Some Reflections on Oedipus Tyrannus (12/14/17)

mama  I don’t know if this somber and weighty mood I’m experiencing today is an aftershock following my re-reading of Oedipus Tyrannus, but, given the wallop this ancient text always delivers, how can there not be a connection? The tragedy is sublimely humbling to the human – insofar as Oedipus’s predicament in the play represents the ego’s inevitable fate: to always be attempting to avoid what it suspects to be its horrible destiny; but the more it runs, the tighter become the coils that bind it to that fate. That fate is not so much death as it is something far more crushing, mocking, diminishing—something that springs from the buried, unexamined links between our most unacceptable, ‘shameful’ desires and our most paralyzing terrors. Moreover, it entails a painfully conscious recognition and digestion of one’s ultimate and utter insignificance vis-à-vis the Gods and nature.

Before this realization sinks in, we see a marked impetuosity and managerial mania in the character of Oedipus. Sophocles succeeds – at least with this reader – in punching the wind out of the belly, leaving one writhing helplessly on the ground. Even so clever and beloved a savior of the city (of Thebes, by answering the riddle of the Sphinx) as Oedipus cannot extricate himself from the ever-tightening coils of Pythia’s prophecy (named after the Python-serpent slain by Apollo). As ‘tyrannos,’ he is the self-made, self-authorized ruler of the Thebans. He seized or claimed this authority after demonstrating his superiority – and yet the conditions that enable and legitimize his rise (by killing his father, Laius, and marrying his mother, Jocasta the queen) are the very fulfillment of his curse. The fact that the abominable acts and his investiture as ruler are two sides of the same coin is crucial: those who are first (citizens) will be last (the most fallen).

No one, it seems, who registers the full weight and impact of these sobering, chastening truths about our ultimate irrelevance and insignificance as separate egos, could ever again—with a clear conscience or robust enthusiasm—chase after empty honors, exotic pleasures and luxuries, or any of the countless distractions and diversions available to man – but would gratefully make do with enough. What does a thoroughgoing digestion of this overwhelming insight into the puniness of even the most proud and prominent specimens of humanity – the Pharaohs, the heroes, the Caesars, the holy Roman emperors, the Napoleons – lead to? Doesn’t it make it impossible to go back to the cramped old anthropocentric perspective, where such childlike hero-worship is still possible? It is in this sense that Oedipus Tyrannus is unmistakably a religious work of the highest order – if one of the chief functions of religion is to reveal to man his actual place in the grand scheme of things – and to make him feel it. Does such a humbling and purging realization necessarily or invariably crush or permanently cripple us – so that we are thereafter consigned to a pessimistic paralysis, unable to work up any further enthusiasm for existence?

I would say it all depends on how much resilient strength of soul there is to begin with. Certainly there are plenty of spirits that are broken by gentler impacts than the one considered here – persons whose will to press on through life is extinguished under lighter weights than this. But for other, few in number, this is precisely what is called for in order to balance and temper their oversized spirits properly. No doubt, it is fortunate for most of us that our minds – unlike that of the relentlessly probing Oedipus – have an instinctive awareness of where to shrink back and stop asking questions the answers to which we are scarcely strong and brave enough to withstand. Perhaps this helps to account for why Oedipus Tyrannus won only second and not first place the year it competed in the drama festival at Athens! Its true impact, while powerfully sensed, failed nonetheless to be fully acknowledged even by perhaps the most spiritually resilient audiences ever to fill a theater.

It would be foolhardy not to frankly acknowledge the double-edged or equivocal character of this initiatory vision – this staggering insight into human insignificance, blindness, and fragility. The peculiar light that floods the mind during such momentous initiatory experiences cannot help but have a destabilizing effect upon our familiar bearings. From the standpoint of our established understanding of things, the inrush of light, rather than merely illuminating and valorizing that understanding, exposes its grave limitations and gaping inadequacies. Some “victims” of this flood of penetrating-exposing light (from the unconscious?) never really recover from the shattering ordeal. Like a literal tsunami that sweeps over a coastal town, the flood of light dissolves and washes away all those once trusted, once-stable structures. “Madness” is one name for such fateful encounters with this transgressive and irrational light (or is it a kind of darkness?) from beyond the usually secure perimeter of the human, all too human.

This exposing, disruptive light – and I am proposing that Sophocles’ play has artfully embedded within it a spark or scintilla of this equivocal light – both reveals and, in a sense, magnifies what is already there in the character of those it penetrates like an X-ray. What does Oedipus’ self-blinding tell us about his fundamental character? By ensuring thereafter that he could never again look upon those his actions, however unintentional, had wronged or desecrated, his blinding suggests that he still adhered to notions of taboo (against father-slaying and mother-laying) that, for another character might have been rendered null and void by the very light that throws the human conventional domain into dwarfish irrelevance. It is precisely this property of the equivocal, transcendent light – its inherently transgressive character, “beyond good and evil” – that makes it so potentially undermining of salutary, civilizing human laws and institutions – including the incest taboo and religious proscriptions against parricide and matricide.

Are we getting close, here, to the reasons why religion has been regularly and systematically tamed by those, ever a minority, who astutely recognized just how dangerous and destructive it can be in undiluted, uncompromising doses? By selectively emphasizing only (or mostly) its civically and morally edifying powers and potentials, these teachers, poets, philosophers, and prophets labored to transmute a potentially lethal and maddening substance into one of civilized humanity’s principal supports and comforts! No small feat. Was Carl Jung, who surely knew, firsthand, of the equivocal power of religion – with its rootedness in the archetypes – one such artful, philanthropic tamer of (explosive-corrosive-animating-electrifying) religious materials? Was he attempting, with the other hand, to recover its lost or watered-down power to turn our lives upside down? While reading Jung, we cannot fail to notice the indisputable sense of awe with which he confronts the mystery of the unconscious. And, for him, the unconscious was the true source of “religious” or numinous experience, as it has forever been for all genuine initiates and “victims” of that transcendent-transgressive light.

Contrast Jung’s reverential, respectful stance towards the numinous with the comparatively dismissive, cavalier, or patently hostile attitude towards religion that we see in Voltaire and most Enlightenment philosophes (including our Founding Fathers, as “deists” and diehard rationalists), and it is difficult to imagine that the latter had any feel or natural susceptibility for the numinous core of religion. For them, it was simply superstition and delusions—which, to be fair, it certainly can be for those who lack openness to the numinous. Nevertheless, it was recognized that religion—because of its ‘irrational,’ spellbinding appeal and its power to override commonsense as a compass and guide for some persons—had to be controlled through the spread of “rational enlightenment,” which was to supersede and supplant religion by exposing its roots in childlike or primitive beliefs. Thus, the separation of Church (which is not synonymous with “religion,” as I am treating it here) and State was a relatively superficial or peripheral matter.

A far more significant campaign against genuine religious (transcendent-numinous) experience sprang from the general elevation or exaltation of (scientific/pragmatic) rationality to an authoritative status that had never before been dared by our ancestors. (Something akin to this was underway in the Athenian Enlightenment—with the rise of ‘atheistic,’ tradition-eroding, skeptical Sophists—when Sophocles wrote Oedipus Tyrannus, partly as a warning to his fellow Greeks, as Bernard Knox argues in his excellent study, Oedipus of Thebes.) Thus a rather narrowly defined (but materially transformative and momentous) form of human rationality was raised, by design and via “modern education,” to a position of unprecedented authority over human affairs. Religion was implicitly demoted in dignity and authority in this “transvaluative” campaign conducted by proud, “enlightened” men on both sides of the Atlantic. It would take some time – after the intoxicating “high” of this myth of progress by means of pragmatic reasoning began to wear off, following a couple of world wars – before a sizable number of reflective persons began to realize that modern rationality had no bottom or grounding to it – and that it was essentially just instrumental, a mere method. Moreover, there was no natural aim or teleology to it, unlike ancient (ontological-speculative) reason.

Magister Ludi (7/29/14)

I wonder to what extent my enjoyment of thinking is not, at bottom, a thinly-disguised craving for mental drama. It is this dramatic clash or creative conflict between philosophical or theoretical perspectives that I find so irresistibly captivating about speculative thought. Simply to grasp Spinoza’s or Bacon’s or Schopenhauer’s basic philosophical aims and orientation (or worldview) is of rather less interest to me than to watch these philosophers ‘duke it out’ in the ring—or better still, having a philosopher duke it out with a poet or a saint: Nietzsche contra Wagner and Plato, Plato thrashes Homer, Machiavelli pummels St. Paul! These interdisciplinary battles are especially fascinating to me. These are clashes of titans and their battlefield becomes the interior of my soul—which grows and deepens and gains subtlety in the smoking aftermath of each subsequent pitched battle.

There is a considerable amount of legwork involved, of course. Each one of the assembled combatants must be carefully tended to before they are ‘set loose’ upon each other. This entails a good deal of study, writing, and reflection on my part—the accumulation and assimilation of knowledge and organizing insights. These will be put to the ultimate test within the battlefield of my mind. These various philosophical, religious, mythical, and ethical perspectives are naturally competitive and hegemonic. The rivaling mental standpoints and value systems do not require must assistance or prompting from me in order to fight. As they are naturally disposed to seek sovereignty over all possible rivals, I need merely bring them together like the host and sponsor of a Balinese cockfight.

Does this confession of the ‘game-like’ character of my love for mental drama cheapen or vulgarize my quest for knowledge and philosophical insight—by linking this quest to a form of ‘sporting activity’? Perhaps my confession helps to remove any falsely arrogated grandeur or pomposity from an old and venerable enterprise whose ‘key players’ have seldom been renowned for the modesty of their aims and ambitions. Au contraire! All too frequently we encounter excessive pride and an exaggerated sense of self-importance in the Magister Ludi.

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.

Meta-narratives and some Suggestions Concerning Higher Education (6/7/12)

I have been watching Genesis: a Living Conversation (hosted by Bill Moyers). It is a panel discussion composed of artists, writers, scholars, priests, pastors, and rabbis. One thing that interests me greatly about the series of discussions is the relationship between these Biblical stories, on the one hand, and the way the panel members’ minds have been shaped by the stories, on the other. It seems fairly evident that most of them live (and function as moral agents) within the ‘world’ generated by the Genesis stories, which perhaps shouldn’t be all that surprising. Their efforts—and, ostensibly, the aim of the program—are to suss out the deeper meanings and paradoxes within these marvelous and enduring stories, to enrich and enliven the viewer’s understanding of, and appreciation for, this revered (and sometimes reviled) work of ancient religious speculation.

Nevertheless, despite their generally impressive and clarifying efforts to unearth the deeper meanings and implications buried within these stories, there is little or no effort devoted to the problem of psychological embeddedness in (and, to that extent, unconscious governance by) such meta-narratives. Of course, that is not the explicit purpose of these provocative discussions. The distinguished thinkers, scholars, and clerics are searching for ways to make the Genesis stories relevant and applicable to ‘the here and now.’ Thus, the stories are mined for clues that can help believers find meaning and orientation in their actual daily lives in this world. The stories provide structure, values, and a kind of eschatological promise (of redemption and salvation) for those who are in search of such things. Not to be in search of such things is implicitly held to be somehow less than fully human, since mere animals are not troubled by such questions and concerns, while most of us, at some point or another, are.

If my own aim is to (at least partially) liberate my mind—or my mental vision—from unconscious governance by the narratives that are ingredient to my culture, I must first know what these value-and-assumption-laden narratives are. Study of foundational texts (The Bible, the Iliad and Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Ethics, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s plays, Bacon’s Novum Organon, Descartes’ Discourse on the Method, Machiavelli’s Il Principe, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, etc.) better acquaints me with the furniture of my own mind, since it has been filled with disjointed, bastardized, and decontextualized progeny of these seminal works. The ‘watered-down’ versions of these ‘canonical’ works take the form of inherited beliefs, automatic feeling responses, and deep-seated prejudices, imprinted upon my soul and regularly reinforced by my ongoing mental assimilation, or conscription, into modern Western culture. They constitute the ideological ‘water supply’ that we have been drinking and swimming in (and peeing into) since we were children.

By revisiting the original source-works, we place ourselves in a somewhat better position to perceive these inherited structures, values, assumptions, and goals in a more sharply defined way. Only by deepening our understanding of these inherited stories and the values they promote and discourage do we enable ourselves to engage in a critical dialogue with them. My own drive to critically engage with these inherited cultural factors and unconscious determinants certainly does not arise from a desire to smash them like idols or to pooh-pooh them—any more than I would refuse to acknowledge my ancestors or eschew distant Sicilian relatives (if I should meet them), simply because I have difficulty understanding them in their own language (or because they have ties with the Mafia). I am driven by the earnest desire to know as much as I can about how I came to be who and what I am (insofar as I am a product of historical and cultural ‘determinants’) before I expire. I do not believe that I am entirely a culturally- and historically-determined creature, although this is by no means a simple or easy thing to disprove.

At any event, there appears to be some ‘place’ or perspective that I have intermittent, limited access to—a psychological perspective that looks upon all narratives (all mythic and religious and foundational cultural materials) as essentially fictional and provisional readings of an ultimately mysterious reality that will always elude our full understanding. In other words, all our narratives, our religious doctrines and scriptures, seem ultimately to point to an opaque, transcendent dimension to which even the most splendid and well-furnished human minds appear to be denied full access. Our stories and our philosophies, as useful and as precious as they are as navigational maps and evaluative aids, can never be more than approximations, rough sketches, parables, and analogies—all pointing, as I said, to a transcendent realm that nevertheless reaches its invisible fingers deep into the lives and psyches of all of us.

Those persons living today who actually know—and can more or less accurately trace—the genealogy of the principle ideas and values that they live by are surely in the minority, while those who ape and unreflectively act out these inherited narratives (mimesis) comprise the great majority, throughout the Western world. Elsewhere, I have employed the image of a river delta as a metaphor for the present stage or phase of modern Western culture. Here the river flattens out and becomes shallower. Instead of the clear, briskly flowing current found upstream near the source-waters, the delta is muddy, often choked with silt, and sluggish—as stagnant, spiritually, as a malarial marsh, in places. To seriously study the Bible, the writings of the ancient Greeks, medieval philosophy and spirituality, the Renaissance and the Reformation, and so forth, is in effect to swim upstream from the sultry, silty, and shallow delta—to retrace the route followed by our forebears, whose scattered legacy still pulses, faintly, within our muddy-marshy-mellow minds. Who knows? Perhaps, as we approach the source springs of this historical river (that has carried us and everyone we know to some point or another) we will then have our first genuine opportunity to mentally extricate ourselves from the watery medium altogether. Perhaps, then, we might climb high up into the mountain range where the source waters of the river make their first descent. There, from high above perhaps we may be in a position to survey in a glance the whole serpentine course of that river on its long journey to the sea, where the cycle of evaporation and precipitation goes on perpetually! And if we have reached the summit of the mountain and look down its other side we see another, completely different river heading in the opposite direction—fed by the water that happens to fall on the Eastern slope, and heading towards an ocean with a different name.

Alas, many of us are so complacently at home with our shallowness, our sketchiness, and our slack sluggishness that we are quick to regard those who are not like us in these respects as ‘too serious’ or even ‘fanatical’ when their thinking and their feeling is rich, substantive, disciplined, and not flimsy and flaccid like ours. Such persons throw an unflattering light upon our smug, effete, muddy existences in the sleepy, sensual, sultry delta. Their example makes us self-conscious about our narrowly personalistic or bloatedly sentimental feelings—along with our muddled thinking. They make us feel strangely ashamed of our indifference towards what lies upstream in the river we’re nearing the end of.


Another way of accounting for this shallow, muddy ‘delta-state’ of modern Western culture is to observe the unwieldy confluence (and uneasy coexistence) of many heterogeneous and seemingly incommensurable, cultural/ethnic worldviews. We have seen what this has led to in the U.S.—outer diversity without much depth, an often grudging tolerance of differences that are only superficially understood or appreciated. One consequence of this has been a bland and slapdash cultural melting pot—this bogus leveling of differences that is aimed at producing an odor of civility that is sufficiently inoffensive to allow us to navigate through the unmarked socio-political minefields that we tread upon each day as we come into contact with persons from very different backgrounds and stations of life than our own. Genuine culture (and its cultivation) requires very serious and often difficult effort, exploration, study, reflection, development, and transformation. Cultural education is certainly not sterile, toothless, or flavorless; nor is it always politely inoffensive. And the work involved in seeing into, through, and beyond one’s cultural inheritance—the work of the poet, the philosopher, and the depth psychologist—is perhaps even more demanding and dangerous—and certainly more lonely, for these ‘types’ are attempting to see beyond all narratives, all cultural plot-lines and authoritative systems of weight and measures.

This timid, squeamish indolence with respect to the generally demanding work of cultural development and self-examination is widespread—and appears, unfortunately, to constitute the standard or norm for American attitudes. A distinction should be maintained between the acquisition of broad culture, on the one hand, and attaining excellence in some narrow or specialized field where one is materially rewarded for such efforts—say, as an expert in antique Shaker furniture or British rock and roll of the late 1960s.

Senex: Puer/Urizen: Orc—Hillman and Blake Healing a Split (5/7/10-Salta, Argentina)

James Hillman’s restoration of the underlying identity of the senex and puer in a two-sided archetype—along with his diagnosis of the problems of today which stem from the split or sundering of one from the other—echoes an important idea in Blake. According to Frye (p. 210 of Fearful Symmetry), what began as two discrete and antagonistic entities (Orc and Urizen) developed gradually into a single figure who, following a cyclical course resembling that of the seasons or the sun’s rising and setting, comprehended within itself both the revitalizing, regenerative ‘puer’ features, on the one hand, and the exhaustion, the ‘rules,’ and the sterility of the ‘senex.’

If ‘taken to heart,’ this idea of an imaginative healing of a conceptual severance of these two aspects of what, all along, has been joined at the root, has very important implications. For one thing, if there is a kind of inevitability or implacable necessity behind the current phase of cultural decline, exhaustion, and sterility, then wisdom consists in the acknowledgement and conscious acceptance of this sobering truth—rather than stubbornly defying and noisily protesting against it. When we have lived to the age of eighty, we would be foolish to continue to do all those things and to desire all those things that were appropriate for a youth of nineteen years. Analogously, poets, thinkers, and visionaries alive today may be squandering valuable energy and precious time (which could be put to better use) when they strive blindly to ignite a general conflagration where only dampened faggots are to be found. To expect the inviolable and necessary laws of the larger cycle to be overruled by the commendable exuberance of a few scintillae of genius is to expect that one’s outdoor event will be a success when there is a 100% chance of torrential rains in the forecast—and you can see the thunderclouds moving in. Even if our hard-headed and optimistic hosts defy meteorological augury and refuse to postpone the planned picnic, the forecast alone will be enough to keep 95% of the invited guests immured in their cozy, dry homes on the appointed day. Genuine ‘renaissances’ and ‘golden ages’ emerge under rather different conditions, in accordance with cycles of growth and decay which, in their scope and power, greatly exceed the concentrated will of even the most gifted minority. The gifted minority may be necessary for renaissances and golden eras, but they do not appear to be sufficient. Perhaps every bit as much wisdom, strength, and creativity are required to properly clear a field, plant and tend a crop, as is needed to harvest it. The right opportunity (the ‘chairos’) for such (usually brief) periods of incandescent creativity must also be in place—and, like our genetic inheritance or the country in which we are born, these crucial factors are under no one’s control. Individual humans are certainly capable of accomplishing much on their own, but none of us can change the larger context to which fate has assigned us. A big part of this context, obviously, is the particular phase of the larger cycle in which we find ourselves immersed. We may have an unusually developed conscious understanding of ‘where we are’ or, as is more often the case, we may be comparatively unconscious of our situation, vis-à-vis the larger context.

One thing I find quite consistently in my past writings is a disapproving attitude towards the present ‘way of things’—especially in the U.S. To a certain extent—perhaps to a decisive one—this disapproving or condemnatory stance—(usually towards the many unsettling symptoms of decline and spiritual-imaginative exhaustion) is founded upon the assumption that the underlying causal conditions behind these phenomena could be changed or overcome on a grand scale by some organized campaign, like the attack on Normandy or NASA’s lunar voyage. But the more closely I follow Blake and Hillman down the persuasive path whereby ‘puer and senex,’ ‘Orc and Urizen,’ are not just seen, but felt and known to be phases or stages of a single cycle, the more I find this former assumption untenable and an impediment to my understanding which must be surmounted. It is still undetermined: how much wind will be removed from my sails as I go about the removal of this stubborn assumption that has been so long in the making? Certainly, a lot of reliable hot air has been belched up from the subterranean caverns into which the assumption has plunged its tough roots.

A Dream and Some Reflections on Shakespeare (9/8/14)

Dream: Someone with whom I was acquainted was illicitly accessing and using a company elevator to enter a workplace where (presumably) he was working without authorization. As he entered the elevator I parted company with him and walked up the street. (Was I on Centenary Blvd. at Rutherford, across from the campus main entrance?) I noticed a white vehicle parked on the street—it could have been a station wagon or a regular sedan with a very large trunk. I’m not sure if I actually saw the young female owner of the vehicle before I opened the trunk—but I knew, while I was exploring its contents, she was the owner and that she would be returning anytime. There was no moment of stressful wrestling with my conscience before my curiosity prompted me to open the trunk (or rear hatch) and begin exploring the contents of the vehicle. My initial intention was not to steal anything, but simply to look, and if I found something I wanted, I guess I thought that I would stick around and make an offer—if I thought that far ahead. So, what was I finding? Books (boxes full of them), some vinyl record albums, and large Hershey chocolate bars. The books were, on the whole, the sort I like, or have read in the past: multiple copies of works by Nietzsche and Hermann Hesse among them. The albums—some of which were very old and apparently in excellent shape—were mostly classical music, from what I could tell. And then there were the large chocolate bars. The thought did cross my mind that I could take off with the two or three books I had selected (to awkwardly purchase from her when she returned?) and no one would be the wiser—but at this point I spotted the woman—the owner of the car and its contents—walking on the other side of the street. More importantly, she had seen me! In fact, she was watching me, warily and alarmedly, and I suspected at once that she had seen me rummaging through her stuff in her white vehicle with its trunk open. Goofily (and obviously ashamed of having opened her trunk and unauthorizedly explored its contents to see if there was anything there to my liking), I made a poorly received, unsuccessful effort to communicate to her (from across the street) the idea that I was an honest bloke and that I wanted to purchase a few of the things I had unlawfully ‘happened upon’ in her vehicle. I wanted to allay her distress and somehow quell her suspicions about me being a menacing person or a thief—but I could clearly see that she was keeping her distance. Then it occurred to me that she may have called the police and that she would let them deal with me. At that moment, just before I woke up—anxious from the dream—it dawned on me that even if I stuck around and tried to explain my actions, I was still culpable (for having opened the trunk and explored its contents) and that I would be at the mercy of the woman and/or the police. Sizing up the situation, my impulse was to flee—but at that moment I woke up.

I had a flurry of associated thoughts right after I woke up—while the dream was still fresh in my mind. The first thing I thought of was my recent ‘feud’ with J. S. (philosophy-spirituality versus modern empirical science personified). Next, I had the peculiar thought: No wonder William Shakespeare prudently kept a low profile (in his social milieu) and drew scant attention to his personality. I recalled the historically attested fact that those who did know and speak of him knew him as a pleasant and unassuming fellow. Then I thought of Demi P. pulling back from me with a look of shock and suspicion, thirty years ago, telling me, with more than a hint of horror in her voice that startled even me—‘You are a voyeur of people’s souls!’ Next, I recalled Nietzsche’s observation that Shakespeare must have had a wicked soul—and also remembering that when I read that remark for the first time I thought to myself, ‘Herr Nietzsche, it takes one to know one!’ Lastly, I thought about M. P.’s recent refusal (or conspicuous neglect) to call me back after she said she would, despite my repeated effort to re-connect with her after a long, but by no means hostile, silence—and that it’s always me who takes the initiative.

At that point, I began to reflect, generally, upon the pros and cons of ‘donning the polite and benign mask’ in my dealings with others. Those who manage, like D. P. (and perhaps M. P.) to see through that mask probably feel deeply violated and/or exploited—by my probing curiosity more than by my lust or by my cruelty—and tend, like the frightened car-owner whose trunk had been opened and its contents explored without her knowledge or consent, to ‘pull away’ in understandable dismay.

This dream seems, among other things, to suggest the deep question ‘Why do we wear masks and what are the dangers or the unpleasant liabilities (‘collateral damage’?) of unmasking? It seems fitting that my thoughts turned at once to Shakespeare after waking from this dream—since Shakespeare may have been the most sublimely accomplished master of masking and unmasking who ever put quill to parchment. The obvious employment of masks is seen, of course, in his use of fictional characters to convey profound truths about unmasked human nature—at all levels, under all typical and extreme circumstances, in all sorts of persons from all stations in life. Because these are fictions enacted upon the stage, we—the audience or readers of the plays—are provided with a conventional means of distancing ourselves to some extent from the dramatic events, so as not to be literally implicated in what is being enacted there. But at the same time, because the uncanny lifelikeness of the dramatic poet’s characters and situations is so compelling and so imaginatively absorbing, we can scarcely avoid being ‘taken in’ by these characters and deeply affected by their words and deeds. In the process, aspects of our own innermost, hidden human nature are shaken up and thereby unmasked for us. When Shakespeare has Hamlet say ‘the play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,’ he is just as rightfully referring to us, generally. In watching or reading these works, our complex responses to what we see occurring therein constitute the telltale signs and symptoms of our actual consciousness (or ‘conscience,’ in Elizabethan usage). The plays hold the mirror up to (our human) nature, allowing us—if we dare—to glimpse what ‘shadows and substance’ we are made of. And typically, of course, this happens without our knowing it. In other words, although we know something has happened—and that we have been moved and shaken—we usually are not aware of what has been finessed out of hiding, out of the shadows, by Shakespeare’s staggering array of unmasking mirrors. In the end, the plays ‘read’ us—rather than the reverse.   These extraordinary plays, like the sea, are bigger, deeper, livelier, subtler, far more powerful and penetrating than we are.

It dawned on me, some time ago, that the psyche is not in me—rather ‘I’ am in the psyche. It comprehends and contains ‘me,’ not the other way around. I now recognize that despite his forgivable philosophical-spiritual shortcomings and his occasional overstatement of the case, Harold Bloom was fundamentally correct about Shakespeare in his controversial book, The Invention of the Human: Shakespeare’s consciousness is not just different from ours. It includes and greatly transcends our far more limited, biased, ‘specialized,’ parochial, gender-identified, historically-culturally blinkered—and comparatively barbaric—consciousness.

This is what makes an extended acquaintance with Shakespeare’s mysteriously unnerving (but ultimately benign and potentially redemptive) wisdom so fatefully ‘consciousness-altering’ for thousands and thousands of readers and playgoers around the world who have come under the spell of these works. A deep and ever-renewed acquaintance with the plays can safely be relied upon to show us many things about our souls and our natures that we never suspected were there to begin with. The effect of this unmasking is extremely exciting and harrowing—incredibly consoling as well as damning—liberating and reducing—at one and the same time. In a word, the prolonged exposure to the poetically masked workings of this most sublime of imaginations is transformative. Like the fabled alchemist, the imagination of Shakespeare transforms common and even despised objects, persons, and conditions into something precious, subtly luminous, and even sacred.

But like Dante, the pilgrim—who also had to undergo a thorough purgation and trial by fire before he could rightfully enter the gates of Paradiso—the ‘initiate’ into the Shakespearean process of imaginative transfiguration must first serve an unspecified (but unavoidable) stretch of time in the infernal and purging regions of murky, molten, magma-passion, where his very corporeality is toasted and roasted until it slithers from the liberated spirit like the meat from barbecued spare-ribs.

We know that Shakespeare was possessed of a seemingly infinite—but uncannily disciplined, orderly, and accurate—imagination. Over the years, I have become convinced that the imagination that generates my dreams—or at least the ‘special’ ones—is often comparable in scope, depth, suggestiveness, and precision to Shakespeare’s. Of course, I claim no conscious responsibility or personal credit for this enormous and enormously intelligent imagination—no more than I can, in good conscience, take credit for the muse or daimon ‘who’ inspires the better instances of my philosophical speculation and essay-writing. As I am but an obedient ‘scribe’ when it comes to my ‘serious’ contemplative-speculative writing, so I am merely an (often clueless, but thoroughly appreciative) audience member in the theater of dreams delivered nightly during my ‘off hours.’

I usually have a ‘sense’ when a dream is particularly pregnant with significance, and the dream from which I awakened this morning was accompanied by such a presentiment of fullness and ominousness. Moreover, those personal associations I mentioned earlier—the links suggested (by the dream) to several ‘disturbed’ relations with friends, past and present—offer a kind of gateway into the dream, or so it would appear.

The idea of unmasking as a kind of violation of the sacred bond of friendship—a transgression of the unwritten laws of mutual protection, care, and affection—is certainly at work here. The illicit invasion of privacy and the selfish perusal and appropriation of what is uncovered (or dis-covered) is also evident in the dream. And when I was found out—in the dream—I hovered uneasily between an honest and courageous acknowledgement of what I had done and what my intentions were, on the one hand, and a self-protective, guilty retreat from the scene, on the other.

The idea here, it seems to me, is that if and when we go poking and prodding around in another person’s private zone, we are under a strict moral obligation to behave in a respectful, compassionate manner—like Shakespeare seems to have done, even with a number of his less prepossessing characters. The episode with the car full of books, records, and chocolate bars was framed, or introduced, by the unauthorized entry into a workplace by an acquaintance of mine. This sort of doubling technique (like parallel plots in a Shakespeare play) reinforces the main theme while creatively ‘complicating’ it.

Lately I have been writing essays that exhort the reader to moral-psychological courage—and in doing so I have rather baldly displayed my contemptuous disapproval of all forms of moral cowardice and dishonesty. My psyche, always smarter and more comprehensive in its vision than I am, has—like a good Shakespeare play—held an unforgiving but faithful mirror up to some deeply-rooted pillar of my ‘Faustian’ personality. I am not in the habit of regarding myself as Faustian, but the figure sprang to mind here because of his greedy, reckless quest for elusive and generally forbidden knowledge. It is precisely this daimonic drive to deepen and expand his knowledge—no matter how dangerous that knowledge might turn out to be—that makes Faust an interesting subject for Goethe’s genius to play with. Faust exchanges (or believes he exchanges) his very soul for access to this knowledge that is barred from ordinary mortals. The fact that he is willing to bargain away his soul for this knowledge makes it fairly clear that Faust is a man possessed by his curiosity—rather than one who has it under some kind of moral or ethical control. As I stood there, across the street from the woman whose privacy I had contemptuously ignored and whose goods I ransacked, I suddenly felt unequal to my deed, like Nietzsche’s ‘pale criminal.’ Instead of feeling royally ‘above it all’ and exempt from the laws and standards of respectful, civil behavior, I was suddenly acutely aware of the violation I had committed. And I felt scared and ashamed. Moreover, as I contemplated trying to explain myself to her—and to the police—in order to show that I had intended no harm and no theft—and that I was perfectly willing to pay a fair price for the two or three books I had taken from her car—I realized just how whacky and outrageous such an ‘explanation’ would sound to any ‘sane’ person. That’s when I felt the strong impulse to ‘split the scene,’ as they say.

Another prominent theme in my recent writing (to my scientist friend, J.), interestingly enough, has been science’s pernicious amorality—its congenital blindness when it comes to ethical, political, religious, and other ‘non-material’ and ‘non-quantifiable’ matters—which, as it turns out, comprise the lion’s share of what impacts human life where it counts. But was my amoral, transgressive investigation and appropriation of the car’s private contents any more defensible than J.’s ‘complicity’ in the technocratic, systematic investigation and appropriation of material resources for the power and profit of the few who fund and chiefly exploit those projects? Once again the mirror rises before me—thanks to the dream.