Hey there, readers – thought I’d drop you a line and let you know what I’ve been up to. I’ve been pretty busy with work the last year or two, so I’ve not been writing as much as I used to, though I try to keep things going from time to time. But I’ve been having a very lively year reading and researching in my own precious personal time. I’m currently finishing up Heinrich Heine’s book of poems entitled Deutschland; Ein Wintermärchen, or Germany; A Winter’s Tale. If you know a bit about Germany in the 19th century it’s spellbinding stuff. Heine wrote it not long after the failed 1848 uprising in which liberal nationalists in German-speaking Europe attempted to do away with the Ancien Régime, as Napolean called the crusty old order of hereditary rule, and replace it with a federal representative government. Wagner fans will note that the young composer, like most right-thinking intellectuals of his day, also fervently supported this goal and was himself demonstrating in the streets, until the uprising was harshly suppressed and many of its supporters were imprisoned or fled into exile.
In his Winter’s Tale, Heine reflects on the state of things in a contemplative set of poems describing a journey through the Rhineland on the border of France. He falls into a series of reveries, heavy with a dreamlike quality, and the events of the recent past are animated by images from the distant past, or from songs, or passing fancies. In one powerful sequence, he dreams that he is with the Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa, who, according to German legend, lies sleeping under his Magic Mountain, waiting for Germany’s hour of need, prepared to rise again.
It’s easy to get the impression of Heine as a sentimental lyricist and writer of pretty verse, but he’s widely regarded as one of the chief figures of early German modernism because of his powerful and unflinching engagement with serious issues of contemporary import. It’s interesting to contrast him to another poet who, in my mind at least, stands for the advent of modernity in German literature: Friedrich Hölderlin. In a way Heine and Hölderlin are dialectical opposites – Heine, in form, is extremely conservative, using light cadence and simple rhyme schemes to clearly and eloquently convey his striking, complex and often-ironic ideas. That is, his style is conservative but his content is strikingly modern. Hölderlin, in contrast, is extremely conservative in subject, dwelling on the sublime and Ancient Greece with all the ardent nostalgia of the high Romantics, while his style is extremely modern, problematizing the status of the subject and the voice of poetry with his obscure and complex forms, setting down layers of ambiguous imagery in the service of ideas that are, ultimately, somewhat simple.
I’ve found Heine hard to reach – anthologies often carry his light and whimsical verse, and it’s hard to get a sense of his importance from those delightful but relatively inconsequential poems. Going through this volume has made it perfectly clear why he’s widely regarded as the most important German poet of the 19th century.
In the last several months I’ve also been going somewhat into Islamic philosophy, focusing particularly on the Neoplatonists, especially Ibn Sina. As a kind of corollary I’ve been looking at modern voices in Islam – particularly voices of modernization in German Islam, such as Navid Kermani and Karajan Amritpur. I’ve been having a field day with Kermani’s magnificent Zwischen Koran und Kafka, or Between Koran and Kafka, which is one of the most useful works on Islam I’ve ever read. Kermani reads Islamic history in the light of aesthetics, particularly in dialog with his European literary and philosophical training, and consequently has a capacity to articulate a central aspect of the Muslim worldview in terms that I find extremely easy to understand.
I also deeply appreciate Kermanis insistence that Islam be understood as fundamentally an aesthetic phenomenon. He eloquently pulls from a panapoly of traditional sources describing people who are so moved by the beautiful of Qu’ranic recitation that they swoon, or even die. (!) That led me to a deeper interest in Islamic art, and I wish I’d given it more attention earlier on in my studies – nothing tells you about the way a religious tradition actually supports human life like its art.
The third area I’ve been researching heavily in the last several months is German and Norse mythology. Here my cornerstone has been reading through the Austrian scholar Rudolf Simek’s magnificent book Religion und Mythologie der Germanen, which I picked up this summer in a bookstore in Zürich. The thing I love about this book is that Simek really puts the whole picture together, linking the literary evidence with the archaeological data, and asking a lot of hard questions of what we know and what we don’t know of the whole thing. In most of the English-language sources I’ve found on the Norse and German myths, the evidence is almost completely literary, and that can paint an extremely misleading view of the whole thing. All of our literary sources are quite late, after the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity, and they are unreliable sources for what the pre-Christian beliefs and practices actually were.
So that’s what I’ve been up to lately, I’ll probably write more about all of these topics soon. Please share what you’ve been thinking about lately in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.
Sigmund Freud famously called dreams “the royal road to the unconscious,” as they often reveal our inner lives with a frankness and immediacy of which we are incapable during our normal waking experience. In his view, our sexual and aggressive instincts constantly pull us in directions that we can’t face or acknowledge, as they squarely contradict the dictates of our socially-trained moral intuitions. And so, some subset of our fears and desires are pushed off the stage of our daylight consciousness, to come popping out and night as we sleep. There’s a kind of law of conservation of psychic energies – they can be redirected or displaced, but never destroyed.
We collectively process and share unconscious images through myths, which have a dream-like character and, as Carl Jung elucidated, display recurrent patterns or symbols which are found the world over, which he called archetypes of the collective unconscious. This does not refer to Platonic forms or any kind of mystical ground of all consciousness, it is simply a way of talking about the fact that many unconscious symbols seem to be part of the shared human heritage.
This idea was taken over from the pioneering anthropologist Adolph Bastian, who discovered in his comparative analysis of many traditions what he called “elementary ideas,” or Elementargedanken. So the gods send a world-ending flood to terminate a bungled mankind not just in the Gilgamesh Epic and Flood Story of Genesis, but in the Mayan Popol Vuh as well. Trickster figures of remarkably similar character are found the world over – compare the Norse troublemaker Loki with the Tlingit and Haida Raven, or the Siberian Rabbit. And so on.
Dreams and myths speak in a common language which directly render aspects of experience in images suffused with the energies of instinct, connecting the world of consciousness to the biological facts of the body, and coordinating those two planes of our being. By definition, these symbols fascinate, disturb, and thrill. This is why Independence Day sold a lot of tickets, but Star Wars created a following that persists to this day. When the voice of Obi Wan Kenobi tells Luke to put aside his targeting computer and use the Force, he is saying something that audiences instinctively recognize. We may think that our tools and our intellects are piloting the vessels of our lives, but deeper instincts and energies are the real driver. That’s why this scene provides exultation, release, and delight – the manifest content of the film is a trivial space opera, but its message is profound.
What we need to fully appreciate is that myth and dream are not light entertainments, or a fanciful diversion from the rationally-ordered scientific and economical world in which we really live. This is an age of science, and the great discoveries made possible by the scientific method endanger our groundedness in our manifold human nature by prompting many people to over-identify with our rational centers, and to view the worlds of dream, feeling, and instinct as trivial asides. It is as though we would lop off the second term in our age-old definition of man as “rational animal.”
We do so at our peril, because we are animals, and we are moved by the unconscious. Deciding that the unconscious is of no value or interest does not make it go away – on the contrary. To ignore it is to leave it dangerously unintegrated, and unchecked.
Joseph Campbell expressed the matter succinctly in his Masks of God series:
Clearly mythology is no toy for children. Nor is it a matter of archaic, merely scholarly concern, of no moment to modern men of action. For its symbols (whether in the tangible forms of images or in the abstract form of ideas) touch and release the deepest centers of motivation, moving literate and illiterate alike, moving mobs, moving civilizations. There is a real danger, therefore, in the incongruity of focus that has brought the latest findings of technological research into the foreground of modern life, joining the world a single community, while leaving the anthropological and psychological discoveries from which a commensurable moral system might have been developed in the learned publications where they first appeared. For surely it is folly to preach to children who will be riding rockets to the moon a morality and cosmology based on concepts of the Good Society and of man’s place in nature that were coined before the harnessing of the horse! And the world is now too small, and men’s stake in sanity too great, for any of those old games of Chosen Folk (whether of Jehovah, Allah, Wotan, Manu, or the Devil) by which tribesmen were sustained against their enemies in the days when the serpent still could talk.
Just as individuals have stages of greater or lesser degrees of mental integration, coherence, and health, so, too, do societies. I was first alerted to the critical importance of this fact reading Jung in my early 20s. He was not a political man, and was reticent to comment on even the most serious social issues, but he nonetheless observed first-hand that the rise of the Nazi ideology was a direct illustration of the dangers posed by the unconscious. As the archetype of the eternal swastika rolling forever like a cosmic wheel swept like wildfire across German-speaking lands, great masses of people were galvanized by archetypes of the collective unconscious. In a short essay, he argued disturbingly and persuasively that the principle silent mover of the Nazi ideology was none other than Wotan or Odin, the repressed shadow-opposite of Germany’s Christian self-identity. Wotan is a truly awful war god who sets armies on the move in the Period of Migrations and Viking Age, and he demands human sacrifice.
Jung’s follower Erich Neumann took up the social analysis of the unconscious as thematic for his work. In his monumental study The Origins and History of Consciousness, he tracks out the development of mythology as the collective working-out of the conscious parameters of individual development. For example, when the possibility first emerged in history that the individual might carve out their own autonomous destiny in contradistinction to the role assigned to them by the tribe or society, we saw the emergence and rapid spread of myths showing hero figures overthrowing a primordial god or goddess that threatened to swallow and overwhelm the individual in its matrix, such as we find in the Babylonian Enuma Elish, in which the hero Marduk slays Tiamat, a quintessential expression of the “devouring mother” archetype.
In Neumann’s view, social change and social revolution require a concordant adaptation by the collective unconscious, which is comprised by the shared set of guiding symbols that organize and direct our instinctual patterns of belief and activity. These are generally articulated through myth and mythological symbol, and the study of myth – and of art, literature, poetry, and related fields – is therefore a royal road to the collective unconscious, which can alert us to the contours of this landscape, and the pitfalls and the promises of our historical situation.
The twentieth century was the great period of discovery of the unconscious by Europe, but what we worked so hard to learn, we have now largely forgotten. Our artists are regarded as entertainers, by and large, and our arts increasingly become entertainments. And the techno-Utopian character of our age regards social problems as best analyzed and best solved by scientists, as though technical skills provide a general tool kit for understanding and dealing with any problem in any domain. This much is clear from our New York Times best sellers.
Carl Jung warned that what remains unconscious returns as fate, and I daresay that history will remind us of what we have chosen to forget. This has been a dark year in world history, and still-darker clouds gather on the horizon. Our public discourse has, in the main, virtually no sensitivity to or appreciation of the facts of the unconscious, and social turmoil is exclusively articulated and processed as a matter of competing positions. The more this limited framework strangles the life out of the real human energies driving historical conflict, the more shrill, polarizing, and ineffectual public discussion will become.
To me it seems perfectly obvious that you cannot understand the ability of putatively-rational people to ignore the overwhelming evidence for anthropogenic climate change without considering the role of repression. Nor can you adequately explain why the Catholic church actively concealed the systematic sexual abuse of children for decades. Nor can you understand why the dark specter of Islamic terrorism elicits a horror that is fantastically disproportionate to the actual threat that it represents without understanding something of the Jungian archetype of the Shadow.
Nor, for that matter, can you come to an elementary understanding of what Islam is, if you regard it exclusively as a historical set of positions and views, and utterly neglect it as an aesthetic, psychological, and spiritual force – and that understanding can only be won by going into it, and letting its forms and symbols speak to you.
As Joseph Campbell warned us, the world is too small for that kind of neglect. More than one billion Muslims are here on this Earth, sharing it with non-Muslims, and national boundaries are porous. The United States and Europe are in deadly peril of allowing the image of the Muslim as the shadowy other – an archetype that elicits our own repressed shadow-nature – to drive policies that are as inhuman as they are doomed to failure. And no amount of rational analysis and debate is going to solve that problem. We must enlarge our psychic horizons, we must have a broader understanding of culture and history, or we may not survive.
Whatever that image of the Other is for you, you must find your way to enter it, whether it’s the Qu’ran, Rumi, Attar, Saint Francis, Picasso, the Buddha or Einstein. Find your way in, and make it part of your own story.
[Note: I reluctantly use the masculine pronoun to refer to God because I found I couldn’t write this without using pronouns, and using “she” sounds to me like an affectation. I don’t mean anything by it.]
I’ve been reading quite a bit about Islamic philosophy and history lately, and have just started getting into early medieval thought in the Muslim world. There’s a lot about it that I find extremely interesting – for one thing, Neoplatonism was an huge influence on Muslim philosophy, in large part because the Greek work Theology, which was enormously influential in the Middle East, and which was spuriously attributed to Aristotle, was in fact a summary of a large chunk of the Enneads of Plotinus. I pretty much never tire of Neoplatonism.
I also find medieval theology quite interesting, sometimes in surprising ways. It’s easy at a glance to look at some of the questions that medieval philosophers and theologians wrestled with, and to find them abstruse and quite ridiculous. For example, you could take the so-called Euthyphro Question of Plato, which found its way into the contemplation of many great minds. The question runs thus: do the gods do what is good because it is good, or is the good good because the gods do it? Maybe take a moment to play with that one before going on, up to you.
On its face this sounds like a semantic chicken-and-egg question that doesn’t get us anywhere, but if you take the idea of an omnipotent God, then it leads to some interesting cul-de-sacs. For example, one question that divided early Muslim philosophers was based on this dilemma: is it possible that God could act unjustly, or out of pettiness or meanness? Of course not, some would argue – God’s nature is goodness and perfection, and He would never act in an imperfect way. But does this not set a limit on God’s omnipotence? Who’s to say God can’t act arbitrarily? Job might want to have a long talk with such a person.
Later in the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas would deal with an interesting related question, asking if God could always be counted on to act logically and lawfully, or if some day we might find ourselves confronting a square circle, because God felt like changing the rules that day. Aquinas was very much of the opinion that God would act consistently, which led to an important consequence – by studying nature and its laws, we can learn something about God.
There is a position that was current for some time in Islamic philosophy called Occasionalism, which had a similar kind of logic. In this doctrine, because God is omnipotent, nothing in the universe can occur without His consent. Further, because God is not just really really powerful, but is all-powerful, there is no difference between what He allows and what is, and His consent is in fact identical with what exists. There is no distinction between God wishing something to be and its being so. Consequently, what appears to us to be causality is an illusion. All things that happen occur as they do through God’s will alone, and God is the sole causal power in the universe.
One variant of this theory holds that God does not in fact need to go around ordaining special providence for the fall of every sparrow, and making sure your car starts when you turn the key, because that would be a drag. Maybe He has better things to do with His day. Instead, things are imbued from creation with a kind of steering logic based on God’s intention that carries them through time without additional support, so things go as they’re supposed to.
I find this kind of thinking interesting, in part because it shows how people imagine what God is actually like, not just in the abstract, but in terms of a question that rarely occurs to me – what does God do all day, anyway?
Is God like a big light up there in the sky emitting love and golden light? Or does God actually run around all the time making things happen, tending supernovas, and making sure the sky doesn’t go out? Maybe it would be nice to create things with an intrinsic causal disposition to carry them through creation so He doesn’t have to worry about tending everything, but what would He do otherwise? Maybe it’s nice to just take it easy once in a while, drink some coffee, and read the paper. It sounds nice to me.
This morning I’m reading Simone Weil’s essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” and wonder if what I love most about the poem is precisely what Weil loves least – its unflinching recognition and affirmation of the simple truth that much within humanity’s heart is not itself, human. To the moralist and idealist, this is an insufferable torment; to me, it is the beginning of redemption.
Weil evokes lines from the final book of the Iliad:
No one saw Priam enter. He stopped,
Clasped the knees of Achilles, kissed his hands,
Those terrible man-killing hands that slaughtered so many of his sons.
And for a moment at least, re-reading these lines, I think that Homer is even greater than Shakespeare, and I love him for giving us an image of human beings reduced to their essence by the uttermost extremity of conflict, yet neither is evil.
Such a view holds them, and us, in acceptance, and does not require us to purge ourselves of inhumanity, and to become, thereby, inhuman.
I’ve just started poking around in one of the autobiographies of Lou Andreas-Salomé, an exceedingly interesting Russian woman of prodigious charm and intellectual gifts. Three of the men who fell under her spell were Friedrich Nietzsche (who sought her hand in marriage), Rainer Maria Rilke, and Sigmund Freud. Any individual who knew all three men is worth our attention, but the fact that she dazzled all three is intriguing indeed. I’ve read many accounts of her life and decided it’s time to go straight to the source, to see if her magic comes across in her writing.
She begins her autobiography in a grandly literary, Freudian style, ruminating on the primordial infancy from which we call come forth, and reflecting on the irony that the bounds which define our earliest memories are a shadowy territory which fluctuate in recollection between awareness and non-awareness, identity and non-identity.
This immediately struck me, as I’ve also been reading Erich Neumann’s Origins of Consciousness, which examines the history of mythology as a projection, or externalization, of the psychological stages of development of the individual ego through a process which Carl Jung termed “individuation.” In Neumann’s theory, insofar as the consciousness of the individual has a collective component, which is expressed in the symbolic language of dreams and mythology, we can study the way personal consciousness evolved over time by studying the developmental history of mythology. As he puts it, from the perspective of consciousness, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, which is to say, the development of the individual duplicates in microcosm the historical evolution of the species.
Neumann begins with cosmogony, or myths of world-creation, which in his view are an externalized account of how individual consciousness comes into being out of an early state of incoherence. In many isolated traditions around the globe, we find parallel accounts of world-creation out of a primordial chaos or darkness, with the act of creation itself a configuration of the originary matrix into an intelligible, orderly arrangement.
One thinks immediately of the first verses of Genesis:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
Consciousness emerges out of the unconscious as light emerges out darkness: dividing, making distinctions, applying designations and value judgments. One finds this structure in creation accounts throughout the world, such as the Memphite Theology of Egypt, the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, the Hindu Vedas, in the Norse accounts of the creation of the world from the bones of the frost giant Ymir, and in an interiorized form in the Bardo Thodol, or so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead, to name some prominent examples.
Jung, of course, wrote an important psychological commentary on the Bardo Thodol, in which he highlights the implicit cosmogonic myth in this Tibetan description of how consciousness comes out of the indeterminate “between” state after death, and reincarnates into the world again, once more taking up the eternal round. The circle or sphere is thus identified by Neumann as the mythological symbol of the primoridial pre-conscious state par excellence; he terms it the ouroboros. It was only by reading Neumann that it became apparent to me just how much of Buddhist doctrine can be accounted for as parallels to mythological descriptions of individuals in relationship to the unconscious – I now see the Buddhist doctrine of tathāgatagarbha as simply another version of the primordial goddess – but that is a story for another day.
What interest me here is that Neumann and Andreas-Salomé arrived at the same emphasis on the originary primordium in parallel. Both, of course, were in educated in the same milieu, and it is the milieu which here interests me. Their convergence in focus on the undifferentiated pre-conscious state provides some evidence for a thesis I’ve long held: that Jungian psychology is, on the whole, a re-articulation of the basic post-Kantian German idealist position in empirical-rational form. The basic problem of this worldview is the relationship of individual consciousness to the indescribable reality that serves as its basis, and which is in fact its original essence in a deep sense.
A final thought before I close this reflection – we are living in an intensely secular age, which, by and large, can only dumbly affirm religious and mythological symbols as literally true or literally false, and is therefore blind to its symbolic character. We are thus consigned to live in a period which lacks the spiritual sophistication enjoyed, say, by any educated Irish monk in the eighth century, or any student in a Paris university in the thirteenth. Part of the reason for this is, of course, the great success of science, but part, I increasingly believe, is because the two great Western European traditions which were in the process of bringing mythological thought forward into the modern age in terms which we could value and accept were both destroyed by the Nazis: the secular Jewish intellectual tradition of Europe, and the German post-idealist tradition.
Here at Mesocosm we’re huge fans of Melvyn Bragg’s BBC radio show In our Times, which may be streamed on demand here. The format is simple – Bragg moderates discussions of interesting topics with a select group of 2-4 academic specialists. Hosting that show is basically my dream job – I’ve listened to spell-binding episodes covering everything from Faust to the An Lushan Rebellion in China to the Cambrian explosion.
I was unusually transfixed by an episode on Shakespeare and Criticism, a half-hour discussion between esteemed literary critic Harold Bloom and the dazzling Jacqueline Rose of the University of London. Their conversation quickly took flight from Shakespeare, using a discussion of Hamlet as a touchstone for an animated defense of the western canon, upheld by Professor Bloom, and a bold probing of its limitations by Professor Rose. It’s a conversation I will long remember, which articulately embodies a dialectical tension in the way the humanities are taught, and I recommend it very highly.
Flipping idly through Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, I came across the following:
Over immense periods of time the intellect produced nothing but errors. A few of these proved to be useful and helped to preserve the species: those who hit upon or inherited these had better luck in their struggle for themselves or their progeny. Such erroneous articles of faith, which were continually inherited, until they became almost part of the basic endowment of the species, include the following: that there are enduring things; that there are equal things; that there are things, substances, bodies; that a thing is what it appears to be; that our will is free; that what is good or me is also good in itself. It was only very late that such presuppositions were denied and doubted; it was only very late that truth emerged – as the weakest form of knowledge. It seemed that one was unable to live with it: our organism was prepared for the opposite; all its higher functions, sense perception and every kind of sensation worked with those basic errors which had been incorporated since time immemorial. Indeed, even in the realm of knowledge these propositions became norms according to which ‘true’ and ‘untrue’ were determined – down to the most regions of logic.
Thus the strength of knowledge does not depend on its degree of truth but on its age, on the degree to which it has been incorporated, on its character as a condition of life. Where life and knowledge seemed to be at odds there was never any real fight, but denial and doubt were simply considered madness. Those exceptional thinkers, like the Eleatics, who nevertheless posited and clung to the opposites of the natural errors, believed that it was possible to live in accordance with these opposites: they invented the sage as the man who was unchangeable and impersonal, the man of the universality of the intuition who was One and All at the same time, with a special capacity for the inverted knowledge: they had the faith that their knowledge was also the principles of life. But in order to claim all of this, they had to deceive themselves about their own state: they had to attribute to themselves, fictitiously, impersonality and changeless duration; they had to misapprehend the nature of the knower; they had to deny the role of the impulses in knowledge; and quite generally they had to conceive of reason s a completely free and spontaneous activity. They shut their eyes to the fact that they, too, had arrived at their propositions through opposition to common sense, or owing to a desire for tranquility, for sole possession, or for dominion. The subtler development of honesty and skepticism eventually made these people, too, impossible; their way of living and judging were seen to be also dependent upon the primeval impulses and basic errors of all sentient existence. (section 110, translated by Walter Kaufmann)
The Gay Science is probably my favorite of Nietzsche’s books – it has a more developed and mature insight than his earlier works, while retaining a lightness of tone and lacking the ponderous quality that increasingly dominates his later works.
Here we find a potent formulation of an insight that is, to my mind, one of his most important contributions to the history of philosophy – namely, that philosophers and sages, too, speak and act from self-interested positions, and very often what we find in their timeless systems is a projection of their own priorities and values onto the fabric of the cosmos itself. There is no impersonal philosophy.
And as one hand writes cherished conclusions in the Book of Nature, the other hand simultaneously erases all memory of having done so. Thus the sage usually discovers in the world what they most value within themselves. As the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna memorably put it, “You are like a person who, riding a horse, forgets that very horse.”
Let us be forewarned, and proceed with caution, where the sage claims to have found the great truth, or to have brought themselves into identity or alignment with it, be they philosopher, scientist, doctor, or priest, of the East or of the West. They may have simply found themselves, and forgotten where they had looked.