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A Call to Recover the Numinous in Today’s World
on February 18, 2016
The central idea Cleary attempts to grapple with in these essays is how to take Nordic myth and tradition seriously, how to revive it and make it meaningful, without ignoring the sheer fact of modernity, post-modernity and our "fallen" state. And indeed, how to amalgamate and absorb modernity while reviving and experiencing the numinous from ancient myth. We cannot, Cleary acknowledges throughout, simply return to the same beliefs as the ancients, we cannot pretend that modern life, modern science, modern decadence and modern knowledge have not occurred. Yet the myths, and the knowledge and state of mind they represent, are not literal tales that must be accepted at face value through a kind of willful suspension of disbelief. One need not believe in Thor physically riding a chariot pulled by goats waving his hammer above his head in order to accept the truth content of the myths. In fact, such concrete representations of myths even for the ancients themselves were simply a telling, an attempt to concretize deeper eternal truths. Tellings of the myths are manifestations of deeper truths, but they are not those truths themselves (well, they are, but not in the way we think). A particular tale is the "De" (manifestation) of the "Dao" (unembodied and unembodiable truth) underneath that tale, to borrow terms from Chinese philosophy.
To achieve this, Cleary, through his extensive reading in the original source material, and more extensive contemplation of the tradition writ large, explains how we can begin to recover this worldview in a way that involves neither pretending to hold overly literal beliefs, nor attempting to distill some purely secular or "philosophic" meaning from the myths that would satisfy the modern need to "explain" the religion without truly feeling it and would in fact sterilize or defuse its power. Instead, Cleary’s essays (and they are essays very much in the Montaignian sense: "attempts") are an initial experiment in recovering the numinous, the spiritual in our daily lives, and in guiding more people to this way of thinking.
One of the appealing aspects of this book is Cleary’s humility and – again very Montaingian – self-consciousness of his own grappling with the problem: Cleary does not present himself as a guru, or a holier-than-thou possessor of some arcane knowledge that you must acquire from him. In fact, his learning in this field is prodigious, but he wears it with a sense of wonder and awe that is the very antithesis of the “guru” type.
A number of the essays – in particular “”Paganism Without Gods”, “What God Did Odin Worship?” and “The Missing Man in Norse Cosmogony” – present ideas and make connections between seemingly disparate traditions that only someone exceptionally steeped in the original literature could achieve.
Cleary's essays on more modern topics such as the cult television series The Prisoner are excellent explications of precisely how we have become blinded to the existence of mythic truth in our presence. These is a very palpable “archeofuturist” tendency in these essays in that Cleary does not want either a literal return to the past (which he knows is impossible and not even desirable) or deny the present: rather, the future, our future, can involve myth as a living tradition if we discover and feel its spirit and figure out how to “make it new” (as Pound would say), how to channel its truth. Cleary does not himself have a fully articulated answer in this collection, but his essays show that he is closer to it that just about anyone else writing today.