“You know, that’s a real angel you’re talking to.” It was a couple of years ago, at a reception in Chicago’s Green Lantern Gallery, that I overheard that comment. I was sipping cheap wine and talking to an old friend in the crowd that had gathered at an after-party held in the wake of the Chicago Poetry Project’s symposium on Robert Duncan, and someone behind me was recalling the remark as something Duncan had said to Nathaniel Mackey after reading some of the letters to the “Angel of Dust” collected in Mackey’s From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. Given the provenance, the remark may be apocryphal, but it’s certainly plausible, since one of the things about which Duncan was most insistent was the reality of myth, and of the figures found in myth. Indeed, the thing about Duncan that’s most challenging to (and most often discounted by) contemporary audiences is just this: that he had, or at least tried very hard to have, a truly mythological consciousness—something utterly alien to most people in our time, even those who see myth sympathetically.
What it means to have a mythological consciousness is perhaps best understood with reference to Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Volume Two: Mythological Thought. Cassirer, who goes largely unappreciated in literary circles nowadays, has a lot to offer us: after all, he was to neo-Kantian thought what Adorno was to Marxism, in that he wedded the rigors of his particular discipline to a belief that all of the humanities had something important to contribute to understanding, and took a strong interest in cultural forms. In his work on mythological thinking, he is at pains to distinguish between forms of thought that merely value mythology, and a true mythological form of consciousness, something he finds primarily in pre-modern contexts (though, as his chilling study of Nazi ideology, The Myth of the State, makes plain, it can enter the modern world, sometimes in dangerous ways).
By and large, says Cassier, even those of us who value myths as a source of knowledge engage in some fancy footwork to make those myths compatible with our own, non-mythological worldviews. “We are accustomed to view these contents as ‘symbolic,’ to seek behind them another, hidden sense to which they mediately refer,” he writes. “Thus, myth becomes mystery: its true significance and depth lie not in what its configurations reveal but in what they conceal…. From this result the various types and trends of myth interpretation—the attempts to disclose the meaning, whether metaphysical or ethical, that is concealed in myths.” Those who do not truly believe in mythology as fundamentally real find the value of myth in the way myths can be translated into some other kind of knowledge. Such attempts can be quite elaborate: “Medieval philosophers,” writes Cassirer, “distinguished three levels of interpretation, a sensus allegoricus, a sensus anagogicus, and a sensus mysticus.” Even those with a great deal of sympathy for myth and a strong dose of skepticism for modern rationality tend to need some kind of allegorical or symbolic interpretive method to make sense of mythology. Even the Romantics, says Cassirer, “though they strove… to understand the basic phenomena of mythology in themselves and not through their relationship to something else, did not fundamentally overcome ‘allegorisis.’”
If one truly embodies a mythological consciousness—if one thinks not about mythology, but within it—things look different. Apollo the god, and the ideas represented by the figure of Apollo are distinct to most of us (who may be sympathetic to those ideas, but who don’t expect to wake and see Apollo outside the window), but, as Cassirer points out, “only observers who no longer live in it but reflect on it read such distinctions into myth.” For those whose consciousness is truly formed by mythology, the mythical figure doesn’t stand for a thing: “it is the thing… it has the same actuality”—ideas are “transpose[d] into a material substance or being.” One way to grasp this is to think of what Cassirer calls the “mythical action,” when a “true substantiation is effected” and “the subject of the action is transformed into a god or demon.” That is: if you go to a Catholic mass and experience the transformation of the Eucharistic wafer as a metaphor or a symbol, you may be sympathetic to the meaning of the event, but you do not experience it with a truly mythological consciousness. Only if, in your true and deepest and most fundamental understanding, you actually experience the transformation of the wafer as a real, actual, literal transformation of the object into the body of Christ, into something divine, do you really experience the event with mythological consciousness. That kind of thinking represents a challenge for most of us: but if we want to understand Robert Duncan’s poetry, it’s important to take up that challenge. He wants very much to experience the world with just such a consciousness.
Consider Duncan’s comments on Milton’s Areopagitica in The Truth and Life of Myth. Attempting to explain his own relation to mythology, Duncan quotes this passage:
Truth indeed came once into the world with her divine Master, and was a perfect shape most glorious to look on: but when he ascended, and his Apostles after him were laid asleep, then straight arose a wicked race of deceivers, who, as that story goes of the Egyptian Typhon with his conspirators, how they dealt with the good Osiris, took the virgin Truth, hewed her lovely form into a thousand pieces, and scattered them to the four winds. From that time ever since, the sad friends of Truth, such as durst appear, imitating the careful search that Isis made for the mangled body of Osiris, went up and down gathering up limb by limb, still as they could find them. We have not yet found them all, Lords and Commons, nor ever shall do, till her Master's second coming; he shall bring together every joint and member, and shall mould them into an immortal feature of loveliness and perfection.... The light which we have gained was given us, not to be ever staring on, but by it to discover onward things more remote from our knowledge.Most of us would read “Truth,” with a capital “T,” as an allegorical figure, and indeed as a figure of speech. But, says Duncan, “the mythological mind—and mine… is mythological—hears this not as fable or parable but as the actual drama or meaning of history, the plot and intention of Reality.” For Duncan, “Truth was a Power, and, in this, a Person in history.” To be absolutely clear: Truth, for Duncan, is not a personification—she is a person. There’s a literalism here that is alien to the modern mind, and native to truly mythological consciousness.
It’s not easy, though, for Duncan to maintain this mythological consciousness in a modern world that looks askance at such consciousness. Indeed, Duncan makes an admission of doubt, saying that poets who attempt mythological consciousness “must ever be troubled by the play of their genius, of true things in fictions and of fictions in true things.” What is more, we find Duncan making what can seem like very willful readings, or misreadings, of other poets, in defense of mythological consciousness. We see this, for example, when Duncan discussed Dante’s famous encounter with “the angel Amor” in the Vita Nuova (given here in D.G. Rossetti’s translation, the version Duncan favored): "I felt a spirit of Love begin to stir/ Within my heart, long time unfelt till then;/And saw Love coming towards me, fair and fain.../Saying “Be now indeed my worshipper!” Dante "is speaking literally here, not figuratively," says Duncan, he “is not illustrating some thought of his but telling us of an actual presentation in the crux of the reality of the poem.” Dante’s poetry, says Duncan, “insists upon the primal reality of the angel Amor” as actually real—as far as Duncan is concerned, that’s a real angel Dante’s talking to.
Those familiar with the medieval modes of interpretation might object that the spirit of love is no real angel, here, no record of a literal seraphic vision, but a figure of speech that fits neatly into the allegorical and anagogical modes of literary composition and interpretation with which Dante was familiar, and around which his Divine Comedy is structured. They may even cite no less an authority than Dante himself, who describes the angel as figurative. But Duncan will not have it. Even though Duncan admits that “Dante pleads poetic license, that this is no more than a figure of speech,” he chooses not to accept this part of Dante as sincere. Rather, Duncan decides that Dante’s description of the angel as figurative is merely a self-protecting lie. “Joan [of Arc] will be tried by ecclesiastic court and burned at the stake for talking with such demonic powers as Dante’s angels in the Vita Nuova are,” says Duncan, and “Ficino and Pico della Mirandola will come to trial for their practices of a theurgic magic to call up such personifications.” In light of this climate of fear, Duncan decides that we must see Dante’s denial of literalism in a new light, as a “pleading of insincerity [about] just what in the poem has to be sincere.”
The willfulness of this reading is hard to ignore. Not only does Duncan ignore Dante’s extensive use of allegorical and anagogical figures throughout his work, but he cites as evidence of a climate of fear and intimidation events that won’t occur for 130 or even 150 years (the Vita Nuova was written in 1295; Joan of Arc went to trial in 1431; Ficino and Pico della Mirandola had their run-ins with Papal authority in the 1480s, and merely endured exile, a punishment we know from history that Dante was quite willing to undergo for his beliefs). But my point isn’t to say that Duncan was right or wrong: my point is to say that his desire for a mythological consciousness put him on the defensive, and could even lead him to make claims that were more emotionally satisfying and philosophically authorizing than they were defensible. We might not learn much about Dante from Duncan’s comments, but we learn something about Duncan: that he badly needed allies in his battle to maintain mythological consciousness in a milieu resistant to such consciousness, and may even have invented some of those allies out of his need.