The Burning Crown: Reading “Dismantling The Tower”
“The essays in Dismantling the Tower ask what do plants dream? What secrets do they share with us in that forgotten language of sighs and whispers?”
From Ramon Elani
“…along with the other animals, the stones, the trees, and the clouds, we ourselves are characters within a huge story that is visibly unfolding all around us, participants within the vast imagination, or Dreaming, of the world.”—David Abram
“Devil’s Club is about structure, and the way each person interacts with the structures in their lives is very different. Devil’s Club builds and it demolishes. It creates and it destroys.”—Casandra Johns
The Tower, the House of God, the Burning Crown. Structure collapsed. Shattering. Fragmentation. Catastrophe. Is this the age of the Tower? Do we, already, stand among the ruins? The ashes falling around us, silent as midwinter snow.
The word “catastrophe” means “to overturn.” Like compost. As Donna Haraway writes “we are all compost.” The lines of demarcation between the human and the non-human have never been as rigid as we like to pretend. The soul of the world is an assemblage, an endless interpenetration. Boundaries are shifting, permeable. Borders can never be enforced. For Haraway, this present age of collapse and catastrophe is defined by the dwindling availability of sites of refuge. Human and non-human alike. And if there is any refuge to be left for any of us, it can only be found in the interstices between human and non-human, between being and non-being. Spaces that allow refuge for the human alone will guarantee the desolation of all else. And such refuge will not last long on its own.
There is discourse and kinship between beings, even between being and non-being. Liminality, the state of being in between, is the condition of reality. We are the hooded figure haunting the crossroads. We forever stand between consciousness and the spark of the world soul. The winds of history blow through our hair. We see the desert of ruins both before and behind us. The sleep of the world is broken by nightmares. And the depth of our souls are peopled by innumerable spirits and entities that we do not know.
For Carl Jung, this murky swamp realm contains the drowned, submerged consciousness of all life on earth. The dreams of the thunder lizards, the feeling of light shining down on titanic palms in primordial jungles, the desires of the mammoths wandering across endless fields of ice. The memories of all things swim in the dark flooded basement of our souls. Without light, they become twisted and unrecognizable. But this essence, this spark of the universe inside of us can still be felt. It is felt in the uncanny familiarity that one finds among the trees and stones. It is the reflection we see when we gaze in the mirror and find something other. But a cosmos full of meaning and depth has been replaced by a cold, mechanistic model. Being and non-being is forced into narrow categories. Modernity taught us that the plants do not speak, the stones do not dream, the trees have nothing to teach us. What better way to understand the humankind’s annihilation of life on earth than in terms of a resentful child who imagines that his parents no longer care for him? If you do not love me, I will destroy everything. The path of the soul and the path of the world are one. If the soul is denied, or thought to be self-constituted, then all will perish. We are never alone.
Towers are born to fall. The edifice cannot stand for long. Like another tower that stabbed at the heavens, the towers fell. And when they came down, the world and its dreams changed. Dismantling the Tower, the second volume of Casandra Johns’ Numen Naturae, an ambitious series on the intersection between tarot and herbalism, meditates upon the tower card and Devil’s Club. As Jenn Zahrt writes in her foreword, “the first image that came to me was the crisp Tuesday morning in Manhattan the day the Twin Towers fell.” Creation cannot occur without destruction, though this, of course, does not lessen the trauma it causes. Furthermore, the creation that it engenders may not be easily perceived. If we return to the notion of “catastrophe,” to overturn the soil is a violent process, though one that creates growth and birth. Its violence cannot be denied, nor can its necessity to life. Thus we begin to approach the world of Numen Naturae, a world in which the human and non-human are in dialogue. One in which the language of symbol and dream bring us into conversation with the vibrant noumenal world. Destruction in the wild world is never experienced merely as such. It is always a moment and opportunity for growth and creation. Humanity, locked in the grips of a modernity that suffocates us with its fantasy of linear time, struggles to grasp the cycles of death and rebirth.
And what of the other tower? The first tower? The tower build by the hands of promethean man to reach god and attain his kingdom. The tower that he threw down to punish that prideful endeavor. What does it say about that god that multiplicity is his punishment upon the world. But as Jacques Derrida writes “The ‘tower of Babel’ does not merely figure the irreducible multiplicity of tongues; it exhibits an incompletion, the impossibility of finishing, of totalizing, of saturating, of completing something on the order of edification, architectural construction, system, and architectonics.” Every tower contains a germ of this. The tower is a fragment, momentarily restrained. It is a symbol of an impossible quest to dominate the consciousness of the world. The edifice points to its own annihilation. Creation, construction in the purest sense, is not possible, which is to say that it is inseparable from its opposite.
For Casandra Johns, Numen Naturae was born out of a discomfort with the ways in which contemporary herbalism emphasizes the human uses of plants. Are planets, in other words, merely another resource to be consumed and exploited by human beings with no reciprocity, no dialogue? When we name something we gain power over it. I name this plant and its uses and thus its power becomes my tool. When we study a plant as such and identify its force, we deny its uniqueness and its being. By asserting Devil’s Club as a protective entity, we disregard the destructiveness that lies latent within it. And furthermore, we lose our way in understanding the nature of protection. Perhaps it is that protection and destruction are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps, as we have suggested above, destruction cannot be understood as purely negative. And most importantly, if we identify a being in our own terms we deny its agency. Johns suggests that perhaps Devil’s Club determines the nature of protection we require. Throughout Dismantling the Tower, the authors investigate this notion of Devil’s Club as an agent, a being in its own right. And the card of the tower as a symbol that resists a simple negative reading. As Jung writes, “the secret is that only that which can destroy itself is truly alive.”
The unconscious mind cannot be trained like a monkey or a parrot, to endlessly babble our own words back to us. The unconscious mind speaks to us in the language of the world soul and this language is heard loudest in the realm of dreams. The essays in Dismantling the Tower ask what do plants dream? What secrets do they share with us in that forgotten language of sighs and whispers? Contributor Elisa Finos writes of a voice that came to them, wandering through their dreams. The spirit of Devil’s Club spoke to them and directed them toward the resting place of its ancestors. As one of the first essays in the book, this piece sets the tone for what is to come. Devil’s Club is a character in these pages. For Finos, Devil’s Club appears to them and offers the protection that they need. It is important to acknowledge, however, that the particular protective healing that one receives from Devil’s Club may not be what one imagines they need, or want. The notion of human conscious as a self-sufficient entity does not find much to stand upon in the dark, mossy depths of primeval forests. Finos observes that the protection offered by Devil’s Club is a dialogue, revealing ourselves to ourselves, and the other. When we gain protection, it welcomes us to reflect upon our wounds and their sources. Protection and trauma are twins that walk beside us. One cannot experience trauma without summoning protection and healing. And one cannot be healed without first being wounded.
This idea of Devil’s Club and the symbol of the Tower as a force that appears to guide and teach recurs throughout Dismantling the Tower. As Sean Donahue writes, “I can barricade the door and Devil’s Club will break through and I will have pieces of door and pieces of furniture scattered everywhere, and then Devil’s Club will be my support among those ruins.” Our assumptions about protection, healing, and teaching are inherently born out of beliefs about the nature of structure. Thus the Tower and Devil’s Club imply each other. Devil’s Club, as the Tower, may stimulate collapse in order to bring about healing and rebuilding. The forces we resist come back to us all the stronger for our resistance. Again, in order to re-awaken ourselves to the noumenal world, we must revise the nature of our relationship with that world.
The universe of non-human forces has not disappeared because we deny is existence. But if we seek dialogue, healing, or guidance from those forces, we must speak to them once again. As David Abram puts it, “if we no longer call out to the moon slipping between the clouds, or whisper to the spider setting the silken struts of her web, well, then the numerous powers of this world will no longer address us– and if they still try, we will not likely hear them.” As techno-industrial humanity continues to turn away from the forces and the spirits, their voices become harder and harder to hear. However, as Donahue observes above, the consequences of separating ourselves from the non-human world will eventually lead us back to it. Structure, collapse, and rebuilding. The fragment contains both its past and its future.
Donahue brings us back to the Twin Towers. To return to our earlier point about the collapse of the tower(s) engendering multiplicity, we can ask: what was created by the destruction of the Towers? For Donahue, like the ruins that Devil’s Club both creates and rebuilds, 9/11 created a mirror image of the outside world, which decades of American imperial policy had constructed. This reality, obscured by the shimmering edifice of neoliberalism, was made plain by this act of brutality. Baghdad becomes Manhattan and vice versa. As the Middle East had been burning for decades, now America was burning as well. Of course, this moment of reflection, this opportunity for genuine dialogue, was neglected and obfuscated. As Donahue puts it, “rather than gazing into that mirror and recognizing what we ourselves had brought into the world and seeking to build something new on a different foundation, there was an attempt to quickly gather things up and build a more rigid foundation.” The Tower and Devil’s Club bring revelation. And the more we ignore these lessons, the more of these lessons we will inevitably receive.
In Casandra John’s powerful essay on the Tower and its relation to the goddess Hekate, whom she aptly situates as being primarily a deity of the crossroads, we continue to see the expansion of the theme of dualism(s), unity, and opposition. The transitional, liminal nature of the crossroads is an illuminating variation on this theme. The crossroads establish boundaries and points of contact. This sacred space also penetrates boundaries, while it creates them. It opens up moments and opportunities. It exists both within and without, as a property of the soul and as a landscape. The one-dimensional binaries of modernity fade away in the mists of the crossroads: things are not what they seem, they are both familiar and uncanny, we recognize shapes but they are unmistakably other. Comfortable categories of fear and love dissipate in the pale light of the moon. And we come face to face with the unthinkable truth, which we have secretly always known. It both is, and is not. Neither is obliterated by the other in compromise. Neither does one encompass the other, gaining ascendancy. It is not a unity of differences. It is not a sum of parts. It is simply an other form of structure. It is, to borrow an overused phrase, rhizomatic. It is, to return to Haraway, compost. Composed. Composite.
Johns leads us through gnostic passageways. Dusty Alexandrine archives. The laboratories of mad alchemists. Hekate, transplanted from her typical role of haunting crossroads, becomes the embodiment of the World Soul. No longer shepherding the souls of the dead, this Hekate guides the Idea from the Cosmic Ether into the Material Realm. She is the middle category, analogous to the mysterious mechanism in Hegel’s dialectic that causes the gears of that industrial consciousness to turn. Hekate, thusly conceived, is the host through which divinity passes into our world. And the divine Idea, here, is symbolized by the lightning bolt. Shattering the world. A catastrophe is no less catastrophic because it brings revelation. Nor is it any less of a creative force though it brings the world to its knees. The Idea can break worlds. In fact, perhaps we can say that only the Idea can sunder the rigid structures of modernity. And the patriarchal techno-industrial world would do well to remember that it is the Feminine that gives birth to the Idea. Hekate’s hand guides the thunderbolt, not Jove.
The time is coming (has come) when our towers will no longer offer us even the illusion of stability. Our condition has never been amenable to that. The Wild God of the World and She Whom He Serves live in endless cycles of repetition and recurrence. Bloody death and verdant life. Annihilation and cosmic birth. Putrid decay and vigorous pride. The symbol of the Tower reminds us of this. All our monuments are destined for dust. And Devil’s Club stands in the shadows, waiting.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article was published with the wrong pronoun for one of the writers- correction made January 13th 2018.
Ramon Elani holds a PhD in literature and philosophy. He is a teacher, a poet, a husband, and a father, as well as a muay thai fighter. He wanders in oak groves. He casts the runes and sings to trolls. He lives among mountains and rivers in Western New England