Boris Johnson, COVID-19 and Oedipus Rex – part 1

In which I show how the blindness of Oedipus Rex, far from belonging only to ancient Greek myth, continues to be played out in political theatre and personal dynamics, particularly in the person of Boris Johnson. I also show how the response of the state to sickness has not moved on from the Thebes of two and a half thousand years ago, and that the advent of the Coronavirus disease pandemic (COVID-19) has been managed with a lack of imagination rooted in literalism.

Boris Johnson/Oedipus Rex
Boris Johnson and Oedipus the King – shared blindness

In 1987 James Hillman delivered his lecture ‘Oedipus Revisited’ to the Eranos Conference “Crossroads” at Ascona, Switzerland. Beginning his talk, Hillman identified Freud’s analysis of Oedipus as the defining myth of modern psychology. For as much as Freud understood how myth permeates ordinary family life, he was unable to see how he literalised his own analytical method – his fantasy. Hillman’s address is perhaps the most important critique of psychological method yet made, and it should be required reading in every college of psychotherapy – but it is not, which is a tragic illustration of how the power of myth becomes literalised once it is bonded with money.

Individual patients struggling with self-knowledge are so convinced by the fictions of childhood because they are Oedipus, who finds who he is by finding out about his infancy, its wounds and abandonment. The entire massive apparatus of counselling, social work, developmental psychology – therapy in every form – continues rehearsing the myth, practising the play it practices.

Oedipus Revisited. Mythic Figures. James Hillman Uniform Edition. Spring publications, 2007

We tend to associate the name Oedipus with Freud’s famous complex of that name, but the original story of Sophocle’s play Oedipus Tyrannus (more commonly known as Oedipus Rex ) is the tragedy of a man who takes things literally. In the green boxes I present the story of Oedipus in mini-chapters:

Laius, a prince of the city of Thebes, is forced to leave the city and is taken in by King Pelops. The king has a beautiful son, Chrysippus, who Laius tutors, then abducts and rapes. Returning to Thebes, Laius takes the throne and marries Jocasta. Cursed for this betrayal, and unable to give Jocasta a child, he makes several visits to the oracle of the god Apollo at Delphi and hears that he must sire no male children. Depending on the version, the consequence of having a son would be either the destruction of Thebes or that the son would kill Laius and marry Jocasta.

So far two significant things, two tragedies, have come about. The first is that Laius’s lust for Chrysippus became literal, ruining any relationship Laius might have had with the boy, and breaking the bond of trust he had with the boy’s father, Pelops. James Hillman says this:

Fathers neglect their sons, do not fulfil the erotic bond, because of the incest taboo. Fathers like Laius hear the taboo only literally and so may love only other men’s sons… If Laius is cursed for pederasty, his abducting Chrysippus from Pelops, this pederasty results from his literalism. He hears the prohibition against incest as a prohibition against eros.1 The repressed returns as homoeros.


The second tragedy is that Laius literalises the words of the oracle. Heraclitus wrote: “The lord whose oracle is that at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but indicates.” Rather than taking the risk that he would not be actually killed by his son, but perhaps humbled or bettered in some way, Laius immediately assumes a literal death.

Apollo is the god of judgment from afar. He is the giver of laws, but he is also called Far-darter, as his arrows bring remote vengeance. Nowadays, assassination by drone belongs to his archetype. He is associated with Helios the sun, bringing light to the darkness. He can deliver people from the plague, or he can inflict it. He is associated with medicine, either by himself or through his son Asclepius. He inspires: we say, “it came to me like a bolt out of the blue.” But we need to be careful with the sudden answer, the miraculous insight – the suddenness of it can be a trap for the intellectually arrogant.

Let’s move on to the next event:

Drunk, and unable to control himself, Laius has sex with Jocasta. Nine months later she gives birth to a son. Still literalising the words of the oracle, Laius has the baby boy’s feet pinned and orders Jocasta to kill the child. Unable to comply, Jocasta sends the infant away with a servant who intends to abandon him on the slopes of Mount Cithaeron, but who instead gives him the baby to a shepherd, who calls him ‘Oedipus’, which means ‘swollen foot’, and this shepherd delivers him to the childless couple King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth.

Laius, who loved a boy, tries to kill his own boy. The mountain has a history itself, it is a place bewitched, a place of death and madness, a hard place. But for the ancient Greeks a riddle (ainigma) has a second, hidden meaning. In the play, the Chorus refers to the mountain as Oedipus’ “nurse and mother”. Following Hillman, we can also see that there is:

… an archetypal necessity for a father to ‘isolate, neglect, abandon, expose, disavow, devour, enslave, sell, maim, betray the son – motives we find in Biblical and Hellenic myths as well as folklore, fairy tales, and cultural history.

Oedipus and The Sphinx. Gustave Moreau, 1864. Oil on canvas.
Oedipus and The Sphinx. Gustave Moreau, 1864. Oil on canvas.

Nowadays it is customary to lay much of the blame for our woes at the feet of our parents. We hear a lot about abusive fathers and neglectful mothers. We carry an idealised sense of who our parents were or should have been. Hillman points out that whenever we idealise a parent we stay stuck in false security, that we are bound to the imagined ‘good model’ of a parent, teacher, guru, boss, therapist, that we imitate. But when the idealised image is crushed, when we lose both the model and the power. Then, and only then, can we enter initiation.

Naked, toothless, bleeding, in pain, alone, unequal to the task and in need of elders, feeling terrifyingly young – these are the initiatory experiences. They shatter the icons of remembrance, and devotions provide no protection… we are moved from having to being, and in Jung’s [term], “being in soul”, esse in anima.


It is notable that Boris Johnson seems to have an idealised view of his cantankerous and reactionary old dad, but has allegedly abandoned or neglected any number of his own offspring. In the affair of Dominic Cummings, something mythical is playing out as well. Cummings excuse for breaking the conditions of the Coronavirus lockdown (breaking the bond of trust) is a sick son. At the time of writing, he still has the support of Johnson (and who knows which of them is the ‘father’ in that relationship) but one or both of them might yet be abandoned on Cithaeron for wild animals. Already you can hear the hungry howls…

By pointing out the archetypal nature of abandonment and abuse, I want to make it clear that I do not condone it. But we must see that myth and fairy tales are replete with murderous and evil parents, guardians, kings or queens. The stories explain that Initiation can take us to a place where we behave differently – the alternative is to be blind to it, staying a perpetual victim, longing for an illusory corrective experience. We demand it from partners and divorce them when they don’t come up to the projected expectation. We want it from a therapist, then leave when it’s not given. We stay in a state of perpetual disappointment rather than benefiting from a valuable counter-education. If only the education we get at school could teach us about this hidden gift instead of the irrelevant pseudo-science of economics.

Time passes, and the adult Oedipus hears a rumour that he may not be the son of Polybus and Merope as he had believed. He goes to the oracle, determined to discover the truth, but all he hears is that he is destined to marry his mother and kill his father. Appalled at the possibility of this happening, Oedipus leaves Corinth. He travels to Thebes, but on the journey he comes to a crossroads where he contests right of way with another charioteer and kills both the charioteer and his passenger, an old man who, unknown to Oedipus, is actually his father Laius.

This is the next terrible tragedy. Rather than reflect on the oracle’s indication, discuss it or take counsel, Oedipus is seen to be as literal as his real father. The first part of the prophecy is enacted – literally. The word ‘crossroads’ in the play does not refer to the meeting of two roads giving four directions, but rather a place where three roads meet. The Greek traveller Pausanias warned other travellers of the danger of malevolent nymphs, particularly strong at noon (and Cithaeron was a place said to be home to nymphs who would drive men mad), saying that gifts should be placed where three roads meet: gifts of milk, honey and eggs. There is softness in this gift, respect of place, and of crossings, which Oedipus, who takes the words of Apollo literally, cannot observe.

Arriving at Thebes, Oedipus encounters the Sphinx, a monster that asks travellers a riddle and devours them when they offer the wrong answer. Oedipus answers correctly and the Sphinx throws herself into the sea. Oedipus enters the city a hero and is rewarded with the kingship of the city and the hand of the newly widowed Jocasta as his bride.

Oedipus the hero takes on the Sphinx, the monster that poses passers-by an ainigma and devours them when they answer incorrectly. The idea that the riddle posed was the one that goes, “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” was apparently added to the myth later. The enigma may have been the Sphinx herself, but heroes rarely look for second or hidden meanings, preferring to deal directly with the obvious. Heroes also have a tendency to slay animals, pitting themselves against the earth, and they inevitably suffer greatly for it. The symbolist painters Gustave Moreau and Fernand Khnopff seem to have understood the myth far better than Oedipus, presenting us with danger, but also with a quality of shimmering seductiveness.

Boris Johnson, first as Mayor of London, then as Prime Minister, is our modern-day Oedipus. His public school education even enables him to parrot Ancient Greek, a party trick to amuse and impress the less privileged. Johnson has his Sphinx as well, in the shape of the EU, an animal also made up of many disparate parts. Johnson and his masters first carefully influenced the people, convincing them that the EU was a more dangerous beast than they had realised. Then, (like Oedipus, he was either unprepared or unable to ask the Sphinx what it was) Johnson merely repeated the mantra “Get Brexit Done” many times, and this simple spell convinced the people that the EU was every bit as monstrous as they had been led to believe.

Boris Johson and Jeremy Corbyn - state opening of parliament
“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn – State Opening of Parliament.

Entering parliament,2Johnson the ‘hero’ doubtless looked forward to five years of personal wealth creation while going through the motions of leadership, shouting down the opposition at the despatch box with all the punchy bluster of the playground bully, and giggling with his posh cronies. Unfortunately for him, both the city and the rest of the world became physically sick, a powerful indicator of other diseases, hidden but very real: the sickness in our depleted soil, our vanishing water and our toxic air.

The Sphinx, or, The Caresses. Fernand Khnopff, 1896. Oil on canvas.
The Sphinx, or, The Caresses. Fernand Khnopff, 1896. Oil on canvas.

A pestilence strikes Thebes, and the people go to Oedipus, begging him to help. He refers to the people as ‘children’, telling them that he has sent his brother-in-law Creon to the oracle of the lord Apollo at Delphi. Creon returns, telling Oedipus that to be rid of the plague, Oedipus must bring those who murdered Laius to justice.

Oedipus, ignorant of the truth, summons the blind seer Teiresias, who knows the answer but refuses to speak. Oedipus becomes enraged, accusing Teiresias of complicity in the killing. Teiresias becomes incensed, finally telling Oedipus that he is the murderer. Oedipus, suspecting a palace plot orchestrated by Creon, abuses Teiresias, mocking the seer’s blindness, to which Teiresias retorts that it is not he who is blind but Oedipus.

Oedipus, full of fury, summons Creon, accuses him of being the murderer and demands his execution.

Hillman pauses at this point, and asks these questions: ‘How does a city act when it is sick? What moves do its rulers make? What notions of remedy arise from the sick city?’ Let us look at each of the actions that Hillman identified in the play and relate them to the Coronavirus crisis with the help of our friends of the fourth estate

Action in the playInterpretation
The sick city calls upon the leader to find a remedyA single solution to a complex problem
The leader calls upon Apollo to reveal the cause and the cureThe government turns to diagnosis and correction
The sick city summons the shaman, seer, or prophetReliance on prophecy
The city purgesLanguage of pollution and expulsion
The city makes edictsScapegoating, forbiddable persons, commands

The sick city calls upon the leader to find a remedy (a single solution to a complex problem)

A priest of Zeus brings public concern over the plague ravaging Thebes to Oedipus the King. Our own beloved media takes a similar approach to the citizenry of Thebes. It does not matter if the media tone is wheedling, beseeching, critical or disdainful, it amounts to the same thing. An approach is made to a leader, and that leader will live or die by the actions he or she then takes. In the examples shown, the right-wing newspapers try to elevate Boris Johnson to a mythical level, presumably in furtherance of their owners’ political aims. The people are ‘children’, only capable of breaking rules never making them. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon is complimented on her leadership much as a patronising grandparent might observe that so-and-so is such a good little mother.

In contrast to Oedipus’ Apollonic monotheism, the Chorus invokes not just Apollo, but Zeus, Artemis, Athene and Dionysus.

Bacchus [Dionysus] to whom thy Maenads Evoe shout;
Come with thy bright torch, rout,
Blithe god whom we adore,
The god whom gods abhor.

Oedipus Tyrannus. Sophocles (tr. F. Storr 1912) –

Sophocles clearly wants to warn the audience of the danger of not just a stuck position, but an Apollonic one at that. Oedipus’ figurative blindness comes about because of his fixity, his inability to see beyond analysis and dogma. When it is too late and the tragedy has played out and Oedipus has blinded himself, he also finally understands what has happened:

O doer of dread deeds, how couldst thou mar
Thy vision thus? What demon goaded thee?

Apollo, friend, Apollo, he it was
That brought these ills to pass;
But the right hand that dealt the blow
Was mine, none other. How,
How, could I longer see when sight
Brought no delight?

Alas! ’tis as thou sayest.


The leader calls upon Apollo to reveal the cause and the cure (the government turns to diagnosis and correction)

Oedipus sends his brother-in-law Creon (the brother of Oedipus’s wife, Jocasta, who – unbeknown to him – is actually Oedipus’s own mother) to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi to ask what is causing the plague and how it might be removed.

The modern equivalent to visiting the oracle is a consultation with experts. In our case, the experts have been the government’s chief medical adviser Chris Whitty (and his deputies) and the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. Chris Whitty and his deputies have all been called upon to resign for one reason or another, often by competing experts. Before Vallance took the government position he spent 12 years working at GlaxoSmithKline, finishing as Head of Research and Development.3 Coincidentally, In 2012 GSK was fined $3bn for fraud in the US, and in 2016 £37.6m for bribery in the UK. By way of further coincidence, GSK’s manufacturing and research base is located in Barnard Castle, County Durham, to which the Prime Minister’s Senior Adviser Dominic Cummings drove in order to ‘test his eyesight’ before returning to London ‘to get vaccine deals through’. On the day of Cumming’s return, GSK announced an agreement to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.4 Obviously all these events are entirely unrelated.

Throughout the pandemic, the government has assured us children that it had been ‘following the science’, yet the scientists who make their views public in social media seem to be almost unanimous in their condemnation of this. The science itself has been damaged first by underfunding, then by the creeping commercialisation of laboratories. If we have faith in the science, then we place it on a pedestal from which it will quickly be toppled. The ideology behind the dithering and the lies is profit. We know that the 1922 committee of the Conservative Party (always referred to as the ‘influential 1922 committee’ by the media) has been highly impatient of the Coronavirus lockdown, maintaining that thousands of businesses will go to the wall unless they are allowed to trade normally (translation: the members of the committee and their friends will lose money). The billionaire media owners sense the need to crush any optimistic feeling that life might be different, so even while we are still in the middle of the pandemic we are being warned that our punishment for being furloughed or otherwise incapable of propping up the rotten corpse of capitalism is greater austerity.

The word ‘hope’ appears often in the newspapers. Hope is what children do at Christmas and birthdays, or what we might do if we’re planning a trip to the beach. To ‘hope’ for a vaccine is meaningless: has it been tested? How has it been tested and for how long? Should we ‘hope’ that it has been tested adequately, or ‘hope’ that it is safe for kids to go back to school? The words of the headlines make children of the readers, who will be diagnosed and corrected. Lest we forget, this has also been a pernicious trend in psychology – even in the growth of such apparently harmless techniques as ‘mindfulness’. Developmental psychology, neuroscience and ‘mindfulness’ all seek to take a symptom, give it a name and then correct it (panic – social anxiety disorder – attend ‘mindfulness in nature’ classes) so that the patient can get back to work. No matter that the cause of the symptom is still the same, you can deal with it by taking a walk in a landscape that is disintegrating before your very eyes because it is held in contempt.

This blindness, which manifests particularly as faith or belief in facts and diagnosis, leads us ever further into literalised myth. It makes the path between the virus and what happens afterwards not so much linear but circular – those with the power will try to hang on to that power at all cost.

The sick city summons the shaman, seer, or prophet (reliance on prophecy)

Teiresias the blind seer is the prophet who Oedipus summons, much as Boris Johnson has summoned not just Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, but the dark figure of Dominic Cummings, the man whose powers stem from an uncanny ability to read the public mood – at least until he broke his bond with the public. But Teiresias can see, even though he is blind. He knows that Oedipus is following a tragic path by looking for the murderer of Laius, just as Johnson is following a tragic path by placing ideology and politics over the safety of thousands of people.

Where Oedipus attacked Teiresias for not speaking, it seems likely that Johnson gagged his prophets, frightened that their messages of doom would cause further damage to the precarious economy that he finds himself in charge of. Instead, he used a standard tactic of politicians everywhere, he produced an elderly person of State, the Queen, to deliver a Message to the People. Johnson hoped that a message from the Queen would appeal to his core voters, but even that seems insufficient as his base begins to crumble.

‘Track-and-trace’ is another modern oracle, one which Johnson claims to be ‘up and running’ but which is hopelessly flawed. It is the product, like so much else in this tragedy, of spin.

The city purges (the language of pollution and expulsion)

Pollution and expulsion have been a part of our shameful national discourse for a long time, and here I do not refer to the pollution of the environment but rather the knee-jerk response of the people, betrayed by the experiment of capitalism. Feeling intuitively that plague was in the land, well before the physical manifestation of COVID-19, the majority of voters supported Boris Johnson – the ‘hero’ who promised to slay the EU, to expel foreigners, and to bring the land into the sun of Apollo. Previously, the voters of the United States had done exactly the same when they entrusted Donald Trump to ‘clear the swamp’. The tragedy of late capitalism is that people confuse heroes (a difficult enough breed at the best of times) with titans. The media, as quick as politicians to reverse position when deemed prudent, saluted ‘our NHS heroes’ and encouraged the shaming of those who refused to go along with this hypocrisy by clapping in the streets.

Special mention must go to the Daily Star which has a particular penchant for alarming stories featuring wildlife. Read the headlined article and you will find that the reason for the ‘psycho’ seagulls and booming rat populations can be squarely laid at our own doors, but the headlines pretend otherwise. The Daily Star is merely the explicit face of the general antipathy the culture has towards nature, a direct consequence of belief in transcendence and Cartesian dualism. Nature is liked only when it is ‘cute’ or under control.

The city makes edicts (scapegoating, forbiddable persons, commands)

At any time of crisis, the media, supported by many of the people, look to scapegoat. Johnson, medically obese himself until he became ill with COVID-19, is now using scientific evidence that people with obesity are more vulnerable to the virus. Obese people often have psychological difficulties (it is often a consequence of childhood sexual abuse) and are most often found at the bottom of the socio-economic heap. It is entirely invidious for Johnson, or anyone else, to attack the most vulnerable parts of society. It is Johnson himself who has the power to save the NHS, by delivering proper funding and decent rates of pay, rather than operating a sleazy bust-out that will deliver the carcass of the service to his disaster capitalist cronies.

But the media loves the scent of blood, and where rules are being broken by people in the public eye, the media will take great satisfaction in telling us, regardless of what hypocrisy that might involve. To suggest that Cummings ‘must fall on sword’ (rather than ‘resign’, ‘leave’ or ‘go’) also shows us that the mythical is at work.

Jocasta enters and tries to calm Oedipus with the story of how Laius had heard a prophecy at the oracle telling him that he would be killed by his own son, but (as everyone knew) Laius had been murdered by bandits at the crossroads. Oedipus becomes nervous, anticipating the truth. A messenger brings the news that King Polybus has died, and Oedipus feels temporary relief but is still concerned that he might commit incest with his mother. The messenger tells Oedipus not to be concerned because Merope is not Oedipus’ birth mother. The messenger knows this because he had been the shepherd who took the baby Oedipus from Jocasta’s servant.

Oedipus, suspecting now what has happened, asks the whereabouts of Jocasta’s servant. By a further cruel turn of fate, it is revealed that this servant was the only surviving witness of the events at the crossroads. Jocasta, knowing the truth herself now, pleads with Oedipus not to pursue his investigation further. He refuses and Jocasta runs into the palace.

The servant is found and, under threat of torture and death, he reveals the truth to Oedipus. Meanwhile, Jocasta has hanged herself in the palace. Oedipus calls madly for a sword, shouting that he will cut out her womb. Entering the palace he finds Jocasta hanged, and in a fit of grief and remorse takes a pin from her gown and puts out his own eyes.

Oedipus is literal to the end, poking out his own eyes when he finally sees the truth. These are Sophocles’ messages, speaking clearly to us from the distant past: first, you are only a victim of fate if you take it literally. Second, once you adopt a fixed position or ideology you are doomed. Third, if enough people tell you the same thing it is wise to listen. Fourth, sometimes rooting around in the past is a very bad idea. All of these things apply to the world of counselling and psychotherapy, but they also apply to the world. Sophocles asks us to understand how even the best of leaders can be blind to the truth until it is too late. Unfortunately for our modern selves, we have chosen monsters for our leaders.

Oedipus begs Creon to be exiled, but Creon says that the oracles must be consulted first. Oedipus asks Creon to look after his two daughters/half-sisters, Antigone and Ismene.

The play ends. Much later in his life, Sophocles wrote ‘Oedipus at Colonus’, and that is the text that will concern us in part 2.

After COVID-19, nothing can be the same again. But capitalism is deeply entrenched. Shopping is addictive, the first IKEA stores to re-open attracted thousands prepared to stand hours in a queue to buy cheap unattractive furniture. Our culture is fuelled by compulsive behaviour. It is clear to many that the next virus only has to be fractionally more potent than COVID-19, and the infrastructure of the world, this fragile edifice of toxic financial instruments, will collapse. There will be mass hysteria, looting and violence on a scale never before seen. The state has an opportunity now to take action, but it will take decisive cross-party leadership for that to happen, and I fear that there are no politicians of substance left. One might imagine that Boris Johnson’s brush with death might have opened his eyes, but he seems as hollow as before, whereas the sightless Oedipus managed to change what needed to change, as we will see in Part 2.

Daniel Steibelt and the failure of compassion

This article about Daniel Steibelt is a companion piece to my post about the composer Anton Fils. While it can be read on its own, I would suggest reading the Fils article first.

Daniel Steibelt
Daniel Steibelt 1765-1823

Look for information about Daniel Steibelt, born five years after the death of Anton Fils, and you will quickly discover that he is widely described as ‘arrogant, vain, affected’ and even ‘dishonest’ and a ‘charlatan’. The libel extends to criticism of Steibelt’s music, with much attention brought to his inability to write lengthy slow movements, his obsession with tremolo and his lack of depth. Virtually all the criticism one can find of Steibelt is entirely negative, yet in his day he enjoyed considerable success. But here is Grove Music Online, writing about Steibelt’s opera Romeo et Juliette:

Roméo et Juliette (i) (‘Romeo and Juliet’)

Opéra comique in three acts by Daniel Steibelt to a libretto by Pierre de Sé gur after William Shakespeare ’s play; Paris, Théâtre Feydeau, 9 October 1793.

Loosely based on Shakespeare’s play but with a happy ending, the principal characters are Romeo (tenor), Juliet (soprano), Alberti (tenor), Antonio (baritone) and Cécile (soprano), with extensive writing for mixed, women’s and men’s choruses.

The opera enjoyed a great success; it was revived for more than 30 years after its première and translated into at least four languages. Steibelt’s bold orchestration, innovative harmony and recitative-like choral writing appealed to Berlioz, who considered it the best musical setting of the story he knew (the others were by Bellini, Dalayrac, Zingarelli and Vaccai). Winton Dean (1964) called the work ‘the best Shakespeare opera of the eighteenth century’.

I couldn’t find anything more than a couple of scratchy excerpts of Roméo et Juliette online. Is it the ‘happy ending’ that has reduced this work to a historical footnote? That does not explain the same fate befalling his other operas, his ballets, most of his piano concerti, and much of his other music. The real culprit is more likely to be Ferdinand Ries, friend and amanuensis to Beethoven, who first told the story that Steibelt had taken on Beethoven in a musical duel and lost. According to Ries (writing many years after the supposed event and not present himself), Beethoven picked up the cello part of a Steibelt work, turned it upside down, and extemporised to great acclaim. There are an unpleasant few minutes to be spent listening to the self-congratulatory John Suchet and Michael Tilson Thomas discussing this here. There has even been an awful dramatisation of the contest, in which the traducement is amplified by having ‘Steibelt’ playing one movement of a sonatina, only to be comprehensively humiliated as ‘Beethoven’ takes the piece apart in a grand show of pianistic pyrotechnics. Steibelt was a virtuoso pianist himself and would certainly not have played something as facile as the sonatina in competition.

It is further suggested that Beethoven went on to use this upside down cello part as the basis of his Eroica Variations (which later became the main subject of the Finale of the Eroica Symphony). During the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was common practice for composers to borrow and steal from each other. Sometimes the borrowing was overt, as in a set of variations after a theme by another composer (for example Beethoven’s own Variations on a theme of Diabelli Op. 120). But in other cases, the origin of a piece was driven by greed: publishers in the early nineteenth century frequently attached the name of a famous composer to the work of minor composers. Anton Eberl had much of his music passed off as the work of Mozart. Joseph Haydn even passed off as his own pieces by his pupil Ignaz Pleyel. Add to this the problems of attribution: Johann Wilhelm Hässler wrote a sonata attributed to W.F.Bach (it still is in some places). Mozart’s son, Franz Xaver, had his Variationen über eine Romanze von Méhul, Op.23 attributed to Liszt. There are many other examples of the work of minor composers assigned to someone greater, making the minor composer even fainter in history.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven: detail of an 1804–05 portrait by Joseph Willibrord Mähler

Then there are issues of completion. Mozart’s famous Requiem in D minor, K. 626 was orchestrated in part by Joseph von Eybler and completed by Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Parts of the work were influenced by (or lifted from) works by Bach, Handel, Joseph Haydn and Michael Haydn. The whole work was commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg, who liked to pay composers for work he then passed off as his own. These are muddy waters: documentary evidence is suspect.1 Over at Forgotten Records (who sell a couple of Steibelt CDs) Olivier Feignier has written a more detailed biography and has challenged the accepted account of Steibelt’s life.

My own ability with the musical keyboard is sadly limited, so it’s no surprise that I tend to look for fairly easy pieces to play. The search for such pieces reveals two truths. The first is that most composers don’t like to write easy pieces. Partly this is historical: until the late eighteenth century, there was not much market for them. The burgeoning middle classes changed all that: composers began to lose their aristocratic sponsors and were compelled to make money in different ways. The second truth is that most ‘easy’ pieces are anything but. The arrogance of some composers is born out in their offerings – which are often quite demanding – and if they are genuinely easy they also have a tendency to be rather dull, and such work has become fodder for examination boards. Conversely, some composers wrote work that offers the beginner a challenge, but which is also musically satisfying. Such music understands the needs of the beginner but demonstrates wit and intelligence: I see this as a practical test of genius.2

Steibelt passes my test for writing ‘easy’ pieces with flying colours. I am very happy to channel the spirit of a young woman in Paris at the time of Napoleon, trying out one of Steibelt’s sonatinas in the drawing-room while an admiring and elaborately uniformed hussar leans on the fortepiano pulling on his clay pipe. Yes, the melodies are mostly simple evocations of a music box or pastoral fantasies, and variations on popular tunes, but Steibelt composes them with care, offering sections in the minor key, curious harmonies and miniature cadenzas, such that the performance of one of these minor works feels quite satisfying in a way that playing equivalent pieces by Ignaz Pleyel or Maria Hester Park does not.

These easier pieces often have movements with a ground bass to sound like the hurdy-gurdy, a peasant instrument that had become wildly popular with the French aristocracy in their elaborate fantasy picnics, the fêtes champêtre of the Rococo period. Turkish martial music was also in great demand. Mozart wrote a whole opera on a Turkish theme (Die Entführung aus dem Serail), and titled the last movement of his Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331 ‘Alla Turca’. Beethoven wrote a Turkish March, and there were ‘Turkish’ offerings from Joseph and Michael Haydn, Gluck, Rossini, Spohr and many others. Steibelt was no exception, and his little Turkish Rondo is delightful. This performance is from an abbreviated score (not always a bad thing): note the unusual passage starting at 2:24. 3

Steibelt’s first successful composition was a piano sonata dedicated to Marie Antoinette, who met her death at the guillotine three years later in 1793. Like other composers of the period, he had to rapidly change his tune, as it were, and in 1800 he dedicated another sonata to Josephine Bonaparte. Steibelt also wrote more difficult studies, which he called Pots-Pourris, and it doesn’t take exhaustive research to discover that some of Steibelt’s more developed work was really rather good.

As is the case with Anton Fils, most of Steibelt’s work is hidden in libraries, and there are few performances available. Moreover, very little keyboard music of the period is played with any understanding of the instruments available. The Viennese fortepianos that Steibelt and Beethoven would have used had a significantly different sound to the modern concert grand. In the lower registers, the sound is similar to the lower register of a harpsichord, growling and resonant. In the upper register, the notes are more chime or bell-like. There is evidence too that the sustain pedal was sometimes kept depressed for far longer than would be done in modern times so that passages to be performed lightly and playfully would have no pedal, but slower and more sonorous pieces would create an enharmonic wall of sound. Moreover, pianos were made with other pedals and stops. Moderator pedals introduced parchment or leather between hammer and string. True una corda pedals could be altered to play one, two, or all three strings. Janissary pedals gave ‘Turkish’ music a special chime and drum effect. Then there were the ‘lute’ pedal and the quite nasty and grating ‘bassoon’ pedal. This recording, although of poor quality, gives an idea of what these special effects sounded like – a far cry from the concert grand!

Many of the modern instruments used in recordings resemble honky-tonk pianos retrieved from months sitting in damp cow sheds, then overmiked and hideous to hear. The ludicrous ‘expert’ conclusion is that Beethoven wrote for some future instrument that would sound different.4. Thus (un)informed we now think classical piano music must be played with great virtuosic speed on thundering Steinways, or on grating facsimiles, also at great speed. Luckily brave scholars such as the indefatigable Wim Winters are slowly disabusing us of these notions.5

Steibelt’s work, particularly the little sonatinas, need both delicacy of touch and instrument. It is common to criticise this kind of simple, immediate and elegant work as ‘galant’, and therefore immediately without value. I would strongly suggest that a sympathetic performance on a good instrument reveals rather more emotional content (it is a source of frustration to me that my own musicianship is inadequate to demonstrate this). Moreover, there is nothing wrong with charm, it is at the heart of the erotic. The absence of charm gives us pious moralising.

As a boy, Steibelt studied with Johann Kirnberger, a pupil of J.S.Bach. Kirnberger was an expert in fugues and musical theory. Perhaps this experience turned Steibelt turned away from the solid complexity of German music, and towards the flighty fancies of the French. But most interpreters seem to miss the yearning that is central to Steibelt’s work. As much as he tried (perhaps) to be superficial, the yearning comes out. One of Aphrodite’s winged retinue the erotes, brother to Eros, was Pothos, whose name itself means ‘yearning’.

Johann Philipp Kirnberger
Johann Philipp Kirnberger. Portrait by Friedrich Wilhelm Bollinger / Public domain

Whatever the truth behind the meeting of Beethoven and Steibelt, and whatever the accuracy of the remarks critical of Steibelt’s character, the consequence has been that he has been largely deleted from classical music, and while he was not a great composer, he had (like Anton Fils) moments of greatness. Just as the entire body of classical music needs revisioning, so Steibelt needs to be rescued from oblivion and appreciated for his unique charms. Charles Burney wrote this in a letter to a pupil:

The best pieces for the pianoforte that have been lately published in London, are those of Haydn and Steibelt. Haydn Op. 75 printed by Longman and Broderip, Haymarket – Steibelt Op 1. by the same. Haydn’s Symphonies composed for Salomon’s concerts, adapted for the Pianoforte, make admirable lessons for that Instrument with one Violin accompaniment. These have been published by Salomon only, at the Hanover Square Music Room. There are 12.  The first six are £1.4.0 – the second six, to non-subscribers, are a Guinea and ½ – they are dear, long and difficult; but deserve all the trouble they give the performer. A great many sets of sonatas for the P.F. with accompaniment have been printed by Steibelt since the author’s arrival in this country, that are excellent. I am not sure, however, whether 3 printed by Preston No. 97 Strand, are not the most pleasing. This composer is a young man, with a great hand on his Instrument and possessed of knowledge and real Genius. He was a scholar of our old great favourite Emanuel Bach. But he is no imitator of Haydn, or even his Master. His melodies are always elegantly natural, and his rage for half notes is much tempered by better resources.

Burney, Charles, and Robert Müller-Hartmann. “Two Unknown Letters of Charles Burney.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 3, no. 1/2, 1939, pp. 161–164. JSTOR, Accessed 29 Jan. 2020.

Anton Fils was not possessed of the genius of Mozart, and Daniel Steibelt’s muse was a fainter shade than Beethoven’s – but when the spirit shone in Steibelt it did so with beauty and great charm. I can hardly say how much pleasure playing his music has given me. In the two page Andante affettuoso of his Sonate Martiale, titled ‘Romance’, Steibelt combines the tragic with the joyful, the playful with the anguished, to extraordinary effect. Dissonance is met with harmony, the sentimental with the visionary. I play it every day now, it is a prayer. An ‘authority’ would probably be critical, but after more than two centuries this man – perhaps vain, perhaps troubled – has reached and touched my soul. It is a fine gift.

I hope by now it is clear that this piece (and my previous post on Anton Fils) are not entirely about two unsung eighteenth-century composers, it is also about me, and you, and anyone who has aspired to anything and then shrunk from it after being told they are not good enough, or who has done something well only to have that work disparaged. Failures in compassion and understanding, and failures of imagination and curiosity, have robbed us of significant beauty – but that loss, and others like it, can be remedied.

Two pieces by Steibelt to close. First, the really lovely Etude in the obscure key of E-Flat Minor performed by Anna Petrova-Foster. She plays on a modern piano but with sensitivity to the material. It is a pity that the recordings are not the best, or perhaps that is the penalty of encoding for YouTube:

I mentioned the Grand Sonate Martiale in D Major Op. 82 earlier. I cannot link to the Romance (if I can ever make a recording myself that I think is good enough I will add it later), so instead I am taking a risk and posting this performance by Anna Petrova-Foster of the last movement of the sonata, marked ‘Cosaque’. We have to expect an amusing ‘Russian’ dance and we are not disappointed. After listening to the beautiful and lyrical Romance, this Cosaque, with its comic leaps, seems abrupt and disjointed. Nor will Steibelt’s scales and arpeggios up and down the keyboard satisfy logos thinking – but I find a wanton playfulness in it that becomes quite infectious. Steibelt has proven his lyricism, his love, and his deep yearning in the Romance. Here, while Beethoven looks on and scowls, Steibelt the travelling virtuoso has a smile on his face as he upends expectations, borrows and steals like Hermes, turns the drama into vaudeville, sets off on a breathless chase – and laughs.

Further listening

Hyperion Records publishes three piano concertos performed by Howard Shelley and Ulster Orchestra. I particularly like the Piano Concerto No 7 in E minor ‘Grand concerto Militaire’ – it would make a great concert piece, full of fun and life.

Forgotten Records publish two CDs, one being another performance from Anna Petrova-Foster.

I would like to hear recordings of the Elegie pour la mort du Prince Soltykoff and even Steibelt’s programme music such as the Allegorical Overture, or his Conflagration of Moscow. The two latter pieces may not represent particularly good music, but they are interesting and evocative of the period.

Anton Fils and the death of culture

Culture in the West – Fantasia

I pay a visit to the concert hall and look for the ghost of forgotten composer Anton Fils.

Somewhere in the bowels of television programming is a thing called ‘Bargain Hunter’. Two couples get to visit a flea market in which they have to buy several items within a set budget, against the clock. Their purchases are then put up for auction, and the team with the biggest profit wins. It is hard to imagine a more compulsive and seedy analogue of capitalism.1 The couples bicker over which item might be the most profitable, but one of the participants is inevitably drawn to an attractive object that does badly in the auction (or one which they want to keep). The auctioneer, whose ‘expertise’ is sought before the auction, is a smoothly permed corporate spiv2, against whom the unfortunate couples in their baggy fleeces look poor and stupid.

As the auction proceeds, the viewer witnesses the couples run the gauntlet of emotions, from jubilant high-fives and pumping fists at one end, to pale traumatised misery at the other. Out of context, one might imagine that they were either celebrating the end of world poverty, the forgiveness of debt, a substantial universal basic income and the return of the commons; or conversely, grieving for a loved one being sentenced to death or an infant stillborn. The attraction, the erotic bond, between person and object, is crushed in the rush for profit, and it is seen only in the wistful backwards glance, the plaintive appeal to the partner. It is a very clever programme that can be produced for peanuts, and it is further evidence (as if any more were needed) that our culture prefers quantity over quality, profit over pleasure, anxiety over ease, value over worth. 

As an antidote to the Bargain Hunters of the world, please listen to the late Thomas Füri conduct Camerata Bern in this utterly sumptuous performance of Anton Fils’ Concerto for Cello in G Major. Thomas Delenga is the soloist.

Anton Fils. Concerto for Cello in G Major. Camerate Bern. Thomas Füri (conductor) Thomas Delenga (soloist).

In these market-centred times, cultural hypocrisy abounds, and Art suffers. At an exhibition of work by Franz West at the Tate Modern some of the sculpture might be touched, sat on, connected with – but getting too close to other pieces would quickly bring barking ‘security’ personnel. A room with lines of pews adorned with off-cuts of carpet offered a flavour of squatting in an abandoned church – surely unconscious irony in one of the world’s foremost temples to the arts, a building that (like all such temples) is dedicated to flattening joy, squashing rebellion and sanitising anarchy.

The West exhibition was not unique. At the Alexander Calder show, also at the Tate Modern, many of the artist’s kinetic works were presented in static form and (of course) nothing could be touched. An imaginative solution might have been to employ art students to create copies – simultaneously benefiting the students, the public, and even the museum’s ancillary business outlets – but instead, the Tate chose to present Calder’s playful pieces as holy artefacts. The same nonsense prevailed at the (ghastly and narcissistic) Antony Gormley exhibition, in which the visitors could ‘play’ in a room full of giant clashing metal hoops but were actively discouraged from touching anything else.

This should be seen as the double bind that it is: the participant is invited to be spontaneous but then is punished for it. At the end of such shows, one is funnelled into a ‘gift’ shop, the shiny things attracting more attention than the objects of the show itself. At last! We can touch something! Take it away! Pay for the art book’s journey to the pulp mill (via the coffee table, bookcase, attic, and charity shop). Looking at the shiny things, it should be easy to understand that culture has been replaced by marketing.

All of our institutions, our politics, what passes for leadership – our very cultural underpinning – all these things stem from the kind of ‘rational’ and ‘logical’ thinking that is known as logos. It is the kind of thought that quantifies and equivocates. All Art is invested, not with worth, but with a cultural value that is determined by ‘experts’, and any disagreement regarding that value is the exclusive province of the same. Artists who wish to break free of the covenant between art and its critics are soon subsumed. True knowledge (the kind of learning that stems from proper humility and years of careful study) is not my target here, but rather the dismissive and monolithic arrogance that passes for expertise. This is not about knowing, but about power, and it functions as another element of marketing. Monolithic expertise ringfences the logos thinking with which the western cultural tradition continues to justify everything from capitalism to colonialism, and it has brought the world to the edge of ruin.

In this piece, I make the case for the type of thinking that comes from eros. The erotic includes the sexual, just as it does everything else in the polyverse, but it is about much more than that: erotic thinking connects rather than separates, it rests rather than works, it is appreciative rather than critical. This is not to say that logos is wrong, it is not. Logos thinking builds our homes, distributes our food, pipes our utilities and keeps the train on the tracks. But it has become hugely inflated. Both Hermes and Aphrodite have been spurned and become diseases.3 The diseased Hermes no longer leads us to depth but runs the algorithms of compulsion behind online shopping. Aphrodite, furious at two millennia of repression, has pornographised everything from cars to holidays. The gods wreak a terrible revenge.

Musical Instruments | Artist: Evaristo Baschenis [Public domain]
Musical Instruments | Artist: Evaristo Baschenis [Public domain]

There are many paths to eros and here I take that of Classical music in the Western tradition (music written between about 1750 to 1820). It is an interesting choice for two reasons. The first is that in classical music there is a dance between logos and eros: out of a highly formulated mathematical structure emerges vitality and emotional depth. Perhaps the structure of music, the logos, offers the safe boundaries required to release great emotion. For even though composers and musicians in what is described as the ‘common practice period’ were mostly men, in their music they expressed both female and male qualities (Carl Jung would later describe these qualities as Anima and Animus, the primary anthropomorphic archetypes of the unconscious mind). Women were thought to be unsuited to composition because, it was said, their minds were incapable of working with the logical strictures of composition – a perfect example of the restrictive and defensive justification that comes with logos.

The second reason is the way that music responded to the wider social changes of the period, and how it slowly left the employ of the princes both spiritual and temporal and became available to a wider population. That availability has increased massively today thanks to such organisations as IMSLP, Musescore and Musopen, which provide free digitised scores. This democratisation of music that was once the sole property of monarchs, emperors and bishops, is the nearest to the gift economy that most of us will ever see (to keep the gift moving, we also need to gift back so that they can pay for staff and servers). The trigger to this availability was the Enlightenment. By placing emphasis on scientific method, the Enlightenment attacked superstition and intolerance. But by splitting church and state, and by championing principles of personal liberty and reductive empiricism – logos thinking – the Enlightenment sowed the seeds of our present circumstances: the rise of libertarianism and the blanket disavowal of soul. Like any systemic thinking, the Enlightenment led to literalism and moralising, diseases with which we are more than ever afflicted today. 

A few words about the technical language of music: this is a language of mathematical shorthand, but to use it would keep us in logos and would be self-defeating. I am happy to admit that this is also convenient for me because I have little technical knowledge myself: my position is that of the enthusiastic amateur. The ever-reliable tells us that ‘Enthusiasm’ comes from the Greek enthousiazein: “be inspired or possessed by a god, be rapt, be in ecstasy,” and that the Puritans used it as a derogatory term to describe ‘excessive religious emotion through the conceit of special revelation from God’. ‘Amateur’, of course, means ‘a lover, one who loves’. So the term ‘enthusiastic amateur’ could carry rather more weight than negative associations with steam railways and watercolourists.

The radical classical – Allegro

In the world of classical music, there is a corresponding attitude to the problem with Fine Art discussed above. Audiences are criticised for only buying tickets for concerts of known music, so the unknown music is not programmed. Since orchestras, like museums, are bound hand and foot by sponsorship and legacy, they are always desperate to fill venues, and even the kind of imaginative programming that sandwiches the unknown between the known has become a considerable risk. Audiences, at least in the provinces, are mostly geriatric. They are capable of a little applause here and there, but only really show any signs of life at the interval, during which they channel the physical abilities of much younger folk in their eagerness to get to the bar. Upon occasion, one hears something so notable, so exquisitely performed, that it demands an immediate ovation – but so inhibited have we become in the modern etiquette of deathly politeness that the chances of this happening are negligible. Such a hush would have been unthinkable in 1786 when the audience at the first night of Mozart’s La Nozze di Figaro encored five numbers, and then seven a week later, leading Emperor Joseph II to issue an edict limiting repeats. The cultural and political significance of theatre in the past is hard for us to imagine. When Covent Garden was rebuilt in 1809, riots broke out over seat prices4.​

The Marriage of Figaro
The Marriage of Figaro: 1785 print showing the Count discovering Chérubin in Suzanne’s bedroom | Artist: Saint-Quentin, Jacques Philippe Joseph de (born 1738) Publisher: Ruault (Paris) [Public domain]

Beaumarchais’s original play Le Mariage de Figaro fatally damaged European aristocracy. Performances of Mozart’s opera, the political elements of the original play excised, were interrupted by paid hecklers, presumably employed by envious competitors. How good it would be to have even a shadow of this today! Nowadays people can take to the streets for a year before there is any discernible change​, and all over the world libertarian regimes are given a popular mandate. In Lean Logic, David Fleming wrote compellingly of the need for reviving Carnival. As a gesture towards this, I would love to see musical festivals touring cities and provinces, taking over a venue for three or four days at a time, during which students would get to play unusual works during the day while the evenings might be reserved for more palatable and profitable fair. Performances could be heard in the main auditoria but spill out into bars and restaurants, to the foyer and the car park. Visitors would have the opportunity to talk to musicians, ask questions, get instruction and join in performances. Such carnivals of music might begin to pick away at the awful creeping reductionism that has crippled the arts and rendered anodyne work that should connect to the soul.

The death of Anton Fils – Adagio

To examine this idea of cultural impoverishment in more detail, let us go back a quarter of a millennium to a cemetery in Germany. It is an icy day in the middle of March 1760, and a body is being buried. The place is Mannheim, on the Rhine. Johann Sebastian Bach has been dead for ten years, George Frideric Handel died in April of the previous year. The venerable baroque composers Telemann and Rameau are still alive. Telemann’s godson, Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach, is working in Berlin for Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia (the future Frederick the Great) and has completed his influential treatise Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments). Joseph Haydn, benefiting from his first aristocratic patronage, has just begun to compose symphonies. Leopold Mozart is teaching the four-year-old Wolfgang minuets on the clavichord.

The corpse going into the freezing earth is that of a young musician of 26 who, with his wife Elizabeth, had only just bought a house. His name is Anton Fils5 and he leaves behind him an astonishing body of work, not least of which are 30 concertos for flute and cello, mostly lost, and between 30 and 40 symphonies. Given this productivity why do we not know his name today? Even the name itself is dubious – it might be Antonin, or Johann Anton, or Filtz rather than Fils. Look for his Wikipedia entry and you will find little more, indeed Fils would probably be entirely forgotten were it not for poet and musician Christian Schubart, who wrote in his Deutsche Chronik that Fils had a habit of eating spiders, comparing the taste of them to that of fresh strawberries, and it is assumed that his death was a consequence of this behaviour. This singular information seems to me to be an embellishment: it isn’t difficult to imagine a group of young men, exuberant after work, drinking too much in the local inn, and it’s not a stretch to imagine young Anton grabbing a spider and eating it, or pretending to, out of high spirits. He was also, again according to Schubart, in the habit of using his scores as kindling. Given his productivity this seems quite likely, indeed he would not be the first artist to have destroyed work deemed unsatisfactory. Or maybe he was drunk, or sick from his diet of spiders.

Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart
Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart (1739-1791) Artist: August Friedrich Oelenhainz (1745-1804)

Six years earlier, fresh from studying theology and law at university, young Anton had joined the local orchestra as a humble second cellist. But this was not a band of provincial hacks, but the orchestra of the Mannheim Hofkapelle, probably the finest orchestra of the time, renowned for its excellence of musicianship and innovation of style, described by the English traveller Charles Burney (the Boswell of composers) as ‘an army of generals’. Led by Carl Stamitz, (who also died prematurely in 1757) the orchestra gave its name to such stylistic conceits as the Mannheim Rocket, the Mannheim Sigh, the Mannheim Roller, the Mannheim Birds and the Mannheim Climax (apparently ladies were wont to faint at the roar of one of these crescendos). The orchestra abandoned basso continuo, developed the symphonic form and influenced the sonata form.

Both Haydn and Mozart were critically influenced by Mannheim innovations. Indeed, the whole period of the Enlightenment was one of influence and counter-influence. Tunes, ideas, and harmonies were freely borrowed, adapted, subverted and developed without much fear of accusations of plagiarism. For that reason alone it makes as much sense to call a piece of music ‘Mozartean’ or ‘Haydnesque’, as to accuse C. P. E. Bach of being ‘Bach-like’. A testament to the quality of the Mannheim orchestra came from Mozart, who visited Mannheim in 1777/78, and met the director of the orchestra Christian Cannabich, who had been joint concertmaster at the time of Fils’ death:

I must now tell you about the music here. On Saturday, All-Saints’ day, I attended high mass. The orchestra is very good and numerous. On each side ten or eleven violins, four tenors, two hautboys, two flutes, and two clarionets, two corni, four violoncellos, four bassoons, and four double basses, besides trumpets and kettle-drums. This should give fine music …

So how good was Fils’s music? Here is Classics Today, reviewing a recording of some of Fils’ symphonies by Michi Gaigg and L’Orfeo Barockorchester:

The works in question are decidedly the labor of a minor composer, suffused as they are with rudimentary counterpoint, the barest elements of melody, lurching, clumsy dynamics, awkward unconnected phrases, foursquare use of arpeggios and scales, swelling crescendo passages that lead inexorably (and endlessly) to quotidian climaxes, and cadences that seem to start before any thematic development.

Not satisfied with this assassination, the anonymous author goes on:

… you struggle to find any true innovation or compositional influence in these works beyond Fils’ partiality to flutes… In short, think bad Haydn, or better, the source for Mozart’s “A Musical Joke”. Evidently, the composer might have thought so as well.


I certainly don’t have the technical ability to defend Fils against this onslaught. I would have described my own understanding of counterpoint as rudimentary but that position has, apparently, been taken. By comparison, let’s see what Christian Schubart (he of the spider story) wrote. I quote his excerpt on Fils in full:

Filtz belongs to the older 6 composers of the Mannheim orchestra, but his spirit and his works have long ago made him immortal. I con­sider him to be the best symphony writer who has ever lived. Pomp, sonority, powerful, all-trembling thunder and rage of the harmonic deluge, newness of ideas and turns of phrase, his matchless pomposo, his surprising andantes, his catchy minuets and trios, and finally his quick, loud, rejoicing prestos… to this hour have not been able to rob him of general admiration. [It is] too bad that this splendid mind, because of his bizarre fancy of eating spiders, withered away prematurely. His pieces today are already seldom performed because he allowed few to be engraved. Most of his compositions were stolen from him, otherwise we would have nothing at all by him. For he thought so modestly of his own works that he made kindling out of many of his most excellent works after they were performed. Generally Filtz possessed a rather special musical and physical character. He had much Britishness in his physiognomy and in his whole psychic state.

Christian Schubart Ideen zu einer Ästhetik der Tonkunst (Ideas Towards an Aesthetic of Music, 1784/85 posthumously published in 1806) English translation by Ted Alan DuBois:

Finale – Presto

Detractors will point out that Schubart wrote, or dictated, his book towards the end of a ten-year prison sentence, and that his ideas may have been more than a little influenced by the severity of his sentence. But – and this is important – Schubart was a poet and a man who lived and spoke his truth even when it landed him in trouble.7 In his appreciation of Anton Fils notice how Schubart’s language is feeling-toned, in sharp contrast to the analytical voice of the anonymous reviewer. I am drawn to Schubart’s warmth and repelled by the reviewer’s hostility.

The point of this piece is partly to celebrate the work of a minor unsung eighteenth-century composer, but it is also an urgent call for us to expand our consciousness of art. Some will argue that there is little point in valuing second-class work when there is so much first-rate work available. A simple answer is that an appreciation of the lesser enhances the enjoyment of the greater, but the complete answer is more complex.  The genius of an artist is not an individual thing, an aspirational state, a life-goal: rather it is a blessing. In his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde recounts the story of the Devonshire man who has an inexhaustible barrel of beer, a gift from the fairies. Curious to find the secret to the barrel, the man’s maid takes the cork out of the bunghole and looks inside. The barrel is full of cobwebs, and never again contains beer.

As is the case with any other circulation of gifts, the commerce of art draws each of its participants into a wider self. The creative spirit moves in a body or ego larger than that of any single person. Works of art are drawn from, and their bestowal nourishes, those parts of our being that are not entirely personal, parts that derive from nature from the group and the race, from history and tradition. and from the spiritual world. In the realized gifts of the gifted we may taste that zoë-life which shall not perish even though each of us, and each generation, shall perish.

Hyde, Lewis. The Gift. Canongate 1983 p153

Hyde explains that once we go into analytical thinking, logos thought, the gift is destroyed. For this reason, it is not useful to look too deeply into the source of genius. Genius is angelic. An individual does not own genius, it is rather that genius makes itself known through an individual. To carry genius seems to be a generally difficult thing to do, and is often associated with pain, both emotional and physical. Once the x-rays have revealed the under-painting, once the computers have modelled how to turn anything into Bach, and once the acid of criticism has burned through the technique, then the gift is destroyed. It is highly informative to consider that the undisputed master of counterpoint in the eighteenth century was Johann Georg Albrechtsburger. The path to his door must have been well worn from the feet of his many students. Yet his own work does not inspire (unless one is an enthusiast of the Jew’s Harp. The amazement and laughter that listening to this might provoke should be tempered by an understanding of the special place of the Jew’s Harp in Austrian culture).

Johann Georg Albrechtsberger
Johann Georg Albrechtsberger. Portrait by Leopold Kupelwieser [Public Domain]

There aren’t many recordings of work by Fils available to listen to freely. There is the CD by the aforementioned Barokorchester, but I recommend this recording by Concerto Koln of Fils’ Sinfonia in G minor. The first movement has a wonderful drive, and I particularly like the use of horns towards the end. The andante is rather more ordinary (although I fancy the conducting could be improved). The minuet is inventive and the finale is dramatic and moving.

Thinking with the head one might subscribe to the view of the anonymous reviewer, but thinking with the heart reveals the music of a minor genius. Yes of course Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 in G minor is a far greater work, and most of Fils’ recorded work is unremarkable (though who knows what wonders are gathering dust in libraries). The point is this: it does not diminish great composers if we also appreciate the lesser talents. With eros, you can be curious and engaged. Your open heart can sense things quite differently, you become expansive, and approach the world differently. The rewards are great.

Anton Fils. Sinfonia in G-minor. Concerto Köln. Werner Ehrhardt (conductor)

Further listening

I have reservations about this recording, not least the use of a piano rather than a harpsichord for continuo, but the symphony is one of Fils’ best works, the Symphony in A-Major (L’Orfeo Barockorchester, Conductor: Michi Gaigg).

École secondaire Joseph-François-Perrault is a Canadian secondary school with a music programme. Despite lacking experience and maturity, this youthful orchestra delivers an excellent performance of the Symphony in C Major Op2, No 2. Note that this is not the C-Major symphony that is played on the L’Orfeo Barockorchester CD above, and I fear that it has been titled incorrectly.

If you have enjoyed this article, here’s my piece about the much-maligned classical composer and travelling virtuoso extraordinaire. Daniel Steibelt.

Out of your head: depression and ecstasy

It is time to write once more about the thing I am forced to describe as ‘depression’. I have written about aspects of depression before. The first piece examined the medieval metaphor of Saturn and the slowing and distance of depression. It suggested that to see through depression we need to honour it, not attack it. Another piece concerned suicide explicitly, exploring nature and a sense of place as aids to survival. In this third article, building on the first two pieces, I examine the absence of ecstasy and how this lack of ecstatic experience is leading to widespread depression, which in turn is leading to our destruction of this planet.

Bournemouth beach
Bournemouth beach

Any discussion of depression and medication has become more sensitive since the appearance of ‘pill shaming’, and the understandable response of those who feel their acceptance of medication is being criticised, or who believe that their symptoms are being marginalised. Although this piece is critical of medication, I do not mean to add to that shame, especially since I took medication myself for over twenty years (and I doubt that I would be here without it). However, the sheer scale of medication worldwide, and that of deaths from addiction, strongly suggests a desperate need for more radical action than any currently available.

The Industry of Despair

In the globalised hospitalisation of the soul, Existential Dread shares a ward with Melancholia, rubs shoulders with Bitter Disappointment, collects a paltry lunch tray with Trauma and sits waiting for the therapist beside Bereavement and Shame. Those with money can sometimes divert these dismal characters, but without – then they are inclined to wander the identical lifeless corridors of market culture with increasing noise and desperation.

A search for ‘depression’ online offers the following trifecta of the flat season:

  • Sadness and lack of enjoyment (emotional)
  • Tiredness and headaches (physical)
  • Indecisiveness and difficulty problem solving (cognitive)

These ‘symptoms’ come courtesy of the website, a vehicle of the Danish pharmaceutical company H. Lundbeck A/S. This is the company that until recently supplied US prisons with pentobarbital, one of the ingredients of the ‘cocktail’ of drugs used in lethal injections. In 2013 the EC fined Lundbeck €93.8m for hindering the market release of cheaper generic versions of Lundbeck’s SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) Citalopram by offering competing companies kickbacks. Their list is simplistic and unhelpful. Sadness, tiredness and slow thinking are all felt in the body. Birdsong, once joyful, becomes plaintive and melancholy. Lifting an arm is Sisyphean. Waves of lassitude break like oil on dark beaches of despair.

But still, Lundbeck wants you to believe that it can help you, and tells you that you are strong to reach out for help from the GP who will push its pills on you. Lundbeck offers only the binary opposition of ‘depression and wellbeing’ and warns against the ‘slippery slope of relapse’ as if depression is either addiction, moral failure, or worse. This company, and others like it, seek to create causes that can be ‘treated’ reductively with drugs. The consequence, as James Hillman pointed out in The Souls’ Code, is drugged behaviour.

Even the UK charity MIND can only arrive at two possible ‘treatments’ (note again the connection to illness and disease): medication (they supply a list of possibilities) and talking therapy. It’s important to acknowledge that many people say that they have been helped by medication – the combination of therapy and medication seems particularly popular. Is this because medicine often works as a placebo, or that people are sometimes so frightened and economically challenged by their ‘depression’ that they desperately need the pills to work? There are people who owe their lives to the sedation of antipsychotics, but others so insulated with Lithium that they barely exist. There is a cogent argument for sedation in chronic cases, for when the world is screaming at you and all you want is death, then some form of peace – even the drugged variety – is welcome.

Unfortunately, the idea that ‘low Serotonin’ causes depression is false. It has not been empirically demonstrated that Serotonin has anything to do with depression, nor does anyone know how SSRIs work (allowing that they do, which I don’t) – and there is evidence that they are actually harmful. In my own experience of depression, I have no doubt whatsoever that it is a response in the body to factors outside it, but the target of medication, my poor brain, is as indivisible a part of my body as my heart, my stomach or my skin.

Kota Garut, Indonesia - a landscape of depression
Photo by Dikaseva on Unsplash

This culture of opposites regularly demotes the brain to a computational device on the one hand and elevates it to a God on the other. The brain is split out of the body and rendered doubly schizoid – it is simultaneously an advanced (and error-prone) calculator and the root of all wisdom. But wisdom, like the soul, is found outside the body in the world, of which the body is a part. Depression is a response to fear without fight, repetition without ritual, and work without worth. It is a response to the deep disconnection that happens when intuitive response meets the plastic empathy of the powerful, and when the intelligence of one’s own body is held captive in a cognitive straitjacket. Extrovert competitiveness has become socially normative – yet conformity within that frame is crucial.

My heart quails to meet the kind of person our psychopathic culture breeds: the android behavioural therapist, sans compassion, sans soul; the beery jerk whose booming voice dominates a room; the entitled oaf whose paltry patronage is sometimes the only way to survive in work. My eyes scrunch up against the flicker of strip lighting, the cracked littered earth of the park, the itchy grey dust of verminous pigeons, and the hideous architecture of inward investment. A non-stop roar of traffic assaults my ears, while I am assailed by the chipper blandishments of telephone marketeers and the dismal whine of air conditioning. My stomach heaves at the stink of lunches eaten at the desk, the rancid fats of battery food and the fug of exhaust. My skin prickles with the sting of coloured gloop that passes for washing liquid, and I jump at the sharp shock and blue crack of acrylic carpet and escalator.

Experience has become customer experience – reduced to cost per click. An impression is never a liminal sensory response but merely a numerical function of advertising reach. I am not alone in feeling these things.

Work and shame

Leeds, UK - urban depression
Photo by Alissa Eady on Unsplash

The government and its useful fools say that if you are well enough to look after your depression then you are well enough to work. In surgeries around the country, GPs tell patients that they are better served by being on Jobseekers Allowance, colluding with the government myth that work cures all. Qualified Health Professionals (government-speak for minimally trained clinicians) deem the company of one’s passive-aggressive co-workers better than the ‘isolation’ of being ill at home. The possibility of beginning a different life with new work and different friends is a concept alien to the state. It is deaf to the notion that depression is necessary to life, that it allows the individual the time to draw together the threads, to consider the future, to make gentle inroads into expression. Along with the ‘epidemics’ of opioid and alcohol abuse, the levels of depression and anxiety in the world are good arguments for Universal Basic Income.

The hierarchy dreads the idea of people being creative or working fewer hours. The prevailing ideology supports ‘hard work’ until retirement and then (following a period of active consumption that keeps hotels, cruise ships and garden centres in business) a quick illness-free death. It is an ideology that most people have swallowed hook, line and sinker.

The Titan called ‘the Market’ must have access to a pliable grateful workforce that will ‘produce’ the toxic rubbish that the Market needs to survive. But, through the innovation of the gig economy, the Market has created the conditions of its own death. The old-fashioned manipulative and puritanical view of work at least offered security and structure. But now the Market holds work in contempt while simultaneously trying to make it mandatory. One only has to witness the anger constellated in reactionary groups at any mention of UBI to understand how immanent it has become. Sadly, the prevailing ideology is as dangerous and as difficult to remove as a tick in the skin, and the likely reality of UBI would not mean freedom from poverty, but rather Universal Credit by another name. As this article explains, the ‘social position of the boss would be undermined’ by any truly radical thinking. Yet the use of industrial robots is growing at around 16% every year.

For now, the population is mostly quiescent, in thrall to consumption and debt. But linked to capitalism is shame. The puritan ideology of work makes it shameful to be unemployed, and the policy of destroying the poor through the withdrawal and reduction of ‘benefits’ is one aspect of this narrative of shame controlled by the media. But capitalism has a secret introvert shame of itself that it cannot bear, hence it projects its own shame onto anyone at the margins of its influence.

It serves capitalism very well to have an underclass. The threat of poverty is used as a threat to the young, and workers of any age. It also – conveniently –  holds, and dies with, the shame of the rich. Every year some new scandal breaks, in which politicians and media luminaries are discovered indulging in drugs, sex, hypocrisy, violence and bigotry. Strangely, people continue to express shock and outrage. Scapegoats are sent into the wilderness for a while, then there is business as usual.

When the magic field of projection weakens and it becomes possible to glimpse the reality of the natural world, then elements start to stir in protest. This is the point at which laws become more draconian and police forces start to become more aggressive. Simultaneously, embattled powers raise fears of job loss and immigration. Humans long for the intimacy of company but simultaneously fear its threatening otherness. It is easy to manipulate and widen such a chronic split.

Voices of the dead

When I was a young man I suffered from the most terrifying and debilitating symptoms – symptoms that were later rolled up and flattened into the inconsequential sounding ‘panic attack’. After a preliminary period (during which I was either ignored, blamed or prescribed SSRIs and anti-psychotics) I survived for the next twenty years on a daily diet of Diazepam (Valium), its big brother Lorazepam, the beta blocker Propranolol, and occasional further dalliances with Citalopram, Paroxetine and Fluoxetine. Throughout this period, I also heavily self-medicated with alcohol and nicotine. And I was intensely relieved to have my pills because they enabled me to half function in a highly stressful and inimical work environment.

Who is to say how I got that way? There are things I can identify easily: the dysfunction of my family; lack of love; emotional and physical abuse. I also suspect genetic sensitivity, a predisposition to anxiety, and trans-generational trauma. Perhaps even the ten years of my childhood spent living next to an electricity sub-station. I also identify with that wound that has been inflicted by the dramatic reduction in biodiversity. The important thing is that not one person, not doctor, friend or relation, ever took my hands, looked through my drugged behaviour and said: “You have met the great god Pan, he has sent you this fear as a message, and I can help you understand its meaning.” Nor was I aware, in my excessive drinking and habitual use of opiate substitutes, that I was in the archetypal realm of Dionysus.

It would have taken more, of course. I would not have listened because I was too frightened and angry. Which one of us honestly wants to hear that everything we believe about the world is suspect at best, fundamentally wrong at worst? Which politician, on record with a hundred strident speeches and a thousand platitudinous sound bites can turn on a sixpence and say, “I was wrong, I’m sorry I lied”. Could the Conservative Party say “We’re sorry about austerity, the thousands who killed themselves needlessly because they had no support, no money – we can’t change that but we can start again, with care, with love, with respect”?

I don’t panic as much now, even when things are awful – though fear, anxiety, and depression have formed a poisonous skein running through my life to this day. But the world itself is suffering a panic attack. Trump, a grotesque orange baby-titan, thumps across the planet threatening, roaring and destroying, the puppet of an out-of-control military-industrial elite. The underlying similarity of the main political parties in the West goes barely challenged. Education has been reduced to intellectual parroting, and so-called knowledge itself is heavily biased to a white middle-class male perspective. Climate change, included and then removed from curricula, is a hostage to power rather than the single most critical issue in the history of our species (not to mention the history of countless others).

In the US, at war with drugs, and with the highest rate of incarceration in the world, there is an epidemic of opioid abuse. There is now so much money spent on lobbying that the manufacturers and pushers have even been able to render the DEA powerless. In the UK, austerity is driving a record number of children into ‘care’. It is difficult to reflect on the state of the world without concluding that something is driving people quite insane. It is the revenge of Dionysus: mad god, vegetable god, twice-born god, immigrant god, the god of sexual ambiguity. Dionysus: the irrational, the inebriate, the ecstatic, the blessing, the curse. He represents everything that our culture fears and holds in contempt.

Dismembered by Titans

Dionysus the Liberator was born of the lust of his father Zeus for the mortal woman Semele. Enraged and jealous, Hera lured Dionysus with toys. When he was sufficiently distracted, furious Titans came from the Underworld and tore the child into seven pieces that they first boiled, then roasted on seven spits and ate. But they neglected the heart, which Zeus retrieved and sewed into his thigh so that Dionysus could be born again.

The story of Dionysus, one of the most potent of ancient myths, offers the optimistic hope of rebirth after catastrophic death. And how poignantly relevant to our times! We are like infants ourselves distracted by toys. Jealous Hera gave Dionysus dice, a ball, a spinning top, golden apples, a bullroarer and wool. When the Titans came for him, their furious faces disguised with chalk, Dionysus was looking at himself in a mirror, enchanted with his soul image. It seems that our sensate and intuitive selves become easily obsessed with toys, ever more self-regarding, and incapable of seeing through the disguise of the Titans.

Dionysus and Satyrs
Dionysus and two Satyrs. Brygos Painter [GFDL, CC BY-SA 3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5] via Wikimedia Commons

The orgiastic worship of the reborn Dionysus gave birth to drama, particularly Tragedy. But it seems Carl Jung was right when he wrote that the gods have returned to us in our diseases. When the Romans corrupted the psychology of Dionysus (making him jolly old Bacchus, a leering boozer surrounded by tumescent satyrs and simpering nymphs), they turned archetype into stereotype. The consequence is that the Greek concept of pathos – meaning emotion – has gone missing from pathology. Instead, emotion has become a disease. In an extraordinarily retrograde move, the World Health Organisation describes depression as ‘the leading cause of disability worldwide, and […] a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease.’ At a time when even mainstream psychology is moving away from diagnosis, it is an unfortunate conclusion at best.

What images come to mind in relation to the word ‘drugs’? One might go first to the substances that create an ecstatic and entranced state of being – the illegal drugs – bringers of torture, mutilation and countless violent deaths. Then the legal variety: the dampeners, the flatteners, Mother’s little helper, the drugs that make pharmaceutical companies rich. Third, the panoply of semi-legal uppers and downers: alcohol, nicotine, ‘legal highs’, khat and marijuana. Perhaps the hidden drugs: shopping, sport, sex, religion, social media likes.

If you’re not on one drug, it’s likely you’re on another. Perhaps all of them. Few would credit the number of people who regularly use drugs. That nice friendly guy in the office? Smokes weed most evenings. That live wire boss of yours, who is always on the go? Cocaine addict. We actively defend against any depressive feeling just to survive. The addict and the depressive unwillingly hold feeling for the culture. We can witness the evidence of this every hour in social media. Trolling and outright nastiness are symptoms of unexpressed feeling – fear, grief, vulnerability.

In the US, the ‘war on drugs’ is a convenient euphemism for both imperialist regime change and the civil war that the US is conducting against its own black and Hispanic citizens.  At another level, it is a war against Dionysus, a fundamentalist assault on ecstatic being. Addiction is a spiritual emergency. The ‘acting out’ as Jay Griffiths says in her book Tristimania, is ‘a way of literalising a profoundly metaphoric experience’. She also elects to call the madness of which she writes ‘manic depression’ rather than ‘bipolar disorder’. Precisely.

For mystics in the Christian tradition, the peak experience took the form of a light coming out of a void, an illumination or revelation, the result of a very one-sided attitude. Some scholars have called this attitude the antithesis of God; through ascesis, the mystic was able to wait until the visio Dei appeared. The Dionysiac adept, in contrast, seems to fall into a sudden possession by the god; it was an emotional experience that happened in the body.

Lopez-Pedraza, Rafael. Dionysus in exile. Chiron Publications, 2000

The Christian mystic would take the ‘spiritual bypass’ by starving himself into a hallucinatory state. Nowadays the modern psychotherapist takes the place of God, colluding with the patient’s need to make an epiphanic self-discovery. For who can afford (at £75 for fifty minutes) the slow moist incubation of Dionysus, the emotional expression that is the counterpart of the cold depression of Saturn? We humans need ecstatic experiences of one kind or another. The woman who froths at the mouth about ‘drug addicts’ will fix her feelings with binge drink, shop until she drops, then collapse in bed, sated with four hours of Netflix and chocolate. So long as she can go to work and pay tax, that’s just fine.

Then there are the value judgments found in addiction itself. The heroin user will often consider the alcoholic to be a lesser species, weak-willed rather than a true hardcore addict because the heroin user is more likely to be breaking the law to get his gear than the alcoholic. Similarly, the alcoholic will look askance at the cocaine user. All this literal thinking obscures the nature of Dionysian being, and how essential it is to healthy human existence.

The philosopher Heraclitus, who wrote of the unity of opposites, revealed the mystery of Dionysus in a fragment (there is also wordplay in the original that does not translate):

If it were not Dionysus for whom they march in procession and chant the hymn to the phallus, their action would be most shameless. But Hades and Dionysus are the same, him for whom they rave and celebrate Lenaia.”

This syzygy between two such opposite archetypes becomes apparent if we consider the ‘death’ of the addict to the world, the ‘rock-bottom’ of the 12-step fellowships, the ‘death-in-life’ of chronic depression, and la petite mort, the loss of full consciousness after orgasm, or after some particularly traumatic event. One of Dionysus’ many surnames was Chthonios, the subterranean, and Hades became known as Ploutodótēs, the wealth-giver. There are literal interpretations of these names, but the psychological connection belongs to the rich world of the soul. Death is held in as much contempt today as ecstasy (compare our modern cults of childhood and youth, and our treatment of the elderly, to see the truth of this).

The New Reformation

Prior to the G20 meeting of governments and bankers in July 2017, hundreds of ‘zombies’ appeared in Hamburg, shuffling together until one shook off her grey clay caked clothes to reveal the colourful person beneath. The group 1000 Gestalten wanted to show how rigid thinking makes zombies of us all, that it can be cast off to reveal the colourful multiplicity beneath.

Dancing Maenad
Dancing Maenad. Detail from an Ancient Greek Paestum red-figure skyphos, made by Python, ca. 330-320 BC. British Museum, London
[GFDL, CC BY-SA 3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5] via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most insidious mind-fucks of our time is found in the correctness of speech. We are ‘clients’ or ‘customers’ at the Job Centre. When a ‘client’ is sanctioned for some trivial failure, and her ‘benefits’ withdrawn, she can rest easy knowing that she has been treated fairly according to a mealy-mouthed charter. The men and women who kill themselves after being found ‘fit for work’ are unfortunate statistics, but the government has done everything correctly. Victims are regrettable. The choice is illusory.

Systems men created the order required for ‘blameless wholesome lives’, idiotic pap that resembles the indoctrination of a Sunday School preparing a child for a life of unwitting dedication, not to the Abrahamic god, but the financial betterment of others. Systems men (those that made, as Hillman noted, the gulag and KZ Lager possible) fear diversity more than anything else.

It is interesting to note the ways in which the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century prefigured the modern systems thinking that I associate with neoliberalism. The Reformation was a response to the corruption of the Catholic Church, the selling of indulgences, and the cults of the saints. It is not much of a stretch to see the modern equivalent in the reaction against the ‘elite’ technocrats of the EU and Washington. In both cases, the weapon is modern technology. In the fifteenth century, the invention of movable type began a revolution of literacy. This article claims that, within thirteen years, reformers had circulated ten million publications.

In the twentieth century, the invention of the internet brought the possibility of unlimited learning and information to the individual. But the reality was different in both cases. Just as the leaders of the Reformation used the press to print propaganda, so neoliberals have manipulated social media. The Protestant Reformation believed in the predestination of divine grace. God, they argued, had already decided who would be saved, and who not. Therefore, it did not matter if one performed good works in life or not, since the only requirement was faith in Jesus Christ. Even if one slipped away from this faith there would be a divine chastening to bring the appointed back into the fold. Since no one knew if they were predestined or not, hard work and frugality became the visible signs of the elect, in contrast to the Catholic focus on confession and sacrament.

It is easy to see how the Reformation was inspirational to European peasantry, offering an end to superstition, and good riddance to wealthy powerful priests – or so they believed. It would be simplistic to replace, for instance, ‘Reformer’ with ‘Brexiteer’, but there are similarities. In both cases, there is a genuine move towards democracy, away from powerful and unaccountable forces. Both favour market forces. Both believe in frugality (though now we know it as austerity). But, certain that the die had already been cast, Reformers had permission to behave as awfully as they liked. The Church of Neoliberalism does not need to play theological games, but it does require unwavering belief in its unitary God, the Market.

To oppose the Market is to declare oneself a heretic, a saboteur, and to become apostate. In ditching Catholicism, the Reformers lost not only the plurality of the saints, but also the medieval delight in carnival and revelry. Most of the world has accepted some form of the Protestant ethic. In Spain, there have been moves to ban the siesta. The reason given is that it is problematic for Spain to work different hours to the rest of Europe. The real reason is lies in the creeping tide of spiritual austerity. Note that Christmas and Thanksgiving have extended seasons. In the UK, the risible festival of Guy Fawkes now lasts for weeks. Rather than happening for one night, the bangs and hisses of fireworks last for weeks either side of the day itself, terrorising pets and wildlife. I see in this behaviour the unconscious need for ecstasy.

Nature and ecstasy

I am critical of pundits paid for describing failure alone, rather than offering any answers. It is the journalistic equivalent of the terrible failure of psychotherapy to offer rescue when it is needed. While there is wisdom in the via negativa, this is a time to imaginatively construct alternatives. At some level, the state knows that poverty and depression destroy this capacity. Just as the soulless culture of power reduces our human agency, and turns us into ‘clients’, with all the dependency that the word implies, it also creates depression. It becomes difficult to think for oneself and easy to believe the propaganda. Because I see the ways in which my agency has been reduced, I can at least see through this flattening effect. Many cannot, or are unwilling to take the red pill, preferring to believe the easy myths and ‘statistics’.

So what is to be done? When psychotherapists refuse to ‘rescue’ a patient, the excuse offered is that he will be better off finding his own power. That might work well when someone is open to exploration. At other times it is indefensible. In the name of the tired clichés of ‘boundaries’, therapists take great power and then abdicate responsibility for that power. Faced with a patient on the edge, some will say that the proper course of action is a referral. Woe betide the counsellor who tries to engage with a ‘serious mental health problem’. The reason for this reluctance is not, in my view, based on any particular principles, but rather the fear of expulsion from the professional bodies – organisations whose response to the spectre of state regulation is to become even more regulatory.

Many authors write that the answer lies in a renewal of our connection with nature – I’ve said the same myself. But caution is needed with nature. Jay Griffiths says this:

The sheer goodness of nature for the sick psyche is incomparable; there in green one is not judged, one is accepted, with consolation and company. Nature gives you the exalted, tender ordinary – as of right”

Griffiths, Jay. Tristimania. Penguin Books, 2017

I cannot entirely agree. Nature does not automatically give (which is the consumerist expectation) but must be asked. Because nature loves to hide, one has to be well enough to be open to what might be revealed. Even then, nature can expel us from a sense of place, as the conservationist Matthew Oates expresses perfectly in his book In Pursuit of Butterflies. Indeed, forgetting place is one of the first signs of Alzheimer’s.

Pentheus being torn by Maenads.
Pentheus being torn by Maenads. Roman fresco from the Casa dei Vettii in Pompeii [via Wikimedia Commons]

Too much woo? We are still obsessed with the rational. Twenty years ago Candace Pert (who discovered the brain’s opiate receptor) described how consciousness operates at a cellular level, and how white blood cells are like ‘bits of the brain floating around the body’ (forget your brain, your body doesn’t lie). In 2014 John O’Keefe, and Edvard and May-Britt Moser discovered ‘place cells’ – neurons that respond to particular places. It seems likely that neuroscience is just beginning to understand our complex and subtle responses to the world, and that in doing so it may begin to uncover the response of the world to us. 

In this piece profiling the work of neuroscientist Matthew Walker, poor sleep is linked to early death and dementia. There’s a lot to like here, for example Walker holds that dreams cannot be analysed, and he suggests that poor sleep is linked with shame in the developed world. To benefit from sleep we should keep regular hours, avoid stimulants, switch off electronic devices. The problem with all this good advice is that many of us are rendered sleepless by the mad tyranny that has overtaken the world (according to the American Psychological Association, nearly two thirds of Americans admit to being stressed about the future of the nation).

At night the lorries full of plastic shit that roar down the road outside my bedroom keep me awake. Donald Trump keeps me awake. So does institutional violence and climate change. The way things are going, the sensitive people of the world will die out, leaving the rational and violent alphas to kill themselves in total war – assuming the planet hasn’t done the job already. Nature cannot be expected to solve our problems for us. Most people have lost their connection so profoundly that it may never return, and it is unreasonable to expect the urban poor to go on frequent trips into the country. Nor does the contemplation of a dandelion in the gutter give as much joy as the nature writers would have us believe.

But ecstasy must be expressed. In his late play The Bacchae, the Greek tragedian Euripides tells the story of a Trump figure, Pentheus, who bans the worship of Dionysus – in other words he tries to ban the irrational. In revenge, Dionysus sends Pentheus’ mother and aunts away in a mad bacchic frenzy. Then he persuades Pentheus to dress as a woman (hair just so, dress falling nicely, standing in the right way) so that Pentheus can spy on (what he believes will be) an orgy. But Pentheus’ mother Agave discovers him and, believing him to be an animal, tears him to pieces, limb from limb, just as Dionysus was pulled apart by the Titans as a child. Whether this practice of Sparagmos happened or not, it can be read figuratively. Titanic behaviour will be mirrored. The angriest and most masculine of kings will repress his sexuality.

The future of ecstasy

Many people believe that humankind will save itself through interplanetary colonisation. Not content with his hyperbolic dreams of a Mars colony, Elon Musk has started The Boring Company. Not, as one might imagine, a company that produces analytics of actuarial rates, but one dedicated to developing high speed drilling. Both fantasies completely miss hitting the psychological pay dirt. The colony, the outpost, is the start of doing things differently. Drilling and tunnelling is the work required to develop the outpost, but not in the literal sense. Musk, by literalising the concept of colonisation and tunnelling has, like Trump, become a Titan.

The mind-boggling cost of interplanetary travel, not to mention the Brobdingnagian quantity of resources required, make it obvious to all but the most obsessed that it is not a project likely to get off the ground. Rather than amongst the stars, our future lies on the ground and under the sea. It is in the depths of psychological death to an outworn style of being, the acceptance of difference, and the embrace of the passionate. If space opera and science fiction teaches anything, it is that nemesis follows hubris, as in the ancestral science fiction tale of Daedalus and Icarus. In this narcissistic era, it is popular to commend Icarus for his attempt to reach the sun, missing the point of the story.

The spaceships of television and film started as fantasies of clean glittering asepsis, like the USS Enterprise of Star Trek fame. Each episode seemed to be a battle to restore order, as pristine asepsis was routinely compromised by tribbles, hostile aliens, or any number of virulent infestations. When the fantasy became conscious, septic starships started to appear – such as the Nostromo in the film Alien. With sepsis also comes conscious sexual intrusion and – sometimes more terrifying than any monster – ambivalence.

As a boy, I dreamed of turning an old wardrobe into a Tardis. I would be able to lock myself safely in the darkness, turn on my flickering screens, and navigate to a better place. In my fantasy, I had the safe dark womb that was missing in the real world, and I had the power. It is no accident that the consulting room of the therapist is a womb-like chamber, a place that should expect and welcome intrusion, but which all too often rejects it – the unwelcome expression promptly ejected through the airlock. The psychodynamic tradition of psychotherapy also prefers an aseptic chamber, ostensibly to remove the possibility of unhelpful projection, displacement and deflection. I can barely think of a method that annoys me more, except manualised CBT.

It might be revealing to analyse the content of space operas and post-apocalyptic video games for varieties of intrusion. I have a fancy that most are organic in origin, inherited from the chthonic fears of the Age of Enlightenment. Might the sexually inquisitive tendrils and tentacles of space opera reflect a terrible fear of nature’s abundance, a loathing of messy fecundity?

The principles of Permaculture invite benign chaos. A vegetable bed overflows with squash, beans, tomatoes, basil, marigolds, and rocket. Another bed heaves with kale, chard, radish, beetroot, nasturtiums, carrots and parsnips. The plants spill over one another in a glorious mess of leaves, flowers and fruit. Humans sow and harvest. Toads and ducks patrol for slugs. Birds snatch caterpillars. Bees and flies pollinate. Everything is in relation to everything else. This isn’t ‘balance’ or ‘competition’ – it’s riot, free association, cornucopia. There are losses, there are gains.

Andrew Marvell’s famous fifth stanza from ‘A Garden’ is supposedly an Edenic fantasy, the use of ‘insnared’ and ‘fall’ a dark reminder of the biblical fall. Perhaps – but this most sensuous of verses might be the anthem for the permaculture movement.

What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
The nectarine, and curious peach,
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flow’rs, I fall on grass.

Kudzu covered field near Port Gibson, Mississippi, USA
Kudzu covered field near Port Gibson, Mississippi, USA Gsmith [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

‘Invasive’ plants, such as Himalayan balsam, Japanese knotweed and the Kudzu vine pictured here, are plants that humans have cultivated away from their origins, so they have no natural predation. Ashamed of ourselves, we brand them ‘noxious weeds’, when they are doing nothing except expressing themselves fully. I wonder if the beginning to the problem of ecstasy is an understanding of expression in all its forms. I have written before about the idea of an Imaginarium on every high street, a place with rooms to craft, dance, shout, cry, and sit.

A world defined by its qualities, and perceived as having qualities, requires the same richness of its observers. Like knows like. If the world is a messy many, then the definition of consciousness follows one proposed early in the twentieth century by the French philosopher Henri Bergson: “qualitative multiplicity.”

We would conceive of consciousness to be as multitudinous as the world, a microcosm of the macrocosm: as without, so within.
Rather than made in the image of a single transcendent God, we would imagine ourselves made like the multiple images of the world.”

Hillman, James. The Force of Character. Random House, 1999

There are some who see the rise of depression as a consequence of individualism and the market culture. I don’t entirely agree. The rise of group think is worse. If people were truly held in a community they would feel empowered to be creative, and not to be in thrall to the censure of group think.

Ecstatic vision

I have done what I can to provide an introduction, a middle and a conclusion to this piece, but it is too long and at times I probably ramble. Form and structure do not come easily to me: they are in some ways the antithesis of ecstasy. I find, in my depressed way, that I struggle daily with the expected methods of expression.  The word ‘ramble’ comes, perhaps, from the word romen, “to walk, go”. But there is an association with the Dutch word rammen, meaning to copulate, “used of the night wanderings of the amorous cat”. I cannot think of a more apt reversal of a modern meaning.

The war against ecstasy is not only a consequence of our rupture from nature. It is the product of inflated rationalism. The feast of the Great Dionysia was open to all. I would like to think that, one day soon, we will recover the lost truth, because to take back ecstasy is to throw open the windows on the first day of Spring, to hear the birds afresh, to feel the chill receding in the warmth of the new sun. It is to welcome the true world.

Waves – a journey into the quantum nature of being

Not everything is terrible. Spring flowers and shoots may not be completely cruel, a stranger is sometimes kind, and waves break on countless shores. Ah yes, the waves. Why is it that angry vicious heads cannot hear the teaching of the waves? I wonder if the regular pulse in the sea, the heartbeat of breakers, reminds some people uncomfortably of the amniotic space.  

Waves breaking - Hayling Island © Martin Southwood
Waves breaking – Hayling Island

The patterns of the surf have similarity but each meeting is unique. Perhaps the only other place in the entirety of the solar system to have wind-driven waves is Titan, a moon of Saturn. There, under a dense smog of organic nitrogen, waves of liquid methane break unseen on a sooty sand of ammonium sulphate and water ice.

Wave hello

This is the first message: everything has a pulse, not just the hearts of animals. Plants not only have a circadian cycle, but also a ‘pulse’ that links phloem to transpiration. This is something like the way a sponge is soaked then squeezed dry. Then there are unique and curious waves. Some bees use a resonant vibration of their wing muscles to dislodge the pollen of particular plants.

Waves happen in light and there are waves in gravity. Everything in the universe oscillates. It is only inside a black hole that matter and time are supposed to break down, though even this point of ‘singularity’ is in doubt. Theories of quantum gravity suggest that black holes are portals to other universes and that a signal entering a black hole would leak into another part of the universe, or another universe altogether.1

The waves mirror our own rhythms, just as they mirror those of anything else in the universe. To stand and watch the billows – or to be in them, caught surprised and rendered breathless by the hard force of a big wave, or lulled by a gentle rise and fall – is to become close to an embodied understanding of the power of the universe. What is this power? It is the Tao, a power probably more irreducibly complex and astounding than we will ever comprehend. Perhaps this is the reason for the seemingly unstoppable horror of human existence. Small minds recoil from the immensity, the 96% of the universe that consists of dark matter and energy. Limited humans are afraid of greater than human power. We constantly seek constantly to diminish it, to reduce it to a level lower than human. We need to dominate and control the incomprehensible. Death, to this unfortunate state of mind, brings even greater terror.

Faces in things

It is possible that Carl Jung’s theory of Synchronicity, examples of which have long been criticised as confirmation bias and pattern detection, is related to quantum entanglement. The visual form of  ‘pattern detection’ is called pareidolia – it includes the seeing of faces in things. Here’s a pair of old jeans hanging over a chair in which I saw a face.

Pareidolia - a face in a pair of jeans © Martin Southwood
Pareidolia – a face in a pair of jeans

Google developed the neural network DeepDream to find and enhance patterns in images via algorithmic pareidolia. Here’s an image of Chichester Harbour and the same image processed through DeepDream. I did this myself, selecting a few settings at random. Even though the neural network has been programmed to find animals over a number of iterations, the appearance of the ‘dream’ bird and the other creatures is extraordinary. They suggest hallucinatory ghost presences on the flat tidal landscape. We remember that there was a time, not long ago, when these tidal flats would have been alive with many more creatures than at present.

Chichester Harbour
Low Tide in Chichester Harbour
Chichester Harbour processed by DeepDream
Chichester Harbour processed by DeepDream

The images produced by DeepDream have been compared to acid trips or hallucinations rather than dreams. The late neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote of the secret shame of hallucination:

In other cultures, hallucinations have been regarded as gifts from the gods or the Muses, but in modern times they seem to carry an ominous significance in the public (and also the medical) mind, as portents of severe mental or neurological disorders. Having hallucinations is a fearful secret for many people — millions of people — never to be mentioned, hardly to be acknowledged to oneself, and yet far from uncommon.’

Sacks, Oliver. New York Times, 2012

Who among us has not experienced the hypnagogic (the state immediately before falling asleep) or hypnopompic (the state just before waking) hallucinations that Sacks describes? I know I have, and frequently. Perhaps those who do not hallucinate, or who deny it, refuse to accept that there are other mysteries. In pattern seeking, I wonder if we are looking for the consistencies that bond us to the universe? By locating a figure in a rocky outcrop, or a face in a pair of jeans flung across the back of a chair, perhaps we are seeing something that logic currently dismisses.

Quantum of solace

Quantum entanglement holds that an electron exists in an oscillating wave form. Strangely, measurement collapses the wave-function and creates a fixed state. According to Francois Martin, (Laboratory of Theoretical Physics at the University of Paris) and Federico Carminati (a physicist at CERN), it is possible that consciousness collapses the wave function of the unconscious mind. According to a piece in Epoch Times, rather than our conventional understanding of a binary system of bits, which can take only two values: 0 or 1, a quantum bit (or qubit) can take the values 0 and 1 at the same time. This is reflective of ancient thinking. It also reflects modern depth psychology, which seeks to alter perception from the oppositional binary (good or bad) into the simultaneous (good and bad).

To truly embody non-binary thinking would be revolutionary, but for the revolution to be significant it needs to extend from the individual to the cultural. If the unconscious is collapsed by consciousness (think of how difficult it is to remember dreams, and the importance of dreaming in psychoanalysis) then this explains the fundamental importance of connecting to the unconscious. That connection comes about in many ways: through dreaming, creativity, meditation, nature, the erotic, and a strong sense of otherness. It is unsurprising that dictators are quick to attack the paths into the unconscious.

A wave crashes – it can be measured, its forces understood. But this literalises the extraordinary. It robs us of the contemplative and the imaginative and changes the wave to something quotidian and predictable.

Martin and Carminati also write:

As an end let us mention a quantum effect that can have important consequences in mental phenomena, for example for awareness (for the emergence of consciousness). It is the Bose-Einstein condensation, in which each particle loses its individuality in favor of a collective, global behavior.”

Here is a visualisation of the Bose-Einstein condensate. I find it strangely moving – it says something to me of what needs to happen now in human development, the slowing down that precipitates a new way of being. I do not see this as some amorphous bonding that reduces all individual thought to the hive mind, but the progression of ego to the Jungian Self, the ‘individuated’ unification of conscious and unconscious. Yet individuation is a holistic fantasy that makes such a permanent unification highly suspect, and the wrong type of unification leads to disaster – the chilling effects of fascism and racism. The visualisation appears to show the apparently random motion of individuals suddenly becoming community.


Pareidolia? Perhaps. But quantum superposition, such as the double-slit experiment (in which photons behave both as particles and waves, but cannot be observed as both at the same time) and the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat (whereby a cat in a box may be both dead and alive simultaneously) are suggestive of another truth, that the world of Aristotelian, Cartesian and Newtonian logic is itself pareidolic.


Wave goodbye

At the weekend I stood on a beach and watched the waves break on shingle. The surf made pools of white lace that hissed as the spume was sucked through wet stones. Those grey waves, cresting and falling, roaring, were hypnotic. Push forward, break, retreat with a sigh, push forward shouting, break catastrophically… and gulls flew as though torn from the racing sky.

As I stood at the edge of the combers, playing with the prospect of soaked shoes and socks, I played too with the idea of walking into the sea. This was a fantasy without struggling flailing terror. There was no aching chest and bursting heart. Instead, a very quiet watery oblivion, a passing into the depths.

Water is the special element of reverie, the element of reflective images and their ceaseless, ungraspable flow. Moistening in dreams refers to the soul’s delight in death, its delight in sinking away from literalized concerns.”

Hillman, James. The Dream and the Underworld. HarperPerennial, 1979

The waves crush. The waves tickle the toes. In Chichester they hardly exist – the sea creeps in like a dark colloid and slinks away. Elsewhere, the waves make themselves known with terrible force. So with our dreams and what we describe as our madness.2

The second message is that the waves belong to dreams and death, the waves of the unconscious. Waves (in the form of vibrations and electromagnetic fields) fuel speculations that are generally dismissed as quackery. Bt it seems likely that at least some of this pseudoscience will be validated by quantum physics, just as some psychological theories have been validated by neuroscience.

Carl Jung developed his ideas of the Archetypes almost a hundred years ago, writing that they “constitute a common psychic substrate of a suprapersonal nature which is present in every one of us”. The neuroanthropologist Charles Laughlin attempts to integrate Jung’s framework (criticised as unscientific, mystical and reductionist) with modern ‘neuropsychological-quantum coupling’. He writes:

What makes the activity of the archetypes distinctive in human affairs is the sense of profundity and numinosity that commonly accompanies their emergence into consciousness. Their numinosity is derived from the fact that they store up and are conduits for affective and libidinous energies from lower levels of the psyche. So numinous and transpersonal are the symbolic eruptions of archetypal processes that the experience of them may lead to fascination and faith, and even to states of possession and over-identification with the imagery.

Laughlin, Charles. Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.

Laughlin’s paper suggests a number of possible neural structures that might enable mediation between the quantum universe that holds these energies and individual consciousness. He carefully avoids the traps of technological metaphor (brain as computer, brain as spiritual radio receiver) in his exploration.  It is fascinating to see how even materialist views of consciousness open paths to theories of ‘subtle planes’ that interpenetrate the physical plane. And subtle planes, a transcendent form of consciousness, are a concept of esoteric cosmology.

Developments in quantum physics suggest that the shaman and the scientist are not nearly as separate as we might have assumed. Rather it is the problems caused by duality, fixed ideological thinking and artificial borders that create the problems with which we are beset. It is fear itself that holds us back. The idea of the Gods returning as diseases suddenly becomes vivid.

Soul enters only via symptoms, via outcast phenomena like the imagination of artists or alchemy or “primitives,” or of course, disguised as psychopathology. That’s what Jung meant when he said the Gods have become diseases: the only way back for them in a Christian world is via the outcast.

Hillman, James. Inter Views. Spring Publications, 1991

Erotic ripples

The archaic Greek sea goddess Thalassa
A 5th century CE mosaic representing the sea-goddess Thalassa in the Hatay Archaeologic Museum

The wave rises, loses support and dies. Another wave follows it. In the discontinuity of the crash is the knowledge of continuity. The controversial French literary figure Georges Bataille wrote of violent sacrifice:

A violent death disrupts the creature’s discontinuity; what remains, what the tense onlookers experience in the succeeding silence, is the continuity of all existence with which the victim is now one.

Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. (trans. Mary Dalwood) City Lights Books; New Ed edition (Nov. 1986)

He also connected death with the erotic:

Erotic activity, by dissolving the separate beings that participate in it, reveals their fundamental continuity, like the waves of a stormy sea.

Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. (trans. Mary Dalwood) City Lights Books; New Ed edition (Nov. 1986)

The Elizabethan use of the word ‘dying’ as a euphemism for sexual climax makes even more sense in connection to the roaring wave that collapses into milky froth with a sigh. I once watched several ragworms ejaculating in a rock pool. As they swam, each worm ejected great clouds of semen. Once this violent act was complete the limp ragworms died, as did the female after her eggs were fertilised.

Pontus - the archaic Greek sea god
Pontus – archaic Greek sea god

Our disconnection with the land has reduced our vocabulary along with our sensual apperception. The ancient Greeks had over 30 deities of the sea – gods and goddesses, monsters, sea spirits and nymphs. The Vikings had fewer, but the sea-god Aegir had nine daughters. It was painful to change that from ‘has nine daughters’:

  •     Himinglæva – That through which one can see the heavens (a reference to the transparency of water).
  •     Dúfa – The Pitching One.
  •     Blóðughadda – Bloody-Hair (a reference to red sea foam).
  •     Hefring (or Hevring) – Riser.
  •     Uðr (or Unn) – Frothing Wave.
  •     Hrönn – Welling Wave.
  •     Bylgja – Billow.
  •     Dröfn – Foam-Fleck (or “Comber” according to Faulkes).
  •     Kólga – Cool Wave.

To know something by many names is a sensual delight, it brings poetry to our lives. To see Dröfn and Bylgja brings an erotic quality to life that the science of the Enlightenment has almost destroyed. Here is the poet Hesiod describing the birth of Aphrodite, goddess of love and pleasure:

Ouranos (the Sky) came, bringing on night and longing for love, and he lay about Gaia (the Earth) spreading himself full upon her. Then the son [Kronos] from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him . . . and so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden.

First she drew near holy Kythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Kypros, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and Aphrogeneia (the foam-born) because she grew amid the foam, and well-crowned (eustephanos) Kythereia because she reached Kythera, and Kyprogenes because she was born in billowy Kypros, and Philommedes (Genital-Loving) because sprang from the members.

And with her went Eros (Love), and comely Himeros (Desire) followed her at her birth at the first and as she went into the assembly of the gods. This honour she has from the beginning, and this is the portion allotted to her amongst men and undying gods, the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight and love and graciousness.

Hesiod. Theogony 176 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) c. 700 BC
Birth of Aphrodite
Birth of Aphrodite (Aphrodite Anadyomene from Pompeii)

Aphrodite was born of the waves and is often shown emerging from a clamshell. This link will take you to an interesting paper entitled ‘Genitalia of the Sea’ by Carl A. Shaw, professor of Greek Language and Literature at the New College of Florida. Professor Shaw offers a lexicon of the numerous imaginative and humorous ways that “Greek comic poets correlate a range of sea creatures with sex and sexuality.”  They clearly had great fun, not just with clams, but with sea-urchins (“devouring, splitting, licking clean my sea-urchin down below” writes Aristophanes) and many more. Here is a table of 30 species mentioned in the article (and there are others without a translation).

OysterPiddockPurple-shellRazor-fishRed MulletSardine
ScallopScorpion fishSea UrchinSea-squirtShrimpSmelt

Greek comic poets were almost certainly all men. It is unlikely that women would have been allowed into the audience, with the possible exception of notable courtesans and hetaerae, and it is clear that most of the species above were associated with female sexual organs. So these plays were largely for the enjoyment of aristocratic men, who one might imagine haw-hawing at the seafood jokes. Notwithstanding the considerable difficulty this presents, the language itself is a further demonstration of how our language has become impoverished. Over-fishing and pollution have made sure that the species with which we have any familiarity are hugely reduced, so that only a few of the above have any lingering erotic correlation. Not so with the ancient Greeks.

Psychology has seized on the connection between water and sexuality. Here, in an extract from one of his dream seminars, Carl Jung explores the nature of a dream – or rather he elucidates his own position and pulls the attendees of the seminar into it like Scylla!

Extract from Dream Analysis
Extract from Dream Analysis 1: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1928-30


Thoughtlessly, we frolic in the surf or bake our skins nearby. Undressing we become more attuned to the senses, making the wearing of wet suits seem particularly perverse. Our western culture has made it hard for us to reflect on death, and because of this it has become difficult to reflect on continuity. All our distortions fall away if we really focus on the waves. The next time you are lifted bodily by a wave, punched in the chest by one, or even just given soaking socks by a rising tide, perhaps you think of these three messages:

  • Everything has a wave form, though sometimes you can’t see it
  • Waves have a special relationship with dreams and death
  • Waves have a special relationship with the erotic.

There are other messages, but these are peculiarly vital. They are reminders that we live in a natural universe, not one of thought and deed. Reminders that there are connections to it right in front of us, physical yet numinous, temporary yet eternal, present yet absent. Appreciating this non-duality makes it easier to see that there is no Life, no Death, but everywhere the continuity of the Tao.3

A note on James Hillman

I think I have quoted James Hillman in most of the articles on this site, so it’s clear that I’m a bit of a ‘Hillmaniac. I will continue to do so. Thomas Moore says this of Hillman:

You see, I believe that he is the greatest thinker who ever lived: more important than Aristotle, Plato, Heidegger, and Blake. No one pushed the imagination into the world and actual life to the extent that Jim did and with such immediate relevance.

Thomas Moore, quoted in

I’m not sure that I can sign up for such hagiography. I have never liked Hillman’s view that the things that happen to us in childhood are of no importance, and his popular work failed to excite me. But no writer of non-fiction has moved me, transformed me, educated me and amused me as much as James Hillman. His Wikipedia entry is so slim it is clear that he is being written out of the history of psychology.

It is claimed that he offers nothing to the clinician – quite so. Hillman’s clinician was – finally – the community. His work was mercurial, contradictory, challenging. He is probably laughing, great waves of laughter, at his post mortem assassination. As one of his principal detractors writes: “By throwing out the heroic pattern of consciousness, and the idea of individuation, Hillman no longer appealed to most psychologists or therapists. By transgressing professional ethics, he no longer appealed to training institutes.”

Good for him – psychology is invested and entrenched, not just in modality, but ethical hypocrisy and defensiveness. The real tragedy is that even with all his fiery compassionate intellectual stature, Hillman was unable to influence the mainstream. But waves will come from elsewhere, and I have little doubt that his work will be remembered – at least for as long as we are able to save ourselves from the peculiar monomania that he sought to address.

Donald Trump and narcissism

The horrified global response to Donald Trump’s first week of office is justified. But it is often better to sidle up to a monster rather than staring it in the face.

The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships —
and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.

Lewis Carroll. Through the Looking Glass. 1871
Two faces of Trump
Trump, with and without his lolly

The unbearable heaviness of being

I’m at the local supermarket checkout – it’s Tesco, but it might as well be any other – as a two-year-old girl goes into meltdown because she is not allowed to have a lolly. There are various glances sent in the child’s direction, uncomfortable smiles, annoyed tuts, disapproving frowns. The mother tries to scoop up the child, to physically remove her (and her own embarrassment). The elusive lolly was placed at the height of the child, of course, making a mockery of the removal of confectionery from checkouts.

We have all witnessed a scene like this many times. But on this occasion, I saw more than just another screaming toddler. The first thing was the child’s wretched and inconsolable disappointment. Second, the embarrassed but indulgent mother. Third, the impact of the immediate environment that had created this drama in the first place.

It’s a difficult thing to be a small child, something adults easily lose sight of. As much as we attach sentimental feelings to our childhoods, we forget that the adult world is one of Brobdingnagian proportions to an infant. In his poem Animula, even T. S. Eliot looked on his early years with this wistful affection. To the child, who “confounds the actual and fanciful” the lolly (brightly wrapped, promising a sweet reward) is a just and proper recompense for the frustration and confusion of being small in this ridiculous denatured world of adults. A reward for how difficult it is to walk without falling; for having to run to keep up; for bangs against the hard unyielding legs of tables and chairs; for the pain of teeth growing; for – notwithstanding the leaps of joy – the absolute existential pain of being vulnerable.

Falling in love again

Psychology would have us place the ensuing battle of wills between child and adult as a necessary part of the journey out of self-regard into the community. The adult helps the child to overcome narcissism. Yet our Western culture, successfully exported to every other part of the globe, is narcissistic to the core. We are either explicitly narcissistic (Nationalist, Republican, UKIP) or implicitly (Socialist, Democrat, Labour). A strange hypocrisy exists – concepts of fairness and compassion are outwardly validated, but secretly denied. Don’t be so selfish, says the parent who is secretly proud of his offspring’s venal compulsions.  It is difficult to speak of narcissism without becoming as critical as the slew of scathing articles one finds online.

The myth of Narcissus is worth reading. Narcissus was born of the river god Cephisus and the naiad Liriope. His inheritance was too fluid and his boundaries leaky. Small wonder his heart petrifies and he refuses all attachment. Yet his metamorphosis comes about through the medium of water. Ovid’s intention seems clear.

Fool, why try to catch a fleeting image, in vain? What you search for is nowhere: turning away, what you love is lost! What you perceive is the shadow of reflected form: nothing of you is in it. It comes and stays with you, and leaves with you, if you can leave!

Metamorphoses. Ovid, Bk III:402-436 Narcissus sees himself and falls in love

Narcissus revisioned

Yet perhaps Thomas Moore’s deconstruction of the myth in his book Care of the Soul points us in the right direction. Instead of criticising Narcissus for his hard and icy self-regard, we are encouraged to see beneath the defence of aloofness, to the wounded soul who finally learns to love himself, and in that instant is transformed. Moore writes:

America’s narcissism is strong. It is paraded before the world. If we were to put the nation on the couch, we might discover that narcissism is its most obvious symptom. And yet that narcissism holds the promise that this all-important myth can find its way into life. In other words, America’s narcissism is its unrefined puer spirit of genuine new vision. The trick is to find a way to that water of transformation where hard self-absorption turns into loving dialogue with the world.

Moore, Thomas. Care of the Soul. Piatkus, 1992
Echo and Narcissus, John William Waterhouse, 1903
Narcissus fell in love with his own beauty. Could Donald Trump do the same?

And what can we learn from Echo? We feel sorry for her, but we forget that her problem is that she can’t speak for herself but is instead cursed to always repeat the words of others. It is this very syzygy that is the most compelling aspect of the myth, the wounded self-regard and the loss of an authentic voice. The wound pushes others away, the repetition desperately seeks relationship. Both fail.

False idols, Fake news

What am I suggesting here? That adults should give in to the demands of toddlers? Not exactly. But in the hard refusal of the intuitive need of the infant, we mirror something of Narcissus. In parroting the old wisdom of denial we become Echo. Now, in the person of Donald Trump, we witness a narcissistic apotheosis.

Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation,
Hail to the Chief! We salute him, one and all.
Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation
In proud fulfilment of a great, noble call.

Yours is the aim to make this grand country grander,
This you will do, that’s our strong, firm belief.
Hail to the one we selected as commander,
Hail to the President! Hail to the Chief!

Trump dances to ‘My Way’; Trump replaces the red curtains in the Oval Office with gold ones; Trump admires his narcissistic alter ego, Vladimir Putin. Trump sits at his desk signing, with a flourish of the pen, executive orders to roll back abortion rights, to revive the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines, and to signal the demise of the Affordable Care Act. His gauleiters look on appreciatively.1

Vile creatures

Homophobic, pro-life Vice-president Pence,  whose response to Hurricane Katrina was to draw up a list of “Pro-Free-Market Ideas for Responding to Hurricane Katrina and High Gas Prices” is, if anything, even more monstrous than Trump. Concomitant with this alliance of troubled men is that everything has become uncertain. Charles Foster wrote:

An early conviction of mastery or comprehension turns people into monsters.

Foster, Charles. Being a Beast. 2016

As much as I agree with this, I’m aware that we now live in a world in which every news item is immediately denied, individuals are traduced, figures are falsified and opinions shamed. It is lethal to agree with anything kind, or to be sympathetic to a position, in an online space, because we will be accused of ‘virtue signalling’. In the UK, companies who estimate electoral results frequently underestimate the Conservative vote because of ‘Shy Tories’. These are people who cannot bring themselves to publicly own their beliefs. They must wait until they are hidden in the privacy of the voting booth. What does this say about Toryism, except that it cannot be countenanced, that to believe in it is shameful? So what can we believe in?

Bigger Data

Big Data visualization
Did Big Data manipulation help Trump?

This article suggests that Trump owes his presidency to the manipulation of Big Data. I cannot vouch for it. It may be clever PR for Cambridge Analytica, it might be genuine reportage. The point, of course, is that it is both. It plays into a fear of oversight and surveillance on the one hand, and a desire for control on the other. In the world of marketing, the eyes of middle managers gleam at the prospect of further ‘leverage’.

Perhaps no one person knows the truth, almost certainly because it is multi-variate: the truth is Big Data, climate change, fear of immigration, ignorance, anger, racism, tribalism, Russian state intervention and many others. I previously mentioned the role of Vladislav Surkov in the spread of disinformation.2 Now the truth has become yet more diaphanous,  we have “post-truth” and “alt-truth” – and this unknowing is likely to get much worse. Democracy, as Plato suggested, leads to Tyranny.

It seems a shame,’ the Walrus said,
To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!’
The Carpenter said nothing but
The butter’s spread too thick!’

Lewis Carroll. ibid. 1871

The failure of psychotherapy

Nothing, they say, is new. To complain about the state of the world is to invite a slew of corrective and contradictory opinions. To have hope, to have a vision – these are things held in contempt as naive and sentimental. We all carry a vulnerable and demanding child around with us, whether we admit it or not. Psychotherapy, in love with ideas of personal responsibility and individuation (ideas, along with drive theory, that belong to the Industrial Revolution) has, on the one hand, cosseted the narcissistic ‘inner child’, and on the other hand, pathologised him. If the child stays protected she is effectively depoliticised, protected from the world. This inurement is unnatural, because humans are social and political by nature, as Aristotle observed.

It follows that control, the method by which the inner child is protected, is also unnatural. It is this that James Hillman inveighed against when he accused meditation of being obscene. He was not attacking meditation per se, but the use of meditation as self-control when the planet is in such a sad state. He would be similarly scathing with the dreadful rise of mindfulness, the instant gravy of psychotherapeutic modalities.

Bonfire of the Vanities

Devotees of critical thinking would argue that no one is entitled to an opinion without expert credentials. Trump, and many of the followers of Trump, gleefully insist that people are fed up with experts. Expertise is elitism, they argue, and elites are bad. But these ideologies cannot listen to criticism, and deafness or sensitivity to criticism is the mark of a stuck position. The elite membership of an ideology pursue their policies ruthlessly, as the most casual observation of history will confirm. This is the danger of Trump, and it is also the danger of those who most vehemently oppose him. However,  just as the child in the supermarket should not have been allowed to have the lolly, so Trump cannot be allowed to ruin what is left of the world. The tragedy of the child and the lolly is that the lolly has such power.

Sugar and power are both compelling. Eric Hoffer said: “You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.” With addiction, one might begin to see that what is really wanted is either not known or believed impossible. Perhaps, as Alex Evans argues here, it is time for us to forego the fruitless fact-checking of meaningless noise and to begin a narrative informed by myth. Nor does myth have to preclude science. A new type of science has emerged from the ashes of the Enlightenment, a science that no longer believes the insidious fallacy of human domination:

Mit Würd’ und Hoheit angetan,
mit Schönheit, Stärk’ und Mut begabt,
gen Himmel aufgerichtet, steht der Mensch,
ein Mann und König der Natur.

In native worth and honour clad,
with beauty, courage, strength adorn’d,
to heav’n erect and tall, he stands a man,
the Lord and King of nature all.

Baron Gottfried van Swieten/Anonymous English text/John Milton. Libretto to Haydn’s Creation. 1798

The living world

The mycologist Paul Stamets believes that the ‘roots’ of fungi, the mycelia, have an archetypal pattern seen throughout the universe. This pattern is foound in spiral galaxies, hurricanes, dark matter, our brains and even the internet. He has proven that mycelia can break down toxic wastes and pollutants, reduce silt and pathogens from agricultural watersheds, control insect populations, and generally enhance the health of our forests and gardens. These are anthropocentric values – but Stamets also says:  

I believe that mycelium is the neurological network of nature. Interlacing mosaics of mycelium infuse habitats with information-sharing membranes. These membranes are aware, react to change, and collectively have the long-term health of the host environment in mind.

The mycelium stays in constant molecular communication with its environment, devising diverse enzymatic and chemical responses to complex challenges.

Stamets, Paul. Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. Ten Speed Press 2005

This stunning concept allows us to return to the mythological belief that the earth we walk on is sentient. It enables us to have humility, to understand that our knowledge of the forces and patterns of nature is only in its infancy.

As an evolutionary strategy, mycelial architecture is amazing: one cell wall thick, in direct contact with a myriad hostile organisms, and yet so pervasive that a single cubic inch of topsoil contains enough fungal cells to stretch more than 8 miles if placed end to end. I calculate that every footstep I take impacts more than 300 miles of mycelium. These fungal fabrics run through the top few inches of virtually all landmasses that support life, sharing the soil with legions of other organisms. If you were a tiny organism in a forest’s soil, you would be enmeshed in a carnival of activity, with mycelium constantly moving through subterranean landscapes like cellular waves, through dancing bacteria and swimming protozoa, with nematodes racing like whales through a microcosmic sea of life.

Stamets, Paul. ibid.

Through a glass, darkly

The path out of narcissism and into relationship lies in regaining a mutual relationship with the world, and that can be done only by looking into the pool and falling in love with oneself first. Tragically, I cannot imagine that Trump and Pence are able to even like themselves, their hatred of others is evidence enough of that.

Walrus and the Carpenter, John Tenniel

“I like the Walrus best,” said Alice, “because you see he was a little sorry for the poor oysters.”
“He ate more than the Carpenter, though,” said Tweedledee. “You see he held his handkerchief in front, so that the Carpenter couldn’t count how many he took: contrariwise.”
“That was mean!” Alice said indignantly. “Then I like the Carpenter best—if he didn’t eat so many as the Walrus.”
“But he ate as many as he could get,” said Tweedledum.
This was a puzzler. After a pause, Alice began, “Well! They were both very unpleasant characters—”

Lewis Carroll. ibid. 1871

Bad faith – a call for a return to imaginative play

We live in a world bereft of play. We thing that we are at play, but we have lost the free will to even understand it. Our alternatives are consumption and passivity.

On a crowded train, I see a young man studying the Evening Standard with such an expression of rapt intensity that it might be the Book of Kells. Another wrestles with the hard plastic surround of a new electronic device. I wince as he tears, crinkles and scrapples at the transparent moulding. Finally, he gets to the treasure beneath. He removes it and looks at it, turns it over and looks once at the other side. Then he feeds it to his pack. He pulls out the instruction leaflet from the moulding (more scrappling and popping). A glance, and it too is fed to the bag. I watch him slot the empty moulding into the crack beside his seat. He sighs and pulls out his iPhone.


Some signs:

  1. Looking out of the train window, my view of the river consists entirely of barely occupied investment apartments.
  2. Outside my flat, unfeasibly loud motorbikes roar past as the lights change, knight-heralds of a post-apocalyptic dystopia.
  3. At frequent intervals, the assorted wails, bleats and ululations of emergency vehicles start up. They sound as if they are in my room, and I jump, just I would jump if you were to touch me and I wasn’t ready for your touch. It is a fear of being unexpectedly and unfairly hit. As if there is a fair way of being hit.
  4. Giant cement mixers stop at the lights on their way to London’s multiple corrupt construction projects. The churn of aggregate is mockingly similar to the sound of the undertow on a gravel beach.

Contempt and shame

I thought for a time that narcissism was the worst crime of all (rather than a sign of yearning) and I believed that my anxiety, as both Kierkegaard and Sartre clearly explained, stemmed from my freedom to choose one path over another. Nowadays I am more inclined to side with Marx when he wrote:

Men [sic] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

Some signs:

  1. A powerful and influential nation bombs a hospital with impunity.
  2. The waves that lap at the shores of Lesbos bring the drowned bodies of babies and infants.
  3. Indonesia burns.

The most superficial study of social media reveals a body of human beings who seem to revel in their contempt for compassion and kindness. I interpret this as a way of counteracting unbearable shame. In the face of my own despair and shame I have shaken my problems of ‘how to be’, much as Eliot’s madman shook a dead geranium, and I have been unsurprised, at various gatherings and conclaves, to meet quite defensive responses. Once or twice I have been heard.

What can we do to play?

So here I ask again: what do we do in the world, and how can we be? I ask if it is enough, after some workshop or seminar, to retire to my nest replete, the monster sated. Could I do something else, form an affinity group, write poetry and books (if I could)? Or is this manic defence? Should I join a collective or a smallholding or is this retreat? I look at the brilliant cutesy crafts on Pinterest but I despair of making. I ask how can we play.

The new nature writers work so hard to avoid the trap of the pastoral, yet are almost always in it – the yearning takes them into prelapsarian fantasies of clean water, fresh air and sweet soil. It is an understandable lapse. I pretend that the water I drink isn’t laced with the effluent from hundreds of dairy herds and chicken farms. I imagine that the tang in the air is wood smoke, not diesel particulate. The dark soil of my dreams gives off a heady scent of leaf mould and minerals. It is free of pesticides and herbicides. I hope my vegetables come from this rich humus rather than the toxic substrate that is leached into the sea as a consequence of bad husbandry. I challenge my own paralysis.

The psychology of control

I also challenge the version of psychology that offers workshops in superiority. In these, ‘experts’ give opinions on how ‘a minimum level of security is a precondition for care-seeking behaviour and forms the core coping mechanism against distress, loss, life-threats and psychosis’. In the absence of such security, we are told to ‘recognise incoherence of mind in incoherence of language including: role reversals, narcissistic preoccupations and bizarre language strategies’.

Is it so unusual, and deserving of pathologising, that the benighted patient, hoodwinked by the prospect of wellness, wants to usurp the throne of the petty tyrant sitting opposite? Is it so odd, that she wants to return the agenda to the dysmorphia of self and not the proscriptive requirement for coherence? In language, we are known. The keening sounds of our grief, the monosyllables of distrust and shame, the droning litany of oppression. We enter therapy with a fantasy of clear exposition. We hope that the shaman will respond with reassurance and insight. But in the consulting room sometimes all we can muster is defensive anomie. Then we fall victim to the numbing effects of rationalisation and normalisation. Where is the play in this dismal science?

Violent relief as play

Some time ago there was a flurry of internet interest in the ‘Euthanasia Coaster‘, the compelling idea of the Lithuanian designer and artist Julijonas Urbonas. It was designed to deliver an astonishing death, via the thrill of the ultimate rollercoaster. In the blog Design and Violence, Urbonas’ design was taken to task by the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. In his review, Damasio wrote ‘The Euthanasia Coaster is not fun at all as art, and it is preposterous as a technical device. Curiously, it does work as provocation, regardless of intent. So be it. Mostly it is sad, sad, sad.’

Replying to this suspicious antipathy a reader who suffers from constant pain wrote that perhaps he or she might want to seek exactly such a dramatic release: ‘Doing so through the experience of something so amazing that the human body cannot withstand it sounds a whole lot better to me than a boring grey room. To remove all ‘violence’ from humanity would be to utterly sanitise life, to remove the experience of anything but greys. Certainly the spectre of interpersonal violence is undesirable, but I WISH to be violently happy, violently sad, violently moved. I wish to feel violent acceleration and violent relief. Conflating violence with anything that challenges us is to remove all value from the human experience, to paint the world grey.’

Damasio completely fails to understand the euthanasia coaster as a very serious form of play.

The move into descent

Urban dislocation, unimaginable violence perpetrated from afar, powerlessness. The filmmaker Adam Curtis reflects on the confusion of modern life in his two short films on what he called ‘oh-dearism’. In the second film, he profiled the ‘grey cardinal’ of the Kremlin, Vladislav Surkov. A master of disinformation, Surkov’s avowed role is to wage ‘non-linear war’, shapeshifted and undefinable, confusing political groups and public opinion alike. Amidst the chaos, strings can be pulled and enemies disempowered (the war in Ukraine is an example). Curtis goes on to draw a plausible comparison between Surkov and George Osborne. He says that ‘a constant vaudeville of contradictory stories makes it impossible for a coherent opposition to emerge’. In the midst of this toxic theatre the ‘success stories’ are the entrepreneurs of the low waged low-value jobs, nail bars and coffee shops, the new Luddites.

Vladimir Surkov
Vladimir Surkov

As I see 60 years on the horizon, my life (perhaps comprehensively) eviscerated and crushed, and the estate of the world itself undone, the question of how to live with this shrivelling and loss seems more urgent to me than ever before. I feel with Joscelyn Godwin, who wrote:

The outlook is bleak for those souls nourished only by the junk food and poisonous additives of popular culture. How will it be for them to enter the soul’s domain with no songs to sing, no poetry to charm Pluto and Persephone?

Godwin, Joscelyn. The Golden Thread. 2007

And I might add that we cannot enter the soul’s domain without knowing how to play.


How much bleaker then, in this brave new world of disinformation? Yet beneath the GCHQ radar, things are stirring. As mass protest is ignored by the mainstream media, radical endeavour takes a different shape: community gardening and allotment activism; Flatpack democracy; local currencies and local energy; mesh networks and the Restart Project. There are hundreds more of these optimistic community-led innovations. Taking the action to connect, making the jump out of depression into the community, that is the vital moment. But to what extent might we see these efforts as minimal? Are they merely (in a phrase that stays with me) ‘Fucking at the margins’? Are these the jerks of the dying body? Or are they visions of the terrifying reality of living after the apocalypse? Patrick Harpur writes:

Truth does not lie with this image or that but in the process of imagining; it is not an absolute but a way, transforming us en route

Harpur, Patrick. Daimonic Reality. 2003

I titled this piece ‘Bad faith’ after Sartre’s dreary mauvaise foi. As far as it has been bad, my failure in faith has not been in my rejection of limitless options, a concept that anyone suffering from depression would heartily condemn. Rather it has been in my failure to be able to play. Perhaps all our failures of faith lie there too. We don’t have to regress, but we could learn to play in a modified form.

Play and the soul

This link takes you to Carlos Vilardebó’s 1961 film of the American sculptor Alexander Calder performing his Cirque de Calder to the Parisian avant-garde. Calder’s performance, sometimes witty, sometimes tongue in cheek, is sophisticated play. There is darkness here too, and parts of the performance arouse an ambivalent response. But besides those doubts, there is a delight in the old man becoming the engrossed child. See how he is enraptured with his toys and the unfolding of his drama. Calder, the ‘inventor’ of the mobile, had a major retrospective at the Tate Modern. I discovered this a week after recovering an interest in automata and kinetic sculpture. Carl Jung himself could hardly have been more pleased.

Cirque de Calder - imaginative play
Cirque de Calder

And this: a recent research paper described an examination of seventy dogs over a two year period. The report studied 1,893 defaecations and 5,582 urinations. It revealed that dogs who were not leashed or influenced in movement (my italics) were naturally inclined to relieve themselves in “axial orientation” with the earth’s magnetic field. Patrick Harpur again:

To “explain” UFOs as plasma vortices is to say no more than that fairies are fallen angels.

Harpur, Patrick. Daimonic Reality. 2003

I have no particular wish to know why dogs piss in orientation with the earth’s magnetic field, but to know that they do, when not leashed or influenced in movement, is a very great delight.

Meeting Majesty – an encounter with the Fredville Oak

An account of a meeting with an extraordinary ancient tree, the oak called ‘Majesty’.

The day of the Queen’s Speech and the State Opening of Parliament was trenchantly described by Rufus Hound thus:

If ever evidence was needed that ours is an arcane system in servitude to privilege. Ghastly.”

Observing this spectacle of fancy dress and ritual, in which any significance has long been lost, I thought that perhaps I might consider more authentic meanings of the word ‘majesty’, in this case, a remarkable tree near the village of Nonington in Kent that I had visited the previous weekend.

Meeting Majesty - the massive fallen limbs and the empty socket
Meeting Majesty – the massive fallen limbs and the empty socket

Majesty is listed on the monumental trees website as possibly the oldest maiden oak in the country (maiden oaks are trees that have not been pollarded, that is had timber removed for aesthetic or commercial purposes). So for hundreds of years, this extraordinary organism has grown on this spot with no interference to speak of from humankind. Local wisdom has it that Majesty is a thousand years old (though expert analysis has halved that age, as expert analysis is wont to do). There is evidence that the tree, also known as the King Fredville Oak, was already ancient in 1554.

Whatever the truth, Majesty is the oldest tree in an area of other remarkable ancient trees. It grows (I struggle to define gender because Majesty is beyond such a concept, though ‘it’ remains unhappily impersonal) in a hidden grove on private land, but adjacent to Fredville Park, which also boasts a partly derelict avenue of old horse chestnut and beech.

The wooded country

The curious name Fredville is equally ancient and derives either from Old French freide ville (meaning cold manor or village) or a fusion with the Old English frith or frythe. The informative Nonington website claims that in Kentish/Jute dialect frith would have been pronounced “freed”, as the TH ending would have been turned into a D sound, which means wood or wooded country. Scattered across the Fredville landscape (now grazing for sheep and cattle), are these wonderful blasted relics, amongst which are three other aged oaks, ‘Beauty’ (also called Ancient Bear), ‘Stately’ and ‘Staghorn’. These are elders: they have survived droughts, floods, insect infestations and, of course, human agency.

The lost estate

I searched for Majesty with a friend. We walked through the fields admiring the ancient trees but were unable to find Majesty itself. Asking in the local pub we discovered that Majesty was on private land but that the owner would be happy to show us the tree. Retracing our footsteps we walked down a drive marked private. It opened up into stables, with a ruined clock tower. Before long we were joined by a barking Jack Russell terrier.

As a child on holiday, I remembered having to fetch milk from the nearby farm. The farmer’s Jack Russell would harry me all the way up the lane. It would bark, growl and nip painfully at my ankles, and it was only the greater fear of returning without the milk that kept me to my task. Because of this, I was apprehensive, and it stopped me from asking questions of the elderly man who next appeared. Research suggests that this gentleman was John Plumtree, the descendant of a line of local landowners called Plumtree, or Plumptre. They were also all called John and they owned the villa that was demolished after a fire in 1945, leaving the stables, the clock tower and other buildings as the present home.

The surviving clock tower of the Fredville Estate
The surviving clock tower of the Fredville Estate

Archie Miles’ book The British Oak has this record from a party visiting in 1793:

Called on John Plumtree, Esq. of Fredville, who very politely shews us his famous oak, called Majesty – measured this tree; 4 feet from the ground the circumference is 31 feet; it is supposed to contain 36 to 42 tons of timber. Two branches separated from this tree about four years ago, in a calm day, which contained three tons of timber.

222 years after this visit from the correspondents of the Annals of Agriculture and Other Useful Arts we were also met by John Plumtree Esq. who showed us the tree with equal politeness, despite having to do so, he told us, many times every day. He continued to lead us down a path; the Jack Russell had stopped barking and was first leaping at my leg excitedly and then trotting beside us calmly, reassured of our intent. We passed a Giant Sequoia wreathed in ivy, but Mr Plumtree stopped before we entered the glade, told us that the tree was just ahead, and turned back the way he came.

Meeting Majesty

Walking into the sunlight revealed Majesty in all its broken glory.

Our first view of Majesty
Our first view of Majesty

All the primary limbs have now fallen, revealing themselves (and the tree itself) to be completely hollow, but the secondary limbs were still vigorous and covered in the fresh young growth of May. Little can prepare one for the feeling that accompanies such a visit. Although we took photos, examined the branches, trunk and bark, and generally behaved as people do when visiting a tree, my felt sense was of great calm. At one point I posed for a photo sitting on part of the lower trunk but I sat down with a sense of discomfort that only now I recognise as connected to a slight violation of the sacred.

There was grandeur here, but not grandiosity. Growth and decay carried together, rather than split off as they are in our culture. ‘Majesty’ is a psychological quality, unsurprisingly, of balanced Earth: a way of being that many aspire to but few can ever hope to attain with any consistency: yet we all possess it, if only we were ready to find it. Trees such as this are exemplary: they show us the way into our own majesty.

After spending time with this venerable tree I thought some more about the symbolic qualities of the encounter, about the nature of the introduction and the qualities of the oak. First, there was the search for the tree, walking up and down and almost giving up. Then the correction and the move into private property, the sense of transgression.

The old man and the dog

The first meeting is with an animal, a dog. The dog/human bond is one of our very earliest connections, and in mythologies across the world the dog is a guide between the worlds of life and death. It can be the ‘black dog’ of depression, it can hunt and devour us, or be our loving lifelong friend and companion. This particular dog pulled me back to an uncomfortable past, it first threatened, then welcomed, then ignored me completely. Dogs are sometimes used in psychotherapy (Marie-Louise von Franz had an analytic dog) to dig in, whine, greet, and sniff out the unspoken shit. In my meeting with the Jack Russell, I was forced to dig up old bones from the past. The dog, as James Hillman put it, carries its ancestors.

Accompanying the dog was the old man, the senex, slow in movement and speech. He is an archetypal figure, a guardian both literally and figuratively of the oak glade. While in one sense he turned and left before we saw the oak because he was perhaps tired and in pain, in another, he allowed us the privilege of our own introduction with Majesty.

Oaks and myth

Then we come to the oak itself. Oaks once covered most of Europe: Julius Caesar came across Germanic tribes that had never got to the end of their hardwood forests. In England, oaks were cut down at an alarming rate to build its wooden navy. Any tree of great size was living profit. The oak embodies mysticism: its seeds, the acorns, were once our staple food before agriculture.

John Williamson tells us that the druids (from the Celtic daur meaning oak) burned oak logs at midsummer to mark the death of the Oak King of spring and the birth of the autumnal Holly King. The Norse gods made the first woman, Embla, from oak wood. The ‘philosophical tree’ of the alchemists was often a hollow oak, echoing the other common use of a hollow oak as a coffin. This was a tree sacred to the thunder god Thor/Donar. In the fairy tale recorded by the Grimms, a dark mercurial spirit of transformation is found hidden in the roots of an oak. Here is part of the story:

The Spirit in the Glass Bottle

…the son went into the woods, ate his bread, was very cheerful, and looked into the green branches to see if he could find a bird’s nest. He walked to and fro until at last he came to an enormous oak that was certainly many hundred years old, and that five men would not have been able to span. He stood there looking at it, and thought, “Many a bird must have built its nest in that tree.”
Then suddenly he thought that he heard a voice. Listening, he became aware of someone calling out with a muffled voice, “Let me out. Let me out.”
He looked around but could not see anything. Then he thought that the voice was coming out of the ground, so he shouted, “Where are you?”
The voice answered, “I am stuck down here among the oak roots. Let me out. Let me out.”
The student began to scrape about beneath the tree, searching among the roots, until at last he found a glass bottle in a little opening. Lifting it up, he held it against the light, and then saw something shaped like a frog jumping up and down inside.
“Let me out. Let me out,” it cried again, and the student, thinking no evil, pulled the cork from the bottle. Immediately a spirit ascended from it and began to grow. It grew so fast that within a few moments a horrible fellow, half as big as the tree, was standing there before the student.
“Do you know,” he cried in a terrifying voice, “what your reward is for having let me out?”
“No,” replied the student fearlessly. “How should I know that?”
“Then I will tell you,” shouted the spirit. “I must break your neck for it.”
“You should have said so sooner,” answered the student, “for then I would have left you shut up inside. However, my head is going to stay where it is until more people have been consulted.”
“More people here, more people there,” shouted the spirit. “You shall have the reward you have earned. Do you think that I was shut up there for such a long time as a favour? No, it was a punishment. I am the mighty Mercurius. I must break the neck of whomsoever releases me.”
“Calm down,” answered the student. “Not so fast. First I must know that you really were shut up in that little bottle, and that you are the right spirit. If you can indeed get inside again, then I will believe it, and you may do with me whatsoever you want.”
The spirit said arrogantly, “that is an easy trick,” pulling himself in and making himself as thin and short as he had been before. He then crept back into the opening and through the neck of the bottle. He was scarcely inside when the student pushed the cork back into the bottle, and threw it back where it had been among the oak roots. And thus the spirit was deceived.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, The Spirit in the Glass Bottle.

Apparently Carl Jung made much of this story of the treasure-containing oak. John Williamson writes:

Mirroring the oak’s solidity, the self is the perduring centre that can withstand fiery outbursts of affect and psychic flooding. “Oak” transports and humbles – so perfectly is imperial nature embodied in its form.

John Williamson, ‘The Oak King, the Holly King and the Unicorn’, 1986
Looking up at Majesty
Looking up at Majesty


Of particular fascination is the texture and grain of the wood once the bark has vanished. These sweeping plains, mammary outcrops and dry seas resemble photos taken from space of the desolate regions of the earth, or satellite images of planets.

There is inevitably a correlation between things if we search for it. In the image below I am tempted to assign human characteristics to Majesty – a bulbous nose, staring eye, grumpy expression and arms raised in warning or greeting. Such anthropomorphism has long connected us to trees, from early depictions such as the image of Isis as a sycamore suckling Pharaoh Thutmose III to the Ents and Huorns of J. R. R. Tolkien.

Majesty - easy to anthropomorphise
Majesty – easy to anthropomorphise
The goddess Isis, as a sycamore, suckles Pharaoh
The goddess Isis, as a sycamore, suckles Pharaoh

True majesty

As rich as the symbolism gets, it interferes with the felt appreciation of the tree itself. Throughout its great age this wonderful entity has supported millions of other creatures (link is a PDF). 284 insects, 423 if mites are included, and 324 lichens are supported by the oak. There will be fungi and birds, of course, nesting in its branches and mammals living inside the trunk.

Majesty’s hollow innards, open gaping wounds and dead limbs speak of death and decrepitude, but the translucent green of the leaves in the sun offers something of resilience and purpose, a refusal to give up while life remains, while the deep roots yet live. The bark, fissured and damaged, surely mirrors our own wrinkling skins, dried and scarified by the elements. And this resolute living, this deep importance to the existence of other species, inspires both humility and tenderness. It is Majesty indeed.

Majesty, wounded and hollow, still living
Majesty, wounded and hollow, still living
Oaks at Fredville. Stone lithograph by J.G. Strutt, 1830
Oaks at Fredville. Stone lithograph by J.G. Strutt, 1830

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Suicide and survival – a personal reflection

The entrance to the Tomb

The Way Out, or Suicidal Ideation: George Grie, 2007
The Way Out, or Suicidal Ideation: George Grie, 2007

I’m obliged to wait at the roadside for the 4WDs, trailing behind them their stinking invisible clouds of diesel fumes and privilege. I tell you I’m okay, fix your guilt, ease your dis-ease. To do otherwise would be unkind. Besides, I’m frightened for your fear, knowing that my urge to suicide is its catalyst.

At this moment the successes of a difficult life feel roughly overturned as my flaws, my wounds and my mistakes are used against me to destroy me. Generosity, love and the great things of a life lived are nothing but shameful recollections. The painstaking accretions of acceptability are scoured, racked, blasted; the slowly mortared building of character collapsed in to rubble.

I struggle against the seductive urge to end the pain, and crippling emotional dissonance rides up to smash me with iron hooves. The dire horseman with his bony smile offers blessed oblivion. He is the amber liqueur, the murky opiate, the velvet curtain to darkness. One hard crack and all is softness.

According to the advice site for men with suicidal ideation, mandown, more than 12 men take their lives each and every day in the UK and Republic of Ireland alone. This isn’t a statistic, it’s an epidemic, one unchecked for over twenty years. And now I find myself here again, as one week bleeds soundlessly into the next, teetering on the kerb, watching the blank blonde faces with the tight lips and sunglasses roar past. Their names are:


This piece is my personal guide to staying alive, my Observer’s Book of Suicide, my Collins Gem of Survival. These are the things that keep me going step by step, offered without apology. I cannot offer this piece as self-help, it is personal to me, and I know many will disagree. But I know what things keep me alive, and here I share them in the hope that if just one person reads these words, and can find in them some reason to walk back from the edge, then my struggle will not have been in vain.

I do not look to explain, defend or even contextualise suicidal feelings, but instead to stay with them for a while, and always to honour them. Yes, there is self-pity here, because there is a great difference between pity for the wounded self and weaponised victimhood. For it is clear that whatever we may like to believe about our cultural development, there are people alive who hold any expression of vulnerability in the deepest contempt – most likely because it shines a light on their own suppressed need. This becomes apparent from the most cursory glance at what passes as news, but sometimes an event, such as this one, in which a suicidal man was taunted by onlookers until he jumped to his death, takes one’s breath away. Months after this vile story appeared in the press I am still astonished to read the police statement in which an officer said “We do not condone such behaviour”, as if that needs explanation. The awful truth dawns: perhaps it needed to be said as if there was some doubt.

Abandon hope

There is rarely any respite or care for one in deep limbo, just the day to day doing of staying alive is hard enough. If any of us is to stand up to the passive aggression, pettifogging bureaucratic obstruction and slyly competitive attacks of the inadequate, then we need spirit. Gusto is needed for the skirmish, the extrovert energy that pushes outwards. But depression brings a terrible weariness of the soul, particularly for the introvert. For those on the edge, there is no mechanism, no cognitive apparatus, that can lift one bodily out of the swamp. This is why Hillman was right about hope.1

Hesiod’s tale of Pandora tells us that hope is one of the evils that was in the vessel, and is the only one that remains within. It lies concealed where it is not seen, whereas all the other evils, fancies, passions are the projections we meet outside in the world. These can be recaptured by integrating the projections. But hope is within, bound up with the dynamism of life itself. Where hope is, is life. We can never confront it directly any more than we can seize life, for hope is the urge to live into tomorrow, the heedless leaning ahead into the future. Go, go, go.

James Hillman, Suicide and the Soul, 1965, 1997

The path around the Tomb

So this is the work: abandon hopes and dreams, since those have been squandered anyway. Be alive only to the pains of the moment. Write about them, talk about them, paint them. Rant and froth, vent your spleen, burst your heart. Grieve the loss of hopes and dreams. Let days and nights flood the world with tears until all that is left is the burning heat of anger, as dry and white as the skulls of kine bleached under the desert sun.

Know the age of your anger, whether thirteen or thirty. Celebrate it, shout it to the skies. If your anger is thirteen, there will be a sense of unjustness, the dreadful unfairness of things. If it’s thirty there will be the plunge from the mountain, the sickening fall to the valley floor, the humiliation of defeat. Later, there is weary despair. You may feel all these at once. Trust only your senses. If you are hungry find food. If you are cold find shelter. Don’t hope for charity, don’t feed guilt. Walk, if you can, like Kipling’s cat through the Wet Wild Wood. If you have nothing else, let anger heat you and feed you.

The Cat who walks by himself - Kipling
I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me. Rudyard Kipling, 1902.

When you trip, that’s the earth calling to you out of your fantasies, flattening you and grounding you. Sudden grounding needs quiet for sitting, a drink of water and peppery greens so fresh they squeak as you chew. Do no harm to others, their failure is not yours. Love them for what they could be, not what they are. Appreciate their anxiety for you, their need for you to survive. Try to listen to their hidden anger with you, but do not be swayed by it, the answers lie elsewhere.

Hillman quotes Eliot:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets – East Coker, 1940

He might also have added the next two lines:

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

T. S. Eliot, ibid.

Hope is seductive, it whispers sweet nothings in our ears, coils itself around our bodies, probes for soft spots, fills us with sweet yearning. The present, when we crash back into it, becomes all the more unbearable. By making a conscious effort to abandon all the painful hope, the misdirected love and the contorted thinking, then, at last, we can be present to death and what it wants of us. To be present to death is to accept it but not to embrace it. If you survive, and I hope you do, then there will be a time for hope again.

Care of the Soul

Just about every other psychotherapist’s website will bore you with the information that ‘psychotherapy’ is composed of the words Psyche and Therapy (which mean, roughly, ‘care of the soul’) and that the word ‘therapy’ comes from the Greek word therapeia (θεραπεία) meaning ‘service, attendance, healing’.

Celtic altar
Celtic altar

The word therapon (θεράπων) means ‘servant, a person who renders service’, but there is an older meaning too, that of an attendant at the altar, one who perhaps kept the torches lit, swept up the ashes of burnt offerings and kept counsel with the gods and the dead. This other meaning places therapy in the context of ritual and takes it out of the orbits of the medical (therapy as talking cure) and the economic (therapy as management).

Nowadays the rituals we observe in the West are little more than those of birth, death and marriage, and even those have lost their importance. The depressed and suicidal need their own rituals, to be able to disappear for a while, free of obligations and responsibilities to family, friends and state. To be able to visit the Underworld but to be free to return. I only know of one organisation in Britain, Maytree, that offers this invaluable service – an oasis in which to be with yourself, and only to talk if you want to.

It is immeasurably useful for us to be able to spend time in the swamp, to be still in the viscous liquid and noxious vapour of our despair. In our culture this is denied, and if we venture in we are held to be self-centred and self-regarding. This is wrong, and a function of the fear and need of others. We need to acknowledge that there is danger in the swamp, that for some of us the pull of the Underworld becomes irresistible. The other Greek name for the Underworld (other than Hades) is Pluto, a name also synonymous with riches (e.g. plutocrat). Gold and diamonds come from underground, seeds lie dormant in the earth, treasure is buried. There is a pull that relates to something other than death as the mere absence of life.

James Hollis writes:

The good news deriving from our confrontation with death is that our choices really do matter and that our dignity and depth derive precisely from what Heidegger called “the Being-toward-Death.” Heidegger’s definition of our ontological condition is not morbid but rather a recognition of the teleological purposes of nature, the birth-death dialectic.

James Hollis, The Middle Passage, 1993

In clearer language, let us be up to our noses in the foul swamp, fully tasting the bitterness and the disgust, just so long as we have enough space between the putrid liquid and our nostrils to breathe. This honours the confrontation with death rather than repressing it, and it allows a choice because life and death need to be choices. Any other way is to surrender to the monolithic thinking of state and culture that has driven many of us here to begin with.

How therapy might help

Good therapy is difficult to define. What works for you might be anathema to me. Many (if not most) therapists are rescuers. If the rescuing tendency is conscious the therapist will avoid it, but it runs deep in the psyche and compromises the therapist’s capacity to sit with suicidal feelings. Worst of all can be the normalisation that some therapy seeks to create. Therapists are taught this, to make distress acceptable, to explain that what you’re feeling is ok. This is designed to help you feel better about your distress, to understand that your response fits into the spectra of typical emotional response, and it places those feelings in the context of society at large. But this ‘flattening’ can become insidious, threatening to corral and correct the extraordinary, to legitimise and normalise not just our pain, but its causes. At its worst, therapeutic normalisation leads to the grey goo of mediocrity, it dishonours feeling, it nannies and coddles death itself.

The widespread adoption of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy means that anything felt instinctively is often viewed as primitive, of less ‘value’ than rational thought, and this reinforces the split between Logos and Eros. Our society has become almost entirely Apollonian, possessed of structure and reason, whereas the Dionysian, being properly the felt sense of belonging fully to nature and the wild, has become the heedless affirmation of life, ‘go, go’ go’, constant running. These two have become split, opposites, but long ago they were half brothers, two sides of the same coin. In popular culture we can think of the Spock/Kirk pairing in Star Trek. These two respect each other: they are separate (Captain Kirk/Mr Spock) but in crisis they are intimate, they are Spock/Jim.

Dionysus/Apollo - Kirk/Spock
Dionysus/Apollo – Kirk/Spock

A therapist should be able to hold a space, so even if your therapist cannot meet your despair on equal terms, if she or he has a decent room, a place of peace, use the hour to listen closely to your body. When I can do this for myself I can feel the ache in my shoulders I wasn’t even aware of, the ache that comes from bunching up my shoulders to withstand a blow, and from carrying a heavy load. I can reflect on the unequal metronome of my heart and the shame of my churning gut; I notice how the muscles of my thighs are tense from the need to spring into fight or flight.

Find your own tell-tale signs, the messages with which your body informs you of its distress. Perhaps a foot that waggles autonomously, a death-watch of suppressed fury; maybe the deep sucking sigh of grief or the persistent patch of eczema that you scratch at when you are under the spotlight. Observe but suspend judgement, no matter how shameful the feeling. Your symptoms are unconscious protests made visible in the body. Find the image, for the image speaks to the soul. Your wagging foot might be a factory machine, always in motion, required to produce endlessly; your sigh a sea-bell, echoing in the confused fog of loss. Your scratching, the frantic scrabble of a rat, desperate to escape a flooded oubliette. Let your imagination emerge from its place of hiding.


I mentioned extrovert energy. This is the thrusting, penetrative, exploratory ‘cock energy’ that I wrote about in a previous piece, it is the energy of the improbably endowed Priapus, a son of Aphrodite and Dionysus, his enormous dick the consequence of vengeful Hera’s curse. This energy is neither male nor female but is more often associated with men. What happens when this energy is reduced, when one feels flaccid, impotent? I think that shame appears, the fear that others will see our impotence, judge it, mock it. In men, the shame might be felt in the scorn of women or the contempt of other men. Look at me, I can’t get it up in the world, I can’t make it, I can’t take the decisive actions or make the bold choices that signal life, I can’t even fake the behaviour that is now worshipped in our culture.

Priapus, from a fresco in Pompeii
Priapus, from a fresco in Pompeii

In the picture, we see Priapus weighing his improbable member against a bag of money, the worth perhaps of the fruit below. The painting is in the Casa dei Vettii in Pompeii, where it is positioned immediately inside the front door. Priapus was apotropaic, he had the power to avert bad luck or the evil eye, and the painting, aside from elements of the comic2 and the threatening, suggests that while Priapus’ virility does not outweigh material wealth3 neither is it the lesser of the two. Priapus’ erection is pointing to the basket of fruit: it is as if his explicit energy is showing us its root in fertility. There are grapes there, that belong to Priapus’ father Dionysus (Bacchus to the Romans) and a pomegranate, the three seeds of which bound Persephone to Hades in the barren months. The message seems to be that natural wealth, illustrated by the fruit, is the foundation without which business and its proceeds cannot exist – that the true value of life lies in the abundance of nature.

To go swimming spontaneously, without consulting the oracle of tide tables, is to risk disappointment. If the tide is too far in, there may not be a place to camp on the beach. Too far out and there might be a long walk to the sea. But both states offer something else. At high tide, I can sit with the waves, admire the sweep of the vast sea. At low tide all the pools and rocks are exposed, plants and animals are now rendered vulnerable to observation and predation. So with our souls in crisis.

Am I overwhelmed by high tide, the energy of other people? Am I deflated by low tide, do I feel as if I’ve failed? Or can I acknowledge that there are riches to be found in both states? At high tide, I have a panoramic view and I feel expansive, the captain of my ship. At low tide, I hunker down to poke around in the weed and under the slippery rocks of the psyche. And as much as I might first be repelled by rank encrustations and the pale worms that ooze through the substrate, I might also allow myself to imagine those beings when they are once more immersed in the sea, to recognise that an organism is the same regardless of it being in or out of the water.

Priapus is also a god of the garden, of flowers and bees (think of a bee penetrating a flower), and of vegetables (I imagine gourds, squashes and beans). I think of the phallic force of plants pushing up through the earth, the coiled and secret intention of bulbs and seeds, brought to life by heat, light and water. So I too might one day push up from the subterranean depths (the father: Dionysus) into the light (the mother: Aphrodite). These are not places in opposition (like Hell and Heaven) but necessary parts of the whole. The earth engulfs the tomb, it freezes the seed, it is hard, but it also holds and protects. The light brings visibility and risk, but also warmth and love. Few have so understood the erotic energy of growth (and its intimate connection to death) better than the nineteen-year-old Dylan Thomas:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

Dylan Thomas, The Poems of Dylan Thomas, 1934

How ideology moves against the soul

Some time ago I received an email from n-science for one of their future events, a talk with Dr Eoin Galavan on ‘The Assessment and Treatment of Suicidality’. I have not met Dr Galavan, I know nothing of him. He looks like a nice warm chap and I’m sure he is. He is also the ‘CAMS representative in Ireland, licensed to research the CAMS model, a consultant with CAMS-care’. What then is CAMS? It is ‘Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality’, a method of treating ‘suicidality’ devised by Professor David E. Jobes, who is Professor of Psychology at The Catholic University of America and a self-described ‘career suicidologist’. Alarm bells start to ring. The Catholic University of America says this of itself:

As the national university of the Catholic Church in the United States, founded and sponsored by the bishops of the country with the approval of the Holy See, The Catholic University of America is committed to being a comprehensive Catholic and American institution of higher learning, faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ as handed on by the Church. Dedicated to advancing the dialogue between faith and reason, The Catholic University of America seeks to discover and impart the truth through excellence in teaching and research, all in service to the Church, the nation and the world.

Mission Statement, Catholic University of America

CAMS-care, with its e-learning and licensing, is a business. A business that is built around preventing suicide on implicit and unstated ideological grounds. At first glance, the underlying philosophy seems to be a move towards soul (all that follows can be found here (PDF):

Suicidal thinking and behaviors are often a perfectly sensible – albeit worrisome and often troubling – response to intense psychological pain and suffering. In a similar sense, I would contend that all suicidal persons have struggles that are rooted in legitimate needs and concerns. For example, most suicidal people feel they simply cannot bear the pain they are in and they understandably seek an escape from their suffering. Others desperately want their loved ones to know how much they suffer or feel compelled to unburden those who love them. Still other patients, in acute psychiatric distress, may feel compelled to perform acts of self harm as a capitulation to punitive voices they hear within a psychotic state.

The CAMS Approach to Suicide Risk: Philosophy and Clinical Procedures, David A. Jobes, 2009

But this is hardly an inclusive understanding of suicidal thought, and barely an adequate summary. It ignores (for example) suicide as revenge, suicide as aggression, or suicide as blackmail. Let’s move on to the clinical example given by Professor Jobes:

Patient: I suffer so much and no one seems to care; my husband just ignores me – he gets mad at me and tells me to get over it, snap out of it!

Clinician: You feel like no one appreciates your struggles, particularly the person want you most want to care?[sic]

Patient: It’s not just him, it’s everybody – my parents, my kids, and my so called friends… you know I honestly think sometimes they would all be better off without me…

Clinician: It sounds like you feel that you have become a burden to them? Does this view of things ever lead you to thoughts of suicide?

Patient: Well yes, I have actually thought about suicide quite a bit lately.

Clinician: I see… and when you think about suicide does it upset you or comfort you? Does it frighten you? Or instead, does it give you a feeling of control and power over your suffering?

Patient: It is more the latter because it does make me feel like there is at least one thing I can do about this whole wretched situation that I am in… I just can’t bear the pain… it’s all too much for me…

Clinician: I see… well let’s be frank… of course suicide is an option that many people use to cope with these exact feelings. And yet if it was the best thing to do, it seems unlikely that you would be here with me in a mental health care setting, right? From my bias, while I acknowledge the option of suicide for some people, I would like to see if we could find a way to end your pain, and get your needs met, without you needing to take your life. In my mind, you have everything to gain and really nothing to lose by earnestly trying to engage in a life-saving treatment. There is a treatment I would like to try with you called “CAMS” – it is designed to help you learn to cope differently and better and it could help you get your needs met without having to rely on suicide. To this end, I wonder if I could persuade you – if you would consider – engaging for 3 months in this suicide-focused treatment… I really think it could be quite helpful to you.

Patient: Well that is asking a lot… I really don’t know if I am up for doing something like that…

Clinician: Yes, I understand; but then again you have everything to gain and really nothing to lose. While it is not my preferred means of coping, you always have the prospect of suicide to fall back on later when you are not engaged in a life saving clinical treatment. But for now, I would like to see if we could find a way to make this life more worth living through this approach. Given the life and death consequences, I do not think it is too much to ask of you to give this CAMS approach a go for three months… what do you say?

Patient: I guess we can try, maybe it can help? But you are right, the reason I am here is that I am just not yet ready to exercise my suicide option… How exactly do we do this CAMS?

The CAMS Approach to Suicide Risk: Philosophy and Clinical Procedures, David A. Jobes, 2009

I squirmed around reading this, deeply discomfited by the way the feelings of the imaginary patient are acknowledged yet she is still led by the nose. Mental health care in the US, and in many other countries, is fraught with fear of litigation. Jobes himself, in this YouTube video, talks of the fear of the mental health ‘provider’ faced with a suicidal patient: first anxiety over competency, and second the fear of litigation. The question of the patient’s anxiety and despair is not even mentioned.

Out of this fear, Professor Jobes direct method of engaging with suicidal feelings seems to make sense, but his ‘paradigm shift’, his model of empathy, is something that the ‘provider’ should be engaged in from the outset. Jobes complains of the movie representation of ‘providers’ as crazier than the patient. Of course we are, or should be, and keeping our wounds open for the benefit of others. How can therapists relate authentically to anyone unless just mad enough to make the leap themselves into the Mundus imaginalis of self-harm, suicide and madness?

Therapy as a control mechanism

Professor David Jobes
Professor David Jobes – career suicidologist

Jobes speaks of needing to get ‘family members and loved ones’ involved with his ‘intake’ of the ‘middle-aged, white male, who’s got insomnia and an alcohol problem and is a gun owner, and has a history of major depressive disorder and anxiety and agitation, and has a poor history of treatment compliance‘ (my italics) because (and here come his hands, up in the air making quote marks, like Jesus Christ spelling his name on a Byzantine icon) he might incur ‘some measure of liability’. So motivation on the part of the suicidal patient is deemed to be important. Professor Jobes doesn’t want to work with you otherwise. He loves his intervention though, he finds it ’empowering and honest’ to tell people that he won’t work with them if they’re too difficult for his pragmatic approach. He says, explicitly, “I think I’ve got certain gifts, but suicidal patients in my early career terrified me, they still do, it’s very anxiety-provoking.”. To manage his anxiety he is “gaining mastery… I need to practise from a sense of confidence and competence.” I can’t imagine a worse place to come from. Jobes ends his video with some self-serving blather about the ‘taskforce’ being at the ‘cutting edge’, and, messianically, he says his method is “indexed to political realities, to health care reform and to mindfulness… cost-effective treatments, evidence-based treatments, I think it’s a new horizon, a new world…”

This is the tool:

The full Suicide Status Form (SSF, seven pages) provides a means for:

  1. Initial assessment and documentation of suicidal risk
  2. Initial development and documentation of a suicide-specific treatment plan
  3. Tracking and documentation of on-going suicidal risk assessment and up-dates of the treatment plan
  4. Ultimate accounting and documentation of clinical outcomes.

Checkboxes are ticked, boxes filled, dates given, and signatures appended (the three words that each stage have in common are  ‘and documentation of’). At the end of the three months that the intervention takes, the final step is reached:

Three consecutive sessions of no suicidal thoughts, feelings, and behaviors marks the resolution on suicide risk; the SSF Suicide Tracking Outcome Forms are completed and the patient is taken off Suicide Status as CAMS comes to a close.

The CAMS Approach to Suicide Risk: Philosophy and Clinical Procedures, David A. Jobes, 2009

Professor Jobes and his licensed clinicians have saved lives, their forms prove it. They have worked exclusively with motivated patients, they have delivered their interventions competently and confidently, and they have expertly managed their liability. There is more material featuring this nauseating man, but after a few minutes of his address to a conference I felt too sickened to continue.

Why do I care? Because this is over here, promoted without any exploration of the ideology behind it: the underlying belief that suicide is a sin. It is another move away from soul, utterly devoid of any attempt to meet, on their own terms, the figures of anxiety, futility, meaning and love. It is the grey, risk-free, joyless and narcissistic management of profound despair, delivered only to the compliant.

Work, Shame and the Charm of Making

It matters little if you are working or not, the febrile energy of other people will simultaneously repel and shame you in your cold orbit. Your task is to recognise it, that’s all. The polis4 fears and defends itself against the outsider. It seeks to absorb you because the depth of your feeling shines a baleful light on the unreality of most modern work. Much as I reject a group I feel the separation from it, the almost visible stigma, as a great gaping maw of humiliation. I need to connect, but not at any cost.

Work requires connection and soul just as much as any other activity, perhaps more so because of the central part it plays in our lives. But most work today is tyrannical, it makes us fearful slaves.

I recall the weekends and evenings in which I would hide from my family at the top of the house, building and painting models. As I grew more skilled I would modify and adapt, raising lines of tiny rivets with polystyrene sheet and an old biro, creating whip aerials from scrap plastic slightly melted with a candle. I would paint a delicate scar on to the cheek of a miniature tank commander; highlight the lantern jaw of a cuirassier; pick out the piping on a hussar’s jacket. As I looked into the tiny eyes of my soldiers I saw myself reflected back. The most minute movement of the brush tip would change a face forever: a louche Gauleiter would mysteriously achieve some strange nobility and, Janus-like, the profile of a Napoleonic dragoon might first suggest sadness, but have a sadistic leer impressed on the turned cheek.

Needless to say, my father held this exacting work in contempt. The only praise I recall from him was when I once built a wooden fishing boat from scratch. I understand why: he had no father himself, no man to praise his creativity, but I don’t forgive his cowardice. That is what it is when we feel so angry and bitter with our own childhood life that we are unable to praise the modest achievements of our children.

C. G. Jung's 'tower' at Bollingen
C. G. Jung’s ‘tower’ at Bollingen

The Charm of Making5 saved me from some of the toxicity of my family.

The Genius of Place

Surely the best thing to do would be to build one’s own home, perhaps a cob house, to source and prepare each material, to feel the deep satisfaction of each completed action, the patience needed with the weather. But to do this requires land, resource and time. One thinks of Winston Churchill building brick walls as a bulwark against his depression and the kind of cottage he fondly imagined that working-class people inhabited. C. G. Jung built his ‘tower’ at Bollingen. Of course, Jung had the luxury of his wife Emma Rauschenbach Jung’s inheritance, but he added to his tower over the years, and lived in it without electricity for months at a time, fetching water and chopping wood. The cube Jung fashioned in 1950, and set on the shore of Lake Zurich, has this inscription on one of the faces:

Time is a child — playing like a child — playing a board game — the kingdom of the child. This is Telesphoros, who roams through the dark regions of this cosmos and glows like a star out of the depths. He points the way to the gates of the sun and to the land of dreams

Telesphoros as depicted by C. G. Jung
Telesphoros as depicted by C. G. Jung

The image inside the inscription is of Telesphoros, in Greek mythology a son of Asclepius the healer, his name means ‘the completing’ or ‘the accomplisher’. Curiously, this minor god could be Celtic in origin, a Genius Cucullatus (hooded spirit of place).

The figure of Telesphoros was that of a cowled dwarf or a boy and was revered as such, but inside the outer boy was a hidden creative god in the shape of a phallus. The Roman’s regarded the phallus as a symbol of:

[…] a man’s secret ‘genius’, the source of his physical and mental creative power, the dispenser of all his inspired or brilliant ideas and of his buoyant joy in life.

Marie-Louise von Franz, C. G. Jung, his myth in our time, 1975

Jung’s purpose in carving the image on the cube was to honour his childhood dream of a ritual phallus, the dream that had signalled his path towards psychology, the land of dreams.

Figure of Telesphoros complete, and with top removed
Figure of Telesphoros complete, and with top removed

Telesphoros, whether of Celtic or Greco-Roman origin, signified the mystery of sexual union and inner transformation, and the cult of both figures was widespread. This makes me think that men should begin to see their cocks in a different way. Jung explained that sometimes the soul sometimes asks us to die figuratively, to alter our consciousness in response to new self-knowledge, but we literalise this death with tragic consequences.

Whether it is an issue of honour, loneliness, defiance or despair, the sense of an unredeemable past or a future that offers no possibility, suicide often represents a flooding in the psyche of obliterating force. Passive as well as active, suicide may harbour within its violence the desire for transformation, or may signify an evasion of it.”

ARAS, The Book of Symbols

Hillman added:

[…] more could be said about the literalism of suicide – for the danger lies not in the death fantasy but in its literalism. So suicidal literalism might be reversed to mean: literalism is suicidal.

James Hillman, Suicide and the soul, 1965, 1997

In this culture, a man’s cock is literalised as his potency in the world, the bigger the better, so as to be hard and thrusting. Terabytes of pornography reinforce this message. What if we learned something from this ancient tradition of either the ‘hooded spirit of place’, or the ‘accomplisher’, a boy who contains the spirit of transformation, who embodies ‘his buoyant joy in life’?

Suicide and the Garden of the World

Perhaps the real subtext of Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the rise of Logos and the pathological fear of the feminine. In the final scenes, we see Donald Sutherland’s character at work, cutting press clippings just as he does in the opening scene. We feel uncertain, has he been absorbed or not? Only the hideous scream with which he betrays the last human (a woman of course) reveals the truth we fear to admit. So seek out the human, the living, the feminine wherever you can find it, remembering that the feminine is not always to be found in women. It is a principle, an energy, that holds and nurtures, and it needs your masculine energy, your holy desert fire, for the dance of life. The reverse may apply, your feminine may be too enveloping, too demanding.

Witness another’s distress but don’t feel that you need to do anything more, at least not yet. In itself, the act of witnessing is a profoundly important and political act. It belongs to the communal, to Alfred Adler’s vision of gemeinschaftsgefühl (community feeling), a felt connection with both the human and the other-than-human, a connection described as sub specie aeternitatis to indicate that it is envisioned from an eternal perspective, not the grim monolithic deceit that can masquerade as reality.

Yet through depression we enter depths and in depths find soul. Depression is essential to the tragic sense of life. It moistens the dry soul, and dries the wet. It brings refuge, limitation, focus, gravity, weight, and humble powerlessness. It reminds of death. The true revolution begins in the individual who can be true to his or her depression. Neither jerking oneself out of it, caught in cycles of hope and despair, nor suffering it through till it turns, nor theologizing it – but discovering the consciousness and depth it wants. So begins the revolution on behalf of soul.

James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology, 1976

Why all these pictures from nature? I took these on Barnes Common and Leg o’Mutton pond in London as I stood on the edge of things last year. I spent time with these plants and flowers, as I did with the birds and early insects around them. They anchored me and kept me here, and sometimes I would pass someone else to nod to, an acknowledgement of some shared aim – a woman with her face held back in the sun, smiling; two boys with a camera, busy with a school project; a man hunkered down by the water’s edge, apparently in an intimate discussion with a pair of swans.

Dionysus walked here with me (arm in arm with Apollo), sometimes in rapture, sometimes in tearing black despair. Apollo offered thought, smoothed the jagged edges, got me home alive. With Dionysus, I had these moments of bliss: the scent of wild cherry, that I always fancy smells of oxygen; three mistle thrushes churring in a tree; the call of a solitary chiffchaff, the first of the summer. And all the while, as I thought and felt, I noticed the consciousness about me, not the deathly collective consciousness of the culture that condemns the suicidal for being ‘selfish’, for ‘wanting to take the easy way out’ (as it barrels down the road consuming every resource in its path), but the consciousness of the living.

In those moments (as a greenfinch darted across the path or as a heron flapped lazily up to its nest) I talked partly with Apollo, agreeing to relinquish my role as knight paladin and healer, the role that I thought would save me. With Dionysus, I acknowledged my pain, torment, and anger – but also the extraordinary beauty around me. As for my own voice, I remembered the warmth of skin, the light that glitters on the sea, the sigh of wind in the blackthorn, and the taste of being loved. Some self-pity, some yearning, but mostly gratitude, not hope.

If you go for a walk, remember that a place is not obliged to give you anything, you have to ask, and even then you may be disappointed. Just question how you came to that place and what you were expecting.

In another universe, and perhaps in our own future, there will be community areas with ritual spaces: fire pits, steam galleries and quiet wild gardens to sit in and to walk around as we talk, rage and cry together. Valued hetaerae of every gender and orientation will administer sexual healing and we will take coffee at the imaginarium. Until that day, in this grey individualist world of competition, contempt and literalism we must cultivate our love, for love transforms.

While I wrote this piece dreamed one night of Anna, the young woman I worked with who took her life on New Year`s Eve. I woke begging her aloud to come back, my pillow wet with tears. It is for this reason too that I hesitate at the kerb because I would not wish that anguish on another.

Natural, reckless, correct skill;
Yesterday’s clarity is today’s stupidity
The universe has dark and light, entrust oneself to change
One time, shade the eyes and gaze afar at the road of heaven.

Ikkyū Sōjun, 1394–1481

In the woods – fear, love and the erotic


I felt compelled to give this piece about fear an introduction, to explain it, but it is not an apologia. I wrote some time ago about honouring depression, about allowing depression to live rather than further depressing the psyche by talking to it with the voice of reason (there’s more here) and the irony in writing this introduction and thereby placing the piece that follows in quotation marks, does not escape me.

My purpose in writing this blog has always been twofold: firstly, to work towards (as far as I am able) a different type of therapy – an approach to depression, distress and anxiety that is engaged with the world rather than distant from it. The second purpose is to model this approach, develop it, ride the waves of instinct, and to work through my own material. If I succeed in keeping myself in the world, then that will support my method. If not – well, that’s information too. Carl Jung, in the letter I quoted in the first piece linked above, reminds the reader that his method works for him and him alone, that he cannot speak for what others would do. But if what I write here is of value to only one other person, then that is good enough.

So no apologies: my desire is to bring back the instinctual as an equal partner to the intellectual. I love both, but they have been split in our culture, the instinctual held in contempt. Positive psychology is in charge: the broken, sick and vulnerable parts of ourselves are sanctioned, criminalised, marginalised and feared. I do not apologise for defending them, for pleading their case, for insisting on their legitimacy or for demanding that other voices are heard. Allowing the instinctual is not done through the tyranny of well-being, or from the deep listening and mindful focus that many cannot achieve. Rather it is by acknowledging that our sickness originates in our culture.

Love creates change

Above all else, change is catalysed through love. I write often of the erotic: it contains sexual love but it is much greater, it is our connection to the world, it is in everything. Sometimes we are blessed enough to hear ‘I love you’, said with both humility and honesty, and an extraordinary thrill plays through the body. Those are the words that bring a spring in the step and a cheery greeting. This is the glow and the poise of knowing – yes, knowing – that we are accepted, whether for a day or ten years.

But the erotic is also the bird singing in the tree and the flower pushing between the paving stones. It is the force that drives the dolphin into the air, that lights the promontory (where Oberon heard ‘a sea-maid utter such dulcet and harmonious breath’). It is the quartz glittering in the rock, it is the courage of people who risk everything for a felt sense of injustice, it is the elderly and infirm who protest against cuts, it is life itself.

There are so many images one might use to illustrate the erotic, but my search brought me this fragment of a mural from Pompeii. It is literal, but I liked its energy and humanity. Sometimes the erotic is hard to find or nearly absent (for example, in some drear neoliberal monolith) and often fear blocks the path, hinders the flow. I hope that what follows works with that.

Sexual scene on a Pompeian mural
Sexual scene on a Pompeian mural


The first truly sunny warm day of the year and the sea calls me. I think of Shoreham, the blinding silver mirror of the sea, and of the dark crinkly purple shoots of sea kale that will have started to poke through the shingle. But this is Saturday and I have a vile cold (again) so, my immune system compromised, I decide against it. As soon as I get to the station I realise I have made the right choice. People are everywhere, with bicycles, backpacks and walking poles, as if on a trek through Nepal rather than a destination in Surrey or Hampshire. My stomach burns and I ask myself what I resent. Surely it is unreasonable to feel pleasure in spring bird song, the emergence of fat bumblebees and the acid green of new leaves, but to be angry with people for coming out too. I reflect on undeveloped consciousness (“I had not thought death had undone so many”) and the enjoyment of warmth limited to the removal of clothes. Unreasonably, it is this that angers me.

I am that sort of person despised as a miserablist, my enjoyment of a sunny day spoiled by thoughts of climate change. This is a snapshot and only one part, but my mood is one of mourning, as much for the missing parts of myself (the powerful, the zany, the childlike) as anything else. I will be walking and I am apprehensive of cyclists dinging their bells behind me so that I have to jump out of their way. If I want to pass someone in front of me I’ll say: “Morning” or “Excuse me”. Walkers don’t have personal bells to ping at people who walk more slowly, so why, I ask myself, should the power of speech abandon cyclists? I also acknowledge that I’m not feeling very well physically, my chest hurts, my legs ache, I’m tired, so I shall not be too self-critical. Only later in the walk, after I’m committed, do I discover that it is six miles – not far normally, but a lot when I’m sick.

The dismal café

I arrive at Leatherhead, a surprisingly unpleasant place, with a nasty shopping mall. The café I stop at serves the kind of coffee and pastry I might have expected to get thirty years ago. As I walk through the high street I am aware of my judgements and thoughts dinging like the bells of an army of cyclists.  Here are two young women, office workers, comparing the logistics of their narrow ambitions in voices too loud, too overlapping, for either of them to listen.

There’s the family eating outside a branch of Subway, the parents and children disturbingly obese, physically carrying the shame and disapproval of the culture. Subway reminds me of the American comedy-drama ‘Chuck’, which it sponsored, in which the main protagonists (all members of various US security services) regularly refer to, and accept without question, the existence of rendition, black sites and regime change. I watched every episode, supping deep of the amiability, the escapism, the ‘nerd becomes hero’ mythos, barely conscious of how the series normalised the unacceptable until I was free of its trance.

Grumbling and mumbling to myself, and conscious of looks, I keep going. Oh yes, ‘looks’ – I think of that offensive advertisement for a cold remedy that carries the strapline ‘colds are never a good look’. Clearly illness renders one unwell. Sometimes, certainly not always, one also looks unwell. This odious advertising suggests that looking well is so important that we cannot risk a cold because we cannot be seen to be human and vulnerable. I think of the precariat – and how the most vulnerable worker is compelled to appear cheerful and employable.

A short walk and I leave this behind to find myself walking beside the River Mole, cloudy with chalk. I hope for a kingfisher, but I’m unlucky. There’s a Brimstone butterfly, newly emerged from hibernation. I count six more on my walk, all far enough apart to be separate insects, though taking a photo proves impossible. Perhaps the source of ‘butterfly’, they dance and flutter like scraps of pretty paper in the air, sometimes resting for a moment before darting into the breeze again, lit by the sunlight, and their free movement and restless energy fills me with momentary appreciation and contentment.

Brimstone butterfly
Brimstone butterfly


Before long I’m in Norbury Park and lost. I miss a turn and wander around foolishly, confounded by similar paths and tracks. Occasional signs are for Public Bridleways or Permissive Bridleways, no destination suggested. I start to feel anxious. Aren’t we vulnerable animals? I wonder what it would be like if there were only animal tracks or if I couldn’t hear the angry whine of distant motorbikes (the background noise of the countryside in these parts). There is no GPS signal and my map isn’t good enough, but obstinacy stops me from asking the way of the one or two people I meet. I reflect on the difficulty of asking for help. More often than not the directions we receive are misleading or given unwillingly. Worst of all, there is misdirection.

Of course my obstinacy stems from my fear of being seen not to know, or to be unable to intuit, my way through the woods. I learned from my father that the price of instruction was disparagement. I try to will myself to enjoy my surroundings but find it almost impossible. The printed directions don’t help, a picnic site is not the right picnic site. One of the picnic tables invites me to ‘explore – experience – create – connect’ and I take up the challenge. The legion of kissing gates through which I am supposed to pass have disappeared. I think of kissing. I think of having company in the woods, to be lost together and how that would be nice, then I could pretend to take charge (and the lichen grows in this direction, and the sun sets over there, so we need to go here).

Naked fear

I also think about support, as I lean against a warm rough trunk. My life, never an easy one, has entered its bleakest trajectory, and my support is isolated and infrequent as I struggle to resist total annihilation. Being open to instinct means listening for clues, finding the art and literature that speaks to one’s personal difficulties. The day after my walk I found this from the psychoanalyst Robert Stein, writing as if for me alone:

The distrust that men feel about a woman’s love, nowadays, is generally valid. This is primarily because so many modern women feel shattered by the slightest rejection from the man they love, even when they have done something to provoke his anger. Because they are so dependent on the man’s lovingness to keep up their illusion of their own lovingness, they tend to crumble and feel worthless when the man feels negatively towards them. Of course, this gives the man an enormous power, but the woman counteracts this with an even greater power: her capacity to paralyze the man with guilt, which is her only defence against the brute force of masculine impersonality and cruelty. It is a dirty tool to use this instinctual power against a man when it is really her own feeling of inadequacy that is undermining her. But she is generally unable to face this; instead, she expresses a deep hurt and self-righteous reproachment to the man. The man is made to feel inhumanly cold and cruel, while in reality he has only been humanly angry. This evokes a deep anger in the man because it gives him no possibility of being and expressing himself with her, and it places the entire burden of maintaining the love connection on him. In addition, out of the shattered self of the woman an enormous wrath often emerges. A man rightfully fears the damage and destruction which she is capable of inflicting on others or herself when she is fragmented. How can a man trust a woman’s love when she may destroy him or herself if the honest expression of his feelings may hurt her?

Robert Stein, Incest and Human Love, 1973

That quotation needs balance:

Still another side to the modern love problem is a man’s desperate need for a loving woman and the demand she places upon the woman to fulfil the archetypal image. He gets at the woman where she feels most inadequate, yet she must resist becoming this image for him if she is to realize herself. Because of this demand, she becomes even less loving than she is. The legitimate resentment of the woman at being forced into an archetypal role is thus piled upon the man’s legitimate resentment of the woman’s lack of lovingness. Only if the man can remove his demand for the archetypal feminine from the woman and find it within himself; and only if the woman can free herself of her dependency on the man’s love as a way of finding her connection to her own love, is there any hope of breaking up this destructive pattern in the modern male-female relationship.

Robert Stein, ibid., 1973

The woods are still, with many beech trees (the last to show green) and hazel coppice. I don’t hear many birds in this wood, just once a group of squabbling jackdaws, otherwise only my struggling breath as I climb. Does this vulnerability explain our hubris, our need to build monumental structures, to pursue our ecocidal policies? Does the naked fear that starts to rise, the prickling sweaty horror, ensure that forests are over-managed and signposted at best, cut down and built over at worst? I see signs for Druids Grove and baulk at what I imagine to be an unrewarding visit to another picnic site, mostly because I am still anxious to find my way. Later I discover that this is a grove of ancient yews, some of the oldest trees in the country, and I feel ashamed (and vow to return).

The magical garden

The trees and paths seem indistinguishable, the silence deafening because the only voice I can hear is the self-critical voice, which becomes more strident by the minute: why are you afraid? This is Surrey not the Gobi desert, get a grip on yourself. I stop to breathe, realising that I am close to panic. And it as that point, when I have allowed my breath, that I become aware of the most fantastic garden of moss all around me.

Fallen trunks are carpeted in spongy green carpets. Living trees and stands of tiny saplings bear mossy skirts. Small wonder that this forest is so quiet, sounds are muffled in the moss. Enchanted I stop to touch the springy softness and immediately I feel the release as my fear subsides. The reasonable thought emerges, that I’m walking in the right direction and soon I’ll find my way out, but to allow the reasonable I first had to allow the magic and immediacy of my surroundings.

Out of the valley

Finally, I leave the wood behind, and as I walk into Westhumble, there’s the buzz of a light aircraft. I want to describe it as a monoplane as if there might be some doubt. I recognise that I have entered a sequestered world of riches, the only sounds to disrupt the quiet are those that of small aeroplanes and hedge trimmers. This is the England of P.G. Wodehouse and Dennis Wheatley. It comes as no surprise when a sign announces the Royal School of Church Music. Only a red-faced organist hurrying by with a sheaf of scores is missing. I remember singing in the church choir as a boy, having to compete even then for various medallions indicative of merit. The houses are called cottages even if they are mansions, and even here among the sentimental names, the camellias past their best, and the prominent alarm systems, there is resonance. Always a name, a connection, an echo: Mulberry Cottage, Wild Berry Lodge, The White House.

Unreal rewards

One lukewarm sausage sandwich and a pint of fizz later, I pass a mock Elizabethan pile as the owner emerges from one of his three chariots. He regards me with a thin-lipped look of disdain, patrician nose slightly up as if detecting an odour of sweat. The truth is that I envy him. Not his cars, his dreadful pile of a house or his awful work, but his certainty and his comfort. Those are things he shares with the young women in the throwback café, content with climbing the ladders of accomplishment. The rewards are tangible, whether the log fire of the rentier or the new build of the office worker, rewards that seem more remote to me than ever.

I walk through an extensive vineyard, the serried vines separated with grass lanes but little other evidence of life, so I’m glad when a woolly brown dog keeps me company for a while. We ignore each other but as he falls back to snuffle and root at the interesting smells, then races forward, he feels like the company I need today. From far away his owner calls him back but he ignores her, to my secret satisfaction.

Vineyard near Dorking
Vineyard near Dorking

Turning a corner I hear the first siren for hours, announcing my return to the ‘normal’. I had hoped for a tea room at Dorking, but there’s nothing near the station except dual carriageway. An idiot in a shell suit accelerates his bike and does a wheelie escaping from the lights, the ambient noise I had noticed before transformed into a deafening screech that reverberates in my head.

As soon as I get back to London I start to feel awful again. Out in the air, even the air of Surrey, the sneezing and runny nose stopped almost completely. But now the madness descends again. I am transfixed, rooted to the spot in the supermarket as I see blackberries from Mexico, raspberries from South Africa, and blueberries from Chile. It is not as if this profligacy was new to me, it is that once one has been anywhere remotely authentic, the opposite becomes even more glaringly apparent.

What am I to make of the day? I took a path into the woods and got lost. The path I found out was not the one that I had planned to take. I nearly panicked, but Pan is not to be reasoned with. He is a god, and he demands respect and fealty. Pan of course was the god who died1, and this marked the ascendancy of Christianity and reason. As Jung famously opined ‘The gods have become our diseases’, so the death and reappearance of Pan as panic and anxiety remind us of our failure to tend his altar.

Finding energy

I have seen that there are routes other than the ones imperfectly marked on the map. And the mistakes made in map reading can be corrected as the place is revisited. I will go again, visit the grove of yews and offer something, find the suggested route, see how it feels, but I am sure that in many ways the route I took yesterday was the right one. At some level, I needed the fear, the powerlessness, so that I could ‘explore – experience – create – connect’. On my return, I found the writing I needed to find, to give context to some of my present difficulties and to help me withdraw my anima projections (more about those here).

The other day a colleague spoke of a workshop she had attended in which the facilitator (another woman) had talked about the importance of ‘cock energy’. This is such a good expression. All of us, both men and women, need to sometimes find cock energy, to thrust ourselves into life. But the abiding image of my walk was the Brimstones: I thought of the coloured paper we used to tear up for mosaics at primary school, how each torn piece was like a butterfly. As I try to break the shackles of fear, as I hunt for what remains of thrust and momentum, the lightness of the Brimstones will stay with me.