Marga, says Joseph Campbell, is a Sinhala word derived from Sanskrit. In this, its plural form, it denotes ways, methods and techniques. From the Tamil version of the word, Markangal, derives the religious connotation of the Path, the journey undertaken in search of ultimate meaning. To the Buddhists, this search for significance is the idea that each of us enters a Wood in order to discover that which defines us. We follow the trail of an animal, which is the path to the psyche.
According to Joe and the Buddhists, each of us enters the wood from a place of his or her own choosing. There is no pre-existing path, if we discover one, it belongs to someone else.
As it happened, I was already familiar with this idea, but I was not aware there was a religious/mythological precedent for it. I had followed just such an animal into the woods a long time ago and the result had been disastrous. That was the reason I was now reading the likes of Joseph Campbell. The trail I’d followed had led me to a place I hadn’t expected and from which I could find no way out.
I started that “journey” after the Sierra Club suggested I write and illustrate a book about Bigfoot – an idea proposed in the sedate lounge of the Algonquin Hotel in New York. My reaction at the time was understandably one of shocked amusement. The Sierra Club was a bastion of scientific enquiry; Bigfoot is a tabloid goofball with as much taxonomic credibility as aliens who advise presidents and Siamese twins who face firing squads for crimes only one of them has committed. It’s not exactly Audubon material. I left the meeting smiling and agreeing to think about it. Absurd as it seemed though, I continued to think about it, and over time, the suggestion actually resolved itself into an interesting idea.
The more I read about Bigfoot, the more it started to come alive. Something that began as a hairy galoot shuffling around amongst the roadside trash, transformed into a subtle, ethereal creature as elegant and disturbing as any mythical image that had preceded it. As time went on, I began to discover many different versions of the same idea, a single set of footprints as it were, suddenly splitting into two, then three and four and so on. It became a composite creature, more and more elusive and more and more intriguing. Without knowing it, I was beginning the very journey that Joseph Campbell would later refer to.
By following each of these trails, I was lured deeper and deeper into very different parts of the wood. The paths that were defined led through Zoology, Anthropology, Paleontology, Psychology, Sociology, Mythology, History, Literature, Pop Culture, and Religion. I encountered Neanderthals, Tarzan, King Kong, Darwin, Charlton Heston, Jane Goodall, Ronald Regan, Nietzsche, and Moses. Just about everyone in the bookstore in fact, from the National Enquirer to the Bible.
In the end, all these paths would converge. Consistent with the Buddhist idea, they would resolve into a single infinite footprint, in a part of the wood I could not have imagined: a place with no light, no sound, no nothing: a disembodied solitude where all that remained was feeling.
The feeling of absolute terror.
A man in a monkey suit had lured me from the height of comedy to the depths of despair.
Right to the heart of darkness.
Bigfoot, I realized, has been with us for a very long time, in all likelihood from the beginning. It is a shadowy creature wandering the periphery of our world, both fascinated by us and terrified of us. Not quite like us, but then not like the rest of nature either. It lives in a lost, limbo world, that is why we are so fascinated by it in turn, and why we are so equally terrified.
We see it as a possible link between ourselves, and what we used to be, a reflection of sorts, telling us what we are, by showing us what we are not. Our nearest animal relatives are the great apes: Chimpanzees, Orang Outans and Gorillas. As science would have it, the DNA difference between us, is very small.
A mere 1%.
It is in that tiny margin that Bigfoot lives, where all its incarnations have always lived: all the human hybrids, all the confused souls, wandering the limbo between what we were and what we’ve become: the path between not knowing and knowing, the path between comedy and horror.
At the center of the wood there was nothing. Not simply an absence of light, but a place where nothing was revealed. Here, was the indefinable cause of being – that which defines us all. We cannot determine its purpose, or whether it has purpose at all, and in the absolute darkness, we suffer the anguish of knowing that we do not know. It is an anguish that cannot be relieved, because in the light of ‘memory,’ we see the awful methods that inform it.
Anguish, is the impetus of being, the effect of the will to escape pain. Existence operates at the expense of life, for the benefit of unknowable purpose. Intellectually this is dismissed as Maya, Illusion – God moving in mysterious ways. In reality, it is the eyes of a child about to be tortured to death.
Pain, and death may be acceptable, but cruelty is the feature of human experience that places it beyond the pale of reasonableness. Homo Sapiens is not only predicated on the fear of pain but on the fear of pain deliberately increased and prolonged. This is horror. All religious and philosophical systems fail if they cannot reconcile this reality in a way that a child – every child – can understand.
If they cannot, the result is despair. Life is inherently evil. It is a madhouse where each terrified individual simply tries to stay clear of the horror around them. It is a random system, impervious to personal suffering, determined by an indifferent intelligence, group of intelligences or no intelligence at all.
The question I had for Joseph Campbell and all the other mythological cataloguers therefore, was, even though we start from somewhere different, and follow an animal of our own choosing, do we all arrive at this same place? Is there an inevitable conclusion? And having arrived there, is it despair we’re ultimately left with, or is there something else? Is there an awareness that brings light to the center, or is there only darkness?
Must we go insane like Ahab and Kurtz or be forced to fake sanity with faith?
Religious and philosophical palliatives are by definition inadequate if they are devised by those who are merely observing not experiencing this condition – who are outside it, not in it. The only valid reconciliation of horror would be that conveyed by those who undergo the process of cruelty to its inevitable conclusion.
Which is an impossibility.
If Giordano Bruno or Savanarola or any of the numberless anonymous souls who have suffered in this way had been able to experience the process, translate the experience into significance, then communicate the significance to those who were inflicting the pain, it would have been contrary to the purpose. It would have demonstrated that the pain was tolerable and therefore inadequate.
Horror cannot be reconciled, yet it functions as the clearest indication of that which separates us from what we presumably were. That is the infinite footprint at the center of the wood. How can there possibly be a next step?
Joseph Campbell in his conversation with Bill Moyers refers to the notion of a “barrier to God.” As a means to overcoming it, he offers one of his many religious anecdotes:
“I do not love God,” says the Indian woman.
“Then what do you love?” asks the priest.
“My child” says the woman.
“Then that is God” says the priest.
That is all very well, but the child she loves, can be destroyed as easily as it was created, and a whole lot quicker than attentiveness and loving made it become. Not simply by a capricious turn of circumstance – earthquake, fire, war, disease, famine etc., but in a manner in which pain is amplified to the degree of horror.
A child embodies the ideas of trust, anticipation, and unqualified joy to a far greater degree than the adult that it becomes.
It is the noblest possible affirmation of a benign instrument of cause.
Yet children have been murdered over and over. This is my “barrier to ‘God’” Joe. How does the priest explain this? While you’re thinking about it, why don’t we take a walk – back in time a ways. I’d like to show you a couple of things.
This is the Yucatan. There aren’t many trees here, hardly any woods at all. Not a place for Markangal you would think. As it happens though, one tree alone will more than suffice. There is a tree here that can truly lead us to ‘God.’
It’s a nice day right? Here in the Yucatan most of them are like this. The kind of days you wake up to and say “Yes indeed, there is a God.” Those people up ahead have lived here for thousands of years, imagine the sense of benign intention such mornings have contributed to their worldview. But things are confused right now. Something has happened. That is why we’re here. Let’s consult the guide book:
Yucatan Before and after the Conquest. by Friar Diego de Landa 1566. Page 25.
“I Diego de Landa, say that I saw a great tree near the village upon the branches of which a captain had hung many women, with their infant children hung from their feet.”
One sentence Joe…in the whole history of the world. One line from one of your talks.
Which of these women do you suppose had the conversation with the priest?
I remember you talking about “feeding the fire.” You waxed poetic about how life is sacrificed in order for life to continue. And how “perfect” that is. But then you mentioned being invited to just such a perfect moment- the slaughter of a bull in the Philippines – and when the moment came, you said, “I had to leave. I chickened out.”
Well the fire has already been fed here. It is over. The sentence has been carried out. All that remains is this eerie tableau, like a painting almost; a ‘still-life’ in the most poignant sense of the word. It’s a summary Joe, something you do very well. That is what mythological categorizing tends to amount to: short concise intellectually palatable summary. “Feeding the fire” though is present tense. In order to know the idea, you need to be there when the charge is made, when the fire is about to start. You need to feel the flames, not just imagine them. That is the horror.
We need to come back to this scene about an hour ago, that way we can engage your “perfect” moment. You’re married right Joe? Of course you are…
One of these women is your wife.
Okay we’re back. You’re asleep right now, utterly unaware of how the day will unfold, unaware in fact, that days even exist. Such is the numbing disorientating effect of sleep. A day is not rehearsed to our knowing. There are aspects of continuity that we rely on for our bearings but in all, each day is subject to a vast complex of variables that cannot be predicted or prevented; an inherent randomness that each human being confronts according to his or her abilities.
Are you ready Joe?
Boom! You’re awake! Back on set.
Your wife is screaming. Your children are screaming. Everyone is screaming. Men in iron with iron weapons are dragging your family outside: unintelligible, uncompromising, unaccountable beings. God-like as it were.
Why are they doing this?
What do they want?
You can’t understand what they are saying.
You are powerless.
Truly you are in the presence of God.
These men have not rehearsed either. They drag women and children towards a tree, but there is no practiced manner in which to do what they have in mind. It is a deafening, clumsy, unruly process.
Your family is far from you now, screaming and huddling with the others.
The screaming that will not stop until this is over.
Your father, your brothers, your friends can do nothing. They have horses, guns and steel, these beings. They have greater firepower and they are resolved: the innocent must be expended in order to further their agenda. They must be sacrificed.
The men have ropes. One climbs a tree.
The sun is shining. Everything seems so familiar. The tree is familiar. You climbed it a hundred times when you were a boy. Now a young woman has been hauled up into its branches by her neck. She hangs there struggling, gagging, strangling. You watch uncomprehending as the spasms take forever to subside. You know this woman Joe. You know them all. Then another is dragged forward, her child torn from her arms and thrown to the ground. Your child Joe. The rope is forced down over her head and she’s pulled into the air. The screaming shuts off in her throat as the rope clenches tight.
See how difficult it is to murder a woman this way. She flails and thrashes to hold onto life. She struggles desperately to loosen the rope. She looks in vain to her family spinning below, her child on the ground, her husband, her brother, her sister hanging alongside her. How does it feel? That brief moment when your eyes meet.
But it does not stop there. One woman after another is hauled up into the tree this way until finally the tableau is achieved. Until the “many” dead mothers are swaying over the heads of their loved ones like it says in the book. At what point do you think it was deemed sufficient Joe? What determined this number? What was the precedent that specified it as appropriate to the crime? And what exactly was that crime?
You cannot answer. These beings are unintelligible to you. Right now you are unintelligible to yourself. You are numb. But the sentence is not complete. There are eight words left, eight small words. No big deal in the history of the world, nothing at all. Four and five of those words are “infant children.”
Infant children dragged crying and screaming by their arms, their legs, their hair. Ropes placed round their tiny necks – each one watching the other in bewilderment and terror – some of them too small to comprehend at all. And each is allocated a mother’s foot from which to be hanged and strangled. Do you suppose these men are deliberate enough to assign mothers and children correctly? Do you think in amongst all that dust and screaming and tiny flailing limbs, a moment of reason will prevail? Clear enough to ensure a hanged child would be tethered to its own hanged mother?
It’s hard when you can’t run huh Joe? When you can’t “chicken out.” This is your own wife and child not some bull in the Philippines, and you cannot even close your eyes. If you do, they will kill you.
And when it stops then what? When we are all assembled around this obscene concoction, staring vacantly up at the gently swinging mothers and children. The dust has settled now, the breathing has slowed. The breathing: that which cannot be conveyed through anecdote. Fear, laughter, life, all on the breath, entering and leaving the body.
Do they laugh these men? Do they say anything at all? And what will happen now, now that these human souls have served their purpose? Will they allow you to bring them down, or will they insist they remain there? Day after day, after day, while almighty God with his sun and birds and insects reduces them to vacant featureless trash.
“Sacrifice” right? “Perfect” right?
The tree stands there for all eternity. Stands here. Here with countless millions of other trees supporting countless other obscenities firmly rooted to their uniquely perverse moment in time. Entwined, impassable, impervious. Indelible. The Wood, stretches to infinity, past and future. 1% is a number so vast we cannot comprehend it, yet that is only the difference. How much more incomprehensible is the same?
MALCOLM MC NEILL’s collection of essays, REFLUX was published in 2014 and is available on Amazon.
Other work in progress, including SCIENCE, can be seen on Facebook: