Visions of Johanna – An Alchemical View

When I first started studying Alchemy in the writings of C.G. Jung and much later, James Hillman, I had difficulty finding its relevance in the life of us moderns. Already lacking enough time in the daily grind to leave room for a little reading, writing and relaxation, how does one find the time to devote to studying alchemy, enough to allow its relevance to bear fruit?

So in the past few months I have been looking for alchemical movement beyond what is written specifically about it, to how it can be seen in our modern culture through lyrics, movies and television. As presented by James Hillman, alchemy is the work of soul-making. Through the movement and expansion of our dayworld perspective we may begin to include the underworld perspective; its world of mystery and invisibles that unwittingly affect our lives. In the work, an Opus Contra Naturum (a work against nature), we move through the darkness of our human condition to the mystery of the goal, finding a way to navigate the darkness, authenticate our uniqueness, and in so doing, enter more fully and freely into life for life and death’s sake.

If you’re looking (or obsessed?), you can see alchemical movement everywhere, from song lyrics to television and most importantly in your own life. Perhaps by practicing seeing alchemy in the culture, we moderns can also see its relevance for our own lives.

Twice, in the past week, I heard Dylan’s haunting song, Visions of Johanna, an old favorite of mine playing on the radio. You can hear the song, at the two-minute mark, here. Looking at the lyric with alchemical glasses we immediately find ourselves in the dark, right in the first line:

“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet ?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin our best to deny it

The song contrasts the writer’s dayworld experience of his lover, Louise, with the absence of another, Johanna. Although it’s tempting to see Johanna as only a past lover, perhaps more than that, Johanna is soul or the desire for soul itself, the lament of her absence pointing to a loss, leading to the dark feeling of the Nigredo stage of alchemy in which, when it is reached, leaves us there, in the dark, stranded.

File:Bob Dylan in Toronto1.jpg

“Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here
The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place”

The pangs of absence tells us we’re not ready yet for any mirrors, not able to reflect yet, it’s still too dark.

In the next verse there’s the admission of an attraction to danger and submitting to misery. As well, the misery starts to double in on itself as “the little boy lost” now complains about this awful state, bragging even and painfully aware of his own uselessness. Perhaps there can now be movement to the blue stage where the scintilla or spark so necessary for lighting the fire will be ignited.

“Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously
And when bringing her name up
He speaks of a farewell kiss to me
He’s sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all
Muttering small talk at the wall while I’m in the hall”

Sure enough, next we see the bluing of the darkness in his reflection on DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, for even she must of had the “highway blues.” So, there it is, the recognition that although alone, you are still in the company of other travelers.

“Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles”

According to Wiki, this song was written shortly after Dylan’s marriage to Sara Lownds in 1965. Perhaps the dayworld marriage to Sara sparks a conflict in the soul whose love and need for freedom is threatened after feeling the weight of commitment that marriage and children bring.

“The peddler now speaks to the countess who’s pretending to care for him
Saying, “Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him”

There’s no resolution, but much conflict in the last verse of the song. But, “the empty cage” does suggest that something has fled. In thinking about this I wonder if the emptiness too is not a necessary part of the work. The fleeing itself suggests movement, and that the “empty cage now corrode(s)” may indicate that there is no longer a need for a cage. The soul, as the flow and movement of the life-giving (animating) force, must give up any containment that is life or soul-destroying.

File:Michael Maier Atalanta Fugiens Emblem 34.jpegA marriage is in order though, but one that we nurture and create providing for us a ground of being in which we can then navigate the course of our lives. In alchemy this marriage is imaged as heaven and earth; in which our dayworld perspective is continually fed by the mystery of the unknown, the underworld, the source of all creation so necessary for both our life and our death.

“And Madonna, she still has not showed
We see this empty cage now corrode
Where her cape of the stage once had flowed
The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes ev’rything’s been returned which was owed
On the back of the fish truck that loads
While my conscience explodes”

Lyrics copyright: Dwarf Music reprinted here

Everything is Broken

There’s a great article in Pajamas Media about Mr. Zimmerman. The link is here:

How Bob Dylan checked out of the culture war.

I started listening to Dylan around the same time that I was reading Jung. Dylan’s lyrics are interesting in many ways, but surprisingly in light of Jungian thought. Bob’s earlier stuff is often times less personal, more collective. Blowin’ in the Wind, The Times They Are a Changin‘, A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall, all touch upon cultural issues of their day. Yes, there are songs from his earlier writing that are more personal, but they aren’t nearly as personal as any of the songs that would come a few years later in the Blood On the Tracks period and thereafter.

One of the things I truly admire about Dylan’s writing is that when viewed chronologically you get a sense of the personal transformation that was and still is ongoing through the years of his life. Gradually his youthful protests that once so easily placed blame for the state of the world at authority figures (i.e., the mothers, fathers, senators and congressman he tells us about in The Times They Are a Changin’), who exemplify corruption and greed have been transformed into wrestling matches with personal deamons.

His later writing displays a much greater willingness to expose his own personal shortcomings and limitations that are a part of the human condition, and he gradually moves into a place where it is possible  to make one’s peace with the past as well as the human condition. Every Grain of Sand expresses very well the direction Bob is going by the late 1970’s.

I don’t know how true it is but I read that Bob underwent a Jungian analysis sometime after the breakup of his marriage. More to the point is that Bob, as many of us have, has gone through some sort of personal transformation, and happily for us has a wonderful gift for displaying his reflections through his songs.

The point of comparison to Jung is to acknowledge a big debt that I owe to his ideas. Jung’s differentiation between a collective unconscious and personal unconscious were very helpful to me for gaining insight into my inability to make clear distinctions between what was and was not within my power to choose, change or ignore; what was me and not me.

In his own words here is a definition of the terms:

“The collective unconscious is part of the psyche which can be negatively distinguished from a personal unconscious by the fact that it does not, like the latter, owe its existence to personal experience and consequently is not a personal acquisition. While the personal unconscious is made up essentially of contents which have at one time been conscious but which have disappeared from consciousness through having been forgotten or repressed, the contents of the collective unconscious have never been individually acquired, but owe their existence exclusively to heredity.”

Whether or not it can be proven that the contents of the collective unconscious “owe their existence to heredity” in a literal genetic sense, the idea is most useful. The collective unconscious is made up of archetypal contents. Archetypes can be understood as impersonal aspects, from Wiki:

“innate universal psychic dispositions that form the substrate from which the basic symbols or representations of unconscious experience emerge.”

What I eventually came to realize is that ideas are bigger than me and not only inside but outside me as well. Not every thing that enters your thoughts and feelings and ideas about life is a personal creation. Many, if not most ideas and influences come to us from outside our personal existence. It is as if we are born with the ability to carry within us psychic content that influences us in not so conscious ways. Jung had names for what he thought of as primary archetypes: self, shadow, anima, animus, and these too are useful ideas. I think though that one does not have to study specific archetypes in order to appreciate that psychically we are influenced by archetypal shapes, or rather, that an aspect of our reality is archetypally shaped.

From any understanding of Jung’s ideas along with some time spent with a depth psychologist what I became aware of was a consistent and crippling failure on my part to be able to differentiate between what and who I perceived others to be from who I was, which kept me from developing personal authenticity, and a clear sense of self and other. It was as if I was constantly trying to be everyone else, in order to know them and as a result absorbed all of the fear and hostility that I so easily sensed in people and the world around me into my being.

My life had been so shaped for such a long time that I was utterly defenseless. Somewhere in my early 30’s the only thing left for me to do was hole up in my room where I did much reading and writing, trying to make my peace with being alone. This was not to last for too long though. After a three year old relationship ended, the bottom fell out.

So, I ventured back out into the big old world and did what I had always done, I joined another church.