Pan’s Call–The Return of the Repressed

Peter Weir, “Picnic at Hanging Rock”

Spiritual Sunday

In the late 19th and early 20th century, pantheism or neopaganism became popular with a large number of people, including many poets and artists. They considered mainstream Christianity as too bloodless, too abstract, and too rational and were hungering for something more visceral. Although, or rather because, industrialization appeared to have subjugated nature, they turned to nature as a source of spiritual sustenance. A fine novel that depicts this movement is A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which I’ve posted on here.

I wrote two weeks ago about how Kenneth Grahame invokes the Greek nature god Pan in The Wind in the Willows. In response, my father sent me some of his research into Pan, which will appear in a book he is writing on Modernism. I share it with you below. As you will see, Pan shows up over and over in turn-of-the-century literature.

If Pan is sometimes manifested as a violent or terrifying figure (although not in Wind in the Willows), I suspect it is because of 19th century repression. When we suppress nature, including our own sexual nature, it rises up as a disruptive force—what Freud calls “the return of the repressed.” As Dionysus demonstrates to Pentheus in Euripides’ The Bacchae, if we are mad enough to ban the practices of a nature god, that god will render us mad. Pan’s bewitching hour, my father notes, is high noon.

On the other hand, if we dance with Pan’s Bacchae, equally honoring nature’s male and female principles, we will be all right. I have appended at the end one of my father’s poems celebrating this vision of cosmic balance. See how many of the world’s religious symbols you can identify in it.

By Scott Bates, Emeritus Professor of French, Sewanee

It is not known whether the faun of Stéphane Mallarmé’s famous poem “The Afternoon of a Faun” is Pan in person, but it is undoubtedly true that the poet had Pan in mind when he described the faun’s midday lust for two naiads as he evokes their vision through the music of his pipes, and then later in the afternoon when he described the faun’s lust for Venus.

High noon has been “the hour of Pan” since ancient times; it is traditionally the moment that the Greek god is most to be feared. Theocritus (in Idyll, I) warned shepherds not to play the pipes at noon, when Pan is resting from his hunt and is full of “fierce anger.” James Joyce calls 12:00 o’clock, “Pan’s hour, the faunal noon” in Ulysses. In his short story “Of a Monster at Lyons or Desire,” published in The Heresiarch and Company (1909), Guillaume Apollinaire wrote, “It was a violent summer day, at the hour of noon, when Pan, hidden among the harvest, is a symbol of terrifying lust.” Later in his art criticism (1917), Apollinaire will discuss “the panic calm of the sunny hour of noon during southern summers” in the paintings of Van Dongen.

Finally, in the beautiful Australian film directed by Peter Weir Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), a powerfully mysterious pagan force—undoubtedly panic—abducts three virginal school girls and one of their teachers on the huge Australian phallic/yonic rock monolith Hanging Rock at the hour of noon on St. Valentine’s day to the accompaniment of pan pipes on the sound track. In contrast, the scenes at the girls’ upper-class private school are both Edenic (the school’s name is Appleyard) and highly westernized, accompanied on the sound track by Beethoven’s fifth violin concerto. Valentine was the Christian version of the fertility gods Pan and Faunus, and his saint’s day is updated from the Roman festival of Lupercalia.

In the poem of Mallarmé and in the musical Prélude of Claude Debussy based on the poem (1894), the faun rises to an onanistic climax at the end, inspired by his vain dream of possessing Venus. In the poem, this is symbolized by the eruption of Mount Etna as Venus returns to her husband, the smithy god Vulcan, whose forge was traditionally placed in the volcano. Debussy’s prelude concludes with a crescendo of woodwinds. Debussy also wrote a piano piece, “Pan in the Summer Wind.” Cocteau’s erotic drawing  “Afternoon of a Faun” shows the faun masturbating by licking the end of his enormous erect penis.

Pan was perhaps the leading sun-hero in popular pantheistic works of artists and writers at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the twentieth, along with Orpheus and Dionysus, the latter of whom was given privileged status by the works of Nietzsche and the former by the Orphic poems of Rilke and the works of the Orphic school of artists in France and Germany (1910-14). Pan even took a lead role in popular children’s classics like Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (where he was called “the piper at the gates of dawn,” a title used in the 1970s by the rock group Pink Floyd), Barrie’s Peter Pan, and Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (in an Old English guise).

Mallarmé had translated into French George Cox’s Tales of the Gods and Heroes, a syncretistic view of religion and myth in which the sun-hero rises from the night-mother every morning to unite with her again in the evening. This is the basic solar myth from which many symbolist and theosopohical paradigms evolved, including the principal structure of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939).

Nineteenth-century ethnologists and theosophists divided the orphic (or panic) universe between the male and female principles, day and night, air and water, fire and earth, Tammuz and Ishtar, Cybele and Atys, Venus and Adonis, the phallic priests of the sun and the yonic priestesses of the moon. In “The Afternoon of a Faun,” the poet himself is the faun, the phallic demi-god related to the sun, pursuing the divine, yonic muse (the naiads) through his art. Many poets and artists in the twentieth century who had lost their early orthodox religious faith were influenced by this pagan angelism, of whom some of the most prominent artists were Cézanne, Rodin, Picasso, Chirico, Delaunay, Mondrian, Kandinski, Klee, Archipeno, Brancusi, and Pollock.

A Is for Adam . . .

By Scott Bates

In the beginning I was the sun
the chaos and the father
my spirit moved upon the deep
I made the earth my mother

She married me and gave me birth
I died my name was Jesus
In three days I was born again
I was as rich as Croesus

I flew my father’s ashes home
I fell in love with Venus
I loved my neighbor as myself
my mother and my penis

Each evening I go down in flames
I rise again at dawn
I am the bird the flesh the word
the boy with the golden crown 

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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