Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dogged by the Human Condition - Where is the Soul 6?

Introduction: The Human Condition

Turtle in the Parc de Montsouris, Paris, June, 2006
One needs to be no philosopher to know the nature of the human condition.  We live in a world which we believe we can control, and yet as the recent case of the earthquake followed by the tsunami in Japan has shown all so very obviously, we are the victims of the randomness of natural disasters and sheer chance.  For all our hubris and for all the "ego" we possess which inspire us to believe that we are the arbiters of our own fate, the fragility of our little lives teaches us otherwise.  Philosophers and other scholars have a predilection for using the terms "contingent" and "contingency" to convey this sense of chance and randomness that belongs to life.  I remember once reading a biography of Stephen Hawking by John Gribbin and Michael White, both of whom as far as I remember, worked with this great theoretical physicist.  Hawking told these biographers that he remained very positive, despite his being a victim of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) quite simply because it was irrational in the extreme to expect life to be fair, because it was not so at all.  As a physicist, mathematician and scientist, he believed in the randomness of things.  I may not be remembering correctly the exact terms used by the great scientist, but that was the gist or tenor of his statement.     An on-line dictionary tell;s us that contingency means:

1. Dependence on chance or on the fulfillment of a condition; uncertainty; fortuitousness, as in : "Nothing was left to contingency."
2. A contingent event; a chance, accident, or possibility conditional on something uncertain: He was prepared for every contingency.

3. Something incidental to a thing.

This on-line dictionary traces its etymology back to the 1560s and the meaning "a chance occurrence" to the 1610s. (Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper) (See this link here:  Dictionary )

The French National Library, Paris, June, 2006
Contingency is of the very nature of life.  Everything we do and achieve is contingent on something else.  Our very well-being is contingent on the health of our parents, our geographic location, our economic situation and so on and so forth.  We are an extraordinary wonderful combination of nature, nurture and indeed culture.  There are many constraints that fall under one or other those three headings like the colour of our skin (which might lead to racism), being born with X, Y or Z disease, being Male or Female etc.  In short, this is what we mean by the human condition - we are contingent, fragile and mortal beings.  Developing the coping skills to chart our journey as safely as we possibly can through life is the most basic project we all undertake as human beings.  To achieve our own unique potential or to become an individuated human being in the language of Dr Carl Gustave Jung is perhaps a more middle class project or at least one of more financially secure persons.

Therapy and the Soul in the Light of Contingency:

Returning at this juncture to the musings of our two authors, James Hillman and Michael Ventura as they undertook a long walk in nature together - the transcript of which makes up the first chapter of the book: We've Had a Hundred years of Psychotherapy and the World's getting Worse (Harper, 1993) - we readily understand that they take the contingency of the human condition as axiomatic for any human being.  Hillman has a predilection for the word tragedy as he is steeped not alone in archetype psychology but also in Greek and Latin literature.   Greek literature boasts three great writers of tragedy whose works are extant: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The largest festival for Greek tragedy was the Dionysia held for five days in March, for which competition prominent tragedians usually submitted three tragedies and one satyr play each.  For Hillman as for these great early tragedians (and indeed for all subsequent tragedians, the greatest of whom was Shakespeare needless to say) life is full of suffering and the drama or tragedy shows how nobly the hero succumbs to the suffering fated to him.

Hillman stresses that we find our soul out there in the world by engaging with the "fate" or "tragedy" that life metes out to us as well as going inwards into the psyche.  He tells us that the pathos, the pathology of our lives is literally "that which can't be accepted, can't be changed, and won't go away." (Op. cit., p. 36)  He then tells Ventura that that's what we mean by human limitation, or what I have expressed above as the human condition, or in my introductory words as the contingency of life.  It is helpful when reading archetypal psychologists to appreciate that they speak very much in metaphors and symbols, so do not come to their work with a scientist's literalism.  This human condition of suffering, he says, metaphorically, comes from the Gods. (See ibid., p. 37)  He contends, again metaphorically, that the Gods visit us in our pathologies, that is in our various forms of sickness.  Then he tells Ventura that the greatest archetypal psychologist of them all, indeed the founding father of that kind of psychology, Carl Gustave Jung, had the motto "Called or not, the Gods will be present" carved in Latin over his front door. (See ibid., p. 37)

Hillman goes on to adumbrate an interesting understanding of the SELF and simply does not like - indeed he dismisses with a certain nonchalance - therapy's classic definition of it which comes from the Protestant and Oriental Traditions, that is, that the self is the internalization of the invisible God beyond.  However, he feels the SELF is THE INTERIORIZATION OF THE COMMUNITY.  He continues in this visionary vein:


And "others" would not just include other peopel, because community, as I see it, is something more ecological, or at least animistic.  A psychic field.  And if I'm not in a psychic field with others - with people, buildings, animals, trees - I am not.  So I wouldn't be, "I am because I think." (Cogito ergo sum, as Descartes said.)  It would be, as somebody said to me the other night, "I am because I party." (Convivo ergo sum.) (Ibid., p. 40) (Authors' italics)
When we are with others we become a little out of control as I flow into you and you flow into me and so there are inevitable surprises and the inevitable spontaneity which are more than likely nearer our true SELF than when we are alone. (This is an interesting thought, see ibid., p. 41)  This stste of being out of control or this spontaneity is in fact the community acting in me.

However self-as-community need not be a fascist reality like that espoused by Nazi Germany or a totalitarianism of the left like that of Communist Russia or Communist China or that of North Korea.  Let's listen to the visionary words of Hillman yet again.  For a psychologist they are very poetic:

I won't accept these simple opposites - either individual self in control or a totalitarian mindless mob.  This kind of fantasy keeps us afraid of community.  It locks us up inside our separate selves all alone and longing for connection.  In fact, the idea of surrendering to the fascist mob is a result of the separated self.  It's the old Apollonian ego, aloof and clear, panicked by the Dionysian flow... (Ibid., 44)
Hillman and Ventura go on to talk about the soul-destroying tyranny of the schedules we moderns have.  Some of us live out of our diaries.  I know of some few sad individuals for whom their whole identity is their job.  Both authors see this as one of the inevitable results of modern capitalism.  Sadly for this type of individual, the job becomes how the soul finds accomodation within their day.  There's not much time there for the Romanticism of dreams and stories or even for rest which is the gift of time off so that the soul can be nurtured.  The manic defense against depression is to keep extremely busy - and to be very irritated when interrupted.  This, Hillman, assures Ventura is the sign of the manic condition.

In fact, Hillman argues that it is quite possible that the depression we're doing our best to avoid is nothing other than a prolonged reaction to what we've being doing to the world - slowly but surely poisoning it and killing it off.  In other words, this repressed or denied depression is some sort of inner expression of the mourning and grieving we are not openly doing for our destruction of our lovely planet.  We have also lost our shame in relation to our destruction of the earth - an interesting an perspicacious point indeed.   Then he maintains something that I have long believed myself from personally hard-won experience, that is, that any major change is preceded by a breakdown.  After catastrophes money can no longer carry value.  How true that is!  Meditate and contemplate compassionately, then, on the situation of Japan and that must surely and inevitably be a major lesson for any of us.(See ibid., 45) 

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