Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Where is the Soul 8?


Newly cut tree stump, Ardgillan Park, Skerries last Sunday
 Oftentimes we learn much of what something is by examining what it is not.   This was one of the traditional ways in theology of approaching the mystery of God.  Also called  Apophatic theology or Negative theology or Via Negativa, this is an approach to theology that attempts to describe God, the Divine Good, by negation, to speak only in terms of what may not be said about the perfect goodness that is God.  It stands in contrast with Cataphatic theology which attempts to say what God is in a more direct way.  A similar situation obtains with regards to the metaphor of soul.  When I speak of soul in these posts here I am referring to what may also be termed our inner or real self, our psyche, the key to our identity, all that is in us and of us that identifies me with all my hopes, loves and passions.  Now, I realize that sounds quite wordy, but once again when talking of soul and such spiritual matters words often fail.  Hence the Via Negativa is one good way of getting at what we might mean by soul, or what I, at least, may mean by it.

After some twenty-eight years of teaching the Gaelic language in an inner city school where the classes have become less academic in more recent years I began to find that my job was "soul-destroying."  In other words, I knew that I was coming to the end of a phase in my life where I had taught the subject at all levels of difficulty to all ages or years within the secondary system.  As the needs of the pupils changed, I had to change or literally throw in a job which was no longer offering me satisfaction at all.  I decided to retrain as a Special Needs Teacher and in that way I have re-energized myself, have lit once more the fires of my passion for teaching.  I find the whole effort of teaching now soul-enriching and certainly not soul-destroying.  I find that I am meeting the needs of the academically weaker pupil both at a pedagogical and personal needs level to a much greater degree than I had in the more recent years in main-stream classroom teaching.  In other words, I have learned over the years to cultivate soul work, that is to do something that will enrich my life and in so doing enrich that of others.

Soul-Making Activities

My soul-making activities include the following: writing this blog which is the direct result of my reading in the areas of philosophy, psychology, psychotherapy and literature and any book or film I find personally-enriching; reading; meditation exercises; going to films and the theatre; going to the gym (a new activity which I started to get down weight, but has now become a three times a week appointment which helps not alone my physical but also my mental well-being); going on walks in nature; attending a weekly language exchange in Italian and working in my garden.  All of these activities are about soul-making, about discovering the Soul or Self in silence and also in action and activities.  In this way I keep some "fire in my belly," "passion in my heart," "a spring in my step" to use several metaphors.  Another way of putting this is that in all of the above named ways I am keeping hope alive in my own heart or soul - I'm using the two words interchangeably here although I know there are different nuances in meaning.

Back to the Book
Flowers, beautiful, yet so fragile - Ardgillan, again last Sunday
Returning to Hillman and Ventura's shared book, I will now begin my reflections on the second section thereof, called The Letters: Life lived Backwards, Frontwards and Sideways.  Hillman's first letter to Ventura is long and has several interesting ideas in it.  Firstly, he reacquaints his correspondent with the idea of personal therapy of the inner journey or interior method of approach.  He realizes that he has perhaps been far too critical of it in his previous conversation with Ventura by here admitting that it plays an important role in the lives of many people.  In this regard he refers to several old literary friends of the present writer, namely the Romantics - Keats, Blake (definitely Romantic in Hillman's and my sense but classed as a Pre-Romantic in the English Lit books of my college days!) and D.H. Lawrence.  I'll let the man speak for himself here:

There is a place for the strength of character and subtlety of insight that the investigation of interiority produces.  I've called this psychological engagement "soul-making,"  a term and an idea taken from the Romantics.... A long-term, soul-focused, depth-analysis provides a discipline....that is truly a care of the soul.  There are individual patients and individual therapists whose work, whose love, whose calling is clearly in this area, but - and this is crucial - the calling does not have to be away from the world or rest upon a theory of self-enclosed individuals.  Soul-making and care of soul do not have to be identified with introversion and the spiritual denial of the world of matter, objects, things.  (Hillman and Ventura, op.cit., p 50)
From the Interior to the Exterior

What I feel the Hillman and Ventura are at is a sort of modern re-working of the Keatsian contention that the world is both figuratively and literally "a vale of Soul-making."  Keats continued on in that famous letter to which I have already referred in many previous posts that in this way "we find out the use of the world." See this link here:  In other words we make ourselves through our experiences, be those experiences good or bad.  Now this is quite painful to get the mind around, yet it is a truism.  Having plumbed the hell of despair just twice when I suffered two severe bouts of depression many years ago, one of which required a seven week period of hospitalization, I have literally "broken through" to another deeper level of meaning in my own life.  A new passion for life grew in me after the barren desert of a depression which I conquered with the help of the medical profession and the use of much complementary therapy.  Immediately after coming out of hospital I wrote a novel, unpublished and also a book of meditations - published - see above advertisement on the top right of this blog.  I also discovered the hobby of travel, especially to Italy, and also re-discovered all the other soul-making activities I listed in my opening paragraphs.

We make our soul by living life, by engaging with it, or as my father used to put it, "taking it by the scruff of the neck."  However, Hillman is a bit ambiguous in his treatment of the inner journey, the idea of interiority or "inner work" as being a road to soul-making.  I believe he is slightly understating the role of interiority, because I am a firm believer in both/and rather than either or.  I believe we need both interiority and exteriority in soul-making.  However, for me, he was not clear enough about his reservations about interior exploration.

However, I deeply agree with Hillman where he contends that everything in literally "grist to the mill" of soul-making.  Every single thing we actually do or have to do; what we have to experience, even tolerate; all those frustrations; all the boredom; all the study; all the pain; all the waiting and so on and so forth - everything makes our soul if only we have the right attitude.

Then, quite rightly he mentions the falsity of the Cartesian split between inner and outer, and yet he is slightly contradicting himself here, insofar as he seems to contend that the outer is more important than the inner.  This is possibly because his thoughts here are not as rationally and logically laid out as his more learned and scholarly books.  They are transcripts of conversations and copies of letters - way more informal.  He is right in his contention that Descartes's dualism between Body and Mind or Body and Soul split the reality of humanity, and in a way built upon the Christian-Platonic notion that the Body was just a husk or container which in itself was a lower and evil form of life while the Mind or Soul was purer and spiritual in nature.  Hillman adds that a modern reformulation of that split between Inner and Outer, Mind and Body is reflected in Introversion and Extraversion.

However, I like Hillman's and Ventura's ecological take on soul-making.  This appeals greatly to me in being a Green by political leaning.  I also love the whole notion of Gaia as put forward by James Lovelock, that we are creatures among other creatures living on and off the organism of the earth, that we are part and parcel of the earth, neither above nor below it, just a living (and thinking) part of the living (unthinking) earth.  I also love the fact that he asks the question of his correspondent as to what he thinks of the soul of the earth, the "anima mundi" He then mentions the great novelist D.H. Lawrence whom he quotes as saying that our the human's earthly task is to build his/her own "ship of death" or "ark of death."  This is in keeping with eastern philosophy and spirituality - especially Buddhism which recommends its adherents to meditate often on their own mortality.  I love the way Hillman reworks this Lawrentian thought into a more ecological format, namely that we must build a great ark of death for the world which we are killing with our pollution.  We are killing great Mother Earth or great Mother Gaia.

As he continues in this letter, I again feel that Hillman becomes quite self-contradictory in his contention that  "therapy - even the best deep therapy -contributes to the world's destruction."  This is in my opinion overstating the case.  That we must look way back to Plato and the pre-Socratics, back to Egypt and back further to the "tribal animistic psychologies that are not always mainly concerned with individualities, but with the soul of things ("environmental concerns," "deep ecology," as it is now called)..." (Ibid., p. 51)

Then, Hillman uses a strange concept, which seems somewhat ridiculous to this reader at least - admittedly I may not be able to get my head around his thoughts as they are somewhat deep - that the only way he can countenance the use of the word "individuation" today is if that term is applied to literally every single thing, material and non-material in this universe.  Get your head around that now, reader!  I simply cannot:

I am inviting us to think again of the morality of craft, the valuye of rhetoric, and the truth of the body's gestures.  Let's make things "well" - which means both well made and also healthy.  For this we need the individuating eye that can see what Wallace Stevens called "the poem in the heart of things," that innate imaginal essence I called the acorn... Michael, if we don't begin speculating and experimentating with extending individuation into the world of things, the idea remains captured by private capitalism, an enterprise of developing my own private property, "myself," my very own soul, my personal journey, and my locked-away journal... The Neoplatonic idea I am pursuing in this book and everywhere I go to talk cannot separate soul in me from the soul in others - others not being just people but environment... [He wants] a shifting of the idea of depth from the psychology of the inner person to a psychology of things, a depth psychology of extraversion.  (Ibid., p. 5)

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