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.

On Time, Eternity, and the Puer (8/8/11)

When I was seventeen I was at a cast party for The Taming of the Shrew (I played Lucentio) and I was a bit sauced. At some point during the party I found myself alone in a bathroom and I was momentarily overwhelmed by an intuition that time is not real, that—at bottom—time is a mental construct or illusion. At that time, I lacked both the psychological acumen and the philosophical learning to make meaningful sense of this stupendous intuition—what, in retrospect, seems to have been an ‘archetypal’ experience of the puer aeternus—but such deficiencies did not prevent the monumental psychic experience from etching itself deeply into my young soul, to be recalled again and again throughout the coming years as a watershed moment in my spiritual autobiography. It was a numinous experience—a genuine and unforgettable encounter with a ‘transcendent’ idea that had floated up like an oceanic bubble—a light-filled bubble that had been released from a fissure in the depths of the unconscious. Somehow, this startling intuition had been able to bore through the insulating membrane or barrier of ego-consciousness behind which I was normally confined—and shielded from such powerful contents.[1] James Hillman writes:

To be involved with these figures (Father Time and Eternal Youth, temporality and eternity) is to be drawn into history. To be identified with either is to be dominated by an archetypal attitude towards history: the puer who transcends history and leaps out of time, and is as such ahistorical, or antihistorical in protest and revolt; or the Senex who is an image of history itself and of the permanent truth revealed through history. (Senex and Puer, p. 35)

Last night before going to sleep I began to read from a journal of mine dating back to 1989. I was reading about the struggles I was having at the time—trying to decide whether or not to stay with M.P. or to move permanently back to Houston. There was a whole lot of moving back and forth between Houston and Colorado (where she lived) at that time. As I read on, I began to feel uncomfortable for reasons that were murky to me. Was this uneasy feeling due, in part, to my ‘seeing through’ my personal account into the ‘split’ core-personality that is still there and who hasn’t essentially changed in all this time? There is something about this split core-personality that strikes me as ineradicable, untranscendable, and foundational to my very make up. I want to call it ‘puer’ because of the way this essential component of my personality has always behaved—and continues to behave. When this side of me is dominant, when I am viewing life from the standpoint of this side, not only is time unreal or illusory, but all forms and all attachments to form (including my attachments to persons, one of whom is my own ego) become shadow-like, insubstantial, little more than masks, shells, ‘roles.’ From this standpoint, there is the eternal recurrence of the same. There is no real development insofar as the eternal essences or archetypes are concerned. These are the colored chips in the kaleidoscope (another major archetypal image or insight that would have enduring impact upon my understanding of ‘final things’) that do not, themselves, undergo change—but which do undergo modifications in their interrelationships with the other chips, which are then ‘optically’ (cognitively) worked up and projected into the infinitely variable composite images we see through the ‘peephole’ of consciousness. The relationships between the (archetypal) elements which, taken together, compose the gestalt do change—like furniture and paintings continually being moved into different arrangements within a room, where the lighting is also being changed—but the elements themselves do not.

The puer, it would seem, naturally and instinctively resists getting ‘caught up’ either in the rushing gallop or syrupy flow of ‘literal’ events/developments in the temporal dimension. It rises above this sticky, enthralling river of narrative immersion, to a place where it can view this tragi-comic-farce from a ‘clean,’ detached, free perspective. But, as we see with Icarus, it winds up paying a ‘high’ price for this privileged freedom, and before long it begins to feel gravity tugging at it, as the approaching solar disk begins to melt its wax and feather wings.

The lonely heights—with the rarely experienced and rarely shared synoptic vistas of the enormous valley below—are as desolate and inhuman as they are alluring (for the views they afford the puer). It is the lure of the psyche—the anima—that tugs painfully at the wings of the spirit-boy, calling him back to the humid, shaded valley with its thick air and sluggish rivers and luxuriant foliage.


[1] It was during this period, incidentally, that my mother’s ‘normal’ ego-consciousness was being dissolved by the archetypal drama she was being absorbed into—as she suffered the first of a series of nervous breakdowns with psychotic episodes.


Chromotherapy (6/28/17—Arequipa, Peru)

We each have—or function within—a worldview: a more or less comprehensive, nuanced, coherent, and articulate picture of the world and of our place in that world. Our native cultural context and early education provide us with a starter kit, of course, but—depending on how much effort and application we bring to the task—our worldview gradually develops into a more or less individualized mental-affective map of experienceable reality—the terra incognita into which we are dropped at birth. Aside from the particular environmental or circumstantial factors into which we are born—variables that differ from family to family, place to place, era to era—there are individual factors (temperament, natural talents and aptitudes, health and genetic factors, etc.) that play an important role in the development of our worldview.

A philosophy, roughly speaking, is a worldview that has been artfully and conscientiously cultivated or worked out over the course of time. This development goes quite some distance beyond the ‘starter kit’ worldview. The lion’s share of the work involved in the development of an individual philosophy can be divided into two interrelated enterprises: (1) Clarifying and critically examining/assimilating one’s inherited or cultural materials and (2) continually extending one’s knowledge of those cultural resources and materials that lie beyond one’s initial inheritance. These two distinct pursuits are closely interrelated for reasons that should be plain: unless and until we have come to a clear understanding of our initial cultural inheritance, we are scarcely in a position to compare and contrast the various strengths and weaknesses of our inherited views and values with those of the different, rivaling worldviews that we encounter in our studies and our travels.

Why, it will be wondered, is it even necessary or advisable for the aspiring philosopher to venture beyond his initial cultural-educational horizons? Here we encounter one of the cardinal differences between the genuinely philosophical life and the un-philosophical life. The philosopher is a cosmopolitan—or ‘citizen of the world’—through and through, while the non-philosopher is, comparatively speaking, content to remain a prisoner of his unexamined, inherited worldview and value scheme. Plato compared the non-philosopher to a person trapped in cave and obliged to watch, in effect, the same limited/limiting movie or puppet show over and over and over again until he dies, none the wiser about life outside the cave. The genuine philosopher, on the other hand, through a combination of luck and struggle, manages to break out of the dark, closed cave and perpetual puppet show. He comes out of the cave and above ground where he learns all manner of natural things that transgress the mental and experiential ‘ring pass not’ of his fellow prisoners down in the cave.

I spoke of the natural phenomena that the philosopher encounters after he liberates himself from the cave where only cultural—or, if you like, historically conditioned—things are to be found. (This, incidentally, is why Strauss rejects Heidegger’s historicism and, following his friend Jacob Klein, sides with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.) Inwardly steered by a transcultural and ahistorical vision or insight, the genuine philosopher slowly makes his way towards an understanding of man that is both timeless and pre-cultural/pre-historical. It is an experience of ANTHROPOS vis-à-vis nature, antecedent to the coloring biases and blinkering limitations imbibed through acculturation. Thus, the cosmopolitanism of the genuine philosopher entails an implicit element that is both a-cultural and a-historical—a core element at the formless hub of the philosopher’s worldview that is timeless and correlative with nature. The imprints of these timeless, natural elements within the psyches of humans are called ‘archetypes.’

The genuine philosopher who encounters the timeless, natural elements (of ‘world’ and ‘psyche’) in moments of pure theoreia, or contemplation, knows and accepts the fact that to conceptualize or to speak of these encounters inevitably degrades and delimits that which transcends and defies all such limits. Thus, he accepts the fact that all such speech and even the most sublime concepts have only an ‘as-if’ character. They can merely point to—but never substitute for—the ineffable that can be glimpsed only in moments of deepest contemplation of the mysterious root of all being. Thus, the genuine philosopher properly understands why those who speak about the highest things as if they have grasped them know not what they speak of.

How, it will be asked, are the various world cultures; the central, founding-orienting myths; and the essential teachings of the great religions related to these ‘timeless natural elements,’ the imprints of which within our psyches constitute archetypal images? We see how the various internal organs can be differentiated according to the function they serve in the health and maintenance of the body. We see how the various members of a family can be differentiated into distinct roles or functions within that family. Let us glance hurriedly over the ancient cultures of the Fertile Crescent, Indus valley, and the Far East: Egypt; Sumer-Babylon; Vedic India; and China. What—in a grossly simplified or condensed form—do we see? Agriculture, geometry, and measurement; the hieratic state reflecting astronomical/astrological order; introspective spirituality of the first rank; practical wisdom and harmony of the opposites. If we advance a bit further in time, we see the Greeks, Romans, and the Judeo-Christian religions of the Levant: speculative and dramatic-poetical genius; political will and organization; monotheism, morality, and the opening of the heart.

All of these extraordinary cultures—and others before, alongside, and after them—like the organs of the body or the roles and functions performed by various members of a great family, emphasize some talent or virtue while deemphasizing others. Like diverse colors in the color wheel, the different cultures interact—sometime harmoniously, sometimes antagonistically—with each other, but ultimately it is the whole and not any single part that reveals or points to the shared, timeless elements. Analogously, all the different colors of the spectrum, when combined, merge into the white light, the source of them all.

The present era has been called ‘the Age of Comparison’—and for good reason. For those of us, today, who care to survey the cultural-historical resources at our disposal, great opportunities lie within reach. Recent figures like Jung, Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith, Mircea Eliade, James Hillman—though not philosophers in the traditional or technical sense—saw the unprecedented opportunity to acquaint themselves with this rich cornucopia of mythological, religious, literary, and other cultural materials that, together, can serve as a basis for a more comprehensive picture of the human being, as such, than has perhaps ever been possible before. We now have access to more pieces of the puzzle than our ancestors possessed.

Each of the major cultural-historical worldviews brings its own distinctive color and melody to the polyphonic/polychromatic psyche of the whole human. The aforementioned psychologists, scholars, mythologists, and spiritual explorers were not mere polymaths or dabblers but astute divers and decoders whose immersive encounters with these rich colors and melodies from across time and space produced numerous remarkable, if provisional and preliminary, forays into regions of syncretic experience that rival or surpass the best such ventures during the Hellenistic era—which serves as perhaps the most appropriate historical antecedent to our own peculiarly over-rich era.

No doubt, some readers are perplexed by my depiction of our present state of affairs as ‘over-rich’ when there is such widespread consensus that we live in times of spiritual and cultural bankruptcy and disintegration. How is such a discrepancy to be resolved? It is certainly true that we presently live in lean times so far as nourishment from intact and thriving cultures, myths, and religions go. Where these have not collapsed altogether, they have, in most cases, been weakened or ossified into ghostly echoes of themselves.

Where, then, is this richness of which I speak, if it is not evident in our actual cultural predicament? The old cultures have broken into fragments, just as the old Gods have withdrawn into silence. These fragments are hiding in plain sight, but almost everyone is overlooking them—ignoring them. It is as if the building blocks essential to a thriving culture have been scattered about and within us. They await rediscovery and reassembly into new configurations—freshly conceived narratives that speak to our changed conditions. Human nature and the human psyche—the sources of these perennial building blocks—have not changed, but the terms and conditions of the world we inhabit have indeed undergone the profoundest changes over the past four hundred years or so. We have the essential materials we need to proceed with the conception and gestation of a new worldview—a new myth and a new religious orientation that can respond to these radically new terms and conditions that embrace the whole species for the first time.

As always, the greater part of the creative work to be done falls upon the shoulders of a minority—precisely because it yearns most intensely for a new myth and meaning for humanity—that recognizes the necessity and the privilege of working tirelessly with these fragments or scattered essential materials to respond to the collective hunger for a truly adequate and embracing myth for the whole of mankind.



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.

Humanity as Membrane between Spirit and Matter: my own interpretation of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (8/27/10—Buenos Aires)

I want to explore the image of humanity as a kind of permeable membrane figuratively ‘positioned’ between spirit and matter—or, if you like, ‘the observer and the observed’—where the human being partakes of both aspects and embodies a new, third thing—soul. Soul, or creative imagination, is born out of this tension between the two parents that give birth to it. When conceived in this way, humanity (as embodiment and carrier of soul and creativity) is absolutely indispensable in the work of creation, not merely its passive witness or obedient subject. (That would be Blake’s ‘natural’ or ‘Fallen’ man.)
But there are limits, obviously, to his creative freedom. His creative freedom is exercised within the comparatively stable horizons of what we know as natural laws and principles. These endow humanity with a generous frame within which we may exercise the potentials of our creative freedom. But that freedom, it seems, must be won. It is won by establishing a conscious and trustworthy connection with the spirit, which may be said to rest on one side of the membrane that constitutes the human psyche. This energizing and liberating relationship with the spirit enables us to identify in part with the detached observer, with all the liberating benefits that accompany participation in this perspective. Why is this? From the standpoint of the observer, life itself is little more than a kind of theatrical performance or movie. Or a dream from which the dreamer has awakened. Because life itself—or the world—is seen and felt to be a kind of show or generated illusion, it loses some of its binding power over the person who views this pageant from the perspective of the detached observer. The observer is always aware of him- or her-self as observer and is less subject to becoming completely lost in or absorbed by that which is being observed, felt, and experienced. The observer may want to get lost, or become fully absorbed in that which is observed and felt, but this is not within the purview of the observer, as such. Only a very partial absorption of the witnessing bystander is possible.
But what about the observed—or ‘objects’? At bottom, the observed is a kind of screen or blank page such as I am now filling with these words. It is, in effect, ‘nothing’—but a very special sort of nothing insofar as it is capable of receiving the projections of the observer, its correlate and eternal partner in the cosmic construction and demolition business. One may be tempted to suppose that the observed, being nothing in itself, is less than the observer, but we should check that temptation. The observer, without its correlative, the observed (which provides it with a surface upon which it can project its sound and thereby receive an echo, or its image and see a reflection), is nothing, or is aware of nothing, which amounts to the same thing. As active principle, if the observer has no reflection to see and no echo to hear, ‘he’ has nothing upon which to act or to think and so remains asleep, unconscious. If the observed has no image or sound projected upon ‘her,’ her nothingness and uselessness consume and waste her. The observer and the screen arise together and they fall together. Since time begins and ends with them, neither comes first. Neither one is primary. They are two aspects of one and the same entity—an entity which both IS and IS NOT.
Memory is the matrix out of which the creative imagination is born—and it is from the creative imagination that experienceable worlds arise. As soon as the primordial Being awakens from what, in Hindu cosmology, is referred to as Mahapralaya (unconsciousness, or ‘the great dissolution’), the observer and his reflection (‘the Two’) come into existence. Something uncanny but entirely predictable happens: the one being, which is now two, asks itself—‘Have I ever been before?’ The very idea that this might be a ‘singularity’—the one and only instance of conscious being—is unthinkable to it because of the enormous weight of the responsibility attached to such a terrifying thought.
To comfort itself, the one being searches its blank memory for clues to its previous existences. But such clues are not readily forthcoming. What it does receive are the vaguest cloud-like forms that strain its untested powers of fantasy and yearning. It yearns for something—anything—to capture and hold its gathering attention. As far as it ‘knows’ anything, it feels itself to be alone, and alone without sleep or interruption—for eternity—since time as we know it does not yet exist. The thought of being alone and with no one and nothing to attend to for eternity makes the one being experience something akin to a vague anxiety. There is nothing external to it that can really threaten it or weaken it, but neither is there any existing other thing that can help it, entertain it, or console it. Out of its memory, which is actually just its present awareness cast backwards into an imagined past, it digs for hints and clues to guide and direct it into a story that will unfold into a future.
Thus, these fantasy-generated memories become the membrane I spoke of earlier—the psyche or soul which is interposed, as it were, between the observer and his correlative, the reflective screen that invites projection. The membrane gradually evolves into something like an actual memory insofar as it begins to capture and retain imagined forms that are generated from the one being’s spontaneous play of creative fantasy. At first, these imagined forms are crude and simple—perhaps like geometric shapes and clusters of discrete points. Gradually, patterns and complementary/conflictual relationships emerge between these simple elements and from these simple patterns and relationships more and more elaborate complexity are gradually differentiated. The one being slowly but surely becomes more and more absorbed in and by his creation, like an engrossed player of solitaire who keeps adding new twists and variants to the initial, simple game in order to make it more and more challenging.

Before the Story (3/21/13)

All cultures everywhere and at all times are, at bottom, based upon a story—some kind of structured narrative that assigns meaning, value, and a general orientation to conscious experience in the human world. Because the foundational structure of each culture typically serves as the bedrock and starting point for civilized human consciousness and behavior, its axiomatic assumptions are seldom made explicitly conscious to the majority of human beings. The reason these foundational story elements are seldom made conscious by most of us is because they are almost invariably the very terms in which anything and everything becomes conscious. They are always silently running in the background—like the operating system on this computer upon which I am typing—and they are simply taken for granted, much as we take for granted the water, air, and the daily nutrition that sustain life.

We know that natural philosophy was born a long time ago (or not so long ago, depending on the perspective you take) in the mercantile parts of Ionia where mariners and traders from all over the Mediterranean and the Near East converged to exchange goods and materials. Coming from diverse cultural backgrounds—from radically divergent foundational stories—their various worldviews were attended to by those wise and discerning observers, the ‘Pre-Socratic’ philosophers. These extraordinary, innovative thinkers were the first minds in the West, so far as we know, to discover culture as such—the first to differentiate mythos, or ‘story,’ from physis, or ‘nature.’ In making this game-changing, explosive discovery—one that would be developed and greatly elaborated upon by their direct successors—a new path was opened, one that pointed beyond (or beneath) culture as the basis and ground for all ‘knowledge’ and meaning. In opening up a path to nature, these penetrating minds had discovered (or invented?) a whole new basis for probing into the meaning of things. Philosophy was a new way of accounting for reality and the parts and processes that comprised that whole. And yet, it was only possible to enter this newly discovered territory by ‘seeing through’ the normally binding and sacrosanct mythic structures of one’s inherited worldview. Nothing imaginable could be more radical, preposterous, dangerous—or potentially liberating—than to extricate one’s mind and soul from the authorized and meaning-bestowing articles of faith that were taken for granted by one’s local community—by one’s parents and family, ancestors and countrymen.

As we know, to ‘see through’ an explanation, a moral precept, or a custom can mean two very different, or practically antithetical, things. It can mean to see through as in ‘seeing through tinted or distorting lenses’—where the ‘world’ we behold automatically takes on the color or the distortions inherent in the lens through which we are (unconsciously or unreflectively) looking. Or it can mean ‘un-masking,’ as when we ‘see through’ a lie or a magician’s trick to the truth that is being artfully disguised or concealed.

Perhaps we should include ‘stories’ with water, air, nutrition, and other absolute requirements without which human beings seem unable to survive for very long. In ancient times—within the various cultural schemes—Sumerian, Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Judaic, Persian, etc.—the ‘stories’ tended to be comparatively well-organized, coherent, and—most importantly—wrapped in an aura of sacredness, an aura religiously maintained by priests, scribes, and poets. With the passage of time, the river of Western culture has been fed—some might say inundated—with many different and often incompatible cultural tributaries (chief of which may be abbreviated as ‘Athens and Jerusalem,’ or ‘Caesar and Christ’). This has led to a proliferation of ‘stories’ and cultural perspectives that would have struck our ancient forebears as a kind of ‘tower of Babel,’ no doubt.

We euphemistically (and perhaps a bit innocently) refer to today’s fragmented, incoherent, and diluted assortment of incommensurable story lines as ‘cultural diversity.’ In our schools and universities we are taught that this modern cultural diversity is, for the most part, a positive and enlightened advance beyond the narrow-minded, myopic cultural chauvinism of the past—and certainly there is some merit in these self-congratulatory claims.

I would suggest, however, that while the quantity and variety of myths and stories we have to choose from is perhaps greater than at any time in the past (including the Hellenistic period which, in this regard, bears a striking resemblance to our own era), the quality of these purpose- and meaning-bestowing stories seems to have suffered a rather noticeable degradation over the past few hundred years. And I would further suggest that human beings, in general, are no better equipped (or naturally disposed) to live without a myth or orienting story than the ancient Egyptian farmer or the Assyrian charioteer was. What the ancient and modern philosophers have attempted to do—namely, to ‘see through’ and beyond cultural forms and assumptions into their natural (and perhaps not 100% human) backdrop—has never been a popular pursuit or pastime. Such enterprises have always been reserved for oddballs and anomalies, weirdos and prodigies: peculiar but uncannily gifted individuals like Anaximander and Heraclitus, Socrates and Chuang-tzu, Diogenes and Nietzsche.

Do we see a Catch-22 situation shaping up here? It would appear that under conditions of religious laxity or during occasional periods of ‘enlightenment,’ foundational stories begin to lose a good deal of their formerly undisputed credibility and authority, at least among the educated members of the society. This often leads to a general decline in the quality and richness of the stories and the anchoring beliefs in which culture—all culture—consists. Thus, with the spread of rational inquiry and religious tolerance we frequently see the rise of corrosive skepticism and a relaxation of passionate belief in any one thing. As we have seen, such conditions are conducive to relativism, moral lassitude, and intellectual confusion, if only because the tension and the underlying sense of urgency that attend full and authentic cultural commitment have been collectively slackened under the new lenient conditions.

On the other hand, after we have become accustomed to such relaxed, free, and open-minded conditions, ordinary believers suddenly start to look a bit like fanatics and simpletons. They remind us of ourselves back when we were youngsters and didn’t know any better—how we inwardly writhed and rebelled against the shocking proclamation, made by the older kid up the street, that there was no Santa Claus, no Easter bunny, and not even a tooth fairy! We cannot help but feel an uneasy mixture of pity and contempt for those ‘fundamentalists’ and those ‘political ideologues’ when we hear them spouting their dogmatic certainties! As if they were from an earlier, less ‘informed’ era! How much must such dogged believers block out or willfully ignore in order to hang onto their life-and-sanity-supporting myths and illusions! No, such willful ignorance and misguided passion is utterly abominable to us. Better to graze on the parched plains of the unforgiving modern-cultural landscape than to descend to such luxuriant marshlands of folly and error!

But then we ask, in all seriousness: are these the only alternatives available to us? On the one hand, a ‘sophisticated’ but rather tepid and anemic skepticism, a post-modernist reluctance to take any cultural, religious, or philosophical claims too seriously, since all of them have a place on the ‘lazy Susan’ at the center of the table? Or an unsophisticated, retrograde parochialism that sinks its big, plaque-and-tartar-crusted, yellow-brown, buck teeth into some conservative dogma or another and never looks back? Aren’t these the two antagonistic camps into which contemporary society has been polarized? But there are all those millions of people who are ‘in the middle.’ I am referring to perhaps the largest segment of American society. Perhaps I am mistaken, but don’t members of this ‘middle’ segment often appear to be rather shoddily educated, upon close examination, since typically they know little or nothing in depth beyond their usually quite restricted and narrow area of professional-vocational expertise? Generally speaking, mightn’t it be justly claimed that this large segment of Americans in ‘the middle’ typically possesses only the most rudimentary, bare-boned ‘knowledge’ respecting cultural history, for instance, or literature, religion, philosophy, psychology, or the arts? If this huge population possesses some knowledge of these matters, doesn’t it tend to be dismally superficial—not much beyond the Wikipedia level? Also, their knowledge of such important cultural matters tends to be merely informational—and is seldom passionately gripping or crucially important to them. On the other hand, and to their great credit: they are open to new ideas and experiences—unlike the ultra-conservative ideologues, the closed-minded religious dogmatists, the cynics, and other ‘know-nothings’ whose attitude towards the contemporary scene boils down to fear, hatred, apathy, and/or combustible anger.

On Self-canceling Opposites (6/5/15)

The complementary-conflicted, self-balancing pairs of opposites that we observe in manifestation are merely the external reflection or projection of the essentially polaristic psyche, or mind. (Even the ‘inner-outer dualism’ is yet another instance of this fundamentally polaristic scheme.) Once this profound truth about the ‘way of things’ penetrates deep into the will of the initiate, his will to remain a hamster in a treadmill—running nowhere as fast or as slowly as he cares to—is gradually undermined. This is the transmutation of desire into the serene contentment of the sage who, as the Tao Te Ching tells us, ‘makes no plans.’ Once it is thoroughly digested that all lines lead to the same vanishing point, the circle assumes its rightful place as symbol of the whole—and of eternity, which is not the same thing as a long, long, long time. Time pertains to lines, not to the point or to the completed circle. Nietzsche, who seems never to have truly grasped this crucial distinction, ever remained heroic, and sages, as it would happen, have little to do with moral or intellectual heroism, even if it may be granted that they are ‘monsters of courage.’ Nietzsche, let us remember, effectively endorses the Sisyphean futility of endlessly repeating the self-canceling game of pursuing a good that, from our standpoint, is neither real nor enduring nor possessable—so that the ceaseless quest assumes a higher value for Nietzsche than the peace and the genuine liberation that can only come from soberly outgrowing that quest. This is the very different courage of the sages who ‘unheroically’ let go of the world fought over by Caesars, Alexanders, Napoleons, and multinational corporations. Their kingdom is not of this world.

In What Does Psychological Maturity Consist? (8/31/16)

Both Jung and Joseph Campbell saw modern man as a somewhat diminished or malnourished version of “the human, as such” precisely because so few of us, compared with our ancestors and forebears, have a living myth pulsing and pumping in the heart of our existences. Jung’s central notion of the “path of individuation” was born from his rather startling realization, as a relatively young man, that he had no “myth to live by” – and that the discovery of such a myth was of paramount importance to a person’s inner maturation and fulfillment. The richness, wholeness, and radiant sense of balance – so conspicuous in the lives and careers of Jung and Campbell – are evident to all who are acquainted with their extraordinary legacies. They not only retrieved lost treasures from our ancestral past – a past from which most of us have been culturally estranged – but they managed to assimilate and re-animate those lost myths and values so that we, “the walking dead,” could drink from their bountiful cups and learn from their illuminating examples.

In the past, I have often described contemporary “mass” humanity as sleepwalkers. I have likened their somnambulism to a kind of dream state – a mental condition whereby their minds are cut off from the reality of the actual predicament we are in, spiritually and culturally. I still hold this description to be accurate and true, for the most part, but I now detect a subtle paradox I was unaware of until now.

Myth and dream are first cousins. If the sleepwalking “moderns” – whose minds and souls are cut off from the “ancestral wisdom” – were actually dreaming instead of “going through the motions” like programmed zombies or automatons, then there might be some cause for hope. But the psychological facts indicate otherwise. What the evidence shows is that it was Jung and Campbell who were indeed dreaming while the sleepwalkers are merely hallucinating, a common occurrence among insomniacs who are confined to the starkly literal realm of incandescent “day world” consciousness. Like modern-day visitors from the aboriginal “dreamtime,” Jung and Campbell managed, miraculously, to widen and to dignify an all but forgotten portal between the imaginal realm of archetypal myth and the literal-sensory realm to which the modern, half-formed soul has been consigned by a lopsided, incomplete cultural education.

If Jung and Campbell were on the right track – and I feel certain that they were – our psyches, as malnourished and mis-educated as they are, nevertheless are ready and eager to come to our assistance if we can just learn how to get out of their way. Body and psyche are indistinguishable in this respect: they are self-regulating and self-healing by nature. If we, as conscious egos can learn how to reduce the amount of mental-emotional crap, junk food, and poison we shovel into our beleaguered souls – and simply allow our psyches to do the work they are as fit to perform as our bodies are – then we might be surprised by the salutary results.

In order for the self-healing powers of the soul to fully kick in, some significant “lifestyle” changes may be necessary, however. The outer, mundane, literal level of concrete daily experience – with all the tasks and duties and goals bound up with that level of experience – is certainly a legitimate and necessary part of the whole human life. Serious problems emerge only when this literal, outer part begins to usurp tyrannical sovereignty over the whole of one’s life. Then the person quite palpably becomes a slave to externally-dictated circumstances. A great loss of dignity (of the soul) tacitly accompanies the descent into enslavement to external circumstances, even when that slavery is attended by external “success” and material splendor. Macbeth’s tragic realization – or that of mythical King Midas – may serve as familiar examples of this regal hollowness and depravity.

But what about those persons who – though they are decisively absorbed by externals – register no loss of dignity or even a sense that something is amiss? Such persons do indeed exist – and in large numbers – in the same “modern world” that I, following Jung and Campbell (and plenty of others, though they needn’t be mentioned), have described as a kind of spiritual “wasteland.” Are these “contented” slaves – if that is indeed what they are – being addressed here in this essay, as well, or should we not “leave them to heaven”? Without pronouncing any more moral judgment upon such “unproblematic” cases than we would upon adolescents simply for being adolescents, we will simply let them be as they are.

I would suggest that the spiritual-cultural dilemma I’m addressing here does not become a matter of acute concern until a person reaches a certain level of psychological maturity. Here we butt heads with another interesting paradox: it is only those persons who are conscious of a kind of wound or sickness or disturbing lack within themselves who are proper candidates for receiving the treasures recovered by Jung and Campbell, while often those who merely appear to be happy and healthy are more or less contentedly adapted to norms and conditions I have described as spiritually bankrupt and sterile. Here again it may be useful to view the situation in terms of psychological and/or moral maturity: the teenager is seldom acutely conscious of the questionableness and dubiousness of the “lights” he lives by, while the mature man, looking back upon his former self, is shocked and appalled by what he, as an adolescent, thought – and didn’t think, or feel, or know about.

Of course, in most cases it was not merely books by Jung or Campbell (or Lao Tzu, Plato, Nietzsche, Thucydides, Shakespeare, Goethe, for that matter) that brought some of us from adolescent obliviousness (sleepwalking) to adult awareness of our immaturity and malnourished condition. It was the (“free but costly) school of hard knocks as much as, if not more than, the books that educated us. This goes a long way to explain the insufficiency of the merely scholarly or “hands off” education about spiritual and psychological matters. Alas, we who would be healed and delivered from our sickness and ignorance are obliged to experience our sickness and our ignorance in action – in our actual struggles and negotiations with friends, lovers, parents, siblings, enemies, and authority figures. Maturation is not an academic or cloistered-contemplative process – even if reflection is absolutely crucial to that process – but more like an excruciating, drawn-out chemical transformation or cellular-biological metamorphosis. Not for the squeamish. Not for children or clueless adolescents.