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Critical Essay by Patrick D. Murphy
SOURCE: "Mythic and Fantastic: Gary Snyder's 'Mountains and Rivers without End,'" in Extrapolation, Vol. 26, No. 4, Winter, 1985, pp. 290-99.
In the following essay, Murphy analyzes Snyders' poem "Mountains and Rivers without End" in terms of Tzetvan Todorov's theories on the fantastic.
Critics of the Fantastic tend to ignore poetry, overlooking poems from the mainstream of poetic tradition and dismissing, usually as facile, poetry appearing in science fiction and fantasy magazines. Serious work has been and is being done in the area of fantasy-oriented poetry, but this work rarely receives critical attention as Fantastic literature or as poetry using fantastic techniques for its effects. I do not claim that modern poets are turning to the Fantastic in some marked degree, but I do claim that they use the Fantastic, particularly mythic fantasy, for their artistic purposes and that such elements deserve serious critical attention. One reason that relatively little use of the Fantastic appears in current American poetry is that contemporary poetry still remains to some extent within a turning away from narrative forms. Some poets, such as Robinson Jeffers, who did manage to cling to narrative forms through the first half of the century certainly used the Fantastic, in its broad generic sense. After the war, Ginsberg's nightmares also produced some narrative fantasy, while other Beats used fantasy to express spiritual moments beyond rational description and invoked myth to enlighten readers to principles drawn from Taoism, Tantrism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
Gary Snyder was part of the Beat movement as well as being influenced by Jeffers and such major figures as Lawrence and Pound. He was also influenced, through anthropological studies, by native American kiva rituals, shamanism, and myths which he saw linked with Eastern mystical philosophy. This mixture encouraged him to see religious visions and mythic fantasies as spiritual forces in a modern world without philosophical grounding. From primitivism, Snyder begins to see the poem as shaman chant, power vision, and healing prayer. From Zen Buddhism and its Hindu precursors, he begins to see poetry as harmonious sacred song and köan training. Focusing on Zen philosophy, Snyder has come to emphasize not Eastern teleology but the presence of the world, its tathata, or suchness, in which life is a wandering path through which one travels breaking down illusions and opening the mind to satori, the instant of spiritual enlightenment when the ego drops away and the individual recognizes the interdependence of the spiritual energy pathways of the universe. Snyder's poetry from the first has expressed his developing philosophical system and his belief that America needs a new guiding myth as the foundation for creating a new culture based on harmony rather than conflict with the universal life flow.
Snyder's "Mountains and Rivers without End," a long sequential poem on which he is still working, provides the most striking example of his efforts in this direction of opening the reader's mind to the possibility of spiritual enlightenment and his use of mythic fantasy and fantastic hesitation to achieve that purpose. Snyder draws deeply on Hindu-Buddhist and native American mythology to present his spiritual vision. Without the uses of mythic fantasy and dream narratives, a number of these poem sequences could not have been written. Narrating instances of inward vision, Snyder wields myth and fantasy in an effort to replicate moments of religious revelation; attempting to describe experiences beyond rational consciousness, he draws the reader into fantasy episodes which produce feelings of spiritual immanence and emotive response to the ineffable—"epiphanies" of enlightenment. He attempts through these to inculcate in readers a new consciousness opening a way for modern man to reestablish himself in balance with Earth.
Before turning to a brief close reading, it is necessary first to discuss some aspects of Tzetvan Todorov's definition of the fantastic. In The Fantastic, Todorov defines the heart of his genre as an event occurring which cannot be explained by the laws of the world familiar to the reader and/or the character." The reader must opt for one of two possibilities: he is a victim of an illusion with a rational explanation, in which case the world remains as he knows it; or, the event is real, in which case the world does not remain as he knows it, but a new reality opens up which functions by laws unknown to him. He argues: "The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighboring genre, the uncanny or the marvelous. The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event." I believe that such hesitation occurs not only in fiction but also in poetry. Poets use techniques of the Fantastic, in the broad generic sense, including those of the fantastic, as Todorov narrowly defines the term. A complication exists, though, in poetry which Todorov uses to dismiss it entirely from the fantastic genre. He states:
If as we read a text we reject all representation, considering each sentence as a pure semantic combination, the fantastic could not appear: for the fantastic requires, it will be recalled, a reaction to events as they occur in the world evoked. For this reason, the fantastic can subsist only within fiction; poetry cannot be fantastic.
Yet, earlier in his book Todorov admitted: "Poetry too includes certain representative elements, and fiction properties which render the text opaque, intransitive." To the degree that it does this, Jeffers' "The Double Axe" and Dorn's Slinger being two twentieth-century examples, poetry can also present an event which requires the reader to choose between a logical explanation and a supernatural one, and fantastic hesitation may appear in the process of that choosing, as it does in Snyder's "Mountains and Rivers without End." Not surprisingly, such a hesitation may be of far shorter duration in a poem than in a novel, but nevertheless it occurs. In poetry, however, the hesitation may result from three possibilities rather than two, the third being that the strange event is neither natural nor supernatural, but is solely a figurative device not intended to be representational. Though Todorov devotes some attention to categorizing the fantastic as exclusively fictive prose, his arguments leave room in which to introduce certain modern poems.
Besides the opacity of poetic narrative, Todorov's discussion of Freud can also be turned to use for criticism of poetry. Todorov states: "According to Freud, the sense of the uncanny is linked to the appearance of an image which originates in the childhood of the individual or the race." Taken a step further, one can argue that through the functioning of the collective unconscious the invocation of myths and archetypes in poems transports the reader toward the uncanny and then beyond it into a period of fantastic hesitation. The reader wonders whether the character's mythic dream or spiritual vision is a psychologically reducible event and thus merely uncanny, or if the character's experience occurs in a truly spiritual realm in which the myth reveals itself as truth. The latter suggests that the reader himself could enter such a realm. In this case, the reader passes from hesitation into the marvelous when myth-turned-truth reveals universal laws and causes which function beyond the scope of man's familiar world. This occurs whether or not the laws validate the mythic characters associated with them or if, instead, the myths serve solely to reveal the laws themselves.
In poems in which myth is not merely alluded to but integral to the story, the reader will have difficulty from the outset in ascribing this use of myth to the figurative and thereby avoid any hesitation, quite simply because people recognize that dreams are real, and the dimensions of myth and dream frequently overlap. Deciding to which reality the myths belong may cause hesitation: the reality of the native American kiva with its smoke hole to the world above, the reality of the shaman with the power of animal spirits, or the reality of the world in which dreams are representations of a collective unconscious residing within and struggling up out of an interior psyche. In other words, the myths belong to a series of imaginary beliefs based on religious idealism and are, therefore, marvelous, that is supernatural; or, the myths belong to the natural processes of the human mind and are, therefore, uncanny, arising from physical rather than spiritual origins. Todorov's dismissal of poetry from his study of the fantastic (based on linguistic theories of poetic language as essentially non-narrative and self-referential), if critics were to heed it, would deny them valuable insights into the experience of the reader encountering the use of the Fantastic in poetry.
Todorov's chapter "Themes of the Self" provides an opening for a particular kind of poetry: mythic fantasy and spiritual vision, poetry which Snyder writes. Todorov claims: "Pan-determinism signifies that the limit between the physical and the mental, between matter and spirit, between word and thing, ceases to be impervious"; "The physical world and the spiritual world interpenetrate; their fundamental categories are modified as a result." Such an interpenetration stands as a fundamental starting point for shamanist and Hindu-Buddhist beliefs, beliefs which Snyder poetically demonstrates in "Mountains and Rivers without End."
In "Bubbs Creek Haircut," the opening poem of the sequence, Snyder begins with a first-person narrator preparing for a journey. The first stanza seems straightforward enough. The narrator gets a haircut in preparation for entering the mountains and it turns out the barber has been where the narrator intends to go. But in the next stanza, reality unravels a bit in the Goodwill Store. Discarded items are described as having lives of their own, and the proprietor is referred to as "The Master of the limbo drag-legged," invoking the mythic image of a limping god. A mood is established indicating that this journey represents a crucial quest to resolve some unstated crisis.
The next few stanzas begin the actual journey and initiate a process of interweaving memories and present events in a collapsing of time and space, a process foreshadowed in the Goodwill Store and begun in earnest with the memories of an earlier haircut and a past friendship. Attachments are being dropped away by the narrator in the same way that he sheds his hair—the implication that the haircut was a preparatory rite is here reinforced, it being akin to the shaving of Buddhist monks' heads at the beginning of their training in imitation of Guatama Buddha. Quickly the narrator brings the reader to a different land:
a half-iced over lake, twelve thousand feet
its sterile boulder bank
but filled with leaping trout:
reflections wobble in the
mingling circles always spreading out
the crazy web of wavelets makes sense
seen from high above.
the realm of fallen rock
a deva world of sorts—
The narrator warns the reader that he has reached a world of spirits in which the laws of the city no longer apply. Not only is it named a "deva world," but also the web formed by spreading circles implies the net of universal energy which is symbolized by water in Hindu mythology. There water symbolizes both the continuous flow of energy and the vastness of the cosmic ocean in which one may lose individual consciousness. The lake and its flowing waters are both representational and symbolic, but whether they are symbolic of a supernatural truth or only a semantic abstraction remains unresolved at this point.
The next section of the poem casts the reader into the midst of a strange meditation, first referring back to the Goodwill proprietor as "King of Hell" and then moving into a celebration of the dance of "moon breast Parvati," who is both Shiva's consort and an earth goddess figure. The real world of the lake and its life-brimming water has become a mythic fantasy world—what Manlove might term a metaphoric fantasy—of Hindu gods celebrating the belief that all things have their "deva" nature, or spiritual essence, and that all these natures interpenetrate. The Goodwill proprietor is "King of Hell" because he seeks to chain the items in the store to lives solely limited to the uses of man. The reader can interpret this episode as a figurative series of allusions, a dream vision, a hallucination, or a religious experience. Before he can really decide, the narrator returns to descriptions of a seemingly normal world, memories again of other trips and friends reinforcing the poem's representational character; but this ends with a revealing parenthetical: "on Whitney hair on end / hail stinging bare legs in the blast of wind / but yodel off the summit echoes clean." The narrator has undergone a spiritual experience involving purification. Hunt comments: "One has the feeling that Maya's mirror of illusion has been wiped clean in the moment of interpenetrating conjunction with the Nature Goddess." The poem then moves into its conclusion:
all this came after:
Purity of the mountains and goodwills.
The diamond drill of racing icemelt waters
and bumming trucks and watching
the garbage acres burning at the Bay
the girl who was the skid-row
All that the reader has been told came after the haircut. This statement claims that all that has been told has really occurred. "Purity of the mountains and goodwills" suggests a link between his purification and the realization of inter-dependence of all things in life, the wilderness and the cities, man and artifacts, rock and water, gods and world. The "diamond drill" reinforces the spiritual vision as true experience and as a source of purification because it is an oblique reference to the "Diamond Sutra," a key Buddhist text. There the Buddha teaches that "a body-form is not a body-form" and that "all that has form is illusory." The real is the energy flow represented by the water in which the ego may be dissolved, while the unreal is the appearance of material forms whereby the ego defines itself. Hunt explains the conclusion in this way:
If we perceive a universe of objects, with identity, solidity, and a fixed nature, we only continue to delude ourselves and our consciousness will remain willful and ego-centered. If, however, we see the ever-changing, interconnecting, fleeting character of things we will at least recognize the universe for what it really is: a mirage, or, as Zimmer puts it, "Mäyä-maya, 'of the stuff of Mäyä.'"
What then is the reader's response to this strange, rapturous story? After the narrator looks into the lake he sings a celebration of the flowing waters of Parvati's dance, enacting the continuous energizing of the universe with its cosmic contradiction of the endless life-death cycle represented by a half-frozen lake with sterile banks but filled with living trout. Is he in the realm of figurative poetic discourse, and so should interpret the poem as merely metaphor for an invigorating weekend in the mountains; is he in the realm of the uncanny and so should interpret the spiritual visions and feelings of purification as neurotic guilt displacement; or, is he in the realm of the marvelous and so should interpret the spiritual vision as relating a new set of universal laws by which the world operates? As Todorov summarizes themes of the self: "We may further characterize these themes by saying that they essentially concern the structuring of the relations between man and the world. We are, in Freudian terms, within the perception-consciousness system." The narrator would say that we are in the system of the Buddha, in which one can recognize the tathata (suchness) of the world, that mind is matter, matter mind, and the distinction between object and subject an illusion of Western logocentrism.
"Bubbs Creek Haircut" opens up to the reader a new way of perceiving the world around him, suggesting a different set of laws from the one by which he normally operates. The poem does not seek to convert, but rather to surprise the reader, causing him to hesitate and reassess his perceptions. He will thereby become more open to different perceptions of reality continuously unfolded throughout "Mountains and Rivers without End." Depending on his resolution of hesitation, the reader will either accept or reject this new world he is offered.
"Journeys," another poem in the sequence, takes the reader through several worlds, both to break down his normal channels of rational thought and to tap into his unconscious through archetypes and myths. This poem begins with the narrative "I" again, but Part One is a dream sequence. There a bird becomes a woman who leads the narrator on a subterranean journey through a maze. When he is about to lose his way she gives him a slice of apple and he awakes. Evidently a dream, but whether a figurative one or a real one experienced by an autobiographical narrator remains unclear as the literary and the symbolic mix with the narrative representation because of the heavy presence of archetypal material.
Parts Two and Three, with no indication of being dreams, describe the narrator as travelling with others in a strange land. As primitive hunters they reach a plateau where they flee the sun in awe of its power while shooting arrows at it. Again archetypes and myths appear: ancient hunters enter northwestern America; they attempt to shoot the sun; they view it as another being, perhaps a god. The story can also be interpreted as primitive ritual for gaining power and knowledge. The reader may not hesitate here, but quickly conclude that such a story is purely figurative. Still, the mythic archetypes have affected him and his sureness of decision making. The following two parts of the poem narrate experiences in the familiar world and their quotidian reality calls into question the extraordinary reality of the previous parts. Perhaps the primitive ritual is a memory resurrected from the collective unconscious of the race or handed down through oral tradition, such as stories found in native American legend. If so, it is no longer simply figurative or self-referential in this poem. Instead, it becomes the written record of a historical event and a testimony to the diachronic continuity of human community identity.
The reader of the poem is probably confused at this point. Part Six heightens the confusion. The narrator describes a journey through high mountains, ending "now I have come to the LOWLANDS." Nothing, though, is done to resolve the confusion over whether or not the earlier sections of the poem are all dreams retold. Perhaps they are different forms of the mind: dreams, archetypal images, oral history, and personal memories—all forms of mental experiences of the world, but experiences in which time and space are twisted around and shifted back and forth through the activity of the psyche.
The last three parts of the poem are crucial to unravelling the mystery that tends to make the reader suspend judgment until the poem's end. Section Seven returns to a dream format, an archetypal one, again with an underground maze. It is destroyed city, an urban nightmare:
Movies going, men milling round the posters
the movies always running
—we all head in here somewhere;
—years just looking for the bathrooms.
Huge and filthy, with strange-shaped toilets full of shit.
Dried shit all around, smeared across the walls of the
and a vast hat rack.
Surely a Freudian nightmare, but one that contains the modern-day equivalent of oral legend and primitive myth, the cinema. Here the narrator is alone, but the distinction between figurative language and real dream remains unclear.
Section Eight returns to a narrative of a bus ride, a world of daylight and friends, but the distinction between dream narratives and travel narratives has blurred—both are journeys. The reader may become suspicious of seemingly simple descriptions. In the final section the narrator is also travelling with a friend; it begins: "We were following a long river into the mountains." The spiritual components are present: water as energy and mountains as form. It starts out like the preceding travel narrative, but then:
Ko grabbed me and pulled me over the cliff—both of us falling. I hit and I was dead. I saw my body for a while, then it was gone. Ko was there too. We were at the bottom of the gorge. We started drifting up the canyon, "This is the way to the back country."
The reader must decide, not only for the final section but also for the poem as a whole, whether or not it is another dream, a figurative device of self-referential language, or a spiritual vision of a reality in which "all form is illusory."
Placement of the narrator's fall and death at the end of the poem becomes comprehensible if interpreted as an experience of sudden enlightenment, similar to that in "Bubbs Creek Haircut." Zen, as well as shamanism, would be able to explain what has died, as well as to agree with the accuracy of the claim, "I saw my body for a while, then it was gone." The narrator has shed his ego and with it his sense of body as separate from the rest of the world. The object and subject interpenetrate, and as they do, each disappears; the body dies as the spirit awakes.
There is more here than Zen symbolism, though, as suggested by the poem's final phrase. That is to say, the poem cannot be reduced to an explication of symbols merely to detect a religious doctrine as a literary source. It needs to be read as one always reads Fantastic literature the first time through: in terms of the psychological and emotional elements of the reader's response. Within that framework major questions suddenly arise at poem's end: where does this back country lie? Have all these journeys occurred within a spiritual back country hidden by the illusion of form which Western thought teaches as the only reality? Are spiritual visions symbolic or real?
The power and success of Snyder's mythic fantasies reside in the immediacy with which this final question confronts the reader. In the end, whether he opts for psychological interpretations of the poems, placing them in the uncanny; considers them attempts to render in inadequate language a spiritual experience, placing them in the marvelous; or, consigns all of the journeys to figurative language, he is confronted by the need to resolve any hesitation. He must decide if spiritual visions are real. If so, then do the worlds of shamanism and Zen offer laws by which the universe functions beyond those known to Western man's familiar world? Some might argue that by referring to the texts as mythic fantasies I have already resolved this question, since myths are fictions designed to interpret something a culture does not understand. The opposite is the case. One does not have to believe in Parvati or Satan to be affected by myths and dream archetypes to the point of questioning his own theory of how the world works. If those myths have proven unsatisfactory, perhaps new myths are needed to bring man closer to the source of life's mystery.
In my own case, Snyder has produced a hesitation still resonating. While I reject the old myths, I am not sure that invalidates their purpose; new myths may be needed to open up a spiritual realm in which, as Todorov observes, there is the "effacement of the limit between subject and object." Snyder's "Mountains and Rivers without End" undertakes what Todorov terms a theme of vision: "The 'themes of vision' are based on a breakdown of the limit between psychic and physical," a task undertaken by all myth, and one at which Snyder succeeds. Snyder's wielding of the mythic and fantastic demonstrates the existence of a genre category in poetry which Todorov attempts to reserve for prose, a category with farther-reaching critical application than his structural and historical strictures would originally admit.
This section contains 3,925 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)