The Wasteland in western literature

The Wasteland in western literature as story motif has existed since the 12th century when it was clearly a slightly veiled condemnation of the Catholic church. The 12th century church was heavy, wooden, absolute and bound by ritual, dogma and the necessity of its own political power. Reform movements were squashed as heresy.  A man could buy his way into heaven with silver and the only possible path to heaven was through the sacrament of the church, even if the priest who administered that sacrament was the least of moral men.  This was the Wasteland, where form was without spirit.

The fisher king – I will make you fishers of men, the pope – had been castrated. Literally. He was sick, old, without life or vitality.  Sterile.  This castration had occurred in battle with a Muslim, a battle which did neither side any good.

Into this scene rides the innocent , raw youth Parsifal, who bound by tradition, by manners, by appearance, by training, role and ritual, cannot spontaneously follow his impulse of compassion and simply say, dear king, what is wrong? And so, according to the story, he must wander in the Wasteland, as must we all, until we find what our hearts truly seek.  It has little to do with duty or training, or allegiance to the outer rules of the church. The Grail was not a chalice in these stories. Sometimes it was a magic stone.

The church not only cracked down on these stories, it produced its own version, replacing the stone with a vessel of blood of the Christ.  Simply, that which you seek, we already have.  The inquisition started about this time and people began to straighten up and behave as people should.

In a very real sense, the Wasteland myth is an acknowledgment that vitality is not institutional. The Western ideal is an individual who acts on his own impulse. Implicit in this is the recognition that the individual impulse is GOOD. It does not ultimately require shaping to some ideal.  It is the ideal.  This is why author Joseph Campbell, whose interpretation of these stories I am paraphrasing,  thinks the Grail legends were the beginning of a true Western philosophy which never quite gained ascendancy and lost the power battle with the church,  where the individual is flawed and should be subservient to a group ideal.


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