Yesterday morning Brooke woke up with the uncanny feeling that he was living some kind of myth, written a long time ago and repeated endlessly for centuries. He had had these feelings months ago during this particular episode in his life; they returned yesterday with renewed force, with himself cast as the hero undergoing an ordeal. This isn’t meant to sound conceited or to puff himself up as a hero; rather, it’s to explore the parallels between the archetypal heroic myths and what one poor guy who’s had a really bad accident goes through.
For one thing, heroic ordeals can be long. The hero sets out on what will become his adventure; it is often years in the unfolding. For Gawain, it was a year. For Odysseus, it’s twenty years from the time he leaves his comfortable home in Ithaca until he’s back there again: ten years in the war against the Trojans, and another ten years sailing home. Or Job—Job isn’t always regarded as a classic “hero,” but in many ways he fits that mold: he suffers, he meets obstacles (the comforters), he suffers against overwhelming odds (a Satan empowered to do anything to him short of ending his life), but in the end is rewarded with something far greater than he lost—he has a vision of cosmic and divine reality in which his sufferings are reduced to total insignificance, as Yahweh appears in the whirlwind and he at last understands. Was Job’s ordeal long? We don’t have any way to answer this question, but it was as tortured as can be imagined. Brooke’s own ordeal isn’t exactly like Gawain’s or Odysseus’s or Job’s, needless to say, but still has something in common with each of them. For one thing, it is already longer than Gawain’s—and will last of course (though in diminished severity) the rest of his life.
The particular myth that Brooke found himself imaginatively reenacting yesterday morning, and indeed most of the day yesterday during his trach masks and again today, involves an ordeal that is like theirs in that it is long, often tortured, and in many ways against great odds. He wasn’t imagining Job exactly, though in many ways that’s the heroic story that his experience most resembles. Job’s sufferings were intensely physical, as are Brooke’s, but also psychological as well, like Brooke’s. But there are great differences: one difference, says Brooke, is that I don’t blame God or some divine entity, nor do I think there was any divine role or purpose in this accident. Another difference is that Job’s “comforters” actually turned out to be his torturers; the poem condemns them for their phony consolations and condemnations of Job as someone who has brought his suffering on himself. My comforters, on the other hand, Brooke says, really are comforters. Unlike Job, I’m surrounded by people come to my aid, who help me, who want the best for me, who try to understand at the deepest level what has been happening to me; Job’s comforters were accusers. My comforters are essential in helping me survive the ordeal; without you, I wouldn’t be able to undergo this journey at all; I think I might not make it.
These figures in my imaginative myth—you--are actual real human beings of flesh and blood, female and male. But looked at from a visionary perspective, you take on allegorical significance like that of mythical characters, as figures of succor, aid, support. Many of you are medical practitioners: nurses, aides, respiratory therapists, doctors, the people I see every day; many others of you are or have become close friends over the course of this particular ordeal; still others of you are family. You have brought this “hero” tremendous love and support, without which he probably would not be anywhere near as far along in his ordeal, even though the way is still very, very long and progress slowed by various bumps in the road like the infection I’ve just had. Unlike the archetypal myths, however, there don’t seem to be any demons or ogres or sorcerers or devils or other enemies among you, the real human beings populating this ordeal. You all help me, though in very different ways; it’s easy for some of you, very hard for others to see what’s happened to me. That’s part of the imaginative mythmaking: to see the help you give me in a larger, poetic way, part of an ancient story that has been played out countless times over the millennia of human experience. You didn’t appear out of nowhere, as sometimes happens in heroic narratives, and you aren’t gnomes, elves, fairies, or angels. You are all real, but from an imaginative perspective you’ve taken on a kind of mythic significance, so important you are to me. Every day, “real” events occur to you too in your relationships with this particular hero, but it still seems as if some larger pattern is being played out, one of those patterns we name myth.
Of course this all sounds a bit over the top, even self-aggrandizing, but it’s not meant to. After all, your lives are not dissimilar if you look at them from this perspective too—we all live lives that can viewed as heroic odysseys against sometimes modest, sometimes enormous odds, involving little nuisances or formidable evils—those ogres, demons, sorcerers plotting for your downfall.
Your ogres are all different, as different as you are. And my ogres shift from time to time; sometimes they’re things like Pneumonia and Infection; sometimes they’re things like Discouragement and Despair. And sometimes of course they all gang up on me at once. Furthermore, and here there is something in common with Odysseus, there’s the sense that this ordeal has been going on a long, long time. It helps to view it in this mythological way; it’s a way of making meaning out of something. Poets like Blake like remind us of this; it’s just that we forget how life can be viewed as deeply allegorical, even when it seems like just ordinary hardship and pain.
Maybe it’s appropriate that we began writing this on Christmas Eve, only a week before New Year’s. These days are among the ritual moments in our year, moments that would put us for the time being above mundane reality, though our everyday year is largely stripped of such moments. But ritual moments are a good occasion for imaginative mythmaking, and the myths we are making tonight are in a way our Christmas present to you, to recognize once again the enormous role you’ve been playing in helping Brooke in his very real and very long ordeal. But it’s also a wish for the New Year, that you’ll still be here and still helping this battered hero along.