History, Philosophy, Religion, Art, Science

52: 01 Artio, the Celtic Bear Goddess

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This week I’m going to start a new weekly series looking at striking pieces of art that I’ve come across in my travels, presented in no particular order.

I’m going to kick this series off with a stunning pediment-mounted bronze statue group from Muri, adjacent to the modern city of Bern, Switzerland, which depicts the Celtic bear goddess Artio, dating to the second century CE.


The Celts were notoriously aniconic for most of their long history, preferring to celebrate the numinous powers of nature through the veneration of sacred trees and groves and the like. It was only in the waning latter days of the Celts, under the influence of their Roman conquerors, that they belatedly took up the practice of depicting divinities in human form.

In my experience, most Celtic bronze devotional statues are small, crude works with little expressive or aesthetic power. This Artio statue group is a rare and stunning exception to the rule, expressing the energies of life and death with unmistakable force.

The statue group is dominated by an enormous bear projecting forward toward the seated goddess from the root of a loping tree, as if springing directly from the base of the axel tree or axis mundi, from the wellspring of life itself.

Its head is subtly enlarged to give ample room for its expressive features to dominate the work. It is positioned just off-center of the pediment, and directly controls the feeling of this piece: 


Each viewer will have their own response to the feeling-tone conveyed by the bear. For myself, I see the blank but rapt expression of life and awareness without personality, reminding me of the cool, emotionless gaze of classical Greek divinities who seem to peer forth from a realm far removed from the ordinary domain of human concern. It is both arresting and chilling.

The goddess herself is pitched backward in a semi-recumbent posture suggesting a dialectically complementary attitude of reception of the dynamic, active powers of life expressed by the bear.

There can be no doubt that this image in aggregate encompasses a totality of opposing energies, which work with and against each other to constitute the total dynamic embodied by the image of the goddess. It forms a kind of pictoral merism, or a coincidentia oppositorum. That is, a total image is conveyed by the elements set in stable conflict by this piece, reminding us that the transcendent powers of life are, in themselves, beyond the pairs of opposites in which they play out in the field of time.

Religious art around the world is centrally concerned with this very problem – the expression of the energies of eternity in the field of time by way of antithetically-posed pairs of opposites. I don’t have an itinerary in mind for my art series here, but I anticipate this is a theme we will encounter again and again.

This theme of dialectical complementarity is also suggested by the association of the predatory and life-destroying character of the bear juxtaposed with symbols of fecundity – not only the tree, but the implements borne by the goddess. In her left hand she holds flowers and fruit; in her right, she holds an empty bowl.

Other than this wonderful statue group, nothing is known for certain about Artio. Jan de Vries tells us in his Keltische Religion that the contradictions encompassed by the statue group have led scholars to speculate in conflicting terms, with some viewing her as a goddess of war, and others seeing her as a goddess of fertility. Of course, we know from the example of long-lived cult of Ishtar that a goddess may be both.

The fact that a bear goddess statue of great antiquity was unearthed in a city that is today called Bern (meaning “bear”) has aroused considerable interest, but again, nothing is known for sure. Various linkages to pagan England have likewise been posited, hypothetically linking Artio to the warrior goddess Andraste, who was invoked by the British warrior queen Boudica in her struggle against Rome, for example.

I came upon this work quite unlooked for in the Bernisches Historischen Museum on vacation a few years ago, and was completely transported. Sometimes you just get lucky.

Written by Mesocosm

September 3, 2016 at 10:00 am

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Concord Symphony

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One of my favorite pieces of twentieth-century music is the Concord Symphony, Henry Brant’s orchestral arrangement of Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata. Brant spent over twenty years bringing the work for solo piano to the orchestra, and it is so persuasive – so fully articulate and rich – it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t initially conceived on such a large scale. But that’s Ives for you – he expresses a symphony’s worth of ideas on a piano.

Listening to it today, I fell into the awareness that the development of musical ideas has such an evident developmental logic, it feels like a mirror of the way my thoughts arrange themselves as I’m ruminating on an interesting diversion or daydream. It’s a fascinating thing to encounter something like the form of abstraction expressed musically, with all the emotional echoes and resonances of an interior monolog, but with no explicit content.

I especially like the periodic appearance of the first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth, and the elaboration and development of that theme, like a ghost haunting the history of music. It reminds me of the parody masses of the Renaissance which build enormous polyphonic works as elaborations on a single melody, often derived from popular songs.

All credit to Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony for promoting this wonderful piece.

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July 4, 2016 at 9:40 am

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The Veils of Islam

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Last week, I attended a talk by Ingrid Mattson, a distinguished scholar of Islamic Studies, and I heard a story that made quite an impression on me. She had been counseling a young man recently, and felt concerned that he was over-sharing on social media – the kinds of stories or pictures from parties that a person in college might not think twice about posting. She suggested that eventually he’d be looking for a job, and he might regret some of the things that were out there on the Internet. As an experiment, she suggested that he try Googling himself, and see what he found.


Quranic Inscription, 13th Century, Iran

Now, this fellow has a common Arabic name, and she did not anticipate that the first several entire pages of search results would be news stories about violent extremists who shared part or all of his name. This, he realized, is what a prospective employer would see if they ran a quick check.

The light of his individual identity would be reflected by the distorted mirror of the media and refracted through the prism of our times, and he would be marked by association with acts of violence.

The French Algerian theorist Mohammed Arkoun speaks of how societies construct ideas of Islam in terms of imaginaires, or “imaginaries.” These imaginaires are shared systems of ideas and belief shaped by ideology, media, the exchange of social capital, and the intervention of the unconscious.

In Arkoun’s view, discourse about Islam is largely governed by two complementary imaginaires, one coming from Muslim countries, and another constituted in Europe and the US. The common Muslim imaginaire is a reductive description of Islamic society and history that is premised on the belief that its current historical forms of expression are based logically and inevitably on a well-ordered and ahistorical set of principles derived unambiguously from the Quran, Hadith, and Islamic law. That is, what we observe in current Muslim states is believed to follow a precise and unchanging template based on classical sources, and this is how it has always been. 

There are few beliefs as widespread or as dangerous as the belief that ideas do not have a history. This imaginaire that Arkoun describes is recent, and it forms the basis of so many of the tired cliches about Islam –  that it is fundamentally anti-rational; that Islamic states are eo ipso theocratic; that Islamic states perceive all other types of social organization as adversaries to be one day conquered; et cetera. It is proposed and defended by autocratic governments which use it to bolster their own legitimacy. Critical voices are marginalized or suppressed within these governments and their institutions of learning, and consequently the standard tools of social criticism that would generally look to the role of ideology or the irrational in shaping self-concepts of history are silenced. 

For a variety of bad reasons, this distorted self-construction is reflected back by scholars in Europe and the United States, who should know better. In Arkoun’s view, they accede to this narrative either out of a naive wish to let the putatively indigenous self-construction and valuation of Islamic identity speak for itself and on its own terms, or out of a cynical desire to capitalize on simplified reductions of history for their own aims, e.g., to characterize Islam in the language of alterity. All too often these scholars ignore the degree to which critical or alternative voices within the Islamic world itself are silenced, and European and American scholars accept social constructions at face value that would never be tolerated from a European source without careful criticism.

So, to pull one of countless examples, in his recent book World Order, Henry Kissinger soberly recapitulates the cliche that the first several centuries of Muslim expansion were guided by a fundamental ideological distinction between the House of Islam, or conquered Muslim lands, and the House of War, or everywhere else, and treats this as though it were an unproblematic given of historiography. And of course, Kissinger does not pause to ask where this interpretation of early Muslim history came from, or what interests it may serve.

Ironically, by acting in this way, Kissinger precisely echoes the reductive and distorted version of history advocated by Sayyid Qutb, the strident anti-American polemicist whose belligerent interpretation of jihad has been taken up by terrorists such as Anwar al-Awlaki of Al Qaeda in Yemen. As the French proverb has it, les extrêmes se touchent.

Reality is far more complicated than dramatic simplifications will allow. To speak to Kissinger’s positoin, countless forms of cross-cultural exchange and interaction took place during the Umayyad and ‘Abbasid Caliphates, involving commerce, knowledge transfer, migration, missionary activity, travel, and dialog. The world is a complex place, and from its earliest days, Islam has been a plurality.

Yet, when you look to today’s newspaper headlines, and draw from so much of our social discourse, you would hardly know that there was any diversity in Muslim views or beliefs at all. We live in an age in which a Republican presidential candidate can openly praise the arbitrary degradation and murder of Muslims in South Carolina, for no other reason than that they are Muslims, and then win the primary in the same week.


Mosaic, Khirbat al-Mafjar, c. 740

How is it that we form ideas about who we are as individuals? Who are the people we encounter, and what do we really know about them? What do we know about groups – about Christians or Jews, Buddhists or Muslims? What are the mirrors into which we all peer to make out a sense of identity, and to give shape to the complexities of our world, so we can understand and act? How do we see the truth?

The Quran gives us 99 names for Allah, and one of them is “the Truth.” In the Surah Luqman, we read:

Hast thou not considered that God makes the night pass into the day and makes the day pass into the night, and that He made the sun and the moon subservient, each running for a term appointed, and that God is Aware of whatsoever you do? That is because God, He is the Truth, and whatsoever they call upon other than Him is false, and God is the Exalted, the Great. (31:29-30)

I love this beautiful conjunction of the movement of light and dark arrayed in orderly progression, bound to the notion of Truth.

This particular Name is of special interest to the Sufis, who stride so brilliantly through the history of Islam, leaping effortlessly over so many fences. For the Sufi masters, the Truth is indeed bound to a play of light and dark, as we read in the Niche of Lights by Al-Ghazali, or the works of Ibn al-’Arabi, who speaks of the veils of the Real, by which God is revealed within the world, but which simultaneously conceal His essence.

Thus Truth and the Real in the ultimate sense, according to this tradition, are a play of light and darkness; shapes that give sense and meaning, also cloud and hide. And this is where we live, in the play of light and shadow. So how do we find our way?

This is what I take as my starting point: because of the current state of technology and social change, all of humanity must increasingly share this one world together, and learning to recognize one another as brothers and sisters is the spiritual task of our age. My own orientation to religion, history, and culture is comparative, and it is increasingly clear to me that within my own society – that of Europe and the United States – we must have a better understanding of Islam. For this world to survive, we cannot simply take up the concepts that are ready-to-hand within our social discourse, because they are awash with profound distortions.

Anyone who would encounter Islam and come to terms with it, as we must, should wander some of its many ways, for great riches lie within its corridors and chambers. It has long been and remains a powerful spiritual force that sustains and guides the lives of more than a billion people, each with their own individual lives and destinies, and I increasingly believe that it is the duty of non-Muslims to meet it, as a Thou in Martin Buber’s sense, and to encounter its people, before the maddening and distorted din of echoed rumor deafens our ears, and the bright glare of the endlessly-refracted light blinds our eyes, and we can see and hear no more.



Update: Just days after writing that the old story of the stark distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim communities during the period of expansion is a gross over-simplification, I came across this fascinating article describing the excavation of the earliest-known Muslim graves in Europe. These graves belonged to three Berbers who were probably part of the Umayyad expansion, and the evidence indicates that they lived peacefully in Nimes with Christians, as they were buried alongside Christians with no sign of partition. In the words of the authors, “[t]hese results clearly highlight the complexity of the relationship between communities during this period, far from the cliché depiction still found in some history books.”

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February 22, 2016 at 7:22 am

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Reading List: December 2015

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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.

Prayer Niche (detail), 7th century Persian Pergamon Museum

Prayer Niche (detail), 7th century Persian
Pergamon Museum

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.

Cult Figure, Fifth Century CE, Neues Museum

Cult Figure, Fifth Century CE, Neues Museum

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.

Written by Mesocosm

December 20, 2015 at 5:10 pm

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Unreason in an Age of Reason

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The Sleeping Gypsy, Henri Rousseau

The Sleeping Gypsy, Henri Rousseau

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.


Solar and Lunar Energies in Conflict

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.

Dancing Maenad

Dancing Maenad

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.

Written by Mesocosm

November 29, 2015 at 10:54 am

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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.

Written by Mesocosm

September 13, 2015 at 10:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized