Volume 2 Number 4
Michelle Miller Allen explores human relationships and karmic reincarnation in Journey from the Keep of Bones. In Plato's Symposium, Aristophanes presents a creation story to illustrate love. In the beginning, man was not like he is today; instead he was spherical, composed of two members being of three kinds of genders: male-female, male-male and female-female. He had two heads, four arms, and four legs and tumbled about in cartwheels like Swedenborgian angels, having a jolly good time. But, as he made so much noise, he kept the gods awake on Mt. Olympus which ultimately resulted in his downfall. The gods called a council to punish him for breaking curfew and Zeus had the brilliant idea of splitting man apart, so from that day to this, the one seeks the other: the lover, the beloved; the ego, the alter ego.
In her novel, Journey from the Keep of Bones, Miller Allen incorporates myth and shaman stories on the base of the search theme through the use of symbols, thus elevating the novel from a simple boy-girl type plot to allegory. Trained as a playwright, she creates tension by setting the structure of the book like a split stage, alternating chapters between two shaman brothers and their wives in ancient Mesoamerica and the four main protagonists in contemporary New Mexico. The shaman brothers sit by the water, eating soporific fruit to enter a trance state. Desiring to explore the universe beyond his world, Ku-en rises and enters the water, leaving his brother, De-jah, to care for his wife and the village until his return. With Ku-en, we enter the water, stepping into a strange world as the author begins to explore human consciousness and karmic reincarnation. Upon his return, Ku-en discovers his brother's betrayal, challenging him to enter the future with him, but in the opposite sex.
Water is symbolic of the subconscious, appearing in the tarot deck with the crab crawling out under the moon, or in astrology where certain psychic types are named after the four elements: water, earth, air, and fire. In myth, water may also represent the soul or be used as a mirror, as in the story of Narcissus who falls in love with his own image. It signifies illusion or the superficial appearance of something which may not be easily understood. Often we awaken from sleep with clear understanding of something that we have dreamt, but dreams flow through us like water, impossible to grasp although essential to our survival. Without dreams, our lives are emopty of meaning and hope for the future.
Following the logic of time, Ku-en is able to step into the water and return later in the novel, dressed in a cape of purple feathers. His brother does not recognize him as a result of the transformation, just as the suitors in Penelope's court do not recognize the returning Odysseus. Reluctant to change his ways, De-jah perishes in the Keep of the Bones. Ku-en does not have foreknowledge of his future existence, but he entrusts himself to the journey which results in his own transformation. When the two shaman brothers and their wives emerge in New Mexico, as in Aristophanes's story, they are scattered apart, but their genders are reversed.
The four protagonists -- Maxine Talbot, Adrienne Manfred, Travis Dylan, and Conner McKnight -- all have shadows of memories that emerge through dreams, paintings, or in associations to symbols that transfer between the two different worlds. In using such a complex structure, Miller Allen develops the metaphor of water as different states of consciousness, relating ancient Mesoamerica to the subconscious and dreamworld, and contemporary New Mexico to the active conscious world in which we, the readers, live. We enter into the water to explore the past, using forms of hypnosis or channeling, but memory, like water, is fluid, frequently escaping our grasp as we wake up to recount a lucid dream or explain a sudden trigger reaction to something we encounter in our daily lives.
The kernel is the simple story from Aristophanes explaining the meaning of love. Love searches for the missing partner, the other half. Love makes the person restless and incomplete and finds satisfaction when a suitable partner is found complementing the person. Miller Allen uses this as the framework to explore women's roles in society and personal relationships. Much of modern psychology is not based on technical terms, but comes from mythology originating as far back as Hesiod or Ovid. Metaphor, myth, and symbol free Miller Allen to create a universal picture of four people, lost in contemporary society, in search for each other and personal fulfilment, while allowing the reader freedom for his own interpretations and arguments. The interchange of roles between ancient and modern, as the characters exchange identities from male to female or vice versa, can be identified through small clues: purple cast or feather and the movement of the jaguar knife. Moreover, two of the protagonists, Adrienne Manfred and Travis Dylan, are artists who are able to reveal dreams and past lives onto paper, thereby transferring the secrets of the ancient world into the modern. Adrienne does not fully comprehend the portrait she paints, but the painting is transferred to the person it symbolizes, provoking new awareness of the past. Although complicated for a book plot, it reflects reality where we daily encounter things requiring the assistance of another person's knowledge in the decoding and transfer of community knowledge.
In using metaphor and myth, Miller Allen is free to explore the abstract meaning of love without restricting herself to a single interpretation. By echoing aspects of the Narcissus and Orpheus myths, she heightens the reader's awareness of the complexity of human relationships. Ovid did not intend that the myth of Narcissus be taken literally or interpreted with Freudian overtones. It is our post-Freudian education that insists that Narcissus fell in love with himself and thus drowned in the pool, skimming only the superficial meaning of it. The interpretation ignores the dangers that lurks in being absorbed in one's own projection of the world as water can symbolize human illusion, dreams and fantasies.
In order to achieve a dream, one must do more than admire it or dream about it, there has to be decisive action, a willingness to step into the unknown. Narcissus only lingers by the side of the pool, enjoying the superficiality of his fantasies and thoughts and loses contact with reality. He does not engage himself in the active pursuit of his dreams, but entertains himself with illusions.
Narcissus, isolating himself from the interaction with people, alienates himself from society. Similarly, De-jah deludes himself, believing that he can maintain control over his world through solitary control. De-jah, like Narcissus alienates himself from his own society. In effort to maintain psychological control over it, De-jah creates new religious rituals and punishments, similar to any number of propaganda ministers from totalitarian governments, trying to prevent the collapse of their regime by complex lies woven to blind the entrapped population: Saddam won the war and defeated the incoming American tanks, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker with his colleagues, and Stalin hid behind the corridors of power and defensive walls. However, outside these protected walls and projected delusions of the world, people still live, walk, starve, and die, struggling to attain their dignity and integrity.
In Journey from the Keep of Bones, both sides of the story is told as Ku-en goes through the water to explore the universe beyond in order to find himself. His story is of awakening and the active pursuit of the dream. Like the children in C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, he enters an alien world, but we, the reader are excluded from this experience. We remain with De-jah, as intent on his own self-destruction as he is indifferent to the needs of the people around him and the suffering that he imposes on others through his selfish negligence.
Similar to the Orpheus myth, Ku-en departs his known world by entering the
unknown through the water, perhaps a reflection of the rites of Mithraism and
belief that the gates of Hades were accessible through still water. He seeks
spiritual and emotional fulfilment which he discovers upon his return in the
embodiment of De-jah's wife, who has broken away from her traditional enslavement
to search her own identity and become free of De-jah's tyranny. However, their
relationship is not fulfilled in the ancient world, but their search for each
other continues in the world-to-come as Maxine Talbot, dissatisfied with her
string of empty affairs, begins to search for a partner to complement her life
in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Like Orpheus, Ku-en, too, rises from the underworld,
but continues his search for the lost love.