I don’t watch much television, but these past few months I have looked forward to late Sunday nights with Neil deGrasse Tyson and Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, an update of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which aired in 1980 to mesmerized viewing.
Standing on the barren landscape of what was once Uruk in ancient Sumer, now known as Iraq, in The Immortals (Episode 11 of the modernized series), Tyson tells us about Enheduanna, an Akkadian Princess (2285-2250 BCE) about whom I had never heard until The Immortals aired on May 18, 2014.
Enheduanna was the daughter of King Sargon of Akkad, who appointed her High Priestess of the Moon, a role of political importance often held by daughters of royalty. But Princess and Priestess Enheduanna was also a respected poet, who made a decision about herself and the words she penned that had an everlasting impact on literature – Enheduanna became the first person we know of to sign her name to what she wrote and, in so doing, she became an author.
Tyson relayed that Enheduanna is “…the first person about whom we can say we know who she was, and what she dreamed. She dreamed of stepping through the Gate of Wonder. Here’s a thought Enheduanna sent across more than 4,000 years to you. It’s from her work, entitled Lady of the Largest Heart:”
Inanna, the Planet Venus, Goddess of Love, will have a great destiny throughout the entire Universe. – Enheduanna
Tyson followed the story about Enheduanna with that of another ancient Sumerian, whose name was Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, the very first real life epic hero, whose travels and superhuman feats were chronicled in The Epic of Gilgamesh, an early Mesopotamian work of poetic literature that, in contrast to the writings of Enheduanna, was the work of numerous anonymous authors.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the story of a man seeking immortality, or, put another way, the story of a man hoping to avoid death. In a way, Princess Enheduanna and Gilgamesh were both after the same thing – to step through the Gate of Wonder into the Realm of Immortality.
Enheduanna achieved a kind of immortality when she signed her name to poems that have lasted over 4,000 years. Gilgamesh achieved a kind of immortality by becoming such a memorable heroic character in real life that others were inspired to write a tale of his adventures – a tale that has also survived 4,000 years.
The stories of Enheduanna and Gilgamesh resonate loudly at a time when many people believe that The Age of Storytelling, poetry, hand-written letters and long-form journalism will soon come to an end, to be replaced by The Age of Metrics and Analytics, in which people will communicate in shorter and shorter sound bursts – perhaps even in spoken code – an ever increasing amount of shared information discharged into Internet space like so many competing pulsars.
The difference, of course, between storytelling and information is so vast as to be almost indescribable. Storytelling is a never ending inquiry about what it means to be human, about the cultures and environments that give birth to ideas and progress, and about the failures and successes of the men and women determined to leave some kind of imprint on the world before they pass into the unknown.
Information, on the other hand, is more a record keeping of that ongoing inquiry, a tally of acquired data and details, facts and figures, the study of which quite possibly serves to underpin any particular creative endeavor, but which is distinct and separate from the creative instinct itself.
In the modern world, do writers sign their names to their work to protect their royalties, or to stake a claim to their own opinions, which they perceive to have merit, individuality, meaning? Or do they write because they are compelled to communicate, because, whether their words are ever heard, read or acknowledged in any way, they quite simply must communicate no matter the circumstances, the time or the place in which they live?
When Enheduanna made the decision to sign her name to her own words so long ago, I would guess it had less to do with concern over future royalties than with a desire to cast her name into the Cosmos to intermingle with the future voices of future writers who would also aspire to be a part of the The Great Conversation About Life, and to make their own predictions about planets and goddesses and the Universe.
That conversation is neither short nor long. It is both spoken and written. It is both poetic and scientific. It is subjective and objective. It is personal and reflective. It is distant and unemotional.
It bows not to money, or convenience, or cultural trends, or censorship. It certainly does not bow to metrics and analytics. It continues on, ebbing and flowing like the seas, roiling and churning like the shifting climate, colliding and separating like the plates of the Earth. It comforts, it provokes, it challenges. It is unpredictable.
Yet, it is human nature to try to predict the future, as Enheduanna did so long ago about the Planet Venus, Goddess of Love. But perhaps the more inspiring endeavor for an author is to sit down, write a story and put a signature to it.
In that tradition, which I personally predict will not end anytime soon, in February of this year I drove to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to visit with Meg Tufano, the Publisher of The SynaptIQ+ Journal for Social Era Knowledge, who, coincidentally, had attended my alma mater, St. John’s College, at the same time I had many decades ago.
Our conversation, which began as an exploration of what it means to be fully known and understood by another person, ended up over the course of the ensuing two months as a dialogue that we have titled, The Mythical Presence of Eros & Psyche: A Dialogue About the Bedroom, the Boardroom…and a Piece of Bread.
Co-spoken, co-written and co-edited with Meg, our dialogue was published on May 31, 2014 in the Spring issue (Volume 2: ISDN 2169 6195) of SynaptIQ+: The Journal for Social Era Knowledge
Because this essay is a combination of storytelling and long-form journalism, I have included here only the first few pages, after which follows the link to the entire article. For reasons of publishing complexity, the piece was impossible to reproduce in its entirety, including as it does many referenced film, music and sound clips, along with song lyrics, poetry and research references too numerous to list.
During this time I have also become the Editor-at-Large of The Journal for Social Era Knowledge. I publish The Mythical Presence of Eros & Psyche on my own writing pages today in support of storytelling and long-form journalism, and in honor of Princess and Priestess Enheduanna, who understood the importance of signing one’s name to one’s words.
Co-spoken, co-written and co-edited with Meg Tufano, the following dialogue was originally published on May 31, 2014 in the Spring issue (Volume 2:ISDN 2169 6195) of SynaptIQ+: The Journal for Social Era Knowledge.
(This Dialogue is Dedicated to Maya Angelou, April 4, 1928 ~ May 28, 2014)
At the end of February, I drove South from New York– through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia– to visit with Meg Tufano in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
As a consequence of my work, I drive interstate a great deal and pass the time studying the changing vista in as much detail as possible – planted pastures, farm houses and historic barns, quaint hamlets, and grass airstrips watched over by crop dusters bedraggled from decades of service, all embraced within the gentle and glorious arms of the ancient Appalachians. The soundtrack playing on my car stereo is classical, rock, Jazz, Blues and Hip Hop balanced out with balladeers and crooners from Adele to Dylan to Amália to Mina to Aznavour.
I am a visually influenced person, and I absorb my journeys as though they are personal memory murals, the colors, sights, sounds and smells fueling my energy as I go. I often feel foolish for not taking advantage of the many photographic and video technologies I travel with, but I prefer the immediacy of the landscape unfettered by a camera between it and me. Besides, I derive a strange pleasure from watching a particular photo composition pass by, until the last hint of each memoryscape fades out of sight in my rearview mirror. Then it is on to the next vista, which will also pass in due time, replaced by yet another.
While some form of online life is an essential communication tool for every writer in this day and age, my response to being peppered by a string of never-ending selfiephotovideos on social media platforms is to retreat into the pleasure of direct sensory contact with life, preferring to see something as it actually is in a split second, gone almost as it occurs, and to allow the impression it has made on me to linger like the taste of wine on my tongue, or a lightly scented cream on my skin before the last trace of it sinks deep into my cells.
I am like this with people too. I need to sit face-to-face, eye-to-eye, shoulder-to-shoulder, voice-to-voice, expression-to-expression, my quirks, habits and gesticulations bumping up against those of another human being. I have a need to see, to hear, to smell. I have a need to personally encounter.
So it was with the intent of laying eyes on Meg Tufano, with whom I have been communicating online for almost three years, that I arrived in Oak Ridge late on a Wednesday afternoon, heading due West, the sun so low on the horizon and blinding that I could barely see. I could not have known that winding through rush hour traffic in Knoxville, struggling against the white glare of the sun, would mark the beginning of a weeks-long dialogue with Meg about the importance of seeing things clearly in order to know oneself.
Ah…but that is what journeys are for. We may know where we are going, but the person we are when we set out is often not the person we have become when we finally reach our destination.
GISELLE MINOLI, an early riser, works on a essay she is writing about women’s private and professional roles:
As more and more women move to the front lines of politic (Hillary Clinton, Wendy Davis, Claire McCaskill) higher education (Gwendolyn Boyd, Janet Napolitano, Drew Gilpin-Faust) and big business (Melissa Mayer, Gini Rometty, Mary Barra) – roles not suited to the shy, sweet or subdued – there are more and more public musings about whether or not women are naturally endowed with whatever qualities it takes to run countries, universities and business empires alongside men.
The knee-jerk explanation for the continued paucity of women at the top has always been that the demands of marriage and children conflict with the demands of positions of power, that children need full-time mothering and that women can’t have it all, and must, therefore, choose between a meaningful métier or a meaningful marriage. Many people believe that women settle for family life over a professional life because their biology predisposes a better match with breadbaking than with breadwinning.
This gender-driven contretemps seems to have served to put a definitive end to any discussion about whether this belief is in fact biologically, physiologically, psychologically or evolutionarily true, or if it is merely the result of accepted social habits beaten into the culture over a (very) long period of time.
!!! 58.6% of U.S. women over the age of 16 work outside the home. !!! (USDOL, 2011)
If women were naturally predisposed to stay home, then most women would stay home, but we know that most do not. If it were not natural for women to be suited to the Boardroom, the Governor’s Mansion or the Ivory Tower, then they would arrive at those hallowed halls with fear and suspicion, but we know that women routinely take on high-level roles without much fanfare at all. Unfortunately, despite their proven abilities, less than four percent of CEOs are women (HBR, 2009) (USA, 2011).
By necessity we are confronting all sorts of entrenched beliefs about gender roles. One of the more deeply held prejudices is that pro football is a sport best played by heterosexual men. Michael Sam was the first football player to publicly announce that he is gay, which let loose a flurry of media discussion. When Sam was picked by the St. Louis Rams in the 2014 NFL draft and the emotional kiss and embrace between him and his male partner were caught on camera and publicized everywhere, the flood tide of emotional public response seemed to all but drown out the fact that he was pick #249 out of a possible 256. It almost looked like no team wanted Sam to play football for them, and it was anyone’s guess whether that was because he was openly gay, or perhaps just not that talented.
Another deeply held belief is that gay, lesbian and transgendered men and women represent fringe or unnatural behavior, even though such behavior is regularly observed in the animal kingdom. The transgender artist couple, Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker, whose photographic series “Relationship” was part of the 2014 Whitney Biennal, already live outside the realm of what many consider a traditional relationship.
Are people who live on the outside looking in – those who do not do what is culturally expected of them, or what is widely considered to be culturally acceptable – more free to take creative and professional risks because they have already become used to “not belonging?” In order to achieve creative expression with a partner, is it better to live on the fringe?
MEG knocks on my door, then walks in with coffee and hands me a mug. I ask if she would like to listen to what I’ve been working on. She says:
We drink coffee and I read her some of what I’ve written.
MEG: Lots of ideas to talk about!
GISELLE: I’m hungry…
MEG: Hold please…
MEG exits, returning minutes later with a bowl of fresh blueberries and walnuts, which she puts on my nightstand.
She sits down, and I wonder out loud if it is even remotely possible in our image-obsessed world to really know who anyone else is, if men and women long ago stopped being authentic, if anyone really cares about authenticity, or if we prefer to fit into carefully crafted “images” of what it means to be a man, a husband, a father…what it means to be a woman, a wife, a mother. I wonder if not caring is a response to men and women not feeling safe to completely be themselves – at work, online, in their relationships.
I wonder if we have entered The Age of Pretense, where we cover up our true selves, because we really don’t want to be known. Plastic surgery used to be a woman’s helpful disguise, but now it is has become a man’s camouflage as well. So it is not surprising that we prefer highly Photoshopped images of pastoral landscapes rather than actual landscapes. We try to convince ourselves that virtual travel is as good as, if not better than, actual travel. We try to convince ourselves that online communication is just as good as in-person communication. We believe we no longer need to meet in person.
Meg says my musings remind her of the myth of Psyche and Eros – that a man’s archetypal journey is to leave his mother’s house and perform deeds of derring-do in order to become his true self. But that a woman’s journey – her path to independence and authenticity – is much more complicated.
Psyche and Eros? My questions on this beautiful morning are really about Psyche and Eros?
I tell Meg that I think intense competition in business and so much of life lived online might be separating men and women instead of connecting them to a common purpose. Do any young men and women leave their parents’ homes to become their true selves? Are we discovering our true selves? Or covering them up?
“But that’s just it!” Meg counters. “In the myth of Psyche and Eros there is a whole lot of covering and discovering going on. You can’t have one without the other. That’s what the story of the woman’s journey with a man is all about.”
Listening to Meg, I suddenly remember sitting by the fire in the home of one of the revered tutors at St. John’s College in Santa Fe when I was a freshwoman, listening to a reading by Galway Kinnell, whose poems about the immediacy of nature remind me of my journey to Tennessee. Weirdly, unbelievably, incredibly, that same college year Meg and I had lived in the same dorm – a dorm named after Euterpe, the Muse of Lyric Poetry, with a mythical story of her own – but we did not become friends back then.
I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language of blackberry – eating in late September.
– Galway Kinnell
How strange life is, I think, meeting Meg online decades later and becoming fast friends, before discovering we had lived down the hall from one another for an entire year. In the long interim, we have each surely gone on our own “woman’s journey.” Surely mystical. Surely magical. I look out the window at the Tennessee sky and Meg’s personal slice of Appalachian wonder, the mountains shimmering in the distance. The sun is shining, the coffee is bountiful, and I can hear the Muses murmuring that we are about to embark on something of a mythical quest.
I listen in anticipation of what is to come, but I cannot remember the details of the Psyche and Eros myth, and I turn to Meg, who has my full attention now, and I say, “Okay, tell me all about Psyche and Eros.”
And so began the following long chat about beauty, marriage, mothers and mothers-in-law, husbands and lovers, sex, jealous sisters, the safety (and prison) of home, the fantasy of bliss, journeys to hell and back, love and rejection – and, of course, the human psyche.
[GISELLE: I was on my computer and began typing when Meg began storytelling, intending just to take notes on the myth. But Meg did the same whenever I would respond, each of us (unknown to the other) having the peculiar ability to type as fast as a person can talk. We just went with the flow of talking and typing, not knowing that we would write up this dialogue for publication. After we parted one another’s company, and we each had a chance to review and proof the piece, we made the decision to include the various film, music, theatre and sound clips, as well as the lyrics and poems to which we refer. Those inclusions made it clear that we needed to expand certain parts of the conversation in order to illuminate those references for the reader. Thus, what began as an in-person conversation necessarily continued over the telephone, via email and in a Google Doc. Since there is not yet (to our knowledge) a word for this kind of multi-pronged and multi-media conversation, we are going to crowdsource: What’s a good name for this new genre? We’re calling it a “Dialogue” for now.]
[Note: The entire myth is read by Meg (later in the week) without conversational interruption, in its completion, and is on audio at the end of this article. It can be heard online.]
MEG: (Speaking entirely from memory.) The story begins… <Meg switches to her story-telling voice> “…Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young woman named Psyche, who was SO beautiful that the goddess Aphrodite hears that she is the most beautiful of all human women, even more beautiful than any goddess! This, of course, would not be allowed to stand. How dare a mere mortal compete with the gods!
“So, to get rid of her rival, Aphrodite plans for Psyche to fall in love with Death. To accomplish that, Aphrodite orders Psyche’s parents to bring her up to the top of a mountain, where Aphrodite has tied Death to a stake. She orders her son, Eros (in Roman mythology he’s known as Cupid), to shoot one of his arrows at Psyche just as she sees the god of Death which Aphrodite knows will then cause Psyche to become instantly smitten with him. Then, at the very moment she is pricked by Eros’ arrow, Aphrodite will untie Death from the stake! And Thanatos and Psyche will tumble together off the mountain-top WAY down into Hades and Aphrodite will be rid of her!
“’Take that Psyche! Love and Death will take care of a mere mortal! Ha!’ <Meg sounds a little bit like the bad witch in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’>
“Eros does as his mother tells him. He flies to the mountaintop at the appointed time (just before sunset) and sees the terrified Psyche (who has only just at that moment seen the chained Thanatos and is as frightened as anyone would be who is facing Death). Eros quickly takes an arrow to do his mother’s bidding, but – Oops! – he accidentally pricks himself instead, which causes him to fall hopelessly in love with Psyche. NOT exactly what Aphrodite had in mind!
“So, instead of causing Psyche to fall to Hades in the arms of Death, Eros swoops in to save her, and flies her off to his own private kingdom in a valley far, far away, just as night falls.
“Psyche cannot see Eros because it is dark. But, as the god of love, Eros knows a thing or two about how to make love, and Psyche enjoys the most exciting night of her life!
“The next morning, when Psyche wakes up, Eros has already gone to work, and Psyche discovers to her amazement that everything she wishes for, ANYTHING she wishes for, immediately appears in front of her! If she wants a banana split, voila! There it is! It’s delightful. It’s incredible…it’s heaven on Earth!
“At nightfall, Eros returns and again makes love to Psyche as only the god of erotic love can! Day after day Psyche is in a state of total bliss, doing anything she desires, and night after night, she is in a state of total bliss enjoying Eros’ sexual prowess. What’s not to like?
“Eros demands only two things of Psyche: ‘DO NOT EVER look at me. And DO NOT EVER ask me what I do!’”
GISELLE: That’s what Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) says to Kaye (Diane Keaton) in The Godfather!
MEG: Right! But, unlike Kaye, Psyche is fine with that, at least at first. I guess it seems to her a small price to pay for having everything she could ever desire!
<Back to the story> “So, the years go by and Psyche becomes pregnant with their first child. And she starts to think about her family, and she asks Eros if maybe her sisters could come visit.
“Eros doesn’t think it’s a good idea. But Psyche has gotten used to having her own way by now. So over and over again, she asks if Eros will let her talk to her sisters.”
GISELLE: So…while it may have appeared to Psyche that she had everything she wanted… she was sort of in a prison! She wasn’t allowed to actually look at her husband or ask what he did all day long! Sorry, but I can’t help free-associating again…to Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which was inspired by a line from a poem called Sympathy, by Paul Laurence Dunbar. It’s about her journey to self-discovery, her quest for freedom. It’s about so many things…
The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
– Paul Lawrence Dunbar
THE ENTIRETY OF THE MYTHICAL PRESENCE OF EROS & PSYCHE: A DIALOGUE ABOUT THE BEDROOM, THE BOARDROOM…AND A PIECE OF BREAD, CAN BE READ ONLINE IN THE SPRING 2014 ISSUE OF THE SYNAPTIQ+ JOURNAL FOR SOCIAL ERA KNOWLEDGE.