"A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us." – Franz Kafka

Archive for September 2015

What is inhuman?

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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.

Her essay:

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September 15, 2015 at 6:55 am

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The Creation, the Unconscious, and such

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The Muse, Picasso

The Muse, Picasso

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.

Sleeping Muse, Brâncuși

Sleeping Muse, Brâncuși

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.

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September 13, 2015 at 10:24 am

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BBC’s In our Times with Harold Bloom and Jacqueline Rose

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Ophelia (detail), by John Everett Millais

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.

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September 6, 2015 at 4:35 pm

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