heart as the seat of visions and intelligence. The shamans are believed by the communities to which they belong to have the power to guide them with their heart’s knowledge and their dreams.
Instead, the modern world, is not only suffering from a tremendous lack of vision that prevents us from looking at the future, without feeling the anguish of a blind man facing an abyss, but it also systematically underrates the images of the heart and hides them in the narrow prisons of museums or in the hells of desires, in the funfairs of sexuality and merchandise, or under the apparent aseptic space of the thought creations.
In one of his lectures on the thoughts of the heart, published by Adelphi with the title L’Anima Mundi e il pensiero del cuore, the psychoanalyst James Hillman made a very important observation on how to understand the collective blindness from which we suffer has taken place.
James Hillman maintains that a first cause is to be found in the predominance of a mechanical and hydraulic vision of the heart, the result of mechanistic materialism that has led us to search for ‘convincing explanations’ for the sicknesses that our hearts and our souls suffer, such as the cholesterol ratio in our blood, the deterioration of the nuts and bolts of the human machine or an insufficient production of endorphins or of specific enzymes. We thus take care of the sicknesses of our hearts with diets, gymnastics, pacemakers, bypasses or chemical products. The heart is no longer a the centre of our lives and is no longer the source of our visions, of the light and warmth of the forms of our imagination which are in turn responsible for our health.
This image of the heart as a pump, clock or a mechanism that can be controlled with medicines, ends with determining the idea itself of an ‘explanation’ of the phenomena adopted by common sense. Once there has been a removal of the awareness of the active role that we can play in determining the shape of the world in which we live, through our intentions and the heart –images, we shall feel that the ‘satisfying explanations’ of the social, natural and psychic phenomena are only mechanical and deterministic models of those phenomena. Models that prevent us from creatively and effectively intervening. Certainly this new perception of the heart was imposed together with important and inalienable conquests: the scientific thought, Darwinism and the theories that conceive human beings as a ‘machine in evolution’. From the political point of view instead, the end of the divine right of kings is a social model that could not survive the fall of the heart in the collective imagination, substituted as it was by the birth of democracy.
But the world around us is in danger of being inhabited by shadows: it is characterized by reproducible processes, by ubiquity and replaceability of objects, of experiences and even of people. It is a world, it must be said, that only a mechanical image of the heart could generate.
The second conception of the heart that Hillman ascribes to western civilization manifests itself as a break between heart and mind and is linked to the ‘sentimental heart’. This is a secret casket that keeps specific and individual truths, a deep and unfathomable abyss that hides all that an individual may want to find within himself.
The dramatic confusion of which I am about to speak probably originated by the need, of the less vital and aware part of Christian thinking, to control the heart with dogmatic and already revealed images.
The greater part of modern thinking and psychology seems to have forgotten the idea according to which love originates from the spirit, and is reflected by means of ‘true images’ in the microcosm of the heart. The contemplation of these images awakens in us feelings and emotions. According to the ancient way of thinking, the function of the heart would be that of showing us the deepest reality of things, through the images that are evoked, whilst feelings and emotions are only our reactions when faced by those images.
The heart, as we conceive it today, is instead ‘the seat of feelings’. This creates a muddle between the images that the heart produces as an organ of the ‘profound vision’ and our personal passions like anger, fear, desire, grief, aesthetic pleasure, infatuation, self pity, sadness, melancholy, rage, etc. which are born from those images. These personal passions are considered the highest expressions of the heart, while for the ancient world they had, on the contrary, a heavy and material nature, far from the heart’s capacity to seize the finest aspects of reality. This concept of the
‘sentimental heart’ is certainly the cause of many of the disasters that plague our world. It is the origin of the lack of self-awareness, of vision, the blindness of modern man, the inflation of the Ego, the incapacity of creating and recognizing beauty and, I would add above all, of the vulgarity that is a sign of our times.
First of all, the ‘sentimental heart’ banishes man in a space desperately subjective and solitary in which only his individual reactions matter, and any reality and value of the role of the images of the heart to link him to his fellow men through the perception of beauty and truth is denied him.
The 12th century Arab mystic Ibn Al Arabi wrote: ‘My heart is open to all forms: it is pasture for gazelles, a cloister for Christian monks, a temple for idols, the pilgrim’s Kaaba, the Torah and the Koran. I follow the religion of love: in whichever direction its caravans may go, the religion of Love will be my religion and my faith.’ (by the way, this is a passage that should be read and reread by those that think that the Islamic religion is always intolerant and sectarian towards other religions).
If instead my existence ‘here and now’ is reduced to my privacy, to my ‘feelings’, truth can only be ‘my’ truth. My search can only lead me to examine through introspection the nature of my ‘deepest feelings’. My thoughts are then obliged to establish ‘their’ truths resting on dogmatic and ‘objective’ assumptions, basing them on rational procedures whose ties with the images of the heart have become invisible.
Far from me to want to undervalue the scientific way of thinking, but allow me to fight its Shadow: to have decided that the heart can ‘feel’ and to have forgotten that it can (and must) also ‘see’, remembering that it is an organ that produces heat and forgetting that it can also generate light. Hillman mentions that this vision of the ‘sentimental heart’ as a guide in the labyrinth of feeling was reinforced by philosophers like Rousseau. In Emile he wrote: exister pour nous c’est sentir…’
The confusion between the images of the heart and the emotional reactions that they create within ourselves produces an egotistic rhetoric that looks for the meaning of the world in a presumed inwardness of feeling, profound and obscure, a drift that has led us to consider more important the artists and their biographies rather than their works. The truths of the heart are universal, they are a well where everybody can slacken their thirst, they are not ‘my feelings’. To suffer from this terrible involution is first of all our sense of beauty. If we are transforming the world into a horrible place, if the aesthetics of modern churches swing between infantile sentimentality and an all pervading heavy sense of death impending, so far from the capacity of Gothic and Romanesque to lift the spirit, this is the result of the ‘sentimental heart’, blind to an inner vision and therefore to beauty.
This is an empty heart famished for stimuli that, as the Chinese alchemist Hui Nan Tze said ‘makes us unhappy because we do not use our hearts to enjoy exterior things but we use exterior things as a mean to delight our hearts’. Our aesthetic criteria destined works of art to a merely sentimental and hedonistic fruition, independent both from our active and contemplative lives. Architecture, objects of everyday use and works of art that are produced in the west do not propose, any longer, to speak to the spirit and awaken consciousness through the contemplation of beauty.
The Indian art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy who devoted many of his writings to this involution, defines our aesthetics as ‘a false rhetoric with confused and emotive values, adulation of human weakness through which we can only explain those arts that have no purpose other than to please’. Henry Corbin too in some of his writings devoted to Islamic mysticism, speaks of the capacity of the heart to seize beauty through the images that the heart itself produces and, to the contrary, of the decadence of a culture that forgets the visions of the heart and delegates the ‘sense of beauty’ to a merely subjective reaction.
A first conclusion is thus that ‘the sentimental heart’ of modern man is blind to beauty and pushes us towards a wild egotism.
In Greek tragedy (above all in Aeschylus), in its catharsis, in the initiations to the Mysteries and in the ritual narration of myths, the ‘truths of the heart’ consisted in man’s capacity to take on the burden and the gift of the visions of his heart; visions that constituted a bridge between one’s past and one’s future, between the evanescent time of the here and now, and of cronos, the time of the gods, the aion, a bridge between the world of man alive and the dead, between everyday actions and roots and blood curses. The heart, the seat of intelligence and the king of vision, was also the ancient organ that Egyptian embalmers did not put inside the Canopic vases and did not remove from the mummified body of the dead when preparing it for his journey to the afterlife.
Today, each of us is confined today in his ‘personal experience’ as if he were inside a prison, that of the narrow outlook which the modern world has in its heart. How to transmit to others visions that may have meaning for everybody? Where to find the stones needed to build a common future?
The confusion between the vision of the heart and personal sentiments has produced the decline and corruption of western civilization.
The images through which truth reveals itself to us are in any case more important than the feelings that they awake within ourselves. To be aware of our capacity to perceive those images has become indispensable in a world that is increasingly dominated by material goods and avidity.
Hillman observes that the Confessions of Saint Augustine indicated at least -as a definite assumption for mankind’s search for spirituality- the divinity hidden in the depth of one’s heart. Rousseau’s ‘Confessions’ on the other hand, ended at the centre of the Labyrinth with man’s identification with a godly nature. Modern psychotherapy makes one’s life experiences and subjective feelings into a divinity without any horizon other than exactly this one: subjective experience as a source for Revelation.
It is not surprising then that we live in a myopic world led by people of a microscopic stature.
All that I have said so far can generate a huge misunderstanding: to recognize the existence and the active power of the images of the heart is in fact not the end but the beginning of a journey.
The exhortation: ‘Go where your heart takes you’ is an illiterate exhortation. As I said at the beginning, the heart is the seat of active images but also of illusions. Talking about dreams, Homer said that two doors open from dreams. From the first one, made of horn, come prophetic and wise dreams sent by the gods. From the other one, made of ivory, come mendacious and deceptive dreams linked to the contingent motions of the soul and to everyday life. The journey that each of us is called to make must lead us not only to distinguish between a feeling and the image that it originates, between desire and its object, but, above all, between the active imagining of the heart that contributes to the creation of the world that surrounds us, and gives a meaning to our lives, and the empty illusions of the heart that lead men towards suffering and dispersion. One can fall in love with the wrong person, have friends that let us down or betray us, find seductive false ideas on the world, see beauty in what is kitsch, remain faithful to behavioural patterns that are wrong for us and for other people, make up distorted images of loved or hated ones. The intelligence of the heart is not revealed by chasing the images that the heart produces but lies in the capacity to discriminate. It consists in a contemplative capacity that can reveal to those who possess it, the difference between gold and its vulgar imitations. This capacity is acquired little by little. It is the heritage that separations and suffering are bequeathed to those who know how to glean it.
The book that I am presenting talks of the journey towards awareness
necessary to be able to see our projections clearly over the vital images born in our hearts and to separate them from vulgar illusions. This journey is similar to the processes needed for the Opera Alchemica. In fact the ‘Mirror of the Arts’ of the alchemists was capable of revealing, like the mirror of the queen in Snow White, the most beautiful of the kingdom, that is the images of the heart truly worthy of our attention, distilled with the Green Lion, an implacable acid that frees the energies projected towards the exterior by the forms of the world inside in which they are kept.
The same journey is visible in the initiation rites of the Mysteries of Dionysus and in the role that tragedy took for the Greeks, in the myths of the descent into the world of the dead, in the symbolism of the snake and, last but not least, in the wonderful opportunity that love between a man and a woman gives us when it becomes a journey of authentic exchange and transformation, which is a very rare event.
To undertake the responsibility of the images generated by one’s heart means thus to have the courage to face the effort of the necessary work needed to discriminate between true, alive and vital images, from illusions; to clearly see desires super-imposed on reality, projections soldered to their objects and to discriminate the heart images from the emotions that they evoke within ourselves. But if we deny even the existence of the heart images and their function, this work will never even begin.
I am reminded of an anecdote concerning the Mahatma Gandhi. An English journalist once asked him in a peremptory manner: ‘What do you think of Western civilisation?’
Gandhi answered in a sweet and phlegmatic tone: ‘That it would be a good idea’.
Let us come to another aspect that, in my opinion, the soul of the ancient Greek man that came temporarily out from the afterlife looking at our world would notice: speed.
Plutarch wrote in his book The sunset of oracles that the priests of the temple of the god Amon kept a sacred oil used for a lamp. The property of this oil was that of being timed with the time of the gods. The priests observed that in the last centuries the oil in the lamp would burn increasingly slowly. This meant that since the time of the lamp is immutable, human time already at that time passed faster and faster. This vision of time increasingly fast, is perfectly akin to the Indian theory of the cosmic cycles according to which we are living in the cycle of the Kali Yuga which is characterised by a greater acceleration of time, and with the analogous theory of Hesiod concerning the five ages of humankind. According to this theory we are now in the vile age of iron where everything flourishes and decays rapidly.
But let’s consider for a moment the very concept of speed. In a course of elementary physics speed would be defined as the relationship between space and time… hence the more rapidly one moves within a defined space the faster one is.
Nobody can deny that in our times we have extended an unlimited craving for speed to all the aspects of our existence.
Shall I give you some examples? He who begins a journey wants, as one says, to optimize his time and reach the destination as soon as possible. With this preoccupation in mind, we have created vehicles which travel increasingly fast, while the space that separates the two places, the place of departure and the place of arrival, increasingly appears as an obstacle to overcome and brush aside as quickly as possible. Peoples in antiquity had a different concept of what travelling implies: one would sacrifice to Hermes-Mercury, the god of roads, and the real journey would consist in the journey itself and not in reaching one’s destination, in the transformation that the journey would induce in the traveller and in the naming of new discoveries and acquaintances in the places one visited.
The relationship between means and ends is analogous. In the end when one pursues an objective what really separates a man from another, is not the capacity to reach one’s destination, but the elegance and the harmony of one’s actions.
If we think for a moment about the profound nature of the world we live in, we would notice that newspapers and television broadcasts declare that Italy is faring well or badly according to the increase or decrease of its GDP (gross domestic product): in other words, it is healthy when consumption increases and when people are seized by an irrepressible need to consume, to own more and more, and spend their money even quicker. ‘Sick’ means the opposite. In antiquity the idea of trade -another field pertaining to the god Mercury- was instead ruled by the idea that the gods had to take part in each exchange and to possess something meant also to make a pact with what one owned. This is the reason why the sides of ancient coins had on the one side the symbols of earthly rule and on the other the image of a god or a goddess. In Greek mythology this need to devour all characterised Cronos-Saturn, who ate his own children preventing them from being born. It is for this reason that when Jupiter- who was destined to succeed Saturn as the king of the Olympus-was born, Saturn was tricked and a stone was given him to eat instead of his son.
The craving for speed also characterizes information, yet another field ruled by Mercury, the archetypal Messenger. Electromagnetic waves and optic fibres instantly transmit information in all parts of the world through Television, radio, telephones and computers. But the possibility of instantly transporting information and multiplying indefinitely images and sounds (of important events, works of art, cultural trends, new ideas) often means to trivialise and transform into goods that which is broadcast… thus ideas and cultural creations become short –lived trends and facts are devoid of the context that originated them, presented in a new context: the rectangle of a TV screen or of a computer and rapidly forgotten.
In order to cure illnesses (another field sacred to Hermes and to Asclepius) medicines are used that attack the sick organ without any concern for the body as a whole and the person that is… its ‘host’. Here too the preoccupation is to avoid, as fast as possible, the pathogenous symptoms without having a holistic vision of the whole of the patient and of the equilibrium between his body and his psyche.
Examples could be multiplied ad infinitum: computers have made the logical processes of inference very fast and almost instantaneous the necessary distance to associate information with a relevant theme and remember it… Again, mind and memory are Mercury’s concern (besides Memnosines’), the necessity of producing faster and faster at a low cost has made us literally forget that one of the functions of objects of everyday use, of houses, of roads, was their beauty.
Besides mass-produced objects, houses are not only devoid of beauty but also devoid of history and therefore without a soul. To render the cultural productions, the objects of everyday use, the events, the works of art easily mass produced or transportable their hic et nunc, their here and now, their history and symbolic depth, their soul, the way they interact with us and their uniqueness is killed. Everything becomes ephemeral, ‘disposable’, lacking in sacredness and aura. We could well say that finally thanks to the infinitesimal calculus, Achilles has caught up with the tortoise paying however an intolerable price by doing so.
I would gently like to advance a contention suggested by my Greek ancestry: speed is an illness, a serious illness, whose symptoms reveal the conditions in which Mercury finds himself in our world.
And if you need a final proof, think of death and its savage removal from our culture… Poor Mercury whose main task was that of acting as a guide for the souls in the afterlife. He is now obliged to constantly wear the mantle of Hades that makes him invisible to all but the gravediggers and the undertakers!
Which is the common denominator of these pathologies of speed? I would say that it is the victory of an exterior time, imposed by technology and clocks, by vehicles and transistors, by infinite copies of the original and by electromagnetic waves and optic fibres, on interior time, expansible or that can be contracted according to the soul’s needs, as happens in the stories written by Borges and as it used to happen in the lives of our ancestors.
Similarly in Indian myths, those who are initiated in the knowledge of themselves by the god Vishnu, acquire the capacity of living entire lives in the time needed for the blink of an eye. The psyche can become a magnifying glass capable of expanding, at will, small segments of time or a telescope upturned that reduces to an instant long segments of life. Interior time only serves to give a specific weight to what surrounds us: like the scales of the Egyptian goddess Maat that weighs every event, every small detail of our lives, using the heart as a counterweight.
The external time that dominates us, is instead time susceptible of shrinking by techné , by technology, of transforming desires into action. But he who pursues it does not realize that he is chasing, not his own realisation, but a reflection of the ego. He prefers images to being and thus, to enter in the upside down world that is behind the mirror. In this accursed universe images can imprison true entities, and it is a world very similar to the world of the dead! One could suspect that it is indeed the wish to materialise our desires, of turning them into objects, of transforming them into reality, that has made us sell our souls to Mephistopheles and turn time inside out like a glove, surrendering to values, to alien criteria of importance and priority and even to articulate our lives according to an ‘exterior’ timing, ruled by machinery… It has even become conceivable to-day that one can lead a virtual life fed by a machine and immersed in a fictitious reality that embodies our every desires and defeats our every frustration… the techniques of virtual reality will make all this possible in a very near future.
But to eliminate frustrations and immediately realise our desires, means betraying oneself and negating to our souls the possibility of discovering what the heart truly desires beyond the forms momentarily shaped by desire. It is a materialistic delirium. Goethe said in Hermann and Dorothea: ‘Since desires veil to ourselves the desired object, the gifts descend from above in their own forms.’
The world of time not interiorised, is a universe where experiences are no longer elaborated, a microcosm where all energies aim at eliminating frustrations, where nobody knows how to listen and above all, how to listen to oneself, where what one lives is destined to be only a rhinestone, used to decorate our social image. Besides, for exterior time, it is irrelevant when something happens, all instants are equivalent. This would have been incomprehensible for the Greek soul initiated into the Mysteries that we have imagined: the interior moment when things are perceived and revealed is fundamental. The same words pronounced at different times speak to the soul with different languages. In one case they could be a bewildering discovery, in another just empty triviality.
We have journeyed together through the illnesses of the two gods: Dionysus and Mercury. In the first two chapters of my book I have chosen to speak of alchemy precisely because the alchemists wanted to heal their leper-like mercury and because ‘alchemy’ was gynaecology speeded up, transformation of metals from lead to gold in the finer sense, the art of commanding speed with one’s soul. I thought this would be a promising field. In the chapters devoted to Dionysus instead, I have tried to remind myself up to what point the role of this god in our civilization has been removed. The god now only survives in local folk traditions and peasant festivities.
Dionysus is the god of inebriation, of the vital lymph that makes plants grow and animals reproduce themselves. The visions inspired by the god take people who have been touched by him into a universe of light, colour, form and passion that capture the attention of he who is possessed, pushing him deeply into the earth, inside his own interior earth, putting him into contact with the most secret animal instincts and drives, those inaccessible from everyday awareness, so far that the perception of ordinary reality is completely blanked. In Euripides’ Bacchae Pentheus’ mother, possessed by Dionysus, tears her son to pieces thinking that he is a doe. Dionysus uses one of his followers, Pan, to take hold of men’s perceptions.
Through the enthousiasmos and panic, he takes away every contact with ordinary reality and with the sobriety and lucidity of common living. He brings instead the gift of the awareness that even the lowest and most animal instincts hold a divine spark. The god subtracts men from his ‘presence’ in everyday life but in exchange it re-veals (re-veils) the existence of masks behind which is hidden the terrible reality of life. The divine sparks that encourage us to live, to reproduce ourselves, to grow and to die, to be passionate about what surrounds us, the masks of the world, are hidden behind their wrappings and are unyielding to logic and to the rules of everyday life. They can sometimes appear as nymphs, or satyrs, but they are entities that only Hades, the god of the underworld can see in their truth after having disrobed them from the veils of illusions.
The Greeks conceived life’s current as being animated by two fundamental aspects: bios and zoi. Bios is linked to the conditioning of a person, to his biography, to his individual limitations and to self- preservation. Zoi is linked to the mysterious forces that guide the destiny of our species. If Dionysus momentarily hides, from his initiates, the perception of bios, he does so to open them to the much finer vision of the zoi.
The aspect of being that the god reveals is that which takes place both at birth and when one dies, at the beginning and at the end of love affairs, enthusiasms, projects. It is the vital and immortal spark that follows us immutably in our cyclical and lunar journeys. It is because of this that Heraclitus says that Hades and Dionysus are the same god. Because of this, the god awaits his initiates in the afterlife and is the husband destined for girls who have died prematurely. Because of this his mother is Semele, an incarnation of the moon, and his immortal father is Jupiter. Because of this the initiate to the Mysteries of Dionysus was led into the labyrinth of matter to encounter his animal side and he needs Ariadne’s thread to find the way out.
The Orphic tablets speak of the source of Memnosine where the initiates of Dionysus could drink and again acquire the memory of their past lives. The act of drinking from the miraculous spring is identical to the process that leads us to recognize the divine spark within ourselves, beyond the beginnings and the ends to which the forms of cyclical time destine it. The emblem of this journey is the dismembering of Dionysus by the Titans while the god looks at himself in the mirror: identifications dismember our awareness and only he who knows how to pursue them with his heart, down into the underworld, can regain his own integrity and overcome the tyranny of cyclical time.
The Greeks subdivided time into four fundamental typologies: cronos, the cyclical time of everyday events that leads us to being born and die with infinite returns. Aion the extraordinary time of the gods and of the fairytales whose protagonists rapidly reach a status that will never alter (today this is the time in which the protagonists of comic strips live). The synchronos, the time of extraordinary coincidences that mark the meeting between cronos and aion, a time when the gods manifest themselves to humans and a gap is opened between the human world and the divine world. And finally kairos, the fleeting moment when men can seize the occasion offered by revelation and transform it into action.
The third god about whom we shall speak, is Apollo who has the task of giving back integrity to the beings torn by the test of the descent into the underworld. Apollo must lead human beings back towards unity, beauty, harmony and justice after Dionysus has made them experience the multiplicity of being, the transience of identifications, the bias of particular visions. The idea that Nietsche had of the contrast between the Dionysian and Apollinian aspects of Greek culture appears to me substantially false. In fact Dionysian and Apollinian are complementary aspects of the same journey. If Dionysus represents the descent into the underworld, Apollo begins to act when the Titans have dismembered Dionysus and he is the one who saves the heart of the god so as to reintegrate him. Apollo cannot exist without Dionysus! Apollo is a-pollà, he who ends multiplicity in the name of a drive towards unity. Subterranean Apollo is no other than Dionysus who finally emerges from the underworld.
Because Apollo has crossed the underworld through his double Dionysus, and because he looked in all possible directions when he freed himself from illusions, he is the god of snakes that are sacred to him and reared in underground places.
It is Apollo too who gives the caduceus to Hermes when he stole his oxen, sacred to the sun. (Bous in ancient Greek was the name of coins since it stood for the exchange of one good for another). The caduceus was used by Hermes-Mercury to accompany the souls up and down between the world and the afterworld and between wakefullness and sleep.
The gift that Hermes gives Apollo is the lyre with seven strings from which music comes. The sound of the lyre is the symbol of the power the god gives to those he loves best: to express their highest potential through words, the arts, their creations, on condition that those beloved of the god, the artists, have known before the touch of Dionysus.
Apollo is also the god of divination, of prophets, of seers. The sibyls and the Pythia would reveal their responses at the entrance of sulphurous caves and Apollo could act through them because before him Dionysus had descended into the underworld. The manias and the trances that seized seers and prophets was completely different from the Dionysian mania, from the enthousiasmos. The Apollinian mania is capable of bringing that which cannot be said, to the art of the word, to bring back to the light of the sun that which the heart of Dionysus has experiences in the underworld. The words of the prophets and of the seers are never direct; words linked to meaning through evidence. They are instead enigmas, obscure words that refer to what it is otherwise impossible to express, or because it concerns the future and the configuration of events that do not exist yet, or because it comes from celestial or hellish realities, unreachable by human awareness.
The three feet that sustained the tripod near which the priests of Apollo cast their omens represented the three universes among which the seer moves: the underworld, the earth and the heavens or alternatively the past, the present and the future.
The words of the enigma inspired by the god were often poisonous, dangerous, cutting phrases that only a wise man can understand. These are Apollo’s arrows that he keeps in his quiver and which he can send afar.
The god was also feared for his capacity to unleash epidemics and plague with his arrows and he was invoked to seek healing. It was almost as if illnesses were considered evident symptoms of lack of harmony in the soul.
One of the great scholars of Greek culture, Giorgio Colli, describes the birth of philosophy as a way to confront the mysteries by the initiates and of the sages with the enigma that came from the god. Heraclitus, Empedocles, Parmenides, Taletes, Epimenides, Anaximenes, Anaximander and the other presocratic philosophers -Colli maintains- express a kind of knowledge that did not appear like philosophy as we think of it, but had to have the capacity to understand the enigmatic questions of the Pithia.
Apollo’s rationality is absolutely not that of the conventional philosophers and is not ascribable to a mere exercise of formal logic. We would today call ‘rational’ the able lecturer who uses fine arguments, or he who can maintain himself calm in front of what is unexpected, or the collector of commonplace, or he who cultivates a minimalistic and depressed vision of the world, he who tries to neutralize therefore the actions of Pan framing his own experiences within predetermined schemata.
Apollo’s rationality stems instead from the intelligence of the heart. It is an oblique, ctonic, rationality that hits from afar by hinting through enigmatic utterances at what cannot be said because there are no words to say it, or because it is too far in time, or because it pertains to the world of the gods or to the underworld.
In the same way Apollo’s beauty has nothing to do with simple aesthetics or with the modern idea of art for art’s sake. His is the beauty of the harmony between parts, it is the splendour of Osiris’ body reconstructed by Isis who has gathered its fragments and the mystery of the body of Dionysus regenerated by his heart. It is the result of the visions of those who entered with Dionysus into the depth of the earth, who identified themselves with the lymph that animates all living beings, and who have known the forms of the world ‘from inside’ after having loved them with passion hence living the pain of abandonment and the elaboration of grief.
Only those who have gone through these tests can really receive Apollo’s gifts, true rationality and an authentic sense of beauty.
Orpheus, who in order to protect himself from love and unhappiness sacrificed to Apollo but no longer to Dionysus, was killed and torn to pieces by the Maenads, Dionysus’ priestesses.
Here Dionysus’ vengeance is in fact an oblique vengeance of Apollo who does not care for being adored by those who cannot bring back their soul from the underworld.
Apollo protects instead those who can see a nucleus of truth in the obscure phrases of the seers and of the prophets. Apollo’s protection leads men to the synchronos, the time of ‘coincidences’. It makes them come across enigmatic sentences and disturbing events, full of numinous meanings. Man inspired by Apollo goes then beyond the opposition between cronos and aion, between bios and zoi. He seizes kairos, the fleeting moment and opens a window onto the infinite.
by Alessandro Orlandi