Desdemona’s Innocence (8/15)

It is worthwhile to consider that Desdemona—in her steadfast and unwavering loyalty to the Moor—is devoted to an elaborate cluster of fictions which bear little authentic connection with reality. Her unflinching faithfulness to this seductive storyteller (and story-believer—making the link between him and Iago closer than is observable at first glance) is presented in the play in its best light, as though her childlike innocence and unsullied sweetness were unequivocal virtues. But a little suspicious poking and prodding reveals a certain stupidity or willful ignorance lurking behind her almost universally applauded ‘goodness.’ Where might Desdemona be stupid? Of what might she be willfully and obstinately ignorant?

It is perhaps in the charming bedtime scene where she and the earthy and worldly-wise Emilia converse about the sexual ‘weaknesses’ of men and women that we see the extent of Desdemona’s startling—if not shocking—childlike purity. One suspects that if Othello had been able to overhear this conversation—instead of plotting the murder of this harmless child in order to uphold his ‘honor’—he would have immediately come to his senses and eviscerated Iago instead. This pure, white little ‘moral fool’—let us remember—can scarcely bring herself to say the word ‘whore,’ let alone contemplate being one! Desdemona is like Eve before being tempted by the serpent—although her ‘revolt’ against her father (in eloping with that ‘foreigner,’ the Moor) thrusts her out of the protected Venetian garden and into the turbid and turbulent sea of Cyprian adult experiences—a sea in which she is evidently ill-prepared to swim, even if her angelic buoyancy prevented her from sinking like most of us would after a brief tussle with the waves!

We must ask: If such goodness utterly lacks the means to be mindful of its own preservation and protection against the multitude of evils—subtle and gross—that abound in the world and in the depths of the psyche, then can it really be worth all that much? Eve’s innocence, one might argue, left her easy prey to the subtle manipulations of her tempter—as neither she nor Adam had sufficient first-hand experience of evil to draw upon when the serpent made his fork-tongued pitch to her. It was Othello’s alluring account—his speeches about his trials and adventures on the battlefield and in the school of hard knocks—that seduced Desdemona in the first place. It was this fantasy-image, if you will, of his ‘romantic-heroic’ exploits and sufferings that won over her heart and her loyal love. But this is vicarious experience, no real substitute for the all-demanding trials and tribulations that must be suffered upon the actual battlefield of adult human experience—or in the shark-infested waters into which she was cast as she broke with (and eventually broke) her father, plighting her troth to the Moor?

Both Desdemona and Cassio are, to a notable extent, hothouse plants—refined, exquisite products of privileged circumstances and lavish cultivation. They recognize and value this polished, ‘courteous’ quality in one another. Such polish and cultivation is noticeably lacking in the rough Othello and the base Iago. Othello admires and perhaps even envies such refinement and cultivation as he finds in his lieutenant and in his prized wife. Iago, on the other hand, while outwardly (hypocritically) respectful towards these social superiors, is inwardly contemptuous of such ‘impractical’ and generally feckless cultivation. Like Machiavelli, Iago is a champion of expediency, ‘commodity,’ and practical results. ‘Theory’ and social refinements are, for him, mere ornaments and masks behind which ineptitude and unearned privilege find a place to hide. Iago senses—rightly—that, despite his actual, prolonged experiences on the battlefield and in the camp, Othello is foolishly enamored (or bamboozled) by all this frippery and elegant nonsense—and Iago’s cunning exploitation of this ‘weakness’ is one of the principal means by which he subdues Othello to his ‘Satanic’ will. Iago subtly insinuates that, in their clandestine affair, Desdemona and Cassio are privately asserting rights and privileges—derived from birth and breeding—to maintain an alliance (with ‘benefits’) from which Othello will always be barred full membership. Perhaps it is Othello’s gnawing, tormenting suspicion that not even his marriage to Desdemona can magically qualify him for inclusion within her privileged class which ultimately ‘gets his goat.’ In entertaining this idea, we surely needn’t throw out sexual jealousy as a principal motivator behind the murder of his beloved-detested wife. But if we take note of Othello’s repeated, emphatic concerns for his honor—which persist to his final moment—we have to assume that wounded pride or touchy self-regard certainly vie with wounded love and disappointment with Desdemona as ‘the cause’ of her murder.

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We, the Decomposers in the Wilderness (12/09)

It should come as no surprise that the more sensitive and consciously attuned members of a culture which is entering its senescence (and beginning to lose a good deal more than just its memory) should grow anxious and experience bouts of tormenting frustration from time to time. Nevertheless, descent into a chronic state of pessimism should be earnestly avoided at all costs. Why? If we become caught in the poisonous tentacles of feckless pessimism we will certainly miss a splendid opportunity to reap a sumptuous harvest that predictably appears during such phases of cultural decay and slow death as we are now immersed in. Delicious but utterly ephemeral fungi of the most delicate and nuanced flavor thrive in the present twilight upon the rotting trees that have been felled in this, our dank wilderness. We, who occupy the special ecological niche of the decomposers in the forest have our humble part to play in this vanishing habitat. We are not the nearly forgotten heroes who planted these trees and tended them with their selfless devotion—fought and perished in their defense. We are the late-born ‘microorganism men’ who eke the last bit of life from these crumbling giants. We cannot help but overhear others talking in anxious tones and melodramatic terms about ‘end-times’—and yet these noisemakers seem to have no adequate conception of what has already passed from the earth. We are the micro-men, scuttling about in the shadows, rustling under the leaves, and wriggling through our moist little wormholes, silently (for none of these others can hear us at our inaudible frequency) keeping ourselves alive on the rotting limbs and stumps into which we sink our sharp and determined little teeth.

Ones and Threes (5/09)

Spirit, soul, and body (or matter) may be likened to the three states of water: vapor, liquid, and ice. One substance, three distinct states, each with its own distinctive properties.

Each arena of experience—spirit, soul, and body—has its own phenomenology that is native to it. All three are inter-related and no one of them is ultimately reducible to the terms of the others. In their triplicity they point to the complex possibilities of the single substance of which they are distinct states. We cannot fail to observe, here, the analogy with the Holy Trinity, the one God in three persons. Or we may liken spirit, soul, and body to the three primary colors—red, blue, and yellow that combine to make white light, which comprehends them all. Diverse combinations of these three colors produce the almost infinite variety of particular colors, shadings, and hues. The three gunas of Indian yoga philosophy (rajas [activity], tamas [inertia], and sattva [harmony]) provide another analogy for the three states of the one from which all things may be derived.

The underlying unity behind this totality is also expressed in the mystical saying: ‘Spirit is matter in its most rarified state, while matter is spirit in its least rarified state.’ This notion of an essentially unbroken continuum between spirit (light) and matter (darkness) is useful as an aid to intuitively appreciating the all-inclusiveness of the totality.

Musings on the Political Fitness of Contemporary Americans

Insofar as the domain of human experience—taken in its entirety, throughout our collective history—can with justice be likened to a purgatorio or a moral-psychological boot camp, there is never likely to be an enduring, authentic peace among the nations of the world. All such blueprints and utopian schemes for ‘perpetual peace’ are bound to fail. Civil order can be enforced under repressive or authoritarian regimes (as in India under British rule before the partition in 1947, or before the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq a few years ago), but as soon as repressions are lifted, trouble and corruption of one kind or another seem sure to follow. This is due to the fact that all of us—one by one, as individuals, and not as members of a crowd or mass—must freely choose to master and moderate our aggressive, anarchic drives, impulses, fears, and desires. Only when we have attained mastery and moderation of these peace-and-harmony-disturbing forces within ourselves do we enter the ranks of the truly civilized—that segment of the population that can more or less be counted on to maintain a good measure of decency and harmony in its thought, speech, and behavior. This segment has always constituted a minority of the general population and will continue to do so for a long time to come.

There exist a large number of persons whose passions, drives, and affects are sufficiently weak so as to present very little opposition to even the most mild restraints imposed upon them. But the apparent calm and stability expressed by such persons should perhaps be regarded with chary admiration, since it is precisely the lack of vigor and vehemence of their passions that makes them so docile and tame. Such persons, taken singly, are capable neither of generating much good nor much real evil—no more than a nine-volt battery can be expected to power a loaded school bus or a bulldozer. But as soon as such singularly undistinguished and (instinctually) low-voltage persons merge into the mass or herd, they become viable contributors to acts of much greater impact and significance. Then they are capable of wreaking incalculable havoc and destruction—examples of which are so abundant in the last century as to require no further elaboration.

Where such persons are concerned, it is a matter of no small importance which leaders win and hold their trust. Will it be those leaders who address and continually stoke their baser, nastier, and more divisive instincts and feelings—their petty hatreds, their racial and religious prejudices, their envy and their resentments, their lusts and their greed? Or will it be those leaders who appeal to their better angels—their compassionate side, their preference for peace and for cooperation, their patience, their tolerance, and their disciplined self-control? Since this broad segment of the mass population has seldom been able to wisely master and govern its baser instincts during times of intense upheaval and severe trials, it either reluctantly or gratefully supports forceful and charismatic public leaders, endowing them with the power and authority it has not won for (and over) itself. This is why the question of who wins the trust of the masses is so important—and why it is a question that will never be finally and decisively answered and dispensed with, once and for all. Once someone has justly been recognized as a demagogue, trouble has a recognizable name and a face. And all those who have been seduced by such pied pipers can be relied upon to be both the channeling agents and the ultimate victims of the trouble that regularly issues from such unholy marriages. Let those who can, beware—and steer clear of groups and mobs, parties and movements. Undisciplined children can be relied upon to make much noise, but not wise choices. Is collective folly the price demanded for collective liberty? It would seem so.

The Little Snag Buried Deep in the Heart of the Romantic Love Myth (9/30/09)

Is it not utterly absurd and outlandish—this bizarre promise of peacefully joining together intense sexual desire and compassionate, protective love—and to embark upon the miraculous and dicey merger with a single partner? This seems a bit like bringing a hungry man into a forest with his bow and arrow. A beautiful doe appears. Shall he slay and consume her, thus appeasing his hunger—or should he bow down, worship, and protect this potentially delicious and nourishing meal both from his own and everyone else’s greedy appetite? He cannot have it both ways, for a protective predator or a predatory protector is an oxymoronic absurdity (a predactor?). The hunter (who initially regards his mate with perhaps only slightly less relish than the ruttish cur brings to his estrus bitch) ‘evolves’ under ideal conditions into a doting, protective husband and father. Roughly speaking, what commences in the white heat of ferocious desire ever so gradually softens into the rosy warmth of unwavering, solicitous love. A concentration and interweaving of untamed itches and yearnings to gratify one another’s selfish lusts is, over the mellowing course of time, ennobled into selfless attention to the care and safety of the erstwhile prey of one’s devouring lust.

What with One No-thing and the Other: the Zero-Sum Game of Personifying the Two (10/09)

Jung first differentiated two attitudinal types: the extravert and the introvert. In the extravert the conscious libido habitually flows towards the object, but there is an unconscious secret counter-action back towards the subject. In the case of the introvert, the opposite occurs: he feels as if an overwhelming object wants constantly to affect him, from which he has continually to retire; everything is falling upon him, he is constantly overwhelmed by impressions, but he is unaware that he is secretly borrowing psychic energy from and lending it to the object through his unconscious extraversion. (Jung’s Typology: Part I: The Inferior Function; Marie-Louise Von Franz, p. 1)

But in general one could say that the introverted standpoint is one which sets the ego and the subjective psychological process above the object and the objective process, or at any rate seeks to hold its ground against the object. This attitude, therefore, gives the subject a higher value than the object, and the object accordingly has a lower value. It is of secondary importance; indeed, sometimes the object represents no more than an outward token of a subjective content, the embodiment of an idea, the idea being the essential thing. If it is the embodiment of a feeling, then again the feeling is the main thing and not the object in its own right. The extraverted standpoint, on the contrary, subordinates the subjective process appearing at times as no more than a disturbing or superfluous appendage to objective events. It is clear that the psychology resulting from these contrary standpoints must be classed as two totally different orientations. The one sees everything in terms of his own situation, the other in terms of the objective event. (Psychological Types, CW., vol. 6, p. 5; Carl Jung)

The way up and the way down are one and the same. (Heraclitus)

Whence things have their origin, thence also their destruction happens, as is the order of things; For they execute the sentence upon one another—the condemnation for the crime—In conformity with the ordinance of Time. (Anaximander fragment)

The desire to travel in remote areas of the world —alone or with a congenial stranger—may be a dense, concretistic substitute for what I imaginatively desire. Lately, I have had the sense that an ability to travel freely and inwardly in a radically new manner will eventually be within my reach.

This new interior travel is greatly facilitated by a kind of mental suspension of the attachments, the binding routines and rituals that otherwise confine my movements to this game board, my mundane existence. It is from this very platform or game board that I seek to lift off, like a puerrocket, into uncharted regions of imaginal exploration. This act of temporarily ignoring my ego-attachments and bonds is a deliberate turning of my back to the ‘has been’ and an imaginatively directed gaze into the ‘might be.’

Of course the yin-yang substratum can never be transcended, regardless of how powerful our imaginative faculties may happen to be, for this substratum is the eternal matrix—or the ancient ‘contractual marriage’—out of which all new and old forms alike are conceived, gestated, hatched, and then come out looking to subdue us—either with a fetching and disarming smile or with a menacing grimace. So, there are always limits imposed upon the ‘child’s’ freedom. If he moves closer to Dada, his mental forms will be correspondingly freer, more volatilized, lighter. If, on the other hand, he moves closer to Mama, they will be deeper, more gnarled and ‘grounded,’ imbued with more gravity and density. The comprehensive child is a juggler of Mama-jugs and Daddy-balls. One might go so far as to say that it is only for ‘the child’s sake’ that Dada and Mama remain married, for the child is all they genuinely share in common after the initial flush of innocent desire subsides, followed by a seeming eternity of familiar routines and clichés.

But for the sacrifices made for the benefit of the divine child, the tense and uneasy bond of the Two would break asunder and a new round of ‘hide and seek’ would eventually arise out of the lingering smoke wisps produced by the cosmic short-circuit. At times, however, a complete forgetfulness of the many ‘has beens’ is required before the ‘innocence’ of rekindled desire can rear its bashful, pink little head. Only the renewal of desire can overcome the private torments of utterly unaccompanied Selfhood. The Self projects ‘the Other’ in an act of forgetting its isolated unity—dividing into Subject and Object, pursuer and pursued, intrepid hunter and cunning game, as immortally depicted in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. The Other’s ‘being’ and ‘consciousness’ (sat and chit) is projected into apparent existence by the Self in a temporal act of self-forgetfulness. The sublimest incest is underway here—but whether it is between father and daughter, mother and son, or brother and sister is, spiritually speaking, merely a matter of personifying and nominal distinctions. Incest is ultimately traceable back to something like the oblivion-seeking autoeroticism of the One Self—a form of self-division/self-diversion prompted by the ‘loneliness of God.’

The (projected) Other seeks a substantial center for herself—while the Self flees his: thus, a match is born of confusion and divine misunderstanding. The Other, dreading the possibility that she is a mere projection, or figment, and not the ‘ding an sich,’ is overcome by a plaguing anxiety and ruttish restlessness. She would like a child to do for her what she has done for the Self that ‘fathered’ her—to provide a remedy against festering restiveness, isolation, and disquiet. But the Two, as I said, are respectively disturbed by conditions that are diametrically opposed to one another. The One, because there is finally no real Other; the Other, because she suspects she’s not the ‘real deal’—that her ‘substance’ is merely on loan and must be paid back, bankrupting her in the transaction. If the Other could be the One, her anxiety would merely be inverted in its form, but lose none of its stinging severity. If the Self could eternally and blissfully merge with and become lost in the fantasy-projected Other, its forgetfulness would seem complete. But this bliss can never be sustained because all forms assumed by the Other—and through the Other as divine children—eventually lose their power to enchant some ineradicable part of him and, with dream-scattering self-knowledge, he is eventually thrown back, once again, upon himself.

Prima Materia and the Herd (11/07)

A development has occurred wherein ‘the herd’ has been transformed in my understanding from an externalized generality into an interior, psychological state or condition. One could speak here of a process of de-reifying what is, at bottom, a psychic problem or riddle—or one might describe it as the withdrawal of collective shadow projections. At any event, the problem associated with that loaded word ‘herd’ has been to a great extent relocated within, so that a rather awkward, imaginary (but felt) antagonism between me and the masses has gradually begun to yield to a very different sort of internal political tension between a largely unconscious, undifferentiated part of the psyche and another, more consciously developed part of the same psyche.

Viewed within the context of these observations and psychic processes, the aims of the alchemists (the psycho-spiritual aims, that is—not the vulgar ones) certainly make sense, do they not? I refer here chiefly to the various operations (calcinatio, sublimatio, solutio, coagulatio, mortificatio, circulatio, etc.) that were performed upon the prima materia. If we substitute ‘herd’ for prima materia, then a whole set of correspondences are suddenly suggested.

I have often attributed the quality of murkiness to the masses, something that is often ascribed to the prima materia. ‘Obscure,’ ‘inscrutable,’ ‘formless,’ ‘unintelligible’—these are terms commonly employed when speaking of the prima materia. Edward Edinger links the prima materia to the personal shadow (Anatomy of the Psyche, p. 12), as I link the herd to collective shadow contents. He links it with the child and with innocence—as I have many times considered the herd to be composed and even led, oftentimes, by psychologically immature and one-sided persons. Edinger also notes the ubiquity of the prima materia—making it the source out of which all individual things (noble or base) are generated.

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Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power may prove to be a good source for insights into the herd-prima materia connection. He writes:

There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown…it is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched. That is the only situation in which the fear changes into its opposite…As soon as a man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch. Ideally, all are equal there; no distinctions count, not even that of sex (p. 15)

One might argue that this place of reversal—the very point at which the ascetic aversion to being touched or violated by the stranger turns into its opposite—is the psychological threshold or membrane that precariously separates the individual ego-consciousness from the collective; the Apollonian principium individuationis from Dionysian rapture and the orgiastic melting away of all taboos and boundaries; the ‘opus’ from the prima materia.

Suddenly it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body. This is perhaps one of the reasons why a crowd seeks to close in on itself: it wants to rid each individual as completely as possible of the fear of being touched. The more fiercely people press together, the more certain they feel that they do not fear each other. (ibid., p. 16)

It makes perfect sense that, after performing all the necessary substitutions, I should measure everything I do, think, and feel against ‘the herd’ and its supposed values. What this means—now translated into new, but corresponding terms—is that I recognize that all individual qualities and perceptions must inevitably be understood against the background of the prima materia from which they are derived and differentiated. This is the psychological basis for my chronic preoccupation with the masses and their ‘contaminating’ influence. The real or imagined tensions and conflicts that I endure with the herd mirror the conflicts and tensions I experience intrapsychically as my discriminating ego ‘individuates’—by subtly distinguishing between the individual and the collective elements within my psyche. These two mirror one other.

The model or paradigm I’ve inhabited these past ten years or more is being outgrown, at long last. That paradigm was a socio-political one consisting of a tiny population of spiritual-psychological elites (or aristocrats) and a much larger mass population of unsophisticated and largely unconscious persons. This ‘us and them’ fantasy model seems to have served its limited purpose of dichotomizing a totality into opposed halves. The underlying and ultimate unity had to first be broken (somewhat violently and crudely) before it could be re-joined consciously and artfully. This break or severance is symbolized by the expulsion of our first parents from Eden where the original (undifferentiated) unity was still intact. This corresponds to the birth and laborsome development of ego-consciousness—the separation of the blissful infant from its (identification with its) mother. The always uncomfortable and unpleasant phase of the separatio ideally leads to a consciously undertaken reconciliation of the opposites.

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The vivid sense of the actual continuity that is maintained between, on the one hand, the most exquisitely elaborated paragon of individualized consciousness, and the prima materia (or ‘collective unconscious’ matrix from which that individual differentiates him- or herself), on the other, must be repeatedly stressed. There are a number of familiar analogies that may be helpful here.

The general idea of cultivation is especially apt as a metaphor for individuation. Fertile soil is to agriculture what the prima materia (the unconscious psyche) is to individuation. Both are the ground (the necessary and inescapable ground) out of which the individual emerges, whether that happens to be the individual ear of corn or a Friedrich Nietzsche. We understand from such a model why the alchemists regarded their special activity as a kind of art. What transforms a few naturally derived pigments and a blank canvas into a Mona Lisa or Girl with a Pearl Earring is the artful application and arrangement of colors, shapes, and shadows by the inspired and skillful artist. These same basic, naturally-derived materials would scarcely be capable of finding their way into the timelessly beautiful forms given us by Leonardo and Vermeer if the craft of painting was unknown to these shrewd and skillful handlers of the paints, brushes, and canvas. Analogously, the art of transforming one’s given ingredients into a more or less balanced, complete, and conscious individual is not bestowed by nature—even if, as Jung claimed, it is implied, or even intended—but must be acquired and cultivated before impressive results ensue. Perhaps more significantly, individual awareness of an exceptional caliber and quality cannot be borrowed or bought—no matter how rich or persuasive a person might otherwise be. It is earned through patient, persistent, and thoroughly conscious effort that is extended over years. The degree of nuanced articulation, the comprehensiveness of the scope of one’s individual consciousness, the style, flavor, and color of our personal expression—all of these matters are under a person’s conscious control—up to a point—while what he or she is born with, in the way of capacities, is not.

Loneliness and a heightened sense of one’s anomalous existence may be the heavy price paid for ‘becoming who one is’ in a mass society. My suspicion, though, is that all true individuals have always been—and always will be—inescapably alone in certain key respects. They will always be a bit like the solitary space-walker, floating out in the dark cold reaches of nothingness, in orbit around mother earth, tethered by his fragile life-line to the puny vessel that got him there, and will return him—if all goes according to plan—to his home below.

The individual, like the scout or pioneer, seems to be needed in order to open up new territory that will be settled by others who follow after him. If he did not relish the exhilaration that comes from pushing past the limits of the given horizons—if he was not up to absorbing the disappointments and shocks—if he cannot withstand the loneliness and the cold that necessarily accompany such ventures, then he will remain a follower, a settler. There is certainly nothing dishonorable about the life of a follower and a settler—but the rewards are very different than those within reach of the individual adventurer and explorer. The creative, explorer-soul may appreciate the gratitude and admiration of followers and beneficiaries but these are not what he ultimately seeks. For one thing, he knows how quickly that admiration can turn into derision, suspicion and fearful mistrust. Therefore, it is always the exhilarating enrichment of discovery that lures him onwards into ever-new territory—if not for mankind, at least new for him.