December 27, 2007

1. Bring Religion Closer

Baptism, confirmation, communion, bar mitzvah — all these religious rituals helped the individual to rise from a child to an adult. Likewise, the rites of passage in a primitive society helped the individual to rise from a child to an adult. Myths and legends served a similar purpose; Joseph Campbell has shown how the typical hero myth closely resembles a primitive initiation ceremony.

Nowadays, religious rituals like confirmation have lost much of their force, they’ve become a shadow of their former selves, perhaps because these rituals — like the religions of which they’re a part — have become frozen, stuck in the past. The hero myth in Star Wars has probably played a more constructive role in modern life than the ritual of confirmation.

For too long, the West has treated religion as a thing apart — remote, sacred, untouchable. As a result, many Western intellectuals wanted to smash religion completely, and this smashing created a dangerous and unhealthy situation, a spiritual and psychological vacuum, a vacuum that was filled by communism, nationalism, etc. Instead of treating religion as a remote grandfather, we should treat it as a sibling of philosophy and psychology, mythology and literature.

The unconscious produces images that resemble rites of passage, the unconscious tries to guide us through life’s passages. The unconscious may give us better advice than ritual and myth, since its advice is tailored to our situation — like the advice of a wise friend or a trained therapist. Perhaps the therapist doesn’t give us advice, but rather helps us to hear the advice of our own unconscious. If the unconscious resembles ritual and myth, that’s not surprising. After all, where do ritual and myth originate if not in the unconscious? Instead of seeing religion as sacred and remote, we should see it as close to us — no further than our own unconscious.

2. Meditation

The word “meditation” suggests thinking, and is thus a misnomer. The Chinese have a better word: da zuo, meaning “to sit,” or “to do a sit.”

Descartes said, “I think therefore I am.” Zen says, “I don’t think, therefore I am.”

The best way to understand meditation is to practice it, not to read about it. It should be experienced, not grasped intellectually.

Some people who try it say, “it didn’t do anything for me.” We shouldn’t expect, however, that it will do something for us. The goal of meditation is to do something that has no goal; the goal of meditation is simply to be. “The practice of Zen,” wrote Alan Watts, “is not the true practice so long as it has an end in view.”1 In this respect, as in many other respects, Zen resembles The Jungian Way. Jung and his disciples say that we should attend to the unconscious and respect it, not use its power to further our own purposes. The classic fairy-tale hero, Jungians say, goes off into the world with no clear goal in view — like Don Quixote, who said he was going wherever his horse took him.

3. Stuck in a Koan

Hamlet ends with a pile of corpses. In an earlier issue, we argued that Hamlet’s negative attitude may be the cause of this pile of corpses. But since Hamlet is part of this pile, he can’t learn from the experience. Often, however, one learns from the disaster that one has created. Indeed, the unconscious arranges disaster in order to foster spiritual growth, in order to force a recognition of its own rights, in order to force the conscious mind to compromise, to share power. Once power is shared and wholeness is achieved, the unconscious no longer arranges disaster; it becomes a wise friend instead of a mischief-maker. One might say that we create disaster in our thirties in order to become wise in our forties.

When Max Weber was thirty, he became an economics professor. “He had an enormous load, working until very late. When [his wife] urged him to get some rest, he would call out: ‘If I don’t work until one o’clock I can’t be a professor.’”2 Clearly, this is a man ignoring his unconscious. And so the unconscious is aroused, seizes power, and begins to arrange Weber’s life, trying to force Weber to come to terms with his unconscious, to become whole. In his early thirties, “Weber became fevered and ill with a psychic malady.... ‘He could not read or write, speak, walk, or sleep without pain; all mental and part of his physical functions refused to work’... For hours he sat and gazed stupidly, picking at his finger nails, claiming that such inactivity made him feel good.” Weber realized that his illness fostered his personal growth. “Such a disease [wrote Weber] has its compensations. It has reopened to me the human side of life, which mama used to miss in me.”

Sometimes the unconscious leads one into a feeling of being stuck, into a situation that has no resolution. The conscious mind is baffled, consciousness is at its “wit’s end,” and the unconscious has a chance to express itself.

Since the feeling of being stuck can lead to spiritual growth, should we try to create this feeling artificially? Zen tries to create this feeling by asking the student to solve a puzzle, a koan. The koan is insoluble by rational means, hence the student is baffled. When his conscious mind gives up, the answer comes by itself.

4. Three Movies

Saw a movie called The Namesake. It’s about people in India who come to the U.S., and are torn between two cultures. It’s mildly entertaining, but it lacks focus, it doesn’t draw you in. Perhaps because it’s based on a novel, it covers too much ground — too many years, too many generations, too many births, weddings, divorces, funerals. I don’t mind if a movie violates the old unities of time, place, and action, but this movie goes too far, it smashes the three unities into a thousand pieces. In an earlier issue, I discussed the hazards of translating a novel onto the big screen.

Saw a famous Italian movie called Bicycle Thief (also known as Bicycle Thieves, original title Ladri di biciclette). Made in 1948, it’s often called one of the best movies ever made. Unlike The Namesake, it has a tight focus, and respects the three unities. A work of grim realism, it depicts a poor family’s struggle to survive. It’s completely extroverted, there’s no inner life or personal growth, just economics, economics, economics. I found it flat, disappointing, though I don’t deny it has simplicity and veracity.

Saw a French movie called Small Change (also known as Pocket Money, original title L’Argent de poche), made in 1976 by François Truffaut. Follows a group of children in a small French town — their school life, their home life, their love life, etc. A good movie, both thoughtful and humorous. Separate episodes, connected by thin strands of plot. Concentrates on early adolescence (12-14). Not bad for young viewers, but best suited for adult viewers.

5. John Podhoretz vs. The Coens

In the last issue, I discussed a French movie, Paris, je t’aime. Though I liked it on the whole, I found some of the 18 mini-movies repellent. One that I found repellent was the fourth, “Tuileries,” by the American film-making team, Joel and Ethan Coen. It was filled with gratuitous and graphic violence, a common vice of contemporary American films.

John Podhoretz, movie critic of The Weekly Standard, recently reviewed a Coen movie called No Country for Old Men. Podhoretz is surely one of the best movie critics working today. He has a firm grasp of Coen-style nihilism, and criticizes it as harshly as it deserves.

Podhoretz begins his review by saying, “No Country for Old Men is a frontrunner for this year’s Academy Award, and it exudes every quality that attracts present-day Oscar voters.” Podhoretz speaks of, “the extreme violence it depicts in such loving and specific detail. [The Coens] usually treat violence — a mainstay in their pictures, even comedies like The Ladykillers — as the occasion for flip nihilism or outright slapstick.... In No Country for Old Men, a contract killer goes on a rampage in an especially barren and depopulated corner of Texas.... He is yet another of the screen’s limitless supply of flawless, brilliant, absurdly accomplished psychopathic murderers.” Podhoretz not only lambasts the movie, he also lambasts the Cormac McCarthy novel on which the movie is based: “Both on the page and on screen, No Country for Old Men is spectacularly pointless.”

6. The Occult

A. Freud was initially hostile to the occult, but he became more receptive as more evidence was presented to him. Eventually he realized that it was an enormous field, and largely unexplored. He said, “If I were at the beginning rather than at the end of a scientific career... I might possibly choose just this field of research, in spite of all difficulties.” Freud’s disciples were divided on the occult — some were receptive, others skeptical. The skeptics warned Freud that if you give any ground, you’ll be overwhelmed. If, for example, you admit that telepathy exists, you’ll have to admit all sorts of magical influence. If you study near-death experiences, you’ll have to examine the evidence for life-after-death. And how can you stop there? You’ll be drawn into the study of ghosts, and that will lead you to the study of vampires.

So the skeptics in Freud’s circle, like skeptics today, insisted that the entire subject of the occult must be dismissed. But the evidence won’t go away, the subject keeps coming back. We should keep an open mind toward the occult, and keep looking at the evidence, while recognizing that it has always been fertile ground for fraud, superstition, and credulity.

B. Konrad Lorenz, the expert on animal behavior, describes a parrot who always anticipates when someone is leaving the room. Lorenz said, “It is incredible what minimal signs, completely imperceptible to man, animals will receive and interpret rightly.”3 Are they really receiving signs, or are they seeing the future via psychic powers? How much psychic power do animals have? Perhaps what we regard as perceptive power is actually psychic power. Perhaps what we regard as visible signs are actually invisible things. A skeptic could argue, however, that animals have remarkable powers of perception, and what I regard as psychic power is actually perceptive power.

7. Merlin

Some symbols of the self, such as the yin-yang symbol, are a blend of darkness and light, a union of opposites. Christ, however, is a self symbol who emphasizes the light and excludes the darkness; Christ isn’t a union of opposites. Hence, it was necessary to offset Christ with a figure of darkness, of evil, such as the devil, or the Antichrist, or Satanaël (the elder son of God).

In an attempt to heal the split between light and dark, Christ and Antichrist, the figure of Merlin grew up in the Western imagination; Merlin united the opposites in one being. Likewise, the alchemical figure Mercurius was a union of opposites; “Mercurius [is] cunning and duplex (double); one text says of him that ‘he runs around the earth and enjoys equally the company of the good and the wicked.’”4 One purpose of alchemy, and of The Grail Legend, was to unite the opposites, to heal the rift between light and dark. The philosopher’s stone (lapis philosophorum), which was sought by the alchemists, was a blend of light and dark.

8. Transference

Transference is “latching on” to another person — latching on emotionally. Transference is becoming preoccupied with another person, and making that person the focus of positive, often erotic feelings, or negative, hostile feelings. If we think of two people as two separate buildings, transference is an elevated walkway linking the buildings. Since it’s often unconscious, it might also be described as a subterranean passage linking the buildings.

When Freud began practicing psychotherapy, he noticed that his patients often formed a transference for him, and he sometimes formed a counter-transference for them. He wasn’t sure how to handle the situation; he said later that the transference problem delayed the development of his new science for ten years. Eventually, however, he realized that transference was at the core of psychotherapy, and was the best tool in the therapist’s toolbox.

Freud tried to purge transference of erotic feelings by bringing these feelings into consciousness, and by showing the patient that he was “proof against every temptation.”5 Once transference was purged of eros, it could bring about a cure. The feelings transferred to the therapist could be drawn back onto the patient himself, thereby strengthening his ego, his character.6 If, however, a negative transference developed (feelings of hostility for the therapist), then a cure was impossible. Occasionally transference was simultaneously negative and positive, a situation that therapists called “ambivalence.”

Jung, who disagreed with Freud about many things, agreed with Freud that transference was at the heart of psychotherapy. Jung viewed alchemy as a kind of psychotherapy, and he looked for an analogue to transference in the field of alchemy. He found it in the coniunctio, which he regarded as the core of alchemy.

Jung noticed that a transference between doctor and patient was often accompanied by telepathy, by parapsychological phenomena. When one of his patients shot himself, Jung felt a pain in the same place where the bullet struck his patient.

9. Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits: Sonnet 71

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell.
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it, for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I, perhaps, compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,
But let your love even with my life decay,
   Lest the wise world should look into your moan
   And mock you with me after I am gone.

Why is the poet telling the beloved to forget about him, not to mention his name, etc.? Some people might argue that the poet is simply saying, “get on with your life, don’t grieve over me after I’m dead.” In other words, the poet wants the beloved to be happy, and knows that the beloved won’t be happy as long as he’s grieving, so he’s saying, “don’t grieve, forget me.” This interpretation has the merit of simplicity, but I think it falls short of the truth. It can’t explain the last two lines, it can’t explain why the world would take an interest in the beloved’s grief, why the world would be inclined to mock the poet after his death, and why the world would connect the beloved to the poet only if the beloved grieved for the poet.

My interpretation is that the poet is the Earl of Oxford, the beloved is Oxford’s son (the Earl of Southampton), the world doesn’t know that Southampton is Oxford’s son, but if Southampton mourns for Oxford, the world might learn that Southampton is Oxford’s son. There is a two-fold danger for Southampton in being known as Oxford’s son:

  1. If people realize that Southampton is the son of Oxford and Elizabeth, this would give Southampton a claim to the throne, and make him a threat to Elizabeth’s successor (James I). James I might try to eliminate this threat with a pre-emptive strike against Southampton.
  2. Oxford was an eccentric with a cloudy reputation, so if the world learns that Southampton is Oxford’s son, Southampton might be ‘mocked’ as Oxford is.

Since both Oxford and Southampton are public figures, the poet expects that the “wise world” will take an interest in them — when they’re alive, and after they’re dead.

© L. James Hammond 2007
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1. The Way of Zen, ch. 3 back
2. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, Intro., 1 back
3. King Solomon’s Ring back
4. The Grail Legend, ch. 22 back
5. “Further Recommendations in the Technique of Psychoanalysis: Observations on Transference-Love” (1915). See also “The Dynamics of the Transference” (1912). back
6. The process of transferring feelings and then bringing them back into oneself can be compared to the process of attachment and detachment that we discussed in an earlier issue. back