Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Note to My Brainstem

Unless you're Bill O'Reilly, fighting pretend wars, or just tend to be depressed this time of year (quite understandable), the holidays are supposed to feature laughter and jollity. Nobody's better at that than our friends across the pond; so click the graphic and have a Merry Mithras laugh with Stephen Fry (of Harry Potter audiobook fame) and crew.

I can't claim to have known about this study while I was writing "God's Nose" over the weekend, but it's nice to know that my work can be topical, even though by accident.

Today, I happened to have a glance back at the DR archives, just to see what we were up to last year. I had actually forgotten the transit strike here in NYC, but that was the big event here one year ago. I can't recall what made me do the "Baghdad Bob and Crawford George" piece.

It's a holly-jolly season, after all: the roundball thugs are having their usual brawls; the battle over the O.J. / Fox debacle continues apace; and the latest statistics on violence in Iraq are...well...exactly what we all knew they would be.

So let me suggest, Bill-O, that the war is not on Xmas; it's just around it. Why this is so is anyone's guess, but my astrologer friend Eric Francis has a theory:

I recognize that the holidays are a difficult time of year for many, if not most, people -- myself included. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, it's also a somewhat frightening time of year, as the cave-person or primate part of our brains is indeed wondering where the Sun went and whether it will ever come back (note to brainstem, it will).

Perhaps the solstice time is, after all, a moment for giving the forebrain a well-earned rest and affording some primacy instead to nose, brainstem, and heart. This is a theme I found in Harry Potter's first solstice moment:

The cloak is a Christmas gift—one of the first of Harry's life, since he was never given any by the Dursleys—which comes to him from his dead father through his mentor, Dumbledore: the unsigned note which accompanies the cloak only says, "your father left this in my possession before he died. It is time it was returned to you. Use it well." The invisibility cloak is a magical (and therefore metaphorical) object of immense value and beauty: it is "fluid and silvery gray…strange to the touch, like water woven into material." Clearly, Mrs. Rowling is not writing this in a vacuum of invention: this is a metaphor of great historical depth and psychological meaning, particularly within the mythology of England and Ireland:

In the story Tochmarc Etaine (The Courtship of Etain), the god of the Otherworld, Midir, demands in compensation for the loss of an eye in a brawl, a chariot, a cloak, and the most beautiful maiden in Ireland as his bride…This was a cloak of invisibility (like Siegfried's tarnkappe in the Nibelungenlied) and of forgetfulness…The god Lug wore a similar cloak which enabled him to pass through the entire Irish army without being seen when he came to aid his son…To put on the cloak is to show that you have chosen Wisdom (the philosopher's cloak). (Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, pp. 205-206)

The invisibility cloak is an image of transformation, and not of self-obliteration, depersonalization, or disembodiment. For Harry, his body is still manifestly there—he can feel it, and so can others if they bump into him (indeed, this is part of the challenge in using the cloak). Whenever he wears the cloak over the course of the five stories, Harry's physical and intuitive senses seem to become more acute and penetrating: he becomes more open and alert to experience than when he is visible. The cloak's virtue is to take him to, and through, the experiences that will contribute to his inner growth—indeed, it is an active metaphor of the practices involved in the development of the true self. These include inner movements of one's total being—the intuitive, feeling, and spiritual capacities of our nature, that live and glow in quiescence beneath the often-repressive monarch known as intellect.

Harry discovers this the first time he uses the cloak: he goes to the library, thinking that this is where he "should" go, in order to obtain information. But he quickly discovers that he is being called beyond the realm of "should" and "ought," once he has put on this cloak—that he is being called to penetrate deeper regions of the psyche than he can reach through the symbols and instruments of intellect. This message is brought to him very quickly: the library is said to be "pitch-black and eerie"; the books "didn't tell him much," because they are written in "words in languages Harry couldn't understand." Finally, he comes to a book that screams into the night as soon as he opens it, and that drives him out of there, toward the place where a more potent image of self-discovery lies, which will engage his entire being. In his retreat from the images of intellect and the representatives of Authority (the caretaker Argus Filch and Professor Snape, who come looking for him), Harry encounters exactly what he needs to further his inner learning: the Mirror of Erised.

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