Shelf Talks #2: Faith

Faith's bookshelf

Shelf Talks is a series of interviews in which writer and librarian Oleg Kagan asks interesting people questions inspired by the contents of their bookshelves. Faith Currant is a writer in Monroe, ME. In this interview, Faith explores an imaginary dinner between Dolly Parton and Carl Jung, noting how Dolly embodies the earth mother/goddess archetype. She also delves into the Jungian interpretation of fairy tales, explaining how the characters represent parts of ourselves, and recognizes the value of understanding our own insecurities and challenges through these stories. Finally, Faith emphasizes the importance of cultural mythology and metaphor in human culture, noting that their absence in education may lead to the gradual collapse of human culture.

OLEG: Okay, first question: I see you have Dolly Parton sitting there with Jung. If they were to have lunch together, what do you think they’d talk about?

FAITH: The Dolly book is a recent gift from a friend. Being a minimalist, any book that comes into my life minus a very select few usually gets read and then passed along so it can live another life. This one’s still here because I have an intuition that I need to hold onto it because someday in a personal hour of need, I’m going to reach for it and, like the I Ching, it’s going to provide exactly the answer I’m looking for. So it sits awaiting the fulfillment of its destiny.

Meanwhile, its placement next to Jung is, appropriately, entirely synchronistic.

I expect if Jung and Dolly had dinner, Jung, as a man of his time, would be initially intimidated by and (naturally) attracted to Dolly. Dolly would, of course, be used to that and she’d probably make some remark about how if he keeps staring at her boobs all through dinner, he’s gonna get indigestion or some such, and the ice would be broken and a conversation would commence.

I think Jung would recognize immediately that Dolly is one of the strongest examples of his theory of archetypes we have in our current culture, and they’d have a lot to talk about. I think he’d be most interested in the reactions she gets to her persona.

I’ve actually been thinking a lot about Dolly recently, as she’s risen to a unique stature in the last few years. She, along with perhaps Betty White in a less sexual incarnation, embodies the archetypal earth mother/goddess in a way that no one else in contemporary U.S. culture does.

I often call Dolly our Venus de Willendorf in rhinestones and white satin, and I mean that quite seriously. Dolly is perhaps the only cultural figure who completely transcends the political and cultural divide in our nation at the moment. She’s beloved by everyone from drag queens to the religious right. I can’t think of anyone else with that kind of broad-based adoration. She’s in some ways also our American incarnation of Quan Yin, the Chinese goddess of kindness and compassion (though I’d suggest that Betty White embodies the Quan Yin incarnation more than Dolly does, and Princess Diana before her).

I think Dolly’s risen so strongly into public consciousness at this time in our history because we’re desperately in need of a nurturing, compassionate earth goddess during a global pandemic and a time of extreme social unrest and discord. Jung would probably observe that our collective unconscious summoned her to our aide in our hour of need.

Jung would probably be sitting at the table nursing a drink and musing about all of this and thinking about the paper he was going to write about it, while Dolly regaled him with slightly bawdy stories about touring with Porter Waggoner and growing up in the Smokey Mountains, and hopefully Dolly would teach him a thing or two about grits and sweetened iced tea. It would be a night to remember, that’s for sure.

'Dolly Parton – Queen of Appalachia' by Asterosperma
"Dolly Parton – Queen of Appalachia" by Asterosperma

OLEG: That would be a heck of a meal! They could probably sell tickets. Next questions: Who is a faery tale character you can’t seem to get excited about? How are they different from your favorites?

FAITH: That’s a loaded question for me, since I’ve spent many many years studying faery tales as myths rather than “just” folk tales. I subscribe strongly to the Jungian interpretation of myths/faery tales as depictions of our inner landscapes and thus as powerful models for personal growth.

As you no doubt know, in this model — as in Jungian dream interpretation — all the characters in a faery tale are really parts of ourselves. In that sense, myths and faery tales are collective cultural dreams. So if there’s a character in a faery tale we don’t respond to, that’s a clue about a part of ourselves that we may need to do some work integrating into the self.

The storyteller in me does occasionally lose patience with a lot of faery tale characters — why doesn’t Cinderella just speak up that she’s the owner of the slipper? Why doesn’t the Little Mermaid negotiate a compromise where she gets to spend part of her life with her family in the sea? Is Little Red Riding Hood really that naive? Why doesn’t the Queen in Rumpelstiltskin just tell the King about the straw-into-gold guy and then the king can hire him and let the Queen off the hook for the whole caper? (BTW, have you noticed that Rumpelstiltskin is the only faery tale named after the villain? I’ve often wondered why that is and why it’s significant. I’m sure it is.)

And of course, the answer is that the heroines of the story are our fragile and hapless egos, and yes, we really are that dense and shallow and insecure, and yes, we really do have to learn the same lessons over and over and over again before they finally sink in and yes, we usually overlook the obvious solution to the problem because it would require something of us that we haven’t learned we possess yet (calling the Wizard of Oz, anyone?). That’s why faery tales are so useful as healing stories, if we take the time to understand them as stories about our inner lives, rather than literal models for living our external lives.

This is, BTW, the thing that troubles me most relative to faery tales — the way that they’re misunderstood by the culture, esp the left-leaning political correct and esp feminist culture. Faery tales are not stories of female disempowerment in which the heroine waits passively for a prince to rescue her. Quite the contrary, the prince is our internal “prince”, our creative generative force and agency in the world. The paradoxical damage to rejecting faery tales, princess play, etc. is that losing touch with faery tales as metaphor for our inner lives disempowers women and little girls because it steals our sacred feminine heritage from us and ransacks one of the few remaining mainstream cultural transmissions of female wisdom.

We have become such a literal culture, on BOTH sides of the political divide. We’ve lost our ability to understand and recognize and work with metaphor, and I believe that’s one of the most dangerous causes of most of our social problems, including issues of equality and empowerment, and, of course, the degradation of our environment.

I’m not sure that answers the smaller question, but I hope it’s an interesting answer to a larger one about the worth of faery tales.

The simpler answer is, my “favorite” classic fairy tale character is probably Briar Rose (aka Sleeping Beauty). I even created a fine art photo of the moment when Sleeping Beauty is woken by the prince. The metaphor of a young woman meeting the wisewoman, pricking her finger on the “pain of enlightenment,” (aka the Red Pill), falling into a deep “sleep” and having a literal spiritual awakening where she claims her power in the world (aka the prince and the throne) speaks deeply to me in a way that the other faery tales don’t.

Least favorite is probably Little Red Riding Hood. I realize it’s a powerful story of confronting and integrating our shadow, but she’s honestly so clueless that I have trouble keeping my patience even knowing what I know about myths.

Prince and princess in the forest with a dog, man is kneeling while woman is lying down on a tree
Photo credit: Faith Currant

OLEG: Clearly the books you’ve decided to keep here are a culmination of decades of thinking and reading about the intersection of psychology, myth, and how they shape us. I remember taking a class on myths in community college and being introduced to Joseph Campbell among others (the work of Jean Shinoda Bolen comes to mind specifically in relation to your books). It was one of the most interesting classes I’ve taken, and I think about it regularly even now almost twenty years later. I’m intrigued by your mention of “healing stories” — is that exclusively related to what we think of as myths or legends or can they be of more current origin, I’m thinking of rap music or a TV series like Law & Order?

FAITH: I’m not at all surprised that the course on myths and the hero’s journey would resonate for you even two decades later. Myths are essentially the foundation on which culture is built and they underlie virtually all of our great literature, whether that’s novels, poetry, movies, music, art, or any other creative endeavor. I think a strong case can be made that any piece of creative work that resonates deeply in the culture and endures does so because it’s built — usually subconsciously — on a cultural myth, either supporting it (story) or playing with its conventions (anti-story).

And that brings me to your question. I consider myself a popular mythologist more than a classical mythologist, because of what I just talked about in the first paragraph. As a culture, we’ve lost touch with most of our conscious awareness and understanding of myth, archetype and metaphor, but as Jung pointed out in his theory of the collective unconscious, it doesn’t go away. It just sinks beneath the surface and affects us without our realizing it. And so I’m particularly interested in how archetypes, symbols and mythology continue to appear in contemporary creative work.

With regard to Law & Order, as Joseph Campbell taught, the hero’s journey is the underpinning for most of our male “coming into manhood” stories as, and L&O certainly fits into that — the hero leaves “home” (the station), goes into the wilderness (the city), battles the forces of darkness, gets aid from helpers (witnesses, forensic scientists, etc.) and returns with the spoils (the arrest/conviction) and receives honor from the community (both in the show — praise — and in the culture, celebrity/money for the creators and actors).

L & O is also arguably a retelling of myths like “David vs Goliath” (the understaffed, overworked, dedicated team against the invading hordes of the criminal element, trying to “slay” the bad guy with the precise and tactical weapon of the law, and in the case of CSI and Bones, forensic science). And the back half of Law and Order is a retelling of the myth of King Solomon, as is really any courtroom drama.

There are probably more underlying myths there, but its core popularity is probably due to the first two I mentioned — Hollywood learned long ago that it can’t go wrong appealing to mainstream America with the hero’s journey and David vs. Goliath, along with the “rugged individualist” myth that showed itself most prominently in classic Westerns, but also appears in any action movie, superhero, spy or thriller piece that has a single individual (man or woman) battling forces single-handedly. And any law enforcement show will have plenty of “rugged individualist” juice to it as well.

So all of that then gets to the idea of a “healing story,” which Jung and others, including myself, would say that myths are fundamentally intended to serve as. Myths are ways of passing on hard-won wisdom about how to live a good life (whatever that means in any given era, which is why some myths are more prominent in some eras than others) to the next generation. So when someone watches an episode of Law and Order, for example, their internalization of the cultural mythology about the good guys and bad guys, the hero’s journey, etc. is reinforced, and they get to feel, at least for that hour, that the world is a safe and predictable place, that the good guys will eventually (or at least usually) win, and that even when they don’t, they’ll keep on fighting the good fight. That heals our sense of injustice and lack of control and moral confusion.

This is why I get annoyed when people say that the “value” of things like movies, TV etc is “just escapism.” It’s so much deeper and more vital and profound than that. Even the word, recreation — re-creation — to re-create ourselves in the image of the characters of the myth.

And that gets us to where I want to end up — that although the power of myth is universal and perpetual, we forget that the myths that underlie our culture now — myths from Greece and Rome and Sumeria and Egypt and the Celts and medieval Europe — all depicted contemporary characters. The gods and goddesses that populate the Greek culture were contemporary to them. If Apollo or Athena walked down the street of Athens, they’d blend right in as contemporaries. And yet because we’ve lost touch as a culture with the role that myths play in our own lives, we tend to think of myths as being only “long ago in a galaxy far away.”

And I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve lost conscious touch with the power of myth in our culture. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time identifying with 3000 year old goddess figures — they’re too remote. But I can certainly identify with a character in a movie or TV show who lives in my culture, whether it’s cops and lawyers on L & O or Buffy or Mulder and Scully or the characters on The Crown or The Queen’s Gambit. And so when they embody the archetypes that used to be held by the contemporary gods and goddesses and heroes and demi-gods of more mythologically evolved cultures, we respond to them and they become our cultural incarnations of those myths.

When we learn that and become culturally literate again at understanding that, I think we’ll be on the way to healing the culture. Which is, after all, what myths are meant to do in the first place.

OLEG: I was going to ask about Mary Oliver, but your answer to my previous question just gave me too many other things to consider. For instance, I think it’s a reasonable gloss of your feelings to say that you believe that despite different clothes, the essentials of age-old myths still scaffold our sense-making, consciously and unconsciously. Do you think that this foundation will ever be found wanting? I’m thinking particularly about the convergence and augmentation of humans with/by technology.

I recently read the following in the introduction to Ulrich Boser’s Learn Better: “…For one thing, our brain—and its various quirks—are at the heart of learning effectively, and our brain will often “offload” information, storing it in places other than its own neural folds. In this regard, our smartphones, iPads, and laptops have become a type of “prosthetic brain” in the words of one writer, and recent research shows that we’re less likely to remember a painting at a museum if we take a photo of the painting. Our brain, it seems, believes the image is stored on the digital device…” Adjacent to that idea is chess icon Gary Kasparov’s claims that the most successful of us in the future will be those that can most adeptly integrate the assistance of technology.

I guess my question comes down to whether you think that these shifts, which are changing how our brains work, can ever do so enough that myths themselves, and the view point of them as a foundational can ever become irrelevant?

FAITH: I don’t think that myths will ever go away, per se. The fact that variations of the same stories — whether it’s the basic construction of origin of the world stories, the hero’s journey or something like Cinderella — develop similarly across virtually every era and every culture suggests strongly that myths aren’t something that we build or create or develop, but rather something hardwired into who we are as a species.

But I do think we’re on a bullet train to a point where we’ll eventually completely lose touch with both our cultural mythology as a species and the lessons it is intended to teach us about to live as a healthy society. I think we’re already well along in the slow-motion (but rapidly accelerating) complete social collapse of human culture — a generation or two at the most, I think, before it will be clear to everyone that life as we knew it during yours and my earlier lifetimes is over and has been over for awhile now. In a sense, the Religious Right is right — we are indeed in the End Times, though probably not in quite the way they’re envisioning it.

I also think that our inability to stay in touch with our mythological roots is part of what’s fueling that collapse, and maybe even the largest part of the cause when you dig down deep enough (which I spend way too much time doing). The cultural roots are disconnected from the conscious “body” of the plant. Nothing can survive that way, including a culture.

This collapse of our understanding of our own mythology is why I believe that educating people about the power of myth and metaphor, and keeping them alive in the creative arts by making sure that those who create our cultural stories — be they filmmakers or screenwriters or novelists or artists or songwriters — are fluent in the language of metaphor and archetype is a crucial part of saving the world. I’m continually dismayed at the lack of literacy among even our best and brightest creators and storytellers about the language of mythology/archetype/metaphor. And when creators are not fluent in that language, then there is misuse of those very powerful elements, and often in dangerous ways that undermine our culture. And I think that’s happening everywhere now and it’s painful to watch it happen.

Assuming we don’t go extinct — and honestly, if there’s any justice at all, we will, given what we’re doing to the planet — we’re going to be right back at the beginning again, and all the technology in the world — assuming it’s still functioning which is by no means a safe assumption — won’t change that in the rubble of human culture, there will be space again for our collective unconscious to rebuild our mythological heritage, to reach for those myths again about the beginning of the world as we literally reconstruct society. For that, we will again need mythmakers and storytellers who are adept and fluent in the language of metaphor/archetype/mythology.

So I think assuming we survive, and if we have enough people who are fluent in it, myth will probably save us in the end.

As to the question about whether we’re increasingly storing our collective memories in technology, a few things come to mind.

The first is that I think of the studies they’ve done that when we photograph an event instead of experiencing it, we don’t retain memories of the event itself. And also the studies that show that when we take notes on a keyboard or read a book on a screen, we don’t retain what we’ve read or heard nearly as well. So I do think we’re collectively losing our minds in multiple ways, including our capacity to retain, process and analyze information. And that probably is in some way accelerating the loss of our awareness of our collective mythologies. It’s certainly not helping.

On the other hand, that question would seem to make some assumptions about the nature of the brain and of human consciousness. The quote you reference seems — and I haven’t read the book, so I could be wrong — to assume the model of the brain as a central processor and storage device, which in turn somewhat makes the assumption that the brain is the seat of our consciousness, our Self, if you will. (or maybe I’m just bending it to that in order to get to where I want to go…) which is…

And now this gets into the extreme metaphysical — it gets to places where I’ve gone personally, have had first-hand experience with, journeying in deep trance and meditation, to be shown things about how our brains and senses process reality, about the fundamental nature of reality. And like most first-hand experience related to metaphysical things, it’s not persuasive to share it, any more than near-death experiences are persuasive to people who haven’t had them. The person who had the near-death experience and saw the tunnel of white light comes back absolutely certain of life after death because of their firsthand experience. The rest of us hear the story and take it with varying degrees of skepticism, which is probably a wise choice.

So the best I can do there is to fall back on emerging science, which is starting to take more seriously the possibility that consciousness is not something that lives in our brains, but rather something that is literally surrounding us, the stuff of the Universe, as it were, and that our brains are just radio receivers, and that therefore trying to understand reality by studying the brain is a little like trying to understand music by studying the inner workings of a radio. Even if the radio is broken, the music still exists. And I think myth is part of the music rather than the radio.

On the other hand — and I’ll end with this — there is Leonard Shlain’s work, most notably the book Alphabet and the Goddess which is, in my opinion, one of the most important books ever written about the human condition, in which he quite convincingly demonstrates that societies tend to move towards a more hierarchical and unequal society when the written word is primary, and conversely, that cultures tend to move back towards a more egalitarian society when the emphasis is not on the written word or when the culture is actually illiterate or preliterate and processes information in more holistic ways like images and experiences. And I think that our modern move away from the written word and to social media sites like Instagram, YouTube, etc. is on balance a positive in that it might be putting us on the way back to reclaiming some of our mythology, which is often contained more in visual art and places like movies, TV, etc. (our version of oral storytelling) than it is in language.

So I think there’s some hope. (I’d also point you to Steve Taylor’s The Fall which is, IMO, also one of the most important books ever written, but this is already too long to go into that. Suffice to say, he picks up where Shlain leaves off.) The question is whether our evolution (or de-evolution) happens quickly enough — we’re in a race against environmental and social collapse, and evolution is a very slow process.

Tick tock.

OLEG: Well, that escalated quickly! And just as well it should when we’re talking about the slippery term culture and the metaphysical foundations of the human story. What I found notable in your answer (among other things) is that despite a stubborn pessimistic streak, you offer what is probably an unpopular (but optimistic) opinion that moving to the inherently visual mediums of YouTube, Instagram, probably memes would fit in there is, on the whole positive! Most people complain about our brains on YouTube, and riddled with memes, but you say it might take us back to some more primal humane-ness. I’m going to have to sit with that for a while. Final question, and it’s a slightly irreverent one: I see Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on your shelf. I know it’s supposed to be a modern classic, and I still recall more of it than many other books I read that many years ago, but my memory of it also makes my face scrunch up thinking about his personality. Is it just me or was Pirsig an insufferable blowhard in that book?

FAITH: I literally just finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the first time a week ago. You can tell this is the case because of where it sits on the shelf. Having so few books, I tend to put the one I just finished, assuming I intend to keep it, on the shelf at the end.

I suppose the answer is, yes, and I say that reluctantly, because I have the same insufferable blowhard gene as he does, and I expect I navigate it about as elegantly as he does, which is to say, not well at all. But instead of checking into a mental hospital, I just moved to the woods of rural Maine and do my best to stay away from people.

But I believe there’s a deeper and more interesting reason for the Blowhard factor, and it’s one that, in order to elaborate on, I literally have to become an insufferable blowhard… so here goes.

What struck me about Pirsig’s book — and it was completely unanticipated and why it merits a permanent place in my collection, along with its sequel, Lila, which I’m currently reading — is that Pirsig and I quite independently arrived at more or less the same Theory of Everything, although he articulates it differently than I do (and being an insufferable blowhard, I naturally believe my articulation is better).

Also like Pirsig, I believe that the insights that I discovered are world-changing, and like Pirsig, I’m left with… okay, so even supposing that’s true, even assuming that you, Faith, actually do have the Secret of Everything in your brain, what the hell do I DO with them, given that probably no one will be interested in hearing them, and all that will happen if I try is I’ll become someone you don’t want at your dinner party — which given that I’m a solitude-lover, is perhaps a net benefit, come to think of it.

Still, what do you do when you quite literally feel like you have the secrets of the universe in your brain, when you feel like no one else seems to have them, and when you feel like they would save the world if you could just communicate them somehow in a way that might get people to listen?

If you’re Pirsig, you write a 450-page book that becomes the best-selling philosophy book of all time (though that’s a bit like saying you’ve recorded the best selling tuba record of all time). If you’re me, you make lots (and lots and lots and lots) of notes, wake up at 3 a.m. with The Idea That Will Finally Work To Communicate This Idea, furiously write some Stuff, wake up the next morning, read it and throw it out on the grounds that it’s pretentious, and say the hell with it and go walk the dog instead.

So pity the blowhards of the world. There is a special kind of hell to believing that you’re walking around with the secrets of life in your brain and being unable to share them.

OLEG: Thanks for these answers! Whew! What an interview!