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Archive for May, 2017

The plight of the seven imprisoned Bahá’í ‘leaders’ continues. So does the campaign to secure their release. The latest development in the UK  is described at this link with the latest video.

As the ‘Yaran’, the seven Baha’is in Iran who have been unlawfully imprisoned since 2008, enter their ninth year of incarceration, a campaign all over the world has begun, bringing attention to the plight of these friends and calling for their immediate release. From India to the United States to South Africa to the United Kingdom, the hashtags #ReleaseBahai7Now and #NotAnotherYear are being used across social media to highlight the efforts made.

This year much focus has been given to the ‘years missed’, reflecting on the fact that “…during these nine years, the seven have endured awful conditions that are common in Iranian prisons. In human terms, they have also missed out on the numerous day-to-day joys – and sorrows – that make life sweet and precious” (Baha’i International Community).

In the UK, in response to this campaign, various artists have come together to participate in the ‘Prison Poems Project’, a series of short film clips that give voice to the poems of Mahvash Sabet, one of the seven prisoners.

Over the next few weeks, a poem will be recited once a day by a different artist.

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Edmundson

Given the themes of my current sequence this two-parter from February last year seems relevant. The first part came out yesterday.

Yesterday I gave a brief account of Mark Edmundson’s disillusioned dissection of our culture based mainly on his introduction. I promised to follow this up with a sampling of two other issues he takes up in his Quixotic attack on the windmills of materialism: the demolition work of Shakespeare and of Freud.

Shakespeare:

Edmundson warned me in his introduction of what I would find when we come to Shakespeare (page 10-11):

What is true is that Shakespeare helps change our sense of human life and human promise through an almost complete rejection of ideals. Like his contemporary, Cervantes, Shakespeare has only contempt for the heroic ideal. . . . . .

Shakespeare, as Arnold Hauser argues, is a poet of the dawning bourgeois age, who has little use for chivalry and the culture of heroic honour.

This was not a problem: the militarily heroic holds few attractions for me. However, as I discovered later Shakespeare, according to Edmundson, is not just attacking heroism, though that is a main target: he is (page 140) writing for

. . . . a class that has little use for deep religion, the religion of compassion. . . . . . And he writes for a class with no real use for high thought – though Shakespeare is from time to time tempted by the ideal of contemplation.’

He then analyses in detail plays including Titus Andronicus, Othello, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Troilus & Cressida that ruthlessly deconstruct the hero.

ShapiroInterestingly, it is not just Cervantes who influenced Shakespeare away from ideals. Montaigne, it is possible to argue, as James Shapiro does in 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, was also an influence on Shakespeare (page 332), as perhaps he was on Freud as we will see, and an influence particularly relevant to Hamlet:

He had surely looked into Montaigne by the time he wrote Hamlet – intuitions of critics stretching back to the 1830s on this question should be trusted – but he didn’t need to paraphrase him or pillage essays for his ideas. . . . . . . There was more than enough scepticism and uncertainty to go round in England in the final years of Elizabeth’s reign . . .

What is more important, perhaps, is the influence of Montaigne on the development of the soliloquy (page 333):

Redefining the relationship between speaker and audience, the essay also suggested to Shakespeare an intimacy between speaker and hearer that no other form, not even the sonnet, offered – except, perhaps, the soliloquy.

This may help explain why the one exception, which Edmundson detects to the reductive pattern he has identified, is Hamlet.

One of the reasons for this may be, as Shapiro suggests (ibid.), that:

Probably more than any other character in literature, Hamlet needs to talk; but there is nobody in whom he can confide.

Perhaps this is why Edmundson can find in him (page 174) ‘the free play of intellect’ he values so much. Hamlet can ‘think in quest of the Truth.’ And a truth that holds for everyone across time, not just pragmatically for the specific situation in some particular play.

It may therefore be no coincidence that this is my favourite play.

Edmundson argues that we feel that Shakespeare does not advocate any specific value system because the ones that live in his plays (page 12) ‘simply echo the anti-idealist values of his current audience and of the current world almost perfectly and, so, are nearly invisible.’

In the end, however, I do not accept his contention that Shakespeare does not value compassion, whatever we argue his audience might think and no matter that we can find evidence from his life that he fell short of that ideal in person. For instance, as a grain hoarder himself, his real life position on the 1607 food riots was rather different from the empathy for the rioters that comes across in Coriolanus.[1]

How, though, can the man that wrote,

The sense of death is most in apprehension;
And the poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.

(Measure for Measure Act 3, Scene 1, lines 76-79)

and

. . . . the snail, whose tender horns being hit,
Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain,
And there, all smother’d up, in shade doth sit,
Long after fearing to creep forth again . . .

(Venus & Adonis lines 1033-36)

not understand and value compassion? And I am not equating this with the uncanny empathy that allows him to enter the shadowy mind of an Iago or an Edgar.

NuttallSo, at this point, I am more or less convinced that he despised the heroic. I can accept that he might not have been strong on contemplation, though I do need to think more on that one. AD Nuttall would apparently not agree, given that he has written a whole book on Shakespeare, the Thinker and clearly feels that his truths are valid across time (page 22):

Shakespeare’s response is, precisely, intelligent rather than a mere cultural reflex. He thinks fundamentally, and this makes him a natural time traveller.

Even so, he may not be a million miles apart from Edmundson, as he also acknowledges that (page 12) ‘we do not know what Shakespeare thought about any major question, in the sense that we have no settled judgements of which we can be sure.’

I absolutely disagree though that he did not value compassion, while I do accept that, as a dramatist, he could have gone a long way to creating his vast range of convincing characters with high levels of cognitive empathy alone.

I am left, though, with a slightly uneasy feeling. Maybe there’s more to Edmundson’s case than I am happy to accept. This nagging doubt goes back as far as my reading of Anne Glynn-Jones’s book, Holding Up a Mirror: how civilisations declineI am always a touch sceptical about confident claims to explain how complex entities such as civilisations operate, even though I keep getting drawn to reading them, as my posts on Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilisation testify. Glynn-Jones builds a case against Shakespeare on the basis of Pitirim Sorokin‘s social cycle theory. I would have found it easy to dismiss her case had I not felt that elements of Sorokin’s model made a great deal of sense to me as a Bahá’í.

The core of what she feels relates to Sorokin’s concept of the sensate society. He classified societies according to their ‘cultural mentality’, which can be ‘ideational’ (reality is spiritual), ‘sensate’ (reality is material), or ‘idealistic’ (a synthesis of the two). The relevance of those categories to the current issues is obvious.

She feels the Shakespeare is a dramatist of a sensate society. She quotes many examples of where Shakespeare can clearly be argued to be pandering to the basest sensation-seeking instincts of his audience. She quotes Tolstoy (pages 264-65):

Shakespeare exemplifies the view ‘that no definite religious view of life was necessary for works of art in general, and especially for drama; that for the purpose of the drama the representation of human passions and characters was quite sufficient. . . . . .

And he concludes, ‘The fundamental inner cause of Shakespeare’s fame is . . . . that his dramas . . . . corresponded to the irreligious and immoral frame of mind of the upper classes of his time.’

Because I felt that to be a distorted misreading of Shakespeare’s audience as a whole and a very selective reading of his work in its entirety, I dismissed this view of Shakespeare completely at the time, though I could also see what she meant.

I agree he side-steps directly addressing religion but feel this is because it would have been too dangerous – and almost certainly unprofitable of course as well. That does not prove that he did not have a transcendent sense of the value of all life, and I believe he was deeply aware of its interconnectedness.

I accept that he loathed the heroic. He was definitely no philosopher. But a deeply felt compassion, rather than a mercantile value system, is what for me has ensured that he lives on, and continues to attract audiences across the world. It’s just that he does not explicitly teach compassion: he demonstrates it, though, in almost every word that he writes.

And so the pendulum swings on. Enough of that for now.

Freud:

In his introduction Edmundson states (page 12) that ‘Freud takes the enmity with ideals implicit in Shakespeare’s work and renders it explicit.’ He argues (page 14) that ‘Freud stands in the tradition of Montaigne, affirming the belief that the life of sceptical, humane detachment is the best of possible lives.’

Freud, Edmundson claims, takes this to an altogether different level (page 165):

One of the main functions of Shakespeare’s great inheritor, Freud, is to redescribe the ideals of compassion and courage and the exercise of imagination as pathologies and forms of delusion. . . . . Freud makes the middle-class people who live by half measures feel much better, allowing them to understand that the virtues that intimidated them are forms of sickness and that normality – clear-eyed and stable – is the true achievement. What a reversal!

I have read almost no Freud in the original, so strong has been my distaste for his views[2] as they have reached me through secondary sources, many of them his admirers. However, I am aware that it is possible to share my suspicion of his value without seeing him as exactly the kind of reductionist Edmundson identifies.

WebsterTake Richard Webster for example in his book Why Freud Was Wrong, in its way as brilliant as Edmundson’s. In his introduction he outlines his case against Freud. After explaining his sense that psychoanalysis is to be valued, if at all, not because it is truly scientific and valid, but because it enshrines imagination, something which has been side-lined by modernist reductionism, he makes a second telling point (page 9):

There is another reason why the vitality of the psychoanalytic tradition should not be taken as confirmation of the validity of Freud’s theories. This is because a great deal of it is owed not to any intellectual factor but to Freud’s own remarkable and charismatic personality and to the heroic myth, which he spun around himself during his own lifetime.

This is intriguing in the light of Edmundson’s case that Freud was a debunker of the heroic, but is not incompatible with it. In fact, it suggests that Freud failed to analyse himself dispassionately.

Webster takes this a step further (ibid.):

Freud himself consciously identified with Moses, and the prophetic and messianic dimensions of his character have been noted again and again even by those who have written sympathetically about psychoanalysis.

So, not just a hero, then, but a quasi-religious figure in his own eyes. Even more intriguing. Webster even goes on to claim that Freud (page 10) ‘went on to use the aura and authority of scientific rationalism in order to create around himself a church whose doctrines sought to subvert the very rationalism they invoked.’

His final point on this thread is hugely ironic in the light of Edmundson’s claims that Freud demolished the cult of the heroic ideal (page 11):

If Freud has not been seen in this light it is perhaps because the very success which he has enjoyed by casting himself in the role of intellectual liberator has brought with it the kind of idealisations and projections to which all messiahs are subject.

Towards the end of his book, Webster draws another conclusion about where this has helped to take us, which resonates with my recent explorations of Shelley, and with Edmundson’s rants against the aridity of much current lyric poetry in Poetry Slam. He argues for redressing the current bias against imagination and states that (page 504-05):

. . . . [u]ntil we have done this it seems likely that we will remain in thrall to the dissociated intellectual culture which we inhabit today, where an austere and politically influential scientific and technological culture, devoid of human sympathy and understanding, exists side by side with a weak literary and artistic culture which, because it has unconsciously internalised the image of its own superfluity, is prepared both to the stand back from the political process and to concede to the natural sciences the exclusive right to explore reality systematically and to pronounce authoritatively upon it.

Returning in more detail to Edmundson’s attack upon Freud, he defines the main focus of psychoanalysis as being on one ideal in particular (page 232):

History (and Shakespeare) have dealt with the myth of courage; history (and the Enlightenment) have dealt with the myth of faith. Love is Freud’s primary antagonist among human ideals, and he attacks it from every plausible direction.

In terms of love’s great exemplars, including Jesus and the Buddha, Freud argues (page 237) that they are ‘asking too much of human beings.’

How can we love our fellow men? Freud asks. Our fellow men, in general, have at best a mild contempt for us; at worst, they nurse murderous rage. . . . . There is only Self. Soul is an illusion.

I have dealt already on this blog with Matthieu Ricard’s utterly convincing refutation of such debasing cynicism in his book Altruism, which demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt, and on the basis of a huge amount of systematically gathered data, that we are innately capable of developing high levels of altruism, fairness and compassion. My last sequence of posts revisited his brilliant book from a different angle.

Edmundson goes on to quote Karl Kraus (page 243): ‘Psychoanalysis… is the disease of which it purports to be the cure.’ He goes on to explain what he believes this means. Having listed various ways human beings can rescue themselves from meaninglessness, such as love, creativity, compassion, courage or idealistic thought, he rounds his cannon upon Freud’s benighted cul-de-sac (page 244):

… all these activities are out of the bounds. Embracing them, for Freud, causes only trouble.

It is possible that to deny human beings these primary satisfactions makes them sick. It causes a disease, it does not cure it. If you live life without courage, compassion, the true exercise of intellect and creation through love, then you will not feel very well. You may even get quite ill.

before he delivers the coup-de-grace:

Then, when the banishment of ideals has made you ill, Freud can show you, through psychoanalysis and through the ethical program of his thought, how to feel a little better than you do. Psychoanalysis helps the culture of Self create a disease. And this disease psychoanalysis will happily help cure.

He feels the legacy of this, for psychotherapy as a whole, is deeply damaging (page 245):

Therapy can have many values, but they will never be idealistic. All therapies are about learning to live with half a loaf.

He is probably selling psychotherapies such as Psychosynthesis short when he uses that dubious word ‘all.’ But his point is valid for mainstream approaches. Spirituality and idealism are seen by them as suspect.

I hope this all too brief helicopter review inspires you to buy the book and read it, and I hope you then enjoy it as much as I have. Life is a lot richer than our materialistic gurus would have us believe, thank goodness.

Footnote:

[1] This side of Shakespeare was revealed in research done by Dr Jayne Archer, a lecturer in medieval and renaissance literature at Aberystwyth University.

[2] I am aware, from January’s Guardian article by , of the recent study which goes some way toward rehabilitating psychoanalysis as a treatment for depression.

He writes:

. . . . . [R]esearchers at London’s Tavistock clinic published results in October from the first rigorous NHS study of long-term psychoanalysis as a treatment for chronic depression. For the most severely depressed, it concluded, 18 months of analysis worked far better – and with much longer-lasting effects – than “treatment as usual” on the NHS, which included some CBT. Two years after the various treatments ended, 44% of analysis patients no longer met the criteria for major depression, compared to one-tenth of the others. Around the same time, the Swedish press reported a finding from government auditors there: that a multimillion pound scheme to reorient mental healthcare towards CBT had proved completely ineffective in meeting its goals.

So I need to clarify, perhaps, that it is Freud’s quasi-mythical beliefs such as the Oedipus Complex that repelled me as being too absurd to qualify as a universal truth. Other aspects of his thinking, taken over and used by other schools of therapy, have their place, such an projection and denial, as well as the acknowledgement that for some people it can be imperative that they understand their inscape deeply before they can move on, and that this can take years. Even so these are not universally applicable components of an effective therapy at all times. There is no one size fits all panacea – not psychoanalysis, not CBT.

I don’t think Burkeman would disagree with that as he concludes ‘. . . . . many scholars have been drawn to what has become known as the “dodo-bird verdict”: the idea, supported by some studies, that the specific kind of therapy makes little difference. (The name comes from the Dodo’s pronouncement in Alice in Wonderland: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”) What seems to matter much more is the presence of a compassionate, dedicated therapist, and a patient committed to change; if one therapy is better than all others for all or even most problems, it has yet to be discovered.’

Stuck in memory from my first degree in psychology, there was an interesting piece of meta-analysis from 1979 that pulled together all the studies of the efficacy of psychotherapy that had included an advance measure of how credible clients found the therapy they were undertaking. When all other variables were controlled for, the strongest predictor of effectiveness was how much the client believed the therapy would work. Unfortunately I have not been able to track that down recently.

And for me, if it has no place for a spiritual dimension, such as can be found in Jungian analysis and Psychosynthesis, there is still a major defect in the approach.

 

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Edmundson

Given the themes of my current sequence this two-parter from February last year seems relevant. The second part comes out tomorrow.

As I worked on my recent sequence of posts about Shelley, prompted by a heads up from Gordon Kerr at Dazzling Spark Arts Foundation I stumbled upon Poetry Slam by Mark Edmundson. I was dead impressed. It was a short step from there to reading his book self and soul: a Defense of Ideals.

Because just about every page of the book is crammed with valuable insights I’m going to focus on only three aspects of it: first, what he calls the ‘polemical introduction,’ a few quotes from and comments about which will convey the overall theme of the book; second, his chapter on Shakespeare, which argues a fascinating case for seeing the value-free Shakespeare I took for granted as being in reality the demolition expert who detonated explosions beneath the foundations of the towers of medieval idealism to clear the ground for our modern pragmatic commercialism; and finally, his chapter on Freud, which sees him as the reductionist par excellence, who crusaded against any residual ideals that might give meaning to our lives and effectively buried for whole generations the values which Edmundson argues Shakespeare had fatally wounded.

I may drag a few of my own hobbyhorses into this arena as I hobble along.

While I found his attack on Freud was music to my ears, his antidote to what he defines in effect as Shakespeare’s toxic effects was far harder to swallow, and I am gagging on that still. I’m not sure he was completely wrong, though, even so.

The Triumph of Self

This is the title Edmundson gives to his introduction. I was hooked from the very first page so I’ll quote from it:

It is no secret: culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and sceptical. When I look out at my students, about to graduate, I see people who are in the process of choosing a way to make money, a way to succeed, a strategy for getting on in life. . . . . It’s no news: we are more and more a worldly culture, a money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, and reaching for more and more. We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. . . . . Unfettered capitalism runs amok; Nature is ravaged; the rich gorge: prisons are full to bursting; the poor cry out in their misery and no one seems to hear. Lust of Self rules the day.

He is not blind to the dark side of idealism though he is perhaps not as sensitive to it as, for example, Jonathan Haidt is, in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ when he indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris)

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris). For source of image see link.

Heroism:

Haidt’s words were ringing in my ears as Edmundson begins to explain the three main ideals he wishes to focus upon. The first ideal he looks at is heroism. If the hook from the first page had not gone so deep, I might have swum away again at this point. I’m glad I didn’t.

That is not because I am now sold on the heroic as Edmundson first introduces it. The idea of Achilles still does not thrill me because he is a killer. He lights the way for Atilla, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and then for Hitler, Mao, Stalin and beyond.

None of those 20th Century examples are probably heroes in any Homeric sense of the word, but, with their roots in the betrayed idealism of the French Revolution, they have capitalised on similar perversions of idealism that have fuelled war, torture, mass prison camps and worse. I can’t shake off the influence of my formative years under the ominous shadow of the Second World War. I’m left with a powerful and indelible aversion to any warlike and violent kind of idealism, and any idolising of the heroic can seem far too close to that for comfort to me. In fact, high levels of intensity about any belief system sets warning bells ringing in my head. I’m not sure where to stand between the horns of the dilemma Yeats defined so clearly:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(The Second Coming)

I’ve dealt with that at some length in a previous sequence of posts so I won’t revisit that in detail now.

A key point was one I borrowed from Eric Reitan’s measured and humane defence of religion against Richard Dawkin’s straw man attacks. One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion. Our idealism, our ideology, would then be built on potentially totalitarian foundations. I am using the word God in a wider sense than the purely theological to stand for whatever we make the driving force of our lives: this could mistakenly be money, Marxism or the motherland.

I accept that, for the zealot of a destructive creed, his god is definitely worthy of worship, so much so he might kill me if I disagree: even so, Reitan’s point is a valid one. We should all take care, before we commit to a cause, to make sure that it is truly holy.

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion (for source of image see link)

Contemplation:

In any case, it’s where Edmundson goes next that kept me happily hooked (pages 4-5):

The second great Western ideal emerges as an ambivalent attack on Homer and Homeric values. Plato repeatedly expresses his admiration for the Homeric poem; he seems to admire Homer above all literary artists. But to Plato there is a fundamental flaw at the core of Homer’s work: Homer values the warrior above all others. For Plato the pre-eminent individual is the thinker, and the best way to spend one’s life is not in the quest for glory but in the quest for Truth. Plato introduces the second of the great ideals in Western culture: the ideal of contemplation.

He goes onto explain that Plato is not interested in investigating how to ‘navigate practical difficulties.’ He seeks ‘a Truth that will be true for all time.’

In religious terms, as Daniel Batson describes them, I’m an example of some one who scores high on the Quest scale, where religion ‘involves an open-ended, responsive dialogue with existential questions raised by the contradictions and tragedies of life’ (Religion and the Individual page 169). No surprise then that I was delighted to find that Edmundson was going to explore this kind of ideal at some length. He also makes it very clear later in the book that being true to the role of thinker requires its own form of heroism, as the life and death of Socrates demonstrates.

Edmundson reflects upon the fact (page 6) that the ‘average citizen now is a reflexive pragmatist.’ He continues:

The mind isn’t best used to seek eternal Truth: that is impractical, a waste of time. The mind is a compass to get bearings in life; a calculator to ascertain profit and lost; a computer to plan one’s next move in life’s chess match.

He adds that ‘Instrumental Reason rules the day.’

Buddha Jingan

 

Compassion:

Last of all he comes to one of my other obsessions (page 7):

There is a third ideal that stands next to the heroic and the contemplative: the compassionate ideal. The ideal of compassion comes into the Western tradition definitively with the teachings of Jesus Christ. But the ideal of compassion is older than Jesus; it is manifest in the sacred texts of the Hindus, in the teachings of the Buddha and, less directly, in the reflections of Confucius.

The shift in consciousness between this and the heroic ideal is massive (page 8):

No longer is one a thrashing Self, fighting the war of each against all. Now one is part of everything and everyone: one merges with the spirit of all the lives. And perhaps this merger is heaven, or as close to heaven as we mortals can come.

And staying true to that perception also requires great courage. The histories of the great religions testify to that, with their tales of martyrdom and persecution. It is sad though to reflect upon how often the persecuted faiths have later become persecutors themselves: it is not just the heroic ideal that has shed rivers of blood throughout history. Conviction, as I have explored before on this blog, is a double-edged sword.

Three Ideals

So, then, we have it (page 9): ‘Courage, compassion, and serious thought: these are the great ideals of the ancient world.’

It would be impossible for me to do justice to the force and depth of his treatment of these three ideals. I am not even going to attempt it here. I can wholeheartedly recommend his entire book as a stimulating exploration of what we have come very close to losing.

In the next post I will simply home in on two relatively manageable implications of his main theme: his treatment of two key figures who, in his view, have helped misshape modern culture – Shakespeare and Freud.

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I’m about to recommend a book published in 1996. Not only does that seem a bit late in the day, but also much of the book makes bold statements about a mythological ‘reality’ for which absolutely no proof whatsoever can be adduced and with some of which I completely disagree. Why would I risk my already suspect and flakey reputation with sceptics for such a dubious course of action?

Partly this can be explained by the fact that the book contains genuine insights too valuable to ignore. To support that contention here is a quote of one.

Twenty years ago James Hillman wrote in The Soul’s Code (page 225), in his analysis of what he calls ‘The Bad Seed’:

(Hitler’s rote-learned information) proved his transcendence and disguised his lack of thought and reflection and his inability to hold a conversation. The demonic does not engage; rather, it smothers with details and jargon any possibility of depth.

Our republic should learn this lesson from Hitler, for we might one-day vote into power a hero who wins a giant TV trivia contest and educate our children to believe the Information Superhighway is the road to knowledge.

This quote exactly illustrates the dual nature of this text. It speaks of ‘demons’ in one breath, terminology I find hard to swallow, and follows it up with a breath-taking piece of intuition, the accuracy of which I leave you to judge for yourselves on the basis of recent evidence.

So thought-provoking are such comments that even when they are not as spot on as that one, it seems to me they make the book of great value in spite of its fairy-tale aspects. I am now going to try and make the argument in favour of that position.

One of my main difficulties with his core contention is this concept of the daimon as he spells it. Early in the book he writes (page 8):

The soul of each of us is given a unique daimon before we are born, and it has selected an image or pattern that we live on earth. . . . . The daimon remembers what is in your image and belongs to your pattern, and therefore your daimon is a carrier of your destiny.

As explained by the greatest of later Platonists, Plotinus (A.D. 205–270), we elected the body, the parents, the place, and the circumstances that suited the soul and that, as the myth says, belong to its necessity. This suggests that the circumstances, including my body and my parents whom I may curse, are my soul’s choice – and I do not understand this because I have forgotten.

He later unpacks a further implication (page 46):

Since ancient psychology usually located the soul around or with the heart, your heart holds the image of your destiny and called you to it. . . . . Each of our souls is guided by a daimon to that particular body and place, these parents and circumstances, by Necessity – and none of us had an inkling of this because it was eradicated on the plains of forgetting.

The Acorn Theory

While at one point asserting that the life we fall into is our ‘soul’s choice,’ he also states that our daimon has guided us to that decision. Either way I have a problem with the idea that we choose our destiny in this way, but that is not the main issue. I find it confusing that, while he makes it clear at this point in the book that we have a daimon and a soul, he proceeds, in my view, to fudge that distinction by conflating them.

He outlines what he calls his ‘acorn’ theory (page 6):

In a nutshell, then, this book is about calling, about fate, about character, about innate image. Together they make up the ‘acorn theory’, which holds that each person bears a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived.

After explaining about the daimon and the soul, he states (page 10):

I will be using many of the terms for this acorn – image, character, fate, genius, calling, daimon, soul, destiny – rather interchangeably, preferring one or another depending on the context.

I find the original distinction unhelpful. My sense is that much can be explained perfectly well even in terms of what he is trying to explain and account for by simply using the word ‘soul’ and grasping that there is a dual potential in terms of the soul’s power and development. Turned heavenwards its impact is benign: mired in matter its effects are toxic. Either way it has immense power.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes this completely clear (Paris Talks, p. 97):

. . . when man does not open his mind and heart to the blessing of the spirit, but turns his soul towards the material side, towards the bodily part of his nature, then is he fallen from his high place and he becomes inferior to the inhabitants of the lower animal kingdom. In this case the man is in a sorry plight! For if the spiritual qualities of the soul, open to the breath of the Divine Spirit, are never used, they become atrophied, enfeebled, and at last incapable; whilst the soul’s material qualities alone being exercised, they become terribly powerful—and the unhappy, misguided man, becomes more savage, more unjust, more vile, more cruel, more malevolent than the lower animals themselves. All his aspirations and desires being strengthened by the lower side of the soul’s nature, he becomes more and more brutal, until his whole being is in no way superior to that of the beasts that perish.

This would be another way of explaining why Hillman wonders whether some people might have no soul (see below).

Even so, there was much I resonated to, not least the idea that we all might have a special purpose to fulfill in life no matter how modest our situation or our means. Hillman also rightly pillories the sterile banality of our materialistic way of life, argues against our blindness to the transcendent, and eloquently explains the importance of having a ‘calling.’ The relevance of these issues draws me into his explorations of them.

In the first part of the book he draws most of his evidence from the well-documented lives of celebrities – explaining that he has done so because this is the easiest place from which to draw illustrative data. This makes for a glamorous but unconvincing panorama of film stars and politicians, with the occasional matador (Manolete) and dictator (Franco) thrown in for good measure. Even so the scattering of thought-provoking comments kept me reading.

Perhaps, rather than compile an anthology of one-liners at this point, it would be best to focus on one more substantial illustration, a thread that runs across 70 pages woven into the tapestry of his overall perspective. Any reader of this blog will recognize immediately that this is a theme close to my heart, acorn, daimon, destiny, soul or whatever.

 

Materialism

We are inhabiting a materialistic culture that quarantines the transcendent as though it were the plague (page 110):

In the kingdom (or is it the mall?) of the west, consciousness has lifted the transcendent ever higher and further away from actual life. The bridgeable chasm has become a cosmic void.

This idea of course is nothing new. Even when he teases out little-mentioned aspects of its character, we are not breaking entirely new ground either (page 128-29):

Scientific psychology carves the kingdom of causes into only two parts, nature and nurture. . . . . We do need to recognise at the outset that division into two alternatives is a comfortable habit of the Western mind.

I did find it intriguing though to reflect on this insight and this was typical of my reaction to the book as a whole. We do live in a world that seems instinctively to dichotomise and categorise, that seems blind to dimensions and ambiguities. This makes what he refers to (page 150) as the ‘folly of reducing mind to brain’ appear almost inevitable and it’s therefore no surprise that it ‘never seems to leave the Western scene.’ As a result (page 151)

The simplistics of monogenic causes eventually leads to the control of behaviour by drugs – that is, to drugged behaviour.

So far a perspective that I agree with, well-expressed but mostly familiar. It’s the final devastating point that best illustrates the penetrating courage of his writing (page 184):

If a culture’s philosophy does not allow enough place for the other, give credit to the invisible, then the other must squeeze it self into our psychic system in distorted form. This suggests that some psychic dysfunctions would be better located in the dysfunctional worldview by which they are judged.

That final sentence exactly pins down a fundamental problem. We all too often place denigrating labels on those our culture has helped damage. He has shifted my understanding to a higher level. He does that often enough to make the book a rewarding read.

Vacuous Environments

Perhaps I need to add one briefer example.

We live in a world that has in general reduced our expectations from the numinous to the banal. This has become so familiar as to be largely unnoticed. Credit to him that he sees the issue clearly and refuses to fudge it even though his use of the term daimon may blind some of us to the basic value of his point (page 165):

Perhaps the worst of all atmospheres for your daimon, trying to live with your parents in their place and circumstances, arises when these parents have no fantasy whatsoever about you. This objective, neutral environment, this normative, rational life is a vacuum with nothing blowing through.

In case we didn’t get the point he repeats it later in slightly different terms (page 168):

. . . . It is not ultimately parental control or parental chaos that children run away from; they run from the void of living in a family without any fantasy beyond shopping, keeping up the car, and routines of niceness.

He’s nailed an essential truth again and, in this case, the spiritual aspect of his perspective lends his point an additional power for me at least.

However, in spite of all those positives I was still uneasy.

Bad Seed

The second challenging aspect for me of the first two-thirds of the book was that to Hillman it initially seemed not to matter whether the acorn produces a murderer, a Matador or mystic. There seemed to be a moral confusion blended with the murky mythology. It was only towards the end of the book that he confronts this problem head on and proves beyond doubt that he was not completely blind to it, even though in the end a skilled bullfighter still seems as admirable to him as Martin Luther King.

He first raises the question in the following terms (page 214):

Can the acorn harbour a bad seed? Or, perhaps the criminal psychopath has no soul at all?

He uses as his key example one of the three most notorious dictators of modern times – Hitler – locating part of the problem in the cultural assumptions and patterns of this age (pages 215-16):

Having once appeared in such a virulent form (as Hitler), may that demon not need to blind us again. Our enquiry also intends to lay out specific ways in which the daimon shows itself to be demonic, and a genius, evil. . . . . . Anyone who rises in a world that worships success should be suspect, for this is an age of psychopathy. . . . The habits of Hitler, reported by reliable informants and assessed by reliable historians and biographers, give evidence of an identification with or possession by his daimon. . . . As I want to demonstrate, the acorn theory offers as good a mode as any of imagining the Hitler phenomenon.

He begins by listing seven characteristics of Hitler that in his view capture the way he presents (pages 217-222): The Cold Heart, Hellfire, Wolf, Anality[1], Suicides of women, Freaks[2], and Humourless Hitler.

While these pointers may indeed be applicable to Hitler they don’t advance his case for the existence of a daimon, in my view.

More on that in the second and last post.

Footnotes:

[1]. He explains: ‘Hitler gave himself enemas; he was immensely disturbed by his flatulence; he had obsessive ideas about touching and being touched, about diet, digestion, and personal cleanliness.’

[2] He explains: ‘Hitler’s entourage, however, was most unusual for its collection of freaks in high places, even as others physically like them were systematically expunged in the death camps.’

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The plight of the seven imprisoned Bahá’í ‘leaders’ continues. So does the campaign to secure their release. The latest development in the UK  is described at this link with the latest video.

As the ‘Yaran’, the seven Baha’is in Iran who have been unlawfully imprisoned since 2008, enter their ninth year of incarceration, a campaign all over the world has begun, bringing attention to the plight of these friends and calling for their immediate release. From India to the United States to South Africa to the United Kingdom, the hashtags #ReleaseBahai7Now and #NotAnotherYear are being used across social media to highlight the efforts made.

This year much focus has been given to the ‘years missed’, reflecting on the fact that “…during these nine years, the seven have endured awful conditions that are common in Iranian prisons. In human terms, they have also missed out on the numerous day-to-day joys – and sorrows – that make life sweet and precious” (Baha’i International Community).

In the UK, in response to this campaign, various artists have come together to participate in the ‘Prison Poems Project’, a series of short film clips that give voice to the poems of Mahvash Sabet, one of the seven prisoners.

Over the next few weeks, a poem will be recited once a day by a different artist.

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Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Tomorrow I begin posting a short sequence on the idea of a ‘calling,’ by which is meant the powerful urge to fulfil a purpose which gives life meaning as the same time time as it dominates it entirely.  Republishing this post seemed a good preparation.

In the light of my ruminations on van Gogh after my trip to Amsterdam and the recent revelations about the rediscovered gun and his ear, the recent Guardian longer article by  came as a brilliant pulling of threads together into a coherent and compelling pattern. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

When Vincent van Gogh got out of hospital in January 1889, with a white bandage covering the place where his left ear had been, he immediately went back to work in his house next to a cafe in the southern French town of Arles. A still life he painted that month looks like a determined attempt to hold on to the things of this world, to quell his inner turbulence by concentrating on the solid facts of his life. Around a sturdy wooden table he has laid out a symbolic array of the simple pillars of his existence. Four onions. A medical self-help book. A candle. The pipe and tobacco he found steadying. A letter from his brother Theo. A teapot. And one more thing: a large, emptied bottle of absinthe.

Has he drunk the absinthe since leaving hospital? Does its emptiness represent a promise to swear off the stuff from now on?

The first thing to be said about this painting is that it is revolutionary. It is a new kind of art. The very idea that a collection of objects, painted with fiery brushstrokes in heightened luminous colours, with ridges of thick impasto in some places and bare canvas in others, can reveal the state of someone’s soul was utterly new. Van Gogh was its originator. In the months after this mostly self-taught Dutch artist in his mid 30s arrived in Arles in February 1888 he invented a new kind of art that would come to be called expressionism.

In the process he drove himself mad.

That probably sounds like a dangerously Romantic way of putting it to curators of On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness, an exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. This sensational show – how strange to see the rusty gun, found in a field at Auvers-sur-Oise, that the museum is “80% sure” Van Gogh shot himself with, in 1890, at the age of just 37 – is full of fascinating documents that tell a sad story of a man struggling with his declining mental health until finally, in despair of ever getting well or living independently, he chose suicide. It presents a lucid narrative of the final phase of Van Gogh’s life. Yet it is ultimately a pedantic and misleading exhibition whose pursuit of clinical accuracy misses the mystery of Van Gogh’s life and art.

The straw man the curators want to tear down is the myth that Van Gogh’s genius lay in his “madness”, that he painted in the fever of hallucinations and took inspiration from illness.

Read Full Post »

The plight of the seven imprisoned Bahá’í ‘leaders’ continues. So does the campaign to secure their release. The latest development in the UK  is described at this link with the latest video.

As the ‘Yaran’, the seven Baha’is in Iran who have been unlawfully imprisoned since 2008, enter their ninth year of incarceration, a campaign all over the world has begun, bringing attention to the plight of these friends and calling for their immediate release. From India to the United States to South Africa to the United Kingdom, the hashtags #ReleaseBahai7Now and #NotAnotherYear are being used across social media to highlight the efforts made.

This year much focus has been given to the ‘years missed’, reflecting on the fact that “…during these nine years, the seven have endured awful conditions that are common in Iranian prisons. In human terms, they have also missed out on the numerous day-to-day joys – and sorrows – that make life sweet and precious” (Baha’i International Community).

In the UK, in response to this campaign, various artists have come together to participate in the ‘Prison Poems Project’, a series of short film clips that give voice to the poems of Mahvash Sabet, one of the seven prisoners.

Over the next few weeks, a poem will be recited once a day by a different artist.

Read Full Post »

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