Driving across the Bay Bridge, I breezed through the rush hour traffic immersed in mythological time with two of my favorite thinkers: James Hillman and Michael Meade. They were giving a talk on the three worlds: The Literal, the Psychological and the Mythological and how our understanding (or lack of it) of each has a profound affect on how we think, how we communicate, how we live. In fact, we are (or should be) in constant conversation with all three. When one dominates at the expense of the others is when we get in trouble.
• The literal is the world of “just the facts, ma’am,” one portrait of reality and no room for discussion. “The meeting starts at 10 o’clock and it’s 10 o’clock now.”
• The psychological asks additional questions: “How do you feel about 10 o’clock? About the meeting? About having the meeting at 10 o’clock? Might it be better another time?” Now we’re in the world of two or more possibilities and the beginning of conversation.
• The mythological opens things further. Time is relative, 10 o’clock is a human concept and the real world is forever now, forever new. 10 o’clock here is 2 o’clock there and they’re both equally true and false.
The year of the talk must have been 1992, because in explaining the shift from the Literal to the Psychological, Hillman quips: “It’s like going from Bush to Clinton.” Bam!!! Fireworks going off in my brain. One syllable to two. Meade and Hillman start to riff on this idea:
Hillman: The psychological mindset doubles the literal world. It gives a second meaning. You know about it twice. There’s “what is” and then there’s the interpretation of “what is.” There’s another side to the issue. It’s like the move from single-syllable Bush to double-syllable Clinton.
Meade: One of the criticisms of Clinton is that he’s on both sides of the issue. And the mature mind says, “thank God!” We’re looking for a leader, not a child. If someone can see both sides of the issue, they might not have to hurt as many people. When someone like Clinton starts speaking about both sides of the issue, everyone gets nervous. “Well, wait a minute, isn’t this clear and simple? Aren’t we the number one nation? Are you trying to say gays should be in the military? We have gays over here and military over there, they don’t fit together.” There’s a lot of new hope in the country because people voted for the more complex language.
If you watched the Republican Convention, you saw a parade of literalism. It was horrifying to the mind and soul of people to see that literal division of a culture.
Well, isn’t that interesting. He’s talking about the division of complex human beings into identities defined by others that are labeled, sorted, judged and put in boxes of different degrees of worth, rights and privileges. You know what I’m talking about. The straight white Christian male at the top of the pyramid and the disabled black poor Lesbian Muslim at the bottom. They both eat, drink, sleep, work, play, laugh, cry, raise children, know joy and sorrow, have dreams and yet one insists on shutting out the other and justifies it with a lot of nonsense patched together. And in another country it might be the straight male Muslim who is at the top and the disabled Western poor Lesbian Christian at the bottom. The rise of fundamentalism, one-way mindsets, one solution only (that will never work) is epidemic in cultures worldwide and if you take away the literal politics, it’s fear, often manufactured fear by the powers-that-be, that creates a deep psychological need for certainty, a deep mythological need to feel meaning, no matter how false and how hurtful to others and themselves.
In simpler terms, we went to the monochromatic one-syllable Bush to the larger-conversation of two-syllable Clinton and then swung back to hide our capacity for thought and nuance and measured conversation in the next Bush. And then—oh glory of all glories—the three-syllable Obama! Who brought some of the third perspective into the mix, the mythological rise of the oppressed black sitting in the seat of power in a White House built by slaves. And besides two-sides and intelligent discourse, he brought some soul into the mix. Listen to his speech after the terrorist attack in Charleston. The man sang! And he could dance!
And now here we are again, reduced to the one-syllable. The more complex language reduced to a 4th grade vocabulary spewed out on hateful and whiney tweets. Watch Joe Kennedy’s recent talk about the Republican either-or mindset versus the Democrat both-and and you see the whole dynamic at play again.
And so my nominations for the next election.
President Catelina Madelina Oopa Socka Wadaleena Hogan Bottom Logan.
Vice-President Tikki Tikki Tembo No Sa Rembo Chari Bari Boochi Pip Piri Pembo
Secretary of State Bob (just to balance the mix.)