Jay Griffiths is one of a handful of writers that I more than admire, I am actively in awe of: writers whose work is so original and so damn good that I just don't know how they do it. Griffith's remarkable books (Wild, Kith, Pip Pip, and Tristimania especially) have stretched my mind, touched my heart, and taught me to perceive the world in new ways. She's braver in her life and prose than I could ever be, and I love her for it.
Her latest publication, Why Rebel, is a small, slim volume of eleven essays published in the "Penguin Special" series. The essays are tied together by the central theme of love for the wild earth, with a clear-eyed look at the forces that undermine our ability to live soulfully and sustainably on this beautiful, ailing planet. I've had my copy for just two weeks and already it's dog-eared, coffee-stained, and scribbled with margin notes. (I carry it on my walks with Tilly, so it's speckled with rain, mud, and leaf-mulch too.)
Griffith's essay "The Forests of the Mind" is one I keep returning to. Here, she discusses the poetic mindset of shamanism, its relationship to art, and the ways that the rise of literalism has eroded our understanding of metaphor, to our great cost. (This is something I've long been worried about too, and I'm glad I'm not the only one.) Shapeshifting, she says, is a metaphorical act performed by shamans and artists both:
"It is part of the repertoire of the human mind, cousin to mimesis, empathy and Keats's 'negative capability,' known to poets and healers since the beginning of time, the beginning of mime. It did not have literal truth, quite obviously, but had 'slanted, metaphoric truth' -- the words I used, when the page was printed, to describe it.
"Shapeshifting is a transgressive experience, a crossing over: something flickers inside the psyche, a restless flame in a gust of wind, endlessly transformative. The mind moves from its literal pathways to its metaphoric flights. Art is made like this, from a volatile bewitchment of self-forgetting and an identification with something beyond. Out of this is born a conviviality with everything alive, the relationship acknowledged and the necessity of its protection vouchsafed....We are what we think, and we humans have a way to become other, in a necessary, wild and radical empathy.
"Shapeshifting involves a willingness to makes mimes in the mind, copying something else. Art, meanwhile, depends on mimesis furthering our desire to know and to understand. In a recent, Ovidian, dance piece, Swan, French dancers performed and danced with live swans, imitating the birds in a mime which alluded to the metamorphosis of all art, and to the artists' ability to lose themselves in order to mirror this something beyond.
" 'But we, when moved by deep feeling, evaporate; we breathe ourselves out and away,' wrote Rilke in his Second Elegy. In making art, the artist expires, breathing themselves out to allow the inspiring to happen, the breathing in of the glinting universal air, intelligent with many minds, electric and on the loose. Artist, shapeshifter, shaman or poet, all are lovers of metamorphosis, all are minded to vision, insight and dream.
"Self-appointed shamanism can reek of cultural appropriation, but even in cultures that have temporarily misplaced their shamanism, the role survives, donning a deep disguise. Joseph Campbell and others believed that artists have taken up the role, and it seems to me that this is true for a particular reason, that both art and shamanism use the realm of metaphor, where emotion is expressed and healing happens. With the metaphoric vision, empathy flows, knowing no borders. Both artist and shaman create harmony within an individual and between the individual and the wider environment, a way of thinking essential for life; poetry works 'to renew life, to renew the poet's own life, and, by implication, renew the life of the people,' wrote Ted Hughes. But ours is an age of lethal literalism which viciously attacks metaphoric insight and all its value...."
Later in the essay she returns to the subject of metaphor:
"If I were asked what is the greatest human gift, I would say it is metaphor. A little boat of metaphor chugs across the seas, carrying a cargo of meaning across the oceans that divide us. Metaphor is how we relate to each other and how our one species attempts to comprehend others. With this gift, humans listen and speak more intensely and the meanings of all things -- ocean or forest, snail or chaffinch -- grow outwards in concentric rings of concentrated word-poems. 'Each word was once a poem,' said Emerson, and 'language is fossil poetry.' So a tulip, for example, ultimately derives from the Turkish word for 'turban.'
"Metaphor works with the legerdemain of the psyche, the lightest of touched to shift the mindscape, transforming one thing into another, leading to new ways of seeing. Metaphor follows Emily Dickinson's injunction to 'tell the truth but tell it slant,' so, slantwise by Saturn-mind running rings around literalism, metaphor is canted incantation, it breathes fact into life, it enchants. And metaphor is the language of the shaman and the artist."
(You can read the full essay online here.)
In subsequent essays, Griffiths turns her gaze on animals, insects, the soil below and the sky above ... on the toxic ideas and forces that threaten them ... and on those courageous souls rebelling on their behalf.
Why Rebel is wise, and fierce, and heart-breaking, and well worth reading. It's good medicine.
Words: The passages above are from Why Rebel by Jay Griffiths (Penguin/Random House, 2021). The poem in the picture captions is from The Woman Who Fell from the Sky by Joy Harjo (WW Norton, 1996). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Morning coffee break down by the leat. The little drawing is by John D. Batten, a fairy tale illustrator from Plymouth, Devon (1860-1932).
Posts discussing Jay Griffiths' previous books & essays include Finding the Way to the Green, The Enclosure of Childhood, Kissing the Lion's Nose, To the Rebel Soul in Everyone, Daily Grace, and Once upon a time.