Review: Charles Upton’s Folk Metaphysics

A Review by Benton Rooks

Charles Upton’s book Folk Metaphysics: Mystical Meaning in Traditional Folk Songs and Spirituals, contains an incredibly lucid and dynamic interpretation of various folk songs from the point of view of what is commonly known as the Perennialist or Traditionalist “school” of esoteric thought and comparative religion. The Traditionalists affirm that there is an underlying and unifying spiritual Tradition that binds together the world’s religious traditions in their esoteric essence, as opposed to their apparently divergent exoteric forms. As Upton says:

“This ancient and universal knowledge is called the Primordial Tradition. This tradition is unanimous in its doctrines, and speaks a single language. A time came, however, when this language began to be forgotten. The story of this is told in the Bible as the fall of the Tower of Babel. Before the tower fell, everybody spoke the same language, but afterwards, they could no longer understand each other. The different “languages” they started to speak at that time were actually different religions (and, later, different philosophies). Every       true religion has the whole story of the way things are stuck away somewhere in its scriptures and traditions, but since knowledge of the original language of the human race had now been lost, fewer and fewer people could read the whole story in its later, translated versions. But now that we are getting near to the end of the world, that original language is starting to come back.” (p. 5-6)

Upton maintains that spiritual truth is told is three basic languages. The first is the language of metaphysics, the second is the language of myth and symbol (also known as mythopoeia) and the third is the language of presence.[1] It is with the second of these three that he focuses on primarily in Folk Metaphysics, but without sacrificing the necessity of the other two.

Upton’s hermeneutic refers back to the use of the four levels or meanings to be found in scripture that were established formally in the west by Dante, St Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. These four levels are: “literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical or mystical.”[2] The most common interpretations of both mythology and symbols usually fall into the first three, and it is rare that an exegesis actually pinpoints the proper anagogical meaning of the text. Borrowing the symbolism of the cross[3], this would be the intersection where the vertical metaphysical dimension of the Spirit itself meets or cuts through the horizontal temporal bound symbol to create a synthesis that reflects Reality as it stands in the world of spiritual archetypes in the heavenly planes “above” this one. However, we must always keep in mind that these archetypes and symbols are always necessarily refracted (as in a mirror) through the lenses of mind, space-time, as well as sensory perception on the material plane.

The primary purpose of the book is to extract the meaning of lesser-known metaphysical symbols contained in folk songs, which may sometimes appear to us in strange or surprising ways. As he says:

“…the Primordial Tradition mostly comes down to us through the religions of  the world. But there are still remnants of this universal wisdom that come to us through other channels, some of them almost inconceivably ancient. In myth, folklore, folk songs, riddles, superstitions, hand gestures, jokes and dances, the way we nod “yes” and shake our heads “no,” great secrets are sometimes hidden…” (pp 6-7)

In striving for the deepest meaning of these interpretations, Upton gives us a clear view of the spiritual life, path, and method—without skirting over the rigorous mishaps that await the genuine spiritual seeker. In fact, his elucidation of Maya as “the magical power that reveals God by weaving the world-illusion, and simultaneously hides Him behind the pattern that she weaves”[4] is certainly one of his specialties, as it contains a rare non-dual synthesis[5] that avoids the most common meaning of maya as only a negative, world denying illusion that functions to obscure Reality beyond the senses. Upton does not fall into this trap, but seeks to penetrate into the true meaning; that maya is a veil simultaneously hiding and revealing the spiritual divinity of the sensible realm for those that “have eyes to see”. When the Third Eye chakra is open by the grace of divine influence in the practice of a traditional contemplative form, a transparency of all elements on the earthly plane appears which allows one to notice the permeation of God in the entire fabric of space-time. This single ‘Eye of the Heart’ “…is the center of the soul or psyche… corresponding to the Greek term Nous — the Uncreated Intellect that knows God directly just as the eye knows light. And the only One with both the right and the power to hold sway within the crown of the heart is God himself…” (Upton 8) Theoretically, this faculty would also allow the realized mystics a more profound penetration into the esoteric elements hidden in sacred texts[6], in order to show the underlying unity that can be found in the universal ascent of the Soul to the divine One.

Perhaps the best way to reveal the value of Upton’s text is to show by way of example how he takes a few seemingly simple lines of poetry from the folk song “Lady Gay”, and transforms them into a miraculous lesson on the potential dangers of mother Maya:

She set a table long and wide

And put on bread and wine

Come eat, come drink you three little babes

Come eat and drink of mine[7]

Upton’s commentary on the verse is as follows:

“Here the Lady concocts a false and contrary Eucharist to tempt her children to return to her. It is a common theme in mythology, as in the myth of Orpheus,  that to eat the food of the underworld, the world of death, is to be trapped by that world—and to the three sons, who have realized a Life higher than the natural one, the world of Nature is the world of death…This is just what Maya does; she sets up a mirror to catch the light of God, and when we follow that light we move farther and farther away His true location. Whenever we believe that something in the world of the animal powers can give us real spiritual nourishment (the bread) or true spiritual insight (the wine), we have let ourselves be kidnapped and imprisoned by Lady Gay.” (p. 40 italics mine)

Through this we understand that maya as well as what Samuel D. Fohr calls the “lower tendencies” or the animal-like passions[8], must be alchemically transmuted to escape the inevitable downward pull of the mind and the senses when they are left to their own accord. We also begin to understand how an interpretation works when it is brought up to its qualitatively highest possible level.  Not that this is the only meaning possible, but that it pushes the boundaries of the text to the fullest extent, and attempts to reach the vertical First Principles of traditional metaphysics—the first Principle of course being God himself.[9]

Folk Metaphysics fills a very specific void in scholarship that does not usually touch upon the hidden wisdom which is often unconsciously passed along by the “common wise person” in any given culture (and consequently also remains missing from “high brow” literature and classic mythology)[10]. In other words, one must not be a sage in order to fulfill the role of archetypal wisdom and pass it down in art and symbols. That is why Upton’s service here is of particular importance to a materialistic mass-media driven culture like America, that is slowly losing its ability to retain any spiritual truths in a simple, digestible form. As Upton says, on the importance of folk wisdom:

“The mystical truth which is realized in the sage is virtual in the folk. If the folk are the field, the sage is the fruit of the tree which grows in the center of it, a fruit which, even as it takes its place in the eternal domain of God’s attributes, also cyclically returns to the field from which it grew, via its seed, to propagate wisdom. The folk correspond to the Aristotelian materia, that which receives the imprint of forms, and the sage to forma, that which shapes or “informs” the material which allows it to appear. And the tree corresponds to Tradition in the sense employed by French metaphysician René Guénon: that body of spiritual Truth, lying at the core of every religious revelation and a great deal of folklore and mythology, which has always been known by the “gnostics” of the race since it is eternal in relation to human time, representing as it does the eternal design or prototype of Humanity itself.” (p. 54)

We have only touched on a few brief aspects of what is really a massively dense and challenging piece of literature—all the more so because of how few pages it actually contains. Like Frithjof Schuon before him, Upton’s crystalline prose also allows the text to serve as a form of spiritual therapy for the reader. It reaches beyond the merely theoretical aspects in spiritual discourse and into practical application. It must be noted that Charles Upton is an independent scholar and not simply an academic—which means the text is not overly verbose stylistically (though it is technical and aesthetically beautiful when it needs to be) nor are there any words that are vague, flashy and empty of any true import as one may find in so many academic writers today. Folk Metaphysics gives us the keys to mystical meanings of stories, songs, and poetry that remain accessible and will stick in the mind longer than most doctrinal or theoretical formulations (the latter of which often serve only to fragment and pull apart the truly formless aspects of Spiritual essence). The non-discursive and intuitive function of sacred art contained in this book is thus aimed straight for the heart-intellect, and it will undoubtedly stain the Soul of those who are able to open their own Spirit-Heart to receive the wisdom of the author and assimilate it properly.

[1] Upton p. 6

[2] Voss p. 1 (For a more detailed commentary on the various levels of qualitative hierarchy in textual exegesis, please see Angela Voss’ paper “From Allegory to Anagoge: the Question of Symbolic Perception in a Literal World”

[3] See Rene Guenon’s The Symbolism of the Cross

[4] Upton p. 39

[5] Which can probably be found best retained in the metaphysical principles in the Advaita Vedanta. See also Charles Upton’s essay “Homer, Poet of Maya”

[6] This can be seen at best in the Sufi tradition of commentators on the Qur’ān that reveal mystical dimensions of scripture not usually seen by the common eye.

[7] p. 40 Upton

[8] Otherwise known as lust, greed, anger, attachment and ego. On the “lower tendencies” in general see Samuel D. Fohr’s Adam & Eve pp. 128-131

[9] Upton defines metaphysics as “…the study of eternal first principles, and of God as the First Principle of all, both Pure Being — the personal God to Whom we pray, and Who necessarily presents to us a personal face, since we ourselves are persons — and the Formless Absolute, beyond even Being itself, out of which the personal God eternally arises into Being, and into which He eternally returns, in a single motionless act.” (Upton 2008 p. 1)

[10] See also Samuel D. Fohr’s Cinderella’s Gold Slipper for a metaphysical reading of folklore in the Grimm’s Tales.

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