Monday, January 11, 2010

Valkyries and Other Madness: A Book Review

The D'Aulaires published many beautiful children's books. My favorite so far is, under its most recent title, "D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths". The illustrations are as beautiful as the retellings are grabbing.

I'm maybe halfway through, and I'd be hard pressed to name a favorite tale. Would it be one of Odin's horrors: hanging himself for nine days and nights on Yggdrasil, the World Tree; plucking out his own eye in exchange for a sip of wisdom and then growing out his bangs to cover the hollowed eye-socket; or breathing life into Mimir's severed head so as to keep a trusted counsel literally on hand?

Or would it be one of Loki's tales, perhaps when he turned into a beautiful mare in order to trick a mason by distracting the mason's great steed; waggling his mare's tail, he lead the lusty steed into the woods ... only to emerge from the forest months later with a colt in his hands! And then, to tie this all together--that eight-legged colt grew up to be Odin's mighty steed, which, to quote the D'Aulaires, he rode "like a storm wind from Asgard to battlefields on earth".

Ahh, here, perhaps here we find my favorite tale-to-date: the Valkyries. According to the D'Aulaires (whose picture lies above):

Odin was followed [into Earthly battles] by a band of tall and handsome warrior maidens clad in shining armor, with winged helmets on their heads ... They were the Valkyries, Odin's maidens ... The Valkyries chose who would die in battle and brought the dead heroes up to Asgard. There they lived a life of glory in Odin's guesthouse, Valhalla ...

And so it was that during a battle a warrior would feel a light tap on his shoulder. Turning, he would see a maiden with a winged helmet, and then he would know that he had been chosen as one of Odin's heroes.

With reckless fury, he would leap forward to bring down as many of the enemy as he could until he himself fell in battle, Then the Valkyrie would sweep his fallen body from the ground, throw him across her saddle, and ride with him to Asgard, while far down below the galloping hoofs of her horse the earth faded away.

Let's wander from the D'Aulaires' and their beautiful tales now and travel down a path of my own supposition.

Suppose, as I do, that the Vikings really believed in the Valkyries; perhaps not outright--let's say that they may have the outgrown that stuff as we do Santa Claus--but I'll still bet that there were many a warrior on the battlefield who "felt a light tap on his shoulder" and turned to see a winged maiden in the corner of his eye and went Berserker: ready to die and determined to prove his worthiness first.

Now compare this Berserker-like behaviour to "amok"--an infliction that used to hit Southeastern Asian men, causing them to fly into a murderous rage, literally killing people until they were themselves killed, suicided, or simply calmed into an amnesiac state. Wikipedia draws such parallels across numerous cultures and times.

I was actually disappointed to stumble across that Wikipedia article since I, egotistically, thought I'd come up with that idea on my own (well, I guess did, just not first is all). But let's take this a little further and tie this behavior into the "story" of the United State's "first single-episode mass murderer," which we've written on, Howard Barton Unruh, September 6, 1949. Unruh's behavior is remarkably similar insofar as it was suddenly and shocking turned on (supposedly by the discovery that his gate was vandalized), and, not to be callous, off he went a-murdering. Furthermore, like the other examples, there was an element of pre-meditation combined with some seeming madness. Warriors gone mad on the battlefield are simply carrying out their original plans--only with sudden berserkness and no regard for personal consequence. Likewise, Unruh had detailed notes over the years that pre-identified some of his victims, so we can see that he was "simply" carrying out his plans, yet with no regard for the lives of others who "got in the way" (or simply wandered by)--or even for his own well-being.

Unruh's killing spree feels markedly different from what killing sprees morphed into. The Columbine massacre seems to have become the definitive execution of a different type of killing spree altogether, one in which the aim, advance planned in detailed, is to take out as many innocent victims as possible. I'm sure that this wasn't started with (or possibly even expressed in) Columbine, but that's where mythology seems to have set it--and now copycat killings have spread across the U.S. and all over the world.

This is madness. Pure and utter madness. And it appears to be contagious.

In "The Americanization of Mental Illness", Ethan Watters argues that specific mental illness are, in fact, "sparked and shaped by the ethos of particular times and places"--that is, different cultures give expression to madness in various fashion. For whatever reason, call it the lure of scientific reasoning or the lure of the dominate culture, the U.S. has become, according to Watters, the global definer of behavioral abnormalities. As we export our definitions and examples of madness, other cultures adopt them like cheeseburgers and rock-and-roll. We have, in short, begun the wholesale export of our "maladies". And so, as other cultures take on our own peculiar madnesses, we find that the world is our mirror.

I cannot fix the world--but I can consider what I may be doing to myself. If, just as a totally hypothetical example, I were to fall under sway of the understanding of mental illnesses as being the extreme ends of a spectrum, and then I were to read, fascinated, about hypergraphia, onomatomania, Objektophilie, etc., then, by definition of my pre-concept of spectrums, I must necessarily exhibit some these symptoms (or, conversely, reject them to an unhealthy degree). Keep chugging down this train of thought and you'll find that I will have to take certain behaviors and thoughts that used to be uniquely mine and drop them onto a ruler, a larger matrix, a spectrum upon which I now lay. It's like the "Silent Sister" in the "The Magic Mountain".

At this point I have lost my uniqueness--I am simply an expression of a specific point along a continuum--a continuum defined by others to which I will now probably confine my roaming.

And just in case I thought I might escape these roamings, along comes Big Brother--and there's a whole host of "abnormalities" soon to be defined in 2013 (fortunately, the world will end one year before this occurs), including an expanded definition of "paraphilia [as] an 'erotic target location error,' part of a range of 'courtship disorders' that can occur in men". That, friends, is some glorious use of the English language--but don't be charmed by these sweet nothings. You, too, are going to become ill, ill like many, many others--and you will need help.

Before the scientists transgress these Mountains of Madness--escape!

If we can, as Watters maintains, "catch" the specific madnesses expressed by other cultures via exposure to their definitions, examples, and exhibitions of aberration--thereby diminishing our own personal "thang" (it's *your* thang!)--then isn't the cure to stop believing this or that definition and to innoculate ourselves holistically by exposure to more and more examples of unique weirdness, madness, and possibilities, i.e., by steeping ourselves as deeply as possible into the waters of other cultures and other times and other beliefs?

Most of us are stuck--stuck in time and place and thought--so immersing ourselves elsewhere seems unfeasible. Ahh! but for the wonders of imagination and reading!

That's right foax: this whole post is nothing but a commercial for reading.

So go read, already! The "D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths" is a wonderful place to start!


  1. This post becomes decidedly brilliant at "I cannot fix the world but...." Lots of implications, the manufacturing of illness as if it were a new kind of toy?

    I'd like to think LoS is exactly the kind of vaccination you speak of towards the end. Is this what you were hinting at by recommending the Watters article after the Uganda witch doctor post?

    Did I somehow stumble clumsily into where you were headed with this here post?

    Finally, before I read this article I responded to your question about the pyramid by saying that essentially, I was infecting myself with synchromystic paranoia in order to explore that brand of "madness"....heavy quotation marks there.

    The Unruh tale was part and parcel of that exploration....

    Your post is now officially giving me goosebumps.

  2. The reason that your getting goosebumps, Daurade, is that you are on the verge of discovering the Truth: The Gid is your alter-ego, a split personality of yours that expresses itself in the wee hours of the morning; when you think you are passed out drunk in bed, The Gid awakens within you, and you arise, move to the keyboard, and blog as The Gid, carrying out this enoromously elaborate conversation with yourself. You should try setting up a video camera by your computer before you go to bed tonight ... you just might see "me".

  3. Alright, setting aside the brief Twighlight Zone freakout there, actually, Duarde, it was your previous post that that was the weirdly resonate piece for me. I'd been pondering what you said about RAW's "Cosmic Trigger" when I stumbled across that NY Times article, which seemed to present perspective as a virus. I've also been listening to a series of lectures on Heidegger which seems to tread similar waters, but in ways that I cannot quite articulate (something along the lines of defining Truth as the disclosedness of Being, or to put it in a metaphor that's probably totally wrong, Truth as a flame revealing revealing some bit of space in which we can operate--well, like I said, I don't really get it and certainly cannot explain it).

    Anyhow, I'm pondering these three things when I read your last post, and it's like--crazy, this is the perfect example of people wrapped in this absolutely bizarre perspective--their Truth has uncovered this space for Being that is so far from my intelligibility...

    But this idea you just expressed about infecting yourself, mentally -- that's a great way to put it, definitely an idea that I could sort of feel but didn't quite think out well enough to articulate in this post. It's weird to hear you say it, too, because it's an "experiment" (maybe exploration is a better word) I've done to myself w/o really understanding exactly what I was doing. My clumsier attempt at talking about this occurred in a comment to a previous post when I described my "brush" with onomatomania as kind of fake--"fake" wasn't the right way to put it--it's more this sense of exploration, a kind of channeling of perspective. Somehow, I fear, that sounds like I am patronizing people who are genuinely suffering from onomatomania, but I hope not; that's certainly not how I meant it.

    Anyhow, I love the way our ideas are, more and more, resonating off each other, disclosing broader spaces for Being and the flame grows in intensity...

  4. when i write fiction in the first person i often feel like i'm infecting myself with an alien madness. the whole process is viral and voyeuristic. and being a novelist is a form vampirism, where ones imagination takes life by drinking the blood, or stories and memories, of others.

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  6. Truth as a flame revealing some bit of space in which we can operate....

    And just having tried to do some electrical work by candlelight (true), I can see how this flame is limited by its flickering and limited halo. Shadows cast and leap strange monsters onto walls: they are not there; it is the shape of a t-shirt slung over the back of a chair. But yet it is there: the shape is there, the imaginations will it. It's not only in yer head, only mostly.

    Jon, I have at times in the past felt something akin to Blake's angels: a guiding unseen hand. Also something of possession...did I actually write that? The poetry of a man possessed, but I am thoroughly agnostic about that sort of thing. I never believed it, felt guilty for thinking it, like it was a goofy thing to even consider, yet....

    Dave, while one should be careful of patronizing those who suffer, but I think if you are trying t understand, it's so much less patronizing to become it than to "try and put yerself in their shoes"....

    Ahh, I'm so lazy. How I'd love to sit down with both of you over a scotch and a spliff.

    One weekend in front of the fireplace: no kids or wives, just a heap of books and beers and etcetera, snow outside, and we hammer out a new millennium.

    Whatever that means!

    Jon, do you ever feel like a vampire when you take stories and memories of the people you've created, even their stories and memories? Do your characters have rights? Not a facetious question, btw.

    Gid, check out Cosmic Trigger I.

    And yeah, writing as a woman, or a black person or something I'm not has always given me the sense of being an interloper, a voyeur, a vampire. What right do I have to sneak into the body of this character and pull their strings?

    A bit of jostled thoughts but I think I understand what yer getting at.

    Gid, you gotta read Cosmic Trigger I, toot sweet. What's yer mailing address? I propose this book as a gift. Email me your addy and I'll send it to you.

    Also, the virus talk minds me of Uncle Bill, language is a virus. I think he meant it literally and there may well be some merit in it. I've gt some sort of virus now, very light, but it has had some weird effects: seeing my dead father in dreams, for one.

    The other night my wife said I was like another person, she said my face was different. Strangely, I kept having flashes of the Nile and Egyptian sky. Our interaction an act of brick and mud and tumbling obelisks. It was, dare I say it, like a small past-life experience. Which I don't believe in. Strange though that when I felt this my physionomy (sp?) changed to a mask of another person, objectively speaking. The power of the mind? Have I given myself to strong an innoculation?

    "Truth has uncovered this space for Being that is so far from my intelligibility..."


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