Story and Fate

You can say the human heart is only make believe
And I am only fighting fire with fire
But you are still a victim
Of the accidents you leave
As sure as I’m a victim of desire

Billy Joel

In his book, Healing Fiction, James Hillman compares the ideas of Jung, Adler and Freud as the influential backdrop within the therapeutic setting. He compares this modern psychological ritual to story telling, where within a contained space, the therapist and analysand each play a part through the plots and themes of personal pathology as a form of poiesis.

Psychoanalysis is a work of imaginative tellings in the realm of poiesis, which means simply “making,” and which I take to mean making by imagination into words. Our work more particularly belongs to the rhetoric of poiesis, by which I mean the persuasive power of imagining in words, an artfulness in speaking and hearing, writing and reading.

…Plot reveals these human intentions. Plot shows how it all hangs together and makes sense. Only when a narrative receives inner coherence in terms of the depths of human nature do we have fiction, and for this fiction we have to have plot.

Plot reveals to us the nature of the setting; the what, why, how and who, where cohesiveness brings the elements together as story; something that brings sense and meaning to our lives and upon reflection gives one the opportunity for understanding; who am I “in relation to.” Hillman refers to this as a need to found oneself within a story:

I need to remember my stories not because I need to find out about myself but because I need to found myself in a story I can hold to be “mine.” I also fear these stories because through them I can be found out, my imaginal foundations exposed.

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Story may expose us, but if in some sense we can see the compelling nature of story, and see ourselves held, contained and carried along within it, we might also come to see its beauty and necessity. For how else can the telling happen outside of our compulsion as teller?

Has not story been with us for as long as we have any evidence at all for humanity’s past? And even those long ago cave paintings, upon one glance, do they not compel us into their story? Here is where notions of truth, law, fact and history might not be necessary, for where truth cannot be told, honesty may still prevail.

Because stories are not beholden to the truth, they carry necessity into a revelation of something beyond ideal and objectivity. And to be found, not just by any story, but “my” story, may remind me of that ongoing relationship between the inescapable subjective experience and the desire for belonging to that realm beyond one’s personal limits, even though objectivity may never be experienced as a timeless truth.

From the compulsive desire for its purity, truth and power may still serve us well as what urges our way forward, drawing us impossibly toward some unobtainable goal, and so, closer to each other, compelling within us a deeper understanding, acceptance, compassion and love, and as well into an imaginative vision that points beyond the limits of “me,” to the greater whole we belong to.

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How then does fate, if we can imagine such a thing, enter into the story? Fate may not mean fatalistic – for our death is in any case already a given. But fate can be understood as the conditions that contain us, imposing certain limits, both universal and personal in nature. If character reveals the constraints of our condition, determining probable outcomes, then fate is the revelation of the conditions, limits, assets and deficits acting upon us through time, endowing us each with uniqueness. Fate then, is the relationship between character and plot within the story that “founds” us.

Fate, in this sense, need not be understood as that which opposes free will, but rather, that which reveals something through relationship within the story, moving and shaping character as poiesis. Fate in this sense is where the plot reveals itself through character and impulse within the passions we feel for the stories images. Here is where we may be tempted to rescue the story itself, becoming the hero of our own life.

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But rather than pinning ourselves to any notion of actor vs. script writer, the conflicts in our storied lives could be understood as having a Dionysian quality, displaying a necessary tension as the drama within the story; that inescapable aspect of experience inherent within the nature of being as a “coming and going.” The beauty of seeing life as a story may lie in the notion that it saves us from the burden of looking only for truth by accepting the limits of our ability to know more than our share of it.

Dionysian consciousness understands the conflicts in our stories through dramatic tensions and not through conceptual opposites; we are composed of agonies not polarities. Dionysian consciousness is the mode of making sense of our lives and worlds through awareness of mimesis, recognizing that our entire case history is an enactment, “either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-pastoral,” [34] and that to be “psychological” means to see myself in the masks of this particular fiction that is my fate to enact.

I would place ecstasies right alongside the agonies, where both heighten the capacity for losing ourselves in the story, believing in it, compelled by its necessity and the forceful enactment of our character. The question of fate and character makes clear life’s struggles. Through struggle, and the strange but enduring resistance we might bring to character and fate, both may harden and soften through the more humbling chapters of the story, inviting reflection as that which reveals to us a double nature; the character within and the writer of the story. So then what?

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The double nature that we experience through reflection can serve as a force for reimagining the story forward. Although we may not be the only writer of the story, or actor on the stage, what comes clear to us through the passing of time, are the subtle possibilities of plot twists and turns, that because we are already participating in, we now can see anew the part that we play. Perhaps though, the possibility for this sort of intrusion into character and fate, requires something be made of the distinction between the character and the writer. While the character within the story is that which is revealed, where do we find the writer?

If the writer is unknown, therein lies the necessity for an ongoing unknowing as praxis. The fictional self, the written, or Hillman’s, “founded,” when not confined to literal notions of cemented identities, shows us possibilities, each revealing some aspect of reality which without the writer remain unrealized:

If Asclepius is archetypal figure of the healer, Hermaphroditus is the archetypal figure of healing, the psychic healing of imagination, the healing fiction, the fictional healer for whom no personal pronoun fits, impossible in life and necessary in imagination. This figure also helps us revalue the antithetical mode of thinking. It becomes a Siamese-twin mode of insight. One is always never-only-one, always inseparably bound in a syzygy, insighting from a member of a pair. [9] Within these tandems we become able to reflect insight itself, to regard our own regard.

“To regard our own regard,” is akin to Jeffrey Kripal’s notion of authoring the impossible into the possible, where we risk moving out of the story and into the chair of the writer. But for the relationship to be a living one, the syzygy must remain present to us. As well, an opening, if we are to find one within the syzygy, needs our willing submission. To do otherwise, would impose a sense of ownership which risks the closing off of the source which remains as other, and that which would facilitate the story, its characters and our fate.

Except as noted, all quotes: Hillman, James. Healing Fiction . Spring Publications. Kindle Edition.

Character

“A man’s character is his fate.” Heraclitus (540 BC – 480 BC), On the Universe

“If the final purpose of aging is character, then character finishes life, polishes it into a more lasting image.” James Hillman

Anna Rebecca Smith

If I have felt compelled towards living life closer to the margins, seeking out what is obscure, liminal, or for more deeply understanding the nature of life – I might trace these loose threads back to childhood and the memory of my dear Great, Great Aunt Bunny. The family myth taking root early in my life, often compared my oddness to hers. Maybe another child would not have taken the myth to heart, and some may say a child should be left without a myth or vision handed down by an ancestor, but I remain grateful.

Although long since passed on, her presence fosters in me a love of life’s oddness. Through the legacy of family stories that tell of her adventurous nature, and a sustained presence through reading her letters, postcards and books, I find solace and appreciation for the courage and daring this passionate woman had. She lived a non-ordinary life, and if in some ways her image remains idealized, it has also been a healing fiction.

Aunt Bunny’s distinguishable traits are what James Hillman calls character. Her styling, from the occasional wearing of men’s clothes, living with a female companion, to her exotic collections, stand out with bold acuity in my memories. When I felt misunderstood and misfitted, it was this ancestral connection to Bunny’s oddity that kept me going, encouraging in me a lifelong curiosity to my troubled, youthful attraction to oddness.

So, what is character? How do we account for that which gives us our unique character?

medium[1]James Hillman, in his book titled, The Force of Character and the Lasting Life, suggests that character is a shaping form that is part of our being, not just the psyche but the whole of who we are. Of the word character he says:

“The very word derives from kharassein, Greek for “engrave,”“sketch,” or “inscribe”; kharakter, which is both one who makes sharp incisive marks and the marks made, such as letters in a writing system.”

Hillman refers us back to a time when character was understood less as desirable traits and more as the force that forms, shapes and marks us throughout life and become more striking as we age – as evidenced in the lines of our face and in our personality. As we age we are actualising a unique image we’re born with, marked as much by the cosmology of the world at the time of our birth, as it is by inherited traits and afflictions of family and culture.

We can understand then how it is that astrologers envision the influence of the cosmos upon our nature. Our birth itself is an event compelled by all the prior events of the cosmos. Each birth an expression of the circumstances of both family and tribe and the far-reaching motion of the planets and stars. Modern science, psychology and theology narrows the understanding of birth influence to that of genetics, childhood or original sin, but those explanations can’t account for the full range, motion and depths of character, and our unique drive and expression.

Robert Fludd’s An Astrologer Casting a Horoscope 1617

Character is qualitative and keeps us a little off, never quite normal – just a type or statistic. Just as the earth wobbles, imperfectly round, eccentrically circling the sun in a not quite 360 degree revolution, the force of character compels each of us, as perfectly imperfect.

Character’s inescapable force guarantees no particular moral outcome and is both a blessing and a curse. Hillman stresses the importance of seeing aesthetics before morality; not because morality does not matter, but because it’s not enough. To look only at morality launches us into the duality of assigning values of right and wrong, tempting us to summarily dismiss the ungraspable or misunderstood nature of ourselves. An ethical evaluation of character leaves out the important truth; that all of us have faulty, frail, vulnerable, flawed, shadowy aspects to our character. The compassion that leads to love comes to us primarily through our own inescapable vulnerabilities.

“Character forces me to encounter each event in my peculiar style. It forces me to differ. I walk through life oddly. No one else walks as I do, and this is my courage, my dignity, my integrity, my morality, and my ruin.”

Failings, sufferings, afflictions can then be seen as breakdowns that lead to a loosening of the armor of idealism and perfectionist tendencies we accumulate in youth. It is through aging that character begins to gather in us a lasting expression of our place and time. What lasts and finally moves us into the realm of ancestors is an amalgamated, complex image, layered with a lifetime of becoming, that places us too in the realm of myth for all who would know us and for those who come after.

“The plots that entangle our souls and draw forth our characters are the great myths. That is why we need a sense of myth and knowledge of different myths to gain insight into our epic struggles, our misalliances, and our tragedies. Myths show the imaginative structures inside our messes, and our human characters can locate themselves against the background of the characters of myth.”

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” Helen Keller

All quotes except where noted, Hillman, James (2012-11-07). The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In the Beginning…

…was the Word

One of the insights gathered from studying and attending to the nature of language is to see how close to the body and physical senses everyday language and speech is. The word language itself is derived from the latin “lingua,” or tongue.

When speaking of our native tongue, we might say that we have two tongues; the one in our mouth and the language we speak with. Here, perhaps, is the basis of metaphor and points to the idea that it is our use of language with its ability to both ground us in descriptions of sense and the physical nature of experience, and also to move us beyond that grounding, to an understanding that we also have ideas about the world. Here we see and think beyond the physical factual world into what lies under, over and beyond it to what might be called, primal knowledge.

The spacial quality of the metaphor intentionally expands our notions of ourselves and the world into dimensionality because life itself is multi-dimensional.

Magnum Chaos – Lorenzo Lotto, Giovan Francesco Capoferri – From a book

I am no scholar, or linguist, but experiencing the beauty of how language opens the world up to us and has itself a creative element, fascinates me. It’s important then, I think, to not think of language only as a device for reporting. The reporting style of speech, which likes to stick to the facts and get to the point, is one among many styles of speech, but perhaps has come to dominate our western culture today, permeating every corner of our lives from the family circle, to educational curriculums, to business speech. To get along in this world, yes, one must be able to understand this style of language, but that need not exclude us from appreciating and using other styles of speech.

Any style of speech will color how we see and experience the world. So, perhaps, the more styles available to us, the bigger the palette. Language also shapes the stories we tell ourselves and others. The answers we give when replying to everyday questions explaining what happened, why, where and how, are shaped by the language we use. Most of us, most of the time, like to think we speak out of necessity, and are telling the truth, a value deeply embedded within our culture. But this expectation forces our hand, demanding an expertise and honesty on a level that’s not always as easy and available as we may assume.

Language, which is of the body, is susceptible to habits, and behaves similarly to a virus. How much of our experience of life is driven by the assumptions embedded in the way we use language depends on how well we hear the implications of what we say and how aware we are of the ideas available to us. We don’t, it seems, have a choice to experience life without language.

The word is now a virus. The flu virus may have once been a healthy lung cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system. Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word.” William Rice Burroughs

But, the virus isn’t necessarily a sickness or a parasite is it? Beyond any notions of taming, eliminating or dampening the capacity for language, what else is there? Is the day-to-day practicality of informing and staying informed the only game in town? Could our relationship to language have rather a symbiotic quality?

Language, when seen as a way to bridge a variety of levels of experience, may lead us out of speaking for the sake of practical reporting and into a place where we see all things anew.

God the Creator: In this Christian interpretation of the Kabbalah, God is shown setting out the laws that govern the universe. The shape of the Creator’s throne mirrors that of the macrocosm: the throne cover is a model of the heavens, the back a representation of the planetary spheres.

Language that aims for endings, conclusions and summaries of what we believe and think of as the truth, may reflect something deep inside us that refuses the challenge of living in a world between order and chaos. How safe do you want to be, the world may be asking us, and at what cost? One of the costs of truth is exclusion. By making a selection as to what the truth is, we are also making a valuation which excludes other meanings and possibilities deeming them as “not truth.” This is tricky, because we will make choices, perhaps because of the recognition of the exclusive nature of our choosing. To refuse choice and meaning, and to not live within the givens of our environment and culture, would be putting ourselves at the far end of the spectrum where order disappears and chaos reins.

Chaos though, in many mythologies, is both primal and necessary, understood as the source of the world. From Hesiod, 7th or 8th century B.C.:

“Verily at the first Khaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Gaia (Earth), the ever-sure foundations of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus . . . From Khaos came forth Erebos and black Nyx (Night).”

Or as one among several original elements. From Aristophenes:

“At the beginning there was only Khaos (Air), Nyx (Night), dark Erebos (Darkness), and deep Tartaros (Hell’s Pit). Ge (Earth), Aer (Air) and Ouranos (Heaven) had no existence. Firstly, black-winged Nyx (Night) laid a germless egg in the bosom of the infinite deeps of Erebos (Darkness), and from this, after the revolution of long ages, sprang the graceful Eros (Desire) with his glittering golden wings, swift as the whirlwinds of the tempest. He mated [or fertilised] in deep Tartaros (Hell-Pit) with dark Khaos (Air), winged like himself, and thus hatched forth our race [the birds], which was the first to see the light.”

From Ovid’s Metamorphosis:

“Ere land and sea and the all-covering sky were made, in the whole world the countenance of nature was the same, all one, well named Chaos, a raw and undivided mass, naught but a lifeless bulk, with warring seeds of ill-joined elements compressed together.”

And finally, from Genesis, which presents creation as coming into being from what is formless and void through separation:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.”

Order and chaos may be seen then as two poles necessary for life, for aliveness. Too much of either eliminates the possibility of any life – order stifles movement, chaos refuses the containment necessary for the discrete recognizable entities that we, and each “thing,” is. It may be that the source of the world is unified or chaotic by nature, but identity, with its inherent job of separation, knows of others by being a self. This, I believe is our predicament, and not something to be overcome, but seen through as if we are walking between the two extremes, aware of both the desire for order and the need for renewal through a bit of chaos.

Ironically, to see through may come from a softening of vision, double vision, or second sight. It’s the hard and fast rule and desire for orderliness that sees sharp edges, well-defined boundaries, divisions of truth and lies, black and white, dead and alive. Double vision loses these distinctions by blurring the edges, seeing likeness and similarity in things habitually seen as different. Habit is how we are ordered, poesis, or soul-making is how we are disordered, broken by chaos for the sake of the new. This opening is an exchange with the gods and may be painful as we give up something cherished, protective, habitual, but may also be freeing. Freeing, as we not only disidentify with ownership of an idea or belief, but freeing as expansive in the boundaries of what is “me” and “not me.”

As John the Baptist says, “I must decrease so that He may increase.” This does not have to be understood in a Christian sense only, but as a way to express a willingness towards states of immersion. As we immerse ourselves in conversation with others, ideas and the invisibles, we disappear for the sake of the other. Other meaning, what presents itself to us as the veil is lifted, the walls come tumbling down and the bridge between order and chaos opens up where we may then experience the liminal, non-ordinary at any given moment.

In conclusion, well, sort of, we might see beginnings in every moment, life perpetually coming out of the void, where the void is the source of life itself. We might see beginnings as not something that happen once, or even twice as in rebirth, but beyond historical happenings into that which is happening perpetually; chaos forming into order, refining into structures that eventually fall apart from too much structure, back into chaos where they mix and mingle, formless and once again ready to be ordered anew.

“Paradise
Is exactly like
Where you are right now
Only much, much better.” Laurie Anderson