When I was a young boy and well into my young adulthood, I viewed the world through a distorted lens. That lens was fixated on the idea that the mystical and the magical that I read about in books – stories that ranged from the myths of Ancient Greece, endless versions of the Arthurian legends, Charles de Lint’s urban shamanism, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft’s antediluvian and Stygian practices of mad wizards and priestesses, Carlos Castenada’s Don Juan cycle, Huxley’s Doors of Perception, Walker’s Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, and any number of books that purported to be about piercing the veil between this mundane world and the world of “the other side”.
The typical stuff a white nerdy guy in middle America assumed was the right kind of material to gain hidden or secret knowledge.
I wanted to be something other than what I was. I wanted the things I read about, and the characters I portrayed on the stage (Merlin in Camelot, for example) to be accessible; to be actual. I wanted them to be what was real, not the dull and dreary plodding normalness of what I was experiencing as the “real world.”
I was guilty of wanting. I was guilty of a White/Western way of thinking that the simple desire or yearning for a thing granted me the right or ‘specialness‘ required to gain access to or ownership of a secret or hidden knowledge.
I wanted the world and I wanted it now.
I want to talk about apprenticeship.
If you read the article in the link above you’ll find a particular passage and message that resonates with me and which I’ve talked with a few friends about before and that is the lack of and almost non-existent practice of apprenticeship in the Western world.
“In Western culture, most people will never know a shaman, let alone train with one. Yet since ours is a literate culture, you do not have to be in an apprenticeship situation to learn; a written guide can provide the essential methodological information.”
Now, before someone jumps on me about that statement, let me go on record and say that this is just my perception – this is just my viewpoint. Whether or not it is actual fact or true is quite debatable. I’m sure some will say that Medical School for example, or four years of undergraduate and four years + of graduate school in order to get a degree or another four if you want a PhD, is “apprenticeship” and get steamed because my statement seems to dismiss that… which it doesn’t.
What I’m saying is that it isn’t the same thing.
Education is a good thing. Books are a good thing. Learning of any kind is a good thing.
But what I’m talking about is the practical application of that knowledge. A work-a-day practice, a years-long study alongside a higher level teacher or leader. Clothing, shoes, art, painting, sculpting, carpentry, stone masons, any and every profession had a set number of years where you were known as an apprentice.
Being an apprentice was a good thing. It notified others that you were attempting a craft, you were learning. You had prospects.
To illustrate how we think about apprenticeship these days – we turned it into a reality TV show. The Apprentice. Which really wasn’t about apprenticeship so much as a mad scramble for dollars and a “get the job” prize at the end. It highlighted everything that’s Western and privileged about how we view things.
In my chosen profession of acting, there used to be (and yes I realize there still are) troupes that would traverse a country or countries performing plays and characters for audiences. These troupes were the ‘schools’ of their time. They were the standard of how to learn the craft of performance. Because it wasn’t just putting on a costume and walking out on the boards to say lines.
That doesn’t make you an actor. No more than putting on scrubs and walking into a hospital makes you a surgeon. Or putting on a suit, and walking into the stock exchange makes you a broker.
It’s the time spent in honing your craft that leads to profession. And I think its a lot longer than four years.
I wish I had taken part in a program or opportunity like a troupe – I think I would’ve had a better work ethic, more appreciation for the reward and a greater understanding of how to shoulder the wait that is necessary in order to reach some goals.
It used to be that a man or woman could not lay claim to the title of professional until a higher up had either retired or passed on. That the ranks and rungs of the ladder were climbed slowly and steadily and that “success” was something that was the culmination of a lifetime of experience, learning and honorable practice of one’s chosen craft.
But here in the West, here in the modern world of books and graded courses, of online diplomas and standardized testing – practice and practical knowledge is dispensed with and a certificate or a award is the marker for moving up in a profession – in fact, in a real sense – that award is seen as the be all and end all of a profession. And its celebrated as such.
In my late twenties and early thirties I became very disenchanted with my pursuit or my hope of ‘breaking through’, of finding the hidden world behind the veil of this very dull and burdensome real one. But the real truth is that I was disenchanted with reading and reading and reading about this elusive thing I thought existed. I didn’t practice it, I didn’t seek out a teacher… I blindly followed the tradition I was taught in my Western schools – I stuck to the written guides that were supposed to open the door and grant me access to the other side.
And so, like so many before me, I quit. I quit seeking the mystic and the magical.
I think this also led to my disenchantment with my chosen professional path. I stopped auditioning, I stopped acting in or going to plays, I turned away from reading about acting or theater.
As a matter of fact, I stopped reading altogether, for the most part. And for almost a decade or more, didn’t have anything to do with either acting or books. I felt very disappointed in them both, one because it was too easy for me (and by easy meaning I found myself in a position of being cast often, in a community that knew what I could do and how reliable I was) and the other because they just seem to repeat themselves over and over. I wasn’t learning anything new, I didn’t feel challenged.
And I had a great feeling of dissatisfaction in my life – not just professionally, but in pretty much all aspects of my day to day experience.
In the mid-90’s I was cast in The Grand Tarot by Charles Ludlam, written for the Theater of the Ridiculous and probably the last time I participated in something that was even closely tied with anything esoteric or mysterious. I played the Magician and if I remember correctly (memories are tricky things), he was seeking a divine union with the High Priestess. In the play its expressed as a physical union as well as a union of the senses or spirit. It was a fun play, lots of comedic moments and overall a great time.
The magician in the play is pretty much like a lot of people, and like myself as well. Misguided, seeking answers in places where they aren’t and hoping that life can be summed up in a single moment, or a simple set of magic words – utter a spell and the world will be healed. He wants a quick answer, he rushes about sure that if he can just do this one thing – everything will be open and explained.
And that’s the myth of the magician – that there is an easy way to get what you want.
We humans seek answers. Aside from the basic necessities of sustaining ourselves, that’s what we do… We live for puzzles and challenges, to expand our world.
There used to be a period of apprenticeship that served not only as guide to make a living or to create things that a community needed, it was a way to know more about one’s place in the fabric of this reality. It wasn’t a method for keeping people in their place or establishing class distinctions (at least in my perception – I could be very wrong about that). Apprenticeships fell into decline and disappeared as the Industrial Revolution progressed and machines took over menial labor and lesser jobs that had once been performed by human apprentices.
And this seeped into the pursuit of the esoteric, the pursuit of the spiritual and mystical. Traditional means of achieving enlightenment or hidden knowledge was no longer about sitting at the feet of a Master, but rather doled out in pamphlets and placed on book shelves in stores and libraries.
Can I say that this has truly been harmful to us as a society? I don’t know. There are examples of individuals who either bucked the system or dropped out of school or simply worked out their own method to produce works of art or to make a discovery or climb a corporate or business ladder that didn’t rely on years of study or practice. Their natural or innate talent and ability allowed them to circumvent the traditional mode of tradecraft. Films and movies too are filled with this type of “success” story, which furthers the notion that you don’t have to follow the beaten path.
We celebrate those that skirt past everyone else, who break the rules and do it their way, who disdain tradition and triumph over the odds. Winning is everything.
Nerd portion of the post: I guess that’s why I have such a hard time with BvS: Dawn of Justice and the portrayal of both Batman and Superman in that film. The assertion that “this is anew Superman” rubs me the wrong way because its this whole ‘let’s ignore the history of the character and let’s skip his apprenticeship – he makes mistakes, and that’s ok. But he’s still the pinnicle of what a meta-human should be’.
Only, for me – he isn’t. He hasn’t earned it.
He simply tells people “I’m going to do things on my terms. Trust me.”
Which is everything great about America (since that is what Superman represents after all “I grew up in Kansas… I’m about as American as you can get.”) and everything awful all in the same sentence.
We don’t need apprenticeships because we are just that good.
Only we’re not.
And we have a country full of dissatisfied and despondent people who were sold on the idea that you can be the best. That you deserve to be the best – simply because you want it. There aren’t any apprenticeships anymore because what we are told is – all you have to do is cross the finish line ahead of the others. It’s only when you cross the finish line do you realize that there are a thousand thousand that have crossed ahead of you. And a thousand thousand coming up behind.
The end is what’s important. Not the journey.
The simple path, the easy answer. That’s the lie.
I still want there to be mystical and magical things in the world. I still want to break through and reach beyond this one. But I won’t find it in books or by simply wanting it. And at this stage, I’m a bit tired and a bit old to go looking for it.
Maybe in a few years, I’ll get to a point where I’ll be ready to start my apprenticeship. I’ll be ready to get my head out of the dirt and set my feet on a path, I’ll find a teacher. And I’ll starting learning.