Back to the Soul of Things

Psyche,_A_Book_of_Myths

 

Image from Wikimedia Commons

 

One of the core elements of a depth psychological perspective is the notion of, or perhaps it is better to say sensitivity to, the soul of things. “Soul” can be a confusing term, however, because for so many it has the singular meaning of an incorporeal, etherial, non-material kernel of one’s personality. Under this view you either “believe in” souls and related ideas like the existence of an afterlife, or you don’t. But depth psychologists use the word soul differently, or at least strive to much of the time. Instead of a “thing” (albeit an immaterial “thing”!), I think of soul as a way of sensing the world that involves attending to dreams, fantasies, and fleeting thoughts/images/feelings that surface and submerge again. It involves noticing patterns, intuiting significances, allowing for mystery. These modes of ensouled experiencing require giving weight to inner experience, equal to that of external events.

For me, being open to the soul perspective enriches my life and imbues it with a sort of reverent wonder. Of course, keeping this perspective alive is not an easy or simple thing much of the time, so I live in the superficial a lot of the time. But doing that tends to make me feel soul-sick, until I find my way back, usually though a kick-in-the-pants dream or nagging recurrent dream. Lately it was the latter: I dreamed over and over that I’ve missed a class in school, that I need to go back and learn the material, start over.

So here I am starting over, coming back: renewing the blog, a modicum of the writing life, and attention to soul, however it should manifest.

 

Reflections on Writer’s Procrastination

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Image “Maliciounata, the Time Thief” by artist Rhonda Strickland, used with permission. Please visit her here.

Writer’s Procrastination, Part One: On Putting Oneself to Sleep

Procrastination: what is this beast anyway? If it were a mythological critter, it would have the body of a tortoise, the head of a sloth. If it were a person, it would be that tiresome cousin who calls you when you have infinitely more important things to do than gab, and won’t let you off the phone. So here’s the thing then: the critter and the person are just boring, aren’t they? How do they manage to get the better of us? I think it’s because in reality procrastination is more sinister: the critter has a scorpion’s tail with which to paralyze us, and the needy cousin, a metaphor for our own internal distracter, is suffering from something like a Munchausen syndrome by proxy, slowly poisoning us, a little bit at a time, with seemingly innocuous chatter.

Recently I read a book by Marion Woodman and Robert Bly called The Maiden King: The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine, which analyzes the Russian folktale “The Maiden King” or “The Maiden Tsar.” In the story, the hero Ivan is sabotaged by his stepmother and his tutor into falling asleep each time the princess of his dreams, his beloved, his betrothed, the maiden tsar, draws near in her ship. The weapon of choice here is a pin, swiftly, secretly and viciously thrust into the prince’s neck by the conspiratorial tutor at the behest of his jealous step-mom:

“[S]he gave him a pin and said: ‘Tomorrow, when the ships begin to sail toward you, stick this pin into Ivan’s tunic.’ The tutor promised to carry out her order. Next morning Ivan arose and went fishing. As soon as his tutor beheld the ships in the distance, he stuck the pin into Ivan’s tunic. ‘Ah, I feel so sleepy,” said the merchant’s son.” (Bly and Woodman, p. 248)

That is what procrastination feels like to me, when I have the psychological wherewithal to notice it: like a sabotaging, soporific pinprick of doom. In Your Own Worst Enemy: Understanding the Paradox of Self-Defeating Behavior, the authors state:

Although the modern fascination with self-destruction tends to invoke dramatic images of sweeping catastrophes and sinister motives, leading to the permanent devastation of careers and families, the everyday reality of self-defeat is often mundane, pathetic, and even laughable. (Berglas & Baumeister, 1993, p. 8)

Such a little thing, it seems, to put off writing (or any other soul-affirming activity) today—I’ll get to it tomorrow, and in fact, I’ll make up for not working today and do lots of writing tomorrow, and it’s better to wait because . . . but tomorrow another pinprick will come again, as it does for Ivan, and then another and just like in the fairytale, soon enough I will miss the boat for good, the ship of my self-actualizing, vital life will have sailed off without me.

What’s so sinister here is that I, like Ivan, think it is only natural that I’m sleepy. What’s wrong with taking a break, after all? Both of us think it is we who are consciously deciding to go unconscious, to turn our back on what is most important to us just for a little while, because we don’t at first recognize the sabotage or the saboteur, who’s masquerading as tutor, i.e. someone, or an element of ourselves, who presumably helps, shepherds, mentors, guides, advises, educates us in order to benefit us in some way. But as Bly states, the tutor in his/her worst aspect is the destroyer of imagination. Here he is also the destroyer of initiative and follow-through in bringing our imaginings into being.

Ken Robinson, education reformer, emphatically states that currently our education systems are designed to put children to sleep, anesthetize them, and thwart their imaginations, curtail their initiatives, and discourage their innovations. C. G. Jung agrees that “we have to be careful that the school does not destroy the natural functioning of the psyche.” (Jung, Children’s Dreams, p. 133). It need not be this way, as Robinson argues. Teachers could instead act in the best interests of their student’s imaginations, encouraging and nurturing their creative potentials and innovative ideas so they take root and flower in the world (he likes organic versus mechanistic metaphors). Likewise, the inner “tutor” could help us steer our boat towards the gleaming fleet of our deepest values, helping us be steadfast in the work it takes to express them. So what goes awry when this does not happen?

The answer in the tale is that the tutor is the first to be “put to sleep” with alcohol and false promises, by Ivan’s step-mother. So, the tale tells us it is she who dwells, entangled, at the root of the problem, whoever and whatever she is inside us. It will behoove us, then, to examine this character in Part Two. For now I invite you to notice the ways you put yourself to sleep through procrastination. More specifically, what is “the pin” for you?

Inspiration of the Month: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Feathertop”

feathertopbowsSteveMorrison

Illustration (used with permission) by Steve Morrison. Here’s his Web site: and here’s his blog 

Read the story “Feathertop” by Nathaniel Hawthorne here

Before bed each night I’ve started reading a selection from The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales. I seem to always like titles starting with The Oxford Book of—I could probably get some enjoyment out of The Oxford Book of Mushrooms or even The Oxford book of Tax Accounting—I think it simply comes down to stellar editing. Anyway, I can tell already that I’m going to like this volume a lot as I found the second story in the collection, which I’ve just finished, quite delightful: it’s Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Feathertop,” in which an inventive witch decides to animate, via the smoke of a bewitched pipe, a scarecrow she’s just assembled and send it off to romance the town justice’s daughter, Polly. Explaining Hawthorne’s motivation for the story, Tom Quirk (how cool a name is that?) in his book Nothing Abstract: Investigations in the American Literary Imagination says that “in the grotesque figure of Feathertop he purposely fashioned a fit emblem to represent his distaste for the contrived characters of popular fiction.” (p. 72) This meta-level idea is interesting, but I think one can safely take his depreciating depiction of the character’s “illusory magnificence” as a comment about superficial and conventional values in general. The witch herself, when deciding on what to do with her creation muses: “What if I should let him take his chance among the other men of straw and empty fellows who go bustling about the world?” She is not talking about other enchanted scarecrows here!

The outcome of the tale seems to me a warning against trying to breathe life into an inherently lifeless persona, as there is something inherently grotesque in doing so. But grotesque or not, I have some sympathy for the character, who, after all, did not ask to be created, and who finally makes a stand for authenticity when he destroys himself after seeing his true reflection in a well-polished mirror at Polly’s mansion. Am I the only one to feel this way about poor Feathertop? I’d say not: certainly Feathertop’s creator has “motherly affection” for him, and maybe Hawthorne has a little affection for him too:

“To say the truth, whether it were chance, or skill, or downright witchcraft, there was something wonderfully human in this ridiculous shape, bedizened with its tattered finery; and as for the countenance, it appeared to shrivel its yellow surface into a grin–a funny kind of expression betwixt scorn and merriment, as if it understood itself to be a jest at mankind.”

I probably feel for the ungainly Feathertop because I myself have written a story about a strange creature that is living within an illusory world. Don’t we all wonder sometimes if we are not somehow living in the same condition, metaphysically speaking?

Leaving aside whatever the message of the tale might be, style-wise, the comedic tone of “Feathertop” is appealing, and I enjoy the presence of the narrator, who seems apologetic and incredulous about the story he’s telling: “Upon my word, if the legend were not one which I heard on my grandmother’s knee, and which had established its place among things credible before my childish judgment could analyze its probability, I question whether I should have the face to tell it now.”

I also relish the details of the story: the invisible servant “Dickon” who fills and lights the enchanted pipe, the animated “party of demons” that dance around the bowl of said pipe, the eponymous rooster feather in the scarecrow’s hat and the faded embroidery on his waistcoat. Fun!

Plot-wise, I’m also intrigued by the fact that Polly’s father, Master Gookin, knows what Feathertop really is, but is beholden somehow to the witch who created him, and therefore too frightened to alert his gullible daughter about what she’s getting into:

“Gladly would poor Master Gookin have thrust his dangerous guest into the street; but there was a constraint and terror within him. This respectable old gentleman, we fear, at an earlier period of life, had given some pledge or other to the evil principle, and perhaps was now to redeem it by the sacrifice of his daughter.”

It is left to our imaginations what this pledge may have been, which I think is a clever move on Hawthorne’s part; it would, however, be an interesting exercise to write another version of the story starring Master Gookin and his mysterious “pledge.” Hmm . . .

Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children? Part One: Confronting Darkness

arthur-rackham-hansel-and-gretelImage by Arthur Rackham, in the public domain

As a writer who is in the process of publishing a collection of fairy or wonder tales, an article I ran across in Slate caught my attention rather keenly. It’s titled “Are Fairy Tales Out of Fashion?”  In it, Libby Copeland states more or less categorically that fairy tales (the authentic kind) are not suitable for young children, and that she refuses to read them to her young daughter. (She doesn’t like the Disney fairy tale versions either, for other reasons.)

Many commenters objected to this notion, and someone amongst them was astute enough to point out that when selecting fairy tales to read to younger children the age of the protagonists of the story may provide somewhat of a guide to determining what might be appropriate. Steven Swan makes this point in The Fairy Tale: The Magic Mirror of the Imagination. But bear in mind that appropriateness here does not mean necessarily censoring out the disturbing elements if the child is younger: it just means that the concerns and anxieties represented in the tale are those typically faced by individuals of a certain age. Of “Hansel and Gretel” Swan says that “[t]he problem they face is that there is not enough food at home to feed the entire family. The lack of food may be read as a metaphor for there not being enough love at home. In essence, the children feel unloved and unwanted, as reflected in their stepmother’s desire to abandon them.” (p. 23) I think the point here is that young children are very dependent beings and thus naturally face anxieties about not being loved and protected, even if they are, for the most part, loved and protected.

So does that mean “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Hansel and Gretel” are good stories for all little children to hear? No, not necessarily. I do think Copeland may be prudent in censoring some of the more brutal or scary fairy tales from her very young daughter, depending on circumstances. I’m remembering that the wolfish evil called “The Nothing” in the Neverending Story film gave my little brother nightmares for months after he watched it. (I’m not sure if reading the book, or having it read to him, would have produced the same effect; perhaps having to depict “The Nothing” with his own imagination would have triggered a buffering action in his young psyche. But I suppose the converse might also have been true.)

So, discretion may be a virtue when it comes to a certain age group or temperament. But to categorically banish all non-sanitized fairy tales completely from childhood? In my opinion that is a form of psychic hygiene that is unhealthy, and ultimately untenable. Unhealthy, because darkness is better acknowledged and confronted, not denied; untenable, because it will come out anyway, one way or another, in dreams, most likely, and fantasy-play. Copeland herself admits to being attracted to gruesome fairy tales at about age 9 or 10, and to hoping that when her daughter is considerably older “and possessed of that child’s fascination with darkness” that she reads the original, unsanitized versions of tales like Cinderella. There is ambivalence in her attitude, then, for despite all her discomfort with the supposed anachronistic violence of the fairy tale in general, at the same time she seems to be conceding the point that darkness with have its due. Consider this quote by in Tremendous Trifles by Gilbert Keith Chesterton:

I find that there really are human beings who think fairy tales bad for children. . . . All this kind of talk is based on that complete forgetting of what a child is like which has been the firm foundation of so many educational schemes. If you kept bogies and goblins away from children they would make them up for themselves. One small child in the dark can invent more hells than Swedenborg. One small child can imagine monsters too big and black to get into any picture, and give them names too unearthly and cacophonous to have occurred in the cries of any lunatic. The child, to begin with, commonly likes horrors, and he continues to indulge in them even when he does not like them. . . . The fear does not come from fairy tales; the fear comes from the universe of the soul. (pp. 129-130)

If you refuse the reality of this “universe of the soul” to begin with, or insist on characterizing it as a light-filled paradise of benign cherubs (real angels can be scary too), schmaltzy poetry, or cutesy baby animals, I guess Chesterton’s argument falls flat, but if you concede that the “universe of the soul” is anything but this simplistic or banal, then it is hard to argue with him. So in this vein I suggest that fairy tales are “bad” for children, not in the sense of causing them harm; rather they convey “badness” and “horrors,” as well as wonder, delight, and joy in the service of children’s (and adults’) own souls, to give them an outward reflection and make them, therefore, possible to relate to in a potentially fruitful way. Which tales to select for one’s child at a given stage in their childhood (assuming that fairy tales appeal to them in the first place), is another matter, and there are no parenting rules to help us here: only our intuition can be of service, as well, as, perhaps, taking a cue from what we observe about their fantasy play and their dreams, if we are fortunate enough to hear about them.

Stay tuned for Part Two of “Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children?”. . .

The Only Writing Advice that Truly Matters: Write What You Love

In this early and hopefully theme-setting blog post I would like to champion this most useful idea, raising it several levels above the more commonly heard advice to “write what you know.”

I feel I’ve spent, and sometimes wasted, much of my limited time in this life in the “writing what you know” and/or “writing what seems easy, lucrative, or respectable” camp. Why? I’m not sure. I guess it’s like settling for the wrong, but acceptable, mate: it’s a road more travelled and supposedly more secure. But that road doesn’t lead anywhere interesting or important, and ultimately you (and I) arrive at the wrong place.

So I guess that brings me to what exactly I mean by the potentially trite word “love.” I don’t mean a surface kind of approval, like loving ice cream or silk blouses. When you truly love a piece of writing you’re working on, or have written, it is more like loving a person, and thus it has to go beyond the infatuation phase to come out right. Just as when you really love a person, the relationship isn’t always going to be easy or enjoyable—effort, struggle, disappointment, and sacrifice will invariably be involved. But you hang in there and do the work and spend the time because it’s worth it, because it feels meaningful, important, and deeply gratifying to you.

And often it is the “not knowing” or mysterious element in the work (or the person!) that makes it so worth pursuing. For me this comes in wonderfully strange dream or daydream images, a certain ineffable mood or drifting melody or rhythm that overtakes me, or an idea, usually in the form of a question, that will parade around me, gesticulating like a boisterous child until I pay attention to it.

Not that “writing what you know” and “writing what you love” are mutually exclusive approaches: particularly in non-fiction writing, people tend to research and know a lot about topics that are intensely interesting or dear to them. But even so it’s my contention that if  you have too much “knowing” when you start a writing project, any writing project, what comes out of it is going to be stale. I think the sort of love we need as writers necessitates a quality of genuine unknowing, or what researcher and writer Rosemary Anderson calls “auspicious bewilderment.” This writerly love embodies curiosity, fascination, and respect for the place from which the rich, unexpected material arises, which is not the confined quarters of the everyday conscious mind but the other, expansive realm of mind parallel to it, the one depth psychologists in their more staid language call “the unconscious” and in their more fanciful turns of phrase call “the imaginal.” Fiction and poetry writers probably draw more from that region, but all writers must rely on it to a great extent.

So let this be the season of Writing What We Love, as an end in itself, and Loving What We Write as a brave act of devotion (not narcissism). Carry on!