Modern Tales of the Dioscuri: The Quest for Truth
(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book More Than Allegory. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)
|Phineus with the Boreads. Source: Wikipedia.|
Chapter 1: The seerPollux and Castor sailed far, to a distant island beyond the boundaries of maps, in search of Phineus, the seer. Upon arriving, exhausted but exultant, they immediately sought an audience with the famed prophet. Pollux, carefully trying to disguise his identity as son of Zeus ⎯ whose fit of jealousy had caused the blindness of Phineus ⎯ was the first to speak:
⎯ Greetings, wise seer. My brother Castor and I are on a quest for the ultimate Truth. But we know not which course to pursue. Bewildered as we are by the myriad myths of man, we humbly plea for your guidance.
Phineus looked over the two brothers with compassion. He knew the inevitability of what was to follow. After a long sigh, he replied:
⎯ There are only two authentic paths to truth, young seekers. Man has no shortage of myths at his disposal. If his true motivation is to find peace, he must search for the myth that resonates with his heart and make it his life and reality. This, the path of the heart, is authentic to man's deepest being.
He paused, knowing full well what he was about to do to the son of his nemesis:
⎯ The other path is one in which many seekers before you have found their demise. It is the path of the absolute: The rejection of every myth in the quest for a truth as pure and untarnished by the touch of man's mind as a buried jewel in the bowels of the Earth. This path requires the rigorous cleansing of raw experience from the narratives constantly woven and projected by mind. Behold, for he who finds and polishes this jewel will know the absolute truth!
Castor ⎯ whose mother, like Pollux's, was Leda, but whose father was the mortal king Tyndareus ⎯ interjected:
⎯ How do we know which path to choose, great seer?
⎯ Listen to your deepest, most uncritical, most sincere motivation, young seeker! What does your heart truly seek? Peace...?
And then, turning slightly to glance at Pollux, he continued:
⎯ ...or the absolute truth? Listen to your heart and, above all, be honest to yourself. This is the most personal of all quests. In its pursuit, you cannot deceive anyone but yourself.
Pollux and Castor, confused but resigned, thanked Phineus and returned to their ship. The darkness of the night had already descended upon them.
Chapter 2: The choicesOn the deck of their ship, bathed by the light of many stars ⎯ Gemini particularly conspicuous above their heads ⎯ Castor shared his thoughts with his brother:
⎯ I must be honest to my most sincere motivations, brother. Truthfully, what I seek is peace. The confusion and doubts of life corrode my very soul. If I can find safe haven in a myth whose validity my heart can accept, there my quest will end.
⎯ I respect the sincerity of your choice, brother. But truthfully, no myth can sooth my heart. I must know what is, not the narratives woven by my own mind, or the minds of lesser men.
The brothers then parted ways, each pursuing the path dictated by his heart.
Chapter 3: Castor's questHaving scoured the known world for the many myths and traditions of man, Castor failed to find the peace he so deeply craved. He did find a handful of myths that resonated with his heart. But how could he surrender to a myth while knowing that it was just a narrative? How could his heart be soothed by something his intellect knew not to be the absolute truth?
Castor, diligent as he was, could observe his own mind in the very process of weaving narratives whose true motivation was to sooth his pain and disquiet. The narratives were inventions. Castor knew that he was consciously trying to deceive himself; and that such attempt was ultimately futile. A man cannot be both trickster and audience at the same time. The trick has no power upon those who know how it is done.
Chapter 4: Pollux's questHaving spent years in seclusion in some of the most isolated islands of the Adriatic, carefully observing the dynamics of his own mind, Pollux sought diligently to separate the jewel of immediate experience from the pollution of narratives. He saw through the many subtle layers of narrative-making: stories built on top of stories, all ultimately resting on unexamined assumptions. He realised that removing the narratives was like peeling an onion: there was always another, more subtle layer underneath.
In his quest, he tried to find the most basic, raw factors of reality: He had a body; that seemed free of narratives. His bodily sensations in the present moment seemed as close to an apprehension of the raw truth as he could get. The past and the future were just stories. Extrapolating this line of thinking, he concluded that only a newborn baby could experience the absolute truth, before any narratives had raised their ugly heads. As a grown man, such a state was not available to Pollux, but it suggested to him that an absolute truth did exist; his ultimate goal was there, just tantalizingly out of his reach.
Yet, upon further reflection, Pollux began to question his own conclusions. The possibility of narrative-free apprehension in a newborn was itself a narrative; a story constructed by his mind, since he could not experience the state of being a newborn in the present moment. Could there really be such a thing as raw perception without narratives? Was the mind of a newborn truly narrative-free, or was it simply in the process of weaving its first narratives as it perceived the world for the first time? Was perception fundamentally concurrent with narrative-making? Could anything ⎯ anything at all ⎯ be perceived without being couched in a narrative, chaotic and inconsistent as it might at first be? Pollux realised that he was forever locked into the narrative-making processes of his mind, which constructed the very reality of his search for the absolute truth. His search was itself a narrative. Whatever there could be outside of that narrative was fundamentally inaccessible to him and, as such, as good as unreal.
|Pair of Roman statuettes (3rd century AD) depicting|
Castor and Pollux. Source: Wikipedia.
Chapter 5: The meetingAfter many years, the brothers met again on the deck of their trusted ship. As it floated gently on calm night seas, under the light of the new moon, Castor offered:
⎯ Brother, I have failed in my chosen path. The soothing power of myth needs permission from the intellect to be accepted as the truth. Without such permission, it is sterile. Knowing, as I do, that narratives are not the absolute truth, my intellect cannot give my heart permission to bask under the light of its chosen myth. I cannot find peace. For this reason, wise brother, I shall follow your example and pursue your path towards the absolute!
To which Pollux, in horror, replied:
⎯ Seek not through my path, brother! It is a hall of mirrors. Nothing absolute will you find there; only reflections of yourself, layered in exquisitely subtle veneers. The intellect is an unstoppable narrative-making machine of unfathomable power. It constructs all of our reality, like a cocoon which we inhabit. In my search for the intellectual ideal of an 'absolute,' I have only found my own limits.
The brothers sighed longly, as they starred at the moon. They remained in silence for a long time, until Castor offered in resignation:
⎯ The intellect... that is the common thread of our failures, brother. My intellect won't give me permission to surrender to my heart's chosen myth. Your intellect weaves an impenetrable wall of narratives that insulates you from the absolute, if there is any...
Pollux did not reply. He knew his brother was right, but he knew also that they were their intellects. What else could they be? Their quest was doomed to failure from its very beginning. He had nothing left in him anymore; he was defeated.
Chapter 6: The dreamsThat night, they fell asleep on the deck of their ship, under the moon's light. Pollux dreamed of Phineus. In the dream, Phineus sat by a rich banquet table, indulging his appetite and laughing hysterically at Pollux's dilemma. Phineus had taken revenge on Zeus simply by telling the truth when requested to do so. What an ironic twist of fate, Pollux thought, as he descended into a domain of restless hopelessness. Orpheus had deserted him...
Castor, in turn, dreamed that he was swimming naked in the sea, under the moonlight. He swam effortlessly, drifting along as if one with the waves. He could feel the water caressing his skin. There were no thoughts in his mind... only the sea, the moon, and the fresh air, as if they were aspects of himself. In his dream, he found peace.