Thursday, April 17, 2008

Attendee describes Moore's talk about violence

At the beginning of April, Thomas Moore was a keynote speaker at the second annual academic conference of The Foundation for Mythological Studies in Santa Barbara, California. The conference theme was Nature and Human Nature: The Mythology of Violence. Barque member, Andy (aka Waking) attended the conference and has generously written this note about Moore’s presentation.
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Entering the large and comfortable lecture hall that once served as a fairly large chapel, we are greeted by FMS associates and a projected slide image with the title of Thomas Moore's talk:

THE BOAR AND THE SWAN
THE DIVINE POWER
VIS DIVINA
IN VIOLENCE


Approximately 150 conference attendees take their seats and in the welcoming introduction to Moore, we are told he is working on his next two books, Soul of the Gospels and a collection of short stories about Golf. Following warm, appreciative applause, Moore commences his presentation:
"I give a kind of traditional description or exploration of violence through mythology. That's my point. I start with the idea that violence is a religious phenomenon. In this, I'm coming right off the last words of Lionel Corbett's speech earlier today. I think that violence is a religious phenomenon. I don't mean that having to do with the church or belief system, anything like that. I mean that it is profoundly mysterious and that we make a mistake when we try to rationalize it, when we try to understand it - that's not the approach.

The reason I am in the field of religion and the reason I like it so much [is] I understand religion to be our effort to find a way to relate to the mysteries that are around us. I think that's what religion does: it gives us ritual, it gives us story, it gives us images that allow us to - not to explain those mysteries at all, because that would be the wrong direction - but to effectively connect with it so that we are somehow co-operating with them rather than running away from them and being hit over the head by them. So, that's where I start.

Violence, I think, is a mystery and it's in the realm of religion - not even psychology, unless you do it with, by saying that you're putting psychology and religion together. The other thing I want to say that's a bit preliminary is psychological, and that is, I think if we talk about violence as something that is out there, that's in our world and our people who are violent, and we have to do something about them - anything we say risks being a defense against getting closer to violence. Do you see what I mean?

If we don't look at ourselves and include ourselves in the violence and see that even we (every day), whenever we deal with some of our demons and some of our difficulties at the expense of someone else, that we are entering that chain of violence in a small way - unless we see that - unless we understand that by talking about violence we’re talking about ourselves, I think that our very intellectual, very intelligent perhaps, analysis would be a defense against getting into the violence. It will prevent us from getting into it. So that's why I think it's a defense issue.

Now look at these images I brought to show you... I think all of us, myself especially (I have to think of myself here): What about the violence in me? How does this myth, how does it help me appreciate that and sort it out and get to make some arrangement with it?

So I would like to talk about etymology. I've written about this. Violence, in most sources that I have seen, is related to the Latin word, vis, V-I-S."
Moore begins his slide show presentation of about half a dozen to ten wonderful color images projected on a large screen behind his podium. These include images of paintings and sculptures from approximately the 15th to the 19th century. He starts with Botticelli's Primavera, and follows with Venus and Mars, for example. He uses these beautiful images as artistic examples portraying what he will repeatedly refer to as vis generativa.

The other area of his talk circumambulates around images and mythologems of the ancient Hindu story involving Vishnu (the Boar), Brahma (the Swan) and the origins of the Shiva lingam. This story, he suggests, represents a metaphor for vis power.(1)

Moore remarks,
"... there is a telos of violence – a searching for 'vis power' - the divine power in Nature, numinosity... What we need is vis, what we have is violence. Try to discover vis, to eroticize the culture – going through Venus, not Mars. You do not condemn Venus... Confronted with the Venusian mistake, ...Jesus does not condemn the adulteress. Surveying our power's heights and depths, we need Mars power to get our voices out there with Venus present."
Humorously, Moore has genuine struggles with the temptation to linger on the wonder and beauty of each individual image at the expense of completing his talk before the appointed deadline. Throughout the slide show, Moore provides copious, insightful commentary and effectively engages the lecture hall with audience participation. The lecture concludes with a warm standing ovation.

Afterward we share a nice dinner together in a cafeteria on campus and finish the evening with book signings where I get to speak with Tom personally.

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(1) Different versions of the story about Shiva's lingam stress different features. Here is one version.

Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture will publish selected conference papers in its Spring 2009 issue: Psychology of Violence.

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