April 3, 2004
In an earlier issue of Phlit, I mentioned a psychic, John Edward, who has his own TV show, “Crossing Over with John Edward.” Edward is probably the most well-known psychic in the U.S.; his specialty is talking to people about deceased relatives, and conveying messages from the dead to the living. Now, however, another TV show is bringing psychic phenomena to public attention: “Psychic Detectives,” which runs on a channel called “Court TV.” Psychic Detectives describes how police departments solve crimes with the help of psychics. Some police departments even receive instruction from psychics on how to tap into their own psychic powers, tap into the psychic powers that everyone possesses (including policemen).
As I mentioned in the last issue of Phlit, I’m preparing a new edition of my book of aphorisms. As I work on this new edition, I find that I can draw on back issues of Phlit. I once thought of trying to publish a book called The Best of Phlit, but now I’m incorporating “the best of Phlit” into my book of aphorisms and into my sketch of Western literature (Realms of Gold).
In the last issue, I included some new aphorisms that I wrote for Chapter 1. In this issue, I’d like to show you five new aphorisms that I wrote for Chapter 2. Some of these aphorisms draw on earlier issues of Phlit, and may seem redundant to people who read those earlier issues. But I hope that the ideas are presented more clearly and concisely in these aphorisms than they were in earlier issues of Phlit. And since these ideas aren’t easy to grasp, they may deserve a second presentation.
Thought alone can bring about results. Negative thoughts, though buried in secrecy and silence, can bring about negative results. Marie-Louise von Franz, a disciple of Jung, said “by nursing secret destructive attitudes, a wife can drive her husband, and a mother her children, into illness, accident, or even death.”1 Such destructive attitudes can also lead to self-destruction, suicide, which is sometimes concealed beneath the appearance of accidental death. Negative thoughts may be conscious or unconscious, or they may be semi-conscious, occupying that borderland between conscious and unconscious.
Proust had a destructive attitude toward two people, his mother and his chauffeur, and when both of them died, he felt that he was guilty of a double murder. (Proust would have understood Oscar Wilde’s paradox, “we always kill the thing we love.”) Proust’s love for his chauffeur, Albert Agostinelli, ended when Agostinelli left Proust, went to the south of France to learn flying, and died in an airplane accident.2 In Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the narrator’s love for Albertine follows the same pattern as Proust’s love for his chauffeur. But the first draft of Proust’s novel, including the death of Albertine, was written before the death of Agostinelli. Thus, the whole history of Proust’s love for Agostinelli existed in Proust’s mind, and in Proust’s novel, before it existed in the external world. The mind shapes circumstances.
Was Hamlet also a negative thinker, a person who committed thought-murders? The eminent literary critic G. Wilson Knight argued that Hamlet is obsessed with death, infected with nihilism; Knight argued that Hamlet’s nihilism spreads through the Danish court, and results in a pile of corpses.3 Some critics reacted to Knight’s argument with indignation, insisting that Claudius, not Hamlet, is the villain. But if we reflect on the importance of negative thinking, in life and in literature, we become receptive to Knight’s argument.
If we accept Knight’s argument, must we abandon the traditional view that Hamlet is an intellectual, a noble heart, etc.? No, Hamlet can be both an intellectual and a “negative thinker,” both a sweet prince and a shadow prince. As Jung said, “The brighter the light, the darker the shadow. For every Faust, a Mephistopheles.”4 For every intellectual, a devil within. Doubtless Shakespeare himself, who resembles Hamlet in so many ways, was both a genius and a “negative thinker.” The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.
“Shadow” is Jung’s term for the dark side of human nature, the impulses that are hidden from society, and even from ourselves. The shadow arranges things, while the conscious mind is only partly aware of what the shadow is doing. In Ibsen’s Wild Duck, Gregers gives a young girl, Hedvig, a gun, and she later shoots herself. Does Gregers consciously intend to cause Hedvig’s death? No, his destructive impulses are below the threshold of consciousness. Sometimes, however, an event like Hedvig’s death causes one to become conscious of impulses that have hitherto been unconscious.
Many writers, realizing the power of thought, have urged their readers to control their thoughts, organize their thoughts, focus their thoughts on a positive goal. This argument has spawned an entire literary genre: inspirational literature, self-help literature. One of the most well-known writers of inspirational literature is James Allen, author of As A Man Thinketh. According to Allen, “Man is the cause (though nearly always unconsciously) of circumstances.... Circumstance does not make the man; it reveals him to himself.... He will find that as he alters his thoughts towards things and other people, things and other people will alter towards him.”5
Shakespeare depicts the shadowy world of semi-conscious impulses. Shakespeare goes beneath character, beneath the image that we present to the world and to ourselves. He deals with the passions that lurk beneath our character, our self-image. The word “personality” comes from persona, meaning mask; Shakespeare tears off the mask of personality, and depicts the primal drives that everyone shares.
Shakespeare’s harshest critic was Tolstoy. Tolstoy excoriated Shakespeare for his vague characters and vague motives; Tolstoy spoke of “an obvious and glaring defect — particularly evident in Hamlet — namely, that the chief person of the play has no character at all.”6 Hamlet is universal — both good and evil, both a noble heart and a negative thinker. He lacks a clearly-defined character because he is universal, because he is Shakespeare’s greatest creation.
Hamlet’s world is upset, disturbed — “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” This disturbance extends to the heavens; Horatio says that Denmark has witnessed “stars with trains of fire, and dews of blood, disasters in the sun,” and he points out that similar things were seen in Rome “a little ere the mightiest Julius fell.”7 In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare emphasizes the disturbance in the natural world that accompanies the disturbance in human affairs; as Knight put it, “we are confronted with things apparently beyond the workings of causality.”8 In Macbeth, the weather is stormy, birds behave strangely, horses eat each other, etc.
This is more than a literary device, this is a worldview. In the last issue of Phlit, I discussed Jung’s theory of synchronicity, which says that there are meaningful coincidences between the human world and the natural world; synchronicity is an “acausal connecting principle.” For thousands of years, the Chinese noticed that certain events cluster together; instead of looking for causes, they looked for clusters. If an earthquake coincided with the death of an emperor, the Chinese saw this as a “meaningful coincidence.” Shakespeare shared this worldview, and he describes all the “meaningful coincidences” at the time of Caesar’s death; Shakespeare says, “when beggars die there are no comets seen.”9
Are Shakespeare and Jung the only Western thinkers who had this worldview, who saw clusters rather than causes, synchronicity rather than causality? No, this was a widespread worldview in the West until the Age of Reason, until the Scientific Revolution, until Western man got into the habit of rational, cause-and-effect thinking, until Western man got into the habit of dismissing the occult, and dismissing “meaningful coincidences,” as mere superstition.
In Macbeth, the future is predicted by the witches, and in Julius Caesar, the future is predicted by the Soothsayer. Shakespeare’s plays are full of prophecies and hunches that anticipate future events. Again, this is more than a literary device, this is part of Shakespeare’s worldview. Again, this is consistent with Jung’s worldview, and consistent with the worldview that prevailed until rational-scientific thinking became dominant. Jung argues, following Kant, that space, time, and causality are merely categories of the intellect, they don’t exist in the thing-in-itself; space and time are relative not absolute, the future is embedded in the present. If prophecy has a long history in literature, it is because prophecy has a long history in the world itself.
Modern thinkers like Jung are skeptical of the rational-scientific worldview, and are coming back to Shakespeare’s worldview, coming back to a worldview that has long been dismissed as superstitious. Lichtenberg said, “There is a great difference between still believing something and believing it again. Still to believe that the moon affects the plants reveals stupidity and superstition, but to believe it again is a sign of philosophy and reflection.”10 Modern thinkers are again believing in the occult powers that Shakespeare believed in.
There are two competing traditions in Western thought: the rational-scientific tradition, and the Hermetic Tradition. These two traditions have left their mark on imaginative literature, as well as on philosophy.
The term “Hermetic” comes from Hermes Trismegistus, who was originally an Egyptian god (Thoth) and was later incorporated into Greek culture, and associated with Hermes. The God was called megistos (great), and he was addressed three times, hence tri-megistos, or Trismegistus; Milton calls him “thrice great Hermes.” The term “hermetic” can mean “pertaining to alchemy and magic,” but its more common meaning is “tightly sealed” (from a seal supposedly invented by Hermes Trismegistus).
About forty books are ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus. These books were written between about 200 BC and 200 AD; it appears that they were written in (or near) Alexandria. They deal with alchemy and astrology, and also with philosophy. The “Hermetic Tradition” isn’t simply the Alchemical Tradition, it’s a literary-philosophical tradition in which alchemy, astrology, the occult, and the philosophy of Plato are all interwoven. All European alchemists may be said to be part of the Hermetic tradition, but philosophers and poets with no interest in alchemy may also be considered part of this tradition.
One of the basic tenets of the Hermetics is that the world is one (unus mundus), the world is an organic whole, and every part of the world is connected to other parts. “Every human being, beast, plant or mineral is influenced... by one or more of the celestial bodies. It is the influence of Mars which distinguishes a wolf from a lion (the latter being a solar animal).”11 Earthly things are connected to heavenly things, have affinities with heavenly things; “as above, so below” said the Hermetics. Everything is connected by a Great Chain of Being. What the Hermetics refer to as “occult correspondences” is closely related to what Jung refers to as “acausal connections” and “synchronicity.” Jung is part of the Hermetic Tradition.
The Hermetic Tradition can be traced from ancient Egypt, through Hellenistic times, then through the medieval alchemists, then to the Florentine Neoplatonists. The most famous of the Florentine Neoplatonists were Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino. The Neoplatonists were one of the most influential philosophical schools in Renaissance Europe. After the Neoplatonists had died, the Hermetic Tradition was carried on by the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, a contemporary of Shakespeare. It isn’t surprising that we find Hermetic thinking in the works of Shakespeare.
The Hermetic Tradition lived on in the works of English poets of the 17th century — Marvell, Herbert, Donne, and the other “Metaphysical Poets.” These poets were known for their elaborate metaphors, which tried to find connections and affinities between things that seem far apart. These lines from a poem by George Herbert may serve as an example of Metaphysical poetry, Hermetic poetry:
Man is all symmetry,
Samuel Johnson complained that, in the poetry of the Metaphysicals, “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together,” and Johnson noted that the Metaphysicals were fond of the “discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.”12 Johnson was writing in the mid-1700s, when the Hermetic Tradition had fallen out of favor. In the 1700s, the mechanical worldview of Newton and Locke was more popular than the Hermetic worldview. The inter-connected world, the unus mundus, had been broken into pieces.
At the end of the 1700s, during the Romantic period, the Hermetic Tradition came back into favor, and again inspired poets. Coleridge and Blake rejected the mechanical worldview, and admired mystics and Hermetists like Boehme and Swedenborg. Coleridge argued that analogy and symbol could be used to make the world whole again.
New England Transcendentalism was a younger brother of English Romanticism. Emerson was influenced by Coleridge and other Romantics, and Emerson liked to look for correspondences between nature and man. “Every appearance in nature,” wrote Emerson, “corresponds to some state of the mind.... Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour and is not reminded of the flux of all things? Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence.... The whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.”13
Goethe, the most prominent of the German Romantics, was also in sympathy with Hermetism, and had a strong interest in alchemy and the occult.
In the mid-1800s, the Hermetic Tradition merged with the Spiritualist movement. A French writer named Éliphas Lévi published a comprehensive study of the Hermetic tradition, a study that had wide influence, especially in France. Lévi probably influenced Baudelaire, one of the prominent Hermetics of the time. Baudelaire spoke of “universal correspondence and symbolism, that repertory of all metaphor,” and Baudelaire wrote a poem called “Correspondances.”14 Lévi also influenced Rimbaud and Mallarmé, the leading Symbolists; the entire Symbolist movement can be considered Hermetic.
By the late 1800s, the Hermetic Tradition enjoyed wide popularity among literary people. Ireland was a hotbed of Hermetism. The Irish poet Yeats joined various Hermetic societies, including the Theosophists, who were led by Mme. Blavatsky, and the Rosicrucians. Many of Yeats’ works deal with Hermetic subjects, such as his stories “Rosa Alchemica” and “The Adoration of the Magi.” Joyce was also deeply affected by Hermetism. Joyce’s work abounds in analogies and correspondences; in Ulysses, chapters correspond to parts of the body, and also to branches of knowledge.
The Joyce scholar W. Y. Tindall argues that Joyce’s “maze of correspondences” is merely a literary device, that Joyce was concerned with aesthetic unity, not cosmic unity, and that one must go all the way back to the Metaphysical Poets in order to find writers who believed in cosmic unity. In Tindall’s opinion, Hermetism no longer survives as a worldview, but only as a literary technique. Likewise, the historian of ideas A. O. Lovejoy, author of The Great Chain of Being, regards the Hermetic worldview as dead. These scholars fail to understand that Hermetic thinking has long flourished in China, and survives there not as a mere literary technique, but as a view of the world. They also fail to understand that Jung has breathed new life into the Hermetic Tradition; Jung’s theory of synchronicity revives the Hermetic search for occult connections, acausal connections. The Hermetic tradition will live again — not only as an inspiration to novelists and poets, but as part of an attempt to grasp reality itself. Thrice-great Hermes is not dead yet.
Some writers start slowly, and write their best work in their old age. Others begin their career with a bang — their first book is their best, and they lose inspiration as they get older. Milan Kundera began his career with a bang; his first novel, The Joke, was an international bestseller. His later works are somewhat contrived and uninspired.
Kundera deserves high marks for clarity and polish, for organizing and presenting his thoughts. He also deserves high marks for his non-fiction works, his works of literary criticism and philosophy; The Art of the Novel is excellent. The chief inspiration for Kundera’s fiction was Hermann Broch. Following Broch’s example, Kundera wrote idea-novels, novels that fuse fiction and reflection, novels that interrupt the story with essays on philosophy, music, etc., novels that don’t aspire to recreate life, don’t aspire to create a realistic world. Kundera thinks that too much praise is lavished on Joyce and Proust; he prefers Central and Eastern European writers like Broch, Musil, Kafka, Hasek, and Gombrowicz. Kundera is also a fan of early novelists like Sterne and Fielding, who don’t aspire to mimic reality, who precede the realistic trend of the 19th century.
One of the ideas that Kundera explores in his fiction is the idea of kitsch. Kitsch is a sentimental view of the world, a view that excludes everything dark and doubtful. Kundera says that Communist kitsch is exemplified by the May Day parade in which everyone smiles; “the unsung motto of the parade [was] ‘Long Live Life!’”15 Kundera avoids sugary sentiment, lest anyone accuse him of kitsch. Like many modern artists, Kundera dwells on the dark and morbid; an example is his fantasy of women forced to march around a swimming pool, being shot by a man suspended above the pool in a basket.16 This preoccupation with the dark and morbid, this anti-kitsch, is a more common vice among today’s artists than kitsch.
Another of the ideas that Kundera explores in his fiction is the idea of litost. Kundera tells us that litost is an untranslatable Czech word; “litost is a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery,” a state of feeling miserable and humiliated.17 Litost awakens a desire for revenge, a desire to strike back at the cause of one’s misery and humiliation. An example of litost can be found in the tale of Sleeping Beauty: the King and Queen have a baby, and invite everyone to the christening — everyone except one fairy, whom they forget to invite. This fairy feels slighted, humiliated, and places a curse on the newborn child.
Another example of litost can be found in Othello. Iago seeks to be promoted to the rank of Othello’s lieutenant, and several people intercede for him. But Othello gives the position to someone else. Many commentators have argued that Iago harms Othello out of “motiveless malignity,” while others have said that Iago is consumed by jealousy, believing that Othello and others have slept with his wife. Commentators have overlooked Iago’s litost, overlooked the misery and humiliation caused by his failure to be promoted.
Litost can also help to explain animosities in the political sphere; an insulted nation may be as eager for revenge as one that is physically injured.
Some have argued that the novel, as a literary genre, is exhausted, dying. Kundera, however, is optimistic about the future of the novel, and one shares that optimism after reading Kundera’s fiction and criticism.
Whitman often reminds one of Zen. Other 19th-century writers — including Thoreau and Pater — also remind one of Zen. The West first became acquainted with Zen around 1900. In the decades before 1900, there are signs of an Eastern drift in Western thought, as if the West might have developed Zen on its own, if it hadn’t imported it from the East. As the old saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
What first strikes the reader about Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is its mystical quality, its feeling of awe in the presence of the universe, its feeling of union with all of nature, its love for all of nature — even something as humble as “a spear of summer grass.” Thoreau noticed this mystical quality in Whitman’s work, and when Thoreau met Whitman in Brooklyn, he said that Whitman’s work was “wonderfully like the Orientals.”18 Thoreau asked Whitman if he had read the Oriental classics. No, he hadn’t. (Thoreau, recognizing a kindred spirit in Eastern literature, had obtained a card for the Harvard library in order to study Eastern literature.) Like Thoreau and Pater, Whitman had abandoned Christianity and the Christian worldview, and had begun to see the world in a new way.
Like Zen, Whitman has no use for moral judgments:
What blurt is it about virtue and about vice?
Like Zen and other mystical worldviews, Whitman takes a positive attitude toward life:
It seems to me that everything in the light and air ought to be happy;
Whitman sees the world as it is, accepts it, and celebrates it, instead of seeing the world as a preparation for something else, a tryout for the Afterlife. Whitman would have understood Buddha’s Flower Sermon, in which Buddha said nothing, but simply held up a flower. And Whitman would have understood the remark that the German mystic Meister Eckhart liked to quote, the remark of a peasant to whom Meister Eckhart had said “good morning”: “Every morning is a good morning.”
Whitman often takes the passive attitude of meditation:
I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen,
Whitman’s work has the inspired, prophetic tone of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Like Nietzsche, Whitman saw himself as the prophet of a new religion. Whitman saw Leaves of Grass as the Holy Scripture of this new religion, and he planned to expand it into 365 chapters or psalms, one for each day of the year.19
|1.|| Man and His Symbols, part 3, p. 191 of hardcover edition back|
|2.|| See Marcel Proust: A Biography, by George Painter, vol. II, ch. 10 back|
|3.|| G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire, “The Embassy of Death: An Essay on Hamlet” back|
|4.|| Jung, C. G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, Princeton University Press, 1977, p. 165, “On Creative Achievement” back|
|5.|| As A Man Thinketh
5. ibid, p. 33 back|
|6.|| quoted in G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire, “Tolstoy’s Attack on Shakespeare” back|
|7.|| I, i, 112 back|
|8.|| G. W. Knight, The Wheel of Fire, “Brutus and Macbeth” back|
|9.|| Julius Caesar, I, iii, 128 back|
|10.|| The Lichtenberg Reader (Boston, Beacon Press, 1959), “Aphorisms”, 1775 back|
|11.|| See Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, ch. 5 back|
|12.|| S. Johnson, The Lives of the Poets, “The Life of Cowley” back|
|13.|| R. W. Emerson, Nature, ch. 4, “Language” back|
|14.|| W. Y. Tindall, “James Joyce and the Hermetic Tradition”, Journal of the History of Ideas, January, 1954 back|
|15.|| The Unbearable Lightness of Being, VI, 6 back|
|16.|| ibid, VI, 10 back|
|17.|| The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Part V back|
|18.|| Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau, ch. 17, §5 back|
|19.||Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition, Penguin Classics, Introduction by Malcolm Cowley, p. xxviii back|