The Final Lap

I’ll be offline for a while.

My step-dad Jim, who would have been 86 on April 15, passed away Friday from natural causes. Jim had a difficult life in many ways. His early years were spent in an orphanage until age 9 when he was adopted by a farmer who used him strictly as a laborer. He escaped by running away in his mid-teens, joined the military hoping to be a pilot, but his eyesight was not good enough. Jim never gave up his love of flying and enjoyed building and flying model airplanes for many years. He also worked at an airport, drove a school bus and when I first met him, was a caretaker at his church.

Jim met my mother in 1978 and they married shortly after making their home just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. After spending the first 30 years of my life in New York, I have since made my home 3,000 miles away in Oregon. The only time I had to get to know him was during family vacations. Jim was a good-hearted man who loved my mother very much. I know she loved him too, although in the last few years their declining health has brought difficult challenges for both of them. In many ways the years they had together have been some of the best years for both of them.

So, I am here in Atlanta with my sister and niece helping to bring Jim to his final resting place. On the plus side, I am able to spend some time with family and be here for my mom, whose dementia keeps her from fully grasping that her Jim is gone.

Looking forward to catching up with everyone here as time allows.

“I watched you suffer a dull aching pain 
Now you decided to show me the same 
No sweeping exits or off stage lines 
Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind 
Wild horses, couldn’t drag me away.” Jagger/Richards

Life Against Death

Front CoverMy first exposure to the ideas of Norman O. Brown’s was his book Love’s Body which I read back in late 90’s. This classic book remains on my top shelf of insightful and provocative reads. It’s trippy – condensing the entire history of humankind into a Freudian-based mythology in which he sees that the “only contrary to Patriarchy is not Matriarchy, but Fraternity, or an alliance between Mother Earth and the band of brothers led by Cronus to castrate Father Sky.

Through many of the great writings of Western culture Brown cruises through our collective history re-telling the tragedy of war and aggression that carries through to this day. Rooted in the conflict between what Freud called instinctual bodily desires or “undifferentiated primal unity with oneself and nature” vs. the constraints of the super ego in which we become differentiated and alienated from that self and nature, Brown, in sparingly poetic phrasing, shows us the generations of humanity caught in a cycle of youthful rebellion repetitively seeking to replace the corrupt authority of Kings and Popes, our senix-driven fathers. But Brown makes clear that the tragedy of war and aggression between brothers, tribes, states and nations, also reflects an inner conflict within each of us.

Currently, I am enjoying his earlier book, Life Against Death, the Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. In a much more traditional writing style, Brown walks us through Freud’s early ideas and later revisions with an emphasis on his idea of the death-instinct, it’s relationship to the pleasure principle, and its splitting from consciousness. Where there has been a technological drive towards increasing comfort and pleasure, there is also a tendency towards “inactivity, rest or sleep, death’s brother.” In other words, increasing unconsciousness and a “hostility towards life.”

From the preface:

“To experience Freud is to partake a second time of the forbidden fruit; and this book cannot without sinning communicate that experience to the reader. But to what end? When our eyes are opened, and the fig leaf no longer conceals our nakedness, our present situation is experienced in its full concrete actuality as a tragic crisis. To anticipate the direction of this book, it begins to be apparent that mankind, in all its restless striving and progress, has no idea of what it really wants. Freud was right: our real desires are unconscious.

It also begins to be apparent that mankind, unconscious of its real desires and therefore unable to obtain satisfaction, is hostile to life and ready to destroy itself. Freud was right in positing a death instinct, and the development of weapons of destruction makes our present dilemma plain: we either come to terms with our unconscious instincts and drives—with life and with death— or else we surely die.”

In reading Life Against Death, I am struck by Brown’s discussion of Freud’s idea of the infant, the “polymorphous perverse infancy,” its experience of no-time, or eternal time through which an adaptation to the family and culture results in a repression of our experience of eternality in favor of an agreed upon cultural sense of linear, historical time. The idea of trading off awareness of eternal time for historical time seems an insightful way of understanding our modern dilemma. Especially with a compounded insistency that the linear perspective is the only one, an objective literal truth to which we are bound and against which all else is measured.

Perhaps as technology and access to knowledge increases, many of us are becoming aware of how much the historical perspective tugs at our hearts, leaving us apocalyptic, despairing, guilty, or passionately political towards endings, whether it be all the wars and bloodshed, hunger, disease, religion or government. There is upon us the unhappy realization that the wheel of human history is indestructible, still out of reach, frustrating further our desire for restful sleep. Our response, once we have exhausted ourselves in a playpen of technology is perhaps madness, euphoria, apathy or naiveté.

Brown complains about the postmortem loss of Freud’s ideas which interestingly happen because of the very problems of the nature of consciousness that Freud described; the fraternity of Freudian’s have killed him, moving away from the discomfort of his ideas.

Life Against Death (Wesleyan University Press edition).jpg“It is easy to take one’s stand on the traditional notions of morality and rationality and then amputate Freud till he is reconciled with common sense— except that there is nothing of Freud left. Freud is paradox, or nothing. The hard thing is to follow Freud into that dark underworld which he explored, and stay there; and also to have the courage to let go of his hand when it becomes apparent that his pioneering map needs to be redrawn.”

Brown’s observations of the fate of Freud and other visionaries rings true, from Jesus, to Jung, but if Freud is correct that we are cyclically murdering the unbearable paternal authorities only to replace them with new unbearable authorities, then murder itself is a result of incorporating an aversion to authority. Then the question becomes, how do we break this cycle of insanity?

I agree with Brown, and will leave it to the experts to draw both their paychecks and their conclusions from the dayworld perspective because as Gil Scott Heron reminds us, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Any change in consciousness big enough to affect the broad spectrum of culture is an underworld experience which happens in the hearts of individuals. In regaining our natural instincts with an embrace of life that, rather than fighting death with death, might then honor the mystery that we can all live in rather than against.

“We, however, are concerned with reshaping psychoanalysis into a wider general theory of human nature, culture, and history, to be appropriated by the consciousness of mankind as a whole as a new stage in the historical process of man’s coming to know himself.”

All quotes from Brown, Norman O. (2012-04-15). Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History . Wesleyan University Press. Kindle Edition.

Lament of the Dead

The mystery of life begins in death, for if death did not exist, think of all of the things that we would not struggle with and all of the questions we would not have much reason to ask. Imagine too the security and peace we might know without sickness, murder, pain and suffering that comes from both disease and the knowledge of our own death. What would be the reason for curiosity, for love, for needing each other if life was so easy that we could not err or cause harm?

It may well be that an existence that excluded death would be better, more peaceful and ideal. But that is not the world we live in. Perhaps the reason for things to be as they are is because the dayworld of the living that we know is necessary to create something greater than can be seen here. Maybe our purpose here is to use the seemingly separate and mortal lives we each live to bridge a gap between the dayworld of mortality and a world of eternity that we also belong to. Admittedly this is all very speculative.

But doesn’t death need to be wondered about? Isn’t it the primary and essential problem of life? Does not death cause us to err, to struggle and live in fear? Doesn’t it also serve as the weapon of power for those that can garner the most security through technology, political and religious structures, serving as an insulation for an elite group of people who no longer share our common fears? Do not some people use death to threaten weaker beings?

And if that is not convincing enough and you are still reading this, how do we reconcile the angst and guilt we share and witness in the killing necessary for life to sustain itself? But don’t we also sense that there is more to life than what we know and perhaps the mystery of our existence can somehow be reconciled, and so every culture has carried on the search for that reconciliation.

These are some of the thoughts I have about death, along with the question not only of is there life after, or beyond death, but what would the nature of that afterlife be like, how does it relate to this life? Does the reconciliation between birth and death come from knowing that the nature of life is eternal, but through birth we, as Greek, Hindu and other mythologies tell us, forget about the eternal world?

Although we moderns don’t seem to easily discuss the nature of death, I believe its inevitability shades our life – remaining a constant unseen companion we fear if we do not acknowledge that we walk on our own graves. Even though the dead may depart from our dayworld they continue to haunt us when their questions, their sufferings go unacknowledged as belonging to all of us throughout history, our shared past. We live in the shadow of their unanswered questions when they’re connection to us is forgotten.

Many cultures have had a practice of ancestor worship, a way to keep a thread of continuity from those who came before us to those who will carry on after us.

In Lament of the Dead, Psychology after Jung’s Red Book, James Hillman teams up with Sonu Shamdasani, editor of C.G. Jung’s Red Book, for a series of conversations about the book in which Jung chronicles a psychotic period of his life from 1913-17. During that time he experienced visions and a flood of images that became the foundation for most of the ideas he is known for; archetypes, active imagination, typology, theories of the unconscious, individuation and wholeness.

 

I have not read the Red Book yet, but from reading Hillman and Shamdasani’s dialogue now feel compelled to. The dialogue revolves around Jung’s experience of encountering figures through active imagination and grappling with their questions.

Sonu says:

“What Jung hits upon is a stream of images and he encounters collective memory and fantasy. It’s not personal memory. There is a mnemonic dimension there, but he finds that what is animated, what is critical there, is collective memory. He finds himself having to address debates such as that between the Christian and the pagan and to see then how that reframes his own life. It’s not that his life is subtracted out of it, but the realia, the personalia of his life, isn’t the fundament. It’s the images that frame him.”

Jung came to believe that the figures he engaged in active imagination were not just inside him, but part of the ongoing dialogue taking place in the history of humankind. Sonu suggests:

“A shift occurs immediately when you stop thinking of Jung’s work in terms of the imperative to come to terms with the collective unconscious. If you shift from that language to the confrontation with the dead, accepting the lament of the dead, one’s understanding changes dramatically in that one enters a world and the problems one takes up and is confronted with are not one’s own.

And the issue then is how one adapts oneself, how one situates oneself, to these challenges. One is not dealing simply with an abstraction, the collective unconscious. One is dealing quite specifically with the dead of human history.”

The conversation moves on to the need for cosmology in our lives. Hillman is speaking here:

“Psychology may give you modes of understanding and you think you’re understanding yourself and others. But if you want to understand the world, you have to have a cosmology, you have to have a sense that things fit, that they belong, that there’s a need, a place to be given to it, and that there’s more and more to grasp. It’s the cosmos, and the Greek cosmos was an ordered and aesthetic realm.”

Cosmology moves us beyond our personal lives, although it also includes them, and it also includes the ancestors, their cares and concerns acknowledging the work they did carrying forward our understanding of life and the world we share. It invites us all to share in the continuance and importance of that quest.

When we can find a satisfying way to reconcile the mystery of our living with our dying; a cosmology that gives us enough meaning and sense that perhaps gives us a willingness to endure suffering, by knowing the true nature of ourselves, we may find a way to live in peace with a feeling that we belong here.

I’ll leave you with one more quote from Hillman, who laments as I do, the problem we moderns have:

“We’re a very strange culture, our modern, secular Western culture, in which our conversation, yours and mine, is set. We don’t have any ancestor worship, we don’t have any true cult of the dead. Different pieces of the culture do pieces of things, but even the use of the phrase “the dead” is hounded with frightening things— it belongs on the other side. There’s a radical separation in our modern culture between the living and the dead. All the medical work is life against death, to hold off death and prolong life, and at the expense of death, I would say.

So when we talk about the lament of the dead, or anything to do with the dead, we have to realize where we are situated, with its deep, historical prejudices against what has been and what is buried, and what we have done to create a realm of the dead, because it’s not merely those who went before us and died. It’s all the depository of the accumulation of human psychic history, the history of the soul. Somehow, since Jung talks about a lament of the dead, they must feel or have felt abused or neglected or something. The first step would be listening to them, which he did in the Seven Sermons of 1916, this sort of inspired religious document. But what is their lament?”

Hillman, James; Shamdasani, Sonu (2013-08-26). Lament of the Dead: Psychology After Jung’s Red Book (Kindle Locations 2237-2238). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

For A Dancer

One of the most beautiful, yet saddest songs about death that I have ever heard is Jackson Browne’s For a Dancer. Maybe you’ve heard it? In my teens, friends and I loved JB’s album, “Late for the Sky,” in which the studio version of For a Dancer can be found on.

My friend Regina, who recently passed away, loved to dance and sing. I can remember being in the upstairs of her house where in her parents bedroom (the biggest room of the house), we would dance around in a circle, practicing her choreographed interpretation of The Skater’s Waltz. Now this was certainly not my idea, and probably not even my idea of a fun way to spend a rainy afternoon when your 9 or 10, but Regina could be very persuasive and she always made me laugh.

Mt.Hood 8_2013 002Death follows us throughout our short lives, peripherally, if not front and center, when we are touched by its presence – through the loss of a loved one, or as well, through our own brushes with death. Its inevitability creates the tension that gives each life its uniqueness and the mystery of our individual being.

Why are we here, rather than not here? Why now, why not some other time? What is death, what precedes it, and what follows?

On the one hand, if nothing precedes it or follows it, no big deal, some people will tell you. But it’s not the impermanence of life that gives me pause as much as it the mystery of life in the first place.

Some of us don’t like to think much about death, and will tell you that it is morbid to do so. Some find it easier to come to conclusions about what happens to us – either convinced that there is life beyond death, or that we die and that’s it, gone as if we’ve never been here in the first place.

I have a deep respect for the limits of what we can know, and I can’t define with certainty the nature of what life or death is.

But I sense that somehow, whatever it is that beats our hearts, and sustains our physical presence, is not a product of our biology, but the source of what creates our physical form and sustains us.  I’m not a scientist, or anything close to that, but there are many invisible forms of energy around us that don’t seem to exist until they are translated by some sort of device. Think radio, micro, and other waves/particles that surround us without us in any way sensing them. Maybe we are translators of God’s uncreated source of all there is.

But death is also important as an operative metaphor for change in the life we live now, and so is worth attending to, in all the hundreds of ways death will visit us. Whether through actual physical death of loved ones, or the little deaths we experience through life’s changes. Death, while seeming to be an end, or a cessation, is also transition, and movement in which we are remade, revised and reborn. Live, love, laugh and cry and when someone asks you to dance, say yes.

“I don’t know what happens when people die.

Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try.

It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear

That I can’t sing

I can’t help listening.

And I can’t help feeling stupid

Standing around

Crying as they ease you down

‘Cause I know that you’d

Rather we were dancing”

Jackson Browne – For A Dancer