Friday, March 14, 2008

The Unconscious 1

We humans have from time immemorial always feared the unknown.  I suppose to know something is very much to control it.  Hence, not to know something is very much to be controlled by that nebulous something or other.   The same is true, I believe, with regard to the illnesses that trouble us from time to time - when they remain undiagnosed they present us with greater fears as our mind can run riot with all types of terrible possibilities.  When our diseases are diagnosed, we can, to a greater or lesser extent, control them with medication or therapy and at least try to get our minds around whatever the diagnosis is.

The unknown conjures up all kinds of ghostly images, even weird and fearfully horrific ones.  Literature is replete with ghost stories, for example, the weird and wonderful tales told in Gothic literature from novels to tales to poems. This genre of literature got its name from the predilection of its authors with setting their stories in old ruined Gothic buildings like castles, monasteries and all types of old crumbling buildings with turrets, towers, dungeons and drawbridges.  Hence, it is easy to people these settings with ghosts of all types, skeletons, cobwebs, bats, ravens, tyrants, villains, madmen and madwomen, magicians, vampires, werewolves, monsters, demons, revenants and even the Devil himself

Needless to say, the Romantic poets found a wonderful quarry of characters and themes in this Gothic literature which by its very nature would appeal to the wonder of the Romantic imagination.  Hence, we get S.T. Coleridge writing his Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel, two wonderfully Gothic poems. Obviously, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) is decidedly Gothic character, though there are those literary critics and historians who argue that it is the very first example of science fiction writing.

Where does all the above fit in under my bold title?  This may be obvious or not depending on how clued in the reader is to what exactly our unconscious is.  Rather than write what follows as a continuous piece of prose I'll list some interesting comments, questions or jumping-off points to make the reader think and reflect a little on the mystery of the whole nature of the unconscious, if not of life itself.

(i) I have always been a subscriber to the limited power of our own finite mind, and consequently have been much convinced by Socrates' statement that if we should wish to progress our knowledge on any front we should always begin with a profession of our ignorance and from there proceed with methodic questioning to elucidate the truth.  Likewise, I have always loved Shakespeare's theory of knowledge which he puts into Hamlet's mouth in the eponymous play, namely, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." 

(ii) As science has long ago found out - there are more things in the universe than meet the naked eye.  From Copernicus to Galileo humankind learned to curb to some extent its hubris and cockiness - it could no longer claim that earth on which it had lived for countless millennia was the centre of our solar system, or of the then known universe.  If humankind had looked out to the universe, to the macrocosm, it also began to look down to the microcosm through the new instrument called the microscope.  Another universe, on a smaller scale, had now begun to open up.  Humankind began to see further and further and further out on the one hand (macrocosm) and deeper and deeper and deeper down on the other (microcosm).  There is always so much more than meets the naked eye.  If we cannot see it with the naked eye, are we really sure it exists? In answer to the question, "Is the invisible visible?" the discoverer of the X-Ray, Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen replied to his interviewer, "Not to the eye." (Indeed, with an electron microscope the observer interferes with what he is viewing as the electrons displace the particles viewed.  Obviously W.C.R's reply implies that we can "see" it in other ways.)  Other questions to ask would be: (a) is there always more to be discovered no matter how far out/up or in/down we go? (b) what if there is no more more?  

(iii) Then, there are the problems of human knowledge and human action and behaviour. I have read often in psychology books that we know more than we are consciously aware of

(iv) Over many years of teaching I have often asked misbehaving pupils why the did a specific bad action or misbehaviour.  More often than not they replied that they simply did not know.  At the beginning of my career this answer used to annoy me considerably.  However, as I grew in years and in experience, I began to realise that in all probability the miscreant did not know at all why he perpetrated a certain action.  I had begun to realise that many of our actions are indeed unpremeditated and totally unconscious.  People don't like to be told that their behaviours are often totally beyond their control. People like to think that they are "rational animals" as we learned in our philosophy.  However, had we read widely in philosophy we would realise that human beings are also "social animals" and "non-rational" and at times "totally irrational animals."  Factor in the other characteristics of the human animal and we have a truer and more whole picture of the human being.  It can be frightening to realise that we can be victims, if not puppets of unconscious forces.  Maybe, we are not at all as free as we might like to think we are?

(v) And so we are into a more shadowy world are we not?  The logical mind likes to get things very clear, cut and dried as it were.  However, the emotional mind can be very irrational at times. Things in this emotional world are rather unpredictable - a bit like the weather in fact!  Alas and alack there are shadows as well as light sources.  We often use Light to represent the rational and we often speak of the light of reason.  However, shine a light on an object and project it on a screen and you'll get both a shadow and a further one - I refer to the phenomena of umbra and penumbra here.  In the old Greek myths there was always the world of shadows called the Underworld.  The Underworld was thought to lie far beyond Oceanus or way beneath the earth, connected thereto by caves and rivers.  There were five rivers associated with the Underworld: (a) the River of Grief called Acheron, (b) the River of Wailing called Cocytus, (c) the River of Fire called Phlegethon, (d) the River of Hate called the Styx and finally (e) the River of Forgetfulness called Lethe. Charon, the ferryman brought souls in his boat to the Underworld of shadows, sometimes across the river Acheron and sometimes across the River Styx.  Passengers had to pay him with a coin which they carried in their mouths.

(vi) Then there is the whole phenomenon of dreams.  Our dream world becomes alive during during periods of REM sleep and there are many theories of what the nature of dreams or dreaming is and why we do so.  Some of these theories are outlandish and some downright contradictory to other theories.  Yet, the open-minded among us must be ever open to even the partial truths, however miniscule that be, of each theory in order to come up with a workable composite hypothesis.  It was through the analysis of dreams that Sigmund Freud proposed that we could discover and travel the veritable "Royal Road to the Unconscious."

Above I have uploaded a picture I took of the stump of an old tree, Newbridge House

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