Saturday, April 02, 2011

Where is the Soul 15?

The Child is Not always Innocent

Boy playing ball Nicastro, July 2008
It does help to be reminded, that is should we need reminding, that the child is not always innocent.  As adults we have a tendency to romanticize the past.  The days of our youth were apparently always bright and the summers were always long.  Winters were also apparently snow-covered paradises where we once played for many a long blissful hour.  Then, those of us my age will remember learning by heart the wonderful poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called My Lost Youth, and the repeated two lines like a chorus at the end of each stanza always haunted me: "A boy's will is the wind's will, //And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."  Thankfully, one of my favourite poets of all times held a more realistic slant on life by ensuring that his Songs of Innocence were just one side of a very balanced diptych, the other being called, reasonably enough, Songs of Experience.  The Soul for this brave writer/engraver/poet/mystic/artist - I allude doubtless to the wonderful if eccentric genius William Blake (See this post here-William Blake) was very much to be found in the interplay of both innocence and experience, or again in the interplay of both good and evil.  Not for our Blake a lopsided understanding of the Soul.

It is good therefore to remember that the Puer Aeternus should not be raised onto a pedestal above its station.  (See this post here - Puer Aeternus) That's why Michael Ventura's letter of response to James Hillman's is important here.  Ventura entitles his letter, "Little Demons, Little Daimons," thereby ensuring that we should never romanticize or idealize our youth.  The child can at once be wonderfully innocent, creative, vulnerable and indeed beautiful but s/he can be the opposites of these, namely mature beyond their years (sexually etc), destructive, unaware of their vulnerability and quite ugly.  They can be imps as well as angels.  Children and adolescents can manipulate adults very well too to get their own way. 

Ventura argues strongly against the overuse or possibly abuse of the innocent Puer Aeternus myth, that is, that modern psychology and psychotherapy have both romanticized, idealized and indeed mythologized the innocence of the Puer.  His words sound harsh here, if a little sensationalized - though I do believe there is some truth in what he is saying:

The inner child is a fictional character produced by an ideology and introduced into one's memory, and, like a computer virus, its ultimate result is to repress, distort, and eventually even erase memory.  (Op.cit., p.74)
Now when I was reading these lines I wrote in the margin the following comment: "But this can be said of all the archetypes surely?"  Yes indeed it can, but perhaps what Ventura is getting at is the modern preoccupation with the Puer Aeternus to the detriment of all the others.  We must get balance into our myths must we not?

La Fontana, Nicastro, July 2008
Again, both Hillman and Ventura are calling on us to be aware of the fallibility of our memories which we have a tendency to read back into from certain strong biases and prejudices.  Remember that this book was written in the early nineties of the last century before the furore over false allegations of abuse made by certain children against their parents.  These children as older adolescents and young adults seemed to remember abuses which they would later acknowledge did not happen.  I think they called this phenomenon false memory.

Then Ventura goes on to make an interesting and very radical point that oftentimes we can become victims of diagnoses given us by the various medical professionals.  In other words a person like me who has been diagnosed with clinical depression (diagnosed at forty) could read back all manner of things related to depression into my own personal history.  Ventura specifically mentions this phenomenon with respect to all Twelve Steps groups like the AA and Narcotics Anonymous, Over-Eaters Anonymous where everything in one's life is interpreted around alcoholism or drugs or eating or abuse.  Now he uses a lovely term to describe this phenomenon namely "a kind of psychological monotheism" (Ibid., p. 74)

Quoting More Poets

Ventura goes on in this rather long letter to quote the Mexican writer, poet, and diplomat, and the winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize for Literature one Octavio Paz Lozano (1914 – 1998) whose words are most apt to the author's contentions:

North Americans want to understand and we want to contemplate.  They are activists and we are quiteists; we enjoy our wounds and they enjoy their inventions... North Americans consider the world to be something that can be perfected... we consider it something that can be redeemed. (Quoted ibid., p. 75)

The North Americans then, like a lot of us modern Europeans are victims of our own linear thinking.  I believe we owe this penchant for linearity in our thinking to The Industrial Revolution and to the philosophy that spawned it, viz., The Enlightenment.  And so the myth of the perfectibility of humankind was born.  History became once and for all a line tracing our growth and development, ever changing and progressing for the better.  Unfortunately two World Wars and hundreds of other minor wars along with nuclear catastrophes have helped us see how blinkered such linearity of thought really is.  Now these are my thoughts and my words here, inspired by the thoughts and words of Michael Ventura.  All good writers make us think and develop our own thoughts, no?  Maybe a more ancient approach of circularity might be more apt, no?

Then Ventura does what I consider to be anathema, adding a postscript which is 4 and a half pages long - almost as long as the actual body of the letter!  However, in these extra pages he gives examples from his own life and from the lives of those he knew of the daimon or acorn or genius within us when we are youngsters.  They make interesting but not mind-blowing reading.  However, he does finish with an insight which I like.  He quotes the contemporary scorning of mythology and indeed of the teaching tales of the likes of the brothers Grimm as being short-sighted and psychologically destructive especially since they have been condemned by both certain elements in Academia and by Fundamentalists.  We should be very suspicious, he avers when both Academia and Fundamentalism have equal hatred for the same modes of thought. (My emphases and capitals) He quotes a lovely phrase from the writer Isak Dinesin (Karen von Blixen-Finecke (1885 – 1962), née Karen Christenze Dinesen) who maintained that Academia and Fundamentalism are two locked boxes, each of which holds the key to the other.  Now I'll be pondering that statement for many a long day! 

Friday, April 01, 2011

Where is the Soul 14?

Finding One's Niche

One of our foremost broadcasters here in Ireland, Pat Kenny, has remarked more than once that to have a profession which is at once a hobby as well as a job is to be extremely lucky indeed.  It is no wonder that we "lesser" mortals envy the likes of Roy Keane,  Steve Davis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Roddy Doyle, Séamus Heaney and so on and so forth.  These are all rich and successful at professions which are essentially their hobbies.  The majority of us "poor" mortals have, as it were, to earn our living by the sweat of our brows.  However, be that as it may, presumably the soul is somewhere to be found there, too, in the midst of all the toil and strain.

Stone, Ardgillan Park, March 2011
Some Self-Help books proclaim that one can be very successful indeed, if not rich in the worldly sense as well as the spiritual sense if we can match our jobs to our souls.  There is some truth in that I admit, but it is rattled off all too easily like a mantra by certain superficial authors, and it leads me to be somewhat suspicious if not a little sceptical.  Or again as James Hillman puts it, our project in life should be matching our professions or jobs to our primordial image or acorn or daimon or angel or genius that is in and of our very nature.  Again, there is a lot of truth here, but at 53 years of age I am still struggling with this somewhat idealised matching.

Then Hillman mentions a short list of famous initial failures: Cézanne was rejected from the Beaux Arts academyGrieg was punished by his teachers while the great Zola once got a zero in literature.  Then Eugene Ó'Neill, Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald were all failures at college.  Even the great scientist Edison said that he had been at the foot of his class at school.  Then, of course, there was Picasso, who appears to be Hillman's favourite of them all, who was taken out of school because "he stubbornly refused to do anything but paint." (See  We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy, p.65)

Then Hillman, works up to his usual Platonic or NeoPlatonic heights of thought.  Take the following quotations for such an example of the power of innate ideas no less:

Psychology starts with an upside-down premise, that childhood is primary and determining, that development is cumulative, a kind of organic evolution , reaching a peak and declining...  Not only is childhood thus overvalued, but aging is trapped in an organic, and melancholy model.

Interesting tree, TCD, March 2011
Rather than developmental psychology, we should study essential psychology, the structure of the character, the innate endowment of talent, the unalterable psychopathologies...  Maybe a human life is organic but in Goethe's sense of negative form.  The shape of a leaf he said is determined by the absent spaces (like the shape of an Oriental jar is shaped around and by the emptiness inside).  Maybe all the missing bits and the misfortunes are actually the blessings that make us the peculiar people that we are.  (Op. cit., pp. 68-69)
Now, the end of the above quotation surely is getting at something deep or profound!  I have always come to accept this deepening of both the questions and indeed the suggested answers of our psychologist James Hillman.  That's no bad thing either, especially, if like me, you have a repressed Platonist within your very soul.  Interestingly, and again very unsurprisingly Hillman informs Ventura that he wants theories that "blow the mind." (Ibid., p. 69)  Art does this for Hillman, especially that of Picasso.  I believe music and poetry and drama do so also.  In this regard the old, conventional approach to psychology - all that developmental stuff that proceeds incrementally (my words) very much reduces the mystery of humankind to that of a mere problem (again my terms not Hillman's): "The childhood developmental theory, life lived forwards, reduces us to our lowest capacity, to the infantile state and its ineptitudes." (Ibid., pp. 69-70)

Hillman rounds off this rather Platonic and profound letter to Ventura with the contention that life lived backwards is more important than life lived forwards because the former which is about life lived from the top down like a tree "with its roots in heaven (an image... from the mysticism of Jewish Kabbala)" (Ibid., p 70) is all about getting to know our real Self or True Soul or Daimon, or Angel, or inner Genius, call it what you will. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Where is the Soul 13?

The Power of Images

Celtic pattern from replica of Muiredach's Cross
My last post was all about the power of images in learning, remembering and indeed right in the heart of our emotional SELF - they can both frighten and heal us, depending on what images we are dealing with.   Hillman quotes the great artist Picasso to emphasize the important role of imagery to our very sense of SELF.  Deep at our heart's core, or deep at our Soul's core lies our own authentic image which we have to find according to Picasso and Hillman.  This is our essential image or acorn which basically encapsulates the core of our identity.  We have to do a fair bit of prospecting or mining or archaeology - you are free to use your own preferred metaphor here, of course - to find our real image, our true acorn, our true Self or Identity.

I am Image

This subtitle here above is a direct quotation from the great Picasso, and one typical of an artist who essentially works in images.  I have already discussed in various posts how healing images can be when used with visualizations and meditation and how nowadays various types of therapies use such techniques as part of their approach to help heal the patient.  Hillman puts his philosophy of psychology thus: "[We] are imagination before [we] are history."  (op. cit., p. 63)

What the great Samuel Beckett would make of Hillman's contentions above I do not know, as I was once quite taken with the bleakness of Beckett's writings and found his prose pice "Imagination dead, Imagine" in turns paradoxical, entrancing, confounding, provoking, depressing and confusing.  I probably could add many more adjectives here, too.  As this author progressed in his chosen craft he pared his work down to only the very barest of essentials and seemed to cut out a multiplicity of images and made plays of characters buried up to their necks in barrels or soil or whatever.  I also remember attending a Beckett Exhibition some three or four years back in the Pompidou Centre and there was a film of one of his pieces which showed the lips of a character talking (a disembodied mouth if you like) and all one saw was the lips. However, it does show you the power of the imagination if it can imagine its own non-existence or more correctly its demise.  In a similar vein Hillman quotes a poet namely Wallace Stevens who wrote many poems on the importance of the imagination to our little lives.  In a poem called The Plain Sense of Things, Stevens argued that "... the absence of the imagination had/ Itself to be imagined." (Quoted We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy (Harper, 1993), p. 63).  Stevens is ad idem with Beckett here.

It's Not a Question of Age

Dinosaur, Ulster Museum, March 2011
As I've said many times before in these pages, Hillman is always provocative.  That's what makes the likes of Hillman, R.D. Laing and Ivor Brown so very worthwhile reading.  Whether you agree with them or not is beside the point.  The fact that they make their readers question their own presumptions, think again, look at a problem from a different angle etc IS THE POINT!.  Good philosophers always read what their opponents are writing.  This sharpens their thinking.  Here Hillman argues with respect to the image or acorn age or time simply does not come into the equation.  The image or acorn  or daimon is there in the oak from seed to sapling to mature tree, right there till it is felled and cut up for fuel.  Let me quote here Hillman's poetic words:

Time is not the primary factor; an image is not cumulative, and the late stages of life are not the fullest and finest presentation of one's seed... The job of life becomes one of making its moments accord with the image, or what might once have been called "being guided by your image" (or daimon or angel)."  (Ibid., p. 64) 

Monday, March 28, 2011

Where is the Soul 12?

The Primacy of Imagery

Eco by Marc Didou, Queen's University,  March 2011, Centenary
Anyone who works with children will know how important images are for learning.  I suppose another way of saying this is that patterns and shapes are very important - after all images are made up of shapes and patterns.  A medical scientist whom I know believes that different languages set down different shapes, patterns or electric circuits in the brain.  His hunch was that this is true because he came across a case of a man who had lost his mother tongue after getting a severe bang to the head in an accident.  After it he could only talk in English which was a second language.  My scientist friend argued that the force of the blow had literally erased the German or first language pattern or shape or "image" in his brain. 

Likewise in the question of self-healing, images are of paramount importance.  We can heal ourselves through using meditative exercises which incorporate their use.  Of course, images can also frighten - the image of the Big Bad Wolf, the Monster, the Bogey Man etc - and there are no better people to frighten us than the Movie Moguls in Hollywood and other places where they make such films.

Returning to Hillman's and Ventura's correspondence, the former makes the point to his correspondent that the primary activity of the psyche is imagining. Hillman quotes Jung here should any support for his contention be needed: "The psyche consists essentially of images." (Quoted Hillman and Ventura, op. cit., p. 62)

Now, these images, according to Jung, are not just direct replicas of what we see.  Oh no, they are much more because they carry with them our perceptions of them, that is the unique way we percieve or bend them, given our particular perceptive machinery and then we uniquely interpret them.  Hillman quotes Jung as saying that indeed often our images have more to do with fantasy than with reality.  In fact, he says, that our fantacy image is related only indirectly to an external object.  In Hillman's words we are actually living "our own psychic reality."  Therefore, he argues, that we really do live in dream-time.  Or as Shakespeare puts it: "We are such stuff as dreams are made on."

Modern Sculpture, Ulster Museum, March 2011
Hillman goes on to argue that we are at our very core - at the soul's core - actual images, and our development as persons is nothing short of the actualizing, the realizing or the individuating of our unique central image.  Then he introduces us to some of the thought of the great painter and sculptor Michelangelo who maintained that to grow we must make real (my phrase) the "imagine del cuor" or the "image in the heart (soul)."  In other words our everyday history is very much of secondary importance - mostly all ego stuff about success and accumulation of things, prestige and money - to the deveolopment of the image in our hearts.

Picasso, according to Hillman, despised the idea of development and said quite often that he did so.  I'll repeat here a quotation from that brilliant artist which caught my eye and heart: "I am astounded over the way people let the word development be misused: I don't develop; I am."  (Quoted ibid., p. 63)  In short, we are images before we are history.  Now this is an astounding idea which is quite Platonic as it suggests that the image or the acorn or the daimon is innate or comes with the new life ab origine, literally in the embryo.

In my previous post I uploaded Picasso's last self-portrait where Hillman would have us believe that the white figure of the painter depicted therein is the image of the "free soul," or the "dream soul", or the "ghost soul," or even the "death soul."  These terms listed here, Hillman informs us, he takes from the mythologies of the native American Indians as well as the Eskimos.  We are always ourselves, right from birth until the moment of death.  This Self, though it is hard to believe given our modern education where we insist on evolution and development, is always itself and literally does not grow, though our awarewness of it may and does, of course.  At our deep heart's core we are acorn or image, and at our death we are acorn or image too.  The oak tree is not anymore itself after four hundred years or when it was a sapling or when it was an acorn or even after it had been felled at long last.  It is always itself like Picasso's image in the opposing mirrors which never changed as it extended outwards repeatedly to infinity.  (See ibid., p. 64)  

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Where is the Soul 11?


The soul is about all that matters in a person's life.  It's all about doing the truth according to one's own lights.  It's about being able to sleep with a relatively unperturbed mind. It's about reaching one's full potential as a real, authentic human being.  It's about achieving as far as possible the best level of well-being for oneself and for those close to you.  It's about establishing unique and authentic relationships with both the Self and Others.  It's about becoming who you really are in relationship to oneself, others and indeed the planet.  It's about dealing with the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" with a certain equanimity.  It's about being able to deal with our mortality and our contingency as the major axioms of life.  When those two axioms are denied or in any way repressed, then the soul suffers and it will cry out to be acknowledged.  It cries out in the pain and suffering of our illnesses and diseases whether physical, mental or psychosomatic.

Returning to Hillman and Ventura

Hillman writes a letter entitled "Life Lived Backwards" to his friend and correspondent Ventura.  Once again we have a paradoxical title which leaves us in no doubt that this archetype psychologist is about to stretch our imagination once again with his thoughts.  When I read any of Hillman's writings I have to work hard because he likes to deepen the questions in search of ever more profound answers.  How do we live life backwards we ask?  Well, our psychologist friend begins with a story as is often his wont.  He tells us about the famous self-portrait Picasso did at the age of 91 years - the year before he died.  He tells Ventura that "this haunting, simple image turned out to be the initiatory experience for my theory of life lived backwards.  Here is the invisible Picasso caught on canvas, a self-portrait of the daimon that inhabited him all his life.  At the end it emerges and shows itself." (Op. cit., p. 61)

In other words, I believe, Hillman is telling us that Picasso has seen through to his "individuated self" (Carl Gustave Jung), his actualized self (Maslow and others), his realized self (Eastern Religions), his daimon (Hillman and other archetype psychologists and mythology), his soul (Religions and spiritualities), his ideal self (Carl Rogers) or real identity. 

Hillman tells us that this painting which I have uploaded here is titled Le Jeune Peintre (The Young Painter) where "[t]he white on white gives it (the figure) the feeling of a ghost, of a clown, of an angel, and also of an innocent, though lively and intensely concentrated, observer, whose mercurial alertness has just been caught by the painter." (Ibid., p. 61)

Once again, there is something profound in all of Hillman's writings that appeals very much to me who am a Jungian at heart.  I have already recounted at length his theory of the acorn as it is outlined in his now classic book The Soul's Code.  (See this link here: Footsteps and the following posts) In a nutshell, while we are all very much the result of both nature and nurture, we also have the image of the acorn within, an acorn which possesses all the characteristics of our individual daimon or angel and this acorn or daimon or angel will grow to achieve its full potential in its own particular way.  Each seed or acorn is so unique and so individual that it's a once-off un-repeatable entity which is formed with the help of nature and nurture.  This, indeed, is a good myth to explain the occurrence of both geniuses and demons.  On the one hand the world can throw up a Leonardo Da Vinci as well as a Machiavelli, an Einstein as well as a Hitler.  It is also a myth which explains the development of a "black sheep" as well as the "golden-haired boy."

Like all myths the acorn myth is a powerful one.  It is important to state here once again that myths are not untruths, rather they are a special kind of truth.  They are archetypal stories with equally archetypal themes which have deep meanings and resonances central to our identity as human beings.  In the more profound understanding of myth, all our ways and methods of coming at the Truth or Truths, whichever formulation - singular or plural - of this last term you prefer, are equally valid. 

Let me finish this post once again with James Hillman's own words:

It was as if Picasso had been realizing and actualizing and individuating this figure all his life, ever since he was an exceptionally talented, teenage painter - even before Paris and his youth of the blue and rose periods, when he was le jeune peintre.  here was a picture of the acorn painted by the oak.

Picasso's image confirms Henry Corbin's theory that it is not my individuation but the individuation of the angel that is the main task: the materialization with paint, brush, and canvas of Picasso's daimon.  The image also presents Corbin's basic premise about ta'wil, or the art of interpretative reading, how to read life itself: we must "read things back to their origins and principle, their archetype."  (Ibid., p. 62)