Monday, April 18, 2011

Where is the Soul 20?

Galileo, Queen's University, March, 2011
Telephone Versus Letters

We live in a world of instantaneity -a wonderful word indeed.  Not alone do we have instant coffee - with us for many many years indeed - but we can be in instant contact with one another at the touch of a button, given the universality of the mobile phone and Internet connections.  How many of us say: "I don't know what I would do without my mobile phone?"  Some fifteen years ago most of us here in Ireland did not have one, and yet we survived.  What was common then were those phone cards with the computer chips.  At that time we did still write letters.  One thing I have found about having a cell phone (as the Americans and Italians call it - il cellulare!) is that one is always contactable.  In other words each of us can always be found.  We cannot wander off into a tranquil land of retreat from the world.  In other words, what I am getting at here is that the world with all its worries and concerns as well as all its consolations and excitement is always too much with us; always impinging on our being; always entering into our soul; always intruding, intruding, intruding.  There is simply no escape...

It is in a similar vein that James Hillman continues with his letters to Michael Ventura.  Instantaneity like its first cousin spontaneity, is much to be lauded.  Both connect us with the inner self or even with an outer power which flows through us (at least some writers and artists maintain that this latter is so) in what's called inspiration, that is, as if there is some wisdom or power literally breathing through us.  Whether you believe this or not, at least it is a wonderful image or metaphor.  And yet instantaneity and spontaneity can weary the soul sometimes if one has no access to moments of solitude where one can reflect upon those experiences.

And so letter writing belongs to the category of more reflective communication.  In being reflective, meditative and contemplative, it offers the soul inspiration from another quarter - from another, perhaps more profound, space in the soul.  The French philosophers talk about the paper trail or trace which they call the écrit, and letter writing is such a visible trace!

Letters possess the rhythms of the human voice, but they are deeper rhythms that those we have in conversation because they are thought over, mulled over, reflected upon, shaped more carefully, moulded from a deeper space in the soul than the spoken word.  Then Hillman makes the comment, with which I profoundly agree, being an erstwhile writer of letters myself, that we may be actually closer and more truly communicating in letters than when talking.  There is a more profound communication shaped in solitude, a solitude which nurses the imagination to forge deeper truths or at least gain access to deeper truths than cannot be accessed through mere verbal conversation.


Piece of sculpture, Ulster Museum, March 2011
Then Hillman makes what I consider an interesting, ever so slightly sarcastic comment - that we are because we are accessible.  I have alluded to our sheer accessibility in the modern world in my opening paragraph; to that state of sometimes fraught accessibility where we can be intruded upon at the sound of a phone ring tone.  Again I like these words from our archetype psychologist here:

If I must be networked in order to be, then on my own I am out of the loop, out of communication, null and void, nowhere.  I can't be reached.  If to be means to be reachable, then in order to be I must stay networked.  Result: the contemporary syndrome, communication addiction.  (Op. cit., p. 95)
Writing is much different to this constantly being in connection with others, constantly being "in-the-loop" as it were.  When we sit down to write, we actually step out of this connection loop.  We are no longer in an  addictive pattern or in a frenzied state of communication.  In this slower more pensive way when we write we are entering an imaginal space.  Because our letter is a work of the imagination we are forging a deeper communication of one soul to another soul, from writer to recipient.  To be connected by means of the imagination with another human being is to be more deeply communicating.  Let me here return once again to the magical, if not mystical, words of Dr Hillman:

Detail from Celtic sculpture, Mullingar

We are connected by means of imagination.  Imagination spins a web, its network, to ensnare your fantasies.  This is less a communication than a cosmic enterprise that is really not bound by time and space.  Isn't that precisely what the great letters of the past reveal and why they still appeal beyond space and time?  Just think of the web of imaginative writing, written from ships after months away at sea, by explorers lost in wastelands, by those locked in prisons, written from trenches with sudden death imminent, written to lovers one has met but once or shortly - connections of imagination that are meetings of souls, in which there is no "relationship" going on at all. (Ibid., p.97)
Indeed, it is important to add here that we don't have to verbalize our thoughts to communicate with another human being.  Look at lovers or even any couple - young or old - who communicate at times in a calm and touching silence. 

Those Wonderful Old Gods Again - Yippee!! (I'm delighted, not sarcastic here, good reader!)

(a) Hermes:
Hillman, so very erudite in Greek and Roman mythology, adverts to the ancient Greek God Hermes who was the messenger of the Gods as well as being the guide to the Underworld.  However, here we are concerned only with his role as a messenger or communicator.  Hillman argues, and I am sure he is right, that Hermes is both the God of Communication and the Patron of Liars.  However, once again, its a question of interpretation.  For us moderns we are prone to interpreting things one way or another but always in a superficial manner.  Hence, our interpretation may be so far from the truth.  It is also interesting to see that the word "hermeneutics"  which means the study and theory of interpretation per se takes its provenance from the word "Hermes."

Hillman argues that belief in Hermes is our new monotheism - a sort of hermetic hypermania (my phrase).  Under this new God Hermes everything is reduced to sound bites, smart phrases like "Get plugged in!" or "Keep networking!"

(b) Hestia
In Greek mythology Hestia (Roman Vesta), first daughter of Cronus and Rhea (Ancient Greek Ἑστία, "hearth" or "fireside"), is the virgin goddess of the hearth, architecture, and of the right ordering of domesticity and the family. Hermes in antiquity was paired with Hestia, she who sat still and was focused.  Now we will recall that the Latin word "focus" means fireplace or hearth.  Hillman reminds us that letter writing requires focus - even prolonged focus.  It's as if the imagination is the hearth or fireside that warms and inspires the soul.

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