Nisargadatta-Jung: a Vulgar Comparison (9/2/15)

Nisargadatta is like a man who voluntarily has his penis and testicles lopped off—and then tells (anyone who bothers to ask about why he volunteered for such as ghastly procedure) that unless and until they voluntarily do so, too, they are living a big lie and squandering their limited life force.

Carl Jung, on the other hand, is like a man with a massive member and two big sperm-spouting cojones telling anyone who’ll listen that we should “make (meaningful, individuated) hay” while we can, because before you know it, your generative organs will be shriveled and shrunken to everlasting nothingness.

Nisargadatta has opted for parabrahman, thus disbanding the actors and striking the set of the big play. Carl Jung digs up buried gold to provide an endowment for the theater so that the big play can enjoy an indefinitely extended run—and plenty of out of work actors can get back onstage and play their parts with a refreshed sense of meaningfulness and relevance.

Nisargadatta’s is the hard sell, while Jung has growing numbers lining up to get into the theater, even when they don’t know who Jung is.

Induction (4/3/14)


We often find that when we engage with others, we are typically obliged to engage with them solely on their own, usually unsifted terms—i.e., within the possibly cramped orbit of what may turn out, upon close inspection, to be a myopic but incongruously cocksure conceptions of themselves—and of the whole of reality! If the range and the depth of our own thought, imagination, and expressive power are hemmed in by an unwitting, faithful allegiance to the limiting horizons of the minds, sympathies, and imaginations of the generality, we ultimately have but ourselves to blame for becoming ‘bogged down’ in a steamy swamp of spiritual-mental mediocrity and mendacity.

For those of us who instinctively rebel against being thus corralled into cognitive collusion with the languid, the lumpy, the listless, and the laggard—those of us, that is to say, who have no hankering to become obliging day-care workers in the nescient nursery-school of innocuous nincompootpourri—these klutzily blunting and maiming locutions, differentiations, and explanations must be gathered up in our biggest red wheelbarrow and carried to the nearest incinerator. So much depends on this! Then, and only then, do we begin to place ourselves in the clean and lonely position to re-enact Adam’s ancient office of (re-) naming the animals.

This means that we must not only thoroughly mistrust, but we are also obliged to thoroughly overhaul and regenerate, the ‘commonsense’ understanding of reality and of ourselves—the (mis-) understanding that is lovingly-brutally bludgeoned into our impressionable young minds and souls from the moment of our birth into this amnesiac, blathering, and deracinated culture. We must renegotiate all those eviscerating adaptations, concessions, and dubious terms of agreement that we unwittingly signed and consented to—largely because there was no one around to caution us against what we were getting ourselves into as we were being corkscrewed into the managed pandemonium of manic, modern, mundane madness.

Sensitivity and the Expanded Range of Consciousness (3/12/13)

When first learning how to meditate, we run into a slew of hurdles. One problem that must be faced is the problem of enhanced sensitization to psychic noise or chatter. Certain audio response systems provide a helpful illustration of this problem. So long as the person talking maintains a fairly constant volume as he speaks into the microphone, the response level similarly remains constant. Thus, the person listening on the other end hears a voice that stays within a limited range of amplitude. If he falls silent for a minute, certain miking systems compensate (by way of ‘compression’) by boosting the gain level on the microphone—so as to pick up what it mistakes for a much fainter signal from the speaker. We have all been talking on Skype at one time or another and had this happen. The other person steps away from the laptop for a moment and soon we are picking up ambient noise from other parts of the house, from lawnmowers across the street, etc. The internal miking system has automatically boosted the gain in order to compensate for the drop in volume and we start hearing things that were not being picked up before.

Analogously, when we are learning how to quiet down our minds, it is as if something within the psyche suddenly becomes much more sensitized to softer and subtler levels of mental amplitude. Consequently, very ‘insignificant’ and subliminal impressions—of all sorts—begin to be registered. Some are petty, some are profound. But because we are now picking up on these formerly ‘inaudible’ frequencies, we are obliged to reckon with them. Once they are on our radar screen we can no longer plead ignorance or dismiss them as if they don’t exist—for, now that they have broken across the threshold of consciousness, they possess psychic reality.

As a consequence of the heightened sensitivity that attends the progressive quieting down of the mind, the scope of knowable or experienceable phenomena—and states of consciousness, as well—expands proportionally.

The Lonely Struggle for Inner Freedom (11/21/12)

Perhaps the commonest and, at the same time, the most unfortunate abortion of spiritual birth takes the form of our becoming comfortable with our incarceration within some prison or another. Instead of devoting our best energy and thought to our gradual release from this pleasant enslavement, our best efforts are perversely devoted to making our life more thoroughly satisfying within our padded cell! The easiest pathway down this hole is to deny that we are ‘serving time’ in the first place. Then it is a simple matter of making the most of prison life, which is equated not only for reality, as such, but with freedom. For obvious reasons, only those who have unmasked these ‘ordinary’ conditions as a vast, carefully designed and crafted system of institutionalized but reasonably comfortable imprisonment (as in the popular—but apparently unheeded—movie, The Matrix) are in a position, mentally, to rebel against the subtle means of conscription and adaptation always at work within our slave culture, breaking down humanity’s fabled spirit of resistance, its much celebrated love of freedom. Such unveilers and decriers of the consumer-driven system—along with the behaviors, habits (of spending, borrowing, working, worshiping, playing, medicating, etc.) and values that encourage and facilitate obedient adaptation to this system—are never comfortable with anything less than genuine steps towards inner freedom. Since the elaborate, vast system itself cannot be conquered by the spiritually-driven, rebellious individual—the freedom he seeks is freedom from the system’s unrivaled domination over his mind, heart, soul, and body. Hence, the work tends, in most cases, to be more introspective and reflective than outer-directed. As long as those around him—his friends, family, and fellow citizens—are still under the compelling spell of enchantment that the system exercises over their minds, he can do little to impact their lives for the better. In fact, the delusion-based scheme of conscription into the spirit-and-imagination-deforming system is so generally unchallenged—and its authority over the collective mind is so irresistible—that strident outcry against it typically sounds like treason, heresy, or outright insanity to the ears of the bemused multitude and their power-hungry leaders/exploiters. For this reason, the dissenter bides his time, working privately—and quietly—upon his own release. He will not withhold assistance from those around him who genuinely seek his counsel and support in their own struggles against imprisonment within the system, but he will certainly not preach rebellion before he is in position to make a significant difference in the ‘world as it is.’ Needless to say, he will not twiddle his thumbs and hold his breath waiting for such an unlikely day to come along!

But until such an opportunity presents itself—if it ever comes—he will persist in his daily- renewed efforts to ‘clear himself.’ In other words, he will be continually involved with the ongoing struggle to extricate his mind and spirit from the sticky mental web of the mass culture in which he, like everyone else, is obliged to interact each day with fellow inmates. It is lonely work—shared perhaps with but a handful of others, and often with no one—but it is the only thing standing between him and the state of anaesthetized oblivion in which the bulk of humanity gropes and claws its way through the fleeting, murky dream of personal existence.

Morality and Psychology: Keeping the Two Distinct (6/10/10, Asuncion, Paraguay)

In certain respects, the immensely challenging period following my decision to withdraw from my marriage consisted in a fierce contest between the rivaling claims of moral duty and what felt like a kind of psychological necessity or compulsion. While it is true that I tend to defer to the claims of psychological development over conventional moral obligations to others, I am certainly not in favor of reneging on authentic moral commitments and duties when these butt heads with demands for psychic growth and freedom. Nor has my behavior towards my ex-wife throughout the separation and divorce shown me to be a delinquent scoffer or heedless evader of moral responsibilities. When I reflect upon the tensions and conflicts that naturally arise between the claims of the psyche and those of my personal morality, I recognize a kind of dialectical relationship—not a war to the death. The notion that one “side” in this dialectically tense relationship should ultimately prevail over the other is certainly not a notion that I subscribe to (quite possibly distinguishing my position from Nietzsche’s on this question). What I see, instead, is that while the earnest cultivation of psychic wholeness places formidable stresses and strains upon all unconditional moral positions and intellectual views, such inner work usually results in greater moral-intellectual subtlety, complexity, suppleness and fluidity—and not to amorality or, for that matter, Über-morality. But this can only be assured when the tension between the two pulls—moral and psychological integrity—is vigilantly maintained.


My suspicion is that for the majority of men and women alive today this whole question seems “academic,” which is to say, irrelevant to their lives and their experience. And why might that be? For most persons who are more or less satisfactorily adapted to the demands and requirements of their cultural and social contexts, this “problematic,” dissonance-producing competitor with moral duty is, at best, only dimly conscious. These “rivaling claims of the psyche” do not seem to tug against or undermine such persons’ implicit certainty about what should be done, even when they are unable to follow and obey these prescriptions. Such persons—and they are legion—appear to be experientially immured exclusively within a moral perspective. The psyche, with its quite dissimilar demands, has not been consciously differentiated from the moral realm.

But I am not at all convinced that the problem is genuinely put to rest or made to disappear simply by one’s becoming a staunch believer in the supreme authority and legitimacy of one’s received moral system. The problem—i.e., of the inherent and ultimately inescapable tension between the claims of the psyche and those of morality (“wholeness” vs. “goodness”?)—is simply misunderstood and misinterpreted from the exclusively moral perspective.[1] It should perhaps be pointed out that one can be almost continually “sinning” or breaking the rules of his/her supremely authoritative, received moral scheme while that person never for a moment questions its rightness or his/her wrongness. This, in fact, turns out to be a crucial factor in coming to a proper understanding of the inherent inadequacy of any moral perspective or system that is credited by its believer with supreme authority and final jurisdiction, as we shall see in due course.

When I was a kid, the idea struck me one day that a squirrel was essentially just a rat with a cute and fluffy tail! (note: But, at the same time, a rat is just a squirrel without a fluffy tail, less hygienic dietary habits, and a preference for hanging out in less “lofty” environments than its more beloved cousin). If I looked only at the “front” end of the squirrel and mentally ignored its distinctive fluffy tail, it looked a whole lot like a brown rat—that despised and “revolting” creature whose surprise appearance on a restaurant floor would instantly send the shrieking and flipped out patrons racing for the doors in a general stampede. If a squirrel, on the other hand, were somehow able to sneak through the front door and past the hostess’ stand, these same patrons would all be competing with each other to lure it over to their tables with morsels of bread, saying “Oh, isn’t he just so cute?”

Many years later I began to recognize that the devoted followers of received systems of morality smell only a rat precisely where depth psychology also sees a squirrel. One perceives only a mangy cur while the other also sees a beautiful golden retriever or a loyal St. Bernard. One sees but a flea-infested alley cat while the other also discerns a majestic and powerful lion. One recognizes only a benighted and erring sinner while the other also sees a potentially noble and divinely inspired poet or sage.

William Blake understood that most “moral” persons—even when at their best—achieve only what he regarded as a kind of “negative purity,” because their moral behavior was based entirely upon the suppression or willful negation of the “rat” (or the “snake,” or the “tyger,” etc.) within them. But by mentally and imaginatively repressing these “Satanic” elements, these “good” people were often half-wittingly cutting themselves off from the lion’s share of their own energy and substance as creatures. So, their (often smug) sense of their own moral “goodness” was being purchased at the price not only of their human wholeness—but it weakened them greatly by cutting them in half, as it were.[2] For the problematic privilege of feeling “good” about themselves, morally, they were doing palpably “bad” things to themselves, psychologically. Of course, since practically everybody else in one’s midst was also invested in the same (psychologically imbalanced and unhealthy) game, it was all but impossible for Blake’s contemporaries to see and appreciate what he was talking about.[3]

Earlier, when I claimed that, unlike the psychologically awakened or enlightened person, the man who dwells exclusively within the system of moral assumptions that he receives with uncritical acceptance from his culture acknowledges no “problematic” or “dissonance-producing” counterpoint to morality. But what about all those “sinful,” base, or vicious impulses and desires that test (and often defeat) his “moral” will? Certainly these are “problematic” and disturbing, are they not? True, but the problems and disturbances they produce occur within the all-encompassing, closed system of his received moral system. They seldom pose a direct challenge to the system itself. With the gradual development of an authentically psychological perspective, we have for the first time the emergence of a standpoint that has declared its independence from the exclusively moral one.   Now, for the first time, recognizably psychological values and demands can ‘dialogue’ with—and challenge the former supremacy of—moral values and demands. Where, before, there was a kind of unconscious monism (or monotheistic frame of mind), now there is an emerging polaristic scheme, not an artificial or illegitimate unitary one.

With the emergence of this subtler and more appropriately complex arrangement there is a corresponding shift from the use of mere behavior modification and mental repression to the employment of imagination and psychological understanding in the person’s approach to “moral” conflict and tension. Instead of both projecting and introjecting a divisive “us vs. them” or “good vs. evil” dualism upon both “world” and “self,” a more constructive, truly compassionate, and dialectical dynamic is cultivated. When the deeper implications of these suggestions are fully appreciated, it will be seen at once that moral goodness and obedience, as these are vulgarly apprehended, are ultimately conducive to self-division and psychological illness—problems that are shockingly widespread and severe in present-day culture and evident to anyone who knows what he’s looking at. But our psychiatrists, preachers, moralists, artists, and politicians almost invariably treat only the symptoms (at best)—and seldom ever address the true sources and underlying causes of these disturbing symptoms. The explanation for this seems simple enough. These self-appointed leaders of society, managers and custodians of culture, still function exclusively from within the blinkered horizons of the moral perspective. They either know nothing of the psychological perspective—whence the real prospect of healing these destructive inner splits can truly come—or else they do, but for some reason or another they are keeping their hard-won and culturally beneficial knowledge to themselves.

To say that these leaders and self-appointed custodians of culture operate exclusively within the horizons of the moral standpoint is not to suggest that most or even a fair number of them are “morally upright” or “good” persons in an authentic sense. What I am suggesting here is that if a few—or even most—of them genuinely were “good” and “upright” persons, this is scarcely enough to effect a reversal of the course that we are presently on. The broad proliferation and performance of morally good and upright actions can certainly have the temporarily beneficial effect of reducing toxic levels of cynicism, hopelessness, and anxiety about a future where lupus est homo homini.

But goodness is by no means enough, even on a broad or pandemic scale. Quite simply, what is called for at this present stage of humanity’s dimly discernible path of evolutionary unfoldment is the gradual development of psychological self-understanding. This stage must eventually supersede the long period of “moral” development—the critical deficiencies of which have already been hinted at. This development must begin at first with those who possess the education and the ‘moral courage’ required, as a bare minimum, to extricate oneself from the otherwise ubiquitous and all-powerful embrace of the “moral coils” of that constricting python, “the normal.”

[1] Rather as Nietzsche, especially in early works like Human, All Too Human and Daybreak, misinterpreted and undervalued “morality” from a reductively psychological-physiological perspective.

[2] There are strong resemblances between what Blake has to say about “negative purity”—the dubious “goodness” that is achieved only by denying and suppressing the “Satanic” energies that are part of us and which are a source of much of our vitality—and what Nietzsche has to say about the crippling side-effects of “ascetic ideal” in Genealogy of Morals.

[3] When his works were given any critical attention by the conventional critics of his day, the results were, predictably, less than favorable. One reviewer, Robert Hunt of the London Examiner, probably spoke for the lot of them when he described Blake as “an unfortunate lunatic whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement” and his works as “the wild effusions of a distempered brain.” (Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry, p. 411) Ordinary minds (that are completely and uncritically conscripted into their locally inherited, conventional system of morality) almost invariably regard challengers to that system’s authority (men like Blake and Nietzsche) as “lunatics” or “madmen.”

Dickens and Great Expectations: A Moralist at the Threshold of Modern Psychology (3/4/2004)

If, as a rule in Dickens’ Great Expectations, we are presented with characters for whom we either feel a sudden liking or an equally swift aversion, the richly drawn character of Pip serves as a notable exception. Since actual human beings are seldom simply good, like Joe Gargery, or simply villainous, like Orlick—but tend to be more or less stable compounds (and not a Manichaean colloids) of decent and not so decent impulses, passions, and drives—Dickens’s frequent reliance upon unambiguous indicators of his characters’ moral natures sometimes presents difficulties. These difficulties either tend to be invisible or irrelevant to those among his readers who desire little more than to have their own conventional Christian moral prejudices affirmed and artfully endorsed. Those of his readers, on the other hand, who find too many of his characters suspiciously mono-dimensional (or cartoonishly bi-dimensional, like the schizoid Wemmick) may walk away from an otherwise outstanding work of literature with a feeling that they’ve been cunningly swindled. What is missing, it appears upon closer inspection, is the sort of complex psychological depiction that readers of the best modern literature have come to expect. What makes this difficult to see after an over-hasty reading of the novel is the remarkably complex and finely shaded rendering of Pip’s moral character. But, while morality and psychology have been more or less intimately inter-related since the days of Plato and Aristotle, they are not the same. The moral standpoint is inherently evaluative, where it is not blatantly judgmental. It constitutes, in a fundamental sense, a calculus whereby actions, statements, and (“Alas, poor Orlick!”) even persons are judged according to a set of axiomatic principles respecting good and evil, good and bad. Psychology, concerned primarily with efforts to understand, must overcome to some extent the inclination (or determination) of the moral standpoint to pass judgment. Pip rarely seems to step outside the ‘box’ of the moral worldview of his local culture and into the then relatively uncharted regions of psychological enquiry. Does Dickens?

As already suggested, Pip’s character is by no means simple, but conspicuously complex. The novel chronicles a number of life-shaping and transformative episodes that are crucial to his development into the multifaceted adult who narrates his own early history. How, it will be asked, can such a character and such episodes be credibly and movingly depicted without there being at the same time a hefty serving of “psychology” woven into the mix? A closer look at the theoretical and terminological limitations within which Dickens was obliged to work will help to answer this question—and, at the same time, enlarge our respect and admiration for what he was able to accomplish as an artist within these limitations.

Moral and psychological development does not take place in a vacuum. Repression and Victorian England go together like sin and New Orleans or commerce and 16th Century Venice. The repression of feeling is not infrequently carried to caricatural lengths, as with the figures of Jaggers and Wemmick, where a frank and uninhibited expression of any tender sentiments (from the compassionate end of the spectrum—i.e., “Walworth sentiments”) is strictly forbidden as a lapse of cool, professional objectivity, or worse, a contemptible display of effeminacy. For the wannabe gentleman coming, as Pip does, from the rude and provincial backwater, virtually all those features that endear us to Joe Gargery (his rustic, unsophisticated manner; his childlike simplicity of feeling; even his awkward mangling of speech when he’s out of his element) must be trimmed away or hammered straight so that no sign of those origins can detract from the polish he strives to acquire. A “snob’s” refashioning of himself extends beyond the visible and audible parts of his personality, however, for it entails a kind of disowning or “rising above” those coarser and less genteel aspects of his psyche or inner nature. This is commonly enough accomplished by unconsciously projecting these “shadow” contents onto the convenient carriers in one’s midst. Scapegoats for one’s own messier and less presentable traits, impulses, and inclinations are, in a sense, unfairly demonized and called upon, often, to carry a disproportionate share of the wayward inheritance dwelling in the personal and collective psyche. Orlick serves this purpose in Great Expectations, for he is made to carry a heavier onus of the brutal and vicious elements of human nature which figure more or less prominently in the psyches of all of us. In a sense, his blackening is correlative with other characters’ whitening, so that Pip, for example, can heighten his relish of his own elevation and gentlemanly sophistication simply by comparing his own state with that of Orlick, Trabb’s boy, and other “inferiors.”

What Dickens presents us with is a situation wherein everything that is of ultimate concern to Pip’s future and his fortunes (the goal of his gentlemanly aspirations, as well as the would-be annihilator of his happiness) are all outside of him. Estella and Orlick, as far as Pip is concerned, are concretizations, or externalized carriers, of the archetypes of the anima and the shadow. Instead of introspectively withdrawing the magical power and significance which is projected upon Estella, and dealing more or less directly with those contents as components of his psyche, he does what most persons have always done: he works not with and upon his psyche, but struggles instead to make his involvement with the significance-bearing person conform to his (often unrealistic and unrealizable) wishes, hopes, expectations. When it is a negative figure, as with Orlick, a demonization and hostile avoidance of the actual person takes place instead of a courageous confrontation with those unpleasant psychic contents for which Orlick has been providing a convenient receptacle.

It is psychologically significant, therefore, that Orlick is employed by Dickens as the agent who commits actions that Pip might in his private heart secretly wish to commit, but which his “elevated” conceit of himself would never allow him to admit. The “silencing” and (cranial) softening of that insufferable scold and wielder of the “Tickler,” Mrs. Joe, and the humiliating chastisement of the repugnant Pumblechook leap to mind. Here we are certainly given a pregnant clue to Pip’s recurrent attacks of guilt, which must be provoked in part by irruptions into consciousness of those darker drives and wishes which are morally deplorable to, and unbecoming of, an aspiring gentleman. Since so much must be repressed, then, in order always to say and feel the proper and correct thing, the reader of Great Expectations must wonder how much dishonesty with oneself is involved in this studied self-censorship and self-suppression. If Pip is divided, if he is now and then ambushed by guilt feelings and primal doubts, we must look to this systematic repression of certain un-Christian impulses and passions which are relegated to the Orlicks of the world to enact and express. We can only guess at the extent to which the world of Pip’s actual experience is falsified and grossly distorted as a more or less direct consequence of the conventional, moralistic, and dualistic lenses through which he looks upon the world, society and individuals. We see how stubborn, for instance, is his idealization of that botched creature, Estella. We see how blinded he is by snobbish conceits of what a gentleman is—so blind, in fact, that his deep-rooted love for his ‘poor relation,’ Joe, suddenly becomes an awkward attachment, a source of inner conflict and embarrassment. We are induced ultimately by Dickens to suspect that one “becomes a gentleman” only at a terrible cost to his psychic and moral (in the humane, and not merely conventional sense) integrity.

Pip is positioned on a path, at one end of which crouches Orlick, while at the other, floats Estella. If one is the symbolic denizen of a hell which must be shunned at all costs, the other is the queen of a mouldering heaven, entrance into which constitutes the sum and substance of his confused hopes and cravings. Pip is acutely conscious of his hopeless idolization of Estella, of the dangerous consequences likely to ensue from this obsession, and of his utter helplessness to break free from the grip she (unintentionally) binds him in. Instead of being greeted by Estella, the star, as he had hoped would happen (when he returns to Satis House for a special visit in Chapter 18), he is startled to come face to face, instead, with the armed villain, Orlick, who is now serving as a kind of one-headed Cerberus, guarding the gates of Pip’s hellish heaven.

If Pip is, in a sense, living in a dream world—filled with fatuous notions about what “becoming a gentleman” entails, and plagued by an unrelenting desire to possess Estella (as the emblem of his “arrival”)—he will need to be awakened from this intoxicating dream. As the enactor and “carrier” of Pip’s darker impulses and unconscious but unacceptable wishes, Orlick operates within the story as a menacing reminder that neither wealth nor social ascendancy can wholly shield Pip from evils he is at least indirectly responsible for provoking. If his creditors shadow him to collect on his financial debts, Orlick shadows him like a grim reminder of the heads he must step over as he “climbs” up the social ladder.

Where are we to look for the roots of Pip’s guilt? Are they not located in that problematic identification with the man to whom he refers as “my convict”—an identification which commences through his innocent sympathy for the famished Magwitch? Everything in Pip’s everyday experience has prepared him to presume that someone with Magwitch’s record of past offenses is the worst sort of person, one to be feared and avoided at all costs. The multiply ironic course of the novel portrays Pip doing everything in his conscious power to fly away from the very person (and all the associations with him) whom he must eventually accept as his true benefactor and “second father.” If Pip, throughout the bulk of the novel, has been a kind of actor playing out his “gentleman” ideal, the empathetic bond he forges with Magwitch gradually produces a meltdown of this “gentleman complex,” revealing the authentic human being who has been hidden behind the mask. The awakening of his full humanity can truly begin only after Pip summons sufficient honesty within himself to dismantle the false pretensions and snobbish insensitivity which has attended his “rise” to gentleman status. The pursuit of his ambition to become a gentleman has not entailed the exercise of his heart, so much as his idealistic imagination, his pride, vanity, ambition—coupled, of course, with frequent, rash and—ultimately—exhaustive dippings into his purse. Magwitch, from whose coarse and uncouth character Pip initially recoils in disgust, emerges in scenes of great poignancy as the catalyst and inspiration for Pip’s Christological journey of renunciation, sacrifice, and descent into hell—wherefrom he emerges reborn into a soberer and more self-responsible young man. If, despite these regenerative changes, he nonetheless finds himself at the novel’s end in a state of relative alienation, this is the price exacted for the knowledge his experience has left him with. The magic and the delusions of ‘childhood’ have been burnt away in the friction produced by a meteoric descent into the denser earthly atmosphere that sets in after Magwitch’s disclosure.

In the character of Pip we find a “seed” for a novel way of approaching and making sense of the psyche—a seed requiring a soil and a climate that would soon be in a state of perfect preparation in fin-de-siècle Europe. If we do not behold Pip experiencing a revolution of ideas—one which would accompany the healing which he undergoes emotionally—it must be borne in mind that the publication of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams was fifty years away (and the perhaps even more relevant essay in this context—Civilization and its Discontents—was not published until 1930.) In other words, there simply was not yet available to Dickens the theoretical and terminological apparatus for the conceptual articulation of those unconscious processes, structural and dynamic features, pioneered by Freud, Jung, Adler, and their various students and followers. As Jung pointed out on a number of occasions, those thinkers, poets, and alchemists who, in their work, were concerned with unconscious phenomena (which certainly did not first begin with Freud and Co., but have existed, however unformulated in modern psychological terms, since the beginnings of human civilization) were obliged to resort to the language and conceptual tools afforded by myth, poetry, religion, philosophy, metaphysics, and morality. What is noteworthy in Great Expectations is that Dickens succeeded in capturing the phenomena of unconscious repression, projection of the “shadow” and “anima” archetypes, and other psychic processes without having the advantage of a theoretical framework or discipline with which he could organize and express these materials. If it is true that other writers such as Blake, Coleridge, Dostoyevsky, Stendhal, Melville, Hawthorne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche went to perhaps greater depths in their explorations of unconscious drives and determinants, Dickens must be included on the list of artists and thinkers whose work opened up the labyrinth that would be entered and systematically surveyed by Freud and the other depth psychologists.

Shakespeare in Context (8/21/15)

It is worthwhile to contemplate the verbal-linguistic treasures that Shakespeare had at his disposal when he wrote his plays and sonnets. Aside from the over-rich lexical resources he inherited, his ‘public’ was capable of ‘hearing’ and appreciating complex poetical/syntactical constructions that are, for the most part, lost on modern, educated persons who have grown up in an excessively visual, iconographic culture—and not a liberally-educated, reading-auditing culture. Because of the generally cohesive humanist-Biblical culture of Elizabethan England, readers and playgoers were attuned to stories, historical names, fables, religious and moral doctrines, etc., that are not integral components of our more technical and narrowly specialized educations. It is difficult for us to gauge how this nexus of meaningfully interconnected words, images, Biblical references, historical names and events pulsed and throbbed with diverse, scintillating meanings on a variety of different levels for the Elizabethan audiences. And all of this is embedded in the plays of Shakespeare. Of course, unless and until the contemporary reader is able to reconstruct—and then inhabit—at least a rough semblance of that Elizabethan worldview, his response to these peerless works will be markedly curtailed and weakened. I say this not to deter or discourage modern, narrowly- or sparsely-educated Americans from undertaking a serious study of Shakespeare’s plays and the cultural ‘world’ in which he wrote them—but to encourage the bold to jump in and learn how to swim there.

This sort of challenge is certainly not confined to a serious study of Shakespeare but could just as rightfully apply to learning about Catholic doctrine or Plato’s philosophy, Sufism or Renaissance painting. Once the student gets past a certain depth in his study of particular works, he realizes that the works themselves cannot come fully alive unless he is able to imaginatively recreate the mental or cultural conditions/presuppositions out of which these works emerged—and of which they are, to a greater or lesser extent, symptomatic—like the fauna and flora native to a particular eco-system.

Radar (9/23/13)

Often taken for granted—and, therefore, seldom examined or assessed in the light of more expanded criteria—are the subliminal desires and fears guiding the selective process that organizes and propels much of our conscious activity. This guidance system is always operating in the background—like radar on the lookout for the particular kinds of objects it is designed to detect.

A crude but familiar example of this is ‘sex radar’—where one’s mind and senses have become trained to ‘zero in’ on any and all sexually attractive persons within one’s visual (or olfactory) range. When no sexually attractive specimens are present, one goes on with one’s other, generally less absorbing tasks and activities but as soon as a fetching beauty or a handsome face enters the room or the screen, these other pursuits abruptly lose their hold over the attention, as it is directed to the captivating specimen. Of course, it could be expensive or older model automobiles, New Age spiritual themes, exotic birds, political conversations, etc., that pique a person’s interest and effectively eclipse all rivaling pursuits or phenomena as soon as they pop up on one’s radar screen.

If specific kinds of content are associated with the (often compulsive and habitual) selection process invisibly at work in the background of our conscious engagement with the world around us, the distinctive manner in which we approach the objects of our attention is also an important factor. How we go about the business of relating to, or coming to terms with these regularly selected phenomena varies from person to person. The birdwatcher may be interested primarily in identifying and classifying the individual specimens he observes. Or he may be searching for one or several varieties that are edible and which he can hunt to feed his family. Or, the sight of birds of any (flying) variety inspires fantasies of spiritual freedom in his mind and has, therefore, become linked to his sense of well-being.

Plato’s Cave Allegory Updated (4/27/12)

As I have maintained before, moral obligations have binding power and authoritative force within the large arena of ordinary human affairs and dealings—but beyond this almost untranscendable sphere of operations they appear to have no jurisdiction or relevance. But—and here’s the catch—if there is to be any mental liberation from the potent gravitational field of the human realm, one must first undergo the transformative crisis that allows for the neutralization of one’s deeply rooted attachments to (concrete or literal circumstances and persons within) that realm. It should be remembered, of course, that attachment is not the same thing as love or compassion. These are not relinquished along with our possessive (and possessing) attachments. Love and compassion are radiant light issuing from the heart, while attachment may be likened to glutinous goo oozing from organs a notch or two lower than the heart center.

Let’s compare the ordinary, attached human being to a player in a game, or sport. As a participant in this game—say, football—he is invested in the game. He is in no sense indifferent to the outcome of the game. He has other members of his team to consider, as well. He does not want to let them down, nor does he wish to disgrace himself before them. He can harm his own interests—and those of his team—by not playing his best game each time he ‘suits up.’ He can also disappoint by withdrawing from the game because he is no longer able to believe fully in its importance or its ultimate validity. When his faith is thus shaken, he may try at first to shore up his commitment to the game—for he is instinctively aware that withdrawal carries severe penalties and the threat of great inner distress. But once his faith has been shaken to the core, irrepressible doubts and corrosive questions begin to eat away at him. Eventually, something has to give. He can’t fake it any longer. Without a noisy to-do, he quietly takes leave from the only pursuit he’s ever fully given himself to—the game he lived for, and lived by. He ‘retires’ his helmet and his shoulder pads to storage and surrenders himself to a barrage of menacing reflections. Having relinquished his place as principal player in the game, he feels more alone, disoriented, and armorless than ever. In this weakened and confused state he is assailed by questions, challenges, and dark suspicions by which he feels himself to be outgunned. It is as if his former ‘world’ has been turned upside down or inside out.

Do I belabor or overstress the dramatic features of the game analogy? It would only seem so to one who knows little or nothing of the distress, the sense of alienation, and the seemingly meaningless suffering that often accompany a clean and psychologically responsible withdrawal from one’s accustomed role or position in the game. If I make no effort to gloss over the seriousness of the upheaval and the displacement involved in this withdrawal, it is because I wish to dispel at once any notion that this ‘divestment’ is only, or principally, an intellectual move. Nothing could be less ‘intellectual’ than the visceral agony and the fear for one’s very sanity that frequently attend this shift. A profound intellectual grasp of what is happening may follow, but seldom precedes, these psychological ordeals.

I have not forgotten the theme this essay began with—the thorny question of moral obligation and confinement to the realm of exclusively (or decidedly) human commitments and attachments. But in order for this problem to make any sort of psychological sense—the kind of sense I am concerned with making here—we must approach it by imaginatively surrendering ourselves to this crisis that I have begun to sketch. It is a consuming life crisis that is detonated by an intentional withdrawal from one’s accustomed roles, orientation, and attachments in the formerly absorbing game of one’s personal life. It has to be a consciously willed move in order to qualify as a crisis-detonator, as we will soon see, because an enormous amount of will—among other things—is demanded of the candidate for such an enormous crisis and initiation into a wholly new way of being in the world.

As I have already noted, in our analogy, the withdrawer from the game (and from his functional roles in the game) undergoes the experience of having his world turned upside down. Another way of describing this is to say that he is now in a position—really for the first time—not only to see how makeshift, fictive, and limiting the ‘rules of the game’ are—but to feel this realization so profoundly that his view of his fellow players—as well as all such players of all such games everywhere (now, before, and to come)—is transformed forever. His withdrawal has, as it were, catapulted him into a vastly expanded inner space—one that is felt to be so enormous that he feels quite dwarfed—reduced to puny insignificance. He does not yet know his way around this huge unlit interior dimension into which he has been thrust as a consequence of his consciously willed withdrawal from the game, but he absolutely cannot deny its thoroughly pungent reality. He is as yet a stranger and a newcomer there, although he has almost surely heard accounts of this place from others who have been there, too, and have left records and testimonies behind.

At any event, the only thing that is as real and as pressing as the reality of this strange new environment into which he has entered with scarcely more than a flashlight, a candy bar, and a sweater is his new and startling take on the ‘game world’—the conventional, ‘human, all too human’ world—he has emerged from. The new perspective—afforded by his entrance into this unfamiliar inner territory—throws the human realm into a startlingly fresh light. What our newcomer sees, but does not quite yet understand, is precisely what Plato described so memorably in the allegory of the cave in Book VII of the Republic—or what we find in the movie, The Matrix, which owes its central idea to Plato’s cave analogy. He sees his former teammates, his loved ones, and countrymen imprisoned in something akin to a waking (or coagulated?) dream—only they have no idea that they are dreaming artificially induced dreams.

Our fresh ‘initiate’ is still not sufficiently oriented or ‘at home’ within his new bearings (in the expanded, unlit inner space) to be able to enjoy the greater certainty of judgment that may or may not come later. Because of this ‘margin of doubt’ he is reluctant to categorically reject or dismiss their standpoint—their standards of weights and measures, the legitimacy of their moral and philosophical assumptions, the value of their games and contests—but he simply cannot return to that standpoint with the implicit faith he once shared with them. So, while he continues to maintain relationships with his former friends, family members, and countrymen, something that was once a living and felt part of these relationships has now become thin, wispy, and ghostlike—unless one or two of them has undergone the same withdrawal and survived the ensuing crisis. As for the rest, it is supremely difficult—if not altogether impossible—to feel truly at home with them. Perhaps something similar was felt by a soldier returning from the trenches of WWI—one who was being reacquainted with those back home who could know nothing of what he’d actually been through on the front. Or—to use a more felicitous image—it must be akin to the way a mystic feels when he attempts to describe his raptures to a churlish adolescent know-it-all. The experiences of our fledgling initiate have set him apart from his former kinsmen. The ‘apartness’ that he feels—and suffers from—was not manufactured or concocted by him out of some egotistical need to ‘be different.’ His apartness happened to him when his psychic center of gravity shifted to a level or region that appears to be sealed off from almost everyone around him. When he consciously willed his own withdrawal from the game, it is almost certain that he had no idea that in doing so he would bring this fateful apartness upon himself. Perhaps if he had known this, he would have found a million and one good reasons for remaining on the field until he was too old to play anymore—at which point he would begin his less arduous second career—either as a coach or a sportscaster.

But what makes all of this even more poignantly isolating for him—at least during the ‘limbo phase’ before he has acclimated himself to his newly inhabited standpoint—is that, like a disembodied spirit walking the earth, he can see his fellow mortals for who they are, but they cannot truly see him. Only his outer—remembered—form, the husk of his former self, is seen by them. His inner self, rooted in its new inner soil, is invisible or opaque to them.