I wrestle endlessly with the somewhat related themes of reconstructionism and cultural specificity as they pertain to Heathenry. Tonight some playful (pun unintended but welcome) analogies to music occurred to me. They might help to elucidate my thoughts on both reconstructionism and the Folkish/universalist thing. First I’ll set the scene with some comments about music, but stick with me, even if it seems tangential or obscure at first – I promise to bring my rumination to bear on the field of contemporary Heathen thinking.
As a musician I’m big on knowing theory. I can talk about double harmonic minors, and 13:8 time, and 16th note sweep picking (on a bass, whee!) all day long. And I can effortlessly apply that theory: it isn’t just words or ideas (well, ok, the 16th note bass sweeps do take a bit of effort, but I’m getting there!).
The discipline of all that structure is paradoxically freeing. When I want to do fast, complex music, my hands know what to do because my brain is so well versed. I know intuitively how different tones will combine from my theoretical understanding. I can break down compositions and assemble arrangements with both flair and rapidity. I can store a lot of information about musical structure very simply through the application of underlying rules of harmony or rhythm, which makes learning, performing, and remembering material a lot easier.
I’m far from perfect, and my music theory is very much geared towards practical usage rather than armchair reflection (I’m 100% self-trained). But nonetheless, I think the point is made.
I have even found that, being so deeply grounded in the “rules” of music, I can break them freely. I often find myself doing this with harmonic construction these days. I like the challenge of creating fresh tonal canvasses within the “rules” of conventional scales and chords, but I also find myself freely able to break up recognisable patterns and work atonally. Because I know what the “rules” of music are I can break them in interesting and enjoyable ways.
Occasionally I encounter the view that learning a lot of music theory can be a straightjacket that destroys spontaneity and the creative impulse. I know this does happen sometimes, especially for heavily drilled classical students.
Yet most people I’ve met who claim to avoid learning theory in order to preserve their freedom of expression actually have a rather limited range. They often seem to devolve to the same two or three tricks over and over again, not understanding how to develop their sound. They might be able to “hear” how to give flesh to the bones of their ideas, but lack the skill to embody their creations in a satisfying way.
In the worst cases they resort to “experimentalism” as a substitute for inspiration and ability, hiding behind provocative bungling as though it were a purposeful choice and not an inarticulate flailing.
So my point should be clear: with prudence and an adventurous attitude one can free oneself by submitting to the rigour of musical theory. One needs to avoid the reef of drudging slavery to musical form, and one needs to avoid the seemingly free – but actually inarticulate and blundering – position of being anti-theory.
Well, I see Heathenry in a similar light.
Sure, reconstructionism produces various boffins who shackle themselves to academic minutiae and end up saying the most ridiculous things. On the other hand, without the discipline of historical grounding, people cook up the most half-baked spiritual repast and, not knowing any better, think that they’re somehow creating something wonderful! Yet their efforts lack depth, grit, character (and you see this just as much among “Folkish” Heathens as among Universalists, incidentally).
The better road is to take the adventurousness of the Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis (UPG) brigade (the anti-theory, or anti-reconstruction types), and the rigour of the reconstructionists. In this way, theory can offer a discipline which frees the creative spark to express itself with great subtlety.
For me this manifests as what I generally refer to as Psychological Reconstructionism. For example, to me understanding the worldview of the old Heathens – the importance of wyrd, time, interconnection, sacredness, hospitality, gift-giving, and reciprocity – stands over and above particular debates about exactly what clothes were worn when or the like.
And this attitude frees me to recognise the similarities between Heathenry and other traditions, even while simultaneously preserving a feel for the uniqueness of the Heathen traditions (and others). Just as music is a universal language spoken in an infinite range of nuances – so too culture. Hence, for example, when I see in Odin the archetype of (among others) the Wounded Healer, I can recognise how this connects him to many other cultures and traditions, even though I can still celebrate the manner in which he is a unique manifestation of that meme.
As a musician I’ve played in prog rock bands, death metal bands, world music outfits, experimental groups, folk ensembles, and bands that have fused various of the aforementioned influences. I’ve touched on genres as varied as black metal, hip hop, and ‘live’ dance music. I’ve played with blast beating metal drummers from hell, African percussionists, tabla masters, Middle Eastern percussionists, you name it (in some cases, I’ve played with people who’ve had mastery of several of these domains!). In all of these configurations, I’ve used the same language to find my way, bringing my particular idiom (to borrow from Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail) to bear in each case.
And I have the same attitude with culture. I bring my own spiritual idiom to the world, but I can freely interface with kindred spirits across all sorts of literal and figurative borders. My deep sense of specific identity – my interest in reconstructionism and ancestor worship – informs my spirit in ways that also enable me to interface with the Other, until I come to appreciate the ways in which seemingly hard barriers are always more porous and fascinating than first shallow glances might suggest.
Hence I am a reconstructionist who loves UPG; and I am a staunch ancestor worshipper and Europhile who embraces cross-cultural exchange and intermingling at the same time. Because to me, the latter is part of the heritage I glean from the former. Just as I am a theory-based musician who thinks nothing of violating every harmonic law in the book if it creates the effect I want (and indeed, I use my knowledge of the ‘rules’ of music and spirituality to break themselves in creative and appealing ways).
The fundamental question is this: are the forms of tradition (be it musical or spiritual or whatever) there to serve us, or are we to serve them? Or is it a bit of both? If we respect them we recognise that they were born from the inspiration of our predecessors, and hence to truly be “reconstructionist” (which, I should mention, is NOT at all necessarily synonymous with being Folkish or Universalist or any other -ism, as these comments on the whole imply) one might have to break the rules of reconstructionism now and again.
In my personal microcosmos Elric and Odin and alchemical Mercury are deeply related (yet naturally distinct); and for me the profound obsession with memory in Heathenry seems uncannily like the same obsession in Sufism (yet I at least cannot seem to effect a straightforward, simple fusion of the two). Things can be different yet the same; in fact this is what the symbol of Yggdrasill is all about: reminding us of the simultaneous oneness and difference of all things, and reminding us of the necessary interdependence that binds the archetypes of isolation and dissolution.
Blur the lines and we see things as they are; blur the lines and we begin to shed abstraction and embrace the endless mystery from which our world is woven. The closer you examine any boundary, the less distinct it becomes – that might not make it less real, but it forces us to recognise that our specific, localised uniqueness is not dependent on rigid separation, nor necessarily threatened by absence of the same.
What counts is our integrity and our vulnerable imagination. Rigidly clinging to rules about either isolated specificity or generalised universality amounts to underutilising our human faculties and potential. As always, George Orwell had it right to blame the ills of the world on the gramophone mind and not on the particular records being played at any given time.
For like it or not, we are all hedgewalkers like Odin (another reason to call him Allfather), whether it comes to musical expression or spiritual inspiration. The point of being strict…is so that we can become free of all restriction.
All only in my humble, internally contradictory, and frighteningly arbitrary opinion, of course.