What the Riddler Knows (Grey Heron Nights 7)

Winter Solstice. Today, at 16.28 GMT. The still point of the turning world. Where the dance is. Will you dance, at 16.28 GMT? I will. I’ve been practicing my still dance, my contradictory dance, my paradoxical dance: my dance that is a dance and yet is a still point at the same time. That’s what I’ve been working on for the past few days. To repeat my Eliot quote from the beginning of all this:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

from ‘Burnt Norton’, T.S. Eliot

What the Riddler knows is this: there can be no dance without a still point, just as there can be no light without dark, no life without death. Everything which matters to us exists only because it is defined by its opposite. This philosophical principle of the ‘unity of opposites’ was first proposed in the 6th century BC. It’s a concept which is related to coincidentia oppositorum, or coincidence of opposites, which crops up often in mystical thought; according to the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, human thought has a natural tendency to resort to contradictions or paradoxes whenever it wants to make sense of the infinite.

20th-century historian of religion Mircea Eliade used the term extensively in his essays about myth and ritual, describing the coincidentia oppositorum as ‘the mythical pattern’. He was particularly interested in the paradox inherent in the idea that the sacred (the transcendant) can be found in the profane (the physical or Earthly): for example, that the sacred can be manifested in stones and trees – which ought to confine or limit the notion of sacredness, but does not.

Carl Jung was much taken with the notion too, suggesting that the ‘Self’ is a coincidentia oppositorum, and that each individual has to integrate opposing tendencies (anima and animus, persona and shadow) within his or her own psyche in order to become properly individuated. He believed that there is an instinctive human function, which he called the ‘transcendent function’, that mediates and combines opposites through the production of fantasies and symbols. Similar ideas were expressed by philosopher and Islamic Studies professor Henry Corbin (who wrote extensively about the active imagination, and the ancient Sufi idea of the mundus imaginalis) also used the term, and pointed out that, in Sufi thought, the idea of God was founded on a coming together of opposites.

The ancient Irish also loved paradoxes; they also loved riddles and enigmas – and riddles fulfilled the same function as that of the Zen koan. Places and situations where opposites coincide, where things happen which cannot be reconciled, shock us out of our everyday understanding and transport us to the threshold of the Otherworld. Objects which can be regarded as ‘neither this nor that’, and activities which are neither one thing nor its opposite, have, in the Celtic tradition, a mysterious Otherworldly virtue. The dance which lies at the heart of the still point of the turning world, then, is an Otherworldly idea indeed.

Why is all of this this relevant to the Winter Solstice? Because these old festivals, these ‘turning-points in time’, Celtic scholars Alwyn and Brinley Rees say, ‘have a paradoxical quality everywhere. In one sense they do not exist; in another sense they epitomise the whole of existence.’* They are, as Eliot wrote, the times when past and future are gathered together. They’re potent times indeed, and resist simple definition.

Things to Consider

We exist only in oppositions, and at the point where our poor untooled human brains begin to grasp the paradoxes which ensue, we begin perhaps to grow wise. The power of the Solstice doesn’t reveal itself in simple analysis, simple classification, simple attempts to define it, simple instructions on ‘how to do Solstice properly’. The power of the Solstice lies in the mystery at the heart of its paradox.

What is (are) the paradox(es) which lies at the heart of your life?


* From their book Celtic Heritage.


4 thoughts on “What the Riddler Knows (Grey Heron Nights 7)

  1. Heartfelt gratitude to you for all your deeply thought writings that carry on your Earthline richness of being — I save them all to my files to reread. Today I hope that a webcam has been set up at Maes Howe and that the sky is clear there so that the tomb will be lit with the sun’s light.
    Here in Canada it’s overcast, the clouds may yet part on this day of turning. You shall receive from me a peedie ongoing donation as thanks for all your illuminating words.

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