Jove’s Scepter: Ruminations on Autumn

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Note: David Armstrong writes at A Perennial Digression and kindly gave his permission to share this slightly abridged version of his essay here with Altum. Read his original here in full.

In early Fall—the year’s true beginning, to my mind—I tend to drift academically towards biblical studies, my first and still truest love, and to matters Jewish and Christian and ancient; as Fall tumbles onwards, I trend in the direction of the dark, the spooky, and the tenebrous. But this shadow is really cast by the denouement of autumn in Allhallowmas and Christ the King, and the seeming brightness of another year still yet further on in the lamplight of Advent and the Christmas Octave and Theophany and Candlemas and the beginning of Spring. Across these months, my mind stays biblical but begins to move outwards, towards the cosmic, towards the future, towards the possible; it stays there as winter becomes spring and spring summer, across which my interests in Asian religions and philosophies tend to waken, stretch their legs, and pick up once again, until the aestival consulate of Sol and Mars submits once more to Jove’s scepter and Saturn’s contemplative reign and the cycle repeats.

So it goes in the idiosyncratic courses of my own thought, anyway. It is only recently that I have suspected that my personal flow of digressional interests takes this circuit for something like a reason: that it is keyed in some way to the energies of the seasons, the genii of the months, what Michael Ward might otherwise have called the “donegality” of time itself. It is not that I ever lose my love of anything or my capacity for something; it is that I have in the life of my own mind some tenuous sentiment of the major movements in time’s liturgy to eternity, that my ancestors marked with stars and songs, and many more feasts and sacred fires than I shall ever know.

Jove is the spirit, of course, of radiant, festal kingship. This is the planetary, encosmic Zeus of Salust, imaging the supreme Zeus of Cleanthes or Plotinus, the Jupiter that is the cosmic World Soul himself, rather than the philandering Zeus of Homer and Hesiod: his rule is provident and just, but altogether idle, presiding as he does over the affairs of other gods not by intervention but by subsidiary. It is by Mars Silvanus that the trees begin to leaf once more in March, where Dionysian revelry returns to a world besotted by winter and Sol’s strength returns; it is by the full Sol’s power that wizards craft novel steps in the progress of a kingdom—including inner kingdoms—and beneath the banner of Mars Gradivus that kings go away to battle and bring home spoils. But it is Jove who gathers them in on the threshing floor, who sits at table with the oaken garland and the harvest wine, host though Bacchus is symposiarch, while Mercury offers up a logos in praise of Cupid and the Graces work their charms. Saturn, of course, is the true reaper, and the feast concludes with Jove’s garland of life crowned upon his head, ever gazing into Heaven in rapt contemplation.

All of this, anyway, is what I feel year after year in my own soul. …The way that my own share of soul and intellect respond to the changes in the world remind me—and give me back again—some semblance of participation in the dance of things.

And that inner representation tells me that the gift of autumn is the way that it brings together transience and eternity. Consider for a moment that we have not always had autumn, and may not always have it: axial, orbital, geomagnetic, and climatic conditions create what we experience as autumn and those are as impermanent as any other planetary and hemispheric phenomenon. Where I live anyway, this time of year is already an experience of contradictions between the cool weather, changing leaves, and seasonal enjoyments that my culture associates with it and the reality of increased, prolonged heat and agricultural struggle to produce those goods which Americans anyway consume in bulk from September through November. There are parts of the world that neither know this season as I have known it nor experience the archetypes I have described during it. The first thing to know, then, is that autumn itself is a juxtaposition of the transient and the eternal, produced as it is by the divine ideas that are radiant in the temporary, parochial form of a terrestrial season inconsistently experienced across one planet in this our marginal galaxy. Autumn is in this way perhaps the most self-aware of the seasons; where these same truths describe winter, spring, and summer, each of them tends to center a single archetype (death or life) around which or in reaction to which the others are constellated.

…Beginning with Michaelmas on September the 29th, our minds are in the otherworldly; this advances throughout October (partly due to popular Western culture, on which see below) and the triduum of Allhallowtide until Christ the King nearly a month later. The focus of these observances forces us away from the ordinary world of waking consciousness and towards the eschatological and imaginal (but not, notice, unreal). The common witness seems to be that autumn teaches us this: all that greens in this life will also rust, this world decay, and all its stars someday fall like leaves from the World Tree. It is only in God that the archetype of the world, the real world, of which this is but the shadow turns forever: not in static sameness but in ever-increasing knowledge and love of the good and the beautiful that God is. And so Christians have much to gain, then, from philosophical systems and religious traditions that smack us in the face with the ontological fragility and emptiness of the contingent. For someday Zephyrus will collect us too, at least what we usually misidentify as “us,” whether we are whispers or wights, wails or kindly wraiths; our dust will return to the earth, our spirit to God who gave it. And at long last this kosmos too will give up the ghost to Death, grisly and grim, that far epoch of Saturnine finality that our scientists and secular prophets speak of. All of this the Christian already knows and professes on All Hallow’s Eve, the observant Jew at Sukkot. But what is also there professed, that the world cannot see—for Saturn’s face appears to it only as Infortuna Maior, or as avenging Cassiel, where in heaven he is the one who gazes furthest out on the reaches of the universe and wonders at the infinity of God’s might and love—is the spring that follows the final cosmic autumn and winter, that universal resurrection that awaits all things into the Kingdom of God where they have always already been. Sukkot proclaims this, too, looking forward as it does to bayom hahu, when yihiyeh Adonai echad, ush’mo echad; for Catholics it is Christ the King, whose eschatological finality spills over into Advent’s readings from the Apocalypse. The children of Abraham’s God do not disregard the menace of Death’s scythe entirely, but they do not take it with final seriousness, either.

Last, there is something in popular culture, too, that bespeaks the joviality and hermetic charge of the season. For this is of course the time of Halloween, even a month before its coming, whose popular tendrils extend into late September and forward into November, when ghost stories and horror eldritch and elementary alike is something to celebrate, when, at least in America, one does what capitalism will allow one to do to experience something of the seasonal flow of things once more obvious in a more agrarian world. It is easy and in some circles welcome to malign popular culture as a low-brow, pale imitation of a cultural wealth that is now lost; in many respects that is true. But in others, popular culture is often enough where the remnants of that older synthesis can still be found and where the creative energies for extending it tend to go. It should by now be basic and common knowledge that Halloween and its “spooky” elements have more of a Christian background than anything else, that its pagan credentials are exaggerated and that, in any event, it can hardly be a problem for Christians that something is stamped with a pagan imprint (since nearly everything that is classically Christian would then have to be jettisoned, as the more iconoclastic Reformers quickly realized. And we should be equally past relegating the popular liturgies in service to the macabre either to Satan or to the silly. Our culture preserves the spirit of the wyrdness of the imaginal realm, that multiversal meeting place with the spiritual realities that precede all sensible worlds, in its ghouls and goblins, witches and warlocks, than many a priest otherwise faithfully performing his inherited magic can muster in his innermost heart all year long. As All Saints proclaims, after congregating with the dead the evening before, we gather in the great assembly of all gods each Mass, with angels and saints each Divine Liturgy, and yet anyone who has gone more than once knows how profoundly boring humans are capable of making that brief coupling of worlds, how empty the homilies, how empty the hearts. The confessional is a place to traverse heaven and hell: how many confessors have never been to either? There is more of that eye of God in which all things are beheld around the Dungeons and Dragons table than in the faces of many otherwise privileged to stand at the eucharistic mensa. And perhaps this is why Satanic Panic has had the opportunity to be one of the most flagrantly stupid manifestations of Christian insecurity in their history: in theory, it is religion’s job to connect people with those divine archetypes, and help them confront those demonic ones, that make life meaningful. A secular season devoted to such soulful exercises in katabasis and anabasis beyond ecclesiastical reach are of course for that reason threatening to institutional power and must be either demonized or, where this is rhetorically impossible, at least gently disregarded. But in fact while God and his angels and the devils too all exist well beyond the human imagination, they are not absent from it; and it is in fact the dreaming of sleeping and waking minds where we have our most direct and consistent access to them.

Lest I be thought to wholly allegorize preternatural and supernatural realities I believe in, consider what I am saying more specifically: Jesus Christ was a flesh and blood human being 2,000 years ago, and as a Christian I believe he is alive, in a glorified body, at “the right hand of God” (though what I mean by that and what many ancient Christians meant by that are inevitably different). But I do not currently see either his historical flesh or his glorified pneumatic corpus; I only know him “according to the spirit,” “as the life-creating spirit,” in the physical sacraments of church, baptism, chrism, eucharist, and my own body, soul, and spirit. So the most immediate access I have to Christ and God-in-Christ is my own heart, my own mind, my own reciprocated interior imaginal multiverse that they together create. Someday I shall see him as he is, God-willing (and he is); but for now it is the inner life that Christ indwells. Read any of the Greek Fathers for very long and this will become immediate apparent, for it is the grounds of their impressively detailed psychologies, even by modern standards. They knew what we are only rediscovering: we each of us contain great vastness across which gods and demons stride, in which our thoughts are not always or perhaps ever our own, a space between worlds in which “many paths and errands meet.” We hope to sail stars and see God; rightly so. But we must first begin with that world within, where that world outwith is reflected only to the degree of our own clarity, our own purity. There is no way around dealing with your own psychology: there is only dealing with it consciously as a subject in the active voice or unconsciously as a victim in the passive. The grave necessity of doing so is precisely that those who are unknowing victims of their inner worlds are doomed to make more victims still of those around them. But the opportunity in becoming conscious of that which lives within is the ability to find at the heart of our own souls that point where the Word by which God speaks all things into being is also our word, my word, where God is the ground and reason and life of my own self, and of every self, in which case there is but one self to go around, in a way embracing the universal without obliterating the particular.

And as I said, popular culture, especially around autumn, is somewhat better at offering the opportunity for this sort of mania—as Plato would have recognized it, catharsis—than the churches at present are. Why this is so is not obvious. For some it is probably a liturgical defect: there is something to be said for religion as mystery, in the classical sense of theatrical pageantry designed to create an altered state of consciousness for accessing a higher reality. For others it is a decidedly intellectual one: Christians are often the worst of modernists, slowest to embrace the revalidation of those premodern principles like the foundational character of consciousness at the root of matter and the strangeness of the material world, that are necessary conditions of their own belief, or else they collapse every possibility of the miraculous into the merely material. But I suspect that for most the issue is to do with the heart: it is a dearth of mystical intuition, a dead moralism where only a hermetic initiation and a Dionysian impulse will really do. Jung, Huxley, and Watts were all genuinely right about that: institutional Christianities have for the most part stopped being a religion whose fundamental essence is the transmission of sanctity from one generation to the next, from Saint to Saint, from sage to sage, and have become much more about self-preservation and moralistic punditry. …The best Americans can often manage are commercialized forms of “recovered” Christianity (a litany of podcasts and projects come to mind that, in good faith, I shan’t name). The inauthenticity of such things is clear, though, to those with the heart to feel it out. In theory, Mass is and can be the supreme point of contact with God in human life; I have experienced liturgies like that. But I have also communed with God in plumbing my own depths more directly in a long and satisfying D&D session or a sitting with a good therapist than I have in many churches (including the “high” churches where it is theoretically easier). The Neopagan dalliance, fantasy, science fiction, and horror that reign supreme in the culture at this time are not in themselves to be reviled: they each possess and develop fragments of a religious consciousness that our temples are supposed to be giving us but frequently are not. The “myth of disenchantment,” and all that, softens the blow, sure; but what to do when it is one’s religion that feels more disenchanted than one’s campaign?

I digress. (There! I said it.) In any event, I promised to be writing about Jove: and what I will simply note here is that there is an invincible joy in the face of the infernal culturally speaking this time of year in almost bacchanalian ecstasy. “Everything is full of Jove,” after all (Vergil, Eclogue III.60-61, quoting Aratus, Phaenomena I.5), including our Silenian revelries and our mercurial gemination of knowing and unknowing. So too our solar and martial efforts in Spring and Summer, and our Saturnine gloom through winter’s length; these too are full of Jove, beneficent Zadkiel. It is this autumnal joviality which, if we can manage, will burn bright until Christmas, and will like Aslan in The Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe see Spring come again; here is the Ghost of Christmas Present, if you like, sitting as the Brown October on the harvest throne. For our task is precisely to gather all those things which the year has got and grown for us—mentally, liturgically, culturally, and the like—and bring them together for sorting and soirée on the threshing floor. That great task of comparison is how we both conclude and begin a year, an era, a reign, a life: having expanded ourselves outwards, we retract again with all that we have found, only to be able to engage once more at a higher level in participation with all things again. As I said, autumn itself is not the important thing here, placid though it be: every particular distinctive I have mentioned in this piece might be perceived entirely differently by the reader, and yet the arcana I name here still exist, in the Mind of God, shining forth upon my own consciousness in the gentle light of autumn’s afternoons, but perhaps by other means on those of others. And in this sense I believe there shall always be autumn, even in the Kingdom of God. Origen speaks of this, however briefly, that in the apokatastasis, Death is defeated not by obliteration but by being revealed and reformed for the true creature of God it is: as the principle of change by which we are able to ascend “from glory to glory,” to go “further up and further in,” as Lewis says, in the eternal union of rest and epektatic movement that heaven is. There shall someday be no more sorrow or losing, no more Death as we know it, as a principle of decay and dissolution, of annihilation; there shall only be the natural will’s impulse ever to conform more and more to the likeness of God in whose image it is made, all things around it following suit. Someday, the accuser shall once more be Eremiel; even the darkness within us shall be transmuted into light. Until then we may name whatever enemies we like, and as is in fact appropriate to us—not everyone always has the opportunity to safely integrate their shadows, and demons are not to be trusted—so long as we know they shall not always be, and in some ways already are not. Jove’s invincible laughter fills even the morbidity of autumn and winter, his ruddiness burns the devils with its warmth; for he is but the persona Christi, per quem omnia laetificat in tempore suo.

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