From Mere Bellies to the Bad Shaman, 2

(This second section juxtaposes in a somewhat speculative manner two key texts in the Western canon by Hesiod and Plato, using a favourite but hardly authoritative text by Julian Jaynes to get a handle on the argument, which is based in an observation about metaphor: that it simply presents two images as having a dynamic relationship with each other, and leaves you as the reader to work out what that relationship, that dynamism, might be. The logician, the theoretician, the philosopher, can never be content with the openness, the lack of argumentative progression in that, and therefore turns to the simpler declaration of the simile. Or something like that.)

We can trace connections between the role of the poet and the role of the shaman through several periods of literary history. The two roles seem to coincide most directly in the idea of inspiration, the concept that a person can access the resources of something beyond their standard waking consciousness, and that the product of such access is valuable to more than the individual. The shaman fulfils the role of ambassador to the gods or spirits associated strongly with a particular social group, one who negotiates with a society’s otherworld (what Jung tried to depict as the Collective Unconscious), and can bring back the results of that negotiation: a speaker, in short, whose speeches concern healing, whether at a collective or individual level. The poet, it could be argued, occupies something of a similar position.

The first account in ancient Greek letters of the phenomenon of inspiration, Hesiod’s ‘Theogony’, explicitly concerns itself with the role of the speaker or singer, and the authority of their utterance:

‘…one day they taught Hesiod glorious song while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon, and this word first the goddesses said to me – the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who holds the aegis: 

“Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.”

So said the ready-voiced daughters of great Zeus, and they plucked and gave me a rod, a shoot of sturdy laurel, a marvellous thing, and breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things there were aforetime; and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods… 

Several elements of this translation (by Hugh G. Evelyn-White) are noteworthy: firstly the use of plurals: both the muses and the subject of their address – a single shepherd, who is treated as a category – are depicted as multiples. Then there is the emphasis on the corporeality of the poet, who is seen as a very inferior creature, filled with shame. Finally there is the equivocation of the muses’ speech – they announce that they both lie and tell the truth, which would seem to undermine the validity of what they go on to dictate.

These three aspects of the relationship between poet and inspiration continue to reverberate through subsequent examples, but note there is an underlying emphasis here on opposed dualities: supernatural/natural leads to a series of implicit comparisons: the base corporeality and emotional inferiority of the poet is set against the muses, who are able to manifest themselves and to vanish, and are above or beyond shame. The opposition between falsehood and truth is of enormous significance: in what way can what poets say be trusted?

The underlying mode of thought in all this is metaphor: there is a relationship between muse and poet which is dependent on what Aristotle, in his description of metaphor, calls ‘an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.’ The barrier between the supernatural and the natural is crossed by the trope of multiplicity; the confusion between truth and truthful-sounding falsehood is, momentarily, resolved by the trope of the ‘divine voice’.

Underlying both these rhetorical moves is the relationship between their elements, as a switch to simile makes explicit: muse is like poet, falsehood is like truth. What metaphor allows here is presentation without resolution: we observe what appears to be thesis and antithesis, but we do not move on, as philosophers and theoreticians might, to synthesis. What is being depicted is a relationship outside the narrative of logic.

The starting position of the Western tradition of poetry, then, is an attack on an idea of the rational individual: the poet as shaman is made multiple, divided between interior attentiveness and an exterior source of inspiration, he or she is pluralised and demeaned, a passive recipient of messages which may be true or false. The world is depicted as a metaphoric realm, where only inspiration can resolve value.

This corresponds to the analysis of the Greek mind put forward by Julian Jaynes in his stimulating but controversial study, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes’s thesis is that consciousness is a late development of human psychology, and that until relatively recently the mind was divided into two centres, one issuing commands, and the other responding to those commands. He finds evidence for this in, among other sources, the depiction of decision-making in The Iliad:

‘The denouement of the whole epic comes when…Athene…after telling Achilles to kill Hector, then comes to Hector as his dearest brother, Deiphobus. Trusting him as his second, Hector challenges Achilles, demands of Deiphobus another spear, and turns to find nothing is there. We would say he has had a hallucination. So has Achilles. The Trojan War was directed by hallucinations. And the soldiers who were so directed were not at all like us. They were noble automatons who knew not what they did…The picture then is one of strangeness and heartlessness and emptiness.’

Whether we can arrive at a full understanding of the psychology implied by Hesiod’s understanding of inspiration, and regardless of whether we would go so far as to accept Jaynes’s depiction of the ‘noble automaton,’ what these two accounts share is an attempt to account for and process thoughts which appear to be ‘other’, to have an origin not considered part of ordinary cognitive process. (Notice the role played by metaphoric act of substitution in Jaynes’ account of hallucination: Athene does not merely resemble Hector’s brother, she is not just ‘like’ him, rather she appears ‘as’ Deiphobus.)

Both this otherness and the equivocating power of metaphor appear to influence Socrates’ famous objections to the inclusion of poets in The Republic. There he engages with the consequences of the muses’ questionable verifiability. The artist, he asserts, is a copyist, at two removes from the truth. Truth, in the Platonic sense of the Forms, is already only being copied by the things of this world: therefore the artist, basing his or her work on a copy of a copy, is guilty of partiality and superficiality.

‘…must we not infer that all these poetical individuals, beginning with Homer, are only imitators; they copy images of virtue and the like, but the truth they never reach? The poet is like a painter who, as we have already observed, will make a likeness of a cobbler though he understands nothing of cobbling; and his picture is good enough for those who know no more than he does, and judge only by colours and figures…

‘In like manner the poet with his words and phrases may be said to lay on the colours of the several arts, himself understanding their nature only enough to imitate them; and other people, who are as ignorant as he is, and judge only from his words, imagine that if he speaks of cobbling, or of military tactics, or of anything else, in metre and harmony and rhythm, he speaks very well -such is the sweet influence which melody and rhythm by nature have. And I think that you must have observed again and again what a poor appearance the tales of poets make when stripped of the colours which music puts upon them, and recited in simple prose.’

The philosopher deals throughout in similitude – he gives the example of a bed, stressing it can only be like the Idea of Bed – and assesses the poet accordingly: his bed is merely like a likeness of Bed. But what is being judged is more likely a type of metaphor, metonym, in which an element can stand for the concept or concepts associated with it (a bed may relate to rest, to sleep, or dream, or procreation, among other things, as well or as much as to the Platonic ‘Bed’). Simile allows precision, the creation of a specific set of relations; metaphor, whether as metaphor or in metonymy or its near-cousin, synecdoche, allows association, the creation of relations between sets, possibly even many sets.

The philosophic argument is based on two acts of separation: of the poet from the ‘truth’ spoken of by the muses, and of content from form. One of these involves an act of displacement in order for the philosopher to usurp the poet’s authority, while the other is a supposition dependent on the very belief system it purports to justify, thereby undermining itself.

The displacement is of the poet’s privileged access to supernatural truth – their access to otherness – which is usurped by the philosopher’s privileged access to rational truth: intellect replaces inspiration, use replaces delight.

The supposition is that meaning – ‘Bed-ness’ – is an unproblematic content which can be separated from form – ‘bed’ – as an equally unproblematic container. But this idea is already dependent on the premiss that a Form in the Platonic sense can be real. By asserting that the Idea of Bed has a reality, the philosopher insists on (thereby creating) the possibility that an idea can exist separately from the words that frame it, as well as the hierarchy in which such ideas have pre-eminence. This assertion becomes especially important if the poet can write more engagingly and entertainingly about beds than the philosopher can:

‘…we shall be right in refusing to admit him into a well-ordered State, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason. As in a city when the evil are permitted to have authority and the good are put out of the way, so in the soul of man, as we maintain, the imitative poet implants an evil constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater and less, but thinks the same thing at one time great and at another small – he is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth.’

What Socrates means by ‘the irrational nature’ here is, strictly, to do with the ranking of significant and insignificant matters within the public arena. What the poet brings to this arena which destabilises order is the imaginal, interior, metaphorical realm in which we cannot think of beds, say, without thinking of what happens in them – dreams and passions. These modes of being interfere with the running of the Republic, and, as such, must be categorised as both lesser and evil.


About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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