The Next Chapter

To practice the living of one’s life as “storied,” it may first be necessary to experience the idea as a meaningful one. The beauty of stories, their telling and living is an art coming from more than the deciphering of meanings, moral lessons, endings, or truth – as influential as those things may be. As I hope to show, they’re not the whole story. All stories, and especially the story we tell ourselves, need a willing participation, an immersion into deeply lived characters, especially to see our life in story form.

Stories speak to the heart and soul through the primary language of symbol and image, and what Hillman, Jung and others referred to as personifications, meaning the voicing of archetypal qualities speaking through and around us.

Whether we see or believe in it or not, personifying goes on in and all around us. It is human nature to experience the world through the animating vehicles of voice and sound and through the physical senses of hearing, touching, tasting, smelling and seeing. But we moderns are not all comfortable with the notion that something other than “me” speaks through me. Sounds too much like possession which we associate with evil powers. We counter that fear by believing that we are the god; the sole voice and agent of our being. We’re carrying a lot of weight around with that belief. Perhaps that is why we seem desperate at times for ideas about, and ways to move beyond, this world. We are perhaps uninitiated, yet to be born.

Guatamalan masks

Persona to the Greeks referred to the voicings that came through the masks used in drama. These voices were known as the powers that be, the gods that transcend us, or speak through animals and natural powers like the wind and the sea. They enter us through sacred feasting of sacrifice and communion, where they then speak through us, giving us a bit of their power. For us moderns, especially those who believe we come into this world as a blank sheet of paper, an open book waiting to be written on, this idea may seem archaic, animistic, distasteful, unscientific, ridiculous, or just unnecessary. We tend towards notions of purity and innocence, blank slates, especially in our young and the vulnerable we care for.

Although we fear going backwards in time to a world we moderns view as less “enlightened,” favoring the idea that we need to progress, I believe the fear is unwarranted. Our hostility towards the idea of animistic and superstitious thinking has thoroughly landed us in yet another fantasy we refer to as “reality,” which does us a disservice by dividing all our experience of the world into either the real or unreal (imaginary) – categories that more often than not shrink our view of the world while burdening us with the hubris of believing we know more than we do. If ever we were to regain a sense of the world as being alive, it would not come about by a fall backwards in time, which is impossible, but through regaining an acute sensitivity and embodiment of human experience in this world through a deeper, more expansive imagination.

The Little Lame Prince and His Traveling Cloak

If some affinity with the natural world is not regained, our modern conviction that we now live in “reality,” freed from superstitions of an animistic past, renders the soul meaningless, if not incomprehensible, cutting us off from experiencing the aliveness of the world, oneself and others. The consciousness that imagines itself to live in “reality” is slowly imprisoning itself, alienated to a dead hostile world that we have either lost, killed, or must fix, or transcend altogether. Nature, as other – cute, innocent and cuddly, is outside of us, especially our human nature. The jungle once outside, has shifted to inside of us and we live forever taming something we can’t quite rein in without a continuum of sensory overload, medication, busyness, hope, purpose, work, shopping, meditation or worship of one kind or another. The bear in the woods is now our friend, the one in our dream, if we dream at all, wants to kill us.

It is common, especially in the west, to think of babies and children as innocent and untouched by the harshness of life. It is this idea that Hillman says leads us to placing undue blame and focus on family and society for who we are. Perhaps as an inverse reaction to the Christian notion of Original Sin, we go full circle in rebellion against its claim of an indebtedness we no longer feel or acknowledge. The burden of history as solid and real facts is just too great. Guilt is a sin.

But not all cultures imagine our entrance into this world in the same way. For other cultures, in other times and place, we come into this world from another world beyond us – a world that includes the ancestors, angels and other powers who already know us. Our birth then, is a “sleep and forgetting,” as Norman O. Brown puts it. Our initiation marks the beginning of a remembrence of who we are.

Persons, or personifying are very primary ways to experience the world and make sense of it all. We do this naturally, through the telling of stories within the family circle, watching movies and television, fantasy, imaginary friends, or enjoying a good book. We look to the characters to re-member ourselves, finding our unique character through attraction and repulsion to them. But in making hard and fast distinctions between the story we tell ourselves as the one and only real story, to stories we deem as fiction, we obligate ourselves to think of truth as something fully comprehensible by us. Here is where we may lose the beauty of story by failing to understand its ability to move us through many levels and layers through which we receive the gift of a multi-dimensional experience.

File:Amazing Stories Volume 01 Number 01.djvuAt another level, what is personified in us, is an expression of ideas and feelings, bits and parts that speak and live through us, that in varying degrees we are aware of as not entirely ours. Some, if not most of these parts, as Jung pointed out, are very collective in nature; ideas and feelings shared in the culture, or our cultural past, but whose source goes far beyond that. I take Jung’s idea of Individuation to mean coming to over time, an acceptance and appreciation of the fathomless dimensions of the possibilities of what he called the Self. I believe we are each a unique expression of that totality without being the totality ourselves.

If we accept and expect that our thinking and feeling comes through imagination then the way we tell and hear stories also matters. Do we fear the loss of what we keep calling reality? Don’t the many revisions of your life show the shedding of your snake’s skin, and yet, not bring you any closer to total comprehension of truth of the nature of world? Perhaps through awareness of the many revisions we have already made in our reimagining of the world, we allow ourselves to live each vision more fully immersed and alive in acceptance of our very human nature, which begins with a fantasy, a dream, an idea, a story.

Then we may ask, what is it that makes our sense of reality ring true? If we listen to ourselves and others with an ear for story, rich and layered, we may bend ourselves, inclined to listen to the voices of the powers that be.

Addendum:
If you’ve made it this far, I apologize for the lengthiness. The last several years I have been giving much thought to how it is we perceive and define the nature of the world, ourselves and others through image, story and language. If many of the ideas here seem repetitive, perhaps there is something at root trying to take shape. Repetition is not only compulsive habit, but may allow us to see the same things in a new way. I want to state clearly that all I am ever capable of saying or knowing, comes through my own limitations and expansions. I say this perhaps to ward off the notion that I am somehow above the ideas I am writing about. Much credit goes to many who touch me, that I am most grateful to and hope to honor here. The ideas then, although I take responsibility for, are both from and for them, including the ancestors, angels and all the invisibles who have graced me with their presence, some of whom I hope have enjoyed these glimpses at the shared and vibrant mystery of our existence. DK

Break on Through

“I found an island in your arms 
Country in your eyes 
Arms that chain 
Eyes that lie 
Break on through to the other side” Jim Morrison

Oftentimes it is said that ideas are less important and that action is better; what counts then is what is done or made manifest. The favored status of action, an idea itself, has always struck me as a half-truth, which of course it is. An idea is as much an action as the mind is the body. I say this not to blur the lines or resolve that ideas and actions are somehow the same, but more to reveal a hidden relationship and unity between seeming opposites that reflect in many ways our condition. A condition which is itself unified in ways that we perhaps might not be accustomed to seeing or sensing. Separation then, is both a blessing and a curse. “Idea” from idein” is akin to archetype, model or seeing and is very much related to bodily sense. All seeing comes from the body.

The constructs of our mind are also constructs of our bodies; psyche and soma, and in this world anyway happen together. That we are capable of mentally splitting off body from mind and mind from body is an amazing human quality, but it points to a deficiency of perception. A blind spot in our senses. We can think in ways that carve the world up into fragments that don’t exist apart from our mental constructs. Mental constructs can be useful, and even necessary, but when division and separation are not seen as constructs for the sake of convenience, the pain of separation and the threat of loss and death become spectral enemies that haunt us, tempting us to destroy them, either through literal murder, or mentally by splitting them off from awareness. Here the past seems more real than the present, others become “not us,” foreigners, enemies and nature is moved to some place “out there.”

If it is in the realm of ideas that the splitting occurs, that will also be the place where reunification happens. We cannot and do not live without ideas, without thought, without mind or psyche. Broadening our ideas dissolves the hardened sense and boundary of self and other. The place of wounding (splitting) is then the place of healing (unifying). In alchemy there is first the separation of the substances, then a reuniting. But if wholeness is the background, or underlying nature of reality, seeing and sensing it may not come from ignoring the illusions of separation and parts but more from multiplying them, or seeing the many in the one. That is what metaphor, fairy tale, mythology or a good poem does for us. Instead of a literal account of reality, a metaphor intentionally takes us beyond the literal, singleness of meaning, opening up and expanding meaning by “a carrying over.”

Love's Body.jpgEach chapter of Norman O. Brown’s book, Love’s Body, uses the rich history of ideas, mythology, Freud’s psychology, religion and mystical insights to define and resolve the splitting off of pieces of the world into what is mine,  not mine, real, unreal, us, them, history, mythology, life, death. Do we suffer duality because language divides the world into things and we identify with the separateness of our bodies? Did primitive man experience a “participation mystique?” Do animals experience a more unified world? …and what does love got to do with it? Everything of course – because we love what is ours, we incorporate others and all that is “out there” into ourselves when we love. Love is communion, death and hate are then an excommunication, a disowning in which we separate out all that we don’t commune with. A tough pill to swallow.

File:Herz aus Muschelschalen.JPGPerhaps our sense of being a separate self, along with the nature of time – our one-at-a-time perception, powerfully convinces us that the nature of the world is really not unified, but separate pieces and parts. Even language is structured sequentially, one word following another in which we grasp meaning by putting the words together. Many of us sense both the split and the underlying unity of the world to some degree or another. But what is it that moves a sense of unity into the heart, to permeate our daily experience and slowly dissolve the need to take the boundaries literally? And, what does a sense and awareness of unity do for us? Does our sense of “I” as the unique owner and operator of “me” disappear, merging forever into the oneness? That, I believe is a false perception perhaps held by those whose mental constructs, mistaken for “reality,” are still too near and too dear to part with. Or, as Brown suggests, that is the “Fall” into division. He reminds us that “the erection of a boundary does not alter the fact that there is, in reality, no boundary.”

Borrowing largely from Christianity, Brown uses the analogies of rebirth, resurrection, and apocalypse to get at the problem of separation and reunification. Not following any creed or practice – every thinker, poet, mystic or philosopher is included in the conversation, and rightly so, as wisdom can never be “owned,” the exclusive property of any one of us because wisdom’s nature is to free us from our literlisms, possessions, boundaries, framings, and identities used to divide what is by nature whole.

” “The real apocalypse comes, not with the vision of a city or kingdom, which would still be external, but with the identification of the city and kingdom with one’s own body.” Political kingdoms are only shadows – my kingdom is not of this world – because kingdoms of this world are non-bodily. Political freedom is only a prefiguration of true freedom: “The Bastille is really a symbol, that is, an image or form, of the two larger prisons of man’s body and the physical world.” Political and fleshly emancipation are finally one and the same; the god is Dionysus.”

The apocalypse, or unveiling, is Dionysian, a madness in which the god is torn apart, broken, in pieces, no boundaries, moving beyond ordinary meanings into the multiplicity of symbolism, but instead of a breakdown, as in schizophrenia, a breakthrough. “Break on through to the other side,” as Jim Morrison put it. There is a danger here, for sure, but as Brown notes:

“The soul that we can call our own is not a real one. The solution to the problem of identity is, get lost.”

With the unveiling, symbolic consciousness accepts the mystery and empty space creates room for the not-known, the new. No longer do we have to figure it out, but live through our animal sense, in the present where love can find us without a purpose beyond itself.

“Symbolic consciousness is between seeing and not seeing. It does not see self-evident truths of natural reason; or visible saints. It does not distinguish the wheat from the tares; and therefore must, as Roger Williams saw, practice toleration; or forgiveness, for we never know what we do. The basis of freedom is recognition of the unconscious; the invisible dimension;  the not yet realized; leaving a space for the new.”

 

Life Against Death – Part II

A consideration of the aim and purpose of artificial intelligence (AI), provides a fitting introduction to this followup post on Norman O. Brown’s book, Life Against Death. AI seeks to build a model of human intelligence for the purpose of:

1) The thrill and power of creating, fathering and possessing a better than human machine, a substitute for flesh and blood body.

2) Putting AI to work as servants so we save time for some other purpose.

3) To reach immortality either through an AI computer programmed to replicate itself, or to perfect our flesh and blood bodies with mechanical replacement parts allowing humans to at last say goodbye to death.

File:Robot Fish (4651519523).jpgA desire to recreate intelligence that matches or surpasses our own is perhaps the climax of a long history of our struggle against death. Does not attempting to mimic our likeness in an AI machine reflect back to us a sense of ourselves as discardable matter, preferring mechanical automatons better than we but without the messiness of life; our flesh, blood, pain and guts? Does it not also seek to be rid of the heart, the center of feeling?

Near the end of the book, Norman O. Brown quotes Henry Miller:

“The cultural era is past. The new civilization, which may take centuries or a few thousand years to usher in, will not be another civilization— it will be the open stretch of realization which all the past civilizations have pointed to. The city, which was the birth-place of civilization, such as we know it to be, will exist no more. There will be nuclei of course, but they will be mobile and fluid.

The peoples of the earth will no longer be shut off from one another within states but will flow freely over the surface of the earth and intermingle. There will be no fixed constellations of human aggregates. Governments will give way to management, using the word in a broad sense . The politician will become as superannuated as the dodo bird. The machine will never be dominated, as some imagine; it will be scrapped, eventually, but not before men have understood the nature of the mystery which binds them to their creation. The worship, investigation and subjugation of the machine will give way to the lure of all that is truly occult. This problem is bound up with the larger one of power— and of possession. Man will be forced to realize that power must be kept open, fluid and free. His aim will be not to possess power but to radiate it.” Henry Miller

Brown offers us a big view of the history of consciousness through an examination of Freud’s ideas alongside those of Whitehead, Bachelard, Goethe, Blake and Boehme, Rilke and others. He delves deeply into the question of how the disconnection between mind and matter/body at the level of human consciousness has turned us against our animal nature and in so doing, pitted life against death. By sacrificing the infantile pleasure instincts for the common good, repressed instincts become sublimated; turned away from oneself in service to the group through work, art, sport and religion. But in postponing and repressing the ability to feel pleasure, the all work becomes compulsive and all pleasurable states bring guilt. We then seek to possess, to become immortal through the legacy of building and owning stuff. 

In a long chapter on anality, an important theme in both Freud and Protestant reformer Martin Luther, Brown makes the point that from primitive to modern man a split between mind and body can be associated with our discomfort of the dirt and filth of matter. Increasingly in Christianity we see the ancient split come into light:

“This paradox means that the Christian is split into two dimensions, spirit that belongs to Christ and flesh that belongs to the Devil…The whole realm of visible reality, the world and the flesh , belong to the Devil; God has retired into invisibility— Deus absconditus.”

Quoting Luther:

“It is nothing new or strange that the world should be hopeless, accursed, damned; this it had always been and would ever remain.”

The world as forever corrupt, the domain of the devil leads to an expectation of suffering, pain and misery as inevitable for the flesh, which we abandoned by retreating into spirit, a separated mental realm. This division between spirit and flesh increases our alienation to bodily pleasure and sense which in turn extends our alienation to the world of matter which we seek only for power and possession.

Although the eventual secularization of protestant beliefs in the modern world could not sustain a belief in the devil, we also fail to seek a grace or redemption of matter, still unable to break the chains of the compulsion to work and postpone pleasure to some imagined future.

“But as long as (to quote Tillich) “the Protestant principle cannot admit any identification of grace with a visible reality,” and cannot repeat with conviction the traditional Christian faith that the time will come when grace will be made visible, and that this goal is the meaning of history, it looks as if neo-orthodox theology will remain incapable of casting out demons, and therefore will be of limited service to the life instinct in its war against the death instinct. It diagnoses, but it does not cure.”

History itself can be seen as part of the problem. Through our sense of time we defer pleasure, looking to the future, saving time as we go to have more time, always necessary to those who cannot live in the present. Our inability to be present leaves us unlived, and so guilty, unredeemed, haunted, suffering from sins of both our personal and ancestral past. We do not easily live in the present, even if intellectually we know that’s all we have. We are bound by our sense of time which keeps us out of the eternal present.

Brown sees the intensification of the split and neurosis as necessary to bringing the repressed unconsciousness into consciousness. In the modern industrial era of capitalism:

“The alienated consciousness is correlative with a money economy. Its root is the compulsion to work. This compulsion to work subordinates man to things, producing at the same time confusion in the valuation of things (Verwertung) and devaluation of the human body (Entwertung).”

Capitalism may have emerged along with a more secular world, but Brown reminds us that the focus of our worship has moved from the god of church to the god of money and the power and hope in possessing things:

“The money complex is the demonic, and the demonic is God’s ape; the money complex is therefore the heir to and substitute for the religious complex, an attempt to find God in things.”

Brown concludes on a positive note by seeing that all of history has brought us to this moment in which the abolition of repression may free us from the split between mind and body into a resurrection, or a giving of life back to the body:

“The life instinct, or sexual instinct, demands activity of a kind that, in contrast to our current mode of activity, can only be called play. The life instinct also demands a union with others and with the world around us based not on anxiety and aggression but on narcissism and erotic exuberance…The death instinct is reconciled with the life instinct only in a life which is not repressed, which leaves no “unlived lines” in the human body, the death instinct then being affirmed in a body which is willing to die. And , because the body is satisfied, the death instinct no longer drives it to change itself and make history, and therefore, as Christian theology divined, its activity is in eternity.”

Finally, Brown sees in the vision of mystics, gnostics, kabbalists and alchemists, both east and west, the healing between mind and body where Freud’s polyperverse pleasure of the infant is found in the experience of the eroticsim of the entire body and the transformation of historical time into eternal time:

“But there is in the Western tradition another kind of mysticism, which can be called Dionysian or body mysticism, which stays with life, which is the body, and seeks to transform and perfect it.

In Boehme’s concept of life, the concept of play, or love-play, is as central as it is in Freud’s; and his concept of the spiritual or paradisical body of Adam before the Fall recognizes the potent demand in our unconscious both for an androgynous mode of being and for a narcissistic mode of self-expression, as well as the corruption in our current use of the oral, anal, and genital functions.

The “magical” body which the poet seeks is the “subtle” or “spiritual” or “translucent” body of occidental mysticism, and the “diamond” body of oriental mysticism , and, in psychoanalysis, the polymorphously perverse body of childhood. Thus, for example, psychoanalysis declares the fundamentally bisexual character of human nature; Boehme insists on the androgynous character of human perfection; Taoist mysticism invokes feminine passivity to counteract masculine aggressivity ; and Rilke’s poetic quest is a quest for a hermaphroditic body.”

Science too, adds to the split in its attempt to get outside of its own humanity, subdue nature and discard the pleasure and importance of the senses:

“the only historian of science who uses psychoanalysis, Gaston Bachelard, concludes that it is of the essence of the scientific spirit to be mercilessly ascetic, to eliminate human enjoyment from our relation to nature, to eliminate the human senses, and finally to eliminate the human brain.”

“To eliminate the human brain,” brings us back to the question of AI’s quest and hopefully for you who have read this far, as it does for me, explains not so much why AI is a problem but that it is not a solution.

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

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.