“Doctor, I’m Seeing Angels Again”: On Collective Representation and Lived Tradition

What does it mean to live traditionally in the modern era? All of us here keenly feel a lament for the past, as though we have been robbed of something with great value by the maws of time. Something which at times feels irretrievable, yet also deceptively close at hand. We can point to the things going wrong around us and rightly say they are symptoms of a greater disease retarding the very nervous system of all social order. It is obvious something is catastrophically wrong with our once great civilization. But when we are asked what traditionalism is we often point to hierarchy, nobility, the union of church and state, blood and soil, among other archaisms. Yet we know for the most part that these sacred institutions no longer inform society and life. They have all gone the way of the enlightened guillotine. Despite the apparent death of institutionalized tradition, it is clear that something more lasting and fundamental yet lives on. The heritage and way of being which accumulated over tens of thousands of years through gruelling trial and error cannot be so easily defeated by several hundred years of intellectual and ideological blunders. We see it still retained in the spirit of our folk and homelands seeping out of marshes and clinging like a cautious fog to the woodlands waiting for the brave soul to wander into its mysteries. Although robbed of it’s instruments of implementation, tradition yet lives on.

To be traditional is to perceive traditionally. Our ancestors lived in a world full of meaning where the significance of their lives participated directly in the grand unifying narrative of a mythos, or a collective representation. At the most fundamental level of things the difference between the modern man and the traditional man is not a political or social one, its is an ontological one. They are two very different and antithetical modes of being in the world. Living in classical antiquity was not just a matter of different habits and customs, of course that is part and parcel to it, but beneath it all it was a matter of quite literally bearing a relationship to the created world that is wholly different and alien to what passes for consciousness today.
At it’s root the modern experience is one which is perceived to be separate from any supernatural order. Here by super-natural I mean an ideal or greater reality in which we participate. Following the ancient maxims “As above, so below” or “The kingdom of heaven is within you” we can see that for the man of tradition his secular or worldly actions participated in a greater heavenly narrative. His life below reflected realities taking place above and vice versa. But one must not confuse the relationship to be an egalitarian one where real/ideal exist in some dualistic equality. No, it is by virtue of the divine realm through which the world below gains significance and form. But it is not enough to say that they are interrelated in some metaphorical way. The metaphor does not go far enough, it still chooses to delegate the divine to the other-worldly and separate. Substituting one thing to explain the other. Instead, the relationship is a very real one which is lived out in the individuals life.

The “mythos” is a story. But not just any story, it is a lived story. In classical antiquity the Greek citizen did not attend the drama for mere entertainment. Catharsis was not possible without direct participation. He was there to interact and find union with the gods and demigods performing the greater reality of his own life before him. The crucial understanding is that his very experience of life was birthed and sustained by the myth. Everything around him was mythological and his life participated in and found significance in the myth. To the “primitive” man, there indeed were Medusas in the crypts and Minotaurs roaming the fields. Our modern mindsets simply brushes this off as fancy and we are so ingrained in perceiving a separation between this world and the other that our minds are simply antithetical to this experience of reality. The question whether this perception was a seen one is interesting but ultimately very difficult to pursue. Modern perception places too much emphasis on sight (i.e.”I need to see it to believe it.”) as a means of confirming what is real and what is unreal. The traditional man could experience things which he did not see to be real and yet still bore presence. By existing in a world where one regularly encountered the “world above”, and where introspection and spiritual sensitivity took precedence over extensive material manipulation, it is not a stretch to say that one was equipped with means of experience beyond the physical ones. Although due to extensive literature and sacred scripture which insists on the physicality of encounters with the divine, like Christianity’s conviction on the corporeality of the Devil, it is not possible to wholly discount the visual element to traditional perception. Although once a part of normal everyday life, today when we do come across individuals who have strayed consciously or unconsciously into the mental space where the supernatural is directly perceived and experienced we retreat into scientific and instrumental classification and call it hallucination or an aberration from the real. But the thing is, in some ways that space is more real than the solidity of things around us.

In his study on Idolatry: “Saving the Appearances” Owen Barfield speaks to the “mythos” as a collective representation. One which does not take root in the individual (although lived out by him/her) it is one that is collective in the sense that everybody participates in the same supernatural order. There aren’t individual heavens or hells, there is only one transcendent order in which everyone participates. Owen Barfield says:

“It is not correct to maintain, as is frequently done, that primitives associate occult powers, magic properties, a kind of soul or vital principle with all the objects which affect their senses or strike the imagination, and that their perceptions are surcharged with animistic beliefs. It is not a question of association. The mystic properties with which things are imbued form an integral part of the idea to the primitive who views it as a synthetic whole. It is at a later stage of social evolution that what we call a natural phenomenon tends to become the sole content of the perception to the exclusion of other elements which then assume the aspect of beliefs, and finally appear superstitious.”

The modern scientific “objective” perception is entirely concerned with phenomena, like a researcher who experiences life entirely through microscope slides, failing to look at the beautiful world surrounding him, and then stubbornly dictates that his is the only true way of knowing and everything outside those few inches of glass is a fantasy, an aberration. If only he were to raise his head then he would realize that his earlier perception is inadequate but not lost along the way and is enriched so that things seem to be even more vivid and realer than before. If we are to also raise our heads from the world of mere phenomena, we move out of the restraint of dualism into the unity of a “synthetic whole” (Barthes), where no distinction between natural and supernatural exists. Although now that the destination is clear, the problem of how such a transformation can take place arises. And whether it is even a desirable outcome in the first place? By abandoning scientific objectivity/instrumentality as the lens through which the world presents itself, the need for constant technological innovation goes with it. Instead the attention turns inward once more and the introspective life blooms to flourish again.

As tight as the grip of modernism has on the human mind, it is not yet an all-encompassing grip, there is still hope for struggle and emancipation. After all we are aware of primitive peoples and tribes scattered throughout the world who despite contact with civilization have retained a conscious connection to the numinous and transcendent reality reflected in their continued heritage as though existing in their own world outside of time. Although their sad state of affairs is not to be envied and should rather serve as an austere warning sign for those primitivists who desire to return to such savagery, there is still something valuable to be learned there. Mainly the realization that although we might not acknowledge it, the transcendent is always present, it only must be revealed. More so we should be looking at those individuals born of modernity herself who have managed to consciously breach the invisible boundary into the transcendent, however fleeting that breach was. These are the class of musicians, artists, mystics and poets who, divinely inspired seek to pass on their revelation to the rest of us. Ultimately a return to a truly experiential and lived tradition must reconsider the role art, stories and meaning itself plays in an individuals life, and by this I mean the kind of art that derives its sustenance from the deep fountain of tradition. Finally, anybody with any serious inclination to retrieve what was lost in the passage of time and in the history of consciousness must come to realize that such a task cannot be satisfied by a superficial return based only in social orders or human habits but it is a task which requires a transformation in the constitution of the self. It is a work which takes place entirely in the soul, and it won’t be easy. One’s entire perception of reality must be uprooted and populated once more with the likes of angels and demons and every creature in between.