Thursday, April 28, 2011

Where is the Soul 32?

The Myth of the Significant Other


Decorative Beast over an ancient doorway, Tropea, April, 2011


Hillman is nothing if not provocative. He has described his take on psychotherapy as ideationist or generative of ideas. He likes pushing the questions harder and harder, sharpening their edge, as it were. He seeks to deepen the questions, challenge all-too-easy assertions and accepted presuppositions, standing things on their head, looking at things from different angles, in short being the Socratic gad-fly. We need his likes and more commentators like him. Come to think of it, we must educate each other and certainly our youngsters to think like that!

Here he questions the commonly accepted myth of the significant other. In this respect he traces our obsession with the significance of the one other individual back to good old (or bad old?) Descartes. It’s that blinking Cartesian dualism again, that Cartesian split between body and soul. You see, Descartes, that good Jesuit-trained Christian declared to Western civilization that only human persons have souls. There were no souls anywhere else. Let us listen to the words of James Hillman continue the argument:

And since love always seeks a soul, you’ve got to have a “significant other”, as psychology calls it. That’s why we have all those images on billboards, in the movies, on the tube, of hungry mouths kissing, the divinely perfect man and the divinely perfect woman with lost soft eyes and luscious washed hair, flying into each other’s arms, getting it on. Notice those couples are always isolated. On an empty beach, a sailboat, a private bathtub. No other voices. Just us. They never ask or hear, “What are the people saying?”...

That’s Decartes. The world of trees and furniture and alley cats is soulless, only dead matter. There’s nowhere for love to go but to another person...

Our genitals are right. Our hungry mouths aching to kiss are right. If we don’t fall obsessively in love, we are all alone in a cemetery of Cartesian litter. What goes on between the legs in the muladhara chakra... (Op. cit., p. 178)

Now that was one brilliant paragraph upon which I must meditate for some minutes. It always repays me a hundredfold re-reading such paragraphs. Interestingly the muladhara chakra is the psychic centre at the base of the spine.

The drive to Communion in and through Community

The simplicity of the Vespa scooter says it all! Pizzo, 2011
So when the twin myths of individualism and significant other have been put to bed where does that leave us, Jim? Well, it leaves us as a soul with a drive to both communion and community. Hillman insists that the desire or drive for something else never leaves us. It is essentially physically expressed in our groins as human animals. So true. I find our archetype psychologist brilliantly at one here with the British philosopher John Gray who has argued cogently that we humans have over-estimated our significance in the scheme of things, that we are essentially human animals and our use of the expression “human being” somehow makes something metaphysical out of us. (See my posts on John Gray here at this link Straw Dogs) To return to Hillman’s own words is instructive for us here:

What I am saying is that this desire that never lets go is the drive in the human, not only for union with a significant other, which makes it too personal and Christian, but for communion with something wider. With community itself, the soul. We’ve identified communion with private intimacy. Our word for muladhara is privates. (Ibid., p. 179)

View of Tropea, April, 2011
Intimacy, or at least our modern take on it implies “anticommunity” according to our archetype psychologist. As I’ve said over and over in these posts on Hillman and Ventura’s brilliant joint book, individualism is a dirty word, a selfish ego-centric one, a view with which I agree strongly. This is a very strong idea, a radical one, a counter-cultural one. Indeed, all religions were originally countercultural, but as history has shown us as soon as they are accepted culturally and thereby legitimized, they become literally soul-destroying monoliths of control and power. Isn’t that a great irony? Was not Jesus Christ one of the greatest countercultural revolutionaries? As Dostoyevsky puts it in his great Grand Inquisitor scene in The Brothers Karamazov: if Christ were to come back he would not recognize the church because it has become so corrupted from the use and abuse of power. (Indeed, it is questionable as to whether he founded a Church or not, but that is a question for a different post and for another time!)

Hillman defines self brilliantly as “the interiorization of community” (see ibid., p. 180) and our hang up on the significant other and indeed finding the correct significant other, only reinforces individualism.

Therapy as Religion

This is another of Hillman’s and Ventura’s contentions that modern therapy is really only continuing the work of religion, because it still pushes the idea of private salvation. In this conception of therapy the counsellor or psychotherapist is the priest and the patient or client the sinner coming to be saved.

Western Culture’s Main Hang Up

It is hard not to disagree with our two authors and ideationists that modern Western culture’s main hang up is that of the notion of an ideal significant other and salvation through that relationship on a one-to-one level. This is essentially a hang up on tortuous love and all its labyrinthine intrigues. It’s really pathetic almost that our deepest cultural cry is “I want you,” “I need you and only you!” How many murders, and how much violence have been committed by an obsession with this twisted belief? Our culture sells all these worthless trinkets as priceless gems. The words of the song “I can’t live if living is without you” come to my mind as a culturally bankrupt statement. And yet, how many people among us swallow this lie?

Now, in conclusion, the important thing for us to take from this brilliant little book is its questioning spirit, its prophetic nature, its subversive tendency to turn things upside down, to question assumptions and presuppositions, even axioms of faith. All in all, it’s this spirit that reigns in this book. It never once presents us with stifling answers. The debate is only just begun, one feels and the conversation will continue. Nothing is ever set in stone while ideas live and generate others and so on and so forth.

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