Depth-seekers and Depth-shunners (7/25/17—Quito)

When a marriage, a friendship, a political alliance, or a professional career is simply not working, despite our best efforts, do we not acquire permission to withdraw—permission that may entail a measure of free moral choice on our part but is not ultimately founded or dependent upon our voluntary choice? Where does this extra-moral permission—or should we not, perhaps, call it an imperative or a mandate—come from? And if this permission, this mandate, this imperative comes from some source or region that lies beyond or deeper than our conscious will and reason—say, from some instinctual or pre-conscious level—how much freedom is involved in the act of withdrawal? What we are describing here is a situation where one’s former investment (of desire, interest, love, trust, enthusiasm, hope, etc.) has dried up at its very source. Next, we cannot resist asking: Did we freely create or generate that desire, interest, love, etc., in the first place—and did we just as freely command or orchestrate their evaporation and extinction—or weren’t all of these rising and falling affects secretly and invisibly set into motion and then doused by unseen agencies well out of our reach and, therefore, beyond our control?

But what percentage of men and women living today have learned how to rely chiefly upon this invisible and more mysterious background out of which emerge those most compelling—if unheeded—inducements, commands, warnings, and interdictions? What portion of humanity attends, first and foremost, to these cues and clues from below, from beyond the foreground consciousness that enjoys so much more power and authority over the multitude? Why is this the case and how did it come to be this way? Why does this foreground consciousness and its stock, collective contents so commonly and so effectively muffle or drown out altogether the much older and much more thoroughly ‘road-tested’ voice from the depths—the voice, if you like, of the ancestral spirits?

If we take a close, scrutinizing look at the comparative minority, now as ever, who do in fact heed these ‘cues and clues’ (from what Jung called the ‘unconscious’), what do we observe? What, if anything, sets them apart from the majority who live, as it were, closer to the surface of consciousness rather than in and from the depths? Moreover, how might we characterize relations between these two segments of humanity? Are we justified in speaking of the depth-plumbing minority as the ‘elders’ of our species? Does their attunement—their at-one-ment—with these profounder and older strata of our shared history place them in the position of pioneers, guides, and scouts for humanity—or should we perhaps regard them as atavisms, retrograde relics from a generally barbaric and backwards past?

It must be admitted that this relative minority of depth-seekers are more conservative (and I certainly do not mean ‘right wing Republican’ by this) than the majority who instinctively avoid the quieter and darker depths. The depth-seekers may even be characterized as ‘archaic’ in some respects since the strata of the psyche into which their conscious roots descend have an ‘immemorial’ or archetypal quality about them. And yet, it would be going too far to describe them as ‘primitive,’ outmoded, or backwards. Au contraire. Like seasoned and venerable old elephants, whales, tortoises, and condors that have savored and suffered life to the full, the minority of human depth-dwellers of all ages and climes have something timeless about them. As such, they are emblematic of their kind—their type or species—like living, breathing, suffering, and delighting symbols. At once particular and universal, mortal and undying, actual and imaginal, part and whole.

Such reflections point to a welter of paradoxes respecting the multifaceted, elusive notion of freedom, depending on whether one is a denizen of the depths, the shoals, or from some place in between. The archetypal legacy or inheritance passed down from the primeval past may be likened to a deep, broad river. The waters of this mighty river are gathered from throughout the vast territory surrounding it. The river stretches from its headwaters to the delta where it merges with the sea.

For the minority of depth delvers—employing our river analogy—freedom means adaptation to, and acceptance of, the currents within the rising and falling river. At times, it is both wise and joyfully revitalizing to surrender to the current that follows a course or line of least resistance through the vast surrounding territory. At other times, it is salutary and strengthening to swim upstream—against the current—to revisit past scenes and atmospheres with new eyes and perspectives. What distinguishes the freedom of the depth-seekers is graceful movement or navigation within the all-embracing stream of life. The freedom of the depth-shunners, however, is of a very different sort, indeed.

The depth-shunners are as needful of hydration as their distant kin, the depth-seekers, but rather than immerse themselves, trustingly, into the stream of life, they prefer to dwell along its shallow banks where they can fetch what they need without having to swim—or even get wet. This, in a nutshell, is their notion of freedom. In stark contrast to the freedom I described earlier, the bank-dwellers’ freedom is freedom from immersion in the flowing stream of archetypally-informed-and-animated experience. Levees and ramparts along the river help to protect and insulate them from rising waters, while irrigation channels and hydroelectric dams allow them to exploit the river for countless benefits. Thus, because of these artificial means, the depth-shunners are able to live and move about in relative security and comfort farther and farther away from the river itself. Larger and larger tracts of the desert surrounding the river are steadily settled and inhabited by these depth-dreaders who have never seen, let alone swam in, the distant river that supports them and everyone they know via aqueducts and pipelines.

Whole generations of desert-dwelling descendants of depth-shunners come and go with only a few persons undertaking the long pilgrimage to the river to behold the shared source upon which all depend. As the centuries pass, fewer and fewer of those pilgrims are able to sufficiently overcome their fears—fostered and fueled by stories passed down through generations of depth-shunners—to leap into the magnificent river when they at last reach its distant banks. But one or two from each generation do take the plunge—and then learn how to swim and to navigate the river’s currents. Later, these same depth-seekers send emissaries to challenge and discredit the superstitions and false beliefs of those teeming, timid desert-dwellers who are ignorant and fearful of the very source upon which their thin, dry lives depend.

Friendship and Our Individual Natures (5/3/13)

Earlier, I read an account by Franz Overbeck where it was noted that virtually all of Nietzsche’s friendships were lop-sided—where he projected far more significance and assumed that there was far more intimacy than the other parties did. Overbeck proposes Nietzsche’s pungent and irrefragable differentness from all other human beings as the likely source of this disparity of friendly love and affection. As ‘hunger is the best sauce,’ Nietzsche’s loneliness must certainly have been a great flavor enhancer—functioning like a walloping dose of MSG in his links with some comparatively insipid souls, judging from their letters and accounts. The recollection by Overbeck triggered personal feelings of estrangement (from others)—feelings that are never far from the surface in me. The more I grow into myself—the admittedly strange (and strangely driven, strangely oriented) human being that I appear to be, the more differentiated from those around me I progressively become. It is perhaps true that I could make greater efforts to accommodate myself to others, to look for things in common, and perhaps such efforts would be rewarded with a greater degree of solidarity and kinship with others. But, aaagh!! To speak truthfully: something has been holding me back from such efforts—and, for the moment, at least—I trust whatever it is that’s holding me back. (I am reminded of Socrates’ daimon here: it never told him to do this or that—only what not to do.)

And perhaps there is no need to invoke ‘daimonic’ influences here—although I would not rule them out. Perhaps it is enough to chalk this reticence up to ‘dog smarts’ in my case. Lord knows I have devoted an enormous amount of energy and attention, care and concern, to my numerous friendships throughout the past—but, alas, with slender dividends to show for all that I have invested.  Do I want too much from persons who, for one reason or another, cannot or will not deliver? Is my pride too swollen for me to condescend any further in order to prop up relationships with persons who can scarcely hold up their end? Have I merely had the misfortune of being thrown together with singularly unsuitable candidates for true friendship with me? I don’t think so. I am fairly sure that a proper candidate for the sort of friendship I have always hungered for is going to be as hard to come by as I am. Pride and arrogance have nothing to do with what I just wrote. Rather, it has everything to do with consciousness of difference—of what is ineradicably and irrepressibly individual about me. When something just is, there is little room for compromise or for concessions. Compromises and concessions apply to things and conditions that are negotiable, mutable, relative, and not yet essential, as the dark depths of my individuality seems to be. We are fortunate if we come to know and to express our individual, inimitable nature—but we are also stuck with what we uncover, are we not?

Horror Vacui (10/9/13)

Lurking within the handful of reliably terrifying thoughts that periodically sneak up from behind and have their way with us is the harrowing suspicion that we lack reality in some substantive, metaphysical sense. I point here to an insidious, paralyzing suspicion that our dotingly tended and cultivated personalities are founded not upon some transcendent, undying essence but upon fanciful fictions and our frangible physical frames. Such a creature more closely resembles a wave on the ocean or a dispersible breeze blowing through a forest, if that wave or breeze could somehow be endowed with reflexive consciousness. Perhaps only a minority of us will be possessed and then reduced to quivering jelly by this crushing, annihilating thought—but once it is thoroughly digested, our lives will never be the same thereafter.

As with any profoundly moving experience, a bundle of quite different responses are possible. One person may never fully recover from this thought which, of course, does not strike us as a mere ‘thought experiment’ or an armchair speculation, but as a momentous, potentially traumatizing, realization. It is an abrupt and shocking glimpse into the baffling vacuousness and vexing vapidity of 99 per cent of everyday, mundane experience. If one can become too intoxicated (with ideals, blinding passions, tyrannical desires, inescapable attachments, etc.), mightn’t one’s life suffer derailment from an excess of sobriety, as well? If one person is maimed and crippled by this sobering thought, another person will be moved to immerse himself as unreservedly and unreflectively into his actual, everyday life and relationships as he can. This psychological ordeal—this anticipation of the nullification of the personal self—will, in such cases, incite a frenzied assertion and aggrandizement of that imperiled self—even if that ‘walking shadow’ is now inwardly known to be little more than a second-rate actor strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage. This frenetic abandonment to busy-ness and action will, of course, constitute a kind of manic defense against the stumping nullity and insubstantiality that have been glimpsed in the abyss. The exuberance of the personal life—the enormity of one’s investment in his projects, involvements, and duties—will be roughly equivalent to the intensity of the horror vacui suffered by the person.

And yet another person will suffer neither from a catatonic collapse and withdrawal nor from a manic defense—but will be prompted to imaginatively cultivate a fresh new set of bearings that enables him, gradually, to avoid either of these two questionable turns. The new perspective that is gradually composed is that of the soul. The soul-perspective is distinguished from the ego-perspective by its capacity to approach all things, persons, and events imaginally or metaphorically—and not only literally or concretistically, as the ego is wont to do. It is this capacity for ‘seeing through’ and beyond literalism that safeguards the soul-perspective against the very real psychic maladies of paralysis and of manic defense. Thus, it is only the reified or hypostatized personal ego that is paralyzed—or driven to a kind of madness (of reckless immersion and flight from reflection)—by this startling vision of the transpersonal core. From the soul-perspective—which is fluid, imaginative, and not entirely ‘human’—this vision, so devastating to the limited/limiting ego, is the doorway into a subtler and deeper dimension than the one normally inhabited by that ego. To say it again: as soul waxes, ego wanes.

 

On Edinger’s “The New God-Image” (4/4/11)

I will begin this entry by confessing that the Edward Edinger book (The New God-Image) is stirring up powerful feelings ‘below deck.’ I am currently re-reading the middle chapter on ‘The Paradoxical God,’ in which the problematic coexistence of good and evil—or light and dark elements—is attributed to God, along with unconsciousness! These ideas strain even the most fertile imagination and test one’s spiritual courage as few ideas can. They are beyond our ‘Christianized’ ken, while at the same time, the attitude we assume towards these perplexing questions would seem to have profound implications for us, psychologically. And even if we ignore or pay grudging respect to these questions—or never adequately register them so that we can, in turn, be infected or stung by their disturbing power—they will still be there lurking like cancer cells in the unconscious. Of course, as long as they are lurking murkily in the unconscious their power to darken and cripple our journey through life is only that much greater because, in that case, they’re operating ‘behind our back.’ Perhaps most of us will never arrive at the point (of conscious appreciation of these profound religious riddles) ever to recognize what has been eating away, like a corrosive acid, at our insides.

But if, like Jacob, we wrestle with ‘God’—if, that is to say, we surrender to these searing questions which implicate us not only in God’s coming-to-be-conscious, but in the dangerous work of harmoniously reconciling cosmic good and evil—we may emerge with a serious limp, but also as walking and talking contributors to the founding of the way ahead. For me—because of what I now so strongly suspect—opting out of the wrestling match is no longer a viable option.

So where does my own anxiety and inner turmoil come from when I read from Edinger and from the uncharacteristically direct passages from Jung’s letters, where he seems to be very much out on a limb by himself—making connections, speculating, creating a new way to imagine deity?

Part of the anxiety stems from the central notion that God is not ‘perfect’ (nor as capable of looking out for us, like a good Daddy, as many of us were brought up to believe since childhood), but should perhaps be regarded as a ‘work in progress.’ To seriously entertain this notion—which, for me, means getting inside of it and inhabiting it like one might dwell inside a myth or story—is to suffer the most intense deprivation of metaphysical comfort conceivable, for it injects the God-image with a stronger dose of chaotic indeterminacy than of stabilizing cosmos. To be sure, Jung is willing to concede a latent meaning behind this work in progress, which is certainly preferable to a stance wherein no such latent meaning suffuses our experience of existence. But because of where present-day humanity is situated, historically and psychologically, the consolation offered by this idea of latent meaning gradually becoming manifest over the next few centuries is not quite consolation of the deepest and most gratifying sort. If the integration of the ‘Cosmic’ shadow—or the reconciliation of the split halves of good (love) and evil (naked will to power)—does actually take place over the next few troubled and disaster-marked centuries, none of us alive today (who are supposed to draw consolation from this possibility) will be around to enjoy the benefits of such a ‘healed’ split. As for the rest: well, they are left to feed like scavengers upon the rotting corpse of the dead ‘God-image.’

Another cause for inner unrest lies in the (psychological) fact that in pursuing the questions and themes of absorbing interest to me since I was young, I have—nolens volens—become conscripted into this unfinishable project that, as Jung rightly said, consists of ‘endless approximations.’ And as I have noted many times before, the deeper into this work I descend, the more alone I feel since few are seized and caught by this strange and strangely consuming task. How many authentic practitioners of alchemy were there? Because I have the compelling sense that this work and this path are my fate—and therefore cannot be forsaken or abandoned without inviting terrible guilt (the guilt of having betrayed or neglected one’s calling)—I naturally want for my life and my work to contribute something of substantial value to others after I’m gone. And yet, what I have to offer is so very different from the more solid and readily acknowledged contributions made by those talented and creative persons who serve men as they are now. I do not seem to be serving man as he now is—do I? And it’s doubtful that I ever will. My inner sights seem to be trained upon the way ahead—the way beyond the fragmented, decomposing culture I have already diagnosed and painfully come to terms with over the years.

Freedom, Maturity, and Self-control (4/9/17)

Following Socrates and the Stoics, I recognize an essential connection between inner freedom and the wise and balanced management of the passions. In order to manage or work wisely with our passions, we must gain some understanding of them. And of course such understanding is gained primarily through experience of, and reflection upon, these passions and emotions: anger, fear, envy, daring, lust, indignation, hatred, insecurity, longing, disgust, suspicion, regret, disappointment, contempt, shame, sorrow, depression, etc. To wisely manage our passions is not to repress or snuff them out, but to cultivate them, artfully express and channel them, to transmute and transfigure them.

The passions—like the instincts and innate drives—are given. What we do with them can be thought of as art, just as the gardener’s cunning and ingenuity with plants found in the wild involves a special kind of horticultural art. Persons who are deficient in the art of managing their drives, passions, emotions, and appetites are regarded as ‘natural,’ rough-hewn, or even barbarous, while those who show a superfluity of such artful control are commonly regarded as unnatural, contrived, effete, ‘precious.’ A garden overgrown with weeds shows a want of artfulness on the gardener’s part, while dried flower arrangements are a poor substitute for a beautiful outdoor garden. Some persons—with respect to their passions—are like gardens choked with weeds, while others are like desiccated roses—perhaps lovely to behold, but lacking in warmth and vitality.

Hillman, Heidegger, and Forgotten Wisdom (5/19/12)

Insofar as I am able to grasp what Heidegger and Hillman share in their otherwise quite different approaches to the deeper realms of experience, I recognize their respective attempts to relativize inherited systems and structures of thought—those buried, unconscious assumptions that tend to limit or thwart the connection between man and Being. In their different ways they both see the root of this collective malady in our metaphysical inheritance. Our experience of Being is not simply mediated by abstract metaphysical concepts. On the contrary, these concepts typically obstruct—or merely replace—our encounter with Being. These abundant, ever-proliferating abstractions possess a fixed and stable character, while Being is never reducible to static or stably fixed forms, as wise Heraclitus, the Ephesian, recognized long ago. The very advantages afforded by these ‘lofty,’ idealized, abstract metaphysical concepts—their time-tested, reliably unchanging magnificence—constitute, from the reverse position, a wall of separation between our fluid souls and the reality these concepts were ostensibly constructed to serve, in much the same fashion that ancient oracles might serve a divinity like Apollo or Zeus (as cryptic mouthpiece). If we substitute ‘the Gods’ for Being, then much of our philosophical activity—from Plato through Nietzsche—has cut us off from the Gods, and plunged us into a fallen condition.

We cannot serve the Gods so long as we are merely custodians of metaphysical concepts that wall us in and block us off from the very divinities we purport to serve.

Behind this simple statement is the idea or image of mystical union—or participation—with the Gods, with Being, with the divine. Elsewhere I have written about dogmatists and the fearful fixity of the paranoid perspective—a perspective that aggressively defends itself against the very metaphors that could dissolve its walls and liberate the dogmatist from his self-created citadel-cell. Following Hillman, I located the cause of this imprisoning paranoia in literal-mindedness—that peculiar but practically ubiquitous form of mental blindness that defiantly refuses to prostrate itself and bow down before the ineffable and irreducible mysteriousness of life and the psyche. It might be of interest to note that this aggressive-defensive and inwardly split perspective is often closely linked with humanism or anthropocentrism. Variants of humanism spring from the illicit arrogation of Godlike powers and rights to the merely human perspective. On a grand scale, this is conducive, of course, to a collective inflation—evidence of which no one with his eyes open will deny today. A collective inflation—i.e., borrowing (or filching) far more divine authority and power than we can ever hope to wield in a responsible way—upsets the general balance of things. Balance can be restored—and it will be restored—only by deflating that which has been wrongfully inflated.[1] The balance I refer to is that between man and the Gods. It is noteworthy that this very question (of maintaining a proper balance or proper terms between the human world and that of the Gods) has always been a primary concern for humans everywhere until quite recently in history—the past several hundred years in the West, during which time the rise of science and, with it, modern technology, have risen to prominence.[2]

Are we simply to assume that our distant (and not so distant) human ancestors were merely unsophisticated know-nothings—no more than groping ‘precursors’ and fumbling ‘rehearsals’ of modern man, the ‘paragon of animals’? Did they cling to their quaint superstitions about Gods and mysterious powers, a ‘Great Chain of Being,’ and a moral order within the cosmos only because they lacked what we have: modern science and technology? Science has pretty much dispensed with claims and ‘entities’ it cannot see or touch, measure or weigh, in its scales and in its terms. Technology, on the other hand, by making our material lives more comfortable and secure, has set up a new and more easily attainable version of ‘happiness’ than the dubious immaterial versions known and cultivated by our ‘benighted’ ancestors.

But if our ancestors were the naïve, blinkered and brutish boobs that many of us assume them to have been—why is it that millions of modern persons suffer from profound feelings of alienation, anxiety, meaninglessness, and rootlessness that our ancestors appear to have been spared? Was their sense of rootedness and anchoredness in the world perhaps bound up with their respect for the balance that we moderns have recklessly undermined—so that we have been driven insane by our stolen power, our compulsive covetousness, and our unceasing restlessness? Is it possible that the balance has been so seriously disturbed that most of us no longer can even be fully human—let alone, little Gods? Could it be that our ancestors understood the importance of remaining within the bounds of the properly human because these limits were still clearly discernible to them in a way and to a degree that they are not for us? And why might this be so?

Perhaps it is because we have been transgressing those limits long enough by now to have forgotten—as a culture—what such balance looked and felt like. In this sense, perhaps more than any other, humanity has begun to behave, collectively, like a cancer that is slowly but surely killing the larger organism—the world—of which it was once a modestly restrained and integral part. The evidence suggests that, for the most part, our premodern ancestors abided within a balanced order of things and, precisely because they did so, they were able to behold the world and man’s place in that world in a way that is practically lost to us now. The modern worldview is rife with the Muzak of shallow distractions and narrow, short-term objectives that deafen us to the faintly audible strains of the song of creation—a song that appears to be dying down within and around us. And yet—within the modest limits of the individual life—something of this fading, balanced melody may be recovered or re-sounded. The price for this may seem too high for many, however, since it involves unplugging ourselves from the tinny and sterile pageant that presently passes for ‘normal life.’ There is little that is normal, let alone healthy, about contemporary life—but the sickness can only be perceived for what it is after we’ve managed to get our fever down. Only then do the hallucinations cease and we begin to see just how close we came to ‘succumbing.’

[1] This is a much less melodramatic and graphic way of describing the evisceration of the wild beast that we are always on the verge of collectively lapsing into.

[2] The idolatry of science (as the only or best method for getting at the truth and for resolving all of our real problems) is called scientism. Like all so-called ‘-isms,’ scientism tends to be reductive, unduly simplistic, and inimical to a true understanding of the actual complexity of things. Some scientists are certainly infected with the malady of scientism, but certainly not all of them. With the semi-educated, secularized portion of the general public, scientism is quite endemic, unfortunately. There is a very close link between the spread of this psychic infection and the collective inflation I mentioned earlier.

Cells and Sensation: an updated version of Plato’s ‘Noble Lie’ or the Real McCoy? (10/16/16)

One way of imagining our roles as humans vis-à-vis the cosmos is to suppose ourselves to be differentiated cells in the body of the earth, regarded here as a living, quasi-conscious being. Of course, the other animals, the plants and trees, and the physical elements and compounds fill out the picture of this evolving being that relies on all of us, just as we depend on self-replicating liver-, blood-, muscle-, skin-, bone-, heart-, and brain-cells. Working within this analogy, it is of vital importance, naturally, for all of us to find out as soon as we can whether we are destined to be a heart-cell or a brain-cell, a blood-cell or a skin-cell, a digestive enzyme or an electrolyte, a complex sugar or a fatty acid – and perform our appointed function fully and properly. So long as confusion reigns within and between us, the organism is always threatened with system failure.

So how do we learn what kind of cell we are? Since our cell type is not decided or assigned by our parents or our educations – but is there, like a seed, in the beginning – often we can only come to this knowledge through a kind of self-examination. Because our cell or function type is inborn, it cannot be changed from one type into another, but it can easily be mistaken for another type, in which case we will be likely to miss our life – our intended existence.

One thing that appeals to me about this way of imagining human identity, development, and fulfillment (within a comprehensive nexus of other identities, paths of development, and functions) is that it gently releases my thinking from its accustomed abstract bearings – allowing me to envision this array of complex factors more concretely – more meaningfully rooted in sensible material conditions. For me, such a move has a salutary, corrective, and equilibrizing ‘feel’ to it. It holds out the possibility of redressing a one-sidedness that I simultaneously (and paradoxically) suffer from and exult in. I am referring to my habitual reliance upon my intuition and my abstract thinking function. The aim here is not to shut these functions down – but to counterbalance them with this enriching and ensouling concreteness.