Sacred Order and Restless Saturn

“The problem with introspection is that it has no end.”
― Philip K. Dick

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Cosmos

Although we easily recognize that life on planet Earth, and perhaps elsewhere, is possible because of the regularity witnessed within the solar system and beyond, dare we call fate that which influences the individual by a similar ordering principle? If not, then why?

cos·mos1
/ˈkäzməs,ˈkäzˌmōs,ˈkäzˌmäs/
noun

It may be easy to intellectually separate the idea that life depends on order to sustain the planet and every living being, from the idea that our lives are also ordered, and therefore, to a certain extent, fated, but in what way does fate provide order?

We pride ourselves on the ability to make conscious choices as we become more aware and responsive to the constraints that bind us, and because the more we can make choices, the less fated and more free the act of choosing makes us feel. But, how do we distinguish between a free choice and a fated one? There must be something in which we measure and compare possible outcomes against in order to categorize our actions as free or fated.

Neoplatonic-Sun

In the study of astrology, these questions of power, forces of fate and will, naturally arise. And so they should if we are to afford ourselves an opportunity to wrestle with their distinctions and correspondence within our practice and understanding astrology’s purpose.

Where the ancients found the ideas of fate and fortune usefully aligned to the constraints more naturally severe and apparent, and where choices that were contrary to the order of the state or tribe were often punished either by human or natural law, modernity, with its technological advances, allows us the luxury of seemingly going it alone through choices that may not always benefit the tribe. We are much less dependent on the tribe for our survival. We are also much more distanced from exactly what it is that we are dependent upon. To the ancients, many of our choices would seem frivolous, extravagant and self-destructive as we increasingly lose sight of the importance of our choices and the victims of their consequences.

Qualities of Time

Scholars of the myth contrast two kinds of time, secular and sacred, rational and mystical, forward-moving time and timeless circularity.

Hillman, James. The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The idea of eternal time also carries with it the sense infinitude, that reality, the cosmos, even with its orderliness, has no bounds, no separations, no limits, no beginning and no end. Does this idea of the eternal contradict the notion of a cosmic order? Are order and chaos then, secret allies? It’s fascinating to both imagine and come to a fuller acceptance that from the seemingly finite state of human existence, it’s only through the mind and the nature of our experiences that we can envision eternity and finite qualities of time.

Donato_Creti_-_Astronomical_Observations_-_07_-_Saturn

Perhaps it is the emphasis on secular time, the 9-5 habits where attention of the things of the world seduce and enslave us, that have left us with less and less capacity for the experience of eternal time. The more distant these time qualities become, the more the impulse to choose the fast-food of technology keeps the clock-a-ticking, cutting us off from any experience of the eternal. Precious and few are those timeless states granted to us.

“The notion of a separate organism is clearly an abstraction, as is also its boundary. Underlying all this is unbroken wholeness even though our civilization has developed in such a way as to strongly emphasize the separation into parts.”
― David Bohm, The Undivided Universe: An Ontological Interpretation of Quantum Theory

Everyday experience is bound by the limits of our senses, language, thought, culture and the limits of our place within the cosmos, all of which do more to suggest a real separation of experience into discrete parts known as days, hours and moments. We can however, accept that this form of orderliness, through the constancy of the seasons, planetary and stellar motions, and observed through the delicacy of their finely tuned parameters are necessary to sustain life as we know it. Our linear observations about the cosmos, are perhaps, through the very suggestion of limits and boundaries, the very thing, that ironically, give way to the idea of the eternal.

“I’m so tired… I was up all night trying to round off infinity.”
― Steven Wright

How then, do we get at the idea of the eternal, let alone an experience of something both sacred and eternal?

Représentation_ottomane_sphère_armilaire_-_XVIe

Within the seeming limits of human experience, there are for each of us, moments of discovery, insights, and understanding that bring coherence along with a sense of an expanding wholeness that we participate in; something transcendent, bigger and beyond the narrow confines of “me” and “you.” The more expansive one’s experience becomes, the less it seems to be only inside me, and the more it seems that we are all participants in something much, much grander than previously imagined.

My little ego, even if only now and then, may burst open, giving way to an expanded sense of self and other, transcending the time-bound constraints and acknowledge its smallness in comparison to a greater unbound whole. To the ancients, this feeling, or realization of a greater intelligence has been referred to by many names: One, Anima Mundi, Infinite, God, Cosmos, Eternal, Self, Divine. No matter how imagined, or expressed, this unbounded sensation is perhaps one of the most mysterious experiences of all, and yet impossible to share, and especially, to define. Language, we see, remains the map, not the territory.

How then, throughout the long trail of human existence, does this idea of the eternal persist, especially as it seems so fleeting?

“Cosmos” indicates a world formed by aesthetics. “Cosmetics,” derived from kosmos, gives the clue to the early meanings of the Greek word, when it was linked with the dress of women, with decoration and embellishment, with all things fitting, in order, furnished, and arranged, and with ethical implications of appropriateness, decency, honor. The aesthetic imagination is the primary mode of knowing the cosmos, and aesthetic language the most fitting way to formulate the world.

Hillman, James. The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The aesthetic imagination, rather than seeking to quantify the cosmos, mapping it, saving it for later, for time, permits the immediacy of its ordering and thereby participates through a knowing of the senses that also permits the transcending of time and orderliness, all the while accepting the imposition of limits on all creation, human and otherwise. It is then, the persistence, the constancy of our experience that gives us faith that the sun will rise again, but also that I will one day cease to exist. The coming and going is indeed a fated participation of the cosmos; the ordering ways of the universe. Cosmic ordering itself provides the necessary ground of our being; as a place for transcendence into eternal time. 

(To be continued…)

Meditations on Astrology

“Here vigour failed the lofty fantasy:
But now was turning my desire and will,
even as a wheel that equally is moved,
The love which moves the sun and the other stars.”

Dante’s last line in Paradise

Last December, shortly after my mother passed away, I signed up for Adam Elenbaas’s Hellenistic Astrology course*. How little I understood then the timeliness of this course of study with its potential for reseeding and sustaining me through the subsequent changes in my personal life. The class is difficult, challenging me to discipline my study habits and to align them with the teacher’s plan and vision – for learning now, and eventually, for practicing astrology on my own.

Here goes a first attempt at articulating some thoughts I have about astrology, which like alchemy, I see primarily as a practice for deepening my understanding of the human experience, where the map can align with the territory, revealing a new depth perspective of the landscape. There are countless details yet to incorporate before this new language can begin to be more fully articulated. Astrology itself, is a big world, filled with many diverse voices and perspectives.

Aurora_zodiac

Practice

Astrology, in the most basic sense, is a way to see and discover the vast array of correspondences between heaven and earth, between the ideal or archetypal realm, and the everyday world of our lives and the patterns revealed over time. The astrological chart then, is an image of the skies from the perspective of Earth. The “wheel” shows the positions of the planets from two distinct perspectives:

  • Primary or geocentric motion: the clockwise east to west motion that we observe from sunrise to sunset.
  • Secondary, or heliocentric motion: the counter-clockwise motion of the planets relative to the constellations or zodiac.

Cosmology

Astrology, like alchemy, can provide yet another form or structure for an initiation into a personal experience of the eternal mysteries, the Divine will of the gods, of which we each share a portion of both their glory and fall, or what the ancients referred to as fate.

Fate: late Middle English: from Italian fato or (later) from its source, Latin fatum ‘that which has been spoken’, from fari ‘speak’.

Throughout human history, and in a variety of cultures, astrologers have provided us with the tradition of tending to the “wandering stars” as signifiers of power for their ability to move contrary to the backdrop of the fixed stars. Perhaps the awareness of this secondary motion, sparked the idea that we too, could either harness their powers, or be harnessed, depending on our knowledge and alignment with the heavens. If fate itself is a power, perhaps, we too, could understand it, or least be present to its impact upon us.

That we are situated, a human body on this tiny planet, in such a largely unknown cosmos, when not taken for granted, is humbling. Perhaps through the recognition that astrology offers us a vision of alignment with the cycles of the planets, we might feel all the more that we too, must belong. We are after all stardust! In some ways, we have lost the sense of connection to the underlying powers of any unseen world, just as we no longer remember the stories of the ancient ones.

Viennese_zodiacI am grateful to have found an astrology teacher who suits me well. Adam is immersed in a variety of esoteric traditional studies (See his excellent series on the Hermetica), and views astrology as yet another practice that can mirror back to us the ways we are aligned, or misaligned as the case may be, to the cosmos. Through this embodied life, with all of its joys and sorrows, we are, all of us, offered an experience of something so much greater than what meets the eye.

Are we able to embrace the totality of our personal experience as necessary parts of the whole and so align ourselves into a radical acceptance of the need for cooperation with each other and the powers that be?

Antoine_Caron_Astronomers_Studying_an_Eclipse

Fear

Traditional, or Hellenistic astrology, unlike more modern forms, did not shy away from the idea that each of the planets held distinct qualities and influences, and with the exception of Mercury, were considered either benefic or malefic, depending on the qualities of their illumination. Jupiter, big and bright, is considered a benefic, and brings expansion and good fortune, Saturn, with its darker nature, and the farthest away of the seven known planets, was seen as malefic, associated with the time-bound, finite qualities of living beings and, until the more recent discoveries of Neptune, Uranus and Pluto, also served as the end of conceivable time and space.

The ancients, of course, were more vulnerable to the hardships of life, and hence, to a fear of the unknown with the need to seek and find meaningful tools for survival. The idea of fate, that the heavens could “speak” our predicament, was deeply embedded in day to day existence of many peoples and often related to” divine will” whose powers were transmitted through earthly conduits, such as demigods and royalty. To seek access to the divine gifts of the gods was a way to harness power for both mystical and political practices.

While some moderns might argue that rational thought replaced the superstitions of astrology, and that we are better off for it, one must not only ignore the technological context of objective reality in any given era, but might also reflect on the condition we now find ourselves in. If for us moderns, it is no longer true that we can directly experience the state of the world through feeling her mystery, awe, beauty, fear and joy, and if we have become incapable of seeing that the use of technology and political norms has brought us to the brink of destruction, then we are left with a meaningless “nothing but” world of bucket lists, calendar dates with a heap of destruction in their wake.

 

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The Natal Chart

As I am just beginning to learn the basics of reading a natal chart, useful patterns already begin to emerge. As I ponder the meanings of planetary positions, aspects, house placements and dignities, a story emerges that resonates deeply within me. 

Any form of an interior practice should, I think, take nothing on faith, but keep all questions front and center. As well, questioning need not deter one from engaging the practice. As with other forms of contemplative practices, trusting in the process as a potential for opening oneself deeper into reflection becomes another precious gift.

My prayer is for the humility to release me into current life changes; to stay with this new practice; to trust and accept in tending to the work, and that it may bear fruit worth sharing.

  • Along with the Nightlight Astrology class experience, I am also grateful to KoneKrusoKronos for his astrological reflections that can be found here:

https://konekrusoskronos.wordpress.com/2010/12/19/the-mother-of-all-sciences/

https://konekrusoskronos.wordpress.com/2010/01/29/astrology-spiritual-alchemy/

*The ideas presented here are strictly my own interpretations.

Alchemy Class Notes – Session Twelve

“Enter alchemy – thing-words, image-words, craft-words. The five supposed sources of alchemy are each a technology. Each is a handwork physically grappling with sensate materials: (1) Metallurgy and Jewelry: mining, heating, smelting, forging, annealing; (2) Cloth and Fiber Dyeing: dipping, coloring, drying; (3) Embalming the Dead: dismembering, evacuating, infusing, preserving; (4) Perfumery and Cosmetics: grinding, mixing, distilling, diluting, evaporating; (5) Pharmacy: distinguishing, tincturing, measuring, dissolving, desiccating, pulverizing.”

Although admittedly going off on a tangent here, this post was inspired by Session Twelve of the Jung Platform’s course on James Hillman’s book, Alchemical Psychology. What I’ve recently come to appreciate is that the study of alchemy is as inexhaustible as is its application to my life.

Alchemy is styled and practiced in a number of traditions dating back at least to the 3rd and 4th century BCE. With that in mind, my focus here is to review the general structure of Western alchemy, while staying with Hillman’s emphasis to work one’s perspective by giving substance to soul and soul to substance.

Alchemy is a practice; a work in which a transformation of some kind is initiated through the desire and aim of a goal. In everyday life, it can be applied to cooking, writing, relationships to any person, place or thing, or the learning of a craft, trade or art. You may think of other applications.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923) Title: Soul in Bondage

Prior to the 18th century, before science divorced herself from the arts, it may have been more readily understood that the work on the materials would simultaneously “work” the practitioner. Alchemy then was a quest for knowledge about the nature of particular substances and processes in the world.

The modern sense of our individuality reflects science’s need to distinguish between subject and object, self and other. These changes bring much freedom to the individual, while also coinciding with a loss of soul, or soul’s substantiality. Not only a sense of one’s personal soul, but the felt sense that the world herself is ensouled, enlivened by all creatures and substances and their varying degrees of autonomy and obeisance.

One might say that the more one feels the divide and separation between themselves and others, the more we might miss, or dismiss the autonomy of other beings and things, leaving no room for acknowledging the invisible, autonomous forces, except where science quantifies them (gravity, electromagnetism, etc.).

Modern ideas of alchemy deeply reflect these changes of self-perception and our place in the cosmos. To speak of a literal alchemy in which base materials are turned into precious metals has lost credibility with all but a few practitioners. As well, the work, if undertaken at all, seems narrowed by an emphasis on personal transformation. But, if alchemy itself is a reflection of an evolving consciousness of universal import, we might see this modern emphasis on self as a necessary stage before the gap between material and non-material existence can dissolve.

Limbourg brothers, Title:Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry English: Anatomical Man.

If alchemy lives on anywhere, as a practice of noting influence and correspondences between the microcosm of one’s human experience and the macrocosm of the hidden nature of the greater cosmos, we have astrologers to thank. For astrologers have never abandoned the idea that human nature and experience is a reflection of the nature, motion and resemblance shared throughout the cosmos, enhanced all the more by our apprehension of it.

With that in mind, we can break alchemy down into three dimensions of the practice: the materials, the operations and the stages of the work.

Materials

In alchemy, as in astrology, the elements are the givens, each of which have mythological, planetary or astrological correspondence. The idea of turning base medals into gold, literally or psychologically, requires coming to know the nature of each material substance. Alchemical psychology and Western astrology, borrowing much from their mythological heritage, see in each planet a corresponding metallic nature.

When alchemists link the planet Saturn to lead, it sees leaden characteristics, knowable by working directly with the substance lead. Alchemy, like astrology, does not stop here, but sees lead’s slow, heavy nature as an influential psychic force corresponding to our nature as well. For example, Saturn’s influence is said to be felt as weighty, depressive, slowing us down in some way in both mind, body and circumstance. As Saturn is associated with the Greek god Kronos, where we get our word for time (chronology), there may also be a need for time or attention to some aspect of our lives.

Hillman says of the alchemists work with metals:

“The metals were imagined to be made of coagulated moist vapors, like a condensed gas whose spirit could be released by the proper operations. Because the metals were inherently moist, that is, embodying phlegm, they had a phlegmatic tendency to be passive or inert, requiring fire. Resistance to change is given with the seeds of our nature and only intense heat can move human nature from its innate inertia.”

When we moderns deprive ourselves of seeing any correspondence between ourselves and the nature and motion of the cosmos, we risk increasing the feeling we may already have of alienation, with both ourselves, others and the world we are literally pieces and parts of.

Saturn = Lead

Jupiter = Tin

Mars = Iron

Sun = Gold

Mercury = Quicksilver (Mercury)

Venus = Copper

Moon = Silver

Operations

The operations used in alchemy for initiating action and reaction upon the materials are primarily salt, sulfur and mercury. Salt as agent for thickening, loosening and resistance to heat, sulphur for heating and combustion, and mercury or quicksilver for fluidity. Hillman warns that there is no purity in substance, operation or stages of alchemical work but a blending and merging of one into the other.

Making Waffles – Alexander Hugo Bakker Korff (1824–1882)

“Whatever is said about salt is always contaminated, and must be so contaminated by the materials, vessels, and operations with which it is in interaction. Psychic materials are always in diffuse interpenetration, with other materials and do not remain singly self-consistent, and so require multiple interpretation. In fact, this very contamination is part of their definition: let us say that alchemy is soft-edged. Lines between its elements cannot be drawn hard and fast because these elements are also elementary living natures.”

Stages

The work both progresses and regresses in stages associated with coloration, usually three or more of the following: Black, Blue, White, Yellow, Red. The colors themselves have astrological and mythological associations. Alchemy in contrast to modern science, is the practice of knowing the nature of anything by the qualities it presents to us. Where modern science reduces things down to size and mathematical relationships, alchemy seeks essence through the quality and nature of relationships within and between things.

Hillman emphasizes the alchemist’s ability to see psychologically through any practice that involves working with the worlds substantive qualities. From this work a truer understanding of ourselves and the nature of the world emerges into the unique expression each of us then presents daily to the world. In coming to know the substances, images, environments and actions/reactions which influence us, we are continually ensouled through our sensual, everyday experience that sees our nature reflected back to us through the nature of the cosmos.

All quotes: Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

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.

First Grade

Because we live on opposite coasts, the time I spend with my family is precious.

Perhaps as we get older and realize how quickly time is moving and how mistakes we’ve made stole some of that time away, it’s even more desirable to be around those who share our past, helping to bring into focus the people, places and events that tell the story of our lives.

When I was young, there was no part I could play that seemed to fit, so I tried to stay on the sidelines, but that didn’t fit either. When I first read WIlliam Stafford’s poem, First Grade, I laughed knowing that I had been Amy for a long time, and yet, my family never gave up on me. I owe them a lot for that.

They never remind me now of how difficult I could be and even now would probably say I was just being “Deb.” But the changes which slowly came, allowing me to embrace life, bring with it an increased desire for closeness and a feeling of gratitude for their love and their presence. I look forward to spending the next week or so with my sister and my niece and am very thankful that my husband enjoys these family visits too.

Here’s to my family and the play, the one that I now gratefully take part in.

I’ll be offline for the next week or so…

FIRST GRADE

William Stafford

In the play Amy didn’t want to be
anybody; so she managed the curtain.
Sharon wanted to be Amy. But Sam
wouldn’t let anybody be anybody else
he said it was wrong. “All right,” Steve said,
“I’ll be me but I don’t like it.”
So Amy was Amy, and we didn’t have the play.
And Sharon cried.

If I Could Tell You

My dearest, closest childhood friend lost her battle with cancer last week, but because my husband and I were camping in the mountains, out of cell phone range, I missed the call from her husband and didn’t find out until Monday.

You can know something is going to happen, like my friend’s death, and for months if not years prior. But no amount of knowing has any bearing on the sorrow and loss that is felt when someone you love passes and becomes forever out of a familiar and habitual reach. I will though, carry the pieces of our lives that we shared along with me wherever I go and someday we’ll meet again on the other side.

My dear friend Regina, I know you are in a better place and most of all, I am relieved that you won’t suffer anymore. Outside of my husband and my family, there is no one who knows me the way you do and I will miss the effortless way we talked and laughed, no matter the years and miles between us. Stay gold my friend.

If I could tell you

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.

W.H. Auden