Sunday, June 07, 2009

An Encounter with Pan

E.M. Forster published "The Story of a Panic" in his collection The Celestial Omnibus in 1923. The story is told from the viewpoint of an unreliable narrator, a bit of a priggish English vicar to be honest, and is about a group of English tourists in the Italian countryside, who experience a moment of panic, literal panic, in the hills above Ravello.

Forster writes, in the voice of his narrator, of that moment:

The conversation turned to various topics and then died out. It was a cloudless afternoon in May, and the pale green of the young chestnut leaves made a pretty contrast with the dark blue of the sky. We were all sitting at the edge of the small clearing for the sake of the view, and the shade of the chestnut saplings behind us was manifestly insufficient. All sounds died away—at least that is my account: Miss Robinsons says that the clamour of the birds was the first sign of uneasiness that she discerned. All sounds died away, except that, far in the distance, I could hear two boughs of a great chestnut grinding together as the tree swayed. The grinds grew shorter and shorter, and finally that sound stopped also. As I looked over the green fingers of the valley, everything was absolutely motionless and still; and that feeling of suspense which one so often experiences when Nature is in repose, began to steal over me.

Suddenly, we were all electrified by the excruciating noise Eustace's whistle. I never heard any Instrument give forth so ear-splitting and discordant a sound.

“Eustace, dear," said Miss Mary Robinson, "you might have thought of your poor Aunt Julia's head."

Leyland who had apparently been asleep, sat up.

"It is astonishing how blind a boy is to anything that is elevating or beautiful," he observed. "I should not have thought he could have found the wherewithal out here to spoil our pleasure like this."

Then the terrible silence fell upon us again. I was now standing up and watching a catspaw of wind that was running down one of the ridges opposite, turning the light green to dark as it traveled. A fanciful feeling of foreboding came over me; so I turned away, to find to my amazement, that all the others were also on their feet, watching it too.

It is not possible to describe coherently what happened next: but I, for one, am not ashamed to confess that, though the fair blue sky was above me, and the green spring woods beneath me, and the kindest of friends around me, yet I became terribly frightened, more frightened than I ever wish to become again, frightened in a way I never have known either before or after. And in the eyes of the others, too, I saw blank, expressionless fear, while their mouths strove in vain to speak and their hands to gesticulate. Yet, all around us were prosperity, beauty, and peace, and all was motionless, save the catspaw of wind, now traveling up the ridge on which we stood.

Who moved first has never been settled. It is enough to say that in one second we were tearing away along the hill-side. Leyland was in front, then Mr. Sandbach, then my wife. But I only saw for a brief moment; for I ran across the little clearing and through the woods and over the undergrowth and the rocks and down the dry torrent beds into the valley below. The sky might have been black as I ran, and the trees short grass, and the hillside a level road; for I saw nothing and heard nothing and felt nothing, since all the channels since all the channels of sense and reason were blocked. It was not the spiritual fear that one has known at other times, hut brutal overmastering physical fear, stopping up the ears, and dropping clouds before the eyes, and filling the mouth with foul tastes. And it was no ordinary humiliation that survived; for I had been afraid, not a man, but as a beast.

More cannot be said. Possibly not even a poet could find suitable words to depict an experience so primal, so mysterious.

The rest of Forster's story is about the aftermath of this event. The young man, really a boy, among their party, Eustace, is open to the experience of meeting Pan, and would become a Pan-worshipper then and there, as only one of the Italian locals seems to understand; but Eustace is restrained, thought to be mad by his oh-so-proper English companions, and fights wildly to escape, only to die mysteriously in the end. Forster is equivocal about the meaning of this death: was it perhaps a boy rushing into the arms of his god? The English tourists, disturbed and shattered as they are by their own experience of Chaos, can only comprehend it as a tragedy. The boy is understood and supported only by the young Italian man present at their hotel—himself no doubt a knower of Pan—and there is a homoerotic subtext to the story, as the connection between Eustace and the young Italian is sensual in ways the English neither comprehend nor condone. That wildness, that freedom, that openness to Nature and its powers: that is entirely what overly "civilized" men suppress in themselves.

Pan is the god of panic as well as of nature. He is the wild, the things we cannot contain or explain or control. To be a follower of Pan means giving up control. You cannot predict what will happen: you could die, torn apart in your ecstasy the way Orpheus was ripped apart by deranged followers of Dionysos.

Pan (sometimes appearing as Dionysos, or Eros, or even Priapus) is a theme that recurs in literature again and again: a necessary wildness. We are more wild than we like to think we are, and we need a necessary wildness to keep our balance. If we become too Apollonian, and forget Pan/Dionysos entirely, we become stifled and stiff and blocked and repetitive. A soul-death awaits not long after. Writers need to be wild.

There are other moments of Pan's panic that I remember encountering in works of literature, and the other arts, that have stayed clear in my memory, as moments of liberating breaking-open. An encounter with Pan is always liminal, always a threshold experience, always happening in part in an interzone between reality and other-reality. And never without fear, or some other version of panic—we are always somewhat afraid of what we cannot comprehend, even if we welcome it—but also as moments of recognition. I keep returning to these many moments in recognition, and to remind myself not to be too certain about life, its meanings, or anything else, really. There are still many huge Mysteries that exist, and break through into our lives, always without warning. What is a vision but an experience of panic?

There is a legend (retold in the Forster story, but not invented by him; it also occurs in Moroccan folklore, for example) of sailors in the Mediterranean off the wild shoreline hearing three loud knocks echo across the sky, then a loud voice out of the sky saying, "The Great God Pan is dead." Another legend has it this happened when the Christ was born, signaling the change of gods from old religion to new—but while it's easy to believe in the legend of the great voice, it's also easy to disbelieve the recounted timing as part of the pagan-Christian tension that dominated Europe during the early centuries Anno Domini.

Nonetheless, Pan is very much alive. If we could recognize his form, his new and changed forms, and manifestations, and visitations upon us, then he wouldn't be Pan. Just like the Tao: The Pan which can be named is not the true Pan.

The themes of Peter Weir's film Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) are in many ways parallel to Forster's story. In a way, Weir's film is a profound homage to Forster's story. The themes of repression, both cultural and sexual, are overt in the film; the theme of Mystery is depicted, vividly and terrifyingly, in ways very similar to Forster's description. On a picnic on Valentine's Day, a hot silent afternoon, four school girls disappear mysteriously at Hanging Rock; this causes a huge rent in the local social fabric, and the rest of the film traces the aftermath of things falling apart. One young man, having a deep crush on one of the girls who disappeared, goes up into Hanging Rock a few days later, and in a similar mysterious event, brings her back. But the one girl's return to the girl's school is even more terrible, as it brings to the surface all the fears and frustrations and panic of the other girls. There is a homoerotic thread of love between some of the schoolgirls, depicted by Weir simply and with elegance, that further parallels the homoerotic subtext of Forster's story.

What rough beast, in Yeats' poem "The Second Coming," often interpreted to be the coming of the Antichrist, could also be interpreted as the return of Pan: of nature-worship, of paganism.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

This poem was written in 1919, in the aftermath of the horrors of World War I—that first awakening to the death of meaning that became the Twentieth Century, that became Modernism, and eventually post-modernism's deliberate equal leveling of all meaning or value into eclectic sampler culture. (Could post-modernism have happened without samplers, and digitization, and the computer's impact on contemporary culture? It seems doubtful.) The poem is usually interpreted as depicting the end of certainty, of the old traditions, as the Modern age begins, with its horrors and uncertainties—and so the poem is often seen as apocalyptic: but perhaps it is in fact hopeful. The disruption of the social fabric is necessary, the old must fall away, so that the new life can begin, to make a new and perhaps better world.

What if the new arrival on the scene was Pan, his hour come round at last, in the great cycle of death and rebirth, to reclaim his place as the mover of events, the bringer of chaos, the destroyer who clears the way for new creation, much as Shiva brings about the explosion out of which life begins? Is that enough to cause panic?

The creative destruct is almost a Modernist archetype. It shows up in those French poets who more or less invented Modernist European poetry, working in France at almost the same times as Whitman, Dickinson, and Emerson in the US. I refer of course to Lautremont, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud. Later, Artaud continues this work of "the derangement of the senses." Much commentary on Baudelaire and Rimbaud focuses on the "bad boy" element of the poetry, and of the poets, too: the explicit, intentional shock-value; the breaking-away from normative social values; the experimentation with things society hates and fears. Artaud extends these tropes further in his Theatre of Cruelty. (One notes as an aside that post-Modern adolescent young males in Euro-American culture tend to be as obsessed with Rimbaud, in their teenage years, as do many adolescent Euro-American females with Sylvia Plath; and for similar reasons.)

Yet what is often missed in literary criticism is Baudelaire's intention, openly stated by the poet, to tear down the old literary values so that something new can come in, something alive and fresh and vivid, rather than formalist, stale, decadent, and corrupt. Lautremont and Baudelaire developed the prose-poem form in part as a reaction against the straightjacket of French formalist metric verse, dominated for over a century by the alexandrine; so the prose-poem itself was a revolt, a rebellion, an attempt to shake loose of the old stale literary values and tropes. Baudelaire knew that he needed to destroy before he could create. Baudelaire wanted to start all over again, with a clean slate.

And that is the key to the creative destruct archetype: the old must be cleared away, before the new can be brought in.

Where most literary critics, and most writers for that matter, fail utterly to comprehend this archetype is that they get hung up on the initial destruction, and never get to the creation—or, if they do, it's an afterthought. Merely a footnote, in some cases. The last, redemptive chapter of Dostoevsky's Crime & Punishment is barely 5 percent of the overall book. Death is always sexier, according to the rules of commercial publishing, than is redemption. Much more ink is spilled depicting the awful, than is spent on reporting good outcomes. We've gone so far, in this, that many artists and critics have become so immersed in thinking that only violence and degradation are "true stories" or can depict the truth, that even the redemptive ending of Crime & Punishment is criticized as unbelievable.

All too many artists act as if they believe that only evil is real; that men are beasts; that there is no hope. Crime fiction and police procedural TV shows continue to be, unquestioned, the dominant forms and stories in our culture: best-selling suspense are almost universally whodunits. Only a happy ending in mainstream fiction is suspect.

And thus we have a century and more of unrelentingly bleak and horrific apocalyptic art, relentlessly rehearsing and proclaiming The End Of All Things—The Modern Urban Apocalypse—so that very little hope is left, very little depiction of what comes after the apocalypse. If you look back in European cultural history to find anything similar, you must go back to the late Middle Ages, where the Apocalypse was one of the main story themes. Frank Wilson coined the term pornography of despair during a review of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel The Road—and Frank's coinage works very well, in my interpretation, to categorize all this relentlessly apocalyptic art, which gives us The End, over and over again, but never fast-forwards to what survives after what is lost, or what might be rebuilt. Or, if it does, it's often only the last page: an afterthought, a tiny little bit of equivocal hope, more of a sop to sentimentality than an actual resurrection. So we have the pornography of despair.

But in all this, we forget Pan. Because Pan is that resurrection, that return to life. Pan is not the god of the apocalypse, but the god of the return of Nature's meaning, the god of Chaos: and it is out of Chaos that Order emerges, or re-emerges, that form arises, that a new world is born. The cycles of time, in many of the world's greatest mythologies, are depictions of this dance of Chaos and Order. Michael Moorcock, in his large cycle of stories of the Multiverse, of the many incarnations of the Eternal Champion, defines Creation as a dynamic balance between Law and Chaos. We could also say: between Apollo and Dionysos; between Christ and Pan; between totalitarianism and anarchism. And there are yet other names for this balance. Again, the Tao: the yin-yang interpenetration of light and dark, each constantly emerging from the other, whirling forever in dynamic balance.

Michael Crichton, trained as a medical doctor, but rather an anti-science critical philosopher in all his fiction best-sellers, puts the apocalypse into perspective. He has his mathematician character, Ian Malcolm, indirectly remind the reader in Jurassic Park that what we call the apocalypse is only our apocalypse. Malcolm objects to the "death of all life" scenarios that the environmentalist doom-sayers repeat, almost as cant: in fact, if humanity does manage to exterminate itself, this isn't the end of the world. The cockroaches and lichens will survive our human apocalypse. "Life will find a way," says Malcolm.

And that is Pan's message: life will find a way. It will always find a way.

Jurassic Park is a novel in the modern genre of post-apocalyptic fiction; but it also about resistance, and renewal. It reminds us that we are not the end-product of Creation, its ultimate achievement; it is only our hubris as a species that allows us to think so highly of ourselves, in our arrogance. This reminder of our true, rather small, place in Creation is akin to what is found in much of Robinson Jeffers' poetry.

Crichton's strength as a fiction writer lay in the accuracy of his science, in the truth of his mathematics, and so his speculations are grounded in more reality than a lot of other post-apocalyptic fiction. If you want a sense of the science behind the apocalypse, gather in the paleontologist's perspective, and ask what the fossil record tells us about the history and extinction of species on our planet.

There have been at least 5 "extinction level events" found in the geologic record: 5 times in which The End Of The World has made room for new species to develop, evolve, grow to fill in the ecological niches, and spread outwards across the face of the world. If we humans experience another ELE, we can have faith that life will still find a way: Pan will watch new life spread outward across the planet, eventually.

The second dose of humility offered by the paleontological record is that, ELEs or not, most species only live a few million years, at most, then degrade, and disappear. Most species have a species-level lifetime, analogous to our individual lifetimes. Most species only endure for a few million years, then die out. For every species alive on Earth today, there are many more that lived out their millions-year lifetimes, as species, and have died a natural death.

Of course, one way in which species live out their lifetimes and disappear is that they sometimes evolve into something unrecognizable, new, and completely different. I doubt a member of Australopithecus would comprehend us as his distant children, as cousins. If we as a species also someday become something other than what we can recognize as still ourselves, we no doubt will regard that change as a kind of death, a kind of apocalypse. The pain of birth is refracted in the pain of rebirth. What we think is the apocalypse is only our apocalypse. We re-emerge, changed:

Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

—from Shakespeare, The Tempest

Rich and strange, what rough beast, suffering a sea-change, only to re-emerge, new and utterly Other. This is action of Pan: this is what panic is, what Pan does to stir the world to keep it alive, keep it new, keep it green, fertile, and alive with possibility.

Our fear of Pan's encounter, our panic, is that must give up what we were, to become what we shall become, what we must become. Our panic is because we don't know what's happening, or what we are turning into.

Let's hope that we cannot avoid that wildness in ourselves, that rich wildness, which we need in order to survive. Let's hope, next time we encounter Pan, that the boy will live.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Fascinating article, Art. Much I didn't know. I had never considered Pan as the god of panic. Very interesting.

As for chaos, I've always thought of it as very, very complicated order.

5:28 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

There's a paradox involved. Just now I'm reading a book called "The Collapse of Chaos: Discovering simplicity in a complex world," by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart. The book is all about how complex systems emerge from simple initial conditions—which lies at the root of fractal math and chaos theory alike—but also how simplicity in nature is generated from chaos and complexity. You can think of order as an emergent property of chaos—which echoes many Creation myths—but chaos is also an emergent property of order, when conditions change.

For example, if you have a rotating cylinder inside another cylinder, with water in between them, if the inner cylinder rotates slowly, the water tends to move in an orderly circular manner. But if you speed up the rotations, turbulence starts to form in the water, first chaotic turbulence, than a kind of barber-pole flow, or spiral flow. If you speed up the rotations even more, eventually the water returns to circular, non-turbulent flow, but at a faster rate.

When you add energy to a dynamic system, it becomes turbulent, but then there's a threshold of sorts that gets crossed, and the system restabilizes into an orderly system, but at a higher energy level.

Turbulence is a chaotic state that is transitional between states of dynamic balance. It's not inherently chaotic, although it is chaotic in terms of practical, physical appearance and action.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Mark Kerstetter said...

I wouldn't want to nitpick - if for no other reason than that you are probably better read than I am - but you may find my point of view of interest. I've been thinking of larger, slower moving patterns in the history of the arts of man. I think it's in keeping with your suggestions about the primal forces of Pan to see that, in the longer view, a term like Post-Modernism is not of much help. When you think about its key features you can apply them to Picasso and in literature you can easily go back to Lautreamont. Therefore modernism and post-modernism exist side by side. But even beyond that it's not hard to see art-making, going back to the ancient caves, as an activity of Modern man (and really the classical forms were a deviation, for a period, from the primary forms that are thought of as modern).

I happened to stumble across an essay by Guy Debord a couple of days ago:

"Any elements, no matter where they are taken from, can serve in making new combinations. The discoveries of modern poetry regarding the analogical structure of images demonstrate that when two objects are brought together, no matter how far apart their original contexts may be, a relationship is always formed. Restricting oneself to a personal arrangement of words is mere convention. The mutual interference of two worlds of feeling, or the bringing together of two independent expressions, supersedes the original elements and produces a synthetic organization of greater efficacy. Anything can be used."

The whole flavor of the essay is "post-modern", and sounds just like what people do on the Internet every day. It was written in 1956.

Maybe the encounter with Pan is something some people come to momentarily, race away from and forget, then come back to again. We, as a species, are always forgetting and being reminded of Pan over and over again.

12:25 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Actually, Mark, your critique of post-modernism is one I very much agree with. I also agree with your long-view overview of the slower-moving historical patterns, as you put it. That long view is something I often contemplate; it never makes sense to me that so many cultural theorists ignore history so much of the time. I guess they want to be New, completely New; and reminding them that they indeed have precedents isn't always what they want to hear.

So many poets act as if they just invented the themes of poetry that they want to write about; yet so many of these are unoriginal precisely BECAUSE they ignore history.

I am quite critical of much post-modernism as an -ism, for a number of reasons. Your point about them existing side by side, "pure" Modernism and post-Modernism, reflects, in my opinion, that PM isn't really "post" anything—because if it were it wouldn't include "Modernism" in its very appellation. In fact, I view post-modernism as the extreme late (decadent?) form of Modernism itself. As you correctly point out, Debord is very much a precursor (and source) of PM theory. (Thanks for the very relevant quote!) Again, Debord's ideas of combining elements into new combinations—modular thinking, if not modular art itself—reminds us that PM is actually Late Modernism, not anything separate in any way from Modernism. (Debord also gets at the associative nature of poetry, and thus indirectly describes the reason why haiku work.)

Your comment about the art of the ancient caves resonates with me. I always recall that Gary Snyder said once that his values, as poet and person, are in fact Paleolithic. I also think of Clayton Eshleman's huge book "Juniper Fuse," which is a poetic and archaelogical meditation on ancient cave art. Both of these writers I think might agree with you that the classical forms were a periodic deviation from the primary forms, the resurfaced in early Modernism. I think of Klee and Kandinsky as well as Picasso, in this context.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Dave King said...

Tremendous post, Art. Like Jim, I had not made the connection between Pan and panic. The other connections are made easily enough - that much more so when they are pointed out, of course. Your handling of them is excellent; they gel wonderfully, the story, the film and the poem. Superb. Many thanks.

5:37 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the comments, Dave.

The more I think about this, the more I can find examples of Pan's panic breaking through, emerging, often disguised or cloaked but resonant with historical precedents. It's one of those things, that breaking through, that has a signature, a feel, something about it that's very recognizable, even as it has infinite forms. If one recognizes the liminal aspect, as well as the emotional cast, of the breaking-through, it becomes easier to make these kinds of connections.

8:27 AM  

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