First of all, apologies for not posting on here for some time now. I have been busy completing my new book for Bloomsbury: 'Confession - The Healing of the Soul' which has not left much time for anything else. However as I was revising this chapter today I couldn't help but think of our present 'crisis' in the West through the 'Tristan' lens so thought it might be worth posting.
The first thing to note from the Tristan myth is that we modern souls are orphans. Our good Christian parents have died and we are born alone in the world. As Robert Johnson writes:
Tristan is the new child, born in the Middle Ages, who grew up over a millennium to be modern Western man. His mother and father, Blanchefleur and King Rivalin, symbolise the old order, the ancient mind of Europe. They die, but they give birth to a child and that child is the modern mind of the West. He is Tristan, the New Man. (Johnson 1987: 16-17)
For Johnson, from his Jungian perspective, the death of the old order is the death of the feminine: ‘she (Blanchefleur) personifies the inner feminine soul of Western man, the feminine values that once lived in our culture. Her death records that sad day in our history when our patriarchal mentality finally drove the feminine completely out of our culture and out of our individual lives’ (Johnson 1987:17). Whereas I admire much in Johnson’s analysis I am not so drawn to his perspective of the birth of Tristan as the death of the feminine. Rather, from the perspective of this book I see the birth of Tristan as the death of the transcendent perspective at the birth of secular culture. In this respect I agree with Johnson when he characterises us moderns as ‘the children of sadness’, we are, he says:
Children of inner poverty, though outwardly we have everything. Probably no other people in history have been so lonely, so alienated, so confused over values, so neurotic. We have dominated our environment with sledge-hammer force and electronic precision. We amass riches on unprecedented scale. But few of us, very few indeed, are at peace with ourselves... Most of us cry out for meaning in life, for values we can live by, for love and relationship. (Johnson 1987:21)
As I stated at the beginning of this book, week after week, I see the children of sadness who live in the West. Shorn of meaning we live the life of ‘triste’. And as Johnson points out, this alienation, this ‘cut-off-ness’, extends to all elements of our dealing with reality, especially the environment. In his ground-breaking encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis characterised this tendency as our present ‘throwaway culture’ and our worship of ‘rapidification’ (LS: 18). Like Saint John Paul II, he critically analyses ‘progress and our human abilities’ (LS: 19) and the unholy ‘alliance between the economy and technology’ which ‘ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests’ (LS: 54). Within this critique (always of course within the spirit of dialogue and respect) there is even a critique of the scientific method itself (‘ a method of control’) which should not be allowed to assume the divine right to have the last word on every matter. For, in contrast to the mechanising objectification of the scientific-economic gaze, the Pope advocates a vision of each creature that respects its creatureliness. ‘Each creature,’ he states ‘has its own purpose’ and in this he echoes the ancient church tradition which goes back to the desert elders of God being found in the ‘book of creation’ which we read by engaging in contemplation (‘God has written a precious book,’ LS: 85). This precious book of creation is therefore not just for aesthetic consideration but contains the full biodiversity of all creatures, the loss of which, as with all the other events cited, affects us all (LS 32-4).
Thus, the ‘child of woe’ is born into a world torn apart – alienated from itself and the sources of creation around it. The young Tristan must first engage in ‘the study of books and language’ (p.68) which is for him ‘the beginning of cares’ for:
In the blossoming years, when the ecstasy of his springtime was about to unfold and he was just entering with joy into his prime, his best life was over; just when he was beginning to burgeon with delight the frost of care (which ravages many young people) descended on him and withered the blossoms of his gladness.
Where has childhood gone? In the frost of care our young ecstasy is quenched by the technocratic society within which we live, for ‘he was learning the whole time, today one thing, tomorrow another, this year well, next year better’ (p.69). Our technocratic society demands this constant 24 hour learning made worse by the demands of the internet to which the young psyche is now glued.
Unfortunately, a psyche such as ours, unhinged from its transcendent moorings, is more susceptible to corruption, distraction and ruin and in the next stage of the saga we hear that the young Tristan preoccupies himself with all the distractions available to the medieval lad – peregrines, games, fine silks and the hunt. Again our technologically obsessed age has brought all the distractions one could possibly imagine into the heart of our lives. Twitter, Facebook, social media and computer games could fill up our whole day should we allow them.
During this period of adolescent distraction (we are told he is 14 years old) the first of many strange incidents connected with the sea occurs to Tristan. At the mention of the sea a psychologist’s ears prick up. ‘The sea that brings all chances’ is almost a character in itself during the Tristan saga. Granted that the saga originates from the Atlantic isles surrounded by the constant ebb and flow of the sea and in the flickering uncertain light of the coast, yet the sea itself seems to fulfil a deeper function within the story. Johnson, following Jung, takes it as a symbol for the unconscious, ‘our nostalgia for the mysterious, unexplored depths of our own psyches, for the hidden potentialities within our own souls: for what we have never known, never lived, never dared’ (Johnson 1987:25). Thus, as in the Parzifal legend (See Tyler 2013), we have in the legend a record of our first adolescent encounter with the unconscious, at the age set by the Lateran Council ‘as the beginning of discernment’, normally understood as 14. As with Parzifal’s encounter with the transcendent at that age, so Tristan must come to terms with the unconscious. But like his fellow seeker, Parzifal, he also makes a mess of it.
What happens? One morning a bright merchant’s ship arrives in Brittany from Norway. Tristan, his guardian Foitenant and his tutor, Curvenal, are invited onto the ship where Tristan is distracted by a beautiful chess board. Distracted as any youngster today would be by a game-boy or computer console he challenges the Norwegians to a game and becomes completely absorbed by it. Like that other story, the Sleeping Beauty, where the adolescent cannot focus on the task before her but falls into a hundred-year sleep, so the boy Tristan denies what is happening and observes only the game before him. Two things now occur, his guardian, the Marshall, gets bored with the adolescent game and leaves the ship whilst the Norwegians look on the boy and realise ‘they have never set eyes on any young person with so many talents’ (p.71). Eyeing the boy for potential exploitation they abduct him by letting slip the anchor so the ship sails off with the boy and his tutor. So engaged are they in the game that they fail to notice what is happening until it is too late. So, Tristan’s first encounter with the ocean/unconscious is a disaster – he is carried off into a very dangerous and hostile situation. With our present-day heightened awareness of child abuse, especially of teenagers, Tristan’s fate seems eerily prescient. Fortunately for the boy a storm is now raised in the ocean/unconscious. The deeper forces of the unconscious have been roused and for eight days it rolls the ship, so much so that the Norwegians, terrified, agree to land the boy on the nearest shore that beckoned: Cornwall.
... To be continued!