Saturday, May 01, 2010

A Masterpiece ripped from Obivion 1

That we are creatures who are at once meaning-making and meaning-seeking goes without question. That we find the world in turns familiar and strange goes without saying. That we are also buffeted by a virtual roller-coaster of ambiguous feelings is also undeniable. Perhaps, the wisest thing we can say about ourselves is what the great orator-politician Winston Churchill said of the possible future action of Russia on October 1, 1939 that we are "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

Small vignettes flicker across the screen of my mind which disturb me from time to time.  I remember once as a young teacher of 22 years walking into my first school. It was probably some time before Christmas 1980 and another young teacher, who was then about 28 years, asked me the question, "what's it all about?" I cannot remember exactly what I mumbled by way of reply, but I recall saying something along the following lines, "What's what about, Gerry?" Then to his inevitable answer, "life, of course," I recall retorting, "it's too early in the morning, Gerry, to answer a question like that." At the time, I had not known that that young man, Gerard Smith, suffered from a congenital heart complaint which meant that his years were numbered. Indeed, a while after I had left that school the poor man died.

Another vignette that flickers across my mind on occasion is that of the famous meeting between James Boswell (1740-1795), the famous biographer of Samuel Johnson (1709-84) with David Hume on the latter's deathbed. Boswell, raised in a Calvinist household and a timid man, fearful of damnation in hell because of his debauched life, was morbidly afraid of death. As a result, this distinguished literary figure could not resist the temptation of going to see the great philosopher, and possibly the greatest empiricist, David Hume (1711 -1776), the God denier, on his deathbed, to ask him if he had repented of his blasphemy, if he had changed his mind, perhaps, about denying the immortality of the soul.  Boswell reported that the learned and peaceful Hume had replied to his questions with consummate ease: "Yes it is possible that the soul is immortal.  It is also possible that if I toss this piece of coal into the flames of that fire, it will not burn.  Possible, but there is no basis for believing it - not by reason, and not by sense perception, not by our experience."

Hume had said famously that what the self (or soul, or principle of life) really is, is nothing short of a "bundle of perceptions" which are indeed constantly being added to as others are discarded.  I have often been convinced that Hume's theory of the self is not too far off what James Joyce meant when he spoke of "stream of consciousness" and Marcel Proust , whose The Remembrance of Things Past seems to suggest that the flow of fragmentary perceptions make up the very self that we are.

To return to Boswell, we can all agree with his report of what the great Dr Samuel Johnston said about mortality:  "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." With respect to mortality and our being meaning-making and meaning-seeking creatures, I can aver that this is the essential reason why the great Russian writers Leo Tolstoy – 1828 - 1910) and Fyodor Dostoyevski (1821 – 1881) have long appealed to me.  They ask such meaning-making and meaning-seeking questions.  They seem to enact a feat tantamount to distilling the very essence of what life and death or mortality are all about.  They seem to answer, in the best way possible, Gerry Smith's deep and personally painful question, "what's it all about?"

And so within the above somewhat unique and unorthodox introduction, I wish now to allude to one equally powerful novel - or indeed two short novellas which have been recently discovered.  This wonderful discovery fits in well with the illustrious meaning-making and meaning-seeking philosophers and novelists I have written about above.  It also is a distillation of Gerard Smith's question - what is it all about?  I refer to Irene Némirovski's (1903, Kiev – 1942) wonderful masterpiece which has only quite recently been puiblished under the title Suite Francaise.  My title of this post is taken from Le Monde's review of the novel which describes it as "a masterpiece... ripped from oblivion."  These two novellas form a beautiful literary diptych which depicts what it was like during the Nazi invasion of France.  They were only discovered in the late 1990s when Némirovski's older daughter, Denise, who had kept the notebook containing the manuscript for Suite Française for fifty years without reading it, thinking it was a journal or diary of her mother's.  She had never read it because she thought it would be far too painful an exercise for her.  In the late 1990s as she aged, however, she made arrangements to donate her mother's papers to a French archive and decided to examine the notebook first. Upon discovering what it contained, she had it published in France, where it became a bestseller in 2004. It has since been translated into 38 languages and as of 2008 had sold 2.5 million copies.

I will review this wonderful little book in my next post.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

In the footsteps of James Hillman 33

What's in a Name?

Hillman puts an interesting post-script or coda at the end of his book.  This is a short chapter where he defends his use of the term "acorn theory" for his new suggested archetypal theory of calling or vocation in anyone's life.  I suppose one could also say that this acorn myth is a meaning-giving theory proposed by our psychologist.  Does this theory, Hillman asks, fall prey to that which it opposes, namely the organicization of the nature of character?  Our learned and original psychologist asks a further question of himself:  Should he not have named his theory something like "the essence theory," "the image theory," or simply "the genius theory" or more boldly "the theory of angelic psychology"?  (See The Soul's Code, 275)  He answers well:
I hold to "acorn" because it demonstrates how to read organic images without falling prey to arganicism.  If we are able to use a natural image in a unnatural way, then we will have shown, by means of the term "acorn," the very kernel of our archetypal point of view; which aims to turn the organic, time-bound developmental view of human life backward on itelf, to reread life against the stream of time.  If we want to revise the developmental model of human nature, we may as well take oin of its seed images to begin with.  (Ibid., p. 275)
As an archetype, the acorn can be imagined mythologically, morphologically and etymologically.  In this imagining we are amplifying the meanings of the notion of the acorn.  Mythologically we can explore the symbolism of the oak and the acorn.   The oak was a magical ancestor tree for the Celts.  As an Irish Celt and one who has taught Irish Gaelic for twenty two years I am well aware of how the Gaelic druids held the oak grove as sacred and as a specialk place of inspiration and for communing with thhe gods.  In Greek mythology some oaks even gave birth to humans.  Oaks, in short are magical trees, or soul trees - haunts oif bees, and consequently honey - the very nectar of the gods, or if you like, "soul food."  As I'm writing I'm thinking of the great talking and walking trees of the The Lord of the Rings trilogy and then of the centrality of the tree image in the film Avatar.  Cameron is well-read in his mythology.  Another interesting fact Hillman informs us of is that the both Greek "seers" and Gallic Druids (and I infer Gaelic and Scottish Druids also) chewed acorns to induce prophetic trances.

Also there is evidence that in many myths - not only Greek, but in African ones also, that trees could speak.  In fact the ancient Greeks held that the world was full of spermatikoi logoi - word seeds or germinal ideas.  These germinal ideas are present a priori to give form to each thing.  These are "spermy" (my term) or spermatic" (Hillman's term) words that makes it possible for easch thing to tell of its own nature.

Also Hillman points out a very interesting fact, one of which I was wholly unaware, namely that the two words "tree" and "truth" are actually cognates.  So the acorn is a bearer of the truth in nuce.   Now mythological language expresses itself in images, not in words as such.  That's what we must be aware of when we attend a film such as Avatar by James Cameron - that we are dealing with mythological thinking, not scientific thinking.  Nor is it correct to insist that one form of thinking is more valid than another - they are just two different ways of thinking.  Mythology is all about expanding our ways of thinking and imagining.  It's not a "higher" or even a "lower" truth.  It's just a different version of the truth, a different perspective on the world.

Morphologically, or shapewise, Hillman informs us that the acorn was seen as being in the shape of the glans of the human penis, and that it was called juglans, or glans penis of Jupiter.  Therefore, unlike many other trees, the oak was always seen to be male and was commonly called a Great-Father-God-Tree.

Then, our great archetype psychologist offers us the etymological insight into the word acorn and tells us that it is related to such words as "acre," "act," and "agent."  In these senses of the word the acorn is seen not merely as a seed but as an alredy fulfilled fruition.  Also such words like "agenda" and "agony" are cognates of acorn when its Sanskrit roots via Greek are examined.

Then, finally, Hillman suggests that the acorn theory of biography seems to have sprung from and to speak the language of the "puer eternus" which I discussed before in these pages, especially when I wrote of the death of Michael Jackson.  See this link here - Michael Jackson.  The puer eternus is "the archetype of eternal youth who embodies a timeless, everlasting, yet fragile connection with the invisible otherworld." (Ibid., p. 281)

The End (of my account opf reading Hillman's little classic, "The Soul's Code."

Above a picture of that stately tree, the venerable Great-Father-God-Tree-The-Mighty-Oak.

Monday, April 26, 2010

In the footsteps of James Hillman 32

What is Character?

When we use this word we immediately think of adjectives like "good," "bad," "helpful," "selfish," "egotistical" or "self-effacing."  In other words we immediately assume that character refers to the traits a person has.  The Penguin English Dictionary, the nearest dictionary I have to hand, defines it thus: 1 a. the mental or moral qualities that distinguish a person. b. the distinctive qualities characteristic of something; its main or essential nature.  2. Any of the people portrayed in a novel, film, play etc. 3. Good reputation. 4. Moral strength, integrity. 5. A symbol like a letter, numeral or punctuation mark used in writing or printing.

I am often asked to write references for past pupils, and the first thing that jumps to my mind would be whether the character of that pupil is trustworthy or not.  Then one would mention all the other good qualities like punctuality, attendance, politeness, dedication to work, diligence etc which a prospective employer would be looking for.  Hillman gives an interesting take on what is meant by character.

A Deeper Definition

At this sage we are not surprised that our author Dr. Hillman gives a very insightful and profound definition of character.  Once again he goes back to Greek philosophy and then to the etymology of the word.  Firstly he referes back to Heraclitus's famous saying that "Ethos anthropoi daimon," which we will loosely translate here as "Man's character is his Genius" where the word character renders the English translation of "ethos."  Hillman researches the origins of the word "ethos" and finds it essentially means the "habits" that people commonly display.  In other words, Heraclitus might be inferring that ethos is a habitual or customary behaviour.  In other words, "you are how you are."  Once again I prefer to quote Hillman's mellifluous prose here by way of insight and profundity of wisdom:
What you do in life affects your heart, alters your soul, and concerns the daimon.  We make soul with our behaviour, for soul does not come already made in heaven.  It is only imaged there, an unfulfilled project trying to grow down. 

The daimon, then, becomes the source of human ethics, and the happy life - what the Greeks call eudaimonia - is the life that is good for the daimon.  Not only does it bless us with its calling, we bless it with our style of following...

The invisible source of personal consistency, for which I am using the word "habit," psychology today calls character.  Character refers to deep structures of personality that are particularly resistant to change.  When they are socially harmful they are named character neuroses (Freud) and character disorders.  These hard-to-change lines of fate are like the fingerprints of the daimon, each whorl different from every other.  The very word "character" originally meant a marking instrument that cuts indelible lines and leaves traces.  And "style" comes from stilus (Latin), a sharp instrument for incising characters (for instance, letters).  No wonder style reveals character and is so hard to change; no wonder character disorders lie at the core of diagnosed psychopaths and sociopaths. (The Soul's Code, 260 - 261)
We believe, and quite rightly, that all men and women are created equal, even though it is patently obvious from the moment of birth that each is thrust out into a different world: some infants belong to rich families, some to poor, some, yet again are born into famous or talented families while others to infamous and singularly untalented families.  Some are born handicapped, either mentally or physically.  Each of us is, as it were, a victim of our circumstances.  And yet, over the years thinking humankind has arrived at a philosophy of life which states that each one of us is unique, a once-off and very valuable and irreplaceable once-off at that.  Again, here I am beguiled by the angelic prose of Dr. Hillman.  The following words, I believe, are well worth pondering, because they contain a lot of wisdom:

Since neither nurture nor nature gives equality, where do we even get the idea?  It cannot be induced from the facts of life; nor can equality be reduced to a factor common to all human beings, such as erect posture, symbolic language, or manipulation of fire, because individual differences elaborate the common factor in billions of ways.  Equality can only be deduced from uniqueness, from what the scholastic philosophers called the "principle of individuality."  I am imagining this uniqueness as haeccitus (medieval Latin for "thisness") in the genius as the formative factor given with each person's birth so that he or she is this one and not some other one, anyone, no one. (Ibid., 272)
In other words, equality by its very nature is axiomatic, a given, rather like the axioms of Euclid's Geometry or the axioms or basic first principles of any science or theory of knowledge.

Above I have placed a picture of Dr James Hillman (b. 1926 -    )

Sunday, April 25, 2010

In the footsteps of James Hillman 31


Hillman's penultimate chapter deals with the question of mediocrity. The adjective "mediocre" refers to something or someone (i) of only ordinary or moderate quality; neither good nor bad; barely adequate or (ii)rather poor or inferior. Apparently its origins goes back to 1580–90; < MF < L  where "mediocris" means literally "in a middle state" or "at middle height." Mediocrity then would seem to refer to average or middle etymologically, so the second meaning given above is obviously a much later addition, and is far more pejorative in meaning.

Reading this chapter sent me in pursuit of some quotations on the topic and here are my pickings on it: Margot Fonteyn said that "Any sort of pretension induces mediocrity in art and life alike."  Fulton J. Sheen averred that "Jealousy is the tribute mediocrity pays to genius" while  Andrew Carnegie opined that "People who are unable to motivate themselves must be content with mediocrity, no matter how impressive their other talents."  Still again Norman Vincent Peale pointed out that "There is a real magic in enthusiasm. It spells the difference between mediocrity and accomplishment." Finally, James F. Cooper emphasised  that "The tendency of democracies is, in all things, to mediocrity. "

In addition, then, we can add the ideas of pretentiousness, jealousy, lack of motivation, lack of enthusiasm and to the meaning of mediocrity as well as the fact that politics, especially democracy leads to this rather lack lustr state of being.  Indeed, psychometrics does indicate that most of us belong to that rather "central" and "mean" area under the bell curve.  The geniuses lie to the extreme right and the not so intelligent to the extreme left.  However, needless to say, this is quite a reductionist, though infinitely practical, way of looking at human ability.

However, with Hillman, we must all surely agree that:
No soul is mediocre, whatever your personal taste for conventionality, whatever your personal record of middling achievements. Common expressions make this quite clear.  A soul is said to be old, or wise, or sweet.  We speak of someone having a beautiful soul, a wounded soul, a deep soul, or one that is simple, childlike, naive.  We might say: "She's a good soul" - but terms like "middle class," "average," "usual," "regular," "mediocre" do not adhere to soul.  There are no standard benchmarks for a daimon; no usual angels, no regular genius. (The Soul's Code, p. 250)

Soulless individuals do appear in literature, but they are literally that, soul-less or without a soul.  Such characters would be Golem, the Zombie, the Robot or the existential Stranger.  In short, then, for the soul the idea of mediocrity is meaningless.

Another important distinction Hillman makes is between "talent" and "genius."  Talent or even talents are only a small part of the picture, individual traits, as it were, of the overall calling or character or genius.  It takes character to realise one's genius.  Unfortunately, then, many countless geniuses have gone unfulfilled and undiscovered to their graves.  Indeed their genius never took root.

The Call to Character:

Once again lets listen to the mellifluous prose of Dr. Hillman:
What determines eminence is less a call to greatness than the call of character, the inability to be other than what you are in the acorn, following it faithfully or being desperately driven by its dream.  The acorn theory states that each of us is singled out.  The very fact of eachness presumes, a unique acorn that characterises each person. (Ibid., p. 251)
Then, Hillman introduces a new idea for this writer, that modern feminist writings have pushed historians to recognize the validity of and the heroic nature of ordinary lives which have not achieved recognition through public acclaim. This is very interesting indeed.  I hear traces of the voice of J.F.K. here too - it's the sum total of all our efforts that pushes history along, not just the impetus of the few.


Heraclitus was one of the pre-Socratic philosophers I loved when I was at college.  This is he who said: "One cannot step into the same river twice," that is, namely "things change" and can never remain the same.  Hillman introduces us to another wonderful quote from this ancient sage, viz., "Ethos anthropoi daimon" which can be variously rendered in English as "Man's Character is his Genius," "Man's Character is his Daimon,"Man's Character is his Fate," or "Character for man is Destiny."  These are akin to Shakespeare's comment in the mouth of Caesar: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves. (Julius Caesar, I, ii, 139)


Above a cartoon picture of Heraclitus (540-480 B.C.). Quite obviously we do not know what the sage looked like!