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.

ibid.

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.

ibid.
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.

ibid.

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) – http://www.ancient-mythology.com/greek/oedipus_rex.php

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:

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

OEDIPUS
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?

CHORUS
Alas! ’tis as thou sayest.

ibid.

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.

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 rethinkingdepression.com, 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. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/04/opinion/sunday/seeing-things-hearing-things-many-of-us-do.html 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.

bose-einstein-condensate

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.

quantum-superposition

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. https://www.scientificexploration.org/docs/10/jse_10_3_laughlin.pdf. 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).

      
AnchovyBarnacleClamConchCrabCrayfish
CuttlefishEelLimpetLobsterMusselOctopus
OysterPiddockPurple-shellRazor-fishRed MulletSardine
ScallopScorpion fishSea UrchinSea-squirtShrimpSmelt
SpratStingrayTrumpet-shellTunaWhitebaitWrasse

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

Hello/Goodbye

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 http://www.cgjungny.org/q/s12.full.content/henderson.pdf

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.

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.”

https://twitter.com/RufusHound/status/603509038463193088

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. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm099.html

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

Anthropomorphosis

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:

    
ForesterSequoiaCherokeeYukon
OutbackPathfinderExplorerPanda
RoverHighlanderNavigatorKuga
JourneyTundraOutlanderYeti

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.

Deflation

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

Love in the Ruins – why service heals guilt

He registered a dizzy 7.6 mmv over Brodmann 32, the area of abstractive activity. Since that time I have learned that a reading over 6 generally means that a person has so abstracted himself from himself and from the world around him, seeing things as theories and himself as a shadow, that he cannot, so to speak, reenter the lovely ordinary world. Such a person, and there are millions, is destined to haunt the human condition like the Flying Dutchman.

Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins, 1971

The more I think about love, the more I think about service and devotion. Here in the West, we have nothing left to believe in with any passion. In this piece, I briefly explore the meaning and origins of love, and I suggest that love be re-visioned or re-imagined so that it can include the world again as it once did in the distant past.

Throw it in the world-bin

It seems like only yesterday that I first learned of the terrifying prospect of a mass bleaching event of the world’s corals and the wholesale loss of species that would accompany such an event. This news is just another of the many awful consequences of our failure to love ourselves as human beings, as animals in the larger world. It’s difficult to find any one image to illustrate this, I’m sure you will have your own, but let this picture suffice for now.

A tide of destruction - flotsam
A tide of destruction

It’s not a dramatic picture, there is no overt terror, no screaming or blood. It shows a tiny part of the world, a fractional space between the Thames embankment at Battersea and a houseboat, and yet (to me at least) it shows vividly the absolute misery of our human condition. Here, mingled with the organic refuse – the branches and timber we might expect to see in a river – are discarded coffee cups, burger cartons, aerosols and a general swill of plastic waste. It says, ‘I don’t care, someone else can clean it up. I don’t even care much about myself.’

People do clean up the foreshore here, occasionally, in their free time. A day later and the flotsam is back, the toxic aggregate of what is described as ‘thoughtless behaviour’, against which we are urged, as if by our parents, to be ‘mindful’. But I see in this the consequence of two thousand years of dualist indoctrination. There is a barely acknowledged part of us that believes this earth is bad and that a better world awaits us. It doesn’t matter we are atheist, Buddhist or pagan: in the West we are Christianists whether we like it or not.

The origins of Romance

Saint Dominic presiding over an auto-da-fé, (Pedro Berruguete ca. 1495)
Saint Dominic presiding over an auto-da-fé, (Pedro Berruguete ca. 1495)

So let’s talk about love. But first religion – because love and religion are deeply linked. Most of the religious people of the world believe in salvation or transcendence from life on earth, with or without reincarnation. According to the Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson, our modern Western infatuation with romance sprang from chivalric love, the medieval courtly love in which a knight would project his feminine self, his anima, on to a woman. In his book We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love, Johnson traces the origins of this behaviour to the 13th century cult of Catharism, the ‘Albigensian heresy’, in which the so-called Good Men eschewed the corruption of the Catholic Church and its priesthood.

Catharism was dualist, adherents believed that God created the spiritual realm but that all matter and flesh were creations of Satan. They believed that human spirits were trapped angels who would be eternally reincarnated until the spirit had achieved salvation. The similarity to Buddhism is striking: for more information, these pages delve further into the history and legacy of this extraordinary movement.1

Unable to reform the teaching of the Cathars, and terrified with their growing popularity, the established church began to exterminate them in the Albigensian Crusade that began in 1208. The leader of the crusade, Arnaud Amaury, Abbot of Cîteaux, was responsible for the massacre at Béziers, and also infamous for the words “Kill them all. God will know his own”, a thought that has been unconsciously perpetuated in politics ever since. Subsequent to the crusade, an Inquisition was set up to find the remaining adherents and to torture and burn them. But Johnson contends that the sect was so popular that it went underground to emerge later as chivalric love.

To outsiders it looked like a new and elegant way to make love, to woo and flatter pretty damsels, but for the insider who knew the “code”, it was an allegorical practice of Catharist ideals.

Robert A. Johnson, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love, 1983

The need for transcendent experience

Courtly love - Codex Manesse
Courtly love – Codex Manesse

Johnson elaborates with his analysis of the story of Tristan and Iseult that I alluded to in my piece about depression. He suggests that men unconsciously project their spiritual feminine on to women just as the Cathars were doing eight hundred years ago. This prevents both men and women from relating as human beings. It splits men’s spirituality and sentences women to fail to live up to the projection.

It is perhaps surprising that there is still academic controversy over whether or not courtly love actually existed. To me, the question seems redundant given that we are still so enmeshed in the projection. How many of our relationships begin with a rose, followed shortly with by the sprinkling of rose petals, real or otherwise? A few short years later the roses are withered and the blissful feelings are replaced with anger and resentment. Johnson points out that the incomplete number is always three, ceaselessly searching for the fourth.

This is not just a male problem, a woman too can project her inner masculine, her animus, so that the man in the relationship never has a sense of being good enough. He can work 18 hour days, look after the children round the clock, never forget anniversaries. But he will never be able to do enough until the woman withdraws her projection. The power of these unconscious impulses is profound: Johnson argues that they spring from our need for religious experience, the transcendent, the numinous.

The Cathars, as with many other religious movements, wanted to perfect spirituality (their adepts were called parfaits/parfaites). They looked around at the corruption of the established church and reacted against it, seeking purity and simplicity. The shadow of such a reaction, the inevitable consequence, is fundamentalism and fanaticism.

Established Catholic doctrine was that God created everything, including the earth, but the Church was forced to accommodate some of the most popular Cathar beliefs, for example to create orders that looked as poor as the Cathars they helped to exterminate (the Dominicans and Franciscans). However, duality has been bound up in Christianity from its origins. Here’s an example from the Gospel of John:

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.
And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.

John 2:15–17

And another from the Gospel of James:

Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom. But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.

James 3:13-18

For many years we in the UK have writhed under the rule of various vile political elites that have been busy dismantling the welfare state that took such courage and determination to build. The opposition to these policies feels ‘corrective’, a flip-flop reversal. I have this myself, a wave of anger bordering on hatred that feels fanatical.

To avoid the obsessive it might be useful just to say ‘no’. James Hillman reminds us of the Hindu meditation neti, neti, meaning ‘not this, not that’, and the Christian concept of kenosis, Christ’s emptying out of his divine power, his unity with God, in order to be on the earth as a man. Above all else, we need to say ‘no’ to the acts that continue to create inequality, that ravage the earth. Here’s Hillman writing about politics in the United States over twenty years ago, since when everything has indeed got worse:

Kenosis puts the emptiness in a new light. It values the emptiness. It says “empty protest” is a via negativa, a non-positivist way of entering the political arena. You take your outrage seriously, but you don’t force yourself to have answers. Trust your nose. You know what stinks. Don’t try to replace the helpless frustration you feel, the powerless victimization, by working out a rational answer. The answers will come, to you, to others, but don’t fill in the emptiness of the protest with positive suggestions before their time. First, protest! I don’t know what should be done about most of the political dilemmas, but my gut (my soul, my heart, my skin, my eyes) sinks, creeps, crawls, weeps, cringes, shakes. It’s wrong, simply wrong, what’s going on here.

We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world’s getting worse, James Hillman and Michael Ventura, 1993

Service as a way to love the world

Our failure to attend to our actions has brought us to this place: the end times (whether of twenty or a hundred years is scarcely important except to the very greedy). The rest of us try to forget or become angry with each other. Finding and apportioning blame becomes the defence against guilt and grief. The terrible pain of keeping one’s eyes open to the destruction that we have wrought in the world cannot, and should not, be masked in positivism.

Dualism in Christianity has altered our thinking (the same can be said of Islam), and this binary behaviour became far worse in the seventeenth century with the mind-body dualism of René Descartes. We are now thoroughly split, our bodies machines, our heads computers (I wrote something about this here). We project our desire for religious transcendence on to our human relationships. These are the death agonies of our own destruction. But this can change.


Perhaps Hillman’s kenosis leaves the vacuum of the emptiness unaddressed, and my suggestion for something to fill that void is service. Service to the earth and service to each other. Service is about community; about the neighbour you don’t know; about asking yourself what will really help your partner. That might be doing the shopping or it might be about space or silence. It might even be leaving your current relationship. Service is about protecting endangered species; it is taking responsibility for pollution; building new homes on brownfield sites; stopping your car before the crossing, not halfway into it.

Service satisfies the need to feel of value, the need for transcendent expression, but it does not seek to give answers. To be of service is to stay out of depression (see Jung’s letter about this here). I can say, with a fair degree of certainty, that most of the people I worked with as a therapist expressed a wish to be of service, but were unable to carry this out because of external conditions. The politics of austerity create only despair and greed.

For having been born elsewhere.
For having been born elsewhere, (Francisco Goya ca. 1814-1823)

As always, there is something hidden that needs to be made conscious. The psychoanalyst Robert D. Stolorow has something valuable to say here, and I quote:

In some accommodative patterns, serving or performing becomes a way of substituting for a missing sense of inherent value and thereby maintaining a connection with a viewing other.

Robert D. Stolorow

There is a root in ‘service’ that means slavery. To be of service is not to be a slave, nor is it to seek to address feelings of inferiority. Feeling enslaved makes service impossible, therefore it is imperative that we are able to acknowledge shame and loosen its grip on our hearts. As Stolorow writes in a spirited defence of the piece I linked to above:

True repentance belongs to guilt, not to shame. Repenting out of shame is inauthentic repentance. To repent for being vulnerable, for example, is absurd. We should be much more alarmed by people who are guiltless than by those who are shameless.

Robert D. Stolorow

Whether shame is public or private, it crushes the spirit that is needed to create change. To feel guilty is to recognise a mistake, to own it, to acknowledge one’s inherent imperfection without being annihilated. It is so difficult to see: I struggle enormously with my own guilt, yet when I heard one of my visitors2 express guilt, my heart opened like a door of leaves. In an article about trauma and empathy Stolorow has this to say:

A new form of human solidarity would also become possible rooted not in shared resurrective grandiosity but in shared recognition and respect for our common human finiteness. If we can help one another bear the darkness rather than evade it, perhaps one day we will be able to see the light.

Robert D. Stolorow

Perhaps I could offer an alternative version that avoids the duality.

A new form of solidarity (that includes the human and the other than human) would become possible rooted not in projected shame and religious feeling, but in an understanding and praxis of service that acknowledges our shared vulnerability. If we can help one another, perhaps we will, at last, be able to love the colours of the night.

The epidemic of running

Running where? And from what?

Running has become an epidemic. For city dwellers, it is now fast becoming impossible to enjoy a weekend walk. The internet is awash with articles extolling the benefits of running. There is precious little material that works with physical danger, much less the psychological risks.  It is deeply ironic that the constant injunction to perform day to day tasks ‘mindfully’ is often rendered impossible by noise and stress. This piece examines the psychology behind running and suggests that there are better ways to be.

Not long ago I took a Sunday afternoon walk on the Thames towpath. It used to be a pleasure. The first ominous sign was an ‘event warden’ standing guard, in high visibility jacket, over hundreds of plastic water bottles. Not long after, the leaders of the marathon started to appear. Before long the towpath was heaving with runners – numbered, deadly serious and panting. To my distress, I had forgotten that the towpath is now off-limits to walkers at the weekend.

Even without these competitive runners, the walk has become overtaken by joggers. Participants wear identical figure-hugging Lycra. Some wore their phones strapped to one bicep like a medical gadget. Others proffered the phone in front of them as if making a votive offering. I was assailed with runners from both directions, the shouts of rowing coaches from the river and the roar of aircraft overhead. How can we stay sane in the midst of this madness? It appears to have become law that all adults should run regularly.

Running as a coping strategy

Artificial and Human hearts
By treating our heart as a pump, a sentimental symbol of love, or even as courage, we have lost its true meaning

So what does it mean? As a coping strategy, running produces increased energy and concentration, improves cardiovascular health, combats ageing and reduces the risk of cancer. There is a concomitant increase in energy and concentration. This helps at work (or most probably helps someone else make a profit). In the runner’s mindset ageing has to be ‘fought’ against. The ‘risk’ of living needs to be managed. The epidemic nature of running suggests that people are finding their lives bearable only through the chemical advantages of exercise.

For the runner, motivational music is often important. The theme to ‘Rocky’ (between bouts of cramp and intense nausea) is popular, suggesting a strong element of triumphalism. We can see the same thing at work in other outdoor pursuits, most obviously cycling and hiking. An outdoor retailers will not sell you a book on foraging, or a collection of poetry by Mary Oliver. Instead there is a confusing selection of quasi-military kit racked against images of bleak treeless terrain that needs to be ‘conquered’ and ‘overcome’. I cannot speak against this attitude strongly enough. This is the modern disease of individualism. It is an indoctrinated requirement to get to the top of the mountain at all costs. Yet workers are told to be ‘team players, expected to engage with the vile neologism ‘coopetition’. This is a double bind.

What is the heart?

Most significantly, we are told that running defends against depression. Perhaps, by not running, we might discover the possibility of engaging with what is being defended against. The late psychologist James Hillman, delivering an Eranos lecture in 1979, described our view of the heart in three ways:

  1. Courage to live, humanity. The heart of the lion: Coeur de Lion.
  2. An organ of the body, secret holder of one’s death, a muscle or pump. The heart of Harvey.
  3. Love, feelings, sense of soul and person. The heart of Augustine.

What did he mean by these ‘disguises’ and what are they disguising?

Hillman quotes the American poet Wallace Stephens: ‘The lion roars at the enraging desert’ ( from ‘It must be abstract’) and says:

What is passive, immobile, asleep in the heart creates a desert which can only be cured by its own parenting principle that shows its awakening care by roaring.”

Hillman, James. ‘The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World’. New York, 1993. Spring Publications

With typical fire, Hillman goes on to say:

The heart of Harvey, already dead, “fitness” replacing vitality, creates the desolation it jogs through, mufflers over the ears, blinded in the sweat of extending its life-expectancy, zombies creating the desert by running and running with nowhere to go. If beauty arrests motion, motion eradicates beauty.”

ibid.

Secret fear

The reference to zombies is prescient (and the subject of another post), but in case we miss the meaning:

We fear that rage. We dare not roar. With Auschwitz behind us and the bomb over the horizon, we let the little lions sleep in front of the television, the heart, stuffed full of its own coagulated sulphur, now become a beast in a lair, readying its attack, the infarct.”

ibid.

And again:

To keep my ticker running, I jog it. The heart must be lean, trim, erect, so I watch for extremes of intensity, like idle leisure, and abuse, like passionate excitement. Now the heart is no longer the animal of love and heat, the place of himma, throbbing out its imaginative forms. Now its signals are decoded into little messages about life expectancy. For my heart can insult me, attack me. I must propitiate it: I take this for my heart, do that for my heart, watch out for my heart, I turn it in regularly for a checkup.”

ibid.

Where is our roar?

The Harvey referenced in the second definition of heart is William Harvey. He was physician to James 1 and Charles 1, and in 1616 was the first observer to scientifically describe the workings of the heart as a pump. The consequence of his work was far-reaching. It led to a mechanisation of the heart that has gone further than even Hillman saw just over thirty years ago. Who roars now? Perhaps only the likes of Russell Brand (now stifled it seems) and the anarcho-capitalist Max Keiser. The rest of us sleep, allowing Brand and Keiser to do our roaring for us.

Ashamed of our passivity we rush quickly to criticise and belittle. It is like wishing for the collapse of the Shard but at the same time admiring its priapic mastery. What then is the heart that is the animal of love and heat, the place of himma? Hillman references the philosopher and scholar of Islam, Henry Corbin, who writes that the himma is the ‘vital force, soul, heart, intention, thought [and] desire’. Hillman clarifies:

Our hearts cannot comprehend that they are imaginatively thinking hearts, because we have so long been told that the mind thinks and the heart feels and that imagination leads us astray from both.”

ibid.

The imagining heart

This concept of the imagining heart represents the essence of what I wish to communicate. Hillman’s essay is a stepping off point for imaginal thinking. It is a call for a recovery of soul.

Runners, stop! Allow the depression, experience what you are defending yourself against, and then act accordingly. When you run, do so for the feel of the wind in your hair. Run for the feel of tall grasses brushing against your skin. Run for a rush of youthful delight in your body and its power. Please do not imprison and silence the roar of your heart.