Martin Shaw is a mythologist, author and storyteller. He is regarded as one of the most outstanding new teachers of the mythic imagination. He is a Visiting Fellow at Schumacher College, and has devised and led the Oral Tradition course at Stanford University in the U.S. Any exploration of the imagination, its current state of health, and how we might best interact with it should include beating a path to the door of Martin Shaw (that sounded far more poetic than was intended). Which, a few weeks ago, one sunny Spring morning, I did.
And how would you assess the state of health of our culture’s imagination in 2017?
I would describe it as ‘ripe for invasion’. When we look at some of the big political moves on either side of the Atlantic in the last few years, actually one of the things we’re seeing is a yearning for story. When we are really impoverished, we will take a big lie with a little bit of truth in it, rather than nothing at all.
I don’t want to get drawn in too much about talking about the machinations of Brexit and Trump, but I’m fascinated by it because what I think is going on actually is culturally we have a huge yearning for home, but we have profoundly lost touch with what home is or could be.
In Greek myth there are two types of quest. There’s the kind of heroic quest that you hear about in stories like the Iliad, the siege of Troy, but the second type, which in a way I think many of us go through in the second half of our life, is what they call the ‘nostos’. Nostos is the quest for home. A story I’ve become really interested in recently for that reason is the Odyssey. It’s simply a guy trying to get home, and everything that tries to block that path.
The ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ of its day?
Very well put, yes. I think the tyranny of choice is affecting our imagination. It is hard these days to grow a root system because we’re being constantly stimulated by a million different options. 150 years ago if I rolled up in the Slad Valley in Gloucestershire with a new fairy tale, that would be big news for the rest of the winter, and everyone would tell that tale after I’d gone. Interestingly, it would change slightly every time it was told.
Myths are essentially promiscuous really, they’re not meant to be on pieces of stone. Whereas now, if a story is told more than once, you presume it’s boring. “I got it, I’ve heard it, I got Hamlet.” The oral tradition works with the bones of things. As a writer I’ve been thinking recently about the difference between what I call skin memory, flesh memory, and bone memory.
Skin memory is the kind of stuff you put on your CV. I’ve been living in Totnes for 8 years, 10 years or whatever it is. Flesh memory is the break ups, the travails, the high points. The stuff you remember in your life and you feel emotional about. But the magical components to stories are the ones that activate what you could call bone memory.
An example of that would be this, imagine a laboratory with a little chick in it. They do these weird experiments with chicks. You’ve probably seen it where they put over the chick, the shadow of a pigeon, and the chick doesn’t respond. You put the shadow of a hawk over the chick, and it shudders, probably like Rupert Sheldrake’s idea of morphic resonance.
But all I know is that when I tell deep stories, this peculiar kind of bone memory comes out where for an hour, or for two hours or for three days, the bones of people say, “Well, I can’t tell you how, but I know parts of this story happened to me this morning.” Something utterly relevant right now happens. What I’m not seeing a lot of at the moment is what I would call bone memory around. I see a lot of bright ideas, and I see a lot of brilliant people on laptops, and I admire it and I absolutely support it, but my caution of course, as a mythologist, is saying, “We have a residue of stories that arrived on time 5000 years ago and are kind of limbering up, they’re in their tracksuits, and they can speak directly now into the conditions of our time, of which there are many.”
Do you think we are less imaginative than we were 40, 100 years ago?
Probably. Probably. But that’s not to say that I don’t have a degree of hope about the situation. I grew up with an uncle. My Uncle Brian, you could bring anything that was broken to Brian, it could be a pair of glasses, it could be a bicycle wheel, it could be something from the garden, and you knew if you brought it to Brian, he would sit and look at it from so many different angles. In the end it would get fixed. It might have a little kink in it, but it got fixed.
I just wonder what is happening to our imagination when we simply do not have to look at things from many angles any more. We can separate from jobs, communities, relationships. This phone is 3 months out of date, I just get another one. By simply not having to think through difficult things, I would say that our imagination grows flabby. It’s not that we don’t have imagination now, but I would say that for some of us we can be seduced by comfort.
Now myths… Here’s an interesting distinction. I’m interested in the distinction between the word “shelter” and comfort. For four years I lived in a tent. I didn’t have a lot of comfort in the tent, but I had a lot of shelter. So if rain came, or blizzards came, I would survive the experience but the edges of my house would breathe. I lived in a breathing circle for four years. What I gained in trading comfort for shelter was stories that I felt – again here’s a nice little trade – were not seductions but courtships. It’s a big question for me.
I don’t have an answer to it but everywhere I go at the moment I say, “Do you recognise… what’s the difference between a seduction and a courtship?” What was happening in America over the election? What kind of seduction was at play that created this hallucination of a result? How did that happen? And what actually would a courtship look like to a place, to a community, to a loved one, to a piece of art? What would a courtship to the imagination look like?
One of the things I’m very interested in again is the difference between fantasy and imagination. Usually when I go into a mild state of anxiety it’s a kind of trance, and it is placed on me usually fairly effectively by something I’ve read or something that I’m hearing about through social media. And I realise that I’m not grounded for a few minutes.
Now in many spiritual traditions, there is an emphasis that imagination doesn’t belong here, but is actually a wider thing that you are part of. What in the renaissance they called the ‘anima mundi’, the world itself, the thinking of the world. I mentioned earlier on these four years in the tent. One of the things that I wanted to do – this is a very subtle thing to talk about – is to move from thinking to getting thought.
All of these rites of passage which we hear about out on the tundra, out in the desert or Amazonia, one of the things that does link many indigenous cultures together is that at a certain point in your life, you get thought by the earth. Now what that does, is it changes the way that you respond to trees and rivers, and rocks, and your dreams, and the dead. And oddly, without anybody wagging a finger at you, a kind of innate sense of ethics grows in you because you learn how to behave.
But it’s interesting that revery – this is an important thing for me in my life at this point – revery leads to participation. I don’t know what your school reports were like, but mine always said the same thing. They said, “Martin, he’s a nice kid, but he’s a dreamer. He’s a dreamer.”
And now here we are being dreamers. When I’m writing a book, I have to spend lots and lots of time with people not around. I also think imagination usually comes with a degree of consequence. So it’s not the same for everybody. My friend Colman Barks does his Rumi translations, and has always done them, in cafes full of people. He loves it. I can’t operate like that.
I need all sorts of space around me. I need to become distinctly anti-social before ten minutes a day, this peculiar intelligence lands in me. When I’m teaching, all I’m doing is the ten minutes a day I’ve ever gathered. I’ve just put them in one place and people go, “Wow, he’s really saying some interesting things”. Most of the time I’m just thinking about shopping and school runs. But I just gather my ten minutes.
Is imagination something that’s value neutral? Are Donald Trump, or Hitler, imaginative? Do they represent people who are very imaginative but who somehow see thnings through a damaged traumatised narcissistic lens? Can you have a good imagination, a bad imagination? Is imagination neither?
I think imagination is neither. Clearly throughout history brilliant people do terrible things. Imaginative people do terrible things. A compromised imagination means you don’t have the energy to vote. You don’t have the energy to participate and your self-esteem is so horrendously bent out of shape you are designed for a Trump to turn up and start to pull these moves.
Interestingly, I have to come back at this point to thinking about the earth. My first profound experiences of the notion that the earth thought in some fashion… I didn’t get clear on that quite honestly when I was living in very urban situations. I can see it now, but I couldn’t see it 20 years ago.
I had to be cut loose. I had to be untrammelled for a few years, and then I realised actually, as I’ve said already, oddly, imagination, or the imaginal, which is a lovely word from the Islamic scholar Henry Corbin. He basically says there’s fantasy, there’s imagination and then there’s the imaginal. The imaginal is the imagination that is bigger than you. That’s really what’s tickling away at Transition. That’s why it’s got this kind of momentum.
Because, as well as being a bright person, you are also in service to something else. That thing you’re doing, you’re leaving a lot of libation in the right temple, because it’s going to keep doing that. That’s the way Corbin would think.
So actually, coming back, I would say that the Trumps and the Hitlers, they don’t really trade in imagination. They trade in fantasy. And the fantasies they use are super effective because they frighten or seduce people. When you are working with the imaginal, you are out of seduction and into courtship, because that bigger imagination, that bigger consciousness cannot be seduced by you, you’re simply not powerful enough to do it. The only thing you can do is have a rapport with it. So imagination gone toxic is fantasy. Imagination in its highest and most effective end is the imaginal.
So our ancestors, the great storytellers, they did their imagining together. Often it was a communal thing, with people gathered round and being told stories. And we increasingly tend to do ours in isolation, or we just consume other people’s. I wonder if you had any reflections on how and why imagination is more powerful done with others than on our own? Or if that is even the case.
Well it’s certainly different. Victor Turner, the anthropologist, coined a very important phrase, ‘communitas’. Communitas is that moment – I have to see it as a storyteller – where everyone is leaning forward. They’re deep in the story. The myth teller is opening up the world to them.
One of the things that makes it so powerful as a community event is that unlike a book that you would read where described in detail is the characterisation of the characters, in oral storytelling, I’m just giving you the bones of things. “A woman in the middle of her life came to the great forest”. That’s it. When I look out, there’s 200 people having to imagine themselves, in an act of activity, not passivity, what that woman looks like as she enters the forest, and on and on and on.
One of the things that is such a powerful binding agent in community imagination is simply how active it is for people that are there. Also when I’m reading, it is a journey entirely inside myself, whereas with the community experience of hearing story, even though I’m doing the imaginative work, I’m aware, touching me like flanks of animals in the dark, are all these other people engaged in the same process. It’s actually tacit ritual. I never talk about it in such terms especially in this area of the county, but it’s tacit ritual.
A thought I have at the moment – it’s a very recent thought but I’ve been talking about it a lot – is Carl Jung said the problem with us now is “we no longer hear the lament of the dead”. He was saying that 70 years ago and things have changed immeasurably for the worse since then. In other words, to be facing characters like Trump, to be facing any form of wicked or troubled situation, on our own we’re not enough.
Any older culture would recognise that. They’d say, “this world actually belongs to the dead. We’re merely renting it. We’re only here for a fraction of a second.” It’s why the Egyptians built these huge sphinxes but live in very modest houses. The real situation happens when we die, it’s not now, so we’re building this huge sphinx. If we don’t have ancestors, we have ghosts. At the moment one of the reasons we’re so terrified is that actually, and I’m not talking about this in supernatural terms, I’m not talking about ancestors in an elevated way, because our ancestors were often as crazy as they were brilliant. But the sense that there’s nothing standing behind us, only our wits, again that can create a form of paralysis.
Also myth means no author. Myth is not composed by Jeanette Winterson. Jeanette Winterson has never written a myth. Tolkien never wrote a myth. J.K. Rowling didn’t write a myth. But what they’ve done so beautifully is they’ve written mythic stories, and I love it and I encourage everybody to do that.
But a myth is essentially to do with community events. A myth has to pass through the mouths of many people before it becomes a myth. It’s connected to time and space. So when at the moment there’s this frantic, “Give us a myth, give us a myth, give us a myth”, or “I’ve created a myth” – I’m becoming a very unpopular man because I’m hearing great inspirational stories that I applaud, but I won’t sign off on them as myths, because they’re not myths, they’re mythic stories.
If you had been elected instead of Donald Trump, or if you were elected here, and you were elected, rather than “Make America Great Again”, on a “Make America Imaginative Again” platform, what would you do in your first 100 days?
I’d turn electricity off for a month. That’s what I’d do. And no light. And we’d just deal with that for a little bit. I would see how that affected people talking to each other, simply without electricity. And I’m aware of course of all the ensuing pandemonium that would cause, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea. The internet stops, and all of that stops, and we all know it’s for a finite period. It’s not for ever.
This isn’t a lunatic at the controls, but this is saying, you know, any good story, any story worth its salt has a period of time in it where you leave the known and you enter the unknown to find out the story that is bigger than yourself. To receive information that is mightier and more mysterious than yourself. Culturally the days have gone now where one or two of us are going to do that for the benefit of everybody else. This needs to be a cultural enterprise where everybody gets involved. So I would do something dramatic like that because we’re living in dramatic times.
It’s so fascinating, the moves that Trump made in those first few days of him being in office – I cannot take my eyes off him. He’s one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever seen. I just stare at him, like I can’t believe this is happening, and the thing that’s freaking everybody out – I’ve gone off piste here but I’ve said my bit … I’d just turn the gas off effectively – but the thing about Trump is he doesn’t even appear to be lying in a weird kind of way. That’s the real thing.
We’re used to these glass eyed people. There’s this weird, “Shit, he’s so caught up in himself, in this bizarre way, he’s sort of telling this macabre sort of truth.” If my life had been crap under Obama, if I was feeling impoverished, if I was feeling unheard, there would be just enough unexpectedness, just enough vitality in there for me to lurch possibly in that direction.
There’ll be myths about him I think at some point. He has that sort of bearing of a mythical creature doesn’t he? So you talk about the ‘uncolonised’ imagination. I wonder if you could just say a bit more about what you mean about that?
As children, we have a fairly innate and immediate response to what we like and don’t like, until that gets educated out of us. To use a highfalutin term, it’s what James Joyce calls ‘aesthetic arrest’. What do you absolutely love? What claims you? If we look at that wall, that colour, I have loved that colour since I was three. That is the colour of myth for me, that burgundy. It’s that Dionysian red. It’s also the red of the soil where I grew up on the coast. We don’t really have it here.
An uncolonised imagination for me is to be open to what truly moves you, and to become educated in that response. When I grew older there were all sorts of things I have learnt to appreciate. That’s not quite the same thing as an uncolonised imagination. An uncolonised imagination knows the colours, the senses, the places it loves. That’s why I think it’s so important not to just talk about the earth, but to talk about, you know, that little curve near Venford Reservoir where the dark moves in that direction, or the oak with the moss on the northern flank.
Tom White says a song needs an address, until there’s an address, [sings], or a name, or something. As soon as people start talking about specificity, we all kind of hunker in, and the old ear that lives inside us here says, “Ah okay, you love a place.” So an uncolonised imagination knows what it loves and is not so weak around the edges that it can get overly influenced by somebody who recognises a blank spot in you. Now what you need to grow that is not just whimsy. You need to be quite robust. In other words you need to study.
As all my students know, I hate to break this to you, no matter how godly your life is, when you die, God will not let you come into heaven if you haven’t studied. If you don’t hold your hands up and say, “I did my best. I studied”, otherwise it’s somewhere else, I don’t know where that is. So an uncolonised imagination knows what it loves, is responsive to it, and has educated itself in that relationship.
And so a colonised imagination has been colonised by what, or by who?
It’s been colonised by the machinations of things that may not wish you well. That could be politics, it could be any strong presence that makes you smaller, that folds you. Here’s a wonderful phrase. Rainer Maria Rilke the poet says, “Wherever I’m folded, therefore I am a lie” and I see a lot of folded people. And actually, honestly, I see folded people that claim to be spiritually enlightened and all of this. But you just see that they’re all mashed up somewhere.
Then you see people that don’t make any of these claims, and you think, “That’s a human being. I’ve just seen a human being.” I’ve only seen like five, but I just saw one, some old boy just wandering off the moors, and it’s like, “Ah, it’s a human being, I’d heard of you.” So that’s what I think an uncolonised imagination looks like.