Chrysopoeia: metaphysical reflections on transformation in James Dickey's "The Owl King".
In this essay, I will compare James Dickey's work with corresponding elements seen in the work of Carl Jung and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In doing so, I will examine the process of alchemy and union with the Over-soul. I will purposefully violate the author/narrative split that is so commonly prescribed against in literary criticism. I will do this in order to demonstrate that James Dickey was encoding into his work a personal mythology for transformation. This coding follows the procedures that alchemists utilized when writing about their work in order to safeguard against the uninitiated. Additionally, I will compare "The Owl King" to other works by Dickey.
Dickey wrote in his journal,
If I could cease this fanatical introspection, I might be saved. What would I be like, then? But if I did forgo--if I could--the introspection, the putting of things into words, I should not be a writer, and that I will not give up. I cannot. The demon will not let me go and I do not believe I would go even if he would. The high moments are too good, they are too great. They are the justification for it all. I will take the rest, if I have to (Dickey, Sorties 73-74).
In one sense, Dickey created a mythological and hidden self, but did so to illuminate a tangible, more realized self--a self which could become transformed through the alchemical process of writing. He wove transformative meaning into his poetry in statements which can either remain hidden to the uninitiated or revealed to the initiated. Dickey wove metaphysical metaphors with the purpose: "to weave the trivial string upon a light".
For one who spends time in Dickey's language, metaphors begin to reveal themselves. Metaphors are often used to transform thoughts. In literature, metaphors can create a connection for a reader between two dissimilar things--transforming that reader's thoughts from one place to another instantaneously. This transformation is at the core of the mythological "hero's journey." And it is writer's opinion that Dickey spent much of his career engaged in writing of his hero's journey. Joseph Campbell identifies four majors themes which are present in "traditional mythology" and which express themselves repeatedly in mythological stories; he states in his work, Mythological Themes in Creative Literature and Art, that in the hero's journey one finds 1. a "traditional mythology" followed by a "mystical or metaphysical," 2. a "cosmological" mythology, 3. a "sociological" mythology, and 4. a "psychological" mythology. These mythologies shape "individuals to the aims and ideals of their various social groups, bearing them on from birth to death through the course of a human life (Campbell, Mythological Themes in Creative Literature and Art 181).
In recreating truth, Dickey fashioned a personal mythology. This mythology served to locate Dickey in the cosmos, secure his place in society, and shape Dickey as an individual through the alchemical process of transmutation. In his writing, Dickey developed the thematic material of his mythological tradition. He exhumed his personal tragedies from life. He crafted images on the page to rework misgivings about himself and to recreate a new "truth" for himself. "For James Dickey, writing was always a statement of identity, revealing variations of himself that he emotionally or psychologically needed to project and promote. His poetry and fiction, therefore, properly read, reflect his complex personality and provide a sense of its development" (The One Voice of James Dickey 1). After all, what is truth? If truth is limited to the facts of one's actions, then Dickey was a fraud; however, if truth is found in the essence of being to which Socrates stated, "Know thyself," then Dickey's truth is as mutable and as variable as it need be in order to obtain the knowledge of his own spirit.
Other writers and critics have attempted to penetrate the mythological mist surrounding Dickey's work. For the uninitiated, it is easy to become lost in the nature elements and dismiss Dickey as merely as a Southern nature writer. However, Dickey's work weaves together nature with personal transformation. All of Dickey's characters are transformed by their experience in nature.
In an effort to understand Dickey's process for writing, Robert Kirschten created his own terminology for Dickey's work. In James Dickey and the Gentle Ecstasy of Earth, Kirschten used the word "primitivism" to describe the thematic qualities that Kirschten struggled to understand: Dickey's "magic, rites of passage, [and] ritual violence" (Kirschten 9-10). Daniel Turner, in turn, speaks of James Dickey as a modern primitive stating the "modern primitivist [poet focuses] on renewal through the individual's fuller integration into the workings of the natural realm..." (173). Dickey roots his personal and spiritual transformation in the natural world as a "modern primitivist". This primistism represents the more base elements. If one is successful in their journey into the natural world, one is able to find a natural heaven but only through a transformation of the self. "The Owl King" represents Dickey's most obvious effort to express this transmutation of self.
Dickey's work was heavily influenced by his predecessors. James Dickey, as a "modern primitivist", dealt with the most primitive and recurring themes present in literary history. His writings are reflective of earlier Greek tales in which his protagonists set out on what Joseph Campell called the "hero's journey." Deliverance, Alnilam, and To the White Sea, along with "The Owl King" are works that reflect the hero journeys.
Dickey wrote in his essay, "Metaphor as Pure Adventure," "I am everywhere aware of relation, connection, with one object shedding a light--a more or less strong, a more or less interesting light--on another" (Sorties 174). Dickey's awareness of relation between objects and their connection is fundamental to the understanding of "The Owl King" as a metaphor for the hero's journey and the spiritual alchemical process.
In "The Owl King" Dickey is working to transmute his baser elements into something golden. Thematically, in his world of "mystical primitivism," Dickey calls upon the ancient tradition of alchemy to transform the images he conjured up in his craft. The meaning of alchemy varies, depending upon its usage. Alchemy can mean: "a medieval chemical philosophy having as its asserted aims the transmutation of base metals into gold, the discovery of the panacea, and the preparation of the elixir of longevity" or it could be used to describe "a seemingly magical power or process of transmuting" (Merriam-Webster). Dickey's usage, though not directly stated, varies amongst both contextually. In "The Owl King", I am prescribing the first definition regarding the process of transmuting.
In "The Owl King", Dickey created a fairy tale as treaties for the alchemical process. At its core, "The Owl King" has similarities to Grimm's fairy tale of The Spirit in the Bottle, in which a poor woodcutter sends his son to high school, but being poor, exhausts his financial resources before the son is able to take his examinations. So, the son goes to work with the father in the woods where he happens upon an oak in which he finds the trapped Mercurius. The son then hears a voice calling from below the tree. He digs down around the roots, finds a bottle, pulls it out, and opens it. "The spirit cried in an awful voice: 'I have had my punishment and I will be revenged! I am the great and mighty spirit Mercurius, and now you shall have your reward. Who so releases me, him I must strangle." By the end of the story, Mercurius, who was tricked and rebottled by the son, is released again after promising the boy "a reward a small piece of rag. Quoth [sic] the spirit: 'If you spread one end of this over a wound it will heal, and if you rub steel or iron with the other end it will turn into silver'" (Jacob Grimm). In "The Owl King", the king of the owls, like Mercurius, bestows a magic gift that is able to produce a transformation--the gift of golden sight. He is the gentle savior; the illuminator from infinite darkness to golden light.
Marion Hodge states that "The Owl King" is "the story of an unformed soul's crisscross trek toward identity, the achievement of which is said to be heaven" (Hodge 130). Emerson tells a similar story in the "Over-soul" in which he says, "The soul gives itself, alone, original and pure (lower case), to the Lonely, Original and Pure (upper case), who, on that condition, gladly inhabits, leads and speaks through it. Then is it glad, young and nimble. It is not wise, but it sees through all things" (Emerson 223). The difference between the two is the lower case words represent the lower self (the son in the Owl King) and the upper case words represent the higher self (Owl King). In this union, there is transmutation and illumination; Dickey imbues the king of the owl with the ability that Emerson identifies as the Over-soul--"the self of every substance."
Dickey's exchange of a spiritual union (the goal of the alchemist) for a union with nature or "natural heaven" might at first seem troubling in that it gives away the higher value for a lower (a spiritual heaven for natural haven). In To the White Sea, the protagonist, Muldrow, sets off to the woods in an effort to become one with nature. The quest, however, remains: the search for spiritual reunion with "the self of every substance".
Muldrow hints of the alchemist' secret when he tells of the fire in the stone (flint). Muldrow and Jung's explanations of this principle are similar. Jung quotes from the Gospel of St. Matthew and elucidates, "... Behold, the kingdom of God is within you--from which it is clearly seen that knowledge of the light in man must emerge in the first place from within and cannot be placed there from without (Jung 106-107). Similarly, the blind son finds himself in possession of a knowledge that is analogous to Muldrow's knowledge of the fire in the flint.
For Dickey, the woods are a place that is fertile for discovering the essence of one's soul; it is a place where one is called to use the flint to illuminate the inner soul. This journey is a long journey. Muldrow explains that "It takes practice. A lot of years" to learn how to make the fire from the stone work (To the White Sea 13). And similarly, the blind son states that he has been in the woods "... for years" (92). The recurrence of this theme is seen in Alnilam (a book which might take some people years to read.) Both Alnilam and "The Owl King" deal with fathers and sons, blindness, and the recurring use of the word gold).
This act, of extracting fire from within, is the symbolic expression of the awakening the Kundalini energy which lies dormant at the base of the spine. In Hindu mythology, the Kundalini is often symbolized by as a snake for the way in which it lies coiled at the base of the spine, and when awoken, moves up the spine into the brain. When this transformation begins, it is often felt as a fire permeating throughout the body. One may shake, hear sounds, feel vibrations, and begin to have visions and/ or begin to see colors. Frank Cahill had similar experiences in Alnilam. The blind son in "The Owl King" says, "I shut my eyes/and my eyes are gold/./as gold as a king's (92).
Each element placed by Dickey in this poem is easily found in Jung's text Alchemical Studies. Reading the two side by side could render the impression that Dickey used Jung's work for inspiration as he wrote. Consequently, Jung's writings helps to illuminate the "lesser and more" of Dickey's work. Together, they become indispensable in working out the deeper, more complex, meanings which Dickey strung together.
In conclusion, Dickey, whose work took on specific transformative power, examined a core of thematic material closely aligned with the mystical elements of spiritual transformation referred to in the alchemical process. How successful he was in doing so is not to be judged in this paper. It is sufficient to state that whatever his efforts were, they resulted in moments in his life where he felt more connected to the world around him, albeit, if only through his writing or in the act of writing itself. In fact, Dickey may have realized at some point that the product of his writing might not lead to his transformation; but that rather, that the transformative experiences were fleetingly found in the moments of writing.
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|Publication:||James Dickey Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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